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.