Chak Chok: a campaign against junk food, by Kunzang Deachen and Alex Jensen
Transnational corporations have been spectacularly successful in their profit-driven quest to hook the world on junk food. The global sale of packaged foods swelled to US$2.8 trillion by 2020, and is estimated to balloon to $3.4 trillion by 2027. Soda (soft drink) sales have exploded globally, reaching $995 billion by 2002, and are predicted to grow to $1.4 trillion by 2027. Much of this growth is being found in ‘developing markets’ in the global South.
These trends have serious health consequences. A 2012 research paper titled Manufacturing Epidemics, bluntly concluded that, transnational corporations that manufacture and market unhealthy food and beverage commodities, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Cadbury-Schweppes, are among the leading vectors for the global spread of Non-Communicable Disease risks. Increasingly, they target developing countries’ markets as a major area for expansion.”
This stark reality has been confirmed by countless other studies, regularly finding significant causal links between increased junk food consumption — especially soft drinks — and global epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancers, to name but a few of the worst.
In India, 2021 was Coca Cola’s best year, with 1 billion drinks sold in a single quarter. Not coincidentally, India is becoming the epicenter of disease related to diet. According to another study, India is predicted to have more than 27 million obese children, representing one in 10 children globally, by 2030. India is not alone: a recent study from Brazil found that consumption of junk food was responsible for 57,000 premature deaths — 10.5 percent of all premature deaths in the 30–69 year age range — in 2019.
What is the most appropriate name for these diseases? In addition to the aforementioned “non-communicable diseases”, various terms found in the research include “lifestyle diseases”, “diet-related diseases”, “diseases of affluence”, and “diseases of the Western diet.” Given that all of the research is converging on the central role of highly-processed, refined, packaged foods and beverages — that is, junk food — it would not be inaccurate to call them “junk food diseases” — but even that would fall a bit short. The Manufacturing Epidemics study correctly identifies the real vectors for this crisis, namely “transnational corporations that manufacture and market unhealthy food and beverage commodities.” So another name could be, “diseases of corporate power”.
But how are these corporations able to spread their disease-causing junk foods to every corner of the world? Through free trade regimes, elimination of local regulations, consolidation of market power driving out local alternatives, and the like. In a word: globalization. Indeed, a startling finding reported deep within the Manufacturing Epidemics study found that free trade agreements between low- and middle-income countries and the United States — home of some of the biggest vectors like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo — is associated with a 63 percent higher level of soft drink consumption per capita.
Terms like “diet-related diseases” are incomplete at best because they divert attention and awareness from the forces that are driving dietary decisions, options, and shifts, and because they implicitly ascribe responsibility for this global crisis to individual consumers who make poor diet choices. Unfortunately, most people are now living within junk-food-saturated environments, bombarded by highly-researched junk food marketing ( corporations spent over $1 billion in 2018 in the US alone advertising sugary drinks and energy drinks), and hooked on the stuff through sophisticated food and neuro-psychological techniques designed to addict people. Lifestyle and dietary choices by individuals are important, but they are profoundly shaped by powerful structural forces. So, perhaps the most accurate name for what we are talking about should be “diseases of corporate globalization”.
While the health effects of this phenomenon are paramount, they are not the only harms. The corporate globalization of junk foods and beverages is also a major component of the global plastic waste crisis. In India, 5.6 million tons of plastic waste are generated every year, and of this, nearly 43% comes from packaging, the majority of which is single-use material.
In the 2020 plastic brand waste audit conducted by the Break Free From Plastic movement, Coca-Cola was ranked the world’s №1 plastic polluter, followed by PepsiCo and Nestlé. Indeed, Coca-Cola produces 3 million tons of plastic packaging a year — equivalent to 200,000 bottles a minute — more than a fifth of the world’s PET bottle output. Much of this plastic waste is burned, contributing significantly to global toxic air pollution and to climate change. Another study found that “the emissions from burning Coca-Cola’s plastic in just six countries (the Philippines, India, China, Nigeria, Brazil and Mexico) equate to as much as three-quarters of the company’s global transport and distribution emissions”, or 4.6 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.
There are also environmental impacts from corporate junk food that most end consumers don’t see. In India, for example, each 0.5 liter bottle of Coke requires 150 to 300 liters of water to produce (the majority of this is from supply chain ingredients like water-intensive sugar cane). Together, Coca-Cola’s 58 bottling facilities produce almost 50 million bottles per day.
So a gargantuan quantity of global plastic waste is being generated and unimaginable quantities of fresh water depleted by corporations to produce commodities that are causing a global epidemic of serious diseases. Junk food is far from “cheap”.
While Ladakh may be geographically distant from the factories and corporate board rooms where junk food and plastic packaging originate, it is unfortunately not immune to the epidemic of corporate globalization. In Ladakh as in the rest of India, junk food and beverages are now ubiquitous and their consumption is increasing, and thus the same diseases are spreading at an alarming rate, as is the accumulation of unmanageable plastic waste all across the region. The flip side of this is the erosion of the local food economy and the nutritious, traditional dishes that sustained Ladakhi culture for centuries. In a vicious cycle, this in turn is connected to the diminishment of local agriculture and the rapid decline of the villages.
It is within this broader analysis and understanding that Local Futures Ladakh, in collaboration with socially- and environmentally-concerned Dr. Nordan Odzer, have launched a provocative campaign against junk food titled Chak Chok, which translates to “rubbish” or “unwanted”. Chak Chok aims to draw attention to the fact that Ladakhis are increasingly developing diseases like diabetes, hypertension and cancer, primarily due to their consumption of fast food and sugary beverages peddled by corporations. The campaign is advocating that all junk food and related products be eliminated from Ladakhi kitchens and dietary habits.
Chak Chok began with a series of interactive sessions at different schools with hundreds of students and their teachers, at which Dr. Odzer discussed the links between increasing junk food consumption in Ladakh and rising rates of cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, depression, and lower IQ in children — among other ill effects.
He lamented that locally grown food has increasingly been displaced by packaged/junk food, that Ladakhis are not as physically active as in the past, and that the mounting pressure to earn lots of money is taking a psychological toll.
He explained the harmful effects of specific junk food ingredients, especially excess sugar and salt, and refined flours and oils. Pesticides that are used in imported vegetables and fruit production leads to grave problems like cancer — an issue which is seriously impacting people in Kashmir, Punjab and other states where the chemical-intensive model has taken over, and from which Ladakh imports significant amounts of produce. Finally, he talked about the harmful health and social effects of non-local alcohol.
Local Futures Ladakh team members explained the ill effects of plastics and other waste that is generated because of the increasing domination of the junk food economy. There is no proper waste management in Ladakh, so waste including plastic packaging is usually burned, or thrown away out of sight. When plastics are burned, harmful emissions enter the air which eventually gets back inside our bodies, and the emissions also contribute to climate change. When the plastic waste is thrown away, it enters streams and fields by various means, which harms the land, animals and agriculture.
The team also focused on the economic and cultural aspects of the junk food transition. On one level, the loss of Ladakh’s own locally-farmed food is severing people’s ties to their own land and history, tremendously diminishing their ability to connect with and thus care about nature.
Thirty years ago Ladakhis were self-sufficient in basic needs, lived in community and were dependent on each other for most village activities. The older generations taught young people how to live in harmony with nature. The arrival of the PDS [Public Distribution System] and the general exposure of Ladakh to the global economy and big food corporations quickly started to change the lifestyle and food systems away from ancient agrarian self-reliance and mutual aid. These processes have led over the years to the abandonment of agricultural lands and farming. Increasingly, agricultural land is used to build houses and hotels — many of them vacant — and this land conversion represents one of the biggest threats to Ladakh’s long-term food sovereignty.
Another problem is that expenditures on imported junk foods don’t continue to circulate in Ladakh; instead, most of it flows out of the region into the coffers of food corporations. And previously during spiritual occasions, Ladakhis offered home-made items for traditional ceremonies, but now offer mostly packaged junk foods because of time pressures and the status associated with such modern products.
The Chak Chok campaign also focuses on the alternative to junk food: principally strengthening the local economy by producing and consuming local food. Among other things, this involves coming together at the village level to exchange skills and knowledge, to revalorize traditional foods and inspire a mass movement to consume them once again. Beyond this, however, the Chak Chok campaigners are aware that societal and political action is needed to check the spread of junk food in Ladakh’s communities. The campaign will be using various other strategies to get the message out — from documentary films to intensive follow-up interactions with students and their parents to collaboration with supportive members of the administration and more.
The message of the Chak Chok campaign is that we can simultaneously protect our health, environment and economy by banning junk food from our diets, kitchens, shops and lives, and reclaiming our local, nourishing food traditions and economy. For this to happen, action is needed at all levels of society: individuals, villages, institutions, businesses and policy-makers.
It’s time to reclaim our health and our future from the clutches of Chak Chok!
Photo: Alex Jensen: Junk food trash in Leh, Ladakh