Friday, November 30, 2012

How I spend my weekends

I am volunteer for the Grow Your Food Project (gyfProject) and since last week, I've had the most fulfilling weekends ever because of this association. gyfProject has taken up a stall at Farmers market and it gives us an opportunity to promote the cause of reducing the urban food load by encouraging urban dwellers to grow a part of their own food. Growing your own food is about getting directly involved in the basics of life, i.e. food, apart from generating oxygen and upcycling plastic bottles by using them to grow vegetables. It is extremely satisfying because it directly tackles several environmental and social issues at the same time.

But even more satisfying is the action involved in this project as a volunteer. Typically volunteers grow some plants (that which can be used as food) and give some of these plants for sale. A part of my volunteering role is to make these plants easy to upkeep and make them look attractive. Last weekend we sold 9 planters of Basil and Green Chilly. This Sunday (2nd December, 2012) we propose to have about 20 planters of Basil, Green Chilly, Curry leaf plant and Lemon grass and getting these ready kept me busy till late Friday night.

But that's not all, we also have a gyfProject Organic Food Counter, one that serves 'cultural' food, made from authentic recipes handed down through generations. Volunteers prepare these dishes and its even more exciting for me as I volunteer my kitchen's use for preparing these dishes. Till late into Saturday night  there's about 50 cold-meals being prepared. 5 am Sunday morning, another 50 hot-meals are readied, all set to leave for the Farmer's Market stall by 8 am.

From 10 am to 3 pm, we promote gyfProject counter at the market by selling food, encouraging visitors to buy plants and discuss their different challenges in growing food in their urban homes. This Sunday, our target is to double the collections, all of which goes back into promoting the gyfProject causes.

My weekends have completely changed since I started volunteering. If you're interested in giving your time or space to this project (only in Mumbai currently), please call or sms (with name, age, interest) Saurabh on +91-9930331488. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

India For Safe Food - Signing of the petition

(This post is a petition against the blatant use of banned pesticides of India For Safe Food - and you can sign your petition by simply giving  a missed call to 022 33010031)

(reprinted without any alterations)


An apple a day keeps good health away. Yes, you read right! The government's own reports suggest that banned pesticides like like Chlordane, Hepatachlor and DDT, are present in our food. Chlordane, for instance, is associated with severe damage to the central nervous system nd is known to adversely affect liver, lungs, kidney and the eyes! Further, pesticides not meant for use on particular crops are repeatedly showing up as residues in those very foods

As per law, monocrotophos, known for its 'acute' (immediate) as well as 'chronic' (long term) adverse health effects, and one of the most-used pesticides in India, is not allowed to be used on vegetables. However, monocrotophos has been repeatedly found in the vegetables tested for toxic residues by different agencies in India. Even the pesticides/toxins allowed in agriculture do end up as residues in our food, and well above the legal permissible limits. These are just a few examples of how our food, water and soils in India are getting contaminated by chemical pesticides. 

Just think of all the effort you put in to ensure that you pick fresh fruits and vegetables from the supermarket shelves or from your local vendor, and diligently wash it, cut it, cook it and feed your loved ones and yourself... only to let the toxic trail of chemicals trickle into your system. Fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry and milk are all laced with high levels of pesticide residu - numerous times, above the maximum residue limits (MRL) set by Indian law. Not just this, our drinking water is also contaminated! Worse, even mother's milk is laden with poison. And no one is monitoring or taking any deterrent action to stop this poisoning of the nation!

It is evident that the origin of the problem is in our farms. Here, the Indian Government continues to support the use of these deadlyl chemicals, despite being cognizant of these problems and despite having alternatives to chemical pesticides. this in turn keeps the pesticide industry prosperous and helps them flourish at the costs of the citizens' health. To add insult to injury now the government has begun promoting Genetic Modification of crops (food) as a solution, which is hazardous and worse, irreversible. Instead the government should be providing preferential support to safer alternatives whereas there is not even a level playing field being created for them at this point of time and our anna dataas, the farmers, are left with no choices. Meanwhile they are themselves reeling under a severe crisis due to rising costs of cultivations, indebtedness, health problems due to exposure to pesticides and other related issues. 

The good news is that world-over, there is a growing research and experiential evidence about the viability and benefits of safer alternatives for farming. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, lakhs of farmers have shifted to farming without the use of chemical pesticides, a practice they call "Non Pesticidal Management" (NPM). Reports demonstrate that farmers find this farming more profitable! If there are no pesticides used in food production, there would be no pesticide residues in our food. 

Since the Indian Government shows little inclination to wean off the nasties, and prefers to be supportive of the pesticide industry, we, the consumers have to come together and demand safe food. As citizens, we have a right to safe food. 


As citizens who are being subjected to such poisoning, we can demand that the Government put the safety of its people and the environment ahead of the profits of companies producing such dangerous chemicals and that the Government take responsibility and provide us access to safe food. 

We can demand that the Government: 

  • Promote and encourage organic/ecological/natural farming, without pesticices and Genetically Modified Organisms
  • Ensure access to organic food (also specifically for pregnant/lactating mothers and children)
  • Ban pesticides, which have been banned in other countries

LOG ON TO and sigh the petition.

022 3301 0031
and we'll convey your message. 

We'll take it to the Agriculture Minister for you. 
The website also has information on what else you can do to get involved and make change happen. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Festivals of waste

Early schooling in India is not considered complete if you've not written an essay on Festivals of India. Mine, like many thousand others before me and after me began, "India is a land of festivals...", but perhaps I should have started the essay I wrote as a 6 year old slightly differently - "India is a land of festivals of waste...".

The abundance of celebrations this season of festivals has begun, and so has the traditional abundance of food waste. I must, however, not be partisan to festivals. The issue of food waste is a chronic plague of marriages,  parties, celebrations, and at times even occasions of  commiseration, like someone's death. India's garbage dumps consume approximately 25% of the accounting difference between the farm and fork, filling our landfills with putrefying, stinking and disease causing organic waste. Much of this same waste, it is estimated,  can be brought back into the consumption cycle that could go towards feeding approximately 33% of India's  214 million food-insecure poor.  All it takes is some sensitivity, careful planning, education, awareness, sprinkled with some supporting policy, to taste.

Food is unlike any other purchase we make. Though food may have been bought by us, this act of buying is quite unlike buying any asset - which we could have acquired and chosen to use/dispose of in any manner we deem fit. When we buy  food, we merely purchase the permission from society to consume the food in a manner such that is beneficial to the consumer or others the purchaser chooses. This purchase permission also deems that if the purchased food is not consumed, then it must be returned to society in some beneficial manner.

Food waste happens in many ways, but is easy to control, if the individual knows how to. Here are some simple ways to stop waste of food:
  1. Waste on the plate: This is the easiest and most important to prevent. It not only saves food, but also brings an infectious attitudinal change in the person avoiding waste on the plate. The simple ways to prevent is to take small helpings, several if needed. These frequent helpings are also a way to ensure you allow the stomach to have after-thoughts without wastage. Plate waste must be avoided at home, restaurants, parties or celebrations. The adage that best describes this is best is, "Take all you want, but eat all you take".
  2. Waste in serving containers: These are the usual leftovers. Though in Indian homes most of this gets consumed because of the extremely conscious lady of the house, in restaurants and in celebrations, much of this goes into the garbage. The first way to prevent this is through self-control, by ordering small quantities (some good restaurants I frequent even serve half portions) - a little less is better than a little more. The second is an art that Indian's were good at once, but is getting forgotten in more recent times - request for leftovers to be packed. If you don't pack it, it will definitely end up adding to the garbage as it is not usable by anyone else. Even if you are with important guests you should pack the leftovers. When you vocalize your beliefs in avoiding food waste, you'll probably make a better impression than if you wasted it. 
  3. Waste in the refrigerator: Packed food (home-cooked or otherwise) may go bad in the fridge, often because it does not get consumed in time. But this too is very preventable, and with a little planning, frequent fridge-rummaging, you can ensure that food goes into consumption. Also, there are so many delicious dishes that can be made from recycled food that if you were to try it a few times, it will become a quick habit. You also need to understand what to container suits which food, so that you can preserve it best. 
  4. Waste in restaurants: Restaurants many times are careless, they often cannot anticipate numbers and there is also waste at the table. The way you can contribute to lessening restaurant waste, is by frequenting only those which ensure that their excess food goes into the consumption cycle. Ask your favourite restaurant how they dispose of their waste, ask the waiter how much gets wasted. You can then make your preference more vocal and also protest/suggest that the restaurant call a NGO to give away excess waste to the poor (there several such NGOs in every city). 
  5. Waste for visual appeal: We often peel the apple and dump these precious vitamin C packed parts. Cucumber peels not only add taste, texture but also give the essential fiber for better digestion. There are mango varieties, which have wonderful tasting skin as well. Pea-peel soup has a flavour that is so delectable, that you may permanently decide to make soup only with its peel. So, firstly, do not cut, chop and throw for visual appeal. Secondly, know your veggies and fruits (read more about it) so that you can appropriately use the peels etc. in your what you eat. 
  6. Waste due to excessive buying: When at the grocery store, only buy what is needed, don't over-buy. Often this is the main reason behind the waste. Before going to the grocer, open your fridge and know what you must buy. Choose a store where you can buy the quantity you like, and not what the shop dictates. Most of all, don't attempt retail therapy through food - it only leads to waste.  
  7. Waste due to lack of preservation:Food is wasted due to wrong preservation. Sometimes potatoes left out for long develop 'eyes' or nodes, sometimes they wrinkle - but like several other veggies, there are great ways in which such food can be semi-cooked and frozen for later use. Pickling is yet another way of preserving different veggies and fruits about to go bad. Read more, understand your food so that you can preserve them safely.
This food waste is preventable by action of individuals, you, me and everyone else. 13% of all food can be saved in such manner through individual and community action. Such food if brought back into the consumption cycle will not only improve food security of many poor, but will also reduce the food burden on earth. Of the 7 billion people on earth, 1 billion do not get enough food to be able to be productive. If you do your bit, you'll not just be doing your duty, you'll be directly saving lives. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

How I made my indoor compost bin - in 6 easy steps (with pictures)

Fig 1 - Start with 3 tubs which fit-in (top one has a lid)
Fig 2 - Drill 1/4" holes at 2" distance on top two bins
(both sides) and bottom of top two bins as well

Fig 3 - Tear up newspaper and make the first layer. Make
wet  by sprinkling some water. Adding worms (red) is optional,
but these lovely creatures make things happen faster.

Fig 4 - Add shredded kitchen waste. Avoid meat,
dairy or pungent vegetables (garlic, onion etc).

Fig 5  - Add a layer of leaves/hay and some earth on top.
Green to brown ratio should be 1:3.
Give it a weekly mix. 

Fig 6 - Drill a 16mm hole and fit a tap for draining
nutrient rich compost tea to use in plants. Keep in a dark,
dry and cool space like under the kitchen sink. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

My two-level food growing experiment

5 plant vertical growing unit
When you say the word 'city,' it automatically implies space constraint. But plants need space to grow and we must find ways to meet this challenge of maximizing growth area per sq. ft. floor area. World over many innovative ways have been tried for the maximum number of plants per sq. ft. floor area and I have also learnt from these experiments.  To grow well plants need enough nutrition (and therefore less growing competition near their root), enough sunlight (and therefore must not be shaded by other plants) and enough water.

To meet all these needs, one such design is what you see to above  where 5 plants are growing in in a 5inch x 5inch floor area. I already have 2 more growing units ready for this wall and another 3 for the opposite wall giving me 30 plants in all just on the walls (I am growing tomatoes, basil and lettuce in them, so I call them 'salad sticks').

I am also trying another experiment to give a two level planter system using bottles. Since the bottles have their own earth and nutrition, my logic is that the lower level and the bottle level will both grow well. For sunlight, I am ensuring that that the ground plant is already well grown so that the bottled plant will not block the sun of the other ground plant. I am also growing the shorter plants like herbs in the bottles for this reason and also to maintain the balance of the bottle (they are placed inverted in the earth so too much weight may move their center-of-gravity).

Inverted bottle planters interspersed between plants
In the picture to the left there are spinach seeds planted in two bottles  and there's a third bottle in the direction of the caption growing methi or fenugreek (it may seem like the bottles are broken, but the glass has been specially cut and smoothened  to give it that jagged look on purpose). The tall plant you see next to the furthest bottle is of baby potatoes. To the right of this plant (see picture) is  a white name tag which has scarlet radish written on it. I expect to grow about 15 of them interspersed around this small area because they don't seem to need too much ground space.

If all goes well, in this small 2ft x 2ft floor space I would have 2 bunches of spinach, one bunch of fenugreek, 2 baby potato plants (which should give me about 15 potatoes each) and about 15 scarlet radishes. Not bad, huh. That's not all, the wall above it (to the left) will carry 30 plants in 5 plant growing units which are going to be put up this weekend.

Don't gasp just yet. Look to the left of this picture and you'll the trunk my fragrant chameli (jasmine) creeper which is now in full bloom and makes my living room come alive every evening. Now perhaps, you can say not bad!

Will keep this space posted on the progress of the growing food.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Starting steps to grow your food

Its the start of a wonderful Saturday morning and in case you're wondering what you ought to be doing this weekend, I suggest you try your hand at beginning to grow your food. No better day than today and all it takes is some seed/plant, water, earth and sunshine. However, though we are almost always eager to start off, we sometimes stop because we don't know where to get the seed or the earth/mud or how/what to grow plants. This blog-piece will try to show you easy ways to start off.

It may surprise you to know that every city has more than enough seed-shops/nurseries where you can all kinds of seeds, plant growing aids and other implements. The best place to start searching is obviously on the internet and you'll find plenty of places to choose from ( one simple search pulled up over 100 places for me

What you may see in a seed shop
Visiting the shortlisted seed-shop/nursery can be an exciting start as you will be able to see the variety and possibilities of your food growing journey. The minimum you need for starting is a few seed varieties and some soil-compost mix, The rest of what you buy depends on how much you yield in to temptation.

What to plant: If you're on the first attempt on the GYF journey, then I recommend you start with the easy-to-grow variety of plants. Herbs are a good pick as they many of them grow easily and within just a couple of weeks of tending you'll be able to relish the 'fruits' of your food project. Basil is great to start of as it is easy to grow, sturdy and can be used in a wide variety of salads, continental dishes and dips. The other advantage of Basil is that with every pluck, it grows prolifically giving you the opportunity to gift cupfuls of fresh basil to your family or friends (this act of gifting homegrown food is a wonderful way to spread interest in growing food at home). The other vegetable that grows really easily at home are radishes. Of this, there are over 200 varieties so you can take your pick - white, scarlet, red, red-long among many others. You can easily have your first harvest within just 25 days of seed planting. The radish is also a great vegetable to grow at home since you can use every part of it as food (the leaves can be had cooked and are a great salad accompaniment). Both of them need plenty of sunshine and good moist, fertile soil to grow.

How to plant: For germinating the basil seeds take a shallow pot or plastic cup with about 3 to 4 inches of soil-compost mix. For the radishes, use a deeper container/pot they need the depth to grow long - a typical 10-12 inch deep dish should do fine.

For both, dip holes approximately half inch deep and about 4-5 inches apart, drop one seed per hole and cover with soil.Wet this with water and be careful not to drown the seeds. Spray or sprinkle water twice a day till the seeds germinate. Keep in a warm and dark place till the seeds germinate (the top of the fridge works perfectly).

But feel free to experiment and remember that everything you do will not be perfect at first. But as you go along, you'll get the hang of it and you, your friends and family will enjoy both the process and the product immensely. When you finish this article, I suggest you search for seed stores/nurseries around your area - its the first step necessary to start.

All the best!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The dreadful urban disease - apartmentitis

Lifeless urban buildings
City dwellers like you and me are afflicted by a silent brain-numbing disease called apartmentitis. It does not matter which city of the world you live in, how modern or how old, or even how high its cultural quotient. If you live in buildings which have 'houses' on top of the the other, then chances are you've already caught the dangerous bug and you're probably at a tertiary stage, gradually becoming brain-numb.

Symptoms of apartmentitis: lethargy on reaching home from work, feeling of emptiness, directionlessness, monophobia, TV kinship, insomnia in bed among others.

The taxonomy of the above mentioned disease is an invented one, however the symptoms are not. All urban dwellers face it in short or long stints. While work, play and all types of physical and mental activities give temporary relief from the symptoms, the cause is far deeper and one which can only be rid permanently by bringing the therapy into home - therapeutic home horticulture.

The sheer pleasure of seeing germinating radishes
(the base is the top of my fridge)
Growing plants at home is one of the best ways to cure the mind and body as also to rejuvenate the  spirit and mind. Caring, tending, growing, weeding for plants is proven to have therapeutic benefits (see link

It works even better when what you grow plants that are useful for humans to survive, i.e. to eat, because then the horticultural activity naturally becomes much more important than just a recreational one. Further, when you see the plants germinate, grow, flower and finally fruit, the grower becomes a strong contributor in the process of creation compounding your joy and happiness.
Happiness and life generating
GYF buildings

If this small effort were made into a collective and community effort, it creates a much larger impact of the positive individual effect. It now does not only brings positivity for the people within the apartment, but also those who are outside it. It is through a collective action of Growing Your Food that you can throw the concrete out of the concrete-jungle. And through such a community exercise, the city then has the possibility to get a vertical green foliage with all the trappings of chirping birds and a happier citizenry.