From vegetables to snacks, Kochi has plenty on offer for an organic way of life

Tuesdays and Fridays are very busy at stores selling organic products in the city. It is on these days that the vegetables arrive.

At Green Life, in Tripunithura, Liza David Panicker from Maradu selects vegetables – spinach, onions, carrot, beans – with which she throws in a few provisions. “I make it a point to buy organic produce. After all that has been appearing in the media about pesticides there is no way I am giving my children those vegetables,” she says.

Varghese Chalapuram from Kakkanad buys more than a kilogram of bitter gourd, “My wife makes sure that I buy these. I cultivate vegetables at home so I don’t buy them. Chukku kaapi is another item that I buy.” Vegetables are the headliners at these shops. Vikas M. Chidambaran of Green Life says that the ‘vegetable’ days see the most activity.

Not just vegetables

A sombre shade of dark green sets apart the city’s organic shops from the others. They uniformly wear the green as if to accentuate their organic leanings. Contrary to common perception there is much more to the organic label than vegetables. Organic in this context implies food ‘untainted’ by pesticides—naturally farmed vegetables, fruits, grains and artificial preservative-free processed food.

If traditionally one associated organic with vegetables, today there is enough available to make it a lifestyle choice—breakfast cereal, jams, pickles, packaged fruit juice, henna, ghee, sugar, jaggery, chikki, rice flakes, pasta, snacks and even organic milk powder.

“It is not a choice many are willing to make. And in my experience here, there are very few takers and that means these outlets may not be feasible in the long run,” says S. Krishnadas, trustee of the Organic Kerala Charitable Trust. Krishnadas has been involved in the running of Homemade Organic Shop opposite the Govt. Girls Higher Secondary School, Chittoor Road, since 2003.

In the early days availability of produce was a challenge. Krishnadas remembers going to Pollachi to procure organically grown vegetables. That problem has been solved with distributors for several companies setting up shop in the State. Most of the products have been certified by agencies such as Indocert and USDA.

The problem that persists, however, is transportation. Vegetables and fruits arrive in buses and trucks from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. “Recently the vegetables were left at Angamaly and arrangements had to be made to get them into the city by autorickshaw. The economics doesn’t work out,” Krishndas says. And then there are no-show days when vegetables do not reach on time.

Local organic produce

Hosur, Belgaum, Bangalore and Coimbatore are the centres which send in the vegetables, jaggery, turmeric, peanuts, green gram and other produce. Local produce too features in the organic menu. Plantains, pepper, elephant yam, rice, spinach (cheera) and certain other vegetables are procured from local organic farmers in places such as Puthencruz, Aaryankavu, Muttachira, Velloor and Palakkad.

“Products from every part of the country, even jams and pickles from Uttarakhand, are available here today,” says K.T. Antony, whose store Green World in Tripunithura is a supermarket for all things organic. Antony opened his store in 2009, and in the last five years he says he has observed a sea change in attitudes of people.

This is not the case for the other shops. “If I were to rely solely on the income from the shop, it would be impossible to survive,” says Vikas. Store owners end up pouring money into the shops, Krishnadas avers. “One cannot even break even. Monthly expense comes up to Rs. 25,000. To make any kind of profit the shop has to generate close to Rs. 3,000 per day,” Krishnadas offers a break up. The overheads, inevitably, exceed any income these shops may generate.

The comparatively higher margin (around 10 to 15 per cent) on organic produce is a probable deterrent for prospective buyers.

Writer K.N. Shaji, who is set to open an organic shop, Turning Point, says organic produce should be affordable to the common man. “The profits should be kept nominal so that it becomes a viable choice for more people.” For instance, certain organic shops in the State sell rice at Rs.100 per kg. He warns against people making it another means of making money.

Supermarkets have sections that stock organic produce. Fabindia, for instance, stocks organic produce. But the odds seem to be stacked against these shops which are tiny when compared to bigger brands with their glossy, shiny vegetables and indefinitely lasting products.

A change in attitude among the next generation is the only way forward, says Krishnadas. He makes a strong case for giving a positive spin to the organic story. “Organic is an option that is healthy and tasty. I’d rather shine the spotlight on the positives.”