A recent summer evening saw me driving around town with a load of freshly plucked rambutan in my car.
An unusually good season had left us with plenty of the fruit and I decided to try my luck at supplying some to the neighborhood stores. At each of them the fruit was sampled by the staff and pronounced of good quality but when it came to buying they were noncommittal. My increasing desperation must've been visible (rambutan spoil quickly) and sensing an opportunity the stores drove a hard bargain and poor business woman that I am, I gave in. No money changed hands as I was to be reimbursed only on sale of the fruit from the store and I left with mixed feelings - relief that my produce was on the shelf and not rotting in the car and disappointment at the poor price I'd realised.
The following day I returned to check if my fruit were selling and saw that they were flying off the shelf at more than double the price that I had been promised. A real windfall for the store (whose only toil came in the form of lifting them out of the baskets onto the shelf) and a poor deal for the farmer. On sharing my experience with others I began to realise that mine was not an isolated experience ... that this in fact is the experience of every small farmer in our country.
Everyday we read alarming stories about how pesticide laden our food is and the increasing toll that it's taking on our health. We wonder at the ethics of the farmer who pumps our food full of chemicals and makes a quick buck while we reel from the side effects of his greed. How does he live with himself we think?
But, I'm increasingly forced to wonder if many of us urban dwellers, whose contact with the food we consume starts inside the airconditioned confines of our local supermarket, are aware of the origin of our food and the toil of the people who produce it.
Most farmers I've come to realise are deeply tied to the land and farming is more than just a means to an end. Their connection to the land they work ... the soil , the water, the whole ecosystem... runs deep. They more than anyone realise the need to nurture the land that feeds them and their families.
By the same author: An inconvenient but undeniable truth
This then leads me to wonder what could possibly have turned them to the use of these poisons which harm them and their land as much as the people they sell to. A degree of unawareness of the dangers perhaps... though that is an excuse they can no longer cling to in this day and age. Or a matter of survival for people who despite their sweat and toil in the sun realise almost nothing while middlemen harvest the fruits of their hard labour. Though farmers are philosophical enough about the fact that many natural factors that play a part in determining if their harvest is bountiful it must be difficult for a farmer to digest that even with a good harvest the lion's share of his returns go to middlemen who have invested almost nothing in the process.
Surely, if we want food that is wholesome and healthy we need a more equitable system of returns where the risks undertaken and the hard work put in by the farmer is rewarded. We are beginning to see a move in this direction with the setting up of cooperatives and organic farmers markets where farmers sell their produce directly to the customer cutting off diversion to middlemen. Yet another recent and positive development is that young people, many of them from rural and farming families who have experienced these inequities for themselves, have begun to use technology to create online platforms so that farmers have direct access to their customers and receive the best prices for their crop.
As consumers who have everything to gain and nothing to lose, our whole-hearted support of simple measures such as buying from cooperatives and farmers markets that support local organic farmers as well as encouraging technology initiatives which do the same can radically change the game by incentivising more farmers to go green. In addition I believe it's important that regardless of where we live, in towns or in the countryside, we must renew our own connection and that of our children with the land ...through vegetable patches at home , terrace gardens if we live in apartments and by composting of our organic kitchen waste and utilising the same... so that a new generation of green farmer is born who will ensure that our plates remain chemical free and that Haritha (and healthy) Keralam becomes a reality.