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How do you like them apples?

Published: September 7, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.


I was walking around the grocery store yesterday, scanning the produce section in search of apples. McIntosh, Fuji, Granny Smith, Pink Lady, Gala…reds, yellows, greens…organic versus non-organic.

Considering that I had just spent the summer working at the Maharashtra Organic Farming Federation (MOFF) in Pune, India as an Ethics Center Student Fellow, I took notice of organic goods more than I had before.

I studied the bag of organic apples, which claimed to contain the freshest, pesticide-free apples grown in a lush orchard in Western Massachusetts. I also noticed the price sticker: $4.79, almost two dollars more than the bag of non-organic apples I had just placed into my shopping cart.

I cringed at what Baradkar-saheb (my internship supervisor, to whose last name I would add saheb, the Marathi word for boss, as a sign of respect) would have thought if he had seen me intentionally buying non-organic fruits over organic ones.

Whenever I used to think about organic food in the United States, two vivid images would come to mind: earthy-crunchy hippies walking barefoot through their small vegetable gardens with their dreadlocks flapping in the wind or health-conscious yuppies finishing up at their nine-to-five and squeezing in a quick visit to a specialty independent grocery store before heading to the gym.

So you might be wondering, what could organic food possibly have to do with the Ethics Center Student Fellowship? The fellowship is supposed to focus on working at the grassroots level on a particular issue to promote social justice.

Well, my reference points when thinking about organic food changed drastically after my summer in Maharashtra (a state in western India).

Since 2000, more than a staggering 10,000 farmers have committed suicide all over India, largely due to unsustainable agricultural policy. Indias Department of Agriculture has become a puppet whose strings are pulled by corporations like Monsanto-Maycho and international institutions like the World Trade Organization(WTO).

The WTO, for instance, has introduced patent policy that gives companies the ability to place patents on the production of seeds, which consequently benefits large companies. Monsanto-Maycho instituted a Seed Replacement Program, which encourage farmers dependency on expensive, non-renewable, manufactured seed, leaving them with a debt that is impossible to pay back.

Furthermore, the transgenic, manufactured seeds only produce high yields for the first couple years of use. After these initial years, the yields are low, and the environmental degradation in high, creating a huge threat to food security. With low crop yields and high financial debts, many farmers turn to suicide as their only option, often drinking the pesticides that they had once used on their crops, to end their socioeconomic misery.

MOFF is trying to promote organic farming as a sustainable alternative to current agricultural practices that put economic profits over the welfare of human beings. So every day, I would ride a clunky rickshaw through a maze of insane traffic to get to MOFF. With the guidance of Baradkar-saheb, I worked on a variety of projects, ranging from writing and editing fundraising proposals, updating the website, conducting interviews, and taking pictures.

My Marathi-speaking skills improved tremendously, as I had to speak in the mother-tongue of the other Maharashtran MOFF-ers. As a part of the immigrant second generation, I had always understood Marathi, but had a very hard time speaking it;

my conversations with farmers, leaders of other local NGOs, researchers, and government officials provided me not only with profound insights into the complexities of Indias agricultural policies, but with opportunities to practice my Marathi.

On visits to rural farming villages, I met extremely warm and friendly small farmers, who welcomed me into their community, often with a coconut and a rose. Over rich midday meals of bhakri (flat bread made from sorghum flour) and pithala (a rich yellow stew made from chickpea flour), women explained micro-credit to me, and how they had been managing money together in self-help groups. These groups seemed to provide them with economic, as well as personal, empowerment.

However, organic farming alone cannot end Indias agricultural crisis. It is a step on the path towards environmental and societal sustainability, but it isnt a solution in itself. Like governments everywhere, Indian government is corrupt, and agricultural policy cannot change when the legislative department is manipulated by wealthy corporations.

Furthermore, dowry debts, gambling, and alcoholism in rural communities aggravate already-existing socioeconomic strife.

Marketing organic goods also poses a challenge, because organic goods tend to be much more expensive than non-organic goods, due to the agricultural paradigm that is currently shifted in favor of transnational corporations. This creates a vicious cycle, because while the prices of organic goods will not go down until organic farming exists on a larger scale with larger markets, people will currently choose not to buy pricey organic goods and thus support the growth of the organic food market.

So until I can afford organic apples, or until the paradigm shifts and organic foods are cheaper, Ill have to stick with non-organic. But after having such an amazing opportunity to learn so much from MOFF and Maharashtras small farmers, Id like to continue participating in the movement to shift that paradigm.