Indian Oil

This post is in response to feedback on my earlier post : Stolen Harvest by Vandana Shiva.

When I vacillate between the tempting cold pressed olive oil and the prosaic canola at the supermarket, I struggle between two priorities - the healthiest and the most cost effective. This is a familiar recurrence of opposites, health and economics.Turns out what is perhaps a five minute decision for me is a complicated matter for a nation. Individual choice becomes the Market, a business in Edible Oils - or if you want to go all starchy on me, the Commodities market.

Indian Edible Oil Market: Per capita consumption of edible oils in India rose from 2 kilos in the 70’s, to 10 kilos in 2001 (That is still well below the US per capita consumption of 33 kilos). Oils in India are primarily sold as:Loose Oil - referring to unrefined oil sold in bulk without packaging or branding, constituting roughly 61% of all vegetable oils sold; Vanaspati - around 12% of edible oil consumption and Branded oil-constituting only 3% of all edible oils sold.

The Market being as big as it is, unfortunately is a bully. Poor individual me does not matter, I buy what they put out there.Now here is the fun part, Imports represent about 55 percent of India’s edible oil consumption today. This has had three consequences. Government disinterest in domestic oil production has increased Indian reliance on imports- mainly of soy and palm oil. It has decreased diversity and quantities of edible oils and brought the spectre of GM( genetically modified) oils to our door. With higher imports, come the dubious business practices of Multinationals.

Changing patterns of consumption and production have meant that palm and soybean oil consumption has increased, from mere 4% in 1970’s to 59% today (38% palm and 21% soybean) oil today. Around 4% of all soybean oil consumed in India is imported, mainly from Brazil and Argentina who grow transgenic soy or Genetically modified (GM) soy. India is also a major producer of soybeans and produces 18% of soybean oil consumed in India.

Next comes Vanaspati which has a double strike against it. Not only is Vanaspati bad for your health because of all those lovely trans fats it contains, the Dalda brand is also now owned by Bunge Agribusiness India, a subsidiary of Bunge USA. Vanaspati, to reiterate, is 12% of the Edible Oil business in India. My hunch is also that multinationals also bring with them exploitative farming practices - something i have to confirm.

What this short and quick survey also shows, is that the major opportunity for mischief, i.e adulteration, blending with cheaper oils etc is in the Loose Oils market, affecting the poorest of the poor. Much of the imported oils find their way to this vulnerable market.

What can you do in this situation ? As Michael Pollan says, vote with your fork; or in this case with your oil. Buy Local, avoid vanaspati, avoid soybean oil unless you know and trust the source, avoid Loose oils.

http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/OCS/nov03/ocs090301/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgenic_plants


Milk in India

I just finished reading Marion Nestles book, What to Eat. She gives a comprehensive walk through tour of an American Supermarket with nutritional, dietary and political commentary thrown in. In her chapter on milk she describes how milk is collected from many cows, all fat extracted - and then added back according to required percentages. From a nutritional standpoint, she warns against consuming too many saturated fats from dairy products - a primary source for vegetarians.

Other critical issues are the use of growth hormones like rbst , usually with high amounts of antibiotics typically peddled by multinational companies.

I have bucolic memories of fresh buffalo milk being delivered to our doorstep. Only years later , did we make the transition to milk in plastic sachets, and finally to a lower fat % milk. I wanted to test out this eldorado of milk memory- was i actually consuming rbst and antibiotics as a child? Here is a quick answer.

Milk in urban India is a child of that 60's miracle called Operation Flood. Funded primarily by foreign sources, it was remarkable for two features- incorporating social equity by using cooperatives and of course for making milk available everywhere in India. Milk supply in India is changing atleast on the first count - the influx of multinationals. A case in point is Dynamix, a company whose 49% of equity is held by Shreiber international, an American multinational. With operations set up in Baramati, Maharashtra - its products are snapped up by other multinationals such as Mc Donalds for which Dynamix is a major supplier.

On the other hand are numerous small time players, usually city specific. While rbst has been banned in India according to most internet resources, several organisations have found high concentrations of antibiotics and pesticides ( like urea) in milk and carbonated drinks.

Should you be worried about the milk your children consume in India? If you are lucky to have a consumer education society in your city , best check their reports from periodically to make sure your brand of milk meets all specifications. Some reports can be found at http://www.cercindia.org/ .