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Our Food is Poisoned! And We have been Misled by the Myths about Organic.

The shiny-looking food we bring from supermarkets or even good old sabzi mandi is poisoned.

I don’t need to make that point all over again. This episode of Satyameva Jayate has done a pretty good, if necessarily dramatized, job. (Please watch if you are not familiar with the dangers of chemical farming.)

The tragedy, however, is that organic has become a word that arouses skepticism more than hope. Anecdotal reaction to the word organic is typically:

  • Too expensive – only for hippies and elites
  • Low yield
  • Doesn’t work

This, unfortunately, is the result of half-hearted, half-baked attempts that have been made in practicing organic farming at many places without understanding its holistic (oh yes – that much misused word) principles and implications. Newtonian Mechanics and Relativity have some fundamentally different axioms. It would be futile and unfair to ask Relativity to be explained in terms of Newtonian Mechanics. It is similarly futile to talk the language of chemical farming, believe in their axioms and ask organic farming to prove its mettle.

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The following conversation is not fictitious, although slightly dramatized and reconstructed from memory.

Person A: So, did you grow vegetables with the help of compost. How was the output?

Person B: Very good. Very good. Farmers were very happy. Healthy vegetables. Good weight. But there is one problem with compost.

Person A: What problem?

Person B: Amount of Nitrogen is less in compost. Something needs to be done about that. Otherwise, it is very good.

Person A: You measured NPK? [1]

Person B: Yes.

Person A: Was there a problem with the vegetables?

Person B: No. No. Very good vegetables.

Person A: They why care about NPK?

Person B: But Nitrogen was less.

We don’t eat nitrogen from Urea. We eat vegetables. Person B – a guy who has worked for years in the field with farmers – didn’t see the irony. This was, at least, not a case of failure. But because organic farming is often attempted with misguided notions and expectations, it is no surprise that it results in disillusionment.

Below I talk about some common beliefs about organic farming.

Belief: Organic is about replacing each chemical input with a corresponding “organic” one.

It’s not. That is like explaining Relativity with Newtonian Mechanics. Chemical farming has dissociated the process of farming from the natural way the plants grow (Think about this: Who applies Urea, DAP, MOP or pesticides in jungles? Don’t plants grow there and grow ferociously?). It has been like replacing a balanced diet of cereals, lentils, fruits, and vegetables with different pills and potions which directly introduce specific proteins and vitamins into your body with some calories thrown in. All of us intuitively understand that this isn’t going to work for our bodies. The plants are no different and chemical farming is doing this to our plants. So, organic farming can not work on this principle and when organic farming is treated as using “organic” fertilizer, “organic” pesticide, and “organic” this and that, it is going to result in disappointment.

Belief: Organic farming is more expensive.

I found this to be a tricky one. Everybody thinks so (perhaps judging from the “expensive” organic products in the market). But nobody has been able to explain to me exactly why. Recently, I visited a very good NGO which has done extensive work in the fields of health, education, water management, horticulture, sports and what not. “We tried horticulture with organic. It didn’t work. Too expensive and there is no market for organic.” I pressed on, asking specific questions.

“What do you mean there is no market for organic? Could you not sell the produce or did you not get more than the market price?”

“Was the input cost higher with organic?”

“Did the yield go down with organic?”

It resulted in answers like

“We could sell, but not get more than the market price of regular produce.”

“Input cost didn’t go up; it went down.”

“Yield didn’t go down.”

So, what was the problem? Even if you got the same price as everybody else, your input cost was less and the yield was also fine. Doesn’t that leave you better off?

It took me some effort to navigate through the muddled up conversations. Finally, I realized that the devil was in the certification! I don’t even know the entire process, but everyone agrees that certification is a nightmare and small guys can basically not do it. But the problem is that most of these initiatives start with a focus on certification, which is expensive. So, they need a higher market price.

In summary, the farmers don’t spend more to grow organic, the consumers don’t pay more to eat organic. They are both paying for the certification.

Please keep that in mind the next time someone says “organic is expensive”.

Belief: Organic farming results in low yields.

What organic farming takes care of and what chemical farming destroys is the fertility of the soil. What is the fertility of soil? It’s not a “thing” that you can put into the soil. Fertility comes from the soil ecosystem which includes inorganic material like minerals, but also, very importantly, a large number of micro- and macro-organisms and organic matter. These organisms and plants have a mutually dependent relationship. Through photosynthesis, the plants release “sugar” into the soil that the micro-organisms feed on. These organisms, in turn, through their regular metabolism, release the minerals and nutrients from the soil in a form that the plants need. If you have this process going on in the soil, you don’t need to put nutrients from outside in the form of fertilizers.

With the use of chemicals over decades, this ecosystem in the soil has been destroyed. The organisms and organic material have disappeared. Hence, all the minerals of the soil are locked and not available to the plants. When you talk to older farmers, they will say that the soil has become “addicted” to the chemical. It is because the natural process is no longer functional. So, now, if you just stop using chemicals and try to grow plants, it will obviously not grow well. What you need is for the micro-organisms to return to the soil and for the soil to have enough organic material and moisture to sustain that life. This change needs some intervention and blindly trying to procure “organic inputs” from the market doesn’t work. The solution, of course, involves using some inputs, but they can be prepared with the animal and plant waste available to the farmers in their houses, farms or nearby areas. And they are best prepared by the farmers themselves, involving community wherever needed and possible. Firstly, because even when the inputs are available in the market, their quality is by no means guaranteed. There is no regulation and there is no dearth of unscrupulous businesses trying to milk the organic fad. Besides, preparation of such inputs in-house also helps come up with a system that is sustainable and suitable for the locality. It makes the optimum use of everything a farmer has at his disposal – land, plants and animals. Finally, it reduces outside dependence of the farmers. Different inputs work at different rates, some fast, some slow, some more easily made in one area, some in another and so on. But they exist, they work and they can be used.

While the well-off urban professionals turning to farming can usually take their time in building up an organic farming operation, the process of transition needs to be carefully managed for the small and marginal farmers. The thing is, it is entirely possible to manage. We just have to focus on the correct principles and outcomes and not obsess on measurements like NPK which don’t really matter!

Belief: But pests will still destroy everything.

An ecosystem similar to the one regulating soil fertility works to regulate pests too. The Satyameva Jayate episode also touches upon it. Basically, if there are pests in nature that destroy plants, there are others which eat these plant-pests. The organic approach is not to identify every single plant-pest and kill them with external inputs. But to get that ecosystem running in which the predators of the pests do that job of keeping the plants safe. There are again ways to manage the transition, which must be done carefully so as not to leave the small and marginal farmers stranded. It will have to be designed keeping in mind local conditions with minimal dependence on external inputs.

There are a few other important pieces of the puzzle including the now widespread practice of mono-cropping, water management, and seeds. But I don’t intend to write a technical treatise here.  What I want to emphasize is that organic is not a distant, hippy, expensive or unnatural idea. It is, in fact, the default idea. That chemical farming enjoys the badge of ‘conventional’ is the real distortion. It needs to be corrected. And it can be corrected.

[1] Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium (in soil)

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

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Finally, a Weight-loss Technique that Worked for Me

I must summarize the issues with my life first:

  • I firmly believe in having an exercise regime for good health. But in practice, my exercise schedule follows a ruk-chal, ruk-chal rhythm worse than my Europe trip did. It has more ruk than chal.
  • Even when I am doing well on my exercise routine, I can’t seem to follow something intense enough to help in weight loss. It keeps my body good and strong, but the weight doesn’t go anywhere.
  • While I am no model for healthy eating, my eating-out frequency is not too high; the same goes for eating junk food. I could cut down a bit more on it, but I couldn’t sustain a salad and lentils diet for the long term. I need my carbs; I need my ice creams and cakes once in a while too.
  • Any kind of diet, howsoever wholesome and healthy, doesn’t work in long-term. Watching what I am eating all the time makes me crave what I am not supposed to eat even more than usual. It is also just too much of an exercise of willpower. I can’t sustain it.

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Then, purely by accident, I landed on this piece by Sidin Vadukut about 5:2 diet. His predicament with weight-loss struck a chord and 5:2 seemed doable. The idea is simple. There is no approved diet chart or anything. So, technically, it’s not even a diet. It’s simply a way of creating a calorie deficit – the holy grail of weight-loss – but not by watching your food every day. Instead, two non-consecutive days a week, you reduce your intake to one-fourth of the regular daily calorie needs. That is 500 calories for women and 600 calories for men. Now, you can eat whatever you want on these “fast” days, so long as you are within this calorie limit. But you will quickly realize that eating 500/600 calories of ice cream would not see you through the day. So, you do have to plan, but you can plan it to suit your dietary preferences. I won’t eat spinach no matter what! You can spread these 500/600 calories over the day, or take most of it later in the day, or stagger it any other way you want.

It may take some trial and error to figure it out. What I have mostly settled on now is

  • A cup of cappuccino in the morning (no sugar)
  • A filling meal with one bowl of dal and 2 medium or 3 small phulkas at night.

When the cook is absent, I sometimes pick up something from the calories-counted meals available from health-food restaurants on Swiggy. Before LivEat closed down, their hummus with veggie sticks and Buddha bowls were a lifesaver. Now, I typically pick something from PurpleBasil. But only if the cook is absent to make me my bowl of dal. Of course, you should eat only regularly on the other days and not compensate for these fast days by overeating, or over-indulging your sweet tooth.

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Me and the Belgian Waffles

Now, in an ideal scenario, you can lose 2 Kgs a month. But I have my ruk, chal rhythm to contend with here too. Between September last year and May this year I lost 8+ Kgs from my peak weight. Dushehra, Diwali, Christmas and New Year meant lots of sweets and desserts. Multiple work trip outside Bangalore meant eating out. Vacations meant suspending the diet for a week or two because – really – I am not spoiling my vacations by watching what I am eating. The suspension of the diet was also applicable while visiting parents – because – well you know! Vacations and visiting parents also usually result in indulgent eating compared to normal. And once in a while, you hit a plateau for no good reason at all. So, my average weight-loss was less than a kilo per month by May. Then the 2-week+ vacation in June meant a reversal, which I have been able to shed only now. I have had a couple of work-trips even after the vacation – so count all those setbacks.

I waited until now to write this post because these 8 Kgs were like an important milestone for me. I would like to lose another eight, but even if I don’t, the diet will at least help me in maintaining the current level, which is a happy-enough place for me.

I don’t think that the 5:2 diet is necessarily a universal solution. For one, people with diabetes and certain other health conditions may not be able to do it at all. Second, some people are just happy with healthy eating and an active lifestyle (my respects to you!). Third, some people have tried other methods of losing weight and it has worked for them. Finally, the idea of fasting seems to scare people.

I am not apprehensive of fasting, and hence it works for me. While I haven’t been into fasting for religious reasons, growing up I have seen most of the adults around me fast once or twice a week in the honor of some God or Goddess. Of course, propped up with sugary sherbets and lots of fruits and sweets, it didn’t help them with weight-loss. But fasting for a day or two a week is an idea that I am comfortable with. I have never seen anyone run into any complications because of that. In fact, unless a health condition makes it unsuitable for you, occasional fasting is supposed to have several health benefits – both according to popular belief and some medical research. What this diet did for me was to give a specific rule to follow during the fast which will achieve a specific purpose of weight-loss without starving the body. That leads to another reason why I like this technique. Unlike Keto or other very strict diets, I can actually see myself fasting one or two days a week over the long term (health permitting).

Sidin’s article has some more info and you can always check out the official site to get an answer to all your questions. I didn’t buy any books. The information on the Internet was sufficient for me. But you can, if you want to be even more careful. Some links from Amazon India here:

  1. The Fast Diet: Paperback, Kindle
  2. The Fast Diet Recipe Book: Paperback, Kindle

Here is another Indian’s experience with the diet and she has some Indian recipes for the cooking enthusiasts.

A final word of caution. 5:2 diet is a technique to produce calorie deficit and lose weight. It is neither a substitute for eating well nor for having an active life or some kind of exercise regime. I, personally, find that following a simple exercise regime is easier for me when I am on this diet because I no longer get disappointed with the exercise for not helping me lose weight. I can enjoy the other benefits it brings to me.

Photo (of the sweet shop) by Tiago Rosado on Unsplash

P. S. I don’t look particularly different in photos, so perhaps most people can’t figure out that I have lost this much by looking at me. I am assuming that most people didn’t notice that I was gaining weight when I had traveled this weight-road in the other direction too! But right now, I know that I feel better and lighter and the clothes fit a wee bit better too 🙂

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Happy New Year

It is just another date. But then, most of the celebrations are about just another date. We like celebrating, so we have decided to give importance to some dates. That’s quite cool, isn’t it? Wish you a very Happy New Year 🙂

So, while me and Abhaya thought that we were too old to stay awake till midnight to welcome just another date, the next day I found out that my parents had partied with their neighbours till 1 am. With lots of food and cake and masti. They even called us after that, but we weren’t awake to pick up the call. It was like the life coming a full circle!

This new year, I have decided to cook less and write more. Problem is I can’t get myself to write these days. If someone is still following this blog, please give me suggestions on what I can write about 🙂

This was a random post to start on the mission to write more!! Hope the next ones will be less random.

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Woh Humsfar Tha – OST of the Pakistani Show “Humsafar”

तर्क़-ए-ताल्लुकात पे रोया न तू ना मैं,
लेकिन ये क्या कि चैन से सोया न तू ना मैं।

वो हमसफ़र था, मग़र उससे हमनवाई न थी
कि धूप-छाँव का आलम रहा जुदाई न थी।

अदावतें थी, तग़ाफुल था, रंजिशें थीं मगर
बिछड़ने वाले में सबकुछ था, बेवफ़ाई न थी।

काजल डारूँ कुरकुरा सुरमा सहा न जाए
जिन नैन में पी बसे दूजा कौन समाए

बिछड़ते वक़्त उन आँखों में थी हमारी गज़ल
गज़ल भी वो जो किसी को कभी सुनाई न थी।

कभी ये हाल कि दोनों में एकदिली थी बहुत
कभी ये मरहला जैसे कि आशनाई न थी।

मोहब्बतों का सफ़र इस तरह भी गुज़रा था
शिकस्त-आ-दिल थे मुसाफ़िर शिकस्त पाई न थी।

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Shashi Tharoor at Delhi World Book Fair

Reproduced from Booknomics – Pothi.com’s blog


I have been a fan of Shashi Tharoor’s on-stage charisma since the first time I heard him in-person at PAN IIT conference in December 2006 and he explained (using his wonderful oratory skills) how if US was a melting pot, India was a thali!! Since then I have read the transcripts of his speeches, and followed him on twitter, but never had an opportunity to hear him on stage.

Even after spending most of my time at Delhi World Book Fair lazily sitting at our stall (the books these days are all available online to buy!!), when I jumped at the news that Dr. Tharoor was coming and promptly made my way to Flipkart’s stall in hall 6, Abhaya was not surprised. He is aware of my fascination.

ST arrived dot on time and I could not help notice that he smiled in a way as if he wasn’t used to all the attention he was getting. Given how Indian politicians have to maintain a God-like persona during their campaigns and afterwards, it is difficult to believe. But charming nonetheless. 🙂

Since I don’t know when I would hear him on stage again, this time I decided to record it. Quality is, of course, constrained by the fact that I was using my regular camera to record it. 😀 Unfortunately the recording has become too long and I am unable to upload it on Youtube. So, let me try to summarize some of my take-aways.

The one question I asked him was whether he was planning to write any fiction in near future. He said that fiction is his first love and he would like to return to it. But finding time for writing with the busy schedule of a political career is difficult. And writing fiction requires not only time, but also a space in your head. You create an alternate world. If you are interrupted and are away from that world for weeks, it becomes difficult to continue writing.

Anyone who has tried to write long fiction will identify with the problem. And Abhaya should be more tolerant of my being completely absorbed in that alternate world of mine when I am writing my next book. 😀

However, ST added that he has a few stories in his mind and once his current non-fiction project is over, he will try to write a short novel. I really want to read a more recent fiction from him as I felt that I had tried to read ‘The Great Indian Novel’ 20 years too late. Today I got a copy of “Show Business” (signed, of course!) and am looking forward to reading it.

He read a chapter/scene each from his books “Bookless in Baghdad” and “Riot”. He had cleverly chosen a chapter from “Riot”, where he makes fun of his own “The Great Indian Novel”. Self-deprecating humour is not something you can expect to see in most Indian politicians! Plus he also had very progressive answers to questions related to online buying and experience of reading e-books. Specifically on reading e-books/online he said that more than a substitute of physical book reading, it is an alternative and can enhance the reading experience. For example, through hyperlinks you can instantly look up the meaning of a word or figure out where this character last came in a story.Though they won’t mean much to people who don’t look up the dictionary or who are happy to flip through the pages to find where a particular character had come last, he said referring to people like himself.

We (at Pothi.com) agree to the basic idea that neither print books are going to go away (because they have a charm); nor e-books are going to be stopped from becoming mainstream (because they have a value). Right, right! Making a case for our Print on Demand as well as e-book businesses! 😀

To conclude, I return as a happy creature from DWBF because of this opportunity to hearing ST, even though it has been tiring otherwise.

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Resolution time!!

Time to talk about new year resolutions again 🙂

Well – there aren’t any new ones for me this time. I had two resolutions for last year. One about regular exercise and the other about paying bills on time.

I did fairly well on the exercise front, although I would like to be more disciplined than I have been last year. So, that’s the resolution for this year.

I lost a decent amount of weight and now I am at a stage, where I am not worried about my health due to weight. I would like to lose some more, but that will be an added bonus so that I can buy some funkier dresses :))

I have a thought about losing weight here. Typically there are two ways you can do it. By controlling your diet (not starving, but healthy food) or by exercise. Ideal way is, of course, a combination of both. But it is difficult for most people. Now, if you want to lose weight whether you choose the diet option or the exercise option may depend on your personal preference. Some people find one easier than the other.

I find both difficult. So, it was a question of choosing the lesser evil for me. I figured that controlling diet for long is not possible for me. Probably upbringing in a Brahmin family can be blamed for it partially :)) No. I am not a foodie. But food is considered very sacrosanct in my family. You do not count the number of rotis you are eating or making (as is no per person counting while making rotis)! That’s considered  cheap behaviour. It is okay to prepare double the amount of food you may need, but it is mortifying to run out of even pickles while eating. One sabzi and one daal is not considered enough even for your day to day meals. And you never, ever stop anyone from eating or comment on how much they eat. That’s too huge an insult! It is so ingrained that I get annoyed at Abhaya very often, if he stops me from eating something, even if it is something as trivial as chocolate and he stops me only for health reasons.

So, even though overeating is not my problem, if I want to eat something at some point of time, being prevented from doing so is not done for me.

That leaves exercise as the only option for me. But there is another reason to choose exercise over diet if you care to weigh in these reasons in your decision making. Exercise also has an advantage over diet as a means of weight loss. It helps not only in losing weight, but also in overall fitness. So, in last one year, my health has been better than what it had been two-three years preceding that. The legs which can carry you a few kilometers and the lungs which are strong enough to pump oxygen for that are great confidence boosters, even if you are not dependent on physical labour for you day to day work. Feeling healthy and strong improves your quality of life, your productivity and your happiness.

So, exercise regularly in 2012! I must hit the stairs after posting this 😀

Coming to the second resolution, I didn’t do well on the paying the bills on time. So, that will be a major thing in 2012. Pay those bills on time Jaya Jha. I have cancelled a card that was particularly troublesoe because it was not connected with any bank account 😀 So, I had to remember to pay the bills. There were no SIs for it.This should help me defaulting less. Rest is up to… well, me.

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Taking stock of New Year Resolutions

Exercise and food related ones are going fine. Exercise seems to be becoming a habit (touch wood :D). Yesterday I had to skip because I had over exerted my shoulders in past few days and my neck and shoulders were stiff. Today I was feeling very low and I am looking forward to my exercise time! Also, my average weight through out the day shot up by half-a-kg :O That is not a good sign if skipping for a single day affects your weight, but I guess that’s how it is. Weight loss is a good motivator for exercising. :)) I have lost around 3 KGs since mid-December.

On the bill payments in time, I screwed up a bit. I got late with electricity bill this time. But I am on my toes now (I wish I could somehow align the cycles for all the bills, but that can not happen). Will review next month to see how I performed.

Consider this post as a motivator to review your new year resolutions too 🙂