Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Urban farming gains popularity in Bengaluru: Can it become an urban foodscape

Brijinder Kathuria remembers being conflicted between growing more organic food or planting more forests for a long time. “A lot of deforestation happens because people chop off forest land to farm,” says the Bengaluru-based Brijinder, a passionate eco-enthusiast who works in the technology sector. Then, he stumbled upon permaculture farming, a way of creating synergetic, sustainable agriculture systems that closely resemble natural ecosystems—in short, you’re making food forests. “That hit the sweet spot,” says the former hotelier, who went on to cultivate a food forest with perennial plants like bananas, coffee, coconut and jackfruit on his 5000 sq ft plot, enough to sustain himself for anywhere between 1.5 to 2 months, he says. “Freshly plucked food takes taste to a new level,” says the former hotelier, who admits to always being drawn to fresh food and ingredients. 

Like Brijinder, many Bengalureans are discovering the allure of urban agriculture, taking pleasure in getting their hands dirty, for many or all these reasons: better access to more nutritious food, creating communities, reducing environmental impact, managing mental health and connecting to nature. As a recent publication by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), the result of a three-year-long research project titled Sowing Sustainable Cities points out, “urban and peri-urban agriculture is gaining in popularity and impact, and can become a critical strategy for transitioning towards sustainable urban futures.” 

So, where does Bengaluru stand as a city when it comes to creating urban foodscapes? What are the inherent advantages offered by this former garden city when it comes to cultivating green spaces? What challenges do city slickers face when it comes to growing their own food? And how does succeeding in doing so change their relationship with the food on your plate and the earth from where it springs? This is what the city’s urban farmers have to say. 

 Urban farming helps people connect more deeply with their food and nature .

Urban farming helps people connect more deeply with their food and nature .
| Photo Credit:
SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Farming and the city 

“It is difficult to kill a plant in Bengaluru,” says Sheetal Patil, a senior research consultant at IIHS who was part of the research project. The soils, she points out, are fertile, while the weather is favourable throughout the year for growing.“The weather is not extreme,” agrees agri-scientist and entomologist Dr. Rajendra Hegde of Garden City Farmers, a city-based trust founded by the late B.N. Viswanath, which promotes urban farming. The humidity and number of rainy days in the city are also favourable for gardening, says Dr. Rajendra, adding that today, lakhs of people have food gardens in the city. 

“We can grow things all through the year here,” says Bengaluru-based artist Suresh Kumar G., the founder of Sarjapura Curries, a city-based community farm that seeks to revive forgotten native plants and weeds. Moreover, as he points out, the city has always had an active garden culture right from the days of Hyder Ali. “The British experimented in Lal Bagh, too,” says Suresh. “It made sense to grow vegetables here.” 

Not surprisingly, there is a large, well-connected gardening community in the city who “chat, exchange ideas and take pride in how good their garden is,” says Sheetal. “Seeing and following some of the practices is inspiring.” Dr. Rajendra, whose organisation has played a pivotal role in increasing awareness about the practice through workshops and lectures, says that there are today over 25 terrace gardening groups in the city, each having a minimum of 50-60 members. “They meet every month, share information, purchase materials for gardening together, and so on,” he says. 

The city’s agro-climatic zone, cosmopolitanism and sprawl have also played a role in driving the movement, believes Shameek Chakravarty of Farmizen, a farm-to-fork marketplace that connects organic farmers to consumers which, among other offerings, allows you to rent a mini-farm to grow your own food. “There are some nice peri-urban farms that are very accessible since the city has been growing,” he says, adding that many small farms are also found inside the city. And yes, it helps that the awareness and interest around health is high in Bengaluru. “If you go to a party in Mumbai, everyone is talking about real estate. But if you go to a party in Bengaluru, they will be talking about intermittent fasting,” says Shameek with a laugh. “This also has a role to play,” he believes. 

 Why garden 

Urban farming isn’t just about growing your own food. “It is about expanding our imagination,” says Siddharth Lakshman, Partner, Bangalore Creative Circus (BCC), who has been deeply involved in developing the hydroponics, aquaponics and permaculture food forest at BCC. “Agriculture is not just about yield but about creating ecosystems you can learn from, appreciate and experience,” he says, pointing out that it is also about participating in a natural cycle where nothing is wasted and the output of one system becomes the input of another. Compost made of wet waste such as dried leaves, kitchen waste, fruit peels, and coffee grounds is a great source of plant nutrition. “Composting is an easy and complementary activity.” 

Similarly, it can also be a great way of recycling water. “You should not be using drinking water for gardening; use grey water,” says Dr. Rajendra, who has also actively been involved in Oota from your Thota (OfyT), a regular event held all across the city for gardening enthusiasts. According to him, urban gardening ensures cleaner, more nutritious food, promotes greenery and fosters biodiversity. “It provides an opportunity for children to learn and elders to spend time in the garden,” he says. 

It also is a way to drive awareness about a more sustainable, healthier lifestyle. “No one bothers if you tell people that their lake is getting polluted. But if you tell people that there is zinc in their palak or some other chemical in their cabbage, they will be more conscious,” says Suresh, an opinion shared by Shameek. 

“People who home garden are more sensitised as a family,” he says, pointing out that growing one’s own food offers people the chance to take control back to a certain extent, giving food the importance it deserves. “If you take care of your food, you will spend less on hospital visits.” 

Innovative approaches such as aquaponics, hydroponics, vertical and rooftop gardening, microgreens, and technology-integrated solutions are gaining popularity for their space efficiency and water conservation

Innovative approaches such as aquaponics, hydroponics, vertical and rooftop gardening, microgreens, and technology-integrated solutions are gaining popularity for their space efficiency and water conservation
| Photo Credit:
SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Challenges and solutions 

Admittedly, the average person, foraying into urban farming for the first time can find the process challenging. Pest and disease are a problem, as is labour scarcity, availability of resources and simply awareness about how to start. 

Akshayakalpa Organic’s CEO, Shashi Kumar, who has long championed the need for sustainable agricultural practices and cleaner food, agrees that the high setup costs, lack of experience, expert guidance, time, and awareness can act as a deterrent. “Integrating farming into academic curricula from a young age is essential, fostering skills and awareness,” he says. Shashi firmly believes that addressing challenges in sustainable living requires collective action and governmental intervention. “Communities should unite for larger shared spaces, urging the government to enforce rules mandating adequate space, rainwater management, solar energy utilisation, and restrictions on cars per home, emulating successful practices like those in Australia.” 

It helps, he says, that innovative approaches such as aquaponics, hydroponics, vertical and rooftop gardening, microgreens, and technology-integrated solutions are gaining popularity for their space efficiency and water conservation. Additionally, in-situ composting has become more accessible, complemented by community garden initiatives where apartment residents collectively participate in urban farming and composting. “This collaborative effort promotes sustainable practices and nurtures a shared responsibility for environmental well-being,” says Shashi. 

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