Saturday, June 20, 2015

A long and mostly pointless rant on food.

Some days back I saw a news report on a television channel that compared the vegetable prices in different parts of Kerala. The reporters purchased vegetables worth Rs.100 from a border village in Palakkad. They travelled with it to Thrissur and enquired in a wholesale shop about the cost of same amount of vegetables. It was around Rs.180. At Ernakulam, the price of Rs.100 worth of vegetables from Palakkad was Rs.280!

For some days I couldn’t help thinking about various aspects of this information. Most of the vegetables that are consumed in Kerala are cultivated in Tamil Nadu. That explains the cheap rate in border areas. The cost increases as the produce travel more distance. What may be the reason for this difference? Transport cost obviously. Just that, or is there more to it? What about the risk factor involved in transporting products of lower shelf life that may get spoiled by the time it reaches end seller? And what about the extra care to preserve them- an extra dose of pesticide or refrigeration? In that case, what about the additional risk on the health of consumers?  Is there any other social reason for the price in Ernakulam to be so high; may be the fact that it is a more developed city than others?

One solution that I could think of was reducing the time taken for transporting the produce, thereby reducing risk of spoilage. The obvious solution is to invest in infrastructure. Better road connectivity between towns can reduce shipment time. If good highways are made in which vehicles with heavy load can safely travel at high speeds, more goods can be transported in lesser time. Instead of transporting small quantity of goods in old worn out trucks, an efficient collection system can be put to place that aids in amassing huge quantity of produce and they can be shipped using improved fuel efficient carrier vehicles with refrigerated containers. Though the cost of investment in all these setup will be passed on to the end users, after a certain period of time this may prove beneficial.

On further thoughts, I felt that there can be another alternative, one which can totally eliminate or reduce considerably the need to transport vegetables. It is by local production and distribution, which was the way things were sometime back. At present, in between the farmer and buyer, there are at-least four agents. Firstly collection agents purchase goods from farmers and sell it to the distributor. The distributor dispatches it to wholesale merchants of different cities. The wholesale merchants receive them and divide it for distribution in different areas in their respective localities. Ultimately the retailers who get the load from wholesalers sell the vegetables to the consumers. This system adds on the overheads and risks of all the involved agents into the picture, thereby increasing the price of the goods substantially by the time it reaches end consumer. Inventory cost and transportation cost add on the final selling cost along with the expense of extra processing for preservation.

An alternative to the existing system is, as I mentioned before, to produce and distribute groceries locally. For that purpose primarily people has to be given motivation to cultivate products that are necessary for their consumption in their backyard or balconies or terrace. This is in-fact happening in many households already. I have seen people purchasing cauliflower and capsicum ignoring papaya and jackfruits growing abundant in their own backyard. The problem is we all need exotic food. In a recent past it was a luxury, but now it is the norm. If a mother makes papaya curry for two days, kids and husband start protesting the next day. They demand for something different and exciting daily. We eat Chinese, Italian and North Indian cuisines, but forget our healthy ancestral dishes that can be made with ingredients that grow or can be easily grown in our backyard. There are eateries that sell local dishes but they charge a premium. Locally cultivated, organic vegetables can be purchased from market but at a premium rate.

It is this situation that needs a change. Every household has to be trained to cultivate some part of their diet taking into account their space constraints. Also support has to be provided to market the excess crop left over after consumption at the local market in a cheap rate. This gives additional income to the growers. Indigenous food products and dishes have to be promoted and their health benefits explained. This motivates people to purchase them and support the local market. Processed food should be manufactured and marketed only locally so as to reduce the need of preservation. Elimination of preservatives reduces the use of chemicals and ultimately contributes to a healthy society. Cost of the produce reduces dramatically as the transporting overheads and risks are considerably reduced. As everyone is at the same time a producer and consumer, society becomes more interactive and closely knit.

But who will tie the bell on the cat?


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