Food is supposed to provide us nourishment and health but because of the toxins it contains, what we consume has become a major threat to our health. Some toxic substances are added to our food physically, through adulteration, while some enter our food system chemically, through pesticide residues. And some toxins enter the food chain genetically, through genetic engineering of seeds and crops. Even food packaging can be a source of toxins in food.
While physical adulteration, like stones in pulses, can be removed, the chemicals can’t be. The pollutants will stop entering our food system only when poisonous chemicals are banned. Genetic pollution and contamination of food is the new, big threat to food safety and it cannot be undone. Once toxic genes are put into a plant, they are in the genetic code. There is no rollback. Which is why the debate on biosafety of GMOs is so intense.
With growing consumerism and greed, food safety is being bypassed. The distance between growers and eaters is getting larger and being ignorant about what comprises our food is getting deeper. Traders adulterate food to make more money, and consumers, manipulated to focus on the cosmetic appearance, buy adulterated food not knowing what they are eating. Government agencies, which are supposed to inspect and stop adulteration, fail because of corruption and inadequate support.
We are eating hazardous substances every day. Copper salts are used to colour pickles and canned vegetables green. The craze for the cosmetic appearance of food has created a market for dyes injected in watermelon, peas, capsicum and brinjal. Brick dust in chilli powder, coloured chalk powder in turmeric, and papaya seeds in black pepper are old tricks.
With new chemicals available in the market, adulteration has reached new levels. Apples are sprayed with lead arsenate; turmeric and mixed spices are adulterated with lead chromate. These substances can cause anaemia, abortion and paralysis.
One of the worst tragedies of food adulteration was the 2008 Chinese milk scandal, which was a food safety issue involving milk and infant formula adulterated with melamine. Melamine is an industrial chemical used to manufacture melamine-formaldehyde resin, a type of plastic known for its flame retardant properties. When added to milk, it caused it to appear to have higher protein content. But melamine causes renal and urinary problems and its use in food production is universally banned. The milk scandal broke in July 2008. By November there were 300,000 victims, with six infants dying from kidney stones and other kidney complications.
If the Chinese were using melamine in milk, the Indians are using urea to make synthetic milk. Synthetic milk is produced by mixing urea, caustic soda, cheap cooking oil, detergents, water and a tiny bit of natural milk. It has the colour, the structure and even the fat levels of natural milk and thus clears the basic tests. Synthetic milk can cause loss of sight and hearing and is even said to cause cancer.
Oxytocin is a hormone secreted and stored by the posterior pituitary gland that contributes to the second stage of labour. It has uterine-contracting and milk-ejecting actions. Oxytocin is now available as an artificial drug for use in emergencies. The drug can lead to the rupture of the uterus and, in rare cases, rupture of the womb. While the oxytocin for humans is priced at `15 per ampule, veterinary oxytocin is priced at 50 paise per ampule.
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The dairy industry uses it on animals in the mistaken belief that it increases milk production when all it does is make the milk come faster, while destroying the cow’s reproductive system. The cow goes dry in three years and is abandoned.
Not only is the cow harmed, but those who drink milk from oxytocin-injected cows are also at risk, especially children. Oxytocin causes imbalanced hearing and weak eyesight. For expecting mothers, oxytocin increases the risk of post-partum haemorrhage and can inhibit breastfeeding. Because of hormones in food, minor girls are attaining early puberty. Oxytocin is also used for growing vegetables. Injected into a pumpkin or squash, it doubles the size overnight.
Pesticides are becoming a major threat to our health. India has gone through three major tragedies — the Bhopal gas tragedy, the endosulfan tragedy in Kerala and the tragedy of Punjab’s cancer train — related to pesticides that should have woken us to the fact that pesticides kill and cripple.
We are using 750 times more pesticides than Europe, foolishly equating poisons with progress. A study carried out by the All-India Coordinated Research Project on pesticide residues in food under the India Council of Agricultural Research concluded that 51 per cent of all food items have pesticide residues, and 20 per cent had pesticide residues above permissible levels. Globally the figures are 21 per cent and two per cent respectively. Indians are being poisoned at much higher levels than the rest of the world. And these poisons have consequences for our health.
Dr Rashmi Sanghi, a research scientist at the LNM Institute of Information Technology, Jaipur, found organochlorine and organophosphorous pesticide residues in human breast milk. When other researchers analysed the blood samples of women with breast cancer in Jaipur and compared it to blood samples of women without breast cancer, they found significantly higher levels of pesticide residues in the samples from women suffering from cancer.
Even as we have an increasing disease burden due to chemicals and pollutants, there is an attempt to push GMOs despite the serious health risks they pose. We need to assess these risks on the basis of the Precautionary Principle. The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm when scientific investigation has thrown data and evidence of health risks. Suppressing research on risk assessment of GMOs does not make the risks go away. A “don’t look, don’t see” policy does not make for safety.
The last Indian deserves healthy, nutritious and safe food. That is why we at Navdanya have started the campaign “Know your food, Know your farmer”. Join us, for the sake of earth and for the sake of your health.