Kavita Mukhi: The organic evangelist
The founder of Conscious Foods on tapping into farmers’ knowledge of agriculture, the importance of organic food and her latest venture, Nite Market
Kavita Mukhi’s business card says she is an “organic evangelist”. “Friends say it has a negative connotation, but I say why not, that’s me,” she says. At 60, Mukhi is exceptionally agile. Every Sunday morning, she can be seen unobtrusively supervising the eight-year-old farmers’ market at D’Monte Park in Mumbai, one of the first in the city, which she runs and nurtures.
“I don’t fall ill,” she says. “I have not eaten food with pesticides for the last 30 years.” Like all evangelism, her clean food evangelism began at home.
We meet early afternoon at The Village Shop, an organic restaurant in a leafy cul-de-sac in Bandra’s Chimbai Road. Asian Kimchi and Tofu Brown Rice for me, Pizza with Garden Vegetables for her, carrot juice for us both, which arrives in slender glasses without any added flavour, sweetener or herbs.
It’s not the only organic café in the neighbourhood. Mumbai’s Bandra (West) is hipster paradise—sometimes cloyingly so. “Organic” is integral to hipsterism the world over, and nothing makes Mukhi happier.
On 19 September, Mukhi, who previously founded and co-owned the brand Conscious Foods, will start the “Nite Market with Kavita Mukhi” at a bungalow in Bandra—her large network of organic farmers from across Maharashtra will be there to sell fresh produce. There will be food stalls and live music. You will probably get a discount if you bring your own plates and cups, but be prepared to drink kombucha instead of beer.
The world of foods and farming is changing and so are an urban 20-year-old’s expectations from the wellness industry. Mukhi didn’t have to reinvent herself for millennials, the world caught up with her. “I don’t want to generalize, but today’s 20- and 30-year-olds are by-and-large smarter about their health. When I started The Farmers’ Market in 2010, I had a few loyal customers. They used to visit my store and the market. Now, there are queues from 9am on Sunday mornings,” she says.
Organic evangelism would be dead but for people like Mukhi who dream of a pesticide-free, ethical food universe. Now “organic” is omni-digital—forever on our timelines. The dreary assumption of the health-conscious is that whatever we eat is toxic, and unless we grow our own food, we are not safe. The food-related buzzwords we are sold all the time are organic, local, free-range, Ayurvedic and, the worst of all, natural. Common sense says all these don’t mean the ultimate miracle or elixir. But organic produce, grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, has ethical and humanitarian dimensions, and Mukhi insists the ethical dimension is crucial.
“Using pesticides goes against the wisdom of farmers. No scientist knows the soil and bio-diversity better than farmers. When they use pesticides, their own health is at great risk. They have no proper gear to handle pesticides. The soil becomes acidic after pesticides are used for a few harvests and they fall into a vicious cycle of using more and more until the soil becomes unsuitable for cultivation,” she says.
In India, certifying animal and plant produce as organic wasn’t as rigorous a process as in some other countries like the US till recently. There was no policy or framework for organic food products being sold in India. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) recently introduced the Jaivik Bharat framework, which makes certification mandatory for anyone who claims their products are organic. Farmers claim they are being forced into a costly certification process but the policy is in keeping with the growing demand for organic food. Mukhi says it is not necessarily a fool-proof process anywhere in the world.
“It isn’t possible to live with farmers and see every little thing they are doing with their harvest. It is about trust. I know farmer families over years and know them as organic people, who look at farming, eating seasonal and living with respect for the cycle of nature. It isn’t just about buying or selling an organic brand of food, it’s a way of life. What I am constantly in search of is organic people.”
Mukhi runs The Farmers’ Market and the Farmers’ Store near Pali Hill, Bandra, not as an NGO but as “an association of people”. “They organize it among themselves and I’m dealing with one person only. The group is certified by Ecocert, an international certifying agency for organic food authentication based in France.”
The organic food industry is attracting entrepreneurs more than ever before. According to a March report by EY on Indian organic market, The Indian Organic Market: A New Paradigm In Agriculture, the Indian domestic market for organic foods is estimated at ₹4,000 crore, which is likely to increase to ₹12,000 crore by 2020. We have one of the world’s largest number of organic farmers, but excessive government regulation hampers growth. Last year, Amazon acquired Whole Foods, one of the world’s largest organic food companies, which also points to the fact that the organic food market has reached a tipping point.
Mukhi has worked hard to be here. She spent the first six years of her life on a farm in Uttar Pradesh (UP). Her father was from the Sindh province in Pakistan and after Partition they moved to UP. She now lives with her husband and son, a film-maker who helps her with her work, in Mumbai.
“I was born into a family where people didn’t really go to doctors. As children, our parents didn’t bother much if we had a fever or an ache.” She got married, became a mother in her early 20s, and had to handle a baby who cried a lot. “An aunt had brought a book called The Womanly Art Of Breast Feeding from America, a La Leche League Internationale book, which said that no baby can be allergic to mother’s milk. And from another nutrition book, I found that animal milk is not natural to human beings. I stopped drinking milk myself, and my baby’s health became dramatically better. I realized that refined foods and chemical farming were working against our nutrition needs,” Mukhi says.
That was the beginning of a career in nutrition. She is trained as a journalist and nutritionist; started The Bombay College of Health and Nutrition in the late 1980s, and then Kavita Mukhi’s Health Shop in 1990: a 100 sq. ft shop on Malabar Hill. It became the brand Conscious Food in 1999, which she sold in 2001.
In the 1990s, she converted her shop into an organic food store from a health food store—which meant she would sell not just brown rice but organic brown rice too. At that time, Mukhi met farmers who did not use pesticides. “We are a largely agricultural society, farming has been handed down generations, and farmers inherit the knowledge of farming. The term ‘organic’ is borrowed from the West; like yoga, it became cool after the West adopted it.”
Mukhi says she wants to take naturally farmed food to more and more people in India, but experience has taught her not to be very optimistic about the future of farmers: “After I started to farm in Alibaug, I value the farmer’s wisdom even more. We let the West dump GE crops and pesticides on our farmers and give them the false hope that things will miraculously change. We’re pushing them into a corner, into debt and suicide. Of course, their children don’t want to be to be farmers, and that’s tragic.”
What was the last book you read?
‘Your Head In The Tiger’s Mouth’ by Ramesh Balsekar.
What is the most precious thing you hoard?
Letters from family and old photographs.
What is the superfood that is always in your fridge?
What is your favourite meat?
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