Instant Noodles and International Law: Highly Processed Food and the Right to Culture

Instant Noodles and International Law: Highly Processed Food and the Right to Culture

[Vivek Bhatt is an Assistant Professor of International Law and Human Rights at Utrecht University’s Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM). Twitter: @vivekbhatt61.]

Nestlé Goes to New Delhi

As an Australian child of Indian immigrants, I spent a month each year visiting extended family in the state of Gujarat, located on India’s west coast. Even as a child, I noticed that India felt less ‘Indian’ each time I visited. Saree and masala stores were being replaced by shopping malls where one could buy Levi Strauss jeans and Nike running shoes. Supermarket shelves were lined with Betty Crocker cake mixes. And locals no longer queued for bhel puri served from roadside stands, driving instead to their local Pizza Hut for a slice of the world-famous chain’s deep-dish pizza, served with an Indian twist: paneer instead of mozzarella, and garam masala instead of oregano and garlic oil.

Once they reached school age, my cousins orchestrated the establishment of a Sunday tradition: instant noodle night. Nestlé had taken India by storm with its Maggi brand of instant noodles, selling, by 2019, 264,000 megatons of instant noodles per year for domestic consumption. The multinational food giant had spawned a range of locally inspired flavours, including Chicken Tikka and its bestselling Masala flavour. The eye-catching packages for these products were adorned with phrases including ‘your favourite Masala flavour’ and, oxymoronically, ‘Authentic Indian noodles.’

As a youngster with a penchant for carbohydrates, I readily embraced Sunday noodle night at my aunt and uncle’s house. I even indulged in the occasional bowl of pasta flavoured with tomato ketchup, cumin, and the Australian cheese we had transported in our luggage. But only recently did I realise what these dishes meant for India. In docuseries Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan presents a history of the global proliferation of highly processed food. Once multinational food corporations had saturated Western supermarket shelves with their products, they turned to the Global South. These corporations sold localised versions of their affordable, highly addictive products in states in which the price of fresh food continued to rise and the desire for quick, convenient food solutions was strong.

By the end of the first decade of the millennium, processed food was everywhere in India. And with the help of Bollywood megastar Priyanka Chopra, Pepsi was giving masala chai a run for its money as India’s favourite caffeinated beverage. This process is, of course, referred to as globalisation, something that is generally celebrated and welcomed. But the arrival of highly processed foods in India had many side-effects — ones that ought to capture the attention of international law scholars.  

Instant Noodles and International Law

This post is not, therefore, about my childhood travels. It about the global proliferation of processed food and its human rights implications. These implications are so far-reaching that a comprehensive analysis is beyond the scope of this piece. My specific interest in this post is in the right of everyone to take part in cultural life. This right provides us with the strongest framework for the recognition of food as intrinsically valuable. Food is not just a means for the realisation of other human rights, like health. Making food, teaching and learning recipes, preserving national or local cuisine, and sharing food of significance to one’s community are themselves human rights that should be respected, protected, and upheld. The globalisation of food presents both risks and opportunities in this regard.  It threatens to eliminate the traditional cooking methods, flavours, and rituals that make food an expression of culture. But as individuals gain access to local, national, multinational, international, and global cuisine, the right to culture is becoming capable of signification in a broader range of contexts. 

Food and the Right to Culture

The right to take part in cultural life is recognised in Article 15(1)(a) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that ‘everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community.’ The right to participate in culture was initially associated with high culture and was meant to preserve the ability of the upper classes to produce and consume cultural artefacts in settings such as museums, libraries, and theatres (p. 906). Over time, interstate bodies including UNESCO and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) have embraced a broader conception of this right to include participation in popular culture. The right to take part in culture is, therefore, understood to encompass activities and settings including sporting events, music, and film.

Food is mentioned only twice in the CESCR’s soft-law output relating to Article 15(1)(a). Firstly, General Comment 5 on the rights of persons with disabilities notes that ‘the general public should be educated to accept that persons with disabilities have as much right as any other person to make use of restaurants, hotels, recreation centres and cultural venues.’ And secondly, food is included in a list of elements of culture in General Comment 21:

‘Ways of life, language, oral and written literature, music and song, non-verbal communication, religion or belief systems, rites and ceremonies, sport and games, methods of production or technology, natural and man-made environments, food, clothing and shelter and the arts.’

Though the mentions of food are only fleeting, these statements show that, for the purposes of Art 15(1)(a), culture is understood anthropologically: as an individual’s or community’s way of being in the world. Thus, culture is, as Donders describes it, ‘An expression of the identity of an individual or community’ (p. 233).

Food is, and always has been, an important means for the expression of these individual, familial, and community identities. ‘Food is culture,’ Montanari writes:

‘Because man, while able to eat anything, […] does not in fact eat everything but rather chooses his own food, according to criteria linked either to the economic and nutritional dimensions of the gesture or to the symbolic values with which food itself is invested. Through such pathways food takes shape as a decisive element of human identity and as one of the most effective means of expressing and communicating that identity’ (p. xii). 

But the connection between food and culture stretches beyond the moment in which a person chooses what to eat. Food is at the centre of many culturally significant events: the family meal on Eid-al-Fitr, the exchange of sweets on Diwali, the rite of Holy Communion. Food is the subject of intergenerational exchanges, with traditional recipes passed from parents to children, children to grandchildren. And food symbolises where a community has been and what it has endured. Take, for example, rice and potato. The production and consumption of rice has long been central to the livelihoods, identities, and traditions of the Khmer people. The severance of this ‘symbiogenetic’ relationship was a tenet of the Cambodian genocide, and it left an indelible mark on the community’s and region’s cuisines. Meanwhile, the humble potato was introduced in Russia a mere 300 years ago, but it has since become a key ingredient in Russian cuisine, and it was instrumental in the survival of the country’s poor during the devastating food shortages of the Second World War (pp. 41-76). Food is, therefore, key to the human right to take part in cultural life. It is tied to the histories, identities, and traditions of families, communities, peoples, and nations, symbolising their life experiences. But what happens when these ties come loose?

Protecting the Right to Culture

In making his docuseries, Pollan travelled to India and interviewed families about the role that processed foods play in their daily lives. He found that, for many, home cooking has been replaced with microwaveable dinners and KFC deliveries. Pollan’s interviewees reported that family recipes, taught in the kitchen and passed down the generations, were being forgotten. Indian cuisine continues to thrive in curry houses and on the pages of Madhur Jaffrey’s cookbooks. But few recipes are ever written down or perfected in restaurant kitchens (p. 36). They are, rather, orally communicated as an expression of, and in the formation of, cultural identity.

International human rights law is a set of rules that regulate the relationship between states and individuals within their jurisdiction. The right to participate in cultural life can be difficult to conceptualise within this framework, because it is exercised through one’s interaction with other people or communities — such as in the kitchen or around the dining table. Yet the rights recognised in the core human rights treaties give rise to a triad of correlative obligations for states: to respect, protect, and fulfil. While the obligation to respect human rights is framed negatively as the obligation not to interfere with their exercise, the obligations to protect and fulfil can be framed positively, requiring the state to enact measures to secure human rights for those within their jurisdiction.

The obligation to protect is widely understood as an obligation to take “due diligence” measures to prevent interference with human rights by third parties, such as corporations. Yet in the context of Article 15(1)(a), states also bear an obligation to protect the right to take part in cultural life against the forces of globalisation and marketisation (p. 258). The CESCR has recognised the “danger of growing standardisation of culture…due to the invasion of a cultural model from outside which is accepted purely because of economic factors” (para. 220). It is unlikely that this obligation could justify the limitation of a corporation’s capacity to market consumer products like instant noodles. But the success of such products symbolises the threat that globalisation poses to cuisine as an expression of, and means for the development of, culture. States can implement a range of measures in this regard: steps can be taken to ensure that the fresh produce needed to cook traditional foods is financially accessible; educational and awareness campaigns can highlight the historical and cultural significance of national cuisine; and local leaders can promote participation in culturally significant events, like those noted above, which revolve around food. As Fraser notes, such efforts can only succeed with the participation of social actors and institutions: from food writers and vegetable co-ops to religious and faith-based organisations.

Food as an Encounter with the Global

The erosion of culture because of the proliferation of mass-produced food is both regrettable and avoidable. But the globalisation of food more generally presents some opportunities. Let’s return to a dish mentioned in the introduction: a bowl of pasta with tomato ketchup from America, cheddar cheese from Australia, and a dash of Indian spices, served out of an Indian home kitchen. The dish was no culinary masterpiece, and it would be a tragedy if it entirely replaced the foods that have traditionally been cooked in the homes of my uncles and aunts, grandparents, and great-grandparents. But the dish was also an encounter with the global — an encounter that is significant to the right to take part in cultural life.

Interconnectedness is a reality. As individuals, we are anchored to our local and national communities, but through the food we eat, we also participate in global life. As food travels across borders, it carries stories that can enrich our understanding of other cultures and, by extension, further the goals of the international human rights movement. And as foreign cuisines find new homes and take on local characteristics, they illustrate the stories of the immigrants behind them – Mexicans in Los Angeles; Italians in New York; Vietnamese in Sydney; and Surinamese in Amsterdam – as well as their struggles for self-determination, refuge, acceptance, and equal opportunity. Perhaps, then, individual eaters also bear human rights obligations: to choose food carefully, to be aware of its origins, and to readily learn about the cultural and historical significance with which it is endowed.

Photograph by Markus Winkler on the Unsplash open licence.

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