Organic food: The health mantra many are chanting to make a quick buck

Driven by a passion for organic food, Sanjay Bhalla started an exclusive gir cow dairy farm ‘The Way We Were’ in 2013. He insists on feeding dairy cattle with farm-grown organic fodder and rearing in them the natural way
You only start valuing your health when you've begun to lose it. It is invariably the point at which you become a diabetic or suffer from some other life-threatening ailment that you start working on a complete overhaul in lifestyle, starting with your diet.

One of the first things you'd probably like to do is to switch over to organic produce. But the trouble here is that there are far too many products whose labels scream with phrases such as “farm-fresh”, “high-quality, high-fibre”, “all-natural”, “gluten-free”, “chemical-free” from supermarket shelves. Many are sceptical that the 'health' tag and the price premium associated with the term 'organic', have seen the entry of unscrupulous operators prone to passing of chemically-laden food under this category.

The aroma and texture of organic food is totally different. What can be seen in the picture is Mint farming, popularly known as “Pudina” an energizing herb that can add flavour to many dishes

A way of life in India

Before we dwell on how to sift the fake from the real, let's see what some established players in the organic ecosystem have to say.

"I have never understood the hype in India around the term Organic. It’s an imported term that America has given to the world. As far as we Indians are concerned, this has been our way of farming, and we are just getting back to our roots," says Deepak Sabharwal, owner of organic farm Earthy Tales, referring to the pre-green revolution era. 

“Food is aushadhi or medicine as per our religious beliefs. However, depending on how it is produced, food can be the strongest form of medicine or slowest form of poison,” says Sabharwal, a big proponent of “chemical-free” food. His story is quite remarkable. Born into a family of farmers with land banks in Pushkar, Rajasthan, Sabharwal had a jet-set corporate lifestyle as vice-president of a leading Cola company. His visit to his farms was mostly limited to weekend getaways, but a chance encounter with a bag or two of insecticides and pesticides on his own farm was the turning point. 

Says Sabharwal: “I used to carry, on my return (from my farm), a basket of fruits and vegetables for home, but one day I saw farmers wearing gloves, covering their mouths and spraying something that clearly mentioned 'it has poison' and is 'injurious to health'. This led me to think if this was something so harmful, why is the produce entering my house or anybody’s home for that matter. We are reaping bad karma at the end of the day." With this experience began Sabharwal's journey into natural cultivation. As a result, Earthy Tales, a full-time organic farming venture was born. Today, he says, it is not just his customers who are happy, but his farmers are healthy and safe because, apart from consumers, if anyone’s health is compromised and at risk, it is the farmers in conventional farming.  

With increasing demand, there are any number of organic holdings delivering from farm to kitchen in top metros today such as The Way We Were farm at Noida Sector 135, Ehsaas Organic in Manesar, and Organic Maati. People with land banks on the fringes of Delhi grow organic food and sell it to their small community of customers online. On sale is everything from fresh fruits and vegetables, to dairy products, oils, spices and cereals, and even jams, pickles and confectionery. The USP of their method of organic farming is the exclusion of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, hormones and feed, and to the maximum extent feasible, reliance on crop rotation, crop residue, animal manure, off-farm organic waste, mineral grade rock additives and biological system of nutrient mobilisation and plant protection. 

One look at a farm and you know whether it’s organic or conventional. Biological pest control, mixed cropping and the fostering of insect predators are encouraged in an organic farm

Poor health the trigger 

For some agro entrepreneurs, the organic food industry is all about sheer commerce and numbers. However, large number is also driven by zeal and passion and a trigger in their personal lives. Take the case of Sanjay Bhalla, a chemical engineer by profession who calls himself a first generation farmer. It started when his daughter, pregnant at the time, visited her gynaecologist in the UK as she had some digestion issues. Her doctor advised her to shift to drinking Bos Indicus milk. That was when he decided to set up his farm, The Way We Were Farm, with desi Gir variety, which is among the desi Bos Indicus species of cows found in India. 

Currently his farm houses 200 cattle that are fed on herbs like ashwagandha, jivanti, shitawari, lemon grass, basil, seasonal vegetables, seed residue cakes of mustard, sesame and almonds. In an organic farm, everything is interdependent, says Bhalla. “The entire green fodder is grown in-house using cow dung and urine. The poultry contributes to the manure, and soil health improves manifold with bull ploughing. We don’t use tractors. When the bull walks gently in the field, it ploughs the farm six inches deep. Besides, natural mating is encouraged over artificial insemination.” 

Bhalla sells paneer and chicken at Rs 1,300 a kg and there are several takers who order 250 grams every alternate day. Says Bhalla, “Regular consumption of our milk and vegetables has worked like magic and clients have come back to say that they definitely perceive the difference, with decreased levels of stress, niggles, aches, and increase in vigour and vitality. Parents have reported positive behavioural changes in their kids. We feel a lot of our chronic diseases can be avoided if we discontinue pesticides laden foods.”

Incidentally, a lot of clients or consumers of organic food are doctors and nutritionists. According to Dr Kanchan Kaur, Oncologist in Medanta Hospital, Gurgaon, and a breast cancer specialist who is a regular customer with one of the organic farms, “The incidence of breast cancer has gone up by 38 per cent in a decade. A lot of these cancers are lifestyle cancers and linked to chemicals in surroundings and ‘hidden’ pollution coming from pesticide and insecticide in your food, chemicals coming cosmetics etc. These pesticides have endocrine mimickers that copy the hormone in your body and that leads to uncontrolled overgrowth of normal body cells known as cancer. It is important to understand where your food is coming from.” She says if she were to spray a bunch of grapes with Hit, a popular pesticide, and asked you to wash and eat, you would never eat it. 

Today, organic food is a niche, whereas it is should be the default. The question to be asked actually is this: Is it okay to eat food laced with pesticides everyday for everyone? According to Ashish Gupta, Founder Trustee, Gram Disha Trust, Delhi Organic Farmers' Market Trust (DOFM), “The Green and white revolutions were introduced at a time when there was stress and scarcity. The goal was self-sufficiency of food. Today in India there is self-sufficiency, so the purpose of green/white revolution has been served. There is no reason to stick to the same set of causes prevalent in history. In today's time we must evolve to the need of the day, which is to give safe, chemical free food accessible to all. With newer technologies, we can achieve higher production and healthy produce using nature-friendly methods. Organic food is not a luxury. Clean, chemical residue-free food, grown in healthy soil which nourishes both humans and the environment is a necessity.”

Raising livestock and poultry is an essential part of organic farming as it complements the latter. Horticulture and dairy farming are inter-related

Spotting the fakes

How does one know the fake from the original? After all, the word organic has become a cheat word. According to Saazid Singha, who has apple orchards in Uttarakhand, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating”. His website FarmerUncle.com, an online market place for organic farmers and buyers, alerts everyone to certain tell-tale signs of what is truly organic. If you keep organic apples out in the open for ten days, the crispness may decrease by one per cent but the fruit won't rot. Also the aroma, the taste will be different. Often, organic produce is not very perfect and good looking and no two apples may look alike. Nature is about imperfections.

Why is organic expensive?

How much does it take to invest in organic food? Why is organic food so expensive? Experts say the question to be asked is why is conventional food cheap? Because of pacing up plant growth artificially with liberal use of pesticides, insecticides, growth hormones, the volume goes up, and conventional produce turns out cheaper. However, cheap food becomes very expensive when we consider the effects of cancers, birth defects, immune system failures, antibiotic resistance, early adolescent puberty, and many other health issues besides polluted soil, air, and water and the disappearance of local farmers and producers. According to Rashmi Bhansali, founder of Ehsaas Organic, “I agree that organic food is expensive at this stage. However, I strongly believe that the pricing will become affordable with increase in volume and by use of better agri-growing technologies. A large part of the cost is attributed to logistics and handling due to lower volume.” She adds that the organic food can be delivered within a premium of 20-30 per cent over non-organic produce. The cost differential can be kept at reasonable levels by increased volumes and modern healthy technologies like hydroponics combined with aquaponics.

A lady farmer raising a crop of onions using organic farming techniques in which the soil is regarded as a living being, and the organic matter used contributed to a healthy environment, allowing the essential micro-organisms to do their work

Finally, children and adults need to be sensitised to the cost and effort that goes into producing natural food, so that they don’t waste it. They will never waste once they know that it has taken almost six months of effort, soil, water and manure to nurture a crop and produce their meal. They ought to be aware of the process, respect the creator (farmer) and know the source of their food. A shocker for an agro- entrepreneur was when he asked a child where milk comes from. The response: Mother Dairy.

Thumb rules to identify organic food:
  • Organic food is often not very good looking and is usually not uniform in colour, shape or size. For example in moong wholegrain dal, instead of the uniformly bleached green of the regular packaged dal, there could be different shades of green. 
  • Organic fruits, vegetables and grains are generally not too large in size. This is unlike the conventional food, where hybrid techniques are used to grow huge bottle gourds, eggplants, potatoes.
  • Organic spices have a strong aroma and flavour as they retain their oil content. If you try raw carom seed (ajwain) or cumin (jeera), your tongue will have a strong sensation after you have taken in quarter of a teaspoon. 
  • Organically grown food always cooks much faster unlike food with chemical pesticides.
  • It’s alright to find insects or other in naturally grown wheat flour, brown rice, white rice, wholegrain lentils especially after two-three months. They do not contaminate the food -- pesticides do. All you need to do is wash the grains or sun them out.
  • Similarly if you find a bunch of spinach with holes, that is normal. It has not been treated with pesticides. Just wash it and give a final rinse of salt water for two-three minutes to  remove germs and residue.
  • While cooking organic vegetables, you will realise that you need fewer spices as there is so much natural flavour. Likewise, organic fruits are juicier as they are allowed to ripen on the tree. 
  • Organic feels healthier, is far lighter on the digestive system and also helps reduce acidity. 
  • Though not a norm in India yet, certification is mandatory in the export market. Always look for the stickers on fruits. A four-digit PLU, or price look up code sticker basically means the stuff has been grown with pesticides; a five-digit code starting with the number 8 means the food is GM, and a five-digit codes starting with 9 means organically grown.

 


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