As a new generation of millennial Indians reinforced the concept of healthy, there has been a growing desire to bring back the simple, unadulterated techniques of the past.
My earliest memories of tasting organic fruits go back to my grandmother’s farm in a small Indian town. About two decades ago as I would sit down to savor the most succulent mangoes, with nectary juice dribbling down my chin, dadi would tell me the secret to her sweet mangoes — her fruits were hand-tended and grown without the use of any chemicals or pesticides. Blissfully unaware of the chemicals and their caustic effects, back then, I would just concentrate on the mellow produce. Ironically, many years and many cognitive achievements later, I got too busy to explore the benefits behind primitive, pure ways of production and accepted the modern day easy convenience of pesticide-laden supermarket finds.
But in the past few years, a new thoughtfulness about what we eat, began emerging for many Indian urban youngsters. As a new generation of millennial Indians reinforced the concept of healthy, there has been a growing desire to bring back the simple, unadulterated techniques of the past.
The organic market in cosmopolitan parts of India has been swelling in size for some time now, primarily because the well-travelled, fitness savvy young Indians and the NRIs who have returned to India after spending a few years in the West have hungering for gluten-free, Paleo diets and other urban food fads.
But what was so far primarily concentrated in the urbane pockets of “new India” seemed to get some mainstream cognizance recently. Marking, what could be termed as the neo food awareness of sorts amongst the Indian masses, the famous Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, announced it would begin serving devotees all-organic meals in its legendary langar, or communal free meal, to upto 100,000 devotees daily. The news that one of the world’s largest community kitchens that serves people from all segments of society, rich and poor alike, has given organic food a new push.
The administrative body of the gurudwaras (sikh shrines) in India, Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC,) decided to adopt organic farming to encourage farmers to shun chemical fertilizers and pesticides and embrace sustainable agricultural practices. So ingredients for the community kitchen, such as grains and vegetables, like carrot, cauliflower, radish and spinach, are now being grown in organic farms in Patiala and Gurudwara Gurusar Satlani Sahib near Amritsar. According to estimates, the shrine presently receives just 2,200 lbs of organic produce — under 10 percent of its requirements — every alternate day.
The motive is not only to serve pilgrims wholesome, chemical free meals, but to also create awareness about the ill effects of chemicals. Dr Rajwant Singh, president, EcoSikh, a non-profit organization working towards raising environmental awareness, said that they are hoping that another 25,000-30,000 gurudwaras in Punjab will follow suit to serve all-organic langars. The move, if implemented, could dramatically impact the reach and understanding of organic produce throughout India.
In the West, there still is a raging debate on whether organic food is healthier. But in India, according to food industry experts, given the lax controls on the use of pesticide on fruits and vegetables, the need for organic farming is more pressing. Chef Alice Helme, who pioneered the slow food and sustainability movement in India, says, “The state of raw produce that is available in India, both in terms of how it is grown and how it reaches the consumers, has reached beyond hazardous levels. Banned chemicals that are available now in black market are often put into the fields.”
Helme, who hails from Britain and made India her home five years ago, admits that she was shocked to discover the unethical storage and supply chain practices in India. She says, “Chemicals in the food is just one part of the story. People have no idea where their food is coming from. The way, the veggies and fruits are stored in Azadpur (South East Asia’s largest vegetable wholesale market just outside of Delhi) is disgusting. There are cows, dogs and donkeys trampling over the vegetables and some eating them too. There is cow dung and urine next to the floor where the produce for human consumption is. If the chemicals won’t kill you, the lack of food safety regulations will, if something is not done about it.”
Roused by the compromised quality of food many educated Indians are turning to more expensive organic food.
According to India Organic Food Market Forecast and Opportunities, 2020, the market for organic food in India is anticipated to grow at a cumulated annual growth rate of over 25 per cent during 2015-20. A study by Assocham and Tech Sci Research, a global market research and consulting company, concluded that the domestic organic food market in India would top $1.36 billion mark 2020 from just $0.36 billion in 2014.
Although scientists remain divided over the actual nutritional benefits of organic produce, proponents of the movement, mainly in the West, emphasize planetary sustainability. The movement is on the march. According to The Soil Association, the organic certifying body in the United Kingdom, sales of organic products rose last year by 4.9 percent to 1.95 billion pounds in UK. The United States Organic Food Market Forecast and Opportunities 2018, foresees, the organic food market growing at a CAGR of 14 percent during 2014-18.
Notwithstanding the growth, organic food remains a niche category in most developed nations, accounting for just 1.4 percent of the total food and drinks market in the UK and 5 percent in the USA. Denmark has the highest organic market share worldwide with 7.6 percent.
Ashmeet Kapoor, CEO, I say Organic, one of the first organic companies to set shop in India, acknowledges organic food’s niche place. He says: “Organic produce is a segment that requires a certain level of awareness about environment and food regulations. Today the people who are opting for it are the ones who have read about it or have travelled or lived abroad. There has been an increased awareness, as today people not only want organic but also ask for certifications.”
Nevertheless, he insists that the organic movement has greater potential to become mainstream far faster in India: “In the US, the trend of processed, fast food started way back in 1920’s. So there was an entire generation that had lost touch with what real food is. While in India, we have not gone that far. We began following the fast food fad only in 80’s and the concept of home-grown, picking and pickling our seasonal produce is not so alien to us.”
Chef Helme rues a lack of regulatory body for the indiscriminate shift from organic to commercial, toxic farming: “There are no guidelines or implementation methods from the government to monitor the dosage of chemicals put in the fields. Because of misinformation amongst farmers that higher chemicals will result in higher yields, the chemicals have surpassed dangerous levels. And unfortunately the plights of farmers is so poverty stricken that they are ready to do anything for higher yields.”
Vindhya Tripathi of Ahana Organics, who manages her family run farm in Mirzapur district, that packages and sells organic products in upscale Indian cities says: “The main reason it has taken consumers and farmers a while to embrace the ‘organic movement’ is because of the misinformation that is disseminated to them. As regulatory bodies are still in nascent stages, many highly processed foods full of chemicals and pesticides are branded ‘healthy’ and people believe it. The same goes for primary producers — the farmers. With many seed-technology and pesticide companies promising increased yields, farmers tend to believe them. It is only when the technologies fail year after yield, the farmers finally understand that what they have been promised has not been delivered.”
There are also other scarier realities. Chef Helme relates from her experiences that often farmers are aware of the poison in the food. She says: “When we began working with farmers in Haryana to teach them to grow organic, we realized that they wouldn’t allow their kids on the fields because of the chemical fumes and also grew their own food separately without any chemicals.”
But what requires collective attention may also be getting reduced to an elite movement, mainly because of the formidable organic prices in India. Ashmeet Kapoor insists that their prices are strategic. He says, “We keep our prices about 30-40 percent above the hawkers selling veggies. The high prices are a result of supply chain issues.”
He cites an example: “We need a wider outreach to control the pricing. For now the pea production has stopped, but in the upper regions of India such as Kinnaur, pea is still growing. Now if we have to source from there we also need an equivalent consumption to cut the supply costs. Also we source our papaya from Maharashtra, so the prices are higher. The day we know we can get a truckload of papayas and all will be sold the prices will come down.”
Organic experts also point out that there will be time before a majority of farmers can turn to organic farming as it’s a lengthy process and the certification process takes nearly three years.
Vindhya Tripathi says: “Yes, organic food is still priced above conventionally produced food items. And so it is out of reach from a large portion of the consumer base. But this is changing with many big companies incorporating organic lines into their conventional super market fare.”
She adds however: “I do, however, feel that organic farmers should be given a premium for their food — like any industry... better products cost more. The more farmers we convince to go organic, the better it will be for the environment and for all our wallets.”