Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava
You are what you eat. It’s what every mother tells her child as she forces those green vegetables and lentils to be cleaned off the plate. But today, not just eating, even shopping for your daily needs has never been more complex. From reports of pesticides injected into vegetables to chemical wax on apples to make them shine, in some sense it may be more apt to say we are what we don’t eat.
Earlier fruit was bought depending on how fresh it looked. Now doctors tell us to buy something that doesn’t beg to be bought. I recently saw a video of a vegetable godown in Delhi where watermelon was being injected to make it look bright red. Since then I have tried to avoid eating it. But for how long? My daughter loves it and in the summer there isn’t a more refreshing fruit.
Then of course there is the apple. Like our mothers before us, we now insist on making our children eat at least one daily. After all ‘an apple a day’ is meant to keep the doctor away. But now as I read more and more, usually on the internet and sometimes to my detriment, it seems best to keep the apple away. I have done the test of trying to scrape the peel with a knife and yes my knife has been covered with a white substance. Every single report I have read recently lists it as one of the most pesticide affected fruit. The Environmental Group (EWG), an American organisation which focusses on toxic chemicals in fruits and vegetables takes out an annual ‘Dirty Dozen’ list of foods. The list for 2015 begins for the fourth year running with apple, followed by peaches, strawberries, grapes and spinach. Cucumbers and the staple of Indian household potatoes, also make it to the list.
Which is why now I look at those green sprawling farms in Punjab with a different light. Belonging to Jalandhar, it’s a journey I have made all my life. Enjoying the greenery, the sight of farmers in the fields and the quaint sight of tractors. But now there is fear of repercussion of the Green revolution that started in the 60’s. The short term pressure to live up to its name of being the food basket of India and feed the burgeoning population resulted in drastic use of pesticides. And the long term results are showing today. Pesticides that are banned globally can still be bought in Punjab. But what is worse, the soil and water have already been badly contaminated. Possibly some say a big reason why increasing cancer cases and serious debilitating illnesses are being reported in large numbers from the state. In fact, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has himself admitted that not just the food and water, but even the air in the state is foul and dirty. Things are so bad that it is now even being referred to as the ‘Other Bhopal’. The worst affected is the Malwa region, and every night from Bhatinda, which is in the very heart of the region, a packed train leaves for Bikaner in Rajasthan. It is full of patients heading to a government hospital there and is now infamously called the ‘Cancer Express’
So have things suddenly become this bad? Or is increased awareness now bringing the reality more into the open and making us question things. For instance milk. We grew up drinking two glasses of milk every single day. In fact, no childhood Lord Krishna story was complete without a mention of his love for butter and milk. But now suddenly, drinking milk is controversial, with many claiming it is overrated, some going so far as to say it is actually harmful. Many kids in this generation are vitamin D deficient. Our confusion may also make them calcium deficient. Although there is yet another lobby that says it’s a myth that milk strengthens your bones.
In the times of too much information, internet can be a double edged sword. Now after the Green revolution, it is making us believe, we are in the midst of the organic revolution. Organic food is now the new universal fad. And a rather expensive one. In an Indian joint family system, it is practically impossible for a middle class family to sustain their daily budget on organic fruits and vegetables which are way costlier than what you spend regularly. Moreover, how does one even know what we are paying for is actually what it claims to be. From organic ketchup to honey, and from exorbitant costing eggs to gram flour, the markets are flooded with the feel good factor. But even if one can afford it, it is not that simple. The options are mind boggling and food labelled ‘natural’ or ‘hormone free’ still does not make them organic! Depending on your pocket, it may make sense to switch to at least those things our children consume on a daily basis, that is once we have gone past the debate on whether organic food is equally nutritious or not. But the reality is that we did not grow up eating french fries and burgers as regularly as this generation does. Our birthday parties were simpler with most of the food cooked at home. So the exposure that our children have to preservatives whether it is in the ketchup or the party favourite chicken nuggets that it comes with, is manifold.
So what then do we feed ourselves, and more importantly our children. The spinach they say has chemical residues, the lettuce in your salad isn’t healthy either. Mayo Clinic perhaps has the most realistic answer. It says, it is best to mix a variety of food from a different sources. This gives a better mix of nutrients and reduces chances of exposure to a single pesticide. And of course, peel most fruits before consuming them. Yes that takes away some fiber and nutritional value. But that’s a small price to pay.
Not just what we eat, increased information is making a mess of our beauty regime. Because if you thought only organic pasta was on the shelves, look again. The obsession to go natural has forced us to re-evaluate what we even put on our face. The creams have toxins, the lotions aren’t pure enough. Oils with fancy names like Argon or Rose hip from equally exotic places like Morocco and Chile are all over the market. Maybe it is just marketing, but I at least had never heard of carrot seed oil until recently. So rather than get all flummoxed, I think it is simpler and not to mention cheaper, to go back to the good old ponds cream.
Those times were easier. There was also less information traffic. But a man’s got to eat what a man must eat. As my doctor said, choose between hormone injected chicken or the pollution. Or maybe just stop reading the internet.
(Views expressed by author are personal)