Harvest of the Pandemic

Fizala Tayebulla

The pandemic has brought in several structural and value changes in our lives. Some of the changes that have transcended us being physically constraint to our homes are the changes in our lifestyles and values of a ‘safe’ and healthy life (ushering in practices that have a fighting chance at beating Covid-19). We no longer are as socially present and have become more mindful of what we bring to our homes and bodies. With the disease looming everywhere and new information coming up daily on the virus, we seem to have adapted some strategies at an individual level to deal with it and hopefully not get infected or pass it on to others.  As I am seeing it, there are broadly two types of behavioral changes in our pandemic lives: one is precautionary (masks, sanitizers, and overall consciousness of hygiene) and the other is towards ‘maintenance and building’. This write up is about the second part; the new habits we are incorporating and even finding new meaning in. A prominent one of which is: food.

As the lockdown during the pandemic tightened, physical market access became limited. Initially, in most places and for a considerable period of time, market places were permitted to be open only on selected days with limited stock and strict admittance rules into stores. This situation following the Indian lockdown, not only created inconvenience but also panic about commodity (primarily groceries) shortage among city-dwelling consumers. The lockdown and this sudden vacuum in the supply and accessibility to daily grocery-needs made space for local businesses that could offer ‘farm to home’ produce that was not only home-delivered but also came with claims to be ‘fresh,’ ‘organic’ and ‘healthier’ than commercially available fruits and vegetables. Additionally, people who had now stayed indoor for months had veered towards home gardening as a new obsession that is celebrated as a win-win: a wonderful hobby that needed discipline and constant nurture for sessile beings, that not only add beauty (and calmness) to our homes but which also yielded edible produce at the end of the effort if done right! 

Fig 1. Google Trends of the past 12 months in India showing an increase in composite Google content on
Home Garden, Terrace Garden and Kitchen Garden


Fig. 2 Google Trends of the past 12 months Worldwide showing an increase in composite Google content on
Home Garden, Terrace Garden and Kitchen Garden

Home Gardens: A Traditional Past

As I highlight home gardening as a trend that is the result of the pandemic induced health insecurities, I do not intend to underplay its presence in the pre-COVID times. In fact, home gardens have been traditionally part of many cultures in places where the land is fertile and abundant. For instance, a traditional Assamese household would have a home garden known as a ‘baari’. It fulfils the socio-cultural and economic needs of the family and helps in conserving plant diversity. The composition of baaris could range from herbs, shrubs to trees that are grown with livestock, poultry, and fish production for the purposes of meeting the basic requirements of the rural household. It is maintained for regular domestic consumption and also has a section demarcated for medical plants used as home remedies. The diversity of species could range is mostly used for domestic consumption but some communities (like the Meiteis of Barak Valley of Assam) have been recorded to cultivate betel nut for its commercial value in their home garden space. (Aquilaria malaccensis, a critically endangered tree species of India, is cultivated in Assam home gardens!) Folks in the cities have replicated this model with modifications and much limited in harvest quantity, in the form of terrace gardens or kitchen gardens for microgreens and so on. Although this version of urban gardening has been practised in the cities for years, it had gained renewed popularity with the pandemic. The trend has been especially fuelled by increasing online content and ‘How to’ videos that have seen a spike in urban garden content since the pandemic started (refer to Fig. 1 & Fig. 2) 

Personal Home Gardening Experience

My family in Assam has always been into gardening. Now, I can only speak from my lived experience in Guwahati City, Assam, and confirm that the city had really dried up during the lockdown in certain pockets, which was especially felt when there was a ban on travel/vehicle use. Which is when we turned to our little terrace space where we grew some vegetables just out of leisure interest. Little did we anticipate how much it would help us in the form of provisional sustenance (limited harvest output) at the time of a pandemic when supply chains had broken down and this hobby of maintaining a terrace vegetable garden in the middle of the city would render us our meals (on some specific days of short supply of vegetables in the market) in the initial few months of the lockdown. 

Our garden was a mix of shrubs and herbs, some of that was a pleasant surprise to us as it flowered and some other plants that just did not take to our gardening efforts. Vegetables like tomato, chili, Thai coriander, curry leaf, and mustard leaf were successfully harvested in considerable amounts throughout the period. Other plants like lemon, okra, and ridge gourd were harvested in medium quantities and were less of a burst than the previous set of vegetables. We faced complete failure in our attempts to grow cucumber, flat beans, and coriander (I suspect it could have been because of our limited skill to nurture edibles and/or quality of seeds or soil). However, we had a grand success (after a lot of waiting) at cultivating oyster mushrooms at our house and plan to replicate the exercise soon. Here are some pictures of our terrace garden in Assam.

The pique in interest to start/augment/diversify plant edibles in home gardens of my family as well may others across the world might have been the result of more time spent indoors with an overwhelming concern and health insecurity brought in by the pandemic. Additionally, there are several upcoming local and small businesses in the organic produce sector that have been supported by incentives and enjoys a substantial market demand, that has sprouted during the lockdown and pandemic period. To me, it looks like a natural shift to an ‘eating healthy’ philosophy that had taken root much before the Covid-19 contagion (when there is no dearth of literature available online on how much pesticides and other chemicals we ingest from the commercially produced vegetables and fruits). As per an Indian retailing website: 

“We have been hearing a lot about organic food, especially since the past 10 years or so. As per an ASSOCHAM study, the Indian Organic market stood at over Rs 1,200 crore last year, and this year the market is expected to cross Rs 2,000 crore. This appreciable markup is on account of the fact that the demand for organic food has been climbing consistently ever since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown in its wake… According to industry observers, there is a possibility of at least a 20-25 percent increase in the compounded growth of organic food in India for the year 2020-21.” 

Kumar, S. (2020)

The evidence of the popularity of organic and farm-fresh food products are convincing in terms of its growing market (modern store chains are already seeing a big rush in the demand for organic food products) and shift in consumer behavior. The Indian export market in organic products currently stands at 750 million USD according to the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA). However, can India introduce sustainable agriculture practices and at the same time improve the incomes of small and marginal farmers?

The future is looking up for organic food, however, we are not yet in a position to claim that organic food products – a niche market – will provide for our everyday grocery needs.

References

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