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05/20/2010

TEDX. A celebration of food.

This post first appeared on Erica's blog.

Let's support 'farms that aren't worlds into themselves, farms that restore instead of deplete, farms that farm extensively, instead of intensively, farmers that are not just producers but are experts in relationship' –Dan Barber, TEDX Cambridge, May 17, 2010

TedX Cambridge brought together chefs, psychologists, writers, designers, and engineers for an intimate look at science, art, and the future of food.

Food is not just about sustenance; food is about building community and motivating higher service that can change the world. Currently, consumers and citizens have been subjected to arbitrary food norms. With self controlled mechanisms and greater transparency, consumers can become more rational, ethical, and environmental, making choices that are better for them and for the planet.

TEDX reminded me not only about how we eat, but also how we get the food we need to eat. This inspired me to look at new parameters on how consumers eat, whether local, organic, or fair trade. I was constantly reminded to not only look at how healthy our food is, but also how ecological and ethical it is.

The day’s event also brought up many challenges facing the sustainable food movement:

  • Youth: Children in schools need healthier food, while at the same time, they desire junk food due to media and social influences
  • Education: The average age of a farmer is 60 years. In 20 years, their knowledge will not be passed on to the next generation. Agriculture schools are not teaching about food production anymore. They are teaching how to get jobs.
  • Parents: Parents play a major role in influencing children and the next generation of consumers, but it is very difficult to change mindsets when competing on taste, convenience, and price.
  • Food companies: Food companies can help change mindsets, they can build marketing campaigns that will influence consumer buying habits, but it becomes much more difficult when these initiatives hurt their bottom line.

I’d like to end this post with a thought that came from David Gracer’s TED talk.

“Why are we not eating more bugs? They can't give us pandemics (there is no cricket flu unlike swine or avian flu) & 2) their nutrition content can compete with any other food.” Yum…

Crickets & Toast below

Crickets
 


05/04/2010

Agricultural happenings around MIT

There have been so many exciting ag and innovation events at MIT that I wanted to highlight some of the latest.  These spin-offs, collaborations, or somehow otherwise related to our class earlier in the semester.  We've got a new campus group/website, 100K, NCIIA, MIT Sustainability Summit, and Peer Recognition Awards all goin' on!

Firstly, the MIT Food and Agriculture Collaborative, an incredibly inter-disciplinary group of MIT students, faculty, and staff, have launched our new website! http://food-ag.mit.edu/ Check it out for the latest on food and ag happenings around MIT campus and around Boston... coming up are the MIT-hosted Tedx talks entitled "How do you eat?", and inspired by Jaime Oliver's fresh/whole food for school lunches campaign. 

Next, co-organizer of the India trip, Erica Dhawan is currently participating in MIT's 100K business plan competition, as I write!  She's in the development track, and pitching an idea for a sustainable ag venture in India.  We've also collaborated with India trip participant Payal Patel to pitch a tech-related idea to aggregate agricultural supply of small-scale farmers of perishable products with the NCIIA... crossing our fingers that we get some good feedback to launch a pilot project in India this summer.

The 2nd annual MIT sustainability summit was a huge success. It was an intimate and collaborative space which broke beyond what my friend Tony calls the traditional 'muffins and powerpoint' format of a conference and really allowed for dynamic interaction, role play, and critical discussion between presenters and participants.

I put together the session called Sustainable Agriculture - generating value through innovation and partnerships in the US dairy industry - which included perspectives from a small-scale, Vermont dairy farmer, the large Hood dairy processor, policy group Food Aid, and academic researchers from the Tufts nutrition school. These diverse voices agreed that the 'rules' that govern the dairy market are really skewed, and that the pricing system and supply controls needed to be evaluated and changed. We also learned that the margin on what we pay as consumers and what the farmer receives in payments continues to widen, as in other industries, with food retail sucking up the in-between. And we heard a new term from Ross called "Farmsters" - referring to movement of young, urban hipsters who are getting back to the land and into organic farming. There was plenty of respectful debate as well from topics as broad as raw milk safety to the L3C format of organizing 'low-profits' (as opposed to non profits) with a social mission that can fundraise and make money. Lots of food for thought.

Lastly, tomorrow my friend Lizzy and I are going to receive the Peer Recognition Award at Sloan for our work with the MIT Food and Ag Collaborative. I mention this because it really heartens me to know that I am at a business school that cares about and honors students who reach out across campus to build new networks around a social/environmental issue that we are passionate about. And then get noticed by our peers! I love this school.

04/23/2010

A Tale of Two Tomatoes

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by Weisen Li

It was the bigger of tomatoes, it was the smaller of tomatoes.  It was the taller of vines, it was the shorter of vines… 

I was in shock when I first saw the difference between two tomato fields that were sown at the same time 2½ months ago – one chemically fertilized, the other organically fertilized.  The difference was astounding!  The chemically fertilized tomatoes hung on vines that were about three feet tall and the fruits were so heavy that the vines needed support.  Right beside the chemically fertilized tomato field was the organically tomato field.  The plants looked paltry and sickly in comparison to its chemically fertilized sister field.  The vines were not as developed, leaves were not as green and the tomatoes were not as plump.  It looked as though the organically fertilized fields had seeds sown a month after the chemically fertilized one yet both fields were planted at the same time.

Vikas, the plant manager of Tasty Bite’s farm, was doing an experiment.  As a student of chemical fertilizer usage (Vikas studied agriculture at the University of Pune), Vikas was skeptical about the economics of organic farming.  Like most Indians, Vikas can discern the taste between chemically and organically grown fruits and vegetables and prefers organic though he is unwilling to pay the premium for it.  In his opinion, Vikas does not see the economic sense in organic farming for the average small Indian farmer.  A typical Indian organic farm is a self sustaining ecosystem.  It requires large amounts of land (for harvest and for feed fodder), dozens of cattle (for urine and manure) and additional labor (for de-weeding, planting, harvesting and composting).  This kind of resource (not to mention time – it takes 3 years to become organically certified) is not available for the 98 million Indian farmers who own <2.5 acres of land.  As such, many farmers don’t farm organically.

JBfarm The next day, we visited Jayant Barve, a progressive farmer and an evangelist for organic farming in India.  Jayant started organic farming in 1988 after receiving an undergraduate and graduate degree in Physics at the University of Pune and worked as a chemical fertilizer salesman.  During his sales role, Jayant realized that Indian farmers were unknowingly abusing usage of chemical fertilizers by drenching plants with chemical fertilizers right before harvest and consumption.  He believed that everything should be “balanced” and natural.  Thus, upon his father’s death and his subsequent inheritance of the family’s 30 acre farmland, Jayant decided to convert the fields to organic farming.  After over twenty years since he first started organic farming, Jayant Barve’s farms now have equivalent if not higher yields than comparable chemically fertilized fields.  While the chemically fertilized fields are facing soil depletion, his land is getting richer every year as the microbial in the soil grows with additional organic compost.  He has turned what used to be an arid wasteland barely suitable to grow anything to a farming oasis.

This then leads me back to the Tasty Bite farm.  Why is there such a difference between the two tomatoes in Vikas’ field when Jayant Barve’s organic farming yields are higher?  I can only conclude that the reason for the variance is due to knowledge.  Organic farming is not a science, but an art that can only be mastered with training and experience.  Jayant Barve is not your average Indian farmer.  He is highly educated (able to quote Rachel Carson) and spent many years in organic farming.  He is also from a wealthier family that has 30 acres of land to sustain the ecosystem necessary for organic farming.  Unfortunately, the average Indian farmer does not have access to that kind of resources.  Moreover, they are getting bombarded with information from all sides – government, neighbors, businesses and non-profits – and many of these sources are giving them conflicting information that they don’t know who to listen to.  As such, they rely on look-and-see and stick to whatever methodology has worked for them.  In this case, chemical farming, as the results are much more distinct in the short run.  The market for organic food in India is there.  During our visit to the mandi, the middleman had told us that he would buy any and all organic produce he can get his hands on because they sell almost immediately.  I believe that in order to have Indian farmers adopt organic farming to reverse the damage done by the Green Revolution, education is vital.  Not all farmers can do organic farming because of the limited land they have, but for those who can, they need to be properly trained organic farming.  They need to be able to see for themselves the benefits of organic farming.  Until then, Indian farmers will continue to overuse chemical fertilizers and destroy their precious land.

  

04/09/2010

Morning at the Mandi

By Weisen Li

The air was filled with spices.  I could hardly breathe without sneezing or tearing.  It was early in the morning and we are touring the mandi, a wholesale market run by the APMC (Agriculture, Produce and Market Committee, a branch of the Ministry of Agriculture).  This is the place where the farmers bring their harvest to sell.  At first glance, the mandi looks frenzied and disorganized – piles of vegetables littering the ground, trucks driving through crowded areas and people shouting over the noise.  However, there is order in this chaos.

An average farmer would travel 20 kilometers to a nearby mandi (each town or city has one) to sell their produce to an APMC licensed commission agent.  The commission agents take an APMC set commission rate of 6% for onions, potatoes and garlic, and 8% for fruits and vegetables.  They then sell the goods to a buyer in the form of a wholesaler, retailer, business or processor.  APMC takes a 1% cut of the transactions which is paid by the buyer.  75% of the goods sold are to wholesalers and retailers while only 25% is sold to businesses and processors.  However, businesses and processors have increased their share from 5% to 25% in the past 3-5 years as a result of increasing consumption of processed foods.

Prior to the trip, we studied the ITC eChoupal Initiative case where it mentioned that farmers were taken advantage of due to their lack of market price knowledge.  This, based on our observations and interviews, does not seem like the case as the farmers would generally have price expectation of ± 5% of actual price through cell phone communication.  With so many commission agents at each mandi, the farmers can just as easily sell their products to the agent next door.  Commission agents also have the incentive not to take advantage of the farmers as it could cause their license to be revoked.  APMC store space and agent licenses can be traded for up to Rs 2,500,000 to Rs 4,000,000 (~$55,000 to $89,000 USD) on the grey market.  With that said, farmers still bear tremendous risks.  Any cost as a result of spoilage or damage (as judged by the commission agents) is carried by the farmers. 

The real challenge for farmer income generation lies in timing.  Currently, limited access to cold chain and reliance on weather for water supply forces the farmers to sell their produce immediately after harvest.  Unfortunately, harvest time is also the peak season and as a result, goods are being flooded into the market at a low price.  NGOs like International Development Enterprise (IDE) are working with farmers to provide them with affordable water irrigation technology to solve the water supply issue but the country is in desperate need for more cold chain infrastructure.  Until cold chain infrastructure is freely accessible, the Indian farmers will have a hard time improving their income generation.

India Entrepreneurship Roundup

On our last day in Mumbai, the India Agriculture Study tour team got together to discuss and record their final lessons learned from two weeks in India. Our last session of the day involved identifying the top agricultural business ideas that came out of the trip. Here’s a number of them from all 10 MIT MBA students:

·         Create a Indian domestic chain of urban organic food stores
·         Start an organic food export chain for high value non perishables such as teas, spices, cocoa
·         Form an organization to build incentivizes for farmers to create cooperatives
·         Build a business around bringing back the originality of the agricultural products to the Indian domestic market
·         Solve the spoilage rate problem through low cost cold storage solutions
·         Create food transport hubs
·         Develop "on the farm" basic processing techniques
·         Build schemes to prepay farmers for products like organic milk
·         Form an organization to feed/support families during the transition from conventional to organic farming
·         Use the cold chain from other sectors such as health (vaccines) for perishables transport from rural areas
·         Encourage Indian consumers to buy plots of organic farms, taking part in the entire process
·         Create a Kiva model for farming (support networks, volunteer and travel programs)

While the class is over, our creativity around agricultural innovation is not. Teams of students are forming around some of our final debrief ideas. If you’re interested in getting involved, feel free to email me at edhawan@mit.edu.

04/02/2010

Collective Identity

By Rodolfo Nobrega

My job was to follow and support the MIT group in the Brazilian Sertão, in Pernambuco State. Sometimes I’ve tried to give my point of view and sometimes to translate the farmers’ dialect. I also work with some communities in the Sertão of Paraíba State (neighbor of Pernambuco) in my masters (is about water management of small water systems: cisterns, alluvium systems, etc.).

The meeting with Diaconia on the first day was a typical research approach with NGO, except for one thing: the farmers’ participation. There we could hear and see some evaluation of the Diaconia’s work in their perspective. It was the beginning of our field work in Sertão.

My visit to the Ivan’s farm was with Reebie and Vimala. In their case, a new world called Brazil. Like children, when see a new world, they brought a lot of questions to me. These questions provoked me to review my perspectives. To me, in this case, the agroecologic initiative was a new knowledge to absorb.

The main discover in the trip – in my point of view - was realize how the farmers in this region are organized. I mean the collective identify.

I heard a lot of questions trying to find out why the systems doesn’t work like a business cooperative or a supply chain to feed the local (or even regional) food market. But first, we need to know what are their goals with the agroecologic bussiness, and what are the different points of view between the NGO and farmers. Collective identities are necessary if people are to believe that they can collaborate. These identities can develop when leaders and initial collaborative practices help frame ideas in new ways, cause networks to expand, build confidence among participants about their ability to work together, and led others to recognize a given set of actors as a group, as we saw sometimes.

In Brazil, new participative institutions (participative budgets, local councils of politics and managing plans) were established strongly since the current Federal Constitution of 1988, which opened space to something called “participative democracy”. In addition to it, the concept to social capital is inserted when is referred about the group’s capacity to develop a trust and cooperation network to reach collective benefits.

The influence of factors not only technical but also political, economic and cultural makes the process much more complex, and management style that tends to prevail follows a logical social-technique logical.

Collective identity need not exist prior to initial attempts at collaboration but its emergence often requires the strategic work of organizations and leaders who promote small-scale collaborative initiatives, connect previously unconnected groups and disseminate new frames about the nature of a group and the problems it can solve.

It is widely believed that resources are overused as a consequence of the inability of local communities to establish viable regulations that would guarantee a more efficient work. Commom NGO rhetoric, on the other hand, holds that local communities share common values about rights and management, that communal management guarantees equal access to resources and that all community members act according to locally established rules of bussiness management. This ‘ethno-romantic’ position tends to neglect power differential within communities that can lead to strong internal disparities in resource access and control.

But it is a hard challenge organizes all the structure. There are a big number and density of nodes (actors, like Ivan and Seu Baltazar) and links (interactions, like the farmers association meetings) in this governance regime, while deliberation refers to the power relations among these actors and the frequency, quality and depth of interactions, i.e. negotiation and coordination mechanisms, information flow, and approaches to mediation and conflict resolution.

However what happens when in the public arena of representative organizations there are not local authorities waiting to receive power or when there is no pre-defined ‘power’ to transfer? Maybe it is happening between Diaconia and Farmers Association.

People and institutions must be organized and synchronized, agendas must be defined decision-making and implementation capacities developed in ways that they were not before. Currently these labors intuitions don’t have any plan in medium- or long-term about it.

Government institutions have weak technical capacities and no good experience coordinating actions among functional agencies. Non-governmental stakeholders, inserted in the Brazilian social asymmetries, may not be well organized or have resources to cover the costs of lengthy negotiating process.

The question that thus arises is how do actors some to perceive themselves as stakeholders and as potential collaborators or negotiators around those issues? Maybe they follow the classic theory: ‘People only mobilize when the expected benefits outweigh the costs of mobilizing’.

Thank you, everybody.

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Rodolfo with the MIT Brasil study tour in Afogados 

04/01/2010

Brazindia Agriculture and Innovation Trip Comparisons

The 22 Brazil/India study tour participants got together today to share reflections from our trips - (12 students traveled to Brazil, and 10 to India, over 2 weeks in March to study agriculture and innovation).  Although we met with different sectors and researched different case study topics, a surprising number of similar observations from participants in both countries were discussed during today's meeting.  Below are the unpolished notes that I took during the session.

Similarities – initial observations

-   Communication and how ideas spread amongst farmers

o   Brazil – utilizes word of mouth teaching and communication methods, esp w/illiterate farmers,  which was seen as a very effective teaching tool

o   India – word of mouth is great, but farmers need to see the methods proven – ex. On their neighbor’s plot of land

o   India – There are so many ideas coming from so many places  (govt, NGO, farmer-farmer, etc) - “we were overwhelmed [with conflicting information], imagine all of the farmers!”

 

-   Assumption: organic agriculture is a ‘northern’ or elite concept

o   In both countries there was a demand among lower income communities for organics, and they could find it ... not only that, but prices were also comprable to non-organics

o   Brazil – we spent time interviewing consumers at the agroecological fair and they bought because the items were healthier for their families and the earth

o   India – the perception was that organic products “just taste better”, and are better quality than conventional, pesticide-ridden food

 

-   There are two pieces of the agricultural economy  - agrobiz and small farmers – and each sector doesn’t really even talk to one another.

 

-   Commodities / agribusinesses are needed to ‘feed the economy’

o   In India, gov’t subsidizes rice and wheat to feed the country

o   Agrobiz drives GDP in Brazil and India

 

-   But, small farmers are needed to ‘feed the country and its people’:

o   Brazil, 60% of food for domestic consumption comes from the country’s small farmers

-   Patience is a virtue when working abroad:

o   Last minute case research meetings in both countries produced very interesting results

o   ex. Cotton in Brazil, Dairy in India

03/30/2010

Two very different takes on one farmer's experience

Reflecting on our two weeks in Brazil, I think about the diversity of opinions and approaches to sustainable agriculture and poverty reduction.  Healthy debates abounded on the bus rides in and out of the Brazilian sertao.  Two recent blog posts reminded me of this - Adah and Aaron had VERY different takes on the exact same experience that the two of them had on Baltazar's farm. 

Aaron took the self-proclaimed, more 'capitalist,' Wall Street approach, critiquing the model of farming in rural, arid regions of Brazil, while Adah viewed Baltazar as a flourishing entrepreneur and innovator who has "implemented many new technologies and farming methods" on his small plot of land.  Like Aaron, Adah also took a market oriented approach, reflecting that "These small farmers took on a new way of farming, not, as one would perhaps assume for survival, but to carve out new market opportunities."

Both question how sustainable the method of development is when it is heavily supported by a local NGO, and what the role of the NGO is, while acknowledging that there aren't many other options for farmers in this region - I wonder what else can be done in a region where options are so limited, in a place that's been left behind by the rest of Brazil.  I muse about the drought-stricken 'Environmental Migrants' of the region.

I encourage you to read the posts and comment on both... you can visit Aaron's and Adah's posts to see my critique and those of others.... consider leaving some thoughts of your own!


The Tradeoff: Sustainability, Welfare, or Charity?

by Aaron Scott Green

I admit it, I am a capitalist:  A big, bad, American capitalist who believes in the paradigm of consumer driven competitive markets.  I used to work on Wall Street.  The derivatives trading desk of one of the largest banks in the world that got us into the current economic crisis, I regretfully once called “Home.”

I am not apologetic.  The world is a competitive landscape where you either sink or swim. I just hope to stay afloat, maybe on a beautiful yacht along the way.  So why would I volunteer to participate in a trip that researched subsistence farming in rural Brasil?  11 women, 1 lone male for 2 weeks: Am I crazy?  Probably!

Brasil is not totally new to me, nor is farming for that matter.  I grew up on a pseudo “gentleman farm,” have worked for a fertilizer company, done landscaping for several years, and have close family friends who are large farmers in Brasil and are heads of some of the largest agriculture commodity trading companies in South America and the world.  So again, why study rural subsistence agriculture in a region so far away from what I like to call home?

Perhaps it is the challenge of changing my beliefs, my assumptions, and my value system.  When I reflect on who my closest life-long friends are, they are people who intelligently challenge everything I say, do, and believe.  They are people who can present an argument clearly, can play a strong devils advocate, and are not afraid to refuse to back down.  I wanted to explore whether my classmates, especially those with experience in the NGO world, had the same “chutzpah” as those who I call my closest friends.  Could they hold their own, and present equally sound arguments as those from the cut throat, heartless, finance world?  I was pleasantly surprised.  I left with far more questions then answers.

When I arrived at Baltazar’s farm in the rural arid Northeast I was immediately reminded of John Steinbeck’s description in Grapes of Wrath of the tumbleweed rolling through the arid plains of Oklahoma.  The ground was parched, the land barren, the livestock emaciated, and the trees wilting.  It was a depressing site to behold.  Yet in the midst of this agricultural wasteland their remained hope:  an uneducated farmer with nine children who was willing to take risks.  Baltazar was a true entrepreneur, or at least someone who embodied the spirit of the word.  He took the risk of switching from traditional pesticide laden agriculture to organic agroecological farming.  He couldn’t have been prouder.  He was no wealthier then before but had empowered himself to make choices.  The freedom to make choices boosted his confidence and made him content.  But even more surprising was what he wanted for his kids.  Education!  Farming was a means to an ends – a way of life he knew that was passed down from his father.  But he did not necessarily want the same life for his children.  Rather, farming for him was a means of supporting his family in the hopes that they would have options, the ability to choose what they would do for a living.  The freedom of choice is unfortunately tied to financial independence.  Without the means to support 9 children, at least four were living in urban favellas.  After transitioning to organic farming he is hopeful that for his youngest two, this will not also be their future.

Looking back on my stay with Baltazar’s family and my subsequent conversations with the NGO supporting Baltazar, I was overcome with frustration.  Why was such a kind, generous, entrepreneurial man stuck in such a poor situation?  The answer:  It’s complicated.  But what isn’t complicated is his reliance on a precious resource called Water – and there was a drought!

This led to broader questions.  Why was an NGO promoting agriculture in a naturally arid region?  Why were farmers located so far apart from one another making market aggregation/access all the more difficult?  Why were such limited water resources being implemented by the NGO while they simultaneously promoted crops that are relatively sensitive to drought?  Why promote multiple crops which prohibit scaling thereby inhibiting market access?  Why were antiquated forms of water management and irrigation being taught?  Why could no one quantify any form of financial impact these projects were having on the region beyond pointing to a growing number of organic farmers markets?

Many of these questions still remain unanswered which I have found to be incredibly frustrating.  However the fact that these questions have not been answered has taught me a lot.  What I have learned about subsistence farming in North East Brazil is that it is a multi-layered problem tied to many things, not the least of which are access to capital, education, water, land, work ethics, to just name a few.

To critique those who open their hearts to these people should not be viewed as vilification.  On the contrary, it should be viewed as suggestions of how to make improvements.  I believe there is a fundamental flaw in the current system.  NGOs and governments alike have limited resources and differing and often contradictory interests.  There will always be rich and poor people.  The real question is how large will the income disparity be and how will this impact the freedom of choice and representation? Rather than asking who can be helped we should be asking who should be helped.

Ideology plays a key role in answering this question.  Is the role of an NGO that of a charity, welfare system, or catalyst for creating sustainable farms that can support themselves without external assistance?  Charity implies that the farmers will remain subsistence, will never stand on their own, and assistance is merely a means of scraping by.  A welfare system is similar but implies a broader transformation at a communal level with the underlying assumption that farmers will perpetually be going in and out of the system.  Some may succeed for a while but may fall on hard times and need assistance once again.  Creating sustainable farms that graduate permanently from external assistance is much more difficult.

What I saw on the ground was that by taking too inclusive an approach, eg by trying to help everyone, the NGOs are helping no one.  The problems are too complex and resources too few to try and help the entire population of subsistence farmers in North East Brazil.  Rather, a comprehensive approach that tackles the full gamete of problems is needed, even if the tradeoff is to help a far fewer number of individuals.

If one does not take this approach, farmers like Balthazaar may succeed in the short-term.  Unfortunately, a single relatively minor drought threatens to wipe out nearly 8 years of progress.  Without providing at least security against the risks of drought, poor education, and access to the latest, albeit simple, farming techniques how are the Balthazaars of Brasil expected to permanently acquire the freedom of choice.

You may interpret what I have written as pessimistic and cold hearted, and you would be right.  However, while the world of Wall Street may appear far removed from that of subsistence farming at least one lesson can be learned from the bankers.  In environments with limited resources there are always tough but calculated decisions to be made.  If some subsistence farmers are to ever remove themselves from the vicious cycle of poverty inclusion is not the answer.  Rather focused selection with concentrated access to resources is needed.

How do you measure value?

As Americans, we sometimes have a propensity to overthink things in a way that can obscure the more obvious facts. Here is an example.

On Wednesday we met with Kishore Kunjeer, a broker at the mandi—the local wholesale market in Pune. We discussed how transactions at the market typically worked, who the buyers were, and what they were looking for. Then we started on the topic of organic produce, and he lit up a bit.

According to Kunjeer, there is an adequate and growing demand for organic produce among consumers. However, the current supply is very limited (0.5%) and not consistent. He was very optimistic that as farmers began to see how easily organic goods found buyers, they would begin to switch over and supply would increase. In the meantime, though, there is definitely a premium price on such produce.

In the U.S., folks who purchase organic produce are often part of a growing movement toward health-conscious eating. The higher price sometimes puts it out of reach, and thus the typical consumer of organics either has greater means or is more conscious of food sourcing and health effects than his or her peers. We asked Kunjeer about this, “Are the buyers of organic produce typically more well off than other consumers?” 

The answer was, “No.” Basically, he said, folks go to the retailer and see two tomatoes. One looks better than the other, and experience tells them that it will taste better. That’s the tomato they buy. It isn’t about a healthy living movement, per se. It’s about taste and feeding your family the best food you can. Unlike our increasingly processed and instant American diet, home cooking and fresh ingredients are still the expected norm here in India. So a few more rupees for a better tasting tomato is well worth the cost.

Imagine regarding taste as the highest measure of food’s value. It seems so obvious, but as Americans, we often calculate in quantity and added health benefits as other equally important factors. Think about your own trip through the supermarket aisles. If one batch of potatoes are $0.99 per pound and another is $0.75 per pound, how do you choose? For myself, I know I always lean toward the price that gives me more for my dollar. But if I buy five pounds of potatoes at the lower price, what have I saved? Approximately $1.25? But what may I have lost in freshness and quality?

There is definitely something to be learned from the Indian relationship to food. In general, Indian consumers spend a much larger percentage of their income on food. Stepping back for a moment, it seems odd that we put such a high value on the price tag when the difference is minimal to the average American wallet. This isn’t to say that organic produce in America comes with only a minimal mark up. It often costs quite a bit more. However, there seems to be an opportunity to make more carefully thought out decisions that balance cost and quality. After spending the last week dining here in India, I can tell you it’s worth the effort.