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Wait, are those beans poisoned?

The steaming plate of food sure looks inviting and healthy but lurking under it may be toxins which can harm you fatally. SWAPNA RAGHU-SANAND on the chemically treated foods, which are slow WMDs

FOOD DIVINE food! But is the food that we consume building us up or breaking us down. One wonders, when one reads about pulses, fruits and vegetables grown under sprays of pesticides, of food preserved with artificial but poisonous colour-enhancing agents and sitting pretty on shelves injected with shelf-life extending chemicals, of bottled and branded drinking water containing unacceptable levels of pesticides.

The mushrooming number of hotels and restaurants in Kochi and of the number of exotic cookery programmes shown by TV channels vouches that Kochiites are great lovers of food. Then it is no mean matter that the extent of pollution in our environment is seeping into the food we eat.

Einstein remarked, "The environment is everything that isn't me." His definition of the environment embraced all aspects of our life, be it the roads we pass through every day, the food we eat, the slaughter houses where animal carcasses are not maintained with hygiene, the water we drink, or the ponds that are stagnating in our countryside or the rubbish that is dumped anywhere and the list is endless.

A study conducted by Imperial College, London reveals that 50 to 70 per cent of all vegetables grown and consumed in India are contaminated with insecticide residues and that presence of harmful toxic agents in vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower and spinach or `cheera' has reached dangerously high levels. Random samples revealed a high presence of lead and pesticides, which cannot be removed by washing because these toxic substances are not only on the surface but in the vegetable too. Harmful effects of consuming these vegetables on a regular basis can affect brain development in children, damage normal kidney functions and that of the nervous system and the reproductive system. Worse, sewage water and sludge have led to growth of heavy metal presence up to 30 cms in the soil. This is happening all over the country.

"It's junk food that our children and grandchildren are eating today, not real food," says Ms. Neelima K, a retired headmistress from Aluva. "In olden days, we used to have vegetables grown in our homes and milk given by the cows in our homes and safe water from wells that were cleaned annually. In those days, everyone had good health and no one suffered but now, even the youth fall ill all the time"

Today the food we eat is polluted, and no one has time or inclination to find out if the vegetables have harmful elements in them. We depend on other States for vegetables and have no choice but to consume them. Nothing is safe from pollution, not even the water we drink."

There is talk of incredible sustainable development is Kochi as the commercial hub of Kerala but there is no talk of the increasingly dangerous levels of pollution we are encountering in the city.

"What is the meaning of education and development when these real issues that are so important to public health are being ignored?" asks Aseef, a college student from Ernakulam. There is no point in saying that the vegetables we consume are polluted unless some positive step is taken by the Government and the media to create awareness about this. The farmers should address this problem and debate on ways to solve this."

Educating the public about pollution in food is a serious matter, for consumption of such foods on a daily basis will boomerang on the health of the society as a whole, especially with regard to the little children in every home.

It is common knowledge vegetables like lady's fingers(vendakka) were found to be chemically treated to enhance their food colouring. Watermelons and oranges are known to be treated with colouring agents to enhance their natural colouring. Sadly, the list is big. Rivers near cities and industrial areas carry toxic compounds that are often deposited on the riverbed where the farmers usually prefer to cultivate the vegetables and in turn, the plants take up these poisonous compounds, which we subsequently buy and consume.

Vegetable cultivation in homes should be encouraged for the well being of every family, like in the olden days. But before passing legislations, all streams of the society need to be aware of the problem and debate remedial measures with representatives from the agricultural community, in particular.

The laws controlling prevention of food contamination are outdated and unless and until laws, which safeguard food quality and strict imposition of legal penalties on those who indulge in poisoning our foods, are made stringent, the threat of our slow poisoning via our diet looms large.

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