Uncommon Ground| Vindi Banga and Suman Sahai on Food & Science and Finding the Right Balance

Dec 12, 2008
TV Show


This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s Uncommon Ground, where she brings together titans of industry and leaders of civil society to explore eight themes that are highly relevant for our future development. In this episode, she moderates a discussion on food equity with Dr. Suman Sahai, the convener of the Gene Campaign, and Vindi Banga, President, Foods, Home, and Personal Care, Unilever worldwide, and previously the chairman of Hindustan Unilever.

Uncommon Ground brings together titans of industry and leaders of civil society to explore eight themes that are highly relevant for our future development. These conversations explore the middle ground between the ideological divisions that often polarise the business and voluntary sectors. In course of these rare dialogues between leaders who have sometimes been adversaries, a number of common concerns emerge. The host uniquely placed to moderate these discussions as she traverses both sides herself, demonstrates that the relationship between business, society and state need not be necessarily confrontational. Rich in insights, Uncommon Ground highlights the critical importance of dialogue in our democracy to create a shared vision of the future. It is a significant contribution to the ongoing debate on development and equitable growth in India.

Rohini Nilekani: What can be done to help the millions of citizens who go to bed hungry? Is it a question of increasing productivity or governance? And with the increasing role of the corporate sector in the food space, is this an opportunity to reduce the disparity?

Suman Sahai: I think we need both, but primarily an increase in governance. The reason why people go to bed hungry in this country is not because there isn’t enough food, but because they either do not have the land to grow their own food, they do not have those productive assets, or they don’t have money in their pockets to buy the food that has been grown already. India actually has surplus food. We’ve had 60 lac tons in our buffer stocks while thousands of people go to bed hungry. So the key issue is that of governance — we have to have a better policy for agriculture, invest more in agriculture, create job opportunities, and implement land reforms so that people get access to land and an education. On the other hand, with a growing population we also have to increase our food production as well.  

Vindi Banga: We do need to step up food production quite significantly in India. The reason is that our food production in general has been quite static over the last couple of decades. This is a country where we’ve got population growth and now we’ve got real income growth. I think people deserve the opportunity to eat more and eat better. That will only happen if, as a structural sector, we’re able to step up agricultural production through better productivity. We need another green revolution. This is where the corporate sector comes in because these challenges are too big for any one stakeholder to tackle. Everybody has to partner and come together. The government needs to think more about irrigation and invest in research. Corporates can also help by teaming up with like-minded people, banks, seed companies, input companies, etc. to find ways to actually promote a farmer’s produce to market.

RN: However, there is some resistance to the idea of corporatised farming. How do we strike a balance here? 

SS: The crisis right now is that as agri-business gets into food, the vertical integration of the food chain puts out a lot of other players from the market. And I think this is partly also the reason for the kind of food palate that we are developing, and its contribution to obesity in the country. When you tie up from the farmer’s field to the biscuit and the margarine, you’re not only reducing the nutritional quality of the food but you’re also hurting the environment by all the food miles. By producing in one place, then taking that produce and transporting it to other parts of the world, the carbon footprint increases, the environment is affected, and people are not getting fresh produce. As a food-production strategy, producing and eating locally means downsizing the big conglomerates in food. I think this is the answer to sustainable, nutritious food production while enabling the farmer to participate as well. 

VB: I think it’s all about complementing the farmer’s role. We don’t want to take over the farmer’s role. The farmer’s real challenge isn’t finding a market, it’s accessing it. That’s where industry can play a vital role. For example, if there is some way that we can transfer the value that is today missed in the middle right down to the farmer, we could create a wonderfully virtuous circle. Let’s not forget that we want our farmers to get richer because farmers are also consumers in this country. If the farmer can be assured a market and the middleman can be cut out to the extent possible, in theory, that’s a good idea. The only thing that I would worry about in a situation like this is whether the selection of food products by agri-business would skew away from the food and nutritional needs of farmers and small consumers.

RN: With the threat of a global food crisis looming, are we looking at the need for another Green Revolution? 

VB: I think we need to create a complementary ecosystem between farmers and all the other needs that the farmer has, including access to market. India needs all kinds of foods, it needs the production of staples and vegetables to increase, so it’s not one or the other and this is where the complementary ecosystem could be created. There has been a lot of talk about Special Economic Zones, but why don’t we think in terms of Special Farming Zones with designated crop types, etc.? On those special farming zones, we could bring together all the complementary capabilities, whether we have input companies, education practices for the farmers, infrastructure, and of course access to market. 

SS: Unfortunately, the global food crisis is causing governments across the world, including ours, to think in the wrong direction. If we have a food crisis in this country, our entire focus should be on increasing food production. If that is our focus, then we cannot make the case for diverting land to Jatropha cultivation. You cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hound — food must be our primary concern. I do not think there can be argument about the fact that our country’s prime resources should be devoted to food production.What we actually need in this country, since we’re still at a level where food should be produced locally, is that the repertoire of cereal, oilseeds, legumes, protein, vegetables, are available within a reasonable distance. We need a change in our food distribution system. Unfortunately, state governments are not taking responsibility. What are we doing about Special Agriculture Zones? There was a policy decision taken that no two crop areas would ever be diverted to SEZs. I come from UP and I travel home on the road from Delhi towards Moradabad, Rampur. I come from a place called Tilhar,  a prime alluvial belt, and India’s most productive, fertile land. Six months ago when I was driving home, on the left of the road, a huge area was demarcated on this prime alluvial belt for a city that is going to come up there. How did that happen? Who allowed that to happen when we have a policy decision that no two crop areas can be diverted to SEZs? This is the issue.

RN: While we have a huge issue of hunger, there’s also a huge problem of obesity and bad health. How do we send the right messaging out to people about what they should eat? Should the industry be regulated more or is the responsibility being left up to consumers? 

VB: Obesity is a very complex issue. This is recognised world over, and it was picked up by the WHO seven years ago as a big target to attack. It is related to what people eat, but it’s also related with lifestyle. Once again, this is too big a problem for any one single person or entity to tackle. I think as food producers, we have our own role to play and we’re certainly doing our best to play it. For instance, a few years ago when the WHO took up this issue, they published ideal diets, but there was no nutritional standard for processed food products. So Unilever actually set up a nutritional profiling system and we created standards based on diets, so that we could identify what products should ideally have in terms of fat, sugar, and salt levels, particularly in the context of how much they should eat daily. We have also leveraged our technology to make our products more nutritionally balanced. We’ve gone through 22,000 of our SKUs around the world and improved their nutritional profile, reducing the level of fat, salt, and sugar, without changing the taste. We believe in being very transparent and open and helping the consumer see what is inside the product. So we would like to put key nutrient information on every single pack. I think those kinds of moves will really help the consumer understand and make healthier choices to eat food. We do not advertise at all to children below the age of six for any of our food products because we have found that children are not able to distinguish between programming and advertising. Even above the age of six up to the age of 12, we only advertise products which pass the Healthy Choice test, which we do voluntarily. 

SS: I’m glad that companies are doing this and it’s certainly one step forward, but is that enough? As an industry sector, it’s not enough because the worst kind of foods are the most effectively promoted. A lot of money is spent on advertising. I think that we should really consider regulation of the same. I get worried when people talk about the need for another green revolution — even today’s food crisis has become an excuse for promoting genetically engineered foods. The science of genetic engineering is so far away from maturity. If this science had been in the hands of the universities, it would not be on the market today. These products that have been genetically engineered are on the market today because they are in the hands of the private sector.

RN: How can we promote organic food in this country to a point where it’s viable both for the consumer and for the farmer?

SS: Nothing could be easier than promoting organic food. Unlike the Western concept of organic food becoming this big premium food, organic food in India is essential because it reduces input costs. You do need soil nutrients, but there are ways of providing soil nutrients that are different to chemical inputs alone, and so we come back to balance. You need to provide soil nutrients, because you need to grow crops sustainably. But unfortunately the left-over of the green revolution in this country — the agro-chemical model of food production — is such that our scientific community is unwilling to accommodate the concept that there can be another way of producing organic food.

VB: I think it’s certainly something we should pursue, but one caution I’d put on the table is that as of now, the yield in organic farming is so low, that if overnight the world only had organic farming, we would actually exaggerate the food shortage. Whilst we pursue organic farming and learn more about it and drive it, because it has all the benefits that were just tabled, we need to be thinking of sustainable agriculture alongside that. Our company buys a lot of crops, and two third of our raw material is agricultural, so sustainability is absolutely crucial.

RN: There’s a movement to conserve seeds should we go back to thinking of crop diversity? And is there a unique Indian business solution that can be developed to strike a balance between the old ways and the new? 

SS: Gene Campaign is setting up seed banks in Jharkhand, and what we’re doing is conserving the traditional crop variety especially of rice, because India is the birthplace of rice. So we are setting up seed banks. Despite the promotion of the great revolution model, farmers are so happy to see seed varieties that they had lost two generations ago, because the Gene Campaign has taken the trouble to travel around, capture those seeds wherever we found them, multiply them, and make them available. India’s great USP is the genetic wealth in its crop varieties. Whether it is for the farmers of this country, who need to minimise and distribute their risks or for the corporate sector’s concerns to have a greater palate of products to process and make available to the consumer, it’s a win-win for both. Conserving this diversity is crucial.

VB: We need our own solution, and usually what wins takes the best of the world and the best of local, and marries the two. Indian ingenuity is very good, so I have no doubt that we’ll find it.




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