Setting the table for a safe food boom

Khan, with a group of friends, even revived an acre of fallow land on the outskirts of Delhi. The first harvest from that plot—amaranth, basil and spinach—went as toppings on home-baked pizzas.

While Khan and his friends were driven by the motto of self-reliance, aiming to go ‘off-the-grid’ in a few years, Sasidharan and Sahu wanted their greens to be safe, minus any chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Sahu began with seeds from the kitchen, growing pumpkin and coriander. But soon, she went around in her car scouting for potting soil, organic manure and vegetable seeds.

“My primary concern was to ensure that the cooked meal is free from chemicals… but I discovered that growing your own food can be very therapeutic,” Sahu said. Sasidharan who now tends to birds-eye chillies and plantains, after being prodded on by his 14-year-old daughter and 74-year-old mother, says “the taste of homegrown greens cannot be expressed in words”.

Khan and his friends who have transformed what was being used as a neighbourhood dump yard following days of “killer morning workouts” have named their group @premaculture. Their goal is to rebuild the plot on the principles of permaculture, which tries to mimic natural ecosystems. “We want to be independent of monoculture food systems which have degraded land and water resources,” said Zainab, a member of the group.

Being locked up inside the home due to a pandemic has forced many families to not only increase the frequency of home-cooked meals but also engage with the ingredients that go into them. And individuals like Sahu, Sasidharan and Khan, who are trying their hands at farming for the first time, are a minuscule yet growing tribe in India.

Edible Routes, a Delhi-based company which helps set up kitchen gardens and offers plots on rent to grow organic fresh produce, has witnessed a growing interest among families. “Despite financial constraints faced by households, the number of enquiries for setting up kitchen gardens has doubled in recent months,” said Kapil Mandawewala, founder and chief executive officer of edible routes.

“People seem to be eating more at home and they are eating much more of traditional food, sourced from local vendors as well as directly from growers… which is good,” said Rujuta Diwekar, a Mumbai-based nutritionist. On the flip side, cautions Diwekar, sales of packaged ready-to-eat food has also shot up and brands are trying to monetise consumer fear by promoting products as immunity enhancers.

Churn in the market

It’s not surprising that organic food brands are expecting brisk sales banking on a behavioural change amid the pandemic. “The urban consumers’ engagement with food is not cosmetic anymore. It has gone beyond having a cup of green tea. There is a heightened awareness of what is going inside one’s body,” said N. Balasubramanian, CEO of 24 Mantra Organic, a leading brand which sources non-perishables such as wheat and pulses from over 60,000 partner farmers.

Balasubramanian is expecting a robust 40% revenue growth in the packaged organic food industry in 2020-21, about double the growth seen in the past few years. “Hopefully, the change is for good. As households spend less on travel and white goods, they will opt for healthier food.”

However, there are downside risks. Perishables like organic vegetables not only cost 20-30% more but also see recurring price fluctuations. When regular tomatoes and potatoes retail at a steep 70 and 35 per kg—as they do now—higher prices of the organic variety may push consumers away, especially since household finances are already stretched due to job losses and pay cuts.

Organic Farmers Market, a chain of 15 retail stores in Chennai which opened a decade ago aiming to popularise organic food among middle-income consumers, has already started witnessing cutbacks in the perishable category.

“We have seen overall demand fall by around 25% compared to pre-covid months due to lower sales in poorer parts of the city while sales are about normal in the wealthier areas,” said Ananthoo from the Safe Food Alliance which helped set up the stores. Demand for organic vegetables was also impacted as consumers took fewer trips to the shop and unlike grains and pulses, perishables could not be stocked. Marriages and social ceremonies which account for 60% of demand for fresh organic produce also nosedived.

According to Ananthoo, it is the small grower who was hit the hardest but they are unlikely to fall off the map. “While it is easier for a group or a cooperative to transport their produce, lone organic growers are still unable to transport their harvest,” he added.

Sourcing concerns

Senthil Kumar, a farmer from Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu, has been regularly supplying organic produce like grains, pulses and fresh vegetables to retail outlets in Chennai. But recently, he was forced to distribute about 50,000 worth of pumpkins among relatives and employees working at his farm. The reason is not just unavailability of transport but lower demand and retailers operating for fewer hours. “While I am selling organic pulses at regular prices at the wholesale market, traditional rice varieties are now mostly sold to families in nearby villages who know about our farm and trust the produce,” Kumar said. However, Kumar remains committed to the cause of sustainable farming and considers the disruption to be temporary.

Online retailers like BigBasket have witnessed brisk sales in perishables, but growth in the organic fruits and vegetable category, which contributes just 5% to the daily volume of 300 tonnes of produce, was marginal. However, sales of organic staples like rice and pulses to edible oils and honey nearly doubled to 1000 tonnes in July (compared to February).

“Sourcing is a major problem in perishables. Farmers often shift from one vegetable to another due to a shorter crop cycle. In comparison, the supply chain for staples is more stable (both in terms of prices and availability),” said Seshu Kumar, national head of buying and merchandising at BigBasket.

A churning in the organic food market is evident. While organized players dealing in non-perishables expect robust growth, small players in the supply chain who leverage consumer trust at local levels have been hit by pandemic-related disruptions. “The way this pandemic has altered food choices shows that the next big push to grow safe food will be consumer-led,” said Devinder Sharma, a Chandigarh-based food policy analyst. “Even in Punjab, which is a large contributor to the central wheat stocks, households in urban areas have begun to purchase better quality and safe-to-consume wheat grown in Madhya Pradesh.”

Data from the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP) show that as of March 2019 just about 1.9 million hectares of farmland was certified organic (excluding wild harvest collection areas). The same year, compared to the total production of close to 600 million tonnes of food crops including fruits and vegetables, the share of organic produce was a minuscule 2.6 million tonnes. Yet, revenues from the export of organic produce was an impressive 5,150 crore.

Why is it that Indian farmers are reluctant to grow organic food? According to Kavitha Kuruganti, convenor of Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, data from the NPOP excludes thousands of farms in India which practice some form of ecological and natural farming without caring for certification. This holds true for networks of organic stores in major cities like Chennai and Bengaluru, and even large-scale natural farming adopted in states like Andhra Pradesh, which covers an area of 260,000 hectares.

“The reason why the organised organic food has not scaled up is because the supply chain is not integrated. Any retailer setting up an organic store would want a variety of vegetables and grains to ensure consumer footfall, but sourcing is often difficult,” Kuruganti said. She added that government schemes like Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (a scheme to promote traditional farming) have focused on production but not branding or marketing of produce.

For instance, the tiny Himalayan state of Sikkim was declared 100% organic in 2016 but its farmers are often compelled to sell the produce at local markets and in the neighbouring state of West Bengal at regular prices. “The produce from Sikkim has not been branded and positioned as a premium product,” observed a 2017 study by the National Institute of Agricultural Marketing.

Durjan Patel, a small farmer from Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, faces a similar predicament. Patel converted a portion of his farmland into organics after attending a workshop on soil health. But the organic vegetables he grows in a two-acre plot are primarily used for home consumption—a practice very common among farmers. The surplus is sold in local markets at regular prices.

“It does not make sense for me to transport the produce to Jabalpur city which is some 50km away. Now we are trying to develop a cluster with several farmers but we have no clear idea how to find buyers,” Patel said.

Scaling up

However, there are examples where organic movements have been able to crack markets by offering a scalable model. A prominent one is the Organic Farmers Movement or OFM in Chennai, where a bunch of young entrepreneurs run retail stores by sourcing directly from growers across the state. The 15 retail stores operate as a cooperative with centralised sourcing, storage and distribution. The shop owners display farmers’ details from where the produce is sourced and mandatorily visit farms every month.

“After a decade of work on consumer awareness and demand, Chennai has over 400 organic retail stores now. Even minor millets are available in street corners,” said Safe Food Alliance’s Ananthoo, who is also a founder and mentor of the OFM network. “When the weekly supply arrives, there’s always a queue waiting outside OFM stores, including customers who carry their own bottles for edible oils.”

“For us, conversations with the customer was as important as connecting with farmers,” he added.

A community support initiative by the Navadarshanam Trust in Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu also offers an interesting consumer-facing subscription model. Consumers in Bengaluru, a city about 55km away, support a group of farmers who supply them with their weekly vegetable needs. Some 250 families are now supporting a group of 20 small farmers by purchasing advance weekly subscriptions starting from just 400.

Urban consumers were even willing to sign up for a whole season of vegetables and grains which are processed locally by another group of farmers. “The income possibilities are fantastic… a small grower with just an acre of land can get an income of up to 400,000 by practising mixed farming,” said Gopi Shankara, a trustee from Navadarshanam. Apart from farmers, consumers needed handholding; they are used to clean and uniform ‘good-looking’ vegetables. You have to explain to them, Shankara said, that this is the real stuff. “That, when ladies fingers are plucked thrice but supplied once a week, the size and ripeness will vary.”

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