The me-focussed concerns of urban rooftop farmers and consumers for organic produce is hurting rather than helping the agrarian industry, some experts say.

How urban organic farming in India may be working against traditional farmersImage courtesy of The Timbaktu Collective
Delve Agriculture Wednesday, May 29, 2019 - 18:07

Lately, hashtags like #ootafromyourthota and #organicterracegarden are trending on Instagram indicating a growing demographic of urban Indians rolling up their sleeves and joining an internationally burgeoning #growyourownfood movement. Grocery stores stocked with ‘organic’ brands are popping up in every hip urban neighbourhood in the nation, which makes it seem like everyone has received the memo on ‘clean living.’

This is largely reflective of one kind of urban farming, where individuals and startups are capitalising and catering to the urbanites’ desire for a more eco-conscious lifestyle through holdings and rooftop gardens. The former, small-holdings farmers, refers to those who practice subsistence farming on agricultural zones within growing urban limits. But this form of farming has greatly reduced in the last two decades. According to the Karnataka government’s Department of Agriculture, during Bengaluru’s IT boom, the city went from 0.1 million hectares in 2000 to 0.04 million hectares in 2015.

Rooftop gardens, in the meantime, have boomed. They have been gaining ground through start-ups and resident associations in a bid to leave a smaller impression on the planet.

However, stakeholders in the domain of agriculture and production don’t quite agree with this growing trend in urban centres. They’d rather see shifts towards supporting already existing and entrenched networks of farmers and producers.

‘Me focussed’ or green focussed?

Arshiya Bose, the founder of Black Baza Coffee, a Bengaluru-based organisation committed to ‘the idea of creating a local, participatory and meaningful movement for coffee,’ says, “Most things certified as organic don’t actively recharge the local ecosystem and biodiversity, and if they do, it is only incidental. As urban consumers, we should be asking the more important question: What is the consumer to producer to earth relationship?”

Arshiya points to the fact that this choice for most urban Indians isn’t motivated by environmental concerns at all. “We’re making this choice from a personal health angle,” she says. She draws a parallel with the boom in the chemical-free or natural cosmetics markets with brands like Hollywood star Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company. “The motivation comes from being ‘me focussed.’ It comes from ‘I don’t want to put chemicals on my skin’ which leads to ‘I don’t want to consume anything with chemicals.’ These are certainly valid, important concerns. But that’s a separate goal,” she explains. “This urban interest in ‘organic’ isn’t about farming or the planet at all,” she adds.

She instead insists on reminding us that, “organic isn’t a fad but rather still a livelihood option for most producers in India.” In fact, according to the World of Organic Agriculture Report 2018, India has more than thirty percent of the world’s 2.7 million organic producers. “The urban organic rooftop gardener might have good intentions, and granted it is a good move, but it doesn’t begin to address the agrarian crisis in our country,” she warns.

Siddharth Rao, a conservation biologist with Adavi Trust and director of ecology at the Anantapur-based The Timbaktu Collective echoes this idea of the new-age urban farmer but adds, “There isn’t enough data on their real impact on the situation but it is definitely a growing trend.” Though, it seems more likely the potential for the urban centres to determine market trends that’s actually hampering real benefits. “While the conversation around organic agriculture has been taken over with the different requirements needed for different kinds of certification, the simplest way to think about this mode of farming would be to see if it supports and sustains life,” he says.

Holding ‘organic’ to this simple standard is a much more beneficial approach to conservation, Siddharth believes. “All modern farming techniques are protocols and methods appropriated from traditional farmer knowledge systems, which are eventually about finding firm footing in the ecosystem of the local land. For example, it is knowing that one has to have butterfly-attracting plants, or other ones that repel insects, or that having trees helps recharge groundwater and suppress carbon,” he explains. “Though, modern farming techniques have made this learned knowledge more accessible…the objectives shouldn’t be to showcase one modern [farming] method as better than the other or just to grow clean food. It definitely needs to account for several other factors before being considered as ‘beneficial’ to the planet,” he cautions.

Modern versus traditional, and the economics of both

The growing need for ‘organic’ has caused large companies to contract marginal farmers into ‘organic farming’ and herein lies the major problem, according to these stakeholders. “It’s slightly better in India than globally but here too, commercial organic farming simply means not putting chemical inputs into the earth and monoculture [the cultivation of a single crop],” Siddharth says. “If you take traditional farming, in a fertile place like Kerala, you’d notice that there’s inherent biodiversity. There will be trees, a healthy diversity of wild and domestic animals, bees and earthworms, and so on. There will be intercropping and multi-cropping over the year, some of the crops will be grown for the family’s consumption alone,” explains Siddharth. “And these are the basic tenets of most modern farming schools like permaculture and such,” he adds.

It would seem that knowledge isn’t the problem at all, it’s that it isn’t incentivised fairly, or made viable for the producer to pursue. “Organic farming incentivisation becomes easier if there are better rates for the producer. We’ve found at Timbaktu Organics, pre-determining a price for the produce even before the farmer sows and ensuring that it is fair, not cheating them on weights and measures, and making sure that the producer actually receives the amount that was assured to them. If they see economic benefits through bonuses and share in profits, then one doesn’t need to convince them about returning to their traditional methods,” explains Siddharth.

Farmer field school by Timbaktu Collective. 

Arshiya of Black Baza Coffee underscores this point that economic gains to the producer should be taken into account while having this conversation around conservation. “We need to support the existing networks of organic farmers in this country, build up their capacity to regenerate and reach the right markets, so that they continue to do organic farming.”

Problems at policy-level

“The urban turn towards organic might be harmless at best but isn’t helpful,” said Arshiya, noting that we need to see changes at the level of policy from the government to address these issues.

While they’ve certainly made it easier and even free to get organic certification through the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY) there are still issues. There’s a lack of organic manure as replacement for chemical fertilisers, strangled access to markets and no financial support in the transition to organic farming happens, which hasn’t encouraged the boom that was intended.

Sundeep Kamath of the Biodynamic Association stresses that our conventional understanding of organic farming is still the problem with policy-making. “We’re focussed only on the surface, we’re convinced that eliminating chemical inputs is the ultimate good thing to do,” he says. “We need to look beyond, we need to look at everything from the bacteria to the bees, from trees to tiny worms, because all of these things together result in better soil fertility and eventually enhances the quality and quantity of the produce. At PDS Organic Spices, one of the organisations we work with, we have found doing organic farming that foregrounds biodiversity has resulted in 14 different kinds of pepper, each with a unique taste, which has increased their financial value benefitting the producer in the end. We see that nature has its own good guys who take care of the bad guys. Studies have found that mimicking the local environment is most beneficial and best for farming,” Sundeep explains. “But, in the end, it must make monetary sense to the producer for this mode to be adopted,” he adds, quickly.

Hand processing of millets.

Sundeep attests that the government has taken big policy steps towards addressing the farmer crisis but they aren’t enough. “Awareness of government subsidies, loans and promotions means that most farmers cannot access them at all. These policies need to made more realistic and practical, they need to address the needs of the landless, tenant and smallholdings’ farmers who make up most of the country’s farmer class and not just the land owners,” he points out.

Ensuring economic benefits to producers also matters because of its direct correlation to respectability and viability. “The odds are stacked against the farmer. So, there’s large migration to the cities, farmers rather work as construction workers, lift operators and security guards because it at least guarantees them a steady income,” he says. Siddharth of Adavi Trust and The Timbaktu Collective concurs with this trend of dwindling farmers. “Most importantly, we need for the consumer to understand that they are paying the right price, the fair price to the producer. And creating particular awareness like this is a complex undertaking if it is to be done right. While it might seem and sound good – some guy in a city growing his own tomatoes and giving the extra produce to his friends - it really isn’t the solution to the problem at hand. It isn’t even beginning to address it,” he asserts.

Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer.

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