Costs of Food

This thing with cost of food… It seems counter-intuitive that something grown naturally should cost more than the reverse. That unnatural inputs (chem fertilizer, pesticides) should add to the cost of food production is intuitive. But, the story isn’t just unnatural inputs. The price for organic really comes for the time and level of effort in growing something slowly.

Some variables to consider:

1. Growth hormones. To meet demand, growers pump produce with growth hormones (typically oxytocin) to look bigger and reach maturity faster. An example, the much loved bottle gourd (a.k.a. lauki/doodhi) typically takes up to 180 days (that’s 6 months) from seed to fruit. Similarly, cauliflower’s natural cycle is 3 months. However, a simple injection of oxytocin can achieve a fully matured fruit within half the period of time. (The human related side effects of consuming such food is an entire paper in itself, but I’ll leave you with the idea of forcing the human body to achieve full size within half the period of time it would naturally take.) In terms of output though, a food producer using oxytocin can output double the amount of produce in the same amount of time.

2. Management. Organic produce needs more hands-on care. A simple example, a chemical pesticide will kill everything in the area, instantly. One spray and your produce is saved from the pesky ones. To avoid pests naturally, growers introduce several steps into their production. For example, companion planting to “safeguard” some crops and “forgo” others that function purely as pest bait. Another example is making fermented pesticides, which requires more labour and effort in preparing the brew, time to allow fermentation, and application is typically double, if not three times that of a chemical spray. In addition, chemical sprays are subsidized by governing bodies.

3. Seeds. Sadly, these days, sourcing heirloom seeds (i.e., seeds naturally pollinated (by wind and insect) passed on through farmer generation), is harder than finding the laboratory prepared ones. GMO seed (i.e., seed where the plant’s DNA is altered in a way that cannot occur naturally, sometimes including the insertion of genes from other species) has flooded our market, even the deep interiors where agriculture is abundant. Not too many traditional producers save their seed. Hybrid and GM varieties have shown immediate results, and most farmers need immediate income. To source heirloom seed requires legwork, connectivity in farmers, and a financial ability to wait out the slowness of natural.

4. First market appearance/challenging seasonality. As consumers, we’ve become ready to pay high value for produce that reaches us early. A simple example here is fruit like mango. Mango sold in February will receive three times the price versus the mango sold during it’s natural cycle of ripeness, just before the rains. But for mango to reach the market in Feb, it’s been harvested early and ripened by ethylene gas or calcium carbide, making it market ready at optimal price. This also means that by the time the natural producer enters the market, despite his produce being more holistic in flavour and nutrition, the markets already been flooded with produce.

5. Perfectly appearing food. As consumers, we’ve become used to that perfect looking food. Spinach leaves without holes in them, mangoes without blemished skin, bananas all the same size, and typically, bigger is better. At the production level, this gave rise to all kinds of food manipulation. One example is of bananas, where producers replaced their traditional saplings with tissue-culture banana (i.e., Dolly the sheep and her offspring). At the production level, this means every banana in the overall banana head will be the exact same size. It also means greater outputs. From the traditional banana, the bananas furthest on the banana stem will be smaller in size, as naturally, more nutrition is received by the bananas closer to the stem. But who wants to pay the same price for the smaller fruit, when you can get more at that value?


greens grown at bandra terminus, mumbai

For us at the farm, we supplement our produce with other sources of income, thus allowing us to keep the price of spinach close to that what’s sold in the market. But when I saw the massive amounts of spinach being grown along Bandra terminus, and compare that with the spinach we’ve grown and brought to the city, it really drives home the point of cost variance.

vrindavan farm, natural, produce, organic, spinach

spinach grown at the farm

The bottom line, growing naturally is slow, takes time and effort. When it boils down to costs, you’re paying for this time and thus quality of your food. To all natural food producers that manage to keep their selling price low, kudos. And to those that can support such food producers, go for it, as it allows others not at the liberty of buying good food, to purchase the same.

Full circle

In September 2014 (when moringa was still our hidden treasure grown only for export), we’d written a piece exposing its superfoodness for BBC Good Food*. Back then we were asked how one can source it. We’d shared… “Moringa grows everywhere! Ask your bhaji wala to bring it to you.” Today, April 2016, superfood moringa is being sold at stations, along with gajras, rs. 10 for the entire bunch. Here it comes… good food for all!


moringa, natural, superfood, vrindavan farm

Moringa sold on the streets of Bombay

Resting field…

Yes, land tires too! Here’s a peak at how we lay the soil to rest. This field provided us with a luscious crop of cherry tomatoes last season. (While we ate these tomatoes only in Feb, the soil has been working December-when the saplings made it in, through end-March-when we ate the last of the tomatoes.) Through the scorching months, we leave the soil covered with leaves of gliricidia sepium (a.k.a. khad jhad). This not only protects the soil from nutrients being burned up via exposure, but the leaves will also break down and by the time the rains hit, we’ll have a layer of “khad” (in this case, natural feed) in the soil. Beans will cover this field next season, allowing it to replenish its nitrogen, before we go into another crop cycle in the fall. After 2-3 such years, the field will be laid to rest for an entire season.

Searching for good food

“Organic” has become a fad today. But, fads don’t last. Eating natural, local, fresh is much more than coughing up a lofty amount for your produce… It’s about your health and that of your family. On the flip side, there is a pressure to meet the demand, and all of a sudden, everyone is organic. As consumers, we’re being inundated with stories of food, some often misrepresenting the nature of our food, without tools that equip us to make informed procuring decisions. Here’s sharing some narrations of why I believe we need tools in the first place, and tips to help inform decision-making.

Why I believe we need tools…

The more I interact with farmers/distributors/sellers, the more I learn where there practices are. And right now, it’s not a glorious story, though there are many silver linings. But what’s occurring is not necessarily out of lies at source. It’s sometimes a lack of information.IMG_4236

A narration: We identified an onion farmer whose produce we wished to share with you. The soil of his fields looked as though he had applied 3 inches of cow dung, but, he had not. With soil more precious than gold, I’d commented, you’d need nothing for feed. We’d conversed about his practices, which he shared were au naturale. I believed him. This was not an unfulfilled man trying to make a sale. This was a man, king of his world… seated in his loin cloth atop a khatiya (bed made of wooden frame and matted rope) in the cool interiors of his cowdung and straw home, buffalo and chicken romping in his fields, wife serving him hot meals, kids running the sale of his labour, and plenty of time to dry his year-long supply of bidi leaves for his smokes.

We take a walk, his wife leading me through their onion fields. As she showcases their work with pride, explaining why they IMG_4242vgrow the way they do… I hear, “…and then, we put “khad” (fertilizer)”. My radar beeps wildly. Thus far, there’s been no talk of khad, despite my specific questioning. I investigate further… “Oh it’s not much”, she shares, gesturing a palmfull for this vast expanse of fields. But how do I explain the nature of man-made chemical to a mind that knows not this very idea?

I’d also been told the seeds sowed were gaon (village) saved seeds, implying open pollinated, indigenous. On the walk, I find seed packets from non-other than bio-chem seed giant.

What do I make of this? Again, he’s not a discontent man with need to push a sale. I’d expect such behaviour at the distribution end, driven by the pressure of competition and sale, but not at source. So what’s occurring at source? From what I understand, for some generations now chemical additives have been used, the practice having become so ingrained, the grower doesn’t even think much of it to make a mention. Most importantly, impact of chemical usage takes years of accrual before surfacing. Thus far, grower doesn’t know outcome of his actions.

Another narration: An organic company (new crop up in Bombay) approached me several times – they had strawberries to offer our clients. Within under a minute of the call, I knew the rate and was asked, so, how much would you like to order? Woa! Slow down I say, let’s talk strawberry first….
“Where are your seeds from?”
“We are certified ma’am”.
“Yes, humour me, what seed variety is it? Open/F1/… ”
“I don’t know ma’am.”
“Hmm. How were they grown? What did you feed it?”
“I don’t know….”
“If your crop gets hit by bugs, what do you do?”
“Dunno ma’am…”
“Maybe you should call me back with your grower on the line?”
“Sure ma’am. For now, how much can we put you down for?”
“Nada. Not unless farmer dear and I have chatted.”
“Sure ma’am. I’ll call you with them.” …
I receive the same phone call, several more times, sans farmer, always beginning and ending in the same direction, until I finally ceased to answer.

A flip side narration: A fellow farmer came to me. He had grown 200 kgs of toor dal. I’ve spent many years with this farmer, we speak freely about our practices and rationale behind them. While he makes no claims of being organic with other produce, his toor, he’d grown naturally. Sure, this means his soil isn’t the cleanest, but, to tell you the truth, unless we, as an earth body cleanse our systems, no one is truly organic. Most produce of farmers in my area is collected by distributors, at a rate that may not cover the labour even, let alone other input costs. We gladly took all the dal he needed off his hands, at his said price.

Back to the point…

Sellers/growers/vendors often misrepresent (not always deliberately) the nature of the food sold. So, what tools do we have to help make informed decisions about our food?

Understand seasonality

Learn what grows in your lands and when. Food grown in season is less likely to need artificial help to make it grow. While this knowledge once prevalent within each family is disappearing, it’s not lost. The best source are your own grandparents. There are also several efforts on the web, a quick and dirty search gave one such link, I hope to update to include more references in time (KD, are you reading?). (…/articlesh…/19290556.cms)

Be prepared to unlearn your habits

We’re used to eating palak paneer year-round. Actually, traditionally, very little variety was grown in vegetables (as we know them today) in the summer. Summer in India was the season of fruits, pulse, grain; much like winters out west being the time of canned and preserved foods. The very nature of food preservation is to carry one through grow lulls. But if you just must have palak year-round, maybe au naturale isn’t for you. Being “organic” also means syncing yourself with what wants to be on your plate per the season.

Natural often looks natural

When I receive fruit that looks identical and blemish free, I am vary. Nature’s being is uniqueness, each of us bent by the experiences and exposures of our life. The same holds true with food.

Start conversations

Discuss your food with its sources and get to know its handlers. Build a relation with your grower, but rather than call re. the bug eaten leaves (which does so prove they’re natural), ask about the leaves… where and how they were grown, its seasonality, its transportation/distribution, its time from harvest to your plate. Seasonal produce gains high price when it’s in the market early, but also drives the practice of harvesting a pumped up fruit early and chem-ripening, to gain first market presence (mangoes in Feb?). Ask where your fruits are from. Purchase when they are in season, not when they first show in the market. Food modification has taken on so many robes, try and gather as much information as you can about your food.

Define “local”

There’s no consensus to this. Some define it within 100km radius, some within an 8-hour drive, and so on. If a farmers market / restaurant claims “local”, ask what they mean. Heads-up, eating locally means eating seasonally, which frequently means relying on a more limited repertoire!

Read labels

While we get away with a lot in India, labels do hint to some information. I cannot forget the olive oil sold on the streets of Varanasi… Product name: Olive oil. Ingredient list: … 0.01% olive oil!

What about certifications? I am personally not too blown by this idea. Being Indian by root, I know just how easy it is to get whatever you wish to be certified for. Also, many small scale farmers couldn’t be bothered getting into the process (both time and economics won’t allow it.) Europe has invested a lot of time in certifying bodies. The game has now become outdoing your competition… Certifying body A says your product is truly organic if we approve it with a green leaf stamp. Meanwhile, certifying body B says, look for the green tree stamp, THIS shows your product is truly organic. Food and Ag Industry says, it’s a whole bunch of crock, WE tell you about food, not A and B. Bottom line, the food world has been flooded by businessmen, and what’s being forgotten is that we’re actually talking human health. Rather than fret too much about certification, take the time to get to know the hands that touch your food. Typically, this will give you all the information you need.

Receive all information with a grain of salt

If I didn’t investigate with the onion farmer, I’d have never known the truth. Sure, I say my produce is naturally grown, but, be your own best judge. What helps me being a consumer is to ask: What drives this person to be in food? When it’s not business that brought the individual to growing/transporting/selling/cooking, it’s less likely that they will cut corners to meet an end. When there is absolute passion behind the work, you will know it in their response.

Get involved

Many folks today make the “local/organic” claim. If you have time, get out and check out their farm. You’ll learn everything discussed above, and probably more, in that single visit. Besides, the world is run on relations (the lasting ones, outside of economics). Once your farmer has a face to you, he’ll work that much harder to bring food to your plate.

Consumers have the ability to make big shifts. Small scale farmers are already fighting a fight to stay alive in a climate that is working to grab the very land from beneath their feet, while growing food, and selling it to you at an affordable rate. They cannot compete with the buy low sell high model of large businesses, or the acquisition of endless certifications. They cannot question the nature of all the new agricultural technologies being fed to them, subsidized, by Government and Ag educational institutions. YOU on the other hand, have the buying power, which will determine the shift of what is sold in markets.

(Sources: TOI, (Some text here has been sourced from the piece for consumers, that we found well covered tools.))

Outgrowing plastic

Packaging. When working with earth, a side mission becomes to rid oneself of our nouveau addiction to plastic. Here’s sharing our packaging practices…

We wrap fresh herbs, greens, berries in the leaves of indigenous trees, e.g., teak and fig, both solid leaves that hold for the purpose of transport. They also keep the produce extremely fresh, being of nature. Nature provides plenty of tie (e.g., sorrel stem, banana stem). For loose stuff (grains and powders), we reuse glass bottles/jars after sterilization. Fruits are loose in cloth bags. Newspaper is one of our last resorts, to avoid the leaching of printing ink into our food.

No, we’re no saint. We’re not entirely off land either. Our preserves and tisanes live in glass. But here’s the key to the thought process… While each industry comes with it’s own dirty history, think of the product’s lifecycle load on the ecosys, that is, during growth, to process, it’s reusability, it’s recyclabilty, as also it’s end-of-life disposal.

A US EPA initiative that bodes well in this matter: Refuse > Reduce > Reuse > Recycle

111 days later… tomato. the fruit

‘Long story short… 
In October, we received life changing seed of this glorious fruit. By the end of the month, the seeds had made it into soil, well, into soil in tiny ol’ milk bags from the city yonder. First sprouts were in 3 days. A month later, they were moved to the land. Early December we saw the flowers followed closely by fruit. Jan 30th was our first harvest!

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