Edible Oil Wars: Adulterated Mustard Oil

Given the rising plethora of food outbreaks courtesy of our industrial food system, this article will give us some history and a clear example of how large-scale agriculture is destroying every corner of our world.

The following events are taken from Vandana Shiva’s book Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, which was written in 2000. As she states, the Indian small scale edible oil industry is not what it once was.

The story of how the soybean displaced mustard in India within a few months of open imports is a story being repeated with different foods, crops, and cultures across the world, as subsidized exports from industrialized countries are dumped on agricultural societies, destroying livelihoods, biodiversity, and cultural diversity of food. The expansion of global markets is taking place by extinguishing local economies and cultures.

Mustard oil is used as the cooking medium in the entire North India belt.

Mustard, which was developed as a crop in India, is not just useful as an edible oil. It is used for therapeutic massages and for muscular and joint problems. Mustard oil with garlic and turmeric is used for rheumatism and joint pains. Mustard oil is also used as a mosquito repellent, a significant contribution in a region where the resurgence of malaria is responsible for the deaths of thousands.

During the Deepavali celebration, mustard oil is used to light diya lamps. This is not just a celebratory tradition, but an ecological method of pest control at a time when the change in seasons causes an outbreak of disease and pests.

Indigenous oilseeds, being high in oil content, are easy to process at small-scale, decentralized levels with eco-friendly and health-friendly technologies. These oils are thus available to the poor at low cost. Hundreds of thousands of artisans are self-employed in rural India by extracting oil from locally produced crops for oil edible by humans and oil cake edible by cattle. The oils extracted through these cold-pressing indigenous technologies is fresh, nutritious, unadulterated, and contains natural flavor.

Women in the bastis or slums, usually buy small quantities of mustard oil extracted on their local ghani (expeller) in front of their eyes. This direct, community supervision over processing is the best guarantee for food safety. Yet these community-based systems of food and health safety were quickly dismantled in the name of food safety in 1998, when local processing of mustard oil was banned and free imports of soybean oil were installed in response to a mysterious contamination of Delhi’s edible-oil supply.

Dropsy Epidemic:
During August 1998, a tragedy unfolded in Delhi due to a massive adulteration of mustard oil with seeds of the weed Argemone mexicana, as well as other adulterants such as diesel, waste oil, and industrial oil.

Consumption of the adulterated oil led to an epidemic of what was called ‘dropsy’ and referred to a range of symptoms including nausea, diarrhea, abdominal swelling, liver toxicity, kidney damage, cardiotoxicity, breathlessness due to retention of fluids in the lungs, and death due to heart failure. By early September, the official death toll was 41 and 2,300 people had been affected.

Mustard oil sales were banned in Delhi, Assam, Bihar, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkum, Tripura and Karnataka. In July of 1998, India had announced that it would import 1 million tons of soybeans for use as oilseeds, over the protests of citizen groups and the Agriculture Ministry. Later, free imports of soybeans were instituted.

On September 4, the Indian government banned the sale of all unpackaged edible oils, thus ensuring that all household and community-level processing of edible oils stopped, and edible oil became fully industrialized. The food economy of the poor was completely destroyed.

According to the health minister of Delhi, the adulteration was not possible without an organized conspiracy. It was done in such a way that it could kill people quickly and conspicuously, and an immediate ban on mustard oil and free import of soybeans and other oilseeds became inevitable. The Rajasthan Oil Industries Association also claimed that a conspiracy was being hatched to undermine the mustard oil trade.

Multinationals Gain from Tragedy:
During the oil crisis, the Indian soybean lobby organized a major conference, ‘Globoil India ’98,’ to promote the globalization and monoculturization of India’s edible oil economy. The US Soybean Association was present at this conference to push for soybean imports.

The ban on local processing has destroyed the domestic, small-scale edible-oil economy. It has criminalized the small-scale oil processor. It has criminalized the small trader. And it has destroyed the local market for farmers. (today India is desperately importing edible oils)

The mustard oil tragedy is a perfect ‘market opening.’ For while the Indian government lost no time imposing packaging and labelling restrictions on the indigenous edible oil industry, it has taken no steps to require segregation and labeling of genetically engineered soybeans.

Calgene, owned by Monsanto has patented the Indian mustard plant, the India brassica. (p 21-26)

Imported soybeans’ takeover of the Indian market is a clear example of the imperialism on which globalization is built. One crop exported from a single country by one or two corporations replaced hundreds of foods and food producers, destroying biological and cultural diversity, and economic and political democracy. Small mills are now unable to serve small farmers and poor consumers with low-cost, healthy, and culturally appropriate edible oils. Farmers are robbed of their freedom to choose what they grow, and consumers are being robbed of their freedom to choose what they eat. -Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest p11

Vandana Shiva’s website

India Edible Oil outlook stable in 2010 This article will give you an idea of what India’s Edible oil industry is like these days. As Vandana Shiva predicted India is now importing large amounts of edible oils.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Vinnu

    I read in a newspaper report that Malaysian Palm Oil Council is selling used palm oil as edible oil to various nations in the world. The news item is available here: http://www.weeklyblitz.net/1122/threatening-tactics-of-mpopc

    The report claims that consuming used palm oil is hazadous to human health. In this case, why Malaysian government is allowing selling such oil to other nations?

    1. hellaD

      Thanks so much for this bit of information. I have been meaning to do an article about the palm oil issue as it is causing a lot of trouble all over Asia. This is pretty shocking that they are selling used palm oil for food consumption. Please keep us posted if you hear anything else!

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