Processed foods, with their additives and preservatives, have been responsible for lifestyle diseases of all kinds. More and more people are making the switch to organic foods, with online portals, local stores and individual organisations supplying all their needs to the doorstep.
Identifying the need for organic produce
Ashley Koshy’s ancestors were farmers. He himself worked as a consultant in the U.S. who wanted to come back to India and work on an education model for the underprivileged. So once he got back, Ashley started travelling around the country for the education project and found that the land here was so fertile. “I always knew about what it takes to produce things naturally. I was amazed at the variety of products that could be produced in-house, but didn’t like the idea of using chemicals and preservatives to bring them about. As I had a small farmland in Thiruporur, I decided to start growing and producing things naturally,” says Ashley. Today, Trader Koshy, as he calls the outfit, sells everything from organic veggies, fruits, dairy produce to spices, lentils and more. “Everything in the farm is done naturally without using any mechanical procedures. The vegetables and fruits are devoid of any synthetic materials. Our cows are hand-milked and the milk is boiled on a wood fire, as done many years ago. So it is fresh and organic,” says Ashley. To put things in perspective, organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.
Increase in demand
After working for a number of years in the corporate sector, husband and wife duo, Shriram Narayanan and Kayal Raja came back to Chennai and realised the striking contrast between US and Chennai markets. “While the US market was teeming with fresh fruits and vegetables every day of the week, the situation in our city was not so encouraging despite our production surpluses,” says Kayal. So to make organic food accessible and affordable, they launched Vaer Organics, an online store, in April 2013. Along with fresh fruits, vegetables and eggs, Vaer also offers grains, oils, spices, and home use products, such as soap and dishwashing powder. Shriram notes that the number of stores in Chennai (including the sections inside home-boutique stores) increased from the range of 30 to 50 in 2013 to 500 to 600 in 2016. “The demand is up because of increased awareness. But organic production is still under 1 per cent of the total produce. So there is much scope for growth of the organic market.”
Making organic farming sustainable
MBA graduate turned farmer, Vinoth Kumar, also promotes organic farming among the local community in Cheyyur, a village near Chennai. Apart from its various health benefits, he says organic farming can also be a sustainable source of income for farmers. “The transition from chemical to organic farming is the biggest challenge which most farmers fear. So, to tackle this, farmers in our village use organic fertilisers in place of chemical ones in the first season of cultivation. Then, in the second, they reduce the amount of chemical fertilisers. This leads to a slow, yet smooth, transition from chemical to organic farming. In the case of organic farming, even if the produce reduces in the initial stages, farmers cut down on other expenses as they are involved in everything from seed selection to the watering and man made fertilisers. Yields have increased in five out of six cases, and farmers have seen greater profits.”
Health angle and pricing of organic food
There are increased cases of thyroid and diabetes even in men these days, ailments that were considered hereditary and largely found in women. There is no difference between a formula-fed kid and a breast-fed one, everyone is susceptible to the same kind of infection. So, people have started to realise that it all goes back to the food they eat. It needs to be free from chemicals, preservatives and other synthetic materials. This has resulted in the steady increase in the number of people shifting to organic food,” says Rekha Ramu, co-founder of Organic Farmers Market, a farmer’s cooperative that sells through numerous stores in the city.
Also, the perception that organic food is expensive and for the elite is changing as the demand has increased manifold. “People realise that by spending on organic food, they’re investing in their overall well-being and cutting down on medical expenses. While it was initially cancer survivors and diabetes patients who were the largest buyers, there are a lot of young adults and young parents gravitating towards organic food. From veggies to rice to millets, organic food is definitely the go-to option for many. But a change in mind-set still needs to come about,” she adds.
To this, Dr. Wasim Mohideen, a wellness expert and a food blogger, adds that since the demand for organic products is rising, the high prices can be controlled. “Organic farming has to scale up. The demand is growing across various sections of society, so the supply needs to be adequate.
This can be achieved if farmers take up organic farming on a large scale locally. Naturally grown, organic food has been a part of our diet since ages. It is only now that people are returning to it. So organic is mass-producible. Once that is done, the prices will automatically come down,” he points out.
What are the experts saying?
'Organic farming helps to mitigate the greenhouse effect'
In many agricultural areas, pollution of groundwater due to synthetic fertilisers and pesticides is a major problem. As the use of these is prohibited in organic agriculture, they are replaced by organic fertilisers like compost, animal manure, green manure, enhancing soil structure and water infiltration. These greatly reduce the risk of groundwater pollution. Also, since there is no manufacture of chemical fertilisers involved, air pollution is also kept in check. There is also less need for power; most organic farming is labour intensive. Organic agriculture contributes to mitigating the greenhouse effect and global warming through its ability to sequester carbon in the soil, thereby raising productivity. However, to keep the produce as organic as possible, it is important to give the soil a little breathing period for it to recover as intensely farmed lands can result in sub-standard organic. Also, by opting for organic products, the consumer, through his/her purchasing power, promotes a less polluting agricultural system. The hidden costs of agriculture to the environment in terms of natural resource degradation are reduced. - Nityanand Jayaraman, Environmentalist
'Purchase certified organic food only to ensure'
There is an extensive process in place to certify organic vegetables and food products. If a person is aiming to switch to the organic way of life, they need to look for certified products. As a part of ISCOP, we visit stores and organisations throughout the country for inspection, take samples of the products being sold as organic, conduct tests to check whether they are free of synthetic materials like pesticides, weedicides or herbicides and then give them a certification. We organize seminars and exhibitions for disseminating the knowledge about organic agriculture and the advantage of organic certification and food safety. It is essential that people do not get carried away by the idea of ‘organic’. We try to ensure that you actually get organic, when you are seeking it. - Dr.S.Chellamuthu, Secretary, Indian Society for Certification of Organic Products (ISCOP)