By Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty June 2012 Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty believes that we are at the crossroads today with our food threatened from all sides by toxins, genetic modification, cloning, additives, preservatives, antibiotics, hormones, and denaturing through processing. Organic is the answer The highpoint of my week is the visit to the weekly organic farmer’s market in the city centre every Wednesday. It began the week after we (my husband and I) moved to The Hague two years ago, bringing us to a continent with stringent standards for pesticide residues in food, and making safe food available to its people. With high consumer awareness about food safety and plenty of options, Europe is the Mecca of organic food. The Hague, a city with a population of 5,00,000, offers a centrally located weekly organic market, numerous organic stores, and a few organic supermarkets. My favourite destination is the organic market with around 10-15 stalls ranging from cheeses, dry goods, nuts, vegetables, fruits, flowers, a couple of bakers, and, believe it or not, a stall specialising in mushrooms. I have learnt the names of vegetables in Dutch, even though the vendors understood me better when I said the names in English. Picking up strange vegetables that I had never seen before, I have prepared salads with the myriad greens, best eaten raw, winter purslane, lamb’s lettuce, and others. I have added the salty sea beans, originally from the tidal marshes, to my vegetable dishes. By eating organic, local, and seasonal foods, we are promoting sustainable, earth-friendly, people-friendly farming I have enjoyed raw milk cheese, and made European soups and Indian sabjis with the plump pumpkins and succulent zucchinis. I have relished the luscious plums and berries, and appreciated the difference between shitake and portabella mushrooms, helping me to become part of the local food culture and enrich our meals.Some of these delights cannot be found readily in stores, as they are seasonal, easily perishable, and do not handle transportation well. An added attraction of the market is that I can re-use my paper bags, using zero-plastic, a luxury no store or super store affords me. Tryst with organic food Our tryst with organic food began when I moved to the US in 2003. Mary, a cancer survivor, a neighbour and a dear friend now, spoke to me about eating organic. This conversation was part of my explorations about food in general, which began due to the high levels of obesity that I observed in the Midwest of US, and the very low prices of highly processed foods. Reading, watching documentaries, and understanding more led us into eating local, natural, and seasonal food, and led me to my second career, working on food and agriculture issues.Mary took me to the two large organic super stores in Louisville, Kentucky, and in return, I took her to the lively, open-air weekly organic farmer’s market two miles away from where we both lived. I, who had never been too interested in food, began to enjoy buying food, interacting with the farmers, discovering new vegetables and recipes, and deepening my understanding about agriculture. The Saturday market, with live music, hot omelettes made fresh by Ivor from eggs of ‘free-range hens,’ farm fresh produce, and families with babies and pets, was a magnet, which drew us to savour, linger and buy. We began enjoying food at different levels, seeing, buying, preparing, and eating. By the time we left four years later, I had volunteered at a farm and a farmer’s market, and worked with a farmers’ group in Kentucky! Conscious buyers throng the Farmer’s Market in Mumbai,introduced by activist, Kavita Mukhi Once I woke up to this new world of sustainable and safe food, I realised, to my dismay, that we spend less thought, time, and money, on the food we buy, cook and eat, than on many other peripheral things in life. Food is fundamental, but in our new paradigm, it has become merely a chore to be outsourced. We began evangelising about buying organic food and responses from friends and family varied from it being expensive, involving too much effort, and our bodies having gotten used to toxins so it does not matter. People wanted to know whether it was fear of falling sick or paranoia that prompted us to go organic. It is not that simple. Of course, being able to eat organic food is a privilege today. A situation created due to the mindless use of chemicals and genetic modification in agriculture. However, it is also a conscious choice, which involves making ethical food choices a priority, and investing more effort, time, and money.Why eat organic? We have numerous reasons for eating organic. One reason is definitely that the food we eat is non-toxic, free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), safer, healthier, and tastier. However, there are other equally strong reasons. By eating organic, local, and seasonal foods, we are promoting sustainable, earth-friendly, people-friendly farming. We are supporting sustainable farmers, who go out on a limb to buck the conventional chemical-driven paradigm. With this choice, we contribute to a safer environment and more of our money reaches the farmer, making their livelihood secure. By eating local and seasonal foods, we reduce our food miles, and nourish the local agro-bio-diversity. In most places, local vegetables are dying out, as they are being replaced with a few standard vegetables, thus decimating the biodiversity of our heritage. We learnt to appreciate the slightly bitter kale and arugula, beet leaves, fresh corn in season, and lovely variety of pumpkin, and heirloom tomatoes ranging from pretty to sour, and in strange shapes. Relocation brings new experiences Our organic quest continued when we moved to Mumbai. Getting organic food seemed at best a joke, and at worst impossible. When I started asking around for organic food outlets, friends were amused, and laughed it off as my US hangover. By eating organic, local, and seasonal foods, we are promoting sustainable, earth-friendly, people-friendly farming Gradually and serendipitously, friends and acquaintances began telling me about one store and then another, in south Mumbai, central Mumbai, suburbs, carrying everything from our newly discovered sweetener, powdered jaggery, to the brown rice with bran, and the varied millets. It also meant meeting many new people and visiting new parts of town in search of food. Meeting Anand, an organic food exporter, listening to farmer and friend Venkat’s droll tales about the farm, were all part of the experience of eating organic. Our Mumbai purchases were nicely supplemented with delicious hand pounded organic red rice, and spicy pepper from our hometown, Thiruvananthapuram.Of course, the irrepressible fruit and vegetable vendors of Mumbai put me in place, when I advocated organic and local. In response to my query about vegetables without chemicals, the vendors confidently told me, “Aunty, you can’t grow vegetables without chemicals.” The regular fruit vendor, who visited our building, greeted me the first day proclaiming that all his fruits were ‘vilayati and badiya’( imported from abroad and of great quality). Feeling righteous, Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty works withgroups promoting safe food, urbanfarming, and sustainable agricultureand currently lives in The Hague,Netherlands I tried explaining to him about my principle of local, seasonal, and natural. He looked bemused, but nodded and left. A week later he rang the doorbell, displayed all the fruits and announced with a flourish, “Madam, all the fruits are desi, no videsi fruits.” A new spiel and the same fruits.Organic and local vegetables and fruits were a problem in Mumbai. The supply was unreliable, erratic, and intermittent. We relished the times when Ubai, our friend and organic farmer, shared his delicious papayas and mangoes with us, when our regular organic store carried a rare supply of seasonal vegetables, and fruits, and when our balcony yielded the herbs for our teas and garnishes, and the rare tomatoes, greens and beans! In the process, I became an urban farmer and became a part of an urban farming group.I am enriched and humbled with the gifts of nourishing food and rich interactions with organic farmers from three different continents, so different yet so very similar. Today we are at a crossroads with our food threatened from all sides, toxins, genetic modification, cloning, additives, preservatives, antibiotics, hormones, and denaturing through processing. We are also faced with the threat of enormous loss of biodiversity, and alienation of farmers from their seeds. To secure our food safety and sovereignty, and the future of our children, I believe that every one of us has to connect with the farmers who grow our food, and become food growers ourselves, in our balconies, kitchen gardens, and community spaces.
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