Nina Osswald practices what she preaches about organic food, sustainable living and reducing ecological footprint.

Nina Osswald knows about the availability of organic food and the bottlenecks in the distribution chain better than many of us in the city. She came to India in 2009 as part of the Sustainable Hyderabad Project, also known as Megacities Project, and as part of the food, nutrition and public health division to do a survey of marketing of organic products. Nearly two years of extensive research that involved meeting different stakeholders resulted in the book ‘Organic Food Marketing in Urban Centres in India’, which she co-authored with Manoj K. Menon.

The project involved studying sustainable development in a city with over five million inhabitants. “India has a few cities that fit this criterion. Hyderabad has been growing in the last 10 to 15 years and still has a huge scope for sustainable development,” says Nina, on her choice to work in Hyderabad. She studied Development Geography at University of Freiburg and her research work is for the Humboldt University, Berlin.

Talking to us at the terrace café of Goethe Zentrum, she elaborates on how her research compares marketing of organic food in Hyderabad with that of Bangalore and Mumbai. “Only recently many supermarkets in Hyderabad have begun stocking organic food. I decided to survey Bangalore and Mumbai as well. The research did not involve dealing with those who grow organic food but those in the supply chain — marketers, retailers, those involved in working out marketing and consumer initiatives like NGOs,” she says.

At the moment, Hyderabad may have fewer avenues for retailing organic products but Nina feels there is considerable potential for growth. Availability and awareness of consuming organic produce go hand in hand, she agrees, but feels there is more demand than supply of organic produce.

In Bangalore, she came across a few restaurants trying to go the organic way even though being 100 per cent organic may not be always possible. Consider this: A restaurateur will have to ensure all the ingredients — vegetables, fruits, grains, spices, condiments, tea, coffee etc are from organic sources. In the eventuality of not being able to source completely organic ingredients, restaurants opt for a mid way in sourcing a few ingredients from regular markets. “We came across one restaurant that uses produce from its own farm. Restaurants wanting to serve organic food face supply chain constraints,” says Nina.

Nina feels the growth of organic food sector will also depend on the respective state governments. She cites the case of Sikkim which is striving to become completely organic by 2015. “The Sikkim government is taking concrete steps to support organic farming,” underlines Nina. Traditionally, while governments have offered subsidies and training facilities to conventional methods of farming, with some push, the organic sector stands to gain, adds Nina.

Her research on organic food has also made her more conscious of what’s on her plate. Nina has been a vegetarian for the last 17 years, even in Germany where she grew up. On moving to India, she met likeminded eco-conscious people and took the next step. She turned vegan.

Before she discuses her veganism, Nina emphasises that eating organic is more than just saying no to chemicals. “It is a holistic system of production and working in harmony with natural cycles and to me, that also means understanding regional food systems. We need to work towards reducing ecological impact of how we eat and being aware of it. If you support an organic farmer you might as well support someone locally than an unknown farmer in Bolivia,” she says. Nina, like many nutritionists, supports the idea of eating locally grown ingredients as opposed to imported grains. “Eat according to the climate of the region and use local grains,” she says. Nina prefers using rice and millets as opposed to quinoa imported from Bolivia.

Vegan for ethical reasons

Her veganism is an extension of wanting to reduce the ecological footprint of what she eats.

Vegans have often argued the varied reasons for their food habits — health, concern for to animals and maintaining ecological balance. “After I made the transition, now it comes naturally to me to eat only plant-based products. Contrary to what people believe, animals are not grazing in idyllic meadows in villages. Animals are being tortured, kept away from their calves and reared to get the maximum dairy produce,” she says.

Intrinsically, dairy products have been part of Indian cuisine. If one doesn’t subscribe to the idea of completely giving up milk, dahi, butter, ghee and cheese, Nina suggests we look at the quantity of dairy we consume. “Dairy wasn’t consumed in such large amounts earlier. Ghee was expensive and milk was used in limited quantities. The sheer increase in consumption has lead to torturing of animals. Even limiting consumption helps in reducing ecological footprint,” she says.

Is it tough being a vegan? Not if you learn to make milk, butter and cheese out of non-dairy sources, says Nina. “If you eat out often, you will find dairy products being used in many dishes. But if you make your own food, it’s simple. A blender, water and power supply is all that one needs to make nut milk or nut butters,” she says. This Saturday, Nina will be conducting a vegan workshop at Goethe Zentrum teaching participants to make milk from nuts like almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds and a few other grains. “You don’t need to give up on cheese. You can make it from non-dairy sources. Cheese is nothing but protein and fat acted upon by bacteria,” she adds.

Nina is presently learning about organic farming methods in Auroville and is also working on an online directory for organic food in Hyderabad through the website, which should be complete soon.

As she looks around the café, she mentions that the German centre is considering vegan options to be offered at the café. If Nina talks about sustainable living, she follows what she preaches. She is a member of the Hyderabad Bicycling Club and makes sure she uses her cycle as much as possible to reduce fuel consumption.