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Organic Growth

Switching to an organic diet can be tricky for several reasons. But for those willing to make an effort,the options are not limited.

Switching to an organic diet can be tricky for several reasons. But for those willing to make an effort,the options are not limited.

The slices of bread made from ragi flour,served at a workshop on organic food in Mumbai,are devoid of everything that makes bread,well,bread. The slices are dark,almost black,and heavy,like biscuits chiselled out of stone. The body doesn’t have the light and fluffy texture of freshly-baked bread,and tastes like someone took the rum,raisins and sugar out of a Christmas cake. In other words,this particular loaf of bread,baked organically without wheat flour,maida and yeast,definitely takes getting used to,no matter how many layers of marmalade you slather on top.

But not all organic food has to taste like you’re depriving yourself. The Farmers’ Market in Mumbai every weekend is an amalgam of sights,sounds and scents. Apart from a range of fresh fruits and vegetables sold directly by the farmers,the weekly market also offers chocolate chip cookies,apple pies and dal bhath,all of which are snapped up before the afternoon is out. Indeed,Indians are increasingly looking for different methods to incorporate organic into their daily lifestyle.

The task,though daunting,is not unachievable. All it takes is a little passion to source the products grown without chemicals and industrial fertilisers,and the technical know-how to prepare a wholesome,organic meal. Even sceptics,who don’t want a drastic change in their eating habits won’t have to go to great lengths. “Any dish can be organic as long as the ingredients are grown without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers,” says Rita Balsara,a Mumbai-based representative who works with Navdanya,a network that promotes conservation of biodiversity and organic farming across India. “It’s not easy,but not impossible either.”

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However,only those who have managed to make the switch are aware of the challenges. Deepak Chhabria,a Mumbai-based creative director with a television channel,follows a 100 per cent organic diet,but the switch took two years to come about. “My parents were quite resistant initially because they didn’t see the point in buying groceries that are more expensive than the market rate,” he says. “But now that they know how fresh it is compared to non-organic products,they’re more open to it. It’s also much easier to find things like organic rice and dal these days.”

Incorporating organic in everyday eating was once a great challenge because of the sparsity of produce. Now there is enough to choose from when it comes to dry,packaged ingredients such as lentils,spices,oils and rice. In Delhi,the Navdanya Cafe in Dilli Haat,started in the ‘80s by environmentalist Vandana Shiva sells everything from varieties of rice,wheat,millets,pulses,virgin oils,herbal teas and natural fruit drinks. The Attitude Store,a chain selling natural and organic alternatives,has also started an organic bakery. Roger Langbour,a French expat runs the French Farm on the Delhi-Jaipur highway and provides organic meat to the capital’s health-conscious carnivores. The Tattva-Fresh Organic Kitchen,an organic dabba service in Delhi,is a nutrition solution targeted at the working professionals. Ahmedabad-based Joos has a variety of organic juices on its menu.

But there is still a dearth of organically grown fresh fruits and vegetables in the market. While many attempt to grow vegetables in their kitchen gardens,the yields,though exciting,aren’t often substantial enough to last beyond a week. In Mumbai,this demand is currently being met by the seasonal Farmers’ Market organised by nutritionist Kavita Mukhi. In addition to this,a new organic vegetable store,Organic Garden,recently opened in Warden Road,south Mumbai. “Because of the difficulty in procuring the right vegetables,it’s not possible to just wake up one morning and decide to go organic,” says Shonali Sabherwal,a Mumbai-based health consultant who  runs an organic dabba service. “You can start by going organic with your dals,spices,oils. But if you want organic vegetables,your best bet is to buy them from the Farmers’ Market or go straight to the source,the farmers.”

But organic produce doesn’t come cheap or in copious quantitites because convincing farmers to switch from their industrial methods is difficult. “Industrial methods turn up higher yields. The farmers associated with Navdanya have smaller lands,and thus produce on a smaller scale. It can’t be charged at regular market rates because they need the incentive to continue the practice,” says Balsara.

Despite the higher price of organic produce — upwards of Rs 20 for dal and Rs 50 for rice — an increase in awareness and easy availability in metros has worked in its favour. Fabindia,one of the first brands to sell organic products,has competition from Godrej Nature’s Basket which stocks organic lentils,spices,teas and rice. In Mumbai,Conscious Food offers home delivery services and also retails from regular stores. “The price difference between organic and non-organic products is anywhere between 20 per cent to 150 per cent,” says Sreejith Mohan,head,buying and category management at Godrej Nature’s Basket. “But 50 per cent of our sales come from organic food.”

The Hari Bhari Tokri project by the Mumbai Organic Farmers and Consumers Association (MOFCA),works directly with farmers in the outskirts of the city. But the supply of vegetables,based on the Community Supported Agriculture model that originated in Canada,can get a bit tedious for consumers who prefer to have a say in what to harvest. Under this model,200 people are allowed to “invest” in the project at the beginning of the season,by paying Rs 3,000 each. In turn,all the vegetables cultivated are distributed equally among the investors.

“This monsoon was our third season and so far the response has been mixed,” says Ubai Hussain,co-founder of MOFCA. Around 50 per cent of the people left the programme after the first season because they weren’t allowed to choose the vegetables to be grown,or get the amount they desired. “If you want to go organic,you must accept the season’s produce. The monsoons are bad for farming because only creeping plants like cucumber and karela (bitter gourd) survive,” he says.

While Mumbai and Delhi are still at the forefront of the organic revolution,other cities in India are catching up. Lumiere,a brand that owns two organic restaurants in Bengaluru and Kochi in addition to a bakery and a poultry farm,is doing its bit in the south. Their produce comes directly from their farms in Munnar,Kolar and the outskirts of Bangalore. “We sell vegetables and lentils and deliver cooked food,but not the poultry because there isn’t enough stock,” says Manjunath PR,co-owner of Lumiere.

Shiva has the last word. “Embracing organic food means a change in lifestyle. Your palate can tell the difference,” she says.

(With inputs from Tora Agarwala)