In recent years concerns about quality and safety of food have increased greatly. More and more health problems have been related to various kinds of food contamination.

More disturbing is that several of these contaminations are of a long-term nature and once deeply entrenched do not lend themselves to easy solutions.

There is also uncertainty about the health impacts of several chemicals and technologies introduced in a hurry to earn quick profit without proper verification of their potential hazards.

Sane voices of senior scientists are advising caution and unbiased review before our food systems get even more contaminated.

One extremely serious concern expressed repeatedly by several senior scientists relates to the production, import and consumption of genetically modified (GM) foods, cattle feeds and seeds.

A group of eminent scientists who constitute the Independent Science Panel have stated in a review after examining all aspects of GM crops, “Most important of all, GM crops have not been proven safe. On the contrary, sufficient evidences have emerged to raise serious safety concerns, that if ignored could result in irreversible damage to health and the environment.”

The panel also pointed out that many GM crops are tied to the broad-spectrum herbicides – glyphosate and glufosinate ammonium. These have been linked to spontaneous abortions, birth defects and other serious health problems for human beings, animals and soil organisms.

The widely cited report of this panel adds that GM varieties are unstable, with the potential to create new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases, and to disrupt gene function in animal and human cells.

According to another group of 17 distinguished scientists from Europe, USA, Canada and New Zealand, “The GM transformation process is highly mutagenic leading to disruptions to host plant genetic structure and function, which in turn leads to disturbances in the biochemistry of the plant.

This can lead to novel toxin and allergen production as well as reduced/altered nutrition quality… numerous animal feeding studies demonstrate negative impacts of GM feed on kidney, liver, gut, blood cells, blood biochemistry and the immune system.”

Greenpeace, Germany highlighted the results of a study from the research centre for milk and food stuffs in Bavaria which is reported to have been “kept under lock and key for 3 years”. This study confirms the possibility of contamination of milk due to GMOs which exists in all countries where cattle feed GM crops are been grown (including India).

Another serious concern of food safety relates to the adverse impact of high doses of chemical fertilizers and highly toxic pesticides on the safety and nutrition quality of our food. Wendell Berry, the famous farmer-writer-philosopher from USA has very aptly remarked, “It is one of the miracles of science and hygiene that the germs that used to be in our food have been replaced by poisons”.

A report of the London Food Commission pointed out that at least 92 pesticides cleared for use in Britain were linked with cancer, birth defects or genetic mutation in animal studies.

A report of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, pointed out that pesticides in the food of American citizens may cause more than one million additional cases of cancer in the US over their lifetime.

This problem may be even worse in some of the developing countries as some of the more hazardous and persistent pesticides banned in rich countries are exported to poorer countries.

It is well known that use of chemical fertilizers leads to a loss of flavour and taste in food but now it is increasingly realised that in addition this also causes a loss of nutrition quality and creates new health risks.

While the bulk of chemical fertilizers seek to provide some major nutrients for quick growth, many badly needed micro nutrients are neglected and depleted very rapidly.

As pointed out by prominent nutritionist C Gopalan, “there are disturbing evidences of micronutrient depletion of soils in some areas; these are likely to be eventually reflected in impaired nutritive value of food grains grown in such soils”.

Hence on the one hand some crops, whether grains or fruits, may have lesser micronutrients; they may also have excess of some major nutrient.

As pointed out by Richard Douthwaite, “Nitrogenous fertilizers can raise the amount of nitrate in the final crop to four or five times the level found in the compost-growing equivalent, while at the same time cutting vitamin C and dry matter levels.

This change is potentially serious, since nitrates can be turned into powerful carcinogenic nitrosamines by bacteria found in the mouth, while vitamin C has been shown to protect against cancers”.

Other important health and safety concerns relate to the processing of food. There has been a massive increase in the number and quantity of additives used by the food processing industry, including flavours, colours, emulsifiers, preservatives and other additives. The London Food Commission wrote that about 3,800 additives were being used to perform about a hundred functions.

The commission noted that only about a tenth of these were subject to government control. In terms of daily life it pointed out that a single meal may contain a cocktail of 12-16 additives, the combination of additives may react with each other and with foods to produce new chemical substances.

In the short term many additives have been linked to headaches and adverse impact on mental concentration, behaviour and immune response. In the longer term additives have been linked to increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and other degenerative conditions.

Several food processing practices are known to be highly wasteful in terms of nutrition. Often the parts of grains which are removed in the course of processing are the most nutritious. Rice polishing is one example of this.

An expert L Ramachandran has written in his widely discussed book ‘Food Planning’ that the quantitative loss in the case of cereals alone may amount to not less than 8 million tonnes.

Moreover, he points out that the qualitative loss is even higher because the portions of the grain that are removed in refinement are many times richer in quality, proteins, fats, minerals such as iron and phosphorous and vitamins such as thiamine, nicotinic acid, riboflavin and in some cases also vitamin A, in the form of carotene.

Further Ramachandran points out that these are precisely the nutrients in which the average Indian diet is deficient.

Another major source of loss of nutrients in processing is the hydrogenation of oils. Hydrogenation changes most of the unsaturated fats into saturated fats. Saturated fats consumed in excess can be harmful.

On the other hand, unsaturated fats specially some of the polyunsaturated fats, have a very important role in nutrition and help to protect us from the risk of cardiovascular disease and other ailments. In the words of Ramachandran, “In hydrogenation, what is good and necessary is changed into what is not necessary and may be harmful”.

The writers are freelance journalists who have been involved with various social movements and initiatives.

To be concluded