‘Fashion’ to me has always been something of a luxury. It is almost by definition, something more than the bare basics. This home-made definition works when it comes to clothes, furniture, vehicles etc. And now even medicine or food. Of course you need to take medicine when the doctor recommends it. But why wait? One can now take various ‘wellness’ products in anticipation. You can buy normal groundnut oil that your family has been safely consuming for generations or consume the newer more expensive variety which includes some much-touted but scarcely documented trademark ingredients. Fashion is also expensive, obscenely and unapologetically not by inherent value, but a policy of exclusion, that all things fashionable are out of reach for the masses. It makes good business sense and gives the actual buyers peace of mind knowing they will not run into anyone else wearing a 8k designer cap!
But I had to revisit these very notions of mine when it came to food. Often, we come across horrors in the news – ‘bacterial count in 5-star food as high as that in road-side vendors’ food’, ‘melamine in milk’, ‘Chinese food requires ingredients that cause cancer’, ‘Oxytocin being injected into cows and even melons’, ‘popular snack foods contain plastic (burn to see the evidence!)’, ‘pesticides in cold drinks and other food items’, ‘wax coatings to make imported fruits look more imported’ and many more. If we were to believe everything e-mail forwards and ‘news-tainment’ channels throw at us, we would start thinking we are lucky to be alive.
So what then can one do and how much we need to worry about? The answer may be organic food. Like many new adages, organic food is one of those terms that we are aware of but the meaning is not understood completely. A simple definition is food grown by traditional farming methods. This means no or minimal use of fertilizers, pesticides, preservatives, artificial ripening agents and bio-engineered seeds, but taking full advantage of modern knowledge about farming practices and crop science. Advocates of organic farming will tell you that organic goes beyond just avoiding artificial chemical agents. It is a way of life. It means the cattle be allowed to live peacefully with ample space for grazing and workers working in safe conditions. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
The only problem is organic farming cannot feed the world. Many people still die of malnutrition around the world. The level of food production we have now reached is thanks to the green and white revolutions. These depended, in large part, on fertilizers and pesticides.
But why organic?
What does research say?
Research into benefits of organic food has remained fashionably uncertain. It seems the stakes involved here are too high for an unbiased report to surface. While some report slightly higher level of nutrients and lesser levels of pesticides, other reports simply do not find any difference.
Chemicals, if present, are usually in trace amounts. One would have to consume a whole lot of the tainted produce at one go for it to have deleterious health effects. If a product is immediately fatal, it would not make it to the market. Even if it did, the product would not make good business sense. But the very thought of chemicals meant to kill hardy pests being present in the food you cook for your children can be disconcerting. It would seem that this is a worry which only the affluent can afford to have. But the rate at which organic food has grown into a global industry; it is clear to be more than just the very affluent who are buying into this insurance against tainted food.
Organic is gaining popularity in the west. There are set standards for products to be deemed organic. In India, it is still in a nascent stage. The concept of organic can be very broad-based: spices that are hand-pounded, bread made from wheat that is grown organically, milk from cows that are fed only grass, ‘feet-crushed’ wine from ‘private vineyards’ and so on. With no regulatory structure in place, any product can masquerade as organic and charge premium for nothing. Over the coming months and years, you will notice the organic food section in your neighborhood mall expanding from a kiosk to an entire aisle. And as this happens, one is bound to wonder if some products just end up on the organic shelf suo motu. All we can do is read the label carefully and go by experience.
Many products are self-proclaimed ‘cholesterol-free’ gifts-to-mankind. But as any health enthusiast would know, cholesterol is what is formed by the human body from triglycerides. So no plant-based product like potato chips contains cholesterol per se. Animal based products like cheese can contain cholesterol. It is that easy to deceive naïve consumers.
I set out to investigate. I have not seen a tomato that is decently shaped in years, i.e. a text-book flowery pattern rather than a pulpy uncertain shape. Sometimes, vegetables emit a distinctly chemical odor. So I visited one of the few dedicated organic food stores that have managed to stay in business. It may not be fair to judge by one purchase or very scientific in design. But it’s better than being ‘not statistically significant’. Smell and taste were comparable. All in all, the prices too were more or less comparable to traditional markets and other modern format stores. All the other vegetables too were comparable to regular produce.
We should also be aware of ‘imported’ fruits and vegetables. Imagine something with such a short shelf life being transported across oceans. It is only possible due to preservatives. Not only can it prove bad for your health, but also damaging to the environment. Because we are happy to pay more than double the price for NZ and even ‘China apples’, these products make it here burning criminal amounts of fossil fuel. This is one more reason to opt for organic food and one which does not need elaborate theories of proof.
Since no preservatives are to be used, most organic products that you come across will be those grown locally. Theoretically, this also means fewer middlemen, hence lesser inflation in price. So our advice is, try it if possible. It will not pinch your pocket too much and it can’t do any harm.
– Punit Pania