Prem Chavan had worked on the farm since he was a child. Like most in his village of Borkhedi in Hingoli, part of the Marathwada agricultural belt in Maharashtra, his family grew tur dal and an assortment of vegetables. They didn’t use pesticides or fertilizers. Such “clean eating” helps extend one’s life, he believes. After all, his grandfather lived to the age of 105, he says.
After he graduated in civil engineering in 2012, Prem moved to Thane and started working with a construction contractor. In early 2020, the covid-19 pandemic brought construction across the country to a halt. Prem’s salary stopped, his house rent became unaffordable. In late March last year, Chavan, along with his wife and child, returned to Hingoli.
The contractor wasn’t pleased. Chavan was sacked. But he saw the adversity as an opportunity to realise a dream he’d long cherished—to return to farming and do it the old, organic way his family had.
In November, he invited Rishi Agarwal, director of the NGO Mumbai Sustainability Centre and an acquaintance, to his place in Hingoli. He wanted to start and promote organic, sustainable farming practices in his village, he told Agarwal. This, they decided, could be done by reducing the anonymity around the food, and by walking consumers through the agricultural process, from creation to consumption.
The two had meetings with nearly 150 tur dal farmers in Chavan’s village who promised to join the initiative. In January this year, Chavan and the Mumbai Sustainability Centre launched Earth Basics (EarthBasics.co.in), an e-commerce portal that connects the farmer straight to the consumer.
“We have three objectives,” says Agarwal. “First, to study the sustainable agriculture practices followed and introduce nature friendly ones. Two, to increase the farmers’ income, since they often deal with middlemen and lose out. Three, to give every information possible to a consumer about where the food is coming from.”
All the produce from Earth Basics, says Agarwal, is tagged. It includes the name of the farmer, their financial status, the state of the soil in the farm, pesticide and fertilizer consumption, and the vagaries of weather that might have affected the crop.
To start off, the NGO has procured around 1550kg of dal from farmers in Borkhedi, of which 1200kg has been manufactured using pesticides and 350kg is organic. A kilogram costs ₹150. Since it is only the initial stages of its operation, orders and deliveries are mostly kept to residents in Mumbai. “Although this batch has a mix or organic and inorganic produce, we will be transitioning fully into organic food in the coming months,” says Chavan.
The price is high, agrees Agarwal, since most varieties of tur dal are sold between ₹80-140 a kg. “But no one checks the quality of dal at a kirana store,” he says. “If you want healthy food, you can’t cut corners.”
The effort is in line with the growing shift towards ‘conscious eating’ in the recent years. The use of fertilizers and pesticides has been well documented for resulting in damaged soils, air and water pollution, and harmful consequences for its users. A 2019 study by the Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific showed that 80% of farmers engaged in spraying have direct contact with pesticides, which can often lead to poisoning. Plus, subsidies on fertilizers and pesticides cost the Indian exchequer ₹75,000 crore a year.
This has been changing in recent years. As of March 2020, around 2.29 out of a total 155 million hectares of farmland was certified organic (excluding wild harvest collection areas), as per data from the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP). Last year, Mint reported that compared to the total production of nearly 600 million tonnes of food crops, including fruits and vegetables, the share of organic produce was a minuscule 2.6 million tonnes but the revenues from their export was a neat ₹5,150 crore. For context, India exported a total produce worth ₹53,626 in April-September period of the 2019 fiscal year, as per the Union Agriculture ministry.
There are efforts similar to Earth Basics underway in other parts of India. A community support initiative by the Navadarshanam Trust in Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu connects families in Bengaluru with farmers part of their network. For a weekly subscription starting ₹400, customers are supplied their weekly vegetable needs. Farmers Fresh Zone in Kochi, too, helps around 200 farmers within their network sell straight to consumers in the Kerala district. They also arrange farm visits for customers interested in meeting farmers and understand the process.
Over time, Chavan wants to expand the initiative to include more crops: wheat, turmeric and soya bean, ones that are in line with the weather patterns in the region. After the first batch of tur dal is delivered—by the third week of February, he and the Mumbai Sustainability Centre will be applying for grants and crowdsourcing for funds. “This will help generate employment. Once we have an abundance of information and transparency, we can finally pull off all those things we talk about in the big banner world forums like the United Nations,” says Agarwal.