'Organic is a polluted word'

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“Catch up,” I mutter to myself, thinking of an old joke as I continue searching amongst the well-sized leaves. At last, I see a bright red tomato. I pluck it and turn around when an Indian woman stands with a humorous smile on her face and a large basket filled with very few tomatoes. Her smile, I suspect, is less for the joke I just told and more for the work habits of my fellow day farmers. Most of my companions have already retreated to the shade at the sides of the field, leaving many tomatoes to be picked by the hired staff. We are lazy, I decide, and head for the clay cisterns filled with water.

I spent last Sunday on a small farm an hour outside of Hyderabad learning the secrets of organic farming thanks to the organization, Farm Tours. Along with several other American students, Indian businessmen and one young family, we picked tomatoes, cabbages and had a generally bougie experience while trying not to get in the way of the real workers carrying on around us. The farm belongs to, no lie, Farmer John, a techie who simultaneously worked at Dell while managing this farm. While my farm knowledge is limited to denying my friends’ invitations to harvest crops with them on Facebook, I thought I’d reach out to my more agriculturally-minded friends to compare the Indian organic farming experience to the United States.

In both the U.S. and India, I learned, “organic” has less to do with the farming processes and more to do with federal processes.

“Organic certification is a bunch of government regulations,” Martha Abbott, an Occidental student taking time off from college to pursue an interest in food studies, said.

Even more, getting that certification “does not, by any means, ensure the vegetables are up to snuff or the land is properly treated,” according to Abbott. In India, there are over 3,000 tribal farmers whose work could be certified organic, but lack the knowledge, financial resources and probable desire to be recognized by the government. Describing his own struggles with the local agricultural board, Farmer John grumbled, “organic is a polluted word.”

Beyond a distaste for government regulations, the Indian organic farmer shares several aspects with those in the U.S.. According to undeclared first-year Madison Rudd, who spent last summer on an organic farm in Williams, Ore., two traits her coworkers shared were a desire to live away from the city and financial independence. In Medchal, many of the businessmen present sought to follow in Farmer John’s footsteps, expressed an ahistorical desire to return to the low-stress and low-pollution lifestyle of their village ancestors.

Other similarities include soil additives (Fish emulsion is popular), and the clientele of the organic farms (Some of the these similarities might come from the fact that Farmer John learns tips and tricks from Western organic farming videos on Youtube). Farmer John’s produce is exclusively bought by upper class Indians.

“I find those who understand what organic is, and are willing to pay premium prices for it,” Farmer John said.

Many of those people have also spent time in the U.S.. A fellow farm tour participant, who had just moved her family from Atlanta back to India, represented that population.

“Organic comes from a problem,” she said, describing the growing desire among certain people for clean, guaranteed safe food.

Not everything mirrored the world of American organic farming. While Farmer John claimed to have done the watering in the morning while we were there, he was rather hands off. The work we saw was done by one man and several women, all middle aged and from a lower caste than the owner. This contrasts Rudd’s experience on her farm, where the average worker was in their mid-20’s to early-30’s, held a college degree and was committed to “counter-lifestyles,” according to Rudd. Counter-lifestyle is probably not a word that comes up to often in the lives of Farmer John’s workers.

Several key contradictions underscore my experience on the farm. The businessmen seeking a clean, quiet life are only able to pursue these dreams because of the financial independence they’ve achieved working in their hectic, high-pollution, high-paying IT jobs in Hyderabad. The mother who wants her family to eat organic foods. Would she be concerned about organic had she never lived in America? Who shoulders the blame for the creation of the “problem” that pushes her to desire “organic” today? Why does Farmer John turn to Youtube for farming practices, rather than the native farmers whose techniques have met certified organic standards for centuries?

All in all, the GI-Joe takeaway message is the label doesn’t really matter if you don’t know where your food comes from. In the words of Farmer John: “Know your farmer, know your food.”

For a different angle on this phenomenon on a different continent, check out La Loba Loca’s Reclaiming Abuelita Knowledge As A Brown Ecofeminista.

Ben Poor is a junior American Studies major studying abroad in Hyderabad, India during the Spring 2014 Semester. He can be reached at benpoor1@gmail.com or on Twitter @WklyBPoor.