What’s driving us to order fresh and organic produce?

  • Soma Das, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Sep 19, 2015 10:40 IST
Heirloom tomatoes from Alibaug and desi eggs from Nashik. More and more services are cashing in on our desire to eat healthy, and organic, even at a premium. (Cover story illustration: Shrikrishna Patkar)

At the junction of Mahalaxmi and Haji Ali, you can spot Farmik’s week-old outlet. Inside, as if to set the mood, the brick walls are painted white and the light fixtures resemble milk pails. Shelves are lined with bottled milk, shrikhand, chaas and lassi. On the back of each product is a diagram explaining its USP: this isn’t mass-produced, double-, triple-toned stuff, but sourced fresh from a 700-buffaloes-strong farm and dairy plant at Aarey milk colony (Goregaon).

The products are supposedly creamier and healthier than the regular fare. Rahil Maredia, who runs the business with his brother and two cousins, calls it “hygienic, high-quality dairy”. This is at a time when adulteration and use of hormone injections in dairy is a big concern. The Maredias are traditional milk suppliers (since 1952), and count MM Mithaiwala and Natural Ice Cream as clients. Twenty-five-year-old Rahil, who studied business at the Ohio State University, USA, says they spotted a gap in the milk supply market and stepped in.

They aren’t the only ones.


Unprocessed rice grown by Madhi tribal farmers, turmeric, groundnuts from Mumbai Sulins

Moo-dus operandi
Brands like Sarda Farms and Pride of Cows also cater to the (cow) milk segment, but don’t retail. It’s by-invite only, so you have to be recommended by an existing member. If that sounds like a gourmet milk supply system, consider the modus operandi: “At our farm at Manchar, near Pune, we customise the feed given to cows, and everything is mechanised,” says Akshali Shah, VP- strategy (sales and marketing), Parag Milk Foods, which owns Pride of Cows.

So, supposedly, the milking is without human intervention (cutting out chances of contamination), there are no additives, and the products — milk, curd, ghee — are delivered fresh, without being kept in cold storage for days. Naturally, the numbers are small. Pride of Cows has 20,000 customers, in Mumbai and Pune.

Come December and ABC Farms, the Pune-based brand which offers milk and 50 varieties of cheese, will also deliver in Mumbai and enter large-scale retail.


Pride of Cows dairy farm at Manchar, near Pune

The organic shift
But this isn’t just about milk. Services that promise farm-fresh natural produce — vegetables, fruits, herbs or eggs — delivered to your doorstep, are also, well, cropping up. The likes of Go4Fresh, Naturesgram, Farm2Home, The Farmer, Chili’s Organics and Chef Grown Produce promise little to no fertiliser/pesticides, and already have subscriptions in the thousands.

And while prices are a barrier, the health concerns over chemicals, and the fear of not knowing what one is consuming means people are increasingly willing to pay the 10% to 20% extra for organic produce.

Vishal Ghodke, founder of Naturesgram, says the wake-up call came after meeting a person hospitalised for pesticide exposure. It spurred the visual and mass communication graduate to turn activist: “I was involved in protests against genetically modified (GM) seeds. I realised that if people got organic produce, they wouldn’t opt for GM goods,” says Ghodke, who belongs to a family of farmers. Currently, Naturesgram is a collective of 30 organic farmers, spread across nine districts of Maharashtra. Ghodke, who promotes indigenous seeds and vegetables, cites differences between regular versus farm fresh produce: “The gourds in the market are smaller because they are plucked early, but farm fresh ones can grow larger. I once spotted violet okra, which is actually the traditional variety. Similarly, indigenous brinjals are white and have high fibre content.”

Bridging the gap between the farmer, supplier and consumer is the website Mumbai Sulins (stands for sustainable living), which lists nine sellers and has 191 subscribers. Founder and web developer Rishi Gangoly says, “I provide technological support, while the suppliers are in charge of driving the sites.” The seller contributes five per cent to the site on each transaction. They also host farm visits to raise awareness.


Cologne mint from Trikaya Agriculture

In the beginninGBut aren’t we traditionally an organic country? An earlier generation grew up on organic produce, until those options were cut off, and we increasingly had only supermarkets to head to. With ‘shinier’ produce from around the globe (India is the largest importer of Washington apples, for instance), local produce struggled to cope up. And while the use of fertilisers and pesticides boosted yield, it was at a cost to health and the soil.

By the ’70s, countries like America faced an agrarian crisis caused by bad soil quality and did a U-turn, opting for organic produce. In India, the awareness came much later. One of the pioneers of the organic movement was Kavita Mukhi, who started the Conscious Food store in 1990 at Napean Sea Road. In 2010, Mukhi was also one of the first to start farmer’s markets, encouraging farmers to sell produce directly (every Sunday, October to March).

“We were always an organic country. But we started buying produce without realising the chemicals being used. Internationally, the ‘back to the village’ trend gained ground earlier,” says Mukhi. She says the number of people attending each market has grown from around 300 people at the time of inception to upwards of 700 now.


Red Thai bird chilli from Trikaya Agriculture

And as we are more and more concerned about how something reaches us, the exact location of the produce has also gained significance. And with GI (Geographical Integration) tags implemented for Nendran bananas (from Kerala) and Bangalore Rose Onions, other vegetables and fruits around the country are also vying for the tag as a marker of quality, and a means to command premium price.

Organic or not?
But here’s the tricky part. How do you tell if it’s organic? “For exports, organic levels differ as per the country. You will find brands that are EU-level certified or Japan-level certified, which can be confusing,” says Aakash Rajendra Thakkar, who runs The Farmer. Ghodke, who founded the Organic Retailers Association of Mumbai (ORAM), admits sales are often trust-based. “While some brands have certification from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), many others operate on trust. Internationally, they apply zero residue standards for Indian exports (natural fertilizers that do not leave residue),” he says.

The downside
The flip side of farm fresh products is the price disparity. Grown without pesticides, crops are susceptible to attacks by pests, therefore reducing yield. But consumers are taking it in their stride. Nayana Mahajan (34), a fine arts professional and corporate trainer from Juhu, orders farm-fresh fruits, vegetables, honey and jowar. On Independence Day, she did a farm visit to Palghar. “I met the sellers and that strengthened my trust. They are not increasing yield just for profit. There is less produce, so what motivation is there apart from the price?” she says.


Fresh terragon from Trikaya Agriculture

Business consultant Priyanka Baya (38), who lives in Ashok Gardens, Sewri, with her husband and two children, joined Mumbai Sulins two months ago. “I can go online and choose from vegetables, fruits and pulses, which is convenient. They even supply products that aren’t available elsewhere, like desi corn and indigenous chauli,” she says. Interestingly, Baya explains that because there’s no middleman (and no hoarding), “I occasionally end up paying market equivalent rates.”

For sellers, challenges range from a short shelf life to less-appealing produce. “We do not stock anything; produce is distributed daily. Also, we don’t use ripening chemicals and hence, vegetables may not last long,” says Bhargavi Rathi of Go4Fresh. Neelima Bajaj Swamy of Chili’s Organics says they try to build awareness, and explain to customers that if there are worms, that’s a good thing: it implies no pesticides.


Miracle fruit from Trikaya Agriculture

Health on your mind
Healthwise, how much of a difference does fresh produce make? Anjali Peswani, nutritionist, says the issue isn’t just illness, but lack of nutrition: “Sprayed pesticides often dissolve vitamins.” She says leafy vegetables, which rot faster, are often sprayed with pesticide that strips them of riboflavin, calcium, vitamins B2, B6, B12, and magnesium.

However, if the market variety is so bad, why aren’t we all falling ill regularly? Dr Richa Anand, chief dietitian, Dr LH Hiranandani Hospital, explains that: “We grew up with some pesticides, so our immune systems have, to some extent, adapted.”

It’s a bit like getting used to the Mumbai air. We all know it’s polluted, but it’s something we’re used to. And the effects aren’t immediate. But does that mean you should move to the hills? That’s for you to decide.


(Photos: Pratham Gokhale/HT, Pride of Cows, Trikaya agriculture)

(The writer tweets as @SomaRKDas )

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