Every day the average Pakistani suffers from severe stomach aches, diarrhoea, food poisoning, heart burn, irritable bowel syndrome or acidity. Up to 125,000 children die of diarrhoea every year before their 5th birthday in the country. A lot of these health issues come from the foods we consume that upset the digestive system.

Ironically, cheap food has become extremely expensive. We incur hidden costs that we don’t anticipate; that of our health and the environment. Colon cancer is one such long term health impact we don’t account for due to poor diet. British tax payers pay $85 million a year on laxatives for seniors suffering from constipation alone. If a country such as England, with strong regulation and accountability, is suffering in this way, one need only imagine the hazardous consequences for a developing nation such as ours. Many Pakistanis are increasingly aware of the effects of the Chinese salt and food enhancer, Monosodium glutamate (MSG). Yet they remain starkly unaware of the other foods they eat.

In recent years, there has been great media coverage over the up-kick on food fraud. Our very own farmers have taken over the market so that we can no longer trust the vegetables and fruit we buy. Adding green food colouring to poor produce of peas or injecting melons with glycerine/sugars to enhance its flavour are only some of the ingenious ways farmers have come up with to increase sales. However, this is mere desperation for an underpaid, hard-labour worker. The underpaid, desperate food worker suffers and continues the cycle of fraudulent food, making it inevitably heavy on the economy, health and environment of the nation. After all, due to market forces, ‘farmers are price takers, not price makers’.

Other vendors such as those in small scale restaurants, are minting money by charging full price for a meal or ingredient when cutting their own costs on the sly. There has been speculation on the kind of meat we are presented with – already dead cows, donkeys, horses and even mice have made it to the list. Bad eggs have been sold to and used in bakeries. Cotton in the place of meat in our favourite dish, Haleem, to give it the desired consistency, crushed brick added to red chili powder, detergent powder in milk or natural honey laced with antibiotics has taken ‘product substitution’ to a whole new level.

The canned foods we eat are, by law, required to state the ingredients within on the label. However, a lot of the time it seems we need an advanced science degree to decipher what we are really consuming. Using scientific names is a clever way to mask what is inside the product, keeping the consumer entirely ignorant. These chemicals have lasting impacts on our immune systems.

In the food business, the product has a short shelf-life and so immediate sales are mandatory. If a product is not bought by a consumer it will be passed onto the next. To do so, the apple that was not bought will be shined up a little more for the following buyer - especially after a few days on the shelf. With the supply chain far extended in a globalised world, there is increased room for a middle man to play around with the product. Adulterated, misbranded, poisonous or deleterious foods still find their way in the mix for that quick extra buck, even if there is strong regulation on certain ingredients.

For a new battle on health there are a few plausible and relatively easy solutions. The U.K created a food crime unit that solicits reports of food fraud. This allows individuals to clearly indicate where and what they have seen to officials that could further lead to a probe and ultimate halt on business proceedings. Pakistan too could initiate such an action, that requires the citizenry to play a collective role toward accountability. The public will be key toward self-regulation that market forces and the greed of producers are not able to muster. The Institute for Global Food Security lab in Belfast anonymously tests products sent in by individuals worried about fraud. Secondly, stronger government regulation such as through the provincial Food Authorities is essential and must work tirelessly at safeguarding the food production network. These bodies must increase the penalty for companies that sell ‘shady’ products. Simultaneously, the government needs to make investments in underpaid workers by making up for farmer losses through greater subsidies. Imports of foreign foods must be reduced so the local industry can thrive.

The average citizen, on the other hand, too can ensure that his/her health is safeguarded. Firstly, a lot of what one purchase influences market forces. This consumer activism has proved a worthy force through history. It was Gandhi’s boycott of salt that made the first organized move towards India’s Independence from the British. Thus, one must make it a habit to read the labels of purchases to ensure that you and yours aren’t consuming harmful chemicals. When one ‘buycotts’ certain products, it will signal changes within the market for the better. Our industry should be scaling up to more local and sustainable options.

Secondly, grow your own produce! We have green belts and landscaped lawns that are largely going to waste. By making oneself a small vegetable patch can greatly benefit the average household. Tomatoes, onions, potatoes are some of the basics that can grow all year. Add greater nutrients and variation to your diet by including mint, basil, and other leafy greens. Plant seasonal vegetables and fruits as well, such as loukat, kachnar, jaaman and mangoes. These trees will add to the beauty of your home, will better the environment and in return provide your home with seasonal treats.

Thirdly, make your own organic fertilizer through compost; decayed, organic material used as plant fertilizer. A simple process, whereby instead of throwing all bio-degradable material from your kitchen into the trash you throw in a ditch in your garden with decaying leaves and grass. The resulting decomposition can be used as fertilizer, without chemicals, for your both your regular and vegetable garden. Lastly, any extra amount of produce you make can be sold in a farmers’ market where communities can get together, support and talk about healthy lifestyles.

‘The ethical food movement sends a signal that there is an enormous appetite for change and widespread frustration that governments are not doing enough to preserve the environment, reform world trade or encourage development’.