Monday, May 31, 2010

What's So Special About Vegetables?

I recently attended a board meeting of the Covenant Centre for Development (CCD), a social enterprise based in the city of Madurai. CCD has promoted a company called Aharam, that is owned by the cultivators of traditional crops. Aharam procures and sells these crops. Millets loom large amongst these traditional crops, and have a higher nutritive value than the rice and wheat that have replaced them as the staples of most Indian families. CCD therefore saw an opportunity in the burgeoning market for health foods and drinks.

My first exposure to the food and agriculture sector was through 2 studies that I conducted in 2004. The first was on the procurement of supplies for, and management of, South Indian eating places in rural and urban areas, popularly known as "hotels". This study confirmed my suspicions that vegetables are difficult to find for sale in rural areas. The second study was on the cultivation of traditional crops.

During my Master's, I was hired to conduct historical research on the spread of rice, wheat and maize cultivation all over the world. Although my job was just to make maps, the subtext of my research was that these 3 crops had replaced the much greater agro-biodiversity that we had had earlier, and that this was a bad thing. So, the Aharam concept is one that I can agree with wholeheartedly.

In addition, what differentiates CCD from other similar initiatives is that they are not satisfied with just getting producers better prices for their crops. Their concern is that even with an increased income, farmers are often not able to purchase what they produce, and they are forced to make alternative, inferior choices. There are numerous examples of this. Potters use plastic buckets themselves, cotton farmers wear polyester saris...

Priti Ramamurthy writes about this cotton growing, polyester wearing phenomenon here. Unsurprisingly, the reasons that women wear polyester saris are complex, and it is not only because cotton saris are inaccessible to them. High amongst them are that polyester saris look "modern", and can withstand a hard day of farm labour without getting crumpled. Similarly, when it comes to food, not being able to afford fruits and vegetables (and increasingly, pulses), is certainly a cause of malnutrition. But malnutrition is also a result of poor food choices. I have seen poor women throw out the vegetables in their sambar (stew), or eat "mixture" for breakfast. An important element of Aharam, therefore, is the promotion and sale of millets for local consumption.

However, I now also know that while the Aharam company picks up the produce from the farmers' doorsteps, paying them instantly and saving them the costs of transportation, Aharam is not able to offer prices that are substantially higher than what producers get from the middlemen. This could be because there is insufficent demand for millets, whether for health foods and drinks, or local consumption. Aharam has recently ventured into the mango business, which looks like it might be more profitable. Yet, even when it comes to fruits, I know that banana farmers all over the world can hardly make ends meet on their earnings. Even with fair trade prices and premiums, there are questions now being asked as to whether farmers get enough to live on.

It was in the midst of all this gloom that I read Fisher's "Income Is Development" for the nth time. This is the article I mentioned in my last post, but for those of you who didn't read that one, you can find it here. I highly recommend not only Fisher's article, but also the case discussions that follow it.

I have a lot of respect for Fisher's organization, KickStart, because they seem to take their responsibility to monitor and evaluate their work very seriously, which not all social enterprises do. So when Fisher says that the average net income of farmers using their "Super-MoneyMaker" irrigation pump has increased from US$110 per year before buying it to US$1,100 per year after buying it, I believe him. Fisher claims that the pump enables farmers to grow fruits and vegetables. But what's so special about the fruits and vegetables that KickStart's farmers are growing?

I think there are 3 pieces to the answer. The first is that these are off-season fruits and vegetables. And the second is that they are grown for domestic markets.

In India we still eat seasonally, to a large extent. I live in Chennai, one of the country's five largest cities, and the cauliflowers that I get in the summer (when they're not in season) are among the sorriest-looking vegetables I have ever seen. We don't tend to import fruits and vegetables from around the world, and although this may change with the entry of Walmart and Carre Four, for now they seem focused on procuring domestically. So it makes sense that a farmer who's able to grow glowing, white cauliflowers in the middle of the summer (just as an example), could get pretty good prices for them. Perhaps Aharam should just switch to fruits and vegetables, and forget about millets.

But millets still consume very little water, and are better suited to farms that are only irrigated by rain. Therefore I think the third part of the answer to, "what makes vegetables so special?", is that it's not the vegetables alone. It's creating catchments to collect rainwater + using this rainwater for irrigation + growing fruits and vegetables. Although I have some exposure to watershed development projects, I'm not sure that I ever understood this link very clearly. And I'm wondering if that's because the link has not been made that explicit in development projects.

The question about nutrition still remains, however. Farmers can certainly benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables. But if a farmer grows mangoes alone, how many mangoes can he or she eat?

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