The Food Constant

Who came first- chicken or the egg i? A confounding question, coming to represent all such. Not very easy to answer these ' cause and effect' posers either, a grab at the head or tail of which may land on the opposite of the intended target.

It is very interesting to watch this interplay in operation between buyers and sellers in the nascent but rapidly growing organic food market as part of the growing pursuit of ' sustainable' lifestyles.

On the one hand are those who had pursued their own convictions in the face of all odds, some humouring their commitment to organic and sustainable farming as fads, others laughing them off as aberrations in an occupation where more, larger and shinier were the ideals. The excitement of such people,at the prospect of finally finding vindication is boundless. It is like suddenly finding kith and kin in an alien land.

On the other side are the eager, recently enlightened customers seeking a way out of the maze they find themselves trapped in, in an all pervasive assault of raw deals in the basics of life. Somewhere along the way to financial security,and a comfortable life, they realised that the essence of life had got left behind. From the haloed consumers in a free, global market they found themselves to be the new commodity, completely at the mercy of what the Market chooses to feed them.

Whatever the case may be a new equation is being worked out between sellers and buyers.There is an understandable shortage of trust amongst the buyers though., duped repeatedly as they have been by the purveyors of necessities.

Back to the chicken and egg conundrum, who is to be blamed for the degradation in the quality of food available ? The usual suspects are first and foremost the growers and suppliers of course , then come the large number of people who get to handle victuals as they move from farm to the fork. Government regulatory agencies tasked with ensuring quality control are there for all to flog, always. In this blame game the consumer gets portrayed as the hapless victim of wrongdoings of everyone else. But is he?

The consumer too has to shoulder part of the blame. The adage - a nation gets the government it deserves manifests equally aptly on what finds its way to people's plates. The pioneers of the mad gold rush towards industrialisation and urbanisation, forgot what a vacuum of quality human resource it would in the countryside.

As successively lesser skilled human resource followed suit, the accompanying degeneration in the quality of output the residue could produce and supply, should come as no surprise. On the one hand there was an ever increasing urban population, flush with monetary prosperity, spoilt for choices and growingly distanced from an understanding of quality parameters and on the other were the grower -suppliers who found themselves stranded in that role primarily as they lacked the education and will to chase the pot of gold. Returning the apathy from an urban-heavy governmental Establishment they mindlessly toed all the lines marked by merchants of chemical death , quick to move in the space created by the mis-nominated Green Revolution.. One can decide which is the egg and which the hen.

The nascent organic market is also bedevilled by what can be termed as teething problems. Growing numbers of suppliers and increasing demand are not integrated well enough for functioning optimally. There are people who are committed to production of organic food an there are people at who seek it . In getting the twain together lies the nub, in linking the two information wise and logistics wise.

Customers are few and far between so reaching them logistically imposes heavy financial costs. Since the producers too are spatially distributed creation of nodes in the form of farmers' markets may not meet all the consumers' needs while imposing heavy time and cost penalties on producers to lay out wares on a daily basis. The entire pioneering effort risks failure if either, consumer or producer succumb to disenchantment. It is indeed a test of commitment levels.

A way out lies in combining social media , a neutral time and space free platform form for seeking out the other. Combined with the logistics revolution which affords quick, reliable and relatively affordable costs, reaching out would be complete. A sort of son of the soil net marketing which combines the two aspects of demand identification and supply from different sources, to begin with.

Back to the consumers. As stated earlier they are new to the field of responsible food, unaware of parameters of quality, ignorant of the costs ,unable to process food in their urban milieu and deeply skeptical overall, of course understandably.

To generate faith the prime mover of this market, consumers need to understand the universal fact about constants. In a given stable milieu or a system the sum of all component factors is always a constant. Gains in one are always balanced out by losses in some other. In relation to food too the factors, listed below, rule of the constant applies. A careful study would be advisable especially for the urban consumer used to getting his way, all the way insulated as they are from the costs which are incurred elsewhere.

Quality This is the most important factor being the sine qua non of the weaning away from the chemicals affected food products. It is vaguely identified with size, shape, colour , brightness and taste. Nutritive value of food was taken for granted however, in the course of time, the focus of the consumer and consequently of the producer grew only on the appearance and palatability. Nutritive value on one side and absence of harmful ingredients on the other withered away from consciousness till it was forcefully brought back by the rising incidence of diseases and ailments which ultimately got traced to lifestyles and food. Fortunately vestigial recall remains about how good food, carrying its full complement of nutrition used to taste and look remains in the current decision makers. A ray of hope there.

Availability This factor is not about handiness alone of food in the quantities and quality that we want. Very gradually, with increasing affluence, exposure to global cuisine, introduction of technologies in food production and social influences we got used to a larger variety if foodstuffs available across seasons. Spoilt for choices, the consumer was blissfully unaware of the lost nutritive value, lost relevance to seasons and the quantum of chemical and later genetic intervention the 'variety' on the table necessitated. The amount of pesticides applied to cauliflower and cabbage grown for meeting consumer demand most of the year , is horrifying.

Costs india is an acutely cost conscious market so aptly depicted in the advertisement with the punchline of a query about mileage "kitna deti hai?". So it needs to be included in the list of factors making up our food constant. Customers are frequently overheard questioning the higher price tags that organic foods carry. It needs to be understood that organic food production is a very labour intensive activity. The entire production cycle of sowing,/planting, weed and pest control, harvesting and post harvest management and storage, if undertaken without chemicals demands extra human effort. Weeds have to be manually extracted more than once, organic pest control mixes cannot be purchased off the shelf ,have to be manually prepared and applied. In the absence of toxic chemical preservatives grains have to be brought out for sunning time and again and so on. All this in an environment of dwindling availability of labour. Each activity adds to the cost.

A cursory reading of the above factors would make the food constant clear. If a numerical weightage were to be allocated to each the sum of the three would remain a constant. You put a premium on one, one of the balance would go up and the other come down, the sum remaining the same. Prioritise Quality and costs will go up, availability coming down. Ask for year round availability again costs will go up, quality suffering since the artificial elements in growing and making it available will go up.

During a recent conversation on this subject with a very eminent person who has made sustainable lifestyles the central theme of her life, remarked very pithily.- Want good food? Be prepared to limit your wants to what the kitchen garden yields.