Is 'farm-to-table' the biggest fiction in the Indian food business? How a noble idea went awry

Farm-to-table may seem like a great concept — on paper. Here's why it isn't working as it should in the Indian food industry

Madhulika Dash September 11, 2016 08:22:49 IST
Is 'farm-to-table' the biggest fiction in the Indian food business? How a noble idea went awry

Farm-to-table. Three words that are supposed to tell us the story of how the food we eat came to our tables. And for the past seven decades, it has been the same story — be it at our homes or the restaurants we dine at.

Then why has the phrase ‘farm-to-table’ gained so much attention of late? What has changed in the long-accepted storyline?

If the claims of practicing restaurants and farm-to-table advocates are to be believed, then this movement is an attempt to bring quality produce to the table — the very reason that people started dining out at restaurants in the first place.

India, which still is an eat-at-home nation, warmed to the idea of eating out only when restaurants began giving them dishes they couldn’t make with ingredients they couldn’t procure and in an ambience they craved. And till the last decade or so, the status quo remained.

So what transpired in the last few years that we felt the need for the farm-to-table concept? Wasn’t our food still coming from the farm, or did we go the US way of eating mostly dubious, canned food and chemically-laden produce (which was what triggered the farm-to-table movement in the West)?

The answer to this, fascinatingly, is all of the above — with a few more additives:

‘Glocalisation’ took place, at both the chefs’ and the diners’ end. So while chefs began discovering newer ingredients, diners, who had travelled extensively as well, became culinary graduates. Yes, we still relished our butter chicken and dal tadka with naan, but to keep us coming back, restaurants needed a novelty. What added to the pressure were the cooking competitions and food shows that made ‘Masterchefs’ and foodies of us all.

Thus came into common parlance, phrases like “locally produced”, “locavore menus”, “fresh pick of the day” and the hybrid “farm-to-table”.

Is farmtotable the biggest fiction in the Indian food business How a noble idea went awry

When restaurants use the 'farm-to-table' tag how much of their produce actually makes its way to your table from a farm? Photo courtesy

Farm-to-table essentially means that a restaurant gets all its produce directly from the farm they have, as a brand, endorsed.

At first glance, this seems like a brilliant, noble concept: who wouldn’t want to eat great-tasting food made of the freshest, healthiest, flavourful, nutritious ingredients and support farmers and the economy (while doing so). More so when there is a celebrity chef supporting it! The preference for such dishes and restaurants is obvious. And thanks to a few Samaritans (read: brands, restaurateurs and chefs), the trend — in its infancy — worked well for a time as canned-food-and-heavy-cream jaded palates got a taste of how a straight-from-the-farm carrot tasted, seasoned merely with some butter and pepper.

Unlike in the West, Indian chefs cleverly restricted the concept to those specific dishes for which they could source the ingredients regularly, and in the required quantity.

India has one of the most complex supply chains for procurement. So at the most, you would have one dish with one local ingredient, then in season, made into the hero. The few intelligent ones in the business took the sensible approach of calling it seasonal or locally-available produce. Priced higher, such menus had their takers.

This success egged more restaurants on to dabble with the concept. And every restaurant worth its salt had at least a few dishes that they could claim as farm-to-table, organically farmed and single farm sourced (technically all meaning the same). Interestingly, in most of the cut-copy cases, the farm-to-table ingredient was the garnish, procured from an organic garden outside the city limits. A notch above it was the relish.

Then marketing came into the picture and complicated farm-to-table. Suddenly, it wasn’t just farm-to-table, but ‘branded farm-to-table’ — and the more recent occurrence of” “procured from our very own herb garden”, which is essentially four square boxes kept in a corner behind the kitchen or as a landscape in front of the restaurant or within the hotel premises.

There have of course been a few cases where the restaurant/resort has been able to take farm-to-table to the next step, thanks to the farm the brand owns or the vacant acres around the property that have been utilised to grow quick yielding herbs and a few salad greens.

But do they justify the farm-to-table tag? In infinitely small bits, perhaps. At least you know the mint in your mint lemonade is picked fresh — and from zero mile (a miracle considering our culinary hubs have zero real estate for farms), but the lemon was conventionally procured.

Does it garner enough brownie points for the establishment to be called farm-to-table? Doubtful.

Here’s why: The thing about farm-to-table is that a good part of your menu is built on local produce. This isn’t commercially viable for most food establishments for two reasons: one, we do not have a farmers’ co-operative, hence, procurement happens through a middleman or company that can source ingredients from you, which means your produce will still come from far-off areas and be leached of its goodness by the time you cook; and two, the consistency. Unlike premixed, company-packaged food, canned food, processed meat, dressed seafood, the output of a local farmer would vary from season to season and even harvest to harvest. This means maintaining the consistency of the dish would mean extra hours with the produce. But that is less of the worry.

The bigger concern is that the farm-to-table concept needs at least 30-40 percent of your produce to be procured from local farmers on a daily basis. Two crates of bathua ordered twice a month, or a dozen banana flowers in three months, is likely to have the same impact on the farmers’ economy as six homemakers purchasing their weekly groceries from the super market  once a month — which is zilch.

But it is lack of awareness that is most responsible for effectively fictionalising the concept of farm-to-table. At a time when most restaurant work on the cost-cutting model, and follow the buy-for-less, sell-for-more method, this ignorance about local produce is harmful.  That, coupled with the high price charged in the name of the ‘organic’ stamp rings the death knell on the concept. One may argue that there are chefs who have put aside the money factor and procured ingredients that are local and essential for the menu — but then they are as few as there are dishes.

Incidentally, the fable of farm-to-table isn’t just a creation of restaurants and greedy companies, who have used the flawed organic laws here to sell below par produce at a high price and put people off the noble idea of “honouring farmers”. Some blame can be ascribed to the diners as well, who find spending more on local Indian produce harder than on international, exotic ingredients that have travelled the seven seas and are likely to be a shade down on nutrients than their Indian varieties. And till we get rid of the ‘kiwi is better than mosambi’ mentality, and restaurants eagerly participate in sourcing farmers who can be supported to then bring in better produce, there is a good chance that farm-to-table will remain good news — only on paper.

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