Can smart cities grow food the smart way

As citizens residing in megacities, we are no longer connected with farming. This does not have to be so.

Can smart cities grow food the smart way

Saahil Parekh
Did you know that a farmer growing cauliflower goes through an immense ordeal to ensure that his produce is white in colour, despite the fact that cauliflower heads naturally turn yellow as the plant matures in the sun? A cauliflower with a yellow head tastes the same and has, in fact, more nutrients than the white one. In the case that the farmer’s efforts don’t yield results, he resorts to the last, and a very harmful, way out. He dips the produce in bleach to make it white just before shipping it out to the marketplace. All of this because unaware urban citizens have come to believe that a healthy cauliflower should be blemish-free and white in colour. 

As citizens residing in megacities, we are no longer connected with farming. We no longer care about where our fruits and vegetables are coming from, understanding how to identify the good ones from the bad, and their nutrition value. It is an irony that we check for energy and nutrition charts on manufactured foods that we pick off the shelves or burger meals that we order at the counters of fast-food restaurants, but hardly give any thought to the salubriousness of the vegetables we buy at the sabji mandi. Our only criterion is how cheap, and the presence of pesticides or other harmful chemicals doesn’t even play on our minds. 

Sadly, this story pretty much goes downhill from here. The hyperlocal grocery-delivery start-ups are making it so easy for us to get our vegetables and fruits: doorstep delivery at a time of your convenience, replete with cashbacks and discounts! I wouldn’t be surprised if, 10 years from now, I ask a child “where do potatoes come from?” and she responds “Grofers” or “Spencers.” 

It is inimical and unfortunate that economic development through industrialization has transpired in such a way that the dichotomy between rural and urban areas has increased. What is worse is that the perceived contrast in people’s minds has increased even more than the actual dichotomy: urban areas are strongholds of manufacturing, trade and hi-tech gizmos, while the rural areas are synonymous with agriculture and cottage industries. The result of this bifurcation is particularly disastrous for the food sector. 

A complicated supply chain exists to bring the vegetable produced in a rural farm to an urban household. Bound by his own profit-seeking mind-set, every middleman who enters this supply chain tries to pander to our need for cheap (and superficially good-looking) vegetables while ensuring a hefty profit for himself. What happens then is that only 20% of the money you spend on buying the vegetable reaches the farmer who grew it. The remaining 80%, as a study of the supply chains and retailing of fresh vegetables and fruits in Andhra Pradesh shows, goes into the pockets of the multitude of middlemen for bringing the produce to you. 

And because the sector is extremely competitive, and because the end-consumer is increasingly becoming more and more unaware, the use of pesticides and other chemicals to artificially improve and preserve the produce is ubiquitous in India. Harmful, alien chemicals are secretly invading our lives, as a culture of infectious greed grips the entire supply chain. At any given point, someone somewhere along the multiple touch points is trying to get rich by altering, substituting, passing off or turning a blind eye to unacceptable processes and materials. It should come as no surprise then that India uses nearly 90,000 tonnes of pesticides every year, making it the largest producer and one of the largest users in the world. 

The food problem is intangible right now because the harmful effects of consuming these chemicals, milligram by milligram, materialize ever so slowly. But one thing is certain: by 2030, when half the country’s population will be living in urban areas, we will have a Malthusian disaster on our hands. 

And the pervasive usage of chemicals is just the tip of the iceberg. At a macro level, the environmental costs of long-distance food delivery are simply unsustainable. For example, a study shows that the amount of fossil fuel energy burnt in transporting a cauliflower from farm to fork is 36 times the amount of energy that the cauliflower provides to the human body! 

Let’s make an analogy here. The idea behind decentralized energy production, and the consequent importance of roof-top solar projects, is important to a smart city because it enables localized production of the electricity required to power its economy. Energy is produced where it is consumed, and that makes it inherently sustainable. 

Let’s put the sustainability spotlight on food production. Just like energy, food should be grown where it is consumed. The idea of smart cities is incomplete without smart food. Agriculture should become a permanent part of the urban system. 

Some people in cities are involved in their own capacities in farming of herbs, vegetables and fruits on their rooftops, but what is really required is a push from urban municipalities to introduce urban farming as a social policy and to integrate urban agriculture as an integral part of urban planning and design. 

Saahil Parekh writes about all things economics on his blog, Arthashastra, a part of Business Standard’s platform Punditry. Otherwise, he is a sustainability enthusiast and the co-founder of Khetify, an organization promoting urban farming. 
He tweets as @saahilparekh and can be reached at 

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First Published: Jun 01 2016 | 2:50 PM IST

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