As Indian cities expand, concerns about their rising food demand and the accompanying pressure on the agriculture sector cannot be ignored. Indian agriculture is already under scrutiny for being one of the largest contributors to India’s total greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, it is also vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Efforts are on the government, research institutions and civil society to find a sustainable solution to safeguard India’s food production.
A transition towards an alternative food system offers a fresh perspective for authorities and citizens to produce locally grown food with sustainable practices. According to a study published last year, by WU Vienna University of Economics and Business and the University of Bayreuth, alternative food system focuses on food production at a local level using organic methods. The difference between alternative food system and the conventional food system is that the latter heavily depends on economic value, while the former focuses on democratic value chains, explains the study.
Concepts like urban or rooftop farms fall in the bracket of alternative food system, and Indian cities are experimenting with them. These urban farms in cities across India are small examples of how citizens can practise organic farming at homes, institutions, and other urban spaces that are not traditionally associated with agriculture.
Serving the community
Located inside the campus of Tata Memorial Centre Advanced Centre for Treatment, Research and Education in Cancer, Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, is a 25,000 sq ft, volunteer-run urban farm. The Earthen Routes initiative, started by Manasvini Tyagi, is an example of an alternate food system.
Started almost a decade ago by Tyagi and a few members, the farm operates solely on the funds raised by Tyagi, the occasional funding from brands as a part of their corporate social responsibility budgets, and the fees from workshops and employee engagement programmes organised at the farm.
The farm produces a variety of vegetables, such as okra, aubergine, tapioca, tomato, beans, cabbage, cauliflower, and beetroot. Apart from the vegetables, the farm also harvests fruits such as custard apple, banana, and papaya.
The farm’s organic produce, grown with the help of volunteers, is distributed at no cost to the children being treated at the research facility. Over the years, it has transformed into a community space for people from all walks of life, with farming being the common thread among them.
However, sustaining a volunteer-driven farm comes with its own set of challenges. “Funds and finding a gardener were the biggest challenges while setting up. For one and a half years, we didn’t have any gardener and relied entirely on volunteers,” explains Tyagi. The initiative got the first push after the coffee chain Starbucks donated bricks to build grow-beds and sent its employees to volunteer at the farm.
Unpredictable weather challenges
Apart from the operational challenges, Tyagi has to deal with erratic weather. The farm does not have a system to protect the plants and crops from unseasonal rains or extreme heat. “Weather is another challenge for the farm, but I have made peace with it,” says Tyagi.
This year, as the rains in Mumbai and the surrounding region extended till October, the winter crops at the farm suffered. “We sow winter crops by the end of September. Since it rained (unexpectedly) throughout October, excess rains destroyed most of our seeds. Vegetables such as aubergine suffered, which delayed the harvest,” explains Tyagi. For a small farm like Earthen Routes, erratic weather is a dampener.
In the presence of such operational challenges, staying afloat is an arduous task for an urban farm. Tyagi gives all the credit to the volunteers who nurtured the farm as their own.
In a city like Mumbai, which grows vertically by the day, people are using the limited spaces creatively and experimenting with rooftop farming.
Urban farming has the potential to be a complementary solution to meet rising food demand in cities. The organic kitchen waste generated by the city, if segregated properly, can also be used as compost instead of being thrown away in landfills.
“Whenever there is a need, things will start happening. We need to fulfill these needs through initiatives like urban farming,” says Preeti Patil, Catering Officer, Mumbai Port Trust, a port off the coast of the metropolis, Mumbai, on India’s west coast.
Patil has been working at Mumbai Port Trust since 1992 and she took the initiative to start a 3,000 sq ft rooftop farm inside the Mumbai Port Trust campus.
When Mumbai Port Trust’s kitchen was being renovated in the year 2000, the team was thinking of trying out new ideas. The kitchen, which catered to almost 4,000-5,000 workers then, generated approximately 80 kg-100 kg of wet waste per day.
Patil, who holds a degree in food science and catering technology, identified the waste management problem and sought a sustainable solution. She used the organic kitchen waste and the dry leaves from the dock’s compound for compost and initially planted a few saplings of chikoo and guava on the kitchen’s terrace.
Over time, the rooftop farm had more than 100 varieties of plants, such as coconut, banana, mango, spinach, tomato, mint, coriander, basil, ginger, and more, all grown organically, Patil tells Mongabay-India. However, over the years, the number of plants has declined. As the canteen staff strength has reduced, it is difficult to manage the rooftop farm, she says.
Patil opines that authorities can implement rooftop farms in a vertically growing city like Mumbai with adequate measures. “While designing a building, if the architects take into account waterproofing or the weight of the soil and then incorporate the same into the design, then the upcoming residential towers can support the idea of urban farms,” she explains.
Rooftop farms can potentially reduce the burden on the traditional food system and citizens can access organic food while also solving the problem of organic kitchen waste management. The practice of urban farming also supports the idea of growing local food. “Because it involves nature, you cannot have one size fits for all models. The crop selection has to be local and must suit the local needs,” explains Patil.
Pune, one of the fastest growing metropolitan cities of India, is home to a 40-year-old urban farm in the Pimpri-Chinchwad area.
“We started organic farming in our 40s,” says Asha Ugaonkar, a retired banker living in Pune with her husband, Digambar Ugaonkar, an engineer by profession. The couple converted the backyard of their house, called paras in Marathi, and their terrace into an organic farm. The Ugaonkars convert 100% of their organic kitchen and garden waste into compost.
“It never ended up in the garbage. The compost is used to grow vegetables, fruits, flowering and decorative plants in the garden” says Asha Ugaonkar. Finding a reliable gardener, safeguarding the vegetables from the weather, and sourcing organic seeds are some of the challenges they face.
Today, approximately 40% of the vegetables they consume are homegrown and organic. The excess produce from their garden is distributed among neighbours. During the pandemic, their urban farm was a source of fresh vegetables in the neighbourhood, says Ugaonkar.
“We understand the potential of organic farming, hence, we share our knowledge about organic gardening with people so that the society benefits at large,” explains Ugaonkar. Their handbook titled Sendriy Parasbag (Organic Gardening) is widely used by organic farming enthusiasts. Ugaonkars also conduct organic farming workshops and training sessions at renowned institutes in Pune as well as in rural areas.
One of their students, Amod Rahalkar, who attended their workshop, is now implementing the techniques he learned, to create compost in his terrace garden. Rahalkar, who runs a marriage hall and catering business, uses the wet waste from the kitchen as compost on the hall’s terrace farm.
“Since we are in the catering business, we generate a lot of wet waste. After learning composting, we started using the wet waste to create compost in our terrace farm,” says Rahalkar. In 2018, Rahalkar received the “Swacch Award 2018” from the Pune Municipal Corporation for his terrace garden initiative.
Nature and community
“Volunteering at a farm gives you immense peace since there are no monetary expectations. Whenever I visit Earthen Routes, I feel at home,” shares Nikita Rajput, scientific officer at the Centre for Cancer Epidemiology, Tata Memorial Centre, Navi Mumbai. Being at the farm also allowed Rajput to interact with different people and hear their stories and struggles.
Aditi Singhal, a third-year undergraduate student of liberal arts and a volunteer at Earthen Routes, spoke to Mongabay-India.
“Having a place near your home where you can interact with the soil and plants is helpful. I was not in a good frame of mind during the last two years. That’s when I felt the need to connect with nature by doing things hands-on,” explains Singhal.
While she also relied on other activities for her mental well-being, spending time at the farm helped Singhal come out of her shell and interact with people. “I was more open to interacting with people than before. It also made me calmer and more patient than before,” she adds.
An urban farm is a good setting for children to engage in farming activities and learn about the food they eat. Similarly, it also helps parents to look beyond the conventional methods to engage or entertain their kids. “There’s a new trend among parents to celebrate their child’s birthday in a natural setting. Kids as young as three years old spend time at our farm,” says Tyagi.
Looking at the farm from an organic farming perspective would limit its potential, says Aditya Pattani, who volunteers at Earthen Routes. Pattani started volunteering in September 2021. Initially, he went with the understanding that he has to farm and grow organic vegetables for the kids being treated for cancer. But his outlook changed after interacting with other volunteers.
Pattani, a chemical technologist by profession, believes that the government should actively support urban farms. “The government should view such initiatives beyond the lens of an organic farm, and they should look at it as a space to build a community of environmentally conscious citizens,” explains Pattani.
Urban farming is also an effective tool to create awareness about eating chemical-free food, says Asha Ugaonkar. “Eating pure vegetables and staying connected with nature is the need of the hour. As our lifestyles change, people need to be made aware of the chemical-ridden food they consume. Urban farms are a great starting point for that,” explains Ugaonkar.
Source of livelihood
Maintaining an urban farm is a skilled job and requires the same level of expertise as a farmer. A common problem encountered by urban farms is finding a reliable gardener. A Bengaluru-based startup has found a way to bridge this gap while creating a sustainable environment for the gardeners as well.
Started in August 2017 by Vandana Krishnamurthy, UrbanMali Network is a home gardening enterprise that works in garden setup and maintenance. They practise organic methods and focus mainly on growing native plants.
Through their initiative, UrbanMali Network has encouraged many residents in Bengaluru to practise urban farming and grow food. One of the key components of their startup is that they work primarily with migrant farmers. “All the gardeners we work with are farmers who have moved to the city in search of a job,” says Krishnamurthy.
Farmers who migrate to cities usually work as labourers at construction sites, a job which is not their forte, but they are forced to do for earning a livelihood. “They have immense knowledge about plants and soil since they have grown up as farmers. So, with the help of our existing network, we try to bring them on board and give them a platform to utilise their talent and work in their area of expertise,” explains Krishnamurthy.
Currently, the UrbanMali Network employs 54 gardeners. They set up and maintain gardens of different scales and sizes and earn approximately Rs 18,000 to Rs 21,000 per month. The social enterprise also looks after their health and family to improve the livelihoods of the migrant farmers.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.