A few days ago, under the ongoing lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus in India, Diipti Jhangiani—a resident of Bandra in Mumbai, India—was walking through a 50-square-metre patch of land inside her building complex. In it were robust hedges of tomatoes, carrots, okra, spinach, papayas, chikoos, drumsticks, bitter gourd and other vegetables. She dug up some fresh turmeric to take back home. “During a crisis like [this pandemic], there will always be a shortage of food for those who can’t afford it,” says the 34-year-old urban farmer and the founder of an agricultural startup called Edible Gardens. “And even for those who can, there are some shortages. We’ve run out of haldi (turmeric) in the stores nearby. But I’ve been growing haldi in my community farm in my society, so we’re using that instead. And it’s so much fresher.”
A few years ago, when Jhangiani started converting barren public spaces to community gardens—like the one she created in her building complex three years ago—she mostly heard people calling it a “silly gardening hobby”. “Right now though, I have to say, it’s very gratifying to see that people are talking about growing your own food and managing your own waste. There are elderly people who come to take bitter gourd from the farm, which is excellent for purifying blood,” she tells VICE. “The real interest in urban farming will only show once the lockdown is over. It will show if people really mean to change. But it’s good to have started this conversation, finally.”
Across the world, the pandemic has brought to our notice many fallouts—from the failing public health systems to our fragile mental health to the economic slowdown to the glaring rich-poor divide. But there’s another aspect that is slowly bringing the world to its knees: the fear of food shortage. In every country where lockdowns have been imposed in order for the people to maintain social distancing to contain the spread of the virus, there have been reports of panic buying and hoarding in literally every country possible. While many faced empty shelves at supermarkets and stores, others found a huge segment of their population not able to feed itself. And this is despite the fact that some reports say there is really no major concern for global food security yet.
The perception of food shortage and fears of inflated prices, along with disruptions in food supply chains subsequently point to the fact that there is a high possibility that we’re on the verge of, or are heading steadily towards a breakdown. This trend even led global agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) to predict massive food shortages across the globe. “Uncertainty about food availability can spark a wave of export restrictions, creating a shortage on the global market,” said a joint statement by UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), WHO and World Trade Organization.
In fact, developing countries are currently at risk of facing famine as well as food riots. Dominique Burgeon, the director of emergencies at the FAO, even warned that the rich should not see food shortages arising from the pandemic as a problem for only the disenfranchised. “If food shortages begin to bite, the impacts will reverberate across the globe,” he said. In fact, in agrarian and rural pockets of the world, farmers are facing huge losses since the lockdowns forced them out of their farmlands, and shortage of labour drove up costs as well as fall in demand.
In India, where the lockdown is currently seeing a huge displacement of migrant workers—who make up 37 percent of the country’s population, and depend on daily wages for survival—food shortages are predicted to cause violence and unrest. “This is something new and very difficult to predict,” Abdolreza Abbasian, a senior economist at FAO, said. “It is that uncertainty that right now is the biggest danger.”
And it’s at an uncertain time like this when the concept of grow-your-own-food is increasingly gaining traction. Jhangiani, who has been growing her own food in the form of community farms, is one of the many advocates of self-sufficiency. In fact, the pandemic has barely made much difference to the way she lives. “My own process started with processing our own waste, and from that we started growing our own food. In urban spaces, there is so much potential to have these farms on literally every street or garden out there,” she says. “And you don’t even need acres and acres of land for this. I’m currently growing chikoo and mulberries in containers! You don’t need a lot of space, you just need the right technique.” Kitchen gardens, which are perfect for the ridiculously tiny apartments that dot most big cities, are seeing a boost as well.
At the moment, the internet is full of DIY kits to help people grow their own pantry literally anywhere. “Look around you and find the spaces that could be filled with food: lawns, verges, community gardens, the end of the cul-de-sac; and if you live in an apartment, a shared communal area—they all work,” writes Palisa Anderson, an Australian restaurateur and farmer. Adds Los Angeles Times writer Jeanette Marantos, “Food banks are already seeing double the demand. Planting food now can help you and others get through the uncertain days ahead.”
The conversation around self-sufficiency in terms of growing your own food has been around for a while, but it appears that the coronavirus lockdowns have pushed many people to do so as an emergency measure. "More people are thinking about where their food comes from, how easily it can be disrupted, and how to reduce disruptions," landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom, who designed Asia's largest urban rooftop farm in Bangkok, told Thomson Reuters Foundation. "People, planners and governments should all be rethinking how land is used in cities. Urban farming can improve food security and nutrition, reduce climate change impacts, and lower stress.”
The trend is also interesting considering a UN prediction that two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050. In many countries, self-sustenance practices such as permaculture, hydroponic farming or urban farming are an exercise to reap many benefits, from choosing chemical-free food, to bringing farm-to-table concepts in commercial settings, to maintaining mental health and creating an aesthetically pleasing terrace/garden. But in countries such as Singapore, where there are no local sources for food and therefore ends up importing a large chunk of their edibles, self-sustainable farming trends such as vertical and rooftop farms, hydroponic farming, or farm fishing, have become a way forward for economies facing food shortage.
In fact, some experts feel that the pandemic could actually set off a few trends, probably for good. “Now more than ever, it’s important to focus on a hyperlocal food system. Growing our own food is the best way to guarantee access to produce throughout the year,” Anusha Murthy of Edible Issues, a platform that fosters a dialogue around food systems, tells VICE. “Urban gardens can be a great solution for those of us who can afford it and access it. A community-driven approach to growing food would be a smart solution as well. For us to reach towards self-sufficiency in food, knowing at least where our food comes from is a crucial first step.”
Jhangiani adds that while there will always be some reliance on stores for urban dwellers for items such as grains or oil, self-sufficiency can also extend to other everyday things—like making your own detergent (with orange and lemon peels), or utensil-cleaning solution (featuring water, soap nut water and lemon water) or even toothpaste (includes baking soda and coconut oil). “Self-sufficiency should extend to other aspects of living as well,” says the urban farmer.
It’s also interesting to see how the pandemic is radically driving conversations on self-sufficiency as opposed to several years of activism by climate crisis activists. Perhaps it’s got to do with our collective vulnerabilities, which is pushing us to seek measures that would save us from a whole lot of anticipatory anxiety about the uncertain future. In the US, Google searches for “home farming” jumped by 50 percent last month, along with (and curiously so) a 75 percent jump in searches for “how to raise chickens”. “Food security and sustainability are a very hot topic right now,” Phyllis Davis, the president of Portable Farms Aquaponics Systems in the US, told The New York Times.
In India, Murthy observes that the pandemic has forced urban dwellers to look at their local food systems, and understand them better. “Resources to cook have become limited and people are going back to traditional recipes and learning to cook with ingredients they normally wouldn’t use,” she says. “There’s another section of people creating and innovating on dishes with what they have.” This could perhaps explain a whole lot of baking and cooking on social media, while Murthy also adds that the pandemic is pushing more men into the kitchens.
But the pandemic could actually not be so bad for the small and marginal farmers, who are still the biggest providers of food to India’s 1.3 billion population. In fact, the pandemic and its impact would probably spare them, and the shift to local foods could potentially even help some of them. “‘Farm to table’ is tradition in India, not hipster fad,” journalist and author Samrat writes in his column Indian digital website, Firstpost. “It may also help build resilience in societies and economies to the vicissitudes of globalisation, of which the present global pandemic is an example.”
In the end, sure the world is in a deep mess, and yes, we have yet to see the final fallouts, but perhaps it’s worthwhile to remember that every crisis has a lesson. And this one is in the kitchen.
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