Mainstream, VOL LI, No 43, October 12, 2013
Olive Oil and the Supermom—Feminism and the Conspicuous Consumption Challenge
Monday 14 October 2013
by Shruti Chopra
The singular inability of India’s feminist movement to decrypt the coded messages tucked into the aggressive marketing campaigns of giant corporates pushing products and services of subjective “goodness” is bothersome. At one level it implies that the gains achieved by the previous generation of feminists have been frittered away. Since the 1920s, a mix of feminism and feminist-consumerism, which originated in the United States, has inspired Indian feminists and led to sharpened advocacy for pro-women legislations and the adoption of pro-active policies in favour of India’s repressed other half.
But sadly those who inherited the movement from the pioneers were unable to hold the candle. Their failure to check the market economy’s juggernaut as it suppressed women’s aspirations for equality is indeed unfortunate. Secondly, “women’s studies”, the discipline conceived for Indian conditions by the recently deceased Vina Mazumdar (“Vinadi” to her associates) as the bedrock of the Indian feminist struggle seems to have died out. This sad fact is evident daily in the utter disinterest, even stony silence, on the effects of an inexplicable trade policy allowing unregulated imports of daily essentials on women’s health, wealth and happiness.
The aspiration for upward mobility has produced many desires, not all of them justified. The pursuit of the latter variety should trouble an informed feminist movement because products, not necessarily “good” for human consumption, should hurt the “Supermom”—the fetish of all marketers. If, however, information is manipulated to convince the “Supermom” that she buy for the well-being of her family products of dubious merit then the point of rally should be the convergence of feminism and consumerism. The present intellectual insufficiency in both these movements is plain because of its failure to confront most of the odious claims of giant companies which are thrusting useless products, even medicines, down the throats of hapless and ignorant masses.
One of these products is olive oil. Since the mid-2000s, India has imported vast quantities of olive oil to satisfy the aspirations of a minuscule segment of India’s urban population.. India is already an edible oil deficit nation requiring importing 48 per cent of its domestic needs. The recent downslide in the value of the rupee hurt India’s food security in manifold ways because we failed to take advantage of the fall in the global prices of most varieties of edible oils. But the olive oil import lobby of India manipulated the situation in such a way that larger quantities of this luxury product flowed into India. That’s because this little-known, unorganised sector, enjoying absolutely nil production in India, is experiencing annual demand growth between 25 per cent—2300 tonnes in 2007 to 4500 tonnes in 2008—and somewhere close to 66 per cent when the total touched 42,000 tonnes in 2012. Looking at the entire import basket of India, it’s difficult to find another item that has seen growth on a scale anything remotely spectacular.
Crony capitalism, which is defining the relationship between the political elite and big business, has benefited the olive oil business as well. The UPA Government has reportedly expressed a compulsion to increase import duties on edible oils, but has showered inexplicable largesse on olive oil. The import duty on this item for India’s richie rich was slashed from 45 to 12 per cent. The rationale advanced is always “goodness” of oil for human health. Olive oil consumption is supposed to be “safe” for the human heart. Publicity overdrives have hammered into the heads of consumers in India’s top income quintiles that olive oil is “safer” than the traditional Indian cooking mediums. Food shows on channels like Food-Food and Khana Khazana not only dispel old notions about the olive oil’s unsuitability for Indian foods, but celebrity chefs also hector on their unquestioned supremacy as panacea for all ailments.
Where does feminism come into all this? This poser harks back to the mentality of the old which narrowed the professional scope of women to “soft” issues. To cite an example, male newspaper reporters till the 1970s were assigned the “hard” subjects like government policy, war and peace, the political world, etc. while women, without thought to their capabilities, were banished to the world of flower shows and baby pageants.
World trade issues are indeed part of feminism because the patterns of macro policy affect men as well as women. If olive oil is imported spending foreign exchange that could have served more vital needs of the population, then it is indeed a feminist issue. Moreover, there is a need to catch the purveyors of the free market at their contradictory worst. If “Supermom” and her typical concerns for her husband’s heart condition and bowel movement are to be the catalyst for the growth of olive oil’s popularity, then is it not also necessary to discuss threadbare the credibility of each of these claims?
According to the National Council of Applied Economic Research’s Survey of Household Expenditure, 1995-2005, the purchasing power of Indian women, particularly in the upper quintiles, has grown at a rate far higher than that for men—it’s more than 35 per cent in the upper quintiles. Understandably, the female decision-maker, particularly where domestic purchases are concerned, is a great fetish for marketers. It follows from that every unique selling proposition is underscored by research findings on the tastes and preferences of women.
This is not a uniquely Indian phenomenon actually. The “Supermom” is a gigantic illusion created by the Western media and is quite the vehicle used to penetrate the 200-250 million-strong Indian market. Since the mid-1990s we have seen how easily Supermom-directed products crush domestic competition and transform many aspects of the old Indian way of life. Multinational companies were looking beyond lipsticks, bags, clothes and other feminine paraphernalia; they needed shares of the market for the most essential item of human consumption—food.
The Indian food market was always a mystery for Westerners. In British India, the food marts for the sahibs and those for the natives were mutually exclusive and hermitically sealed by cultural choices and traditions. There were also realistically founded maxims that Indian food cannot and should not depend on foreign influences except as leisure foods and snacks. Cakes, potato chips and Coca Cola apart, the list of Western foods to cross over into black town could be counted on the fingers of just one hand.
However, that began to break after 1991. Kellogg’s breakfast cereals, for instance, overcame initial resistance from old players in the minuscule “corn-flakes” market, but leveraged its huge financial muscle to build an all-India lifestyle brand. At first Indian mothers balked not only at the price of a Kellogg’s packet but also found the suggestion that it be served with cold milk abhorrent. Astute branding, however, changed all that.
Much like her Western sister, the Indian Supermom places more than significant emphasis on her family’s health concerns, particularly her growing children’s needs for that little “extra” which could profoundly increase their physical and mental competitiveness. So Kellogg’s success became a case study for pushers of other products with obscure dividends. Advertising strategies playing on some typical female fears that had worked wonders in the West were tried on the Indian Supermom and worked wonders. Before long Supermoms in large Indian cities were not only serving McDonald’s to kids for lunch, but also approving the eating and drinking of saturated fat-coated snacks just because the role models projected in the ad blitzes said they were OK.
The emphasis in the feminist discourse should be on the objectionable overtones in the marketing campaign. Should the Indian woman as a thinking animal be more concerned for the destruction of thousands of jobs by the Supermom juggernaut or simply satisfy herself with whatever the corporates hand out as wisdom of the “goodness” of the products or the “justifiability” of the new needs created? Why should the Indian woman fall hook, line and sinker for claims as to the “health benefits” of these products whereas every independent study expresses skepticism for the “doctor’s advice” that multinationals bandy around as “proof”? The Right to Information is one of the corner-stones of the charter of consumer demands recognised by the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. But what if the information flow is arbitrated only by the marketer-manufacturer? Lastly, where are the safety nets in the form of independent testing, data generation on consumer satisfaction and government regulation of monopolies?
Claims and Dubious Claims
The variety of olive oil that is available in India is priced anywhere from Rs 400 to Rs 800 a litre. It is paradoxical that the International Olive Council, a UNDP body, along with the Indian Olive Association could make claims on the benefits of consuming olive oil to fight major health issues related to heart diseases and diabetes in contradiction to the IOC’s own data on India which shows that almost all the oils imported into India are of the refined variety—dominated by Pomace olive oil.
Now, Pomace olive oil is obtained through the refining process and comprises the leftover olives from the extraction process. Their nutritional value almost certainly disappears during the refinement process. Health practitioners also claim that Pomace olive oil is actually good for manufacturing soaps.
The purest form of olive oil is known to retain mono and poly unsaturated fats that are understood to be a shield against heart diseases and diabetes as they reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, while possibly increasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (their true ability to raise HDL is still in debate).
But the data available till today depicts the original inability of regulatory bodies to discern fact from fiction in the claims of the lobbies. In fact there is also no clear oversight over how much quantity of which quality of olive oil is brought into India. The purer forms of the oil are said to be almost unavailable in Indian markets because of their unaffordability.
The role of the regulatory authorities in examining the standards of consumables is questioned with the American report of 2012 on import of olive oil which verifies that 73 per cent of the samples tested were below the sensory standards. Under scrutiny are highly available brands like Bertolli, Colavita, Lippo Berio, Pompeian and Star. Since most of India’s olive oil requirements are imported from a few sources in Italy and Spain, the question arises as to how these controversial brands could be allowed under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1953 (PFA) and cleared for marketing.
Land for Olive Oil
In 2007, the then Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje, shared a podium with horti-culturist Gideon Pelegto to announce the allotment of 182 hectares for farming oil-grade olives. It is debatable whether she was aware how the climatic conditions of Rajasthan could turn this trance into a tragedy. The plants that should have yielded well by the end of 2009 are still standing elevated without much assurance. The niggling fact that only three of the seven varieties of plants yielded fruits by 2012 are taking the shape of an outlandish effort that could serve devastating terms for the soil.
Dr Debal Deb of the West Bengal-based organisation, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, says: “Diverting such a huge chunk of land to an unknown crop is risky. Today, the vegetative growth in these orchards has reached 80 per cent, but reproductive growth is still zero. Besides, importing these exotic species involves massive risks.”
A bacterial disease called olive knot, caused by Pseudomonas savastanoi, has spread in the Australian form of imported seeds and seedlings. The Australian national science agency, Common-wealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organi-sation, acknowledges: “There is no cost-effective way to control knots in olive groves by using currently available bactericidal sprays.”
So, is olive oil poised to go the Jatropha way? An international outcry is now on over the subtle and not-too-subtle persuasions used by the giant corporates to convince farmers in middle and South Africa to turn their fields over from food crops to biofuel production. The Indian historical experience with indigo plantation, forced on the farmers of Bengal and Bihar by the East India Company’s factors, is also valid here. Yet the Government of India has the gall to promise the lobbyists as much as 5000 hectares for growing olives! Apart from the dangers to the ecosystem which trouble the “Supermoms” of Rajasthan, the “Supermom” in Delhi should also lose sleep over the implications of such an irrational, corrupt policy on India’s food security—the everyday manifestation of which is the rising price graph.
Shruti Chopra is a writer and has written a book Battered Existence (published by Author House, UK).