If there is one area where the coronavirus pandemic is causing a massive rethink, it is in what we eat, where we get that food from, and how the food is produced, stored, and prepared.
There is consensus that it was from an animal market in Wuhan in China from where the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) may have first spread. The questionable hygiene standards of animal markets, especially across Asia and Africa, have for long been an open secret. Such hygienic concerns have been expressed in the past in discussions as varied as from environmentalism to spirituality. But now, they bring a clear and present danger of an unprecedented scale.
There will be, it is certain, many changes in our living habits from this pandemic, some perhaps temporary, some permanent. Questions about food are among those likely to have a lasting impact.
Demand for organic food, more specifically vegan and vegetarian food, already a movement around the world, is almost certainly going to rise exponentially in a world where the fallacy of living out of tune with nature is being exposed in the most brutal manner.
More questions, no doubt, will be asked of how, and in what manner, scientific modification of food is happening, and even deeper queries about how the food is made available at industrial levels (of consumption and wastage), including the impact of chemicals and hormones in the food.
There is also likely to be an unprecedented demand for organic food whose origins are unambiguous and cultivation is organic. The question is: where will all this organic food come from? Who will fulfil the demand when it soars?
Like in many other things, the coming of the coronavirus has opened new possibilities for a global restructuring of supply chains with less of the blind dependence on China that the world has seen in recent decades.
Could India step in as a global supplier of organic food? India has some natural advantages but also some supply constraints, which, if fixed, would make the country a natural source to fulfil global demand in organic food.
The World Organic Agriculture report of 2018 notes that a third of all organic food producers in the world live and cultivate in India. But at the same time, organic food cultivation makes up only 2.59% or 1.5 million hectares of the total global organic cultivation area of 57.8 million hectares. The size of the Indian organic food market remains relatively small, at around $1.5 billion of the approximately $250 billion global organic food market. The cultivation of organic agriculture is growing around the world, rising to 50.9 million hectares in 2015 from around 11 million hectares in 1999.
Some Indian states like Sikkim have taken the lead in converting their entire produce to organic cultivation, and while still unorganised, estimates suggest that Indian organic agriculture is growing at 25% a year.
It is important to understand that the post Covid-19 world could be strikingly different not only in material terms but also in mood. The definitive historic break that the 2008 financial crisis could not bring, the virus is likely to produce.
We are set to firmly exit the third era of globalisation that began at around 1989 with the promise of a ‘flat world’. Suffice it to say —that servicing this world would require an entirely different philosophy from the buy-cheap-and-replace-easy world that my generation grew up in.
It would have to begin with a whole new approach to food and India is best placed to service this demand if it is able to, on a fast-track, both streamline the cultivation and branding of its organic food, and reimagine itself as the organic food bowl of the world.
M. S. Swaminathan, the father of India’s Green Revolution, once told me that the wars of the future will be won by those with food, and not by those with guns. The democratic destruction that the coronavirus has unleashed shows us the power of that statement.
It is this future that Indian agriculture must embrace to ensure its future success.
Views are personal.
The author is a historian and a multiple award-winning author.