2010 was the International Year of Biodiversity and offered the world the opportunity to reflect on the role of biodiversity in our daily lives – in fact our bodies and our selves. We rarely make the connection between biodiversity of plants and animals, which we celebrate in the wild and our culture of food and lifestyles. But it is important to make the link – as disappearance of biodiversity in the world affects our bodies.
The Business of Food Has Changed to The Business of Profit
Take honey. We never think about the golden product we buy off the shelf and consume from the jar with a label we trust is linked to the biodiversity of bees in the world. We never consider how, as this biodiversity disappears and how, as Indian-adapted bees (Apis cerana and Apis dorsata) are replaced by foreign, in this case European bees (Apis mellifera), the business of food changes. It changes because now, instead of the bee that is naturally found in our backyards, our forests and fields, we move towards bee cultivation. Then industry grows. It replaces the small informal bee producers, to build an organised business with reach across the country to outsource production and collection. The company that sells us the honey under its label, has little to do with its production. It buys from the organised business, bottles and sells. The business of food has changed to the business of profit.
New Diseases and New Threats
The biodiversity of food is lost – only one bee type now produces our honey – and the biodiversity of business is lost. But nature has a way of getting back at us. As industry thrives in pumping up production by overworking the bees – taking out immature honey so that bees have to make more and then feeding them supplements and antibiotics for growth – it finds that it is dealing with new diseases and new threats to its profits. This industrial agribusiness – which our honey now belongs to – needs more inputs of antibiotics to keep business going and bees healthy.
But this only means that our food – our honey that we take with trust and belief in goodness and purity – is full of contaminants of antibiotics as the Centre for Science and Environment’s laboratory found. All major brands – including two big foreign brands – had antibiotics far in excess of any standards in the world. This contaminant is bad for our bodies as it builds antibiotic resistance and even toxicity. The circle is complete: loss of biodiversity, loss of food culture and bad health and disease.
The Art of Food
There are two ways ahead in this biodiversity-food-body connection. First, we need to build the science of food regulation, which is protective of our health. Current efforts at creating a food policeman in the shape of the Food Safety and Standards Authority have been disastrous. The Authority, set up a few years ago, has been dead on entry. It does little to protect consumer interest in food, instead works to protect business interest over our food. This is even more deadly, when you consider how the business of food has changed and become more powerful and more global. Clearly, big business and weak regulators are bad for our bodies.
Second, we need to build the art of food again. This means understanding food as an outcome of living and lived biodiversity and culture. We cannot take all diversity out of our food and expect to have good health. It is clear we are losing the connection between what we eat and why and where and how it grows as we blindly and foolishly allow industry to take over the business of our kitchens.
Food is about the ultimate celebration of nature. Let us not lose it.
Author: Sunita Narain, Director of Centre for Science and Environment