The next big market for sustainable food

Farm to fork.
Farm to fork.
Image: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
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On Mar. 24, when Indian prime minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown, Mansi Arora was more excited than worried.

The 32-year-old resident of north Delhi thought this would be a good time to stay indoors, read a book, and order her favorite food to go with movies she had lined up. But stress kicked in when she realized that restaurants couldn’t execute home delivery orders—the pandemic prevention measure had blocked all movement. Even after restrictions eased up, delivery services struggled to find gig workers; many of them had migrated back to their hometowns when the lockdowns started.

She walked around the kitchen to whip up a meal, and found only packets of instant noodles and some expired packaged foods. Her local greengrocers were not allowed to enter her residential complex, and all markets were shut. Lacking options, Arora found herself gravitating towards the local, urban farms that had begun delivering fresh produce to her neighborhood. These farms had their own staff and did not rely on gig labor, and some of these had procured the delivery permits that were an uphill climb for uneducated local greengrocers.

“I was never one for organic produce because it has always been so expensive,” Arora explains. But on a chef’s account that she follows on Instagram, she discovered Krishi Cress, a farm collective that also has a farm of its own.

In the month of May, a full six weeks after the lockdown began, Arora made her first purchase from the farm. “I haven’t looked back since,” she says. “While I still rely for staples on my regular vegetable and fruit vendor, I order all other gourmet supplies from farms like Krishi Cress.”

Selling directly to consumers is a fairly new phenomenon for urban farms in India, located on the outskirts of metropolitan cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru. Most of these would produce or source in bulk, and then supply to restaurants and cloud kitchens. “But those orders almost completely came to a standstill during the early months of the lockdown,” explains Achintya Anand, founder of Krishi Cress.

So Anand had to rethink his approach. In April, he started repackaging his produce in smaller boxes, for direct deliveries to consumers. The company has its own farms on the outskirts of Delhi, but also works with a network of farmers in north India. This new approach allowed Krishi Cress—which sources its produce from farmers who grow seasonal produce, and who pay fair wages to laborers, do not employ child workers, and use no chemicals—to continue purchasing from its network.

In the beginning, Krishi Cress was just trying to get by, meeting a short-term surge in demand. “The initial few days of the lockdown were about panic buying because families suddenly were left high and dry,” says Anand. But as the pandemic has worn on, it looks more likely that the changes to consumer behavior might last. “Even though Covid-19 necessitated people to come to us in the initial days, people have become a lot more comfortable buying produce online,” he explains, which buyers traditionally prefer to touch and feel before they purchase.

According to Anand, a big driver of this demand is the growing awareness around the source of what’s on your table, and eating well to stay healthy during a global health crisis. Delhi resident Shashank Mitter agrees. “We all talked about buying organic stuff, but it was always so expensive. Plus no one really knew much about buying sustainably,” says the 41-year-old. “I think the pandemic and the lockdown has made urban Indians reassess their choices, at least for some of us.”

Now the question is whether that realization will stick around, and whether providers like Krishi Cress can afford to keep supplying individual customers once their traditional markets return. As healthier and more sustainable alternatives become available in urban India, its advocates see the pandemic as an opportunity to educate their audience—and possibly build a bigger base of converts.

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From the chef’s kitchen

In some ways, the increasing desire to eat local and sustainable foods is a reflection of what people can’t get during pandemic lockdowns: sit-down restaurant food.

In urban India, as in most parts of the world, the ability to eat more deliberately is a privilege available only to those who can afford it—and those people often choose to eat at restaurants. In Delhi, a handful of restaurants cater to a sustainability-minded clientele by focusing on organic and local options.

Those chefs, forced into rethinking their restaurant business model because of Covid-19 and their customers’ apprehension over sitting down for a meal, have used social media platforms during the lockdown to educate their followers about Indian produce and recipes that didn’t need fancy ingredients.

“At the start of this pandemic in March, I began receiving a lot of messages from people asking me what they could substitute a gourmet ingredient in a recipe for one that was locally available,” says Megha Kohli, a Delhi-based chef and sustainability advocate. “People also began asking about seasonal vegetables, thanks to the fact that none of the imported produce was readily available.”

Kohli began posting recipes on her Instagram account, often simpler versions of Indian kitchen delicacies. A butter chicken recipe, a classic favorite in most north Indian homes, won her nearly 4,000 new followers. “When I was a chef at Lavaash by Saby, I would always promote local cheeses from places like Kalimpong (in eastern India). Diners would ask me for Swiss cheese, or parmesan, and I would have to urge them to try something local,” Kohli says. “But now, even with simple recipes, I see a lot of people coming forward and asking for local alternatives.”

Some chefs have built a loyal following thanks to the ideology of their restaurants—like Radhika Khandelwal, whose Delhi restaurant Fig & Maple used to be packed during Sunday brunches and weekend cocktail hours before the pandemic. “Our menus always mentioned where we sourced ingredients from. So once the pandemic set in, people began writing to us asking for contact details of our suppliers,” she says.

Khandelwal, who sources from Krishi Cress and Tijara Organic, about 400 km (250 miles) from Delhi, says that it was only natural to begin creating awareness about these urban farmers. She became more active on Instagram, hosting live workshops, and talking about sustainability. This also meant creating special recipes using produce from urban farms, and sharing them with her social media audience. This, in turn, led farmers like Anand to create curated ingredient boxes to sell directly to households.

“We had to find newer ways of selling our produce. And these recipes for chefs really helped our business grow,” he says. For instance, while an artisanal pizza tastes great at the restaurant, it may not be the best for home delivery. “So we curated a pizza box, sourcing cheese from dairy collectives like Darima and Spotted Farms. All one needed was to follow the recipe and bake the pizza,” Anand explains.

Those kinds of collaborations point to a growing tribe of sustainable restaurateurs in smaller Indian towns. Kohli, for instance, recently consulted on a project to open a fully plant-based restaurant in the western Indian town of Jodhpur. Raveena Taurani, a Mumbai-based chef, has been delivering farm-to-fork, vegan Indian food and desserts to local residents. On most days, her delivery slots are sold out. And once declining Covid-19 cases allow more restaurants to reopen, these businesses will likely see the same kinds of customers return.

But most chefs agree that this switch to sustainability and mindful eating is largely an urban trend. Will it ever transcend class boundaries and become ubiquitous in India? Can organic become mainstream?

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The sustainable life, beyond Covid-19

“A large part of what will happen next depends on how we spread awareness,” says Kohli. For instance, while people are now buying directly from farms, they may still not know the different, seasonal varieties of grains that they could use instead of the standard basmati.

“Even as a chef, paying extra for that organic tomato is a premium that I have to consider. Not every household in India can afford that right now,” she adds. “I think the way forward would be for the change to be gradual. Slowly shift to buying seasonal and local produce, then think about buying from ethical producers, and then eventually move to organic and chemical-free produce,” she says.

For urban farmers like Anand, this question is much more complex. “The demand and supply for organic produce has to be just right for it to be feasible for farmers to grow crops in that model,” he says. For instance, without using a weedicide, sowing and reaping just one acre of a carrot plantation becomes far more labor- and cost-intensive. “For someone who is growing their produce on the basis of cash flow, this is very difficult,” he says. Organic produce still may be years away from becoming affordable and accessible.

If any of the changes in urban India’s food habits are likely to outlast the pandemic, then, it’s likely to be the slow shift toward mindfulness.

“I think a lot of people have had time to slow down. Some have seen illnesses in close circles, others have lost jobs. I don’t think anyone is going back on a consumerist binge anytime soon,” says Marryam H Reshii, a food writer who shuttles between Delhi and Kashmir. “People around me have started learning things like growing a kitchen garden in small apartment balconies,” she says.

Not that that kind of approach is new, exactly: Plenty of rural, agrarian households in India grow their own produce. But this kind of sustenance farming is new in urban India, where, as restaurant owners and their produce suppliers have seen, trend-setting white-collar workers can have a significant impact on the success of a sustainable business model. “I suspect if this trend of eating and living sustainably can percolate down—and up—the social ladder,” says Reshii, “this switch to a slower life may very well be permanent.”