In Kerala, agri-food systems are in transition towards self-reliance and sustainability. Through bringing traditional gardening into the mainstream food agenda, and adopting technologies and practices like agroecology, growers and consumers in Kerala are trying to overcome the impacts of external food dependency and related vulnerabilities.
Debates on sustainable food systems are still largely trapped in a framing of technology-led solutions for ‘feeding the people’. But in Kerala, an over-reliance on dominant farming methods is being questioned, and new spaces are being found for growing food, in schools, back gardens and on rooftops.
CONTEXT OF CHANGE
Because of its topography, declining cultivable land, high population density, and a narrow rural-urban divide, experts have argued that Kerala cannot become self-sufficient in food production. This reflected the ‘productionist’ view that food production is possible only by means of conventional agriculture relying on heavy external inputs. However, the recent developments in Kerala suggest that alternatives to the dominant model of agri-food systems are taking root in the state.
The transitions taking place in the vegetable production system in Kerala are primarily attributed to a rapid rise in people’s concerns about pesticide-related health problems. In 2012, Kerala Agriculture University (a State-owned University) detected dangerous levels of pesticide residues, including banned ones, in commercially available fruit and vegetables.
As the state was heavily dependent on neighboring states for most of its supply of vegetables, the University’s findings sparked a rethink of alternative options for local vegetable cultivation through agroecological methods.
The new initiatives being taken up in Kerala bring new hope to what a sustainable agri-food system can be. The idea of ‘safe-to-eat’ food has risen in the public consciousness. To address the space constraints that limit conventional farming, in Kerala vegetable production is now being re-located to all available spaces, including fallow land and rooftops.
But the most striking aspect of this transition is the support it has gained among mainstream authorities. Agroecology-based production methods and urban cultivation have received a place in government policy, as well as in R&D agendas.
Localizing production: To increase the area under cultivation as well as the production of vegetables, the state government launched a scheme called the Vegetable Development Program (VDP) in 2012. The program emphasised subsistence farming, as well as commercial production.
One of the main emphases of the VDP is to bring previously unused spaces under vegetable cultivation. It included subsidies to encourage gardening in household compounds, schools, government and private institutions. Additionally, vegetable seeds are distributed freely to school children to encourage them to grow food at home. To promote commercial vegetable production, technical and financial support is given to groups of farmers, if they form of a cluster of at least 15.
Urban vegetable cultivation: Urban vegetable gardening is a specific focus of the VDP. Nearly 10% of the program’s total annual budget is allocated for promotion of vegetable cultivation in urban areas.
To make use of available spaces in urban domestic spaces through gardening, with 75% financial subsidy, grow-bags planted with vegetable saplings are distributed to residents. As part of the follow-up, inputs (seeds, seedlings, bio-control agents etc.) are provided to these beneficiaries in the following years.
Agroecology: Kerala already kick-started a move towards agroecology by adopting an organic farming policy in 2008. The policy envisions achieving sustainability in farming and food security by an emphasis on mixed cropping systems, biodiversity-based ecological farming, and replacing chemical inputs with microbial and locally available organic substitutes.
The government R&D wing has developed several types of biopesticides, biofertilizers, insect traps (sticky traps or pheromone traps) etc. for crop health management. Moreover, 40% financial assistance is given under the VDP to commercial clusters only if they adopt Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and Integrated Nutrient Management (INM) methods including bio-agents, bio-control agents, hormone-based pest traps and so on.
Social responses to mainstream initiatives
Even in rural parts of Kerala, home food gardening is a dwindling traditional activity. In the urban areas, rooftop gardening was already carried out by a few people. The new initiatives by the government have helped to boost a revival and diffusion of gardening, along with new methods and practices. On the other hand, the organic agriculture policy has encouraged more people to take up organic farming on a commercial scale.
Both subsistence gardens and commercial farms have adopted many of the mainstream technologies and cultivation methods (while also rejecting some of them). But they have also modified some of these technologies and practices, or developed their own technologies and practices to suit their specific needs.
As people have become more concerned about the quality of vegetables they consume, organic agriculture was highlighted in the election manifestos of both the leading political parties during the Kerala Assembly election campaigns in 2016.
interventions through social media
Social media, particularly Facebook groups, play significant roles in propagating the idea of safe vegetable cultivation in Kerala. The groups motivate people to start backyard farming, and to share their knowledge on how to grow food in small spaces to a wider audience.
As a result, lots of activities have sprung up, such as organic kitchen garden competitions. These also connect with the traditional harvest festivals of Kerala, such as Onam and Vishu. Fascinatingly, the traditional links of such initiatives have also encouraged many people to grow rice on their rooftops, to make sure that their festival feasts are completely poison-free.
Promises, challenges, and way forward
The recent changes taking place in Kerala give optimism that self-reliance on safe food can be part of real development. However, food production from gardens is still not recorded in official agriculture statistics, and the ‘organic move’ of Kerala is still caught in the quantity vs. quality debate.
Understanding who is left out in these on-going processes, and how can they be involved, needs to be given special emphasis by government actors. To ensure an inclusive transition to a sustainable food system, mainstream actors should learn from and incorporate social memories, people’s experiences, experiments, and choices in the research and planning process.
About the author
Till recently, Anita Pinheiro has been associated with the Centre for Studies in Science Policy (CSSP), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. Her Ph.D. research focuses on technology and policy aspects of urban agriculture in Kerala and its sustainability implications. She is an alumna of the STEPS Summer School (2016).