Of course I knew the world was heating up when I walked into Joan Dye Gussow’s classroom as a Masters’s student in Nutrition at Columbia University. I was 22 and she was 87 I had never planted a tree before, and she, being the matriarch of the “Eat Local, Think Global Movement,” lived off of her own land. Over the next 3 months, she told us why the vultures outside my house at Kemps Corner in Bombay had gone almost extinct, why one of our classmates suffered a food infection so bad that she had to have half of her intestines removed, and why we’d have to eat 8 oranges to get the same amount of Vitamin A that our grandparents had gotten from a single orange.
All of these issues boil down to one umbrella issue – we had capitalized our food systems to serve the purpose of profit over people and the planet. The backdrop of a rising population and the political worry of feeding the world resulted in the creation of genetically modified seeds. By the end of World War II in 1945, governments were also left with excessive amounts of Ammonium Nitrate, an essential ingredient for explosives, that were then repurposed into fertilizers for farmlands. As Vandana Shiva, the Indian Activist says – “we are still eating the leftovers of World War II.”
Today four companies – Bayer, Corteva, ChemChina and Limagrain control more than 50% of the world’s seeds. These seeds are genetically modified to improve crop yield and designed to last only one generation; making farmers dependent on repurchasing them for the next season. In addition, the same companies manufacture the herbicides and pesticides these seeds require to produce a bumper yield. Farmers are often legally banned from saving and cultivating their own seeds so their only option is to purchase the seeds and chemicals from these MNCs. But here’s what really takes the cake: once the food is produced, humans throw away one-third of it to waste. That’s enough food to feed 2 billion people, which is more than double the number of undernourished humans across the globe. The system clearly does not work for people.
This mechanisation and ‘chemicalization’ has led to the loss of the most nutritious and organically alive part of our soils: topsoil. Loosening of soil also means that it can no longer hold on to water, causing these chemical-ridden waters to ‘run off’ and pollute the surrounding environment. As we draw more water out of our wells to irrigate our fallow lands and cater to all our freshwater needs (drinking water, bathing, washing our clothes, etc.), this precious resource gets depleted at a much faster rate than it can be replenished.
A less diverse ecosystem (remember – most farmers are buying the same seeds from these large companies) results in fewer breeding grounds for birds, bees and insects. It also means that there are fewer tools in our arsenal to fight off diseases and pests. The clearing of forests and grasslands for livestock farming is a large reason why 25% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions come from agriculture. Lastly, healthy soils store carbon, which when compromised, actually releases the CO2 that has been trapped in the ecosystem for thousands of years, causing a cascading effect on climate change. Needless to say, this system also does not work for the planet.
So, who does it work for? You guessed it – profit. The global commercial seeds market reached a value of 63.8 billion USD in 2021. I find it mind boggling that we have managed to create such large commercial value for something that is given to us free of cost. We have created value by degrading our soils and our planet, and by creating a system of injustice for farmers and consumers. While this information was being doled out to me by Professor Gussow in 2014, the enormity of the problem left me paralyzed with fear. So all 27 of us, mostly graduate students, asked her – “what should we do?” Her reply was simple, “don’t do nothing.”
When I moved back to Bombay in 2015, I worked for an Environmental NGO before coming back full circle to food in 2017 when I began ideating my first startup, Arugula&Co., India’s only salad dressing brand at the time. I started to wonder why capitalism couldn’t contribute to the solution instead. What if businesses were built in a manner whereby instead of buying cheap produce sourced from chemically laden soils, we worked directly with farmers who practiced natural farming methods? These methods, including multi-cropping, limited mechanisation, organic fertilisers and pesticides, and water harvesting would replenish and repair soils while giving us deeply nutritious and delicious produce. These organic soils would in fact serve as sinks for carbon and could significantly contribute to battling climate change, while also increasing the nutrient density of the food we ate.
But sourcing sustainably would address only part of the problem. The other part, which is the journey of the product from our factory to the end customer, would also have to be addressed. I remember having coffee with a consultant during the early days of running Arugula&Co., who insisted that while every F&B brand launches with glass bottles, they quickly switch to plastic because of breakage. But for the three years that we ran the brand, we stuck to our guns and retained the glass packaging. What’s more, when we rebranded and relaunched as Boombay 2 months ago, we decided to use 100% recycled, corrugated boxes and structures to protect our glass bottles in transit. These boxes, if left in the environment, degrade naturally and while the glass bottles are not compostable, they are non-toxic. They stay around for a long time but cause no harm to the environment. We’re proud to say that since we launched, we have had less than 1% breakage.
We spent 2.5 years building this endeavor because we were committed to creating a system where every time a customer purchased a product, they would in turn be supporting a more sustainable planet. The last loop to close the loophole was the price. Saving the planet is expensive in the short term. The solution is Robinhood-esque. Sell a better-for-you-and-the-planet kind of product at a premium so that we can actually afford to pay our farmers the right price. As with a traditional business, we’d build our margins into the price of the product so that we are able to make a profit as well. We had done our research to know that wealthier customers would be able to afford the premium that we were charging, and in fact, would see value in paying for condiments that were genuinely healthy and sustainable.
If capitalism reorients itself towards serving all stakeholders instead of just shareholders, I wonder if it may be possible to monetize most of our world’s largest problems such as climate change, poverty and sanitation. Organisations such as B Corp and frameworks such as ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) are guiding businesses towards that very goal. We’re still a long way away from becoming a carbon-negative and a completely sustainable business, but my hope is that we will be a leading voice in building better systems that do more good than bad in the years to come.