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Does buying organic food also mean you are eating responsibly?

Shonali Muthalaly writes: After all, ‘natural’ is an easy term to manipulate — bio-fertilisers and bio pesticides are technically natural too. When the farmer controls the entire process, using dung from village cattle, neem cakes and local earthworms, it’s a simpler, cleaner, and more straightforward process. It also means that the farmer has full control.

Shonali Muthalaly, The Hindu

There’s an annoying self-satisfied swagger about hipster organic stores. The ones with artfully-lit, Instagram-ready baskets of fastidiously rustic fruit. Exotic vegetables flaunting back-stories more romantic than anything you could ever find on Tinder. Boasting “lovingly hand-pounded, responsibly made, locally grown, ethically produced, vegan, wild honey-laced” obscure breakfast cereals that taste like diligently toasted sand.

Let’s not even get started on their star customers, swathed in overpriced ethnic handlooms, diamonds and self-congratulatory smugness. Dexterously managing to post virtuous Facebook updates about changing the world, one organic carrot at a time, even as they fill their baskets with “home-grown” quinoa, designer ghee and gently wilting broccoli.

India’s burgeoning organic food market, slated to grow by 30 per cent every year, offers a wide variety today: ranging from the stolidly indigenous to wildly exotic. With bohemian chic farmer’s markets springing up in every big city, and swish neighbourhood stores advertising responsibly-grown produce, it is has never been easier to eat clean and simultaneously assuage our consciences.

After all, if it’s good for us, it must be good for the planet, right? As for that hefty price tag? Well, clever marketing has us convinced that good food cannot possibly be cheap.

Granted, most people who are going organic now are doing it with genuinely good intentions. However, in a trend-obsessed world, it is easy to get overwhelmed.

If you truly want to change the way you eat, what should you be looking for? Eat local?

Choitresh Kumar Ganguly of the Timbaktu Collective seems like the ideal person to ask. The collective, which works in over 150 villages in drought-prone Anantapur, has taken unproductive land and, using organic farming, transformed it into fields of flourishing millets over the last 25 years.

Over the phone, Choitresh begins by emphasising how important it is to eat food that is indigenous. Millets, for example. “Foxtail barnyard millets grow in high-lying marshes as well as low-lying deserts. They are climate-resilient and can survive on very low rainfall.” Since these are local species, they’re also rarely attacked by pests.”

As for that organic quinoa, carefully imported and grown in India? “It’s all bull,” he snorts. “That’s the tragedy of us Indians. We don’t give importance to what we already have.”

Remember that any imported seed needs protection, since it is not naturally immune to the local environment and pests. “Over a few 1000 years they become resilient, like our chillies, potatoes and tomatoes. But in the meantime, it may destroy a lot of our vegetation by activating pests, or affecting our pollination system.”

So how do you define organic? “The primary meaning, to me, is when all the inputs are produced by the farmer himself or herself. From seed to fertiliser to pesticide… everything.”

After all, ‘natural’ is an easy term to manipulate — bio fertilisers and bio pesticides are technically natural too. When the farmer controls the entire process, using dung from village cattle, neem cakes and local earthworms, it’s a simpler, cleaner, and more straightforward process. “It also means that the farmer has full control. Sovereignty is what is important here.”

Your next step? Cut out the middleman. “As a consumer, you should know who is producing your food.” Most of the people selling organic food are aggregators — they have little to no contact with the actual farmers. Conventional certification is not always reliable. Choitresh says, “We have been fighting against third-party certification. All kinds of scams can happen and it is very expensive.” Instead, they use a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) where groups of farmers guarantee each other’s produce. (The Government of India has recently introduced PGS as well.) So look for PGS on produce that you buy.

Even better, get to know your farmer. It’s increasingly easy these days, as more urban city slickers are swapping their laptops for shovels. Like 51-year-old S. Madhusudhan, who gave up a high-powered corporate career to start a farm six years ago in Bangalore, after he collapsed in his office. “That was my wake-up call,” he says, discussing how he taught himself organic farming. “My best teachers were Google, Wikipedia and You Tube.”

Over the past six years, he has tended to about 200 acres, at Back2Basics, lavishing his land with equal amounts of care and gobar slurry.

“We use about 24,000 litres of gobar slurry per acre. We use oil seed cakes made with neem, honge and sesame. We used a bore, and struck water at 550 feet. Today, after rainwater harvesting, it’s risen to 50 feet. I truly believe that the land returns what you give to it.” He adds that economically, there is no reason for organic food to be more expensive. “I sell a coconut at Rs. 19. The market price is Rs. 30. How do I do it? I just cut out the middle man.”

His farm has been so successful that he recently launched a service supplying customers with freshly-harvested produce. “Morning harvest, evening delivery,” he says. “I quickly learnt what the problem is in the Indian market. The growers don’t know how to market. The marketers don’t know how to grow. I’m in the sweet spot between the two.”


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