I hope some of you have wondered as I have, why those around us bargain over the Rs 60 bag of potatoes with the poor vegetable vendor at the side of the road, when they don’t so much as flinch at the Rs 10,000 worth of shopping they do at grand superstores such as Alfatah, Haji Kareem Buksh or Jalal sons. Of course, subsidised prices of staple veggies are necessary for the poor man, but why are the Rolex garlanded wrists hesitant to part with a measly Rs 100? Why, when the food business is a trillion-dollar industry, are farmers still poor and people still hungry? This is the greatest paradox of the food industry; it is feeding millions, but is also feeding no one; it is controlling disease, but also causing it; it is a booming sector, but impoverishing so many.
Without food, undoubtedly, there is no life. That makes food the driving force of all economic, political and social norms. Why are Pakistanis not joining the growing crescendo on the food conversation?
Our capitalistic economy prides itself on ‘efficiency’ and ‘rationality’ yet, incongruently, it has failed to ‘efficiently’ and ‘rationally’ distribute the greatest requisite of life. Instead it has become the most wasteful. About one third of the food produced for human consumption globally is wasted; that is 1.3 billion tons of food each year. Pakistan is a major contributor as 40 percent of cooked food alone is wasted, including in Ramzan (contrary to what should be practiced). According to the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP), 1 in 9 people on earth do not have access to sufficient food to lead an active life; that is 795 million people. This means malnourishment, poor child growth and poor health for women. Yet at the other end of the spectrum, due to continuous technologic growth in the west since the 1970s, those who are well off have found that ‘cheap food’ has enabled them to do more work and has in fact enabled women to get out of the kitchen and search for jobs. However, these people are ‘hungry’ in a different way. This is called ‘hidden hunger’, which is deprivation of the basic nutrients they need on a daily basis due to the highly processed food they eat. Diet has joined inactivity and tobacco as one of the Three Big Killers.
How this works is that governments endorse ‘monoculture farming’ and subsidise those goods that are most demanded in the world market such as wheat, cotton and rice. This drives farmers to only produce those grains, which means millions of acres of land have been cleared to make way for this production, making all other food expensive (such as organic vegetables and fruits).
In the West, cheap grain is fed to the cows to ‘grow’ to provide the world with cheap meat. To speed up this ‘agriculture’, fertilisers, pesticides, hormones and other chemicals are used. Animals living in such closed quarters eventually give rise to new diseases such as Mad Cow disease, the Bird Flu and the more recent Congo Virus. This means governments are endorsing unhealthy eating and diseases, which then puts a strain on the health system.
The food industry has become one of the greatest contributors to Green House Gas (GHG) emissions and environmental damage. Clearing of whole forests not only removes a major source that converts carbon dioxide into oxygen, but when trees are cut they release all stored carbon from within them. Monsoon rain pours with a lot of force on our land, and without the necessary tree cover, this washes away all the nutrients of the soil into the rivers, which increases sedimentation and water nutritional balance, killing all the fish and mammals (including the Indus river dolphin). All this destroys biodiversity and crucial local ecologies, diverts stupendous amounts of water and makes use of harmful chemicals such as pesticides and fertilisers. This means depletion of hydrological systems, chemicals contaminating the water as well as the food we eat, and unbalancing nitrogen and phosphorous compositions in the soil, respectively. Simultaneously, there is a huge carbon footprint for transporting all these goods over large distances. Animal agriculture is right up there with fossil fuel burning as a contributor to global warming. Cow dung produces the harmful gas methane (a GHG), which is 20 times more potent than CO2.
Food is man’s greatest connection to the earth and all its bounty. It is how our cultures have shaped, traditions have passed from mothers to offspring, man and nature have lived in harmony and spirituality has been celebrated. The relationship we have with the earthiness of haldi (turmeric) and daal (lentils) for instance, is what defines the subcontinent. Local food business such as Daali - a Lahore based desi wholefoods producer - are crucial. They focus on organic farming and provide us with nutritional alternative grains such as quinoa, couscous, barley and others without compromising too much on the environment as well as encouraging a healthy eating lifestyle. Urban gardens and farmer’s markets need to be encouraged. As a consumer you can boycott certain foods, and steer pubic demand and thus public policy. You can demand sustainability simply by the products you choose to purchase at the store. Buy from your local farmers rather than big companies and don’t deprive them their daily due wages. Student-led groups, such as the Robin Hood Army, that have sprouted in big cities like Karachi have really changed the conversation by taking food that would have been thrown away from 5-star restaurants to slums and other locales to feed the ravenous. Stop wasting food. Thankfully, Pakistan has steered clear from meat farming in the way pursued by the West, and should continue to do so.
Feed yourselves more vegetables! There are some 7000 species of plants that we avoid eating and focus on only those capitalised by the market. Underprivileged schools could really benefit via the food conversation, by providing nutritional meals to students so that they are encouraged to 1) come to school and 2) gain the necessary nutrients to grow. In a city such as Lahore, sitting down together to joyously eat is a major part of the culture. One must think about what they eat and how they eat it, and share in this conversation over the meal.