Reimagining processed foods
A typically underappreciated and unwanted addition to our daily meals, processed food nevertheless has real potential to help the nation in such times of need if it is innovated upon
The twain on the benefits of the processed food industry has never met and the opposers and the proponents of the same remained bitterly divided on its importance, until perhaps now. The COVID-19 crisis has forced a serious introspection on previously held beliefs and positions that are now redefining our societal urges, relationships and even the way we seek to live and eat in the future. A mirror has been put on the face that cuts through the woolly luxury of opinions and state, as it is. An item traditionally lampooned as the most insipid and unimaginative option on the food plate i.e., tinned pasta, has overtaken the ubiquitous toilet paper as the most 'sought-after' and 'unavailable' product across all UK supermarkets. Suddenly the most basic need for survival in these times have come from the food processing industry, that was ignored for too long. That this food processing industry also sustains a modicum of agricultural and industrial activity for the struggling farmers, blue-collar factory workers and countless others in the 'farm-to-fork' chain, is an important consideration to bear in COVID-19 era.
Long demonised as 'junk' food engineered for over-consumption with 'baddies' (e.g., preservatives, additives, trans fats, high salt/sugar, artificial ingredients while also being low in nutrient and fibres), besides promoting an unhealthy lifestyle, can be both, true and untrue in equal measures. The flip side is the convenience, availability and accessibility of various foods items that bring the necessary variety, nutrition (it certainly can) and pleasure that would not have been otherwise possible, for many. The truth is somewhere in-between as processed foods, like any other form of food is to be managed as part of a balanced diet, as a convenient accompaniment and not necessarily as a meal replacement. Many manufacturers are progressively sharing the ingredients, nutritional information and possible concerns to allow the purchasers to make more informed decisions, yet many companies remain intent to cover-up or window-dress their claims to suggest more 'goodness' than is warranted. Governmental bodies responsible for setting the standards for quality, claims and transparency are responding to the expressed concerns and ensuring the increasing compliance of the same. The reality is that the overall food standards, information-dissemination and nutritional claims in India have improved considerably and the parallel increase in knowledge of the consumers has acted as a further catalyst for improving quality, safety and nutritional profiles of processed foods.
The challenge of processed food is not to equate itself with 'fresh' food but as the most optimum replacement in terms of taste, safety and nutritional value, should the need arise for want of consumer lifestyle, variety or indeed meeting an exigency like COVID-19 lockdown. The invisible benefits of the food processing industry are especially relevant for an agriculture-based economy like India, as the farm-incomes have been under severe stress. The processing industry automatically links industry to agriculture and the benefits of technology, digitisation and above all, the higher realisation becomes inherent with the value-addition that is manifest in food processing dynamics. While the farmer may still not bank all the benefits, however food processing facilitates lower food wastages in a country that has over 200 million undernourished (estimates suggest that nearly 40 per cent of food worth one lakh crores is wasted or uneaten in India). This additionally generates higher realisation for the farmer in the market and in the more lucrative, export domain. For practical reasons, these industries are typically located in rural hubs that generate much-needed employment opportunities. In today's lockdown scenario where there is a debilitating impact of procurement in mandis and markets — the food processing industries have emerged as the saviour for the struggling agricultural and dairy farmers (e.g., daily collections by corporates in Gujarat and Punjab) and the continuing cycle of payments, ensured. Often the worst and unseen sufferers of executive decisions like demonetisation, GST or even the current COVID-19 lockdown are the teeming millions in the rural sector.
While India only processes about 10 per cent of its produce as compared to China at 23 per cent, Thailand at 30 per cent, Brazil at 70 per cent and the Philippines at 78 per cent. These figures are indicative of the processing potential that India has, given the diversity of climate, soil and existing demographic opportunity that can unleash up to 9 million jobs by 2024, as per an Assocham-Grant Thornton paper. The natural transition of labour from agriculture to food processing industry will be far more complimentary with collateral benefits. While the potential is indeed staggering, the country must invite more foreign and domestic investments and shed the dated notions of ostensible-protectionism, by way of discouraging anti-multinational sentiments.
The responsibility of providing a healthy and progressive ecosystem for such a processed food 'revolution' is shared between the government and the private sector to enhance the governmental policies, infrastructure and wherewithal in a seamless public-private spirit. The NGO's and activists have a definite role of ensuring that the benefits of such a 'revolution' do not accrue solely to the industry or even to the government, solely but in the framing of the most balanced policies that keep the interest of the farmers and rural India, above everything else. The processed food industry had historically fallen prey to the instincts that came wrapped in socialistic concerns but these misplaced concerns disallowed the natural potential of rural India in agriculture, dairy and other farm sectors.
From combat soldiers in extreme conditions to relief and rehabilitation camps in natural disasters, to now the common citizenry trapped in the COVID-19 lockdown, it has been the easy availability and convenience of processed foods that have sustained a modicum of normalcy in these trying times. These often-ridiculed products can have a role and relevance on the meal plates and in ensuring the socio-economic development of India. The post-COVID-19 world will struggle economically and psychologically (especially in rural India) and we must choose to invest our limited resources and focus wisely, herein, the natural relevance of food processing will make more sense, than ever before, as the benefits cut across the socio-economic spectrum.
The writer is the former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. Views expressed are strictly personal