On a bright Sunday during the first week of this month, Namma Santhe – Navachetana Trust’s first organic market, with 20 odd stalls selling vegetables and fruits, spice mixes, packaged health products, herbal plants, and eco friendly bags, attracted a mixed crowd. Middle class couples hoping for fresh produce and interesting pickles, a considerable number of the elite who had developed an interest in sustainable living, and the common man curious as to what the whole thing was about.
One could hear occasional grumbles about the setting – the grounds of a school in Vidyaranyapura in north Bangalore. When some visitors walked up to Aliyeh Rizvi, who oversees the Trust’s art and culture programmes, and commented that a more accessible part of the city would have been so much better, she responded to each graciously. But in private, a frazzled Aliyeh, tense at the non appearance of farmers from Ramnagaram, remarked with some asperity, "If there was a musical event at Fireflies, you would not demand that it be held in central Bangalore, would you?"
Objections to location could be brushed off as people having a bad day or the effects of a blisteringly hot March morning. But the truth is that it also reflects our attitude towards terms like climate change, vanishing rain forests, fair trade and farmer suicides. For the average urbanite, picking up organic produce or choosing a shopping bag made of cloth or jute is okay…as long as he does not have to take too much trouble over it.
Despite all the talk of eating organic and its benefits for the world at large, for most middle class people the term remains a concept imported from the West, a fashion of the moment that the upper crust can afford to indulge in. Some might cave in to the obvious health factors – a case of what’s in it for me. But otherwise, who can afford to pay Rs 130 or 140 for a kilo of organic dal is the question many ask.
For Navachetana Trust’s environmental programmes, contact Kushi Kushalappa at email@example.com
Bhoomi Network has regular workshops.
Lumiere will be opening an organic products outlet at their restaurant premises in Marathahalli.
Jilani can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
Whereas the question we actually need to ask is why such pricing when naturally grown produce should cost less than those grown with the aid of artificial fertilizers and sustained through pesticides. "For thousands of years, before 1965, all food in India was chemical free and, by definition, organic," points out Jayawant Bharadwaj, who works with Bhoomi Network, a group of individuals who believe that food, health and climate change will be the issues of the future.
"We subjected ourselves to Green Revolution’s chemical farming and now to undo it we need Western agricultural science? If we insist on certification from Switzerland and incur the cost of flight, hotel stay, etc, of professionals who fly in to certify our coriander leaves as organic – it will cost! If we urbanites and rich farmers did not pollute the environment, the produce grown by small and marginal farmers would be organic.
"Also, the pricing of food items in India is highly distorted by hidden subsidies for power and chemical fertilizers. Factor out these subsidies and chemical farming can never compete with organic farming based on local inputs. Since we have destroyed soil health, initially the yields will lag. But in the long run, you get more quantities and better produce that is nutritionally complete."
When it comes to pricing, let us also not forget big retailers who make money off the customer. Jilani MKHH, who is the co founder of Prerna, a self help group in Bailhongal in Belgaum for small farmers, gives a small example that effectively demonstrates the retailer’s role in pricing. Having sold four tonnes of Alphonso mangoes in 2009, he says, "The Alphonso mango cost Rs 25 per kilo in the area where it is grown. We bought it from the farmer for Rs 40. Transport to Bangalore increased the cost by another Rs 10. Factor in other overheads since this is a delicate fruit that needs care in handling. When I sold it to the customer, it was for Rs 65 to 70 per kilo. But a well known organic store in Bangalore sold the same for Rs 150." And if that shocks you, the price was Rs 250 in Mumbai.
Jilani, who earlier worked in the IT sector and now runs his own consulting business, devotes much time to spreading the word about organic farming.
In Malleswaram, where he lives, people in the locality initially requested vermi compost from his farm for their gardens. After that when somebody asked him whether they could get anything else, he thought why not and kept aside his weekends for door delivery of grains, vegetables and fruits. He now covers 50 houses in Malleswaram and plans to cover 50 more by April. He also intends to start a small outlet. He is emphatic that more professionals need to get involved so that small farmers can be organised. "We need to build a strong supply chain that will take produce direct from farm to customer," he points out.
Manjunath Pankkaparambil of Lumiere, the restaurant that serves food made only from organic produce, agrees that logistics is the biggest problem he faces. With his fresh produce coming from farms in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala and grains from northern India, this is a man constantly on the move.
"The supply chain is just not there," he says. "We are always looking out for places from where we can source. We have to worry about the transportation and whether it will reach on time, critical to the running of a restaurant." Lumiere may be one of the few restaurants in the country doing something like this but Pankkaparambil is not just riding on a trend. He fervently believes that the only way forward for the world is for everybody to think of a sustainable lifestyle. And he feels that the best way to achieve this is by focusing on education in schools and colleges. "We need to take a serious look at our educational system. Our young people must think what they are doing in, and to, this world."
Bharadwaj of Bhoomi is also of the opinion that teaching the young is the only way forward. "Adults tune you out, each one thinks he has it figured out. They rarely listen to each other. Children are more clued in. If only they are given a fair chance of seeing some honest practice by parents and teachers."
So the next time your eyes glaze over when you read that yet another farmer has committed suicide or flip the page with scorn at a workshop extolling the importance of eating organic, stop. And think. Eating naturally and seasonally was what the world had been doing for centuries before somebody decided that artificial methods could bring in more. Produce as well as money.
When greed replaces ethics, however much you make never seems enough. Moreover, what good is money when you have lots of it and no food to buy because the soil, water and air have been destroyed? ⊕