Saturday, January 6, 2007

Storm in a Soda bottle

Reviewing the allegations of pesticide in soft drinks in India last year, I outline the fatal flaw in the media based activism that sacrifices science for fifteen minutes of glory. A version of this article appeared in the Indian Express.

Looking back at the year of 2006, perhaps you remember the uproar this past summer concerning pesticides in Coca-Cola and Pepsi products in India? In early August, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an Indian NGO, published a report alleging that the pesticide levels in Coca-Cola and Pepsi products were unsafe. Social activists in India and across the world railed against Coca-Cola and Pepsi, and the Economist ran a feature article on how these activists had “dented two of the world’s glossiest brands.” The Indian Parliament and Supreme Court held hearings on the matter, and several Indian states outright banned Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Meanwhile, US-based activists called on colleges and universities to ban Coca-Cola on their campuses.

It now turns out that this was all a storm in a soda bottle. The Indian government will conclude its official investigation of the matter in January. In a recent preview of the report, the experts noted “the results and conclusions reached by the CSE in the report can not be accepted on its face value”. The government stated to the Indian Supreme Court that exhaustive testing of carbonated drinks on the Indian market after the CSE report had not turned out a single instance of unsafe levels of pesticides. This followed confirmation of independent analyses by highly respected laboratories in India and the UK, which all concluded that the products of Coca-Cola and Pepsi are safe for consumers.

Now that the CSE have had their fifteen minutes of fame, journalists and social activists in India as well as the US would do well to focus on the real issues of economic and environmental improvement in India. Unfortunately, however, smear campaigns against multinational companies tend to be more attractive to many news editors, politicians and NGOs than providing solid analyses of real problems.

There is a fatal flaw in this strategy of media based activism, in the name of science and environment. It seeks to bypass the peer reviewed and respected journals of science in favour of the popular media. Without such validation, science is sacrificed for the sake of popularity. Consequently, real priorities get distorted, often with fatal consequences for victims. Good intentions cannot substitute for sound public policies.

Consider the magnitude of India’s public policy problems. 500,000 children under the age of five die each year due to diarrhoea, 50% of children drop out by the middle school level, barely 40% of the population has access to any kind of sanitation facilities, and 50% of Indian homes have no electricity. Yet NGOs and the media prefer to focus on Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

This disproportionate focus on the perceived failings of two world class multinationals becomes even more absurd when one considers the social benefit of soft drinks in a country where the quality of the drinking water is often in doubt, even in urban centers like Delhi, the capital city.

Moreover, the economic contribution of the fast growing soft drink and bottle water sector in India is not insubstantial. Importantly, this growth has included hundreds of thousands of vendors who typically man the street side kiosks selling soft drinks and water to millions across the country.

What the furore concerning Coca-Cola and Pepsi has exposed is not the safety of soft drinks, but the sorry state of the public debate on economic and environmental development issues. It is as if some journalists, activists, and politicians believe they can prove their social consciousness by assaulting multinational companies with no regard to factual base of these attacks or the consequences of distorting priorities through falsehood.

I have great respect for American consumers and activists who want to show their solidarity with the poor in India through their shopping habits. Voting with your purse is a great way to let companies know that you are unhappy with their practices. However, if the consumer activists are serious, they owe it to themselves as well as the people they are trying to help to get their facts straight. In the case of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, the facts speak for purchasing an extra few bottles next time you go shopping rather than boycotting these brands.

As one of the judges on the Indian Supreme Court commented recently, one can understand someone raising the issue of pesticide content in water, which is a necessity of life. “But colas? Is it a necessity of life? If any one has reservation about pesticide content in the colas, he can just refrain from consuming them rather than coming to the courts.”

Mahatma Gandhi would have approved. Empower the people by letting them make their own decisions. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are so successful because millions of consumers across the world have faith in the products of these companies and exercise their right to choose freely among a variety of products. Restricting consumer choice by harassing Coca-Cola and Pepsi will make the consumer more vulnerable, not less.