Laws of the Land
A post-therapy ritual for 19-year-old Deeptak Koley is visiting his favourite indie cafe in Kolkata. “They know exactly what I will order,” says Koley, a second-year liberal arts student, who enjoys the spot’s breakfast platter with iced tea and supporting “small businesses”. Events producer Shruti Shenoy often spent her Sunday afternoons at her go-to organic cafe in the winding lanes of Mumbai’s Bandra West, relishing a good book and a mug of hot chocolate. The 28-year-old has made a conscious decision to patron local, independent food businesses. Shenoy enthuses, “I will always be a cheerleader for any person or brand attempting sustainable and ethical practices.” Alongside an underlying distaste for retail chain experiences, the ideological allure of organic produce, sourcing from farmers, environmental sustainability and fair-trade values has led many like Koley and Shenoy to these urban food brands.
From Bollywood fashion savants to humble food bloggers, celebrated nutritionists to your vegan artist buddy – the metropolitan nudge for “local, fresh produce” direct from farm to table has been welded into our consciousness. Upholding these newfangled F&B concepts, retail and niche markets in cities are also saturated with “clean eating” and 100-per-cent-natural products from dairy to juices to desserts. Mumbai-based writer Ravi Datta* elaborates, “I prefer vegan outlets which aren’t tied to substandard uniformity and production-line fast food. If you take 20 minutes to get me a healthier and fresher meal, I will happily wait.” However, Datta is also sceptical: “I don’t immediately adopt new organic or sustainable ventures because although a few do it out of environmental concern, a lot are also about opportunistic cashing in.”
Many such brands source their produce from a network of contract farms that fall outside the ambit of the APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) – a regulatory board of the state government. As for city restaurants, they source directly from small organic farms or run their own. In the wake of the highly protested and contentious Agricultural Market Reforms (Farm Bills) that reduce the role of state APMCs and allow national-scale private trade, I was unsure how to feel about legislation from the Centre. As a believer in the organic revolution, I turned to my favourite “farmer first” brands, cafes and thought leaders to learn how city consumers can navigate these new systems.
Do the new legislations leave an already flailing and under-supported sector at the mercy of fluctuating markets and larger corporations? A South Mumbai farm-to-fork restaurant gives me a concerned nod. Recurring worries among urban representatives of organic foods are the failure of policies to address fault lines in the current system for farmers, as well as the compromise on health for all consumers.
Over the last two months, Haryana and Punjab have seen the most vociferous and ongoing farmer protests. From the states’ shared capital of Chandigarh, organic cafe Back To Source strongly calls for models where small farmers are made independent and educated with out-of-the-box ideas. Founder of the successful Bandra Farmer’s Market and Farmer’s Store in Mumbai, Kavita Mukhi is not surprised by the new bills. “We always seem to be taking care of industry rather than the farmer who grows the base ingredients needed by industry. Farmers’ children are turning away from agriculture, and we stand to lose out on Indian farming wisdom of many centuries,” she says emphatically.
At OOO Farms, Shailesh Awate and his co-founders work on reviving indigenous seed-based farming. Wary of corporates that cavalierly deploy the terms “organic and natural”, he says, “Most consumers eat brands rather than nutrition.” Shivranjani Gupta of Conscious Food, an organic company, makes direct purchases from a nationwide network of farmers, with fair-trade prices that are around three times higher than those for non-organic produce. Unlike the bigger retailers that make bulk purchases, they source less produce. With the trading freedom endowed via the three new bills, the likelihood of large-scale brands now sourcing low-quality produce seems high. Madhuri Kadam, who left her Mumbai day job in 2016 to become a full-time farmer and now works at a farm and granary in Tamil Nadu, anticipates a greater presence of GMO (genetically modified) crops, Bt (Bacillus thurigiensis) and hybrid vegetables with the private sector being brought in.
A number of city-based brands and eateries (initially eager to be included in this story) were reluctant to participate upon receiving the exact questions. I followed up several times, only to be declined or receive indefinite statements claiming a lack of knowledge about the nuances or that it’s too early to comment. Independent farmers, however, were prompt to answer and keen to share their perspectives.
Forty-two-year-old Sonu Choudhary of Heera Panna, a collective of 18 traditionally organic farming families of Rajasthan, speaks to me over a call. He outlines the challenges of rural farmers to self-sustain: crop damage, lack of warehouse and storage facilities and agriculture machinery. Choudhary feels the bills isolate small farmers – who have so far been occupied with harvesting season – from assessing the ramifications of the legislation. Heera Panna sells their organically cultivated green moong (pulses), bajra and jowar (millets), and sesame and cumin to online retail brands (such as 24 Mantra of Sresta Organics) via agents as well as directly to city stores. I ask Choudhary whether he receives three times the rate for organic produce, as per the norm that brands and urban-origin farmers had informed me about. He is caught unawares and states that they do not get any premium prices from the organic brands and even face delays in payments for up to six months.
Under a free-market system, he is also paranoid of more “businessmen buying land and becoming farmers”. Selling his crop without a mandi (regulated market) agent under the “organic” banner is not easy since the certification is with the brand and not the farm. Choudhary says city consumers and farmers both stand to lose from the reforms, with the only profiteers being big brands, traders and corporate retailers. In cognisance of farmer suicides, there is a need to protect the current network of farmers.
Back To Source
The discourse on “middlemen being eliminated” is the only good thing as a certainty for Conscious Food. Seconding this is Surya Shastry, managing director at Phalada Pure & Sure – a fellow fair trade organic foods brand – who is “positive that these amendments will help the farmers as well as consumers.” Shastry believes flexibility and freedom is now provided to farmers “only if the logistics in terms of procurement and sale are put in place.”
Most establishments and brands don’t foresee a direct price rise for patrons at their sustainable ventures. Jennifer Mallick, co-founder at Birdsong Cafe and now owner at Bandra’s quaint The Village Shop cafe, notes that contract farming is encouraged with the new bills. “Bulk buying by the big guys often leaves little with the farmers by the end of the season for the same produce, which may have an indirect impact,” she says.
The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act removes cereals, pulses, onions, edible oils and potatoes. This gives private players, instead of the central government, the access to regulate the items. As seen with a few perishables (like onions) in the last few years, Mallick says consumers can expect a seasonal price rise for more produce due to hoarding by traders. So, any apprehensions about corporates forming a behemoth monopoly resulting in inflation for consumer’s essentials are not entirely unfounded. Pune-based farm-to-table restaurant Ground Up believes their consumers could absorb minor price increases. “We’re a lot more concerned about how these price increases will affect 80 per cent of the country’s farmers, who are into subsistence farming and themselves rely on these commodities for survival,” a representative tells me.
Ecologist-turned-farmer Sanjog Sahu observes the greater thrust towards corporatisation and centralisation of agriculture. “It might be prudent to allow greater flexibility to the states in this matter,” says Sahu, who now runs Māti Farms in Orissa. Post-harvest loss is a common setback for smallholder farmers who deal with high-value perishable produce, which brings us to the topic of Minimum Support Price (MSP). While purchase of produce by APMCs above the MSP is high in Haryana and Punjab (around 75 and 85 per cent respectively as per NSS data), the reality for the rest of the nation is low. No perishable items were ever covered under MSP, which is a rather unresolved issue.
The solutions through all of this seem to be both community- and relationship-based. Forty kilometers away from Heera Panna, under Jodhpur’s iconic clock tower, Choudhary’s father would spend his day selling fresh ghee directly to city buyers. Three decades later, his son is still waiting for government-sanctioned farmer’s markets outside of the metropolitan bubble.
Kadam, of the Annapurna organic farm and granary, draws my attention to the fundamental issue in a post-organic world: demand from the consumer’s end. Not eating seasonally and miseducation about food, she believes, are the grassroots issues burdening ecology and farmers. Kadam cites examples of incorporating winter vegetables such as carrots and cauliflower in staple sabzis and sambar all year round. “Demanding something that doesn’t even grow in the summer and wanting it in the food, this runs in families. No one takes food seriously, and I wonder how, because it is something you need daily and can’t go without,” she adds. Having worked with a farm-to-table cafe in Auroville, Kadam advocates that restaurants be tastemakers and encourage alternate food habits geared toward a more sustainable future.
OOO Farms and the celebrated eatery The Bombay Canteen initiated a “Wild Food Economy” practice where they paid farmers for forest produce which wouldn’t be sensitive to “good or bad rains” – the most habitual crop damager. “In farming, the boss you have to answer to is the climate; I have to look at the sky,” adds Kadam, questioning if companies will take the fall for crop losses.
Ground Up’s Chef Gayatri Desai collaborates closely with their farmers on organic dairy and small-crop batches. Back To Source encourages permaculture. Phalada Pure & Sure helps their network of farmers with organic composting solutions. Collectively working towards an economy that revives agriculture, allowing farmers to have a dignified livelihood and restoring ecology is even the goal of “apolitical” Delhi NCR plant-based cafes. Under contract farming and its impersonal nature, grievances may be intimidating for the farmer to resolve against a faceless food corporation. Apps and online services like Farmizen, Kosara and Krish Cress offer custom crop batches and farm to home delivery, which has become ever more relevant with the locked and slowed down pace of 2020.
Promoting industry while providing nutrition is a delicate balance. My mother often tells me of how, as a young child in 1960’s Bareilly, the arhar dal (toor dal or pigeon pea) crop planted by her grandfather in their backyard would grow so tall that she and her sisters played hide-and-seek between them. “Farm to table” existed then as a reality, rather than the aspirational concept it is today. What we need now, is not just food but also dialogue.
Arunima Joshua is a freelance journalist interested in stories at the intersection of popular culture, current affairs and social commentary.
*Name changed on request