EcoEthic: Food Citizens Building Resilient Communities

Here are some thoughts I wrote for EcoEthic, the Indian Network on Ethics and Climate Change (INECC) newsletter/blog that highlights the experiences of partners, associates, and everyday people from the region. The newsletter brings stories from the ground that relate to building community resilience, education, research, policy and advocacy from a climate change and sustainable development lens. Read the newsletters here

A story that I could never tire of hearing (or telling) is that of the story of the rice – it goes like this:

A woman once heard crying sounds coming from her field. She ran outside to hear where the sounds were coming from and she realised they were coming from unharvested rice lying on the ground – “Don’t waste your food or the rice will cry”. Mothers in many south Asian countries tell their children! 

Sustainability, circular economy, resilient systems, now, especially now, are practices that we are trying to live by to create better inclusive systems for the future. But what has this got to do with the story of the rice?   

More than often we are looking for things or products or spaces to fall in these “sustainable” categories. The story of the rice allows us to reflect on us as human beings and the way we interact with our surroundings — in this case how folklore & culture can deeply influence our behaviours towards food waste, through empathy and understanding of the earth, soil, the woman harvesting and the crying rice.   

In 2004, Jennifer Wilkins defined Food Citizenship as the practice of engaging in food related behaviours that support rather than threaten the development of a democratic, socially and economically just, and environmentally sustainable food system.  

Over the last decade, spaces of food in urban areas (restaurants, dark kitchens, cafe’s food processing/packaging units, CSA’s, stores, etc.) have increased exponentially. In India, the organized sector employs more than 6 million working across restaurants and hospitality. However automated we get people will never cease to be at the centre of the food system — whether it’s growing, producing, creating or eating food. 

Over the last three months we’ve seen many of these spaces of food re-evaluate how they can serve their community – whether through cooking meals for the marginalized and migrant workers or sheltering and taking care of staff, finding new innovative ways to help food producers or simply adapting their business model to benefit the direct community around them.   

We’ve seen many food spaces harness their knowledge, learning and understanding of food and the system to support the community – to be food citizens. 

Over the last few months I’ve got to understand two initiatives with their innovations in the urban food space that are creating opportunities for communities that need it the most. 

Camel Charisma is a social enterprise that aims to develop, promote and market environment friendly products from the camel. It was started in 2010 by Mr. Hanwant Singh Rathore and Dr.Ilse Kohler-Rollefson who work closely with the Raika community, the camel herding community in Rajasthan to revive camel husbandry and to create sustainable livelihood opportunities. 

Setting up the Kumbhalgarh Camel Dairy was one of the ways to do so. Camel milk is highly perishable and using technologies to process, preserve and create lucrative markets was what Ilse and her team have been working on as they developed innovative cheese.

Interestingly the rennet used to curdle cheese from cow and buffalo milk does not apply to camel milk because of its unique protein structure. Working with scientists from around the world and learning from other pastoral communities in Kenya, they now have a cream cheese and a soon to be launched shelf stable camel cheese feta. 

What does this have to do with urban communities and food citizenship? Giving opportunity to new food products that come to market from vulnerable communities is a part of being a responsible food citizen. We may be very far away from the Raika community and might not understand their way of life. But products like these are an opportunity to support not just the Raika or the camels but in preserving a biodiversity that revolves around them both. 

Vulnerable communities like the Raika don’t necessarily exist only in rural India. If COVID-19 has done anything it’s exposed many marginalized communities in cities. One of which was the fishing communities in Mumbai. 

The collaboration between Devleena Bhattarcharjee of numer8, a data analytics company and Ganesh Nakhawa, a Koli fisherman and founder of a startup BluCatch, supported fishing communities during this time of lockdown and have created lucrative markets for them to sell their catch. 

By using technology and data to understand various aspects of sustainable and smart fishing not only were the fishermen able to efficiently source their catch but consumers were/are being educated and learning to be more responsible eaters. 

To make a food choice today is a privileged part of being a food citizen. As we see our choices ripple off to influence communities & biodiversity everywhere – on land and in the sea, let’s make sure that there is no grain of rice left to cry. 

Published 08/18/2020