How optimized food adulteration can make India a sustainable nation
This paper presents an innovative approach to tackling the issue of food adulteration that causes so much stomach burn in India. It explains how, instead of griping about all the problems and dangers related to food adulteration, we can identify the hidden benefits of the adulterants being used, and find ways to recover, recycle, and reuse the adulterants to improve our individual and collective economic and gastronomic well-being. Thereby, we can increase overall resource efficiencies, contribute to India’s GDP, and enable our country to become a ‘net-zero’ economy by 2070 as announced at the Glasgow Climate Change Conference (COP-26).
Adulteration is manifest in virtually every sector of India’s economy. It is indeed one of the pillars of our glorious heritage and culture. Historical and archaeological records reveal that indigenous and ingenious adulteration technologies and practices have been developed and successfully applied since 7800 BCE by Indian farmers, industrialists, merchants, retailers, middle-men, crooks, and other important stakeholders, and are constantly and enthusiastically being innovated upon to achieve maximum returns with minimum investments and efforts. As a result, today India has set global benchmarks for adulteration of materials, commodities and products in every sphere of human activity: from eggs to edible oils, cement to steel, cereals to spices, milk and medicines to condiments and condoms.
Alas, confusion still remains in policy-level circles on the exact meaning of adulteration.
In the course of researching this paper, the author invited a few Members of Parliament (MPs) from diverse political parties to share their views on adulteration. Here are their responses (names withheld in the interests of self-preservation and general social harmony):
MP 1: (brusque): “Why ask me about Adult Rating and such sensitive issues? (Irritably) How can I comment on what is adult content and what is not? I am a busy man; I have no time to see films, let alone Adult-rated films. You go and ask this question to the Film Censor Board…”
MP 2: (relaxed, courteous): “I think adulteration should be tolerated; is not India a land of tolerance and secularism? Yes, I know nowadays many men and women are adulterating freely and without care. But I say: It is all right! What is there? It is their personal choice, no? I always say, better to co-habit than to pick up bad habit! (Hastily adds): But speaking on my own behalf I do not adulterate. I believe in the holiness and wholesomeness of marriage, so I commit adulteration only with my wife… (Looks reverentially at sky) Do not all our great epicses and religious bookses say the same thing: ‘Thou shalt not commit adulteration?’
MP 3: (In great bitterness with much gnashing of teeth): Adult Ration is nothing but another big lie told by the communal BJP government to fool the people. You should ask your question to P.M Modi-jee and his friends, who keep shouting and screaming like anything about giving ‘Free Ration For All’! Arre Modi-jee, where is your Adult Ration? Who gets it? Do I get it? And why only give Adult Ration? Why not Children’s Ration? (Waves fist) I demand that central government should also give Minority Rations and Backward Rations with retrospective and retrogressive effect…” (relapses into unprintable muttering)
Clearly, there is urgent need for a massive nationwide awareness program to deepen understanding among the people— in particular, among our political leaders—on adulteration and related matters. Efforts in this direction are beyond the scope of this paper (and indeed, beyond the imagination and capacities of the author). However, using as examples a few commonly adulterated food products (milk, fruit & vegetables), the next section illustrates how adulteration can support highly profitable and sustainable business ventures with minimal investments and innovative technological interventions. These adulteration-based business ventures can be taken up by young Indian entrepreneurs under schemes like StartUpIndia and MakeInIndia. Such businesses will help create new jobs without threatening the livelihoods of the millions of hard-working people who currently depend on adulteration and allied activities for their income.
Adulteration-based business opportunities
Common adulterants: gypsum; urea.
Gypsum is a useful mineral, made up mainly of calcium sulphate. The gypsum in adulterated milk can be easily separated out by allowing the milk to stand awhile. The gypsum settles as a cloudy white precipitate, and can be recovered by filtration and dried out into a fine powder.
This gypsum powder may then be converted along parallel production lines into various high-value products such as:
- Plaster-of-Paris, which is extensively used by orthopaedists in making plaster casts for setting broken bones. As explained in the next point, there is immense potential to create an ever-expanding market for Plaster-of-Paris in India and abroad.
- Gypsum blocks, slabs, tiles etc. for use in making pavements, cycling tracks, floors, walls and other such applications in the construction industry. Usually, for such end-uses the gypsum is refined to remove impurities like calcium carbonate which make the gypsum brittle and prone to breakage. However, in the present context it is better to ensure that the gypsum products contain calibrated amounts of calcium carbonate and other impurities (if necessary, by adding them); because this will ensure that the brittle gypsum slabs and tiles will soon fracture and break, as will the bones of people walking on them. Thus, by paving the ground – so to speak – for an ever-increasing number of people to fracture and/or break their bones, we can create and sustain high-volume demands for Plaster-of-Paris from the orthopaedists to whom these afflicted people will rush for plaster casts.
- Gypsum (‘chalk’) crayons and pencils for diverse uses: on blackboards, by teachers in schools and colleges; by pavement and wall artists; by police to mark crime scenes and accident sites; and so on. Here, the gypsum powder extracted from adulterated milk can be blended with the waxes, spent mobile oils and furnace oils, and various dyes and pigments extracted from adulterated fruit & vegetables (see below), and moulded into crayons and pencils of various sizes and colors.
Urea is a very important nitrogen-rich fertiliser. In India, urea is manufactured and sold at heavily subsidized prices to make it affordable for use by farmers—and of course, by milk adulterators, who by one estimate account for 44% of total annual urea consumption in India (Milavat Ali Khan and Saand Roy. 2011. “Milk adultery in India”. Al Nakhli Press, Delhi).
Urea is also a very important raw material for other industries like adhesives, paints & coatings, plastic, textiles and so on. Since Independence, these industries have prospered by buying urea meant for agriculture in huge quantities at the same highly subsidized prices. Unfortunately, the current evil and communal BJP-led government has prevented these industries from buying cheap urea, by making it mandatory for urea manufacturers to coat their urea granules with acrid-smelling neem oil. While farmers are happy with this ‘neem-coated urea’ as neem acts as a powerful, non-toxic natural pesticide, the industries and milk adulterators find it very difficult and expensive to separate the neem from the urea granules. Hence, they have to buy pure urea at much higher prices; sometimes they even have to import it. Due to high urea prices and crippling urea shortages, many of these industries and milk adulterating units—most of which are MSMEs—have suffered severe production losses, and some have even had to shut down for long periods, adding to unemployment distress.
This situation presents a huge business opportunity for young adulteration-based business entrepreneurs.
Urea, which is very soluble, can be recovered easily and economically from adulterated milk and purified for sale to industries. The purified urea can also be sold back directly to the milk adulterators. It is envisaged that in due course the milk adulterators and industry end-users of urea could form mutually beneficial consortia with the urea-extraction businesses, supported by suitable risk financing under ESCO-type models.
In the long term—perhaps by 2070, to coincide with India’s becoming a ‘zero carbon economy’— the system can be streamlined with such high efficiency that the milk adulterators, urea-extraction businesses, and industries can achieve near-perfect circularity in resources management, eliminating the milk consumers entirely from the picture. By then, it is hoped, organic and eco-friendly milk substitutes such as desi tharra (indigenous whiskey) and bhang sherbet will be available in adequate quantities and at affordable prices for all.
Fruit & Vegetables
Common adulterants: wax; spent engine oil and furnace oils; grease; shoe polish; metanil yellow (pumpkin, capsicum); iron oxide (carrots, beetroot); malachite green (lady’s finger); oxytocin growth hormone (all vegetables and fruit); etc.
Many kinds of waxes and oils are used to polish eggplants (brinjal), tomatoes, gourds, apples, pomegranates, etc. and give them that special sheen so attractive to consumers and so toxic to consume. These waxes and oils represent high-value resources that can be recovered and reprocessed to bring significant profits and other benefits.
The waxes and oils can be extracted by simply warming the fruit and/or vegetables inside a dry container placed within a large pan of hot water (about 70°C). The wax/oil will soon melt and drip off the skins of the fruit/vegetable and collect as a congealed mass at the base of the container, from where it can be removed from time to time. [Warning: It is important NOT to use a direct flame for the wax/oil removing process; as applying direct high-temperature heat may end up frying the vegetables/fruit in their own waxes and oils, thereby reducing energy efficiency and also adding to India’s overall carbon emissions.]
The de-waxed and de-oiled fruit & vegetables may be sent for cooking, and the wax/oil pressed into small cakes and briquettes and sold as a high-calorific-value fuel to a range of end-users: from industries that can use it to fire furnaces and boilers, to street-vendors serving momos, chicken tikkas and dosas. Alternatively, the wax/oil briquettes can be sold back to the fruit & vegetable adulterators, thereby achieving circularity of resources.
It is worth underlining that the waxes and oils used in food adulteration not only contain high percentages of carbon, but are manufactured by highly energy intensive processes that consume huge amounts of fossil fuels such as coal, coke, and natural gas. Hence, the recovery of waxes and oils used as adulterants, and their recycling and reuse in such virtuous cycles, will contribute hugely to reducing India’s overall carbon emissions, and ultimately save the world from global warming.
Based on the visible evidence in our food products, coupled with the invisible but often-painful evidence during our daily ablutions, it is clear that food adulteration poses grave dangers – and indeed cremation dangers– to the health of India’s body politic as well as Indian bodies corporeal.
However, as shown by the examples above, food adulteration also present exciting new opportunities for future generations to leverage the beneficial end-uses of food adulterants with innovative business models, and thereby create sustainable livelihoods as well as help India achieve its climate change commitments and become a circular economy.
It is hoped that the Union and state governments will borrow lessons from the highly disclaimed and globally discredited Universal Adult Education program, and launch a Universal Rapid Education on Adulteration (UREA) program that will create widespread awareness on the vast potential benefits offered by food adulteration. The UREA program could work in synergy with entrepreneurship development initiatives such as MakeInIndia and ZED. This Holistic approach will, we hope, enable India to assume a leadership role in making Adulteration For All a global movement, and benefit the world as a Hole.
Acknowledgements: The author has been greatly inspired by the collective wisdom of the late philosopher George Carlin as well as urban-based environmentalists, sociologists, journalists, academicians, developmental economists, the United Nations Organization, Greta Thunberg, Arundhati Roy, Dr Amartya Sen, and affiliated charlatans, conmen and con-women who (like this author) constantly struggle to ensure that humankind remains steeped in depression and teetering on the brink of crises —existential, emotional, environmental, ecological, sociological, biological, and/or scatological—so that we can all make successful, sustainable and lifelong careers in ensuring that humankind neither falls over the brink nor steps back from the brink, either of which situations would greatly threaten the livelihoods of future generations who might wish to follow our noble career paths.