Back to roots: India digs into organic vegetables

By Madhushree Chatterjee, IANS

Bangalore/New Delhi : Ever tasted jaggery made out of sugarcane freshly harvested from a kitchen garden and processed with ladyfinger juice and common building lime? It melts like butter in the mouth.

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The product, grown in an organic farm located near Bangalore, is selling faster than hot cakes as India is gradually waking up to the delights of indigenously grown and processed organic food.

Like elsewhere in the world, food models in India are changing to suit health, lifestyle and market needs in a sustainable back-to-basics surge. The refrain is: back to the traditional grower for your daily quota of chemical-free vegetables.

The food model that India is gradually embracing is Western in nature.

Every Friday, 50 people who are part of an exclusive gourmet club in Delhi, wait for haute vegetable baskets delivered by a capital-based green organisation, Navdanya. Priced at Rs.400-450, depending on the distance the basket has to travel, the hamper is an organic delight and the subscription is annual.

“It contains an assortment of basic vegetables and greens that include a spread of potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cauliflower, peas and carrots, leafy greens and a special vegetable of the season in weights ranging from two kilograms for potatoes to 250 grams for beans,” Maya Goburdhan, the director of Navdanya, told IANS.

Grown in organic farms at Baghpat near Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, the platter, says Sabina Varma, a Mumbai-based designer of strategic development models, is the future of food in India.

“Sustainable community farming of organic food and neighbourhood marketing models will help farmers survive and at the same time improve the quality of raw food in the Indian retail market,” Varma said.

“The best way to promote organic food and market it in India is through vegetable boxes,” she said, citing the example of a farmer in Germany who managed to revive his dying land with the help of the friendly neighbourhood boxes.

In the case of the German farmer, locals suggested that he grow organic vegetables with an advance payment from neighbours.

“They even came up with the idea of a vegetable box and subscribed to it annually so that the farmer could sustain himself. It became a designer box as the ingenious farmer started supplying old forgotten grandmothers’ vegetables and inserted recipes so that subscribers could cook the exotic greens,” Varma said.

Vegetable boxes are common across farms in Europe and Navdanya closely follows the model.

“The main idea behind the vegetable box is that you are supporting organic farming directly, ensuring that the grower gets a fair price and reducing food miles.

Says the head of a leading food retail chain in the country: “Your vegetables are now being organically grown and delivered from the neighbour’s land instead of being flown from Spain. It keeps farming costs to a minimum.”

More than 5,000 farmers in 250 villages of Surat in Gujarat have switched over to organic farming, says agro-expert Chandrakanth Mandavia of the Abhyuthan Gram Vikas Mandal, a Surat-based organisation. The most common crops are mushrooms and mangoes.

“We are trying to market the food, and vegetable boxes seem to be the most viable option,” he said.

S.C. Tripathy, a Bangalore-based microbiologist, told IANS that organic food and particularly vegetables taste better because of the natural manure.

He shows off liquid compost called Jiv Amrit, which an organic farm in the city has developed from cow urine, jaggery, lentil powder, whole gram powder and topsoil with earthworm casts from under a banyan tree.

The banyan tree does not release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. “It is toxin free,” he said.

Tripathy advises “mish-mash” farming under which vegetables should be grown together as “companions” instead of standalone farms.

“The different crops act as a firewall against locusts, pests and virus,” the microbiologist said. The stronger plants protect the delicate ones.

“Organic food cures infertility in men and is a shield against allergies, particularly in children,” said Shikha Sharma, a Delhi-based nutritionist.

It also enriches the quality of seminal fluid that contains all the vital minerals.

“The presence of chemicals in raw food sold in markets harm the quality of semen and can aggravate allergies and asthma in children prone to them. I strongly recommend organic food for men and children to begin with,” Sharma said.