About eight years ago, with no background in the field whatsoever, Kapil Mandawewala returned from the US, where he worked, and started growing organic food in 20 acres of land that his family owned in Jamnagar, Gujarat. He was led down this path because of questions he had started asking himself: about health and wellness, lifestyle choices, and whether he was indeed passionately interested in what he was doing. “Farming was narrowed down since that’s where our food begins, and consequentially all our problems with health,” he says.
In this short term, he started to understand the many interconnected problems with the food we eat. The aim, he realised, should be to eat as local as possible, even preferably from organic produce grown at our own home. Soon, he started Edible Routes in Delhi, a service that helps people create and manage farms and urban food gardens, in whatever space they may have, even a narrow balcony. You can’t grow everything, he agrees, but an urban food garden of your creation can create invaluable connections, with your food and with your community.
Here he tells us why this is important, especially in our current toxic world:
As urban consumers, we need to ask ourselves three questions: Who is growing our food? Where is it being grown? How is it being grown? These are central to all the problems with food today, from the seeds being used to the toxins present in them. By making a simple shift, say growing tomatoes in a pot, you’ll have answers to all three questions at least for those tomatoes.
We used to grow papayas in our farm in Jamnagar, Gujarat. This tasted distinctly different from the ones in the market. It wasn’t something special we did with the papayas. What made the crucial difference was the last stage of ripening. None of what we eat from the market have been ripened naturally. For papaya to travel great distances and still reach you ‘fresh’, it’s harvested unripe, wrapped in newspaper and calcium carbide is used to ripen it.Similarly with mangoes: When I ate them off the trees, they gave me a deep memory of my childhood 20-30 years ago. That’s what I call a connect with our food.
Proximity is very important; it gives you the answers to the above three crucial questions. The moment it goes farther away, and the middlemen come into the picture, the answers start getting lost. If the farmer doesn’t know who is going to eat his food or where it is going, he starts getting more comfortable spraying chemical pesticides than if he were delivering it to you. A labourer working for me has started giving me a bag of wheat that is planted at his farm around the time the monsoon is ending, but there is still moisture left in the soil because of which it will germinate and grow. I’ve come to realise that when things are grown in more stressful conditions, with less water, they automatically become more nutritionally dense. Since he’s directly in touch with me and he knows I’ll recommend him to others, this one transaction, directly with the farmer, has given me answers to all three of my questions.
An important aspect is the freshness of vegetables. Greens, especially, shrivel up quickly. When I was farming in Jamnagar, even though the farm was 30 minutes from the market, it still didn’t reach in optimum quality. Any produce will lose half its nutritional density in 24 hours. So the distance the vegetables and fruits cover also determines the freshness of the produce.
One of the things that has happened is that we have lost a lot of our food that were part of our diet, from Malabar spinach to a variety of sweet potatoes, because it is not commercially viable to grow them. Urban farming allows you to get them back and add diversity to your food.