What is hidden behind everyday products
In the week leading to up to World Food Day on 16 October Initiatives of Change Netherlands organised a series of events and meetings around the theme of food safety and consumer choice, addressing moral dilemmas around food, harmful substances and generic drugs. In this report you can read about the themes and projects that were discussed. Read also the special report on harmful substances ‘Dialogue on the risks of endocrine disrupting chemicals’.
There’s nothing quite so ordinary as food, creams and pills. But behind our salads and cheap painkillers, our sunscreen and microwaved pasta, hides a whole range of moral challenges, from chemicals that threaten our health and that of future generations, to Indian farmers falling ill because of medicine residue waste on their land.
The bad news is that we probably don’t know half of the effects that our lifestyle and consumer choice have on our lives, the workers that produce our food and products that we buy and on the environment. That there are surely forces that want to keep it this way. And that we ourselves are sometimes tired of knowing too much about things that beg for a change in our behaviour.
But there is good news too. There are people everywhere standing up, willing to face the challenges and working for a change, be it as consumer, activist, government official, employee or director. They are inventive in bringing about a shift, persistent in their effort to involve relevant stakeholders and, despite the long road ahead of them, hopeful and vigorous.
During the week leading up to 16 October, World Food Day, Initiatives of Change Netherlands brought together some of these people who work in the field of food safety and health, addressing the moral dilemmas around food and other everyday products, such as care products and generic drugs.
The week was organised under the flag of IofC’s international programme Trust and Integrity in the Global Economy (TIGE). This programme aims to strengthen the motivations of care and moral commitment in economic life and thinking and has engaged various stakeholders in the theme of food and sustainability over the years.
The aim of the week was to encourage international cooperation and share knowledge on harmful substances, build bridges between different partners in the area of food safety and consumer action and to raise awareness for the moral issues around food, health and sustainability.
Visiting were the Swedish nutrition consultant Ingrid Franzon and Indian environmental activist Rishab Khanna, founders of EnvirohealthMatters and Toxxscan, and Russian Tatiana Sokolova, international coordinator of the TIGE conferences, all living and working in Sweden.
During the week closed meetings were held with representatives from Dutch health and environmental NGO’s, scientists, Dutch and Danish government officials and a policy officer from the European Environmental Bureau in Brussels. A public evening was also held on World Food Day at the centre of Initiatives of Change in The Hague.
One of the things the shared experiences made clear, is that if change does not come one way, there are always other ways to bring it about. The story of the polluted Indian region, Patancheru, presented by Rishab Khanna, is an inspiring example of this.
Patancheru, in southern India, is host to a large cluster of generic drug manufacturers, providing a substantial share of the worlds generic drugs. But as Khanna explains, our cheap medicines come at a very high price for the people and animals of Patancheru.
Over the last decades thousands of acres of land, more than 20 lakes and more than 100,000 people have been affected by pollution caused by the drug manufacturers. This not only affects the health of the inhabitants, causing cancer, respiratory and heart diseases, but also has an indirect effect on the adjacent land that has become useless for agriculture and cattle, where fish die and water supplies become polluted.
To end this pollution and repair the damage where possible, different tracks are followed. First there was an attempt to empower the victims, the farmers and fishermen, through the media. But the pharmaceutical industry in India was only interested in listening to the Western corporations who buy their medicines. So Khanna and other activists added Sweden to their focus, talking with industry, government and social society groups and involving Swedish researchers.
The result of this policy of targeting many different groups is that now the Swedish county councils have added environmental protection as a criteria for the procurement of drugs, and there will soon be green sections in the pharmacies. Swedish churches have decided not to invest in pharma companies that are not green, which in turn inspired the investment bank Nordea to change its policy.
At the same time a legal track is followed to improve the situation of the farmers and fishermen in India. The National Green Tribunal has ruled that pharma companies need to compensate for the pollution up until 2002. Soon there will be another court ruling in a second case, concerning pollution in the years after 2002.
Meanwhile, every consumer can contribute to the solution of these problems. First, by being aware of the effect our lifestyle has on others. Khanna: ‘The fact that we use more and more pills for everything has a price in the countries of production.’ Second, by demanding safe medicines that do not cause pollution or harm people.
Another project Khanna and Franzon presented was the Toxxscan service, with a database containing information on harmful substances in consumer products. With this project they target consumers, making them aware of their right to know about the risk of known harmful chemicals, and companies, helping them to work towards substitution of harmful chemicals.
‘We want to work with the companies, not against them,’ says Franzon at the public evening on World Food Day. Answering a question from the public on how to make allies and not slip into a scheme of goodies and baddies, Khanna adds that it is important to look for the people within organisations that want change.
‘And as they can be very lonely within a company, it is important to show that you want to cooperate with them, not obstruct them. It is a hard reality for everyone, for the people that are ill because of harmful chemicals, but also for the employees that have to admit they don’t know what is in their products or at what price their products are produced.’
The issue of trust is a recurrent theme during the week. From a consumer point of view, it is sometimes hard to trust companies even if they say they have a green policy, as was mentioned at the public evening. Take the most recent example of the Volkswagen-debacle, where Volkswagen with its trustworthy image turned out to cheat with the car emissions. ‘Who can you trust?’ some attendees wonder.
It is precisely therefore, that in the long term it would be both in the interest of companies and consumers for companies to freely share information about their products. It is important that companies themselves are convinced that it is beneficial to be honest about their products, and not only act in reaction to regulation. Honesty should therefore be rewarded.
A participant: ‘Companies need money for their continuity. We have to tell them our motive: if you give me something I cannot trust, I do not share my money with you. But if you are honest, I will buy from you.’ If business is done with integrity, the trust is restored.
Irene de Pous