14 : Civic food network and food security amid pandemic: Reflection on Indian case

Archana Patnaik

Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, West Bengal, India


 In the wake of the novel, coronavirus pandemic social arrangements that ensured food production and food distribution are most affected, especially in developing countries. Access to food is affected by the nationwide lockdowns and hurdles in transportation. This creates a problem for consumers who depend on transported food from rural areas to urban areas. Similarly, India's case where urban consumers depend on purchased food indicates the importance of food supply chains for urban regions. Thus, understanding the role of food networks in the urban food supply chain and food security issues during pandemic becomes essential in this context. The paper introduces a civic food network of consumer-farmer compact (ConFarm) in Telangana, India. It attempts to understand how this civic food network functions as a food supply chain during the pandemic in the context of food security. The paper uses secondary sources to reflect on the food production and food distribution arrangements of ConFarm through the civic food network's analytical concept. ConFarm reduces the food miles and reflects changing social relations between consumers and producers. In addition to this, it helps small and marginal farmers meet their production needs during challenging times. The paper concludes that civic food networks like ConFarm can be a plausible solution for achieving food security, especially in urban areas in India during a pandemic or similar unprecedented situations.


Civic food network, pandemic, food security, social relation, rural-urban areas

1 Background

In India, consumers purchase ninety-two percent of the consumed food, and the urban population consumes sixty percent of it (Reardon et al., 2020). Thus, the food supply chain plays an essential role in ensuring food security among the urban areas in the Indian context. However, during the coronavirus pandemic, the supply chain got affected in different parts of India. At the beginning of the lockdown, strict rules affected the long supply chains (Maggo, 2020). And the implementation of strict regulations affected the transportation of produced food from different parts of India (Pasricha, 2020). These breaks in the supply chain not only can affect the consumers but also the producers of food. Thus, in this context, we analyze a civic food network consumer-farmer compact (ConFarm) in Telangana, India, and discuss its role in addressing food security in the urban areas and producers' plights.



2. Consumer-producer co-operation and Civic Food Network in India

In the past few years, new types of consumer-producer co-operation in food networks gained importance across the world, and scholars became interested in studying these food networks' dynamics. Some scholars studied the dynamic using alternative food networks where environmental awareness issues, renouncing conventional agriculture, promoting social justice, and inclusion dominated their discourse (Watts et al., 2005; Hassanein, 2003; Goodman, 2003; Goodman, 2004; Slocum, 2006). Other scholars focused on food networks as social movements (Lamine et al., 2012; Seyfang, 2006). However, based on these studies in the European and the U.S. context, we find the consumer-producer co-operation reflects the new type of partnership in the food system where consumers are increasingly becoming interested in their food system. Similar interest is seen recently in the Indian context in a consumer-producer compact (ConFarm) in Telangana. Here consumers have developed an interest in knowing their food system and do not stay as mere consumers and gain knowledge about the production process. 

In this paper, using the civic food network as an analytical concept, I will analyze ConFarm. This concept is "not necessarily to substitute for existing analytical terms fully, but rather to act as a complementary category to concepts such as 'short food supply chains' and 'local(ized) food systems'" in the Indian context (Renting et al., 2012: 292). This paper uses the civic food network as a type of producer-consumer co-operation. Here consumers in collaboration with the producers "actively reshape their relations with different stages of the food system and start revaluing the (social, cultural, environmental) meanings of food beyond mere commodity and object of economic transaction" (Renting et al., 2012: 290). Using civic food network, the paper reflects how ConFarm functions as a food supply chain during the pandemic, creating different social relations between consumers and producers.

In India we have had organizations located in different parts that have used alternative approaches to manage the food system. For example, Indian Organic Farmers Producer Company Limited (IOFPCL) in Aluva, Kerala, is managed and owned by farmers and caters to consumers in foreign countries. In this case, farmers are determined to save their biodiversity and, given their high educational background, have a higher chance of empowering themselves through these networks (Touri, 2016). Even the Slow Food International Convivium in different parts of India like Mumbai, Udaipur, Delhi, Jharkhand, Gujarat, etc. represent alternative approaches to food networks where farmers attempt to save their biodiversity and also connect to consumers directly. However, in these cases, consumers' role is limited as they do not get to connect with the producers. Whereas, according to Sebastian (2018), the organizers behind ConFarm claim that this initiative "could be one of the very few initiatives in India where consumers come together to partner with peasant women farmers to support their ecological agricultural practices". As a case, this initiative provides a different understanding of the consumer-producer relation within the food system.

ConFarm as an initiative started in 2018 by the Deccan Development Society (DDS) and Disha Consumers Alliance, both of which are community-level organizations (Sebastian, 2018) and aim at promoting millet consumption in the urban areas. The project was implemented in six villages and two hundred six acres of farmland during the initial days (Sebastian, 2018). Each consumer associated with ConFarm supports a farmer group and receives organic products worth his/her investment. Here, consumers become members of the initiative and invest from 12,500 to 25,000 rupees per year to support millet production. Around a hundred consumers are currently supporting a hundred farmers in Zaheerabad and Sangareddy district (Dundoo, 2020). Despite these consumers supporting the initiative Tejaswi Dantuluri, co-founder and managing director of Disha Collective, claimed in an interview with Dundoo (2020) that they have around 500 farmers more who want to be supported by the consumers, but they are not finding that support. Getting more consumers to support the initiative could be a challenge that the initiative face. 

The initiative also aims to bring consumers closer to their producers by engaging them in various agricultural activities and co-creating social relations through co-production. For example, ConFarm, from the very beginning, involved its consumers in the production process where the consumers witnessed the first sowing done by the farmers. Going to the field, interacting with the farmers, and witnessing the production process breaks the earlier relation consumers-producers had in market relations. Consumers here are also encouraged to participate in festivals and during harvesting (Dundoo, 2020). These efforts by ConFarm is "[M]more than a conscious action aimed at changing the overall food system" and "appear to be opportunities for deskilled citizens to regain knowledge about food growing" (Renting et al., 2012: 301). Sebastian (2018) mentioned that Jhansi Laxmi, a Telugu T.V. anchor, an environmental activist, and part of the consumer group, was concerned about farmers' problems. She said, "we must be equally concerned about adequate rainfall as much as a farmer" (Sebastian, 2018). This statement represents different social relations established among the producers and consumers than the market relations. In this case, consumers know factors that could affect food production and are concerned about the production process and its impact on the farmers/producers. This knowledge reflects certain reshaping of the relationship between consumers and producers and between consumers and the food. Sebastian (2018) pointed out how Sneha, a Microsoft employee, was bothered by the ignorance regarding the source of the food she consumed before joining ConFarm. Now she is engaged with ConFarm and plays an active role in mobilizing consumers to join ConFarm (Sebastian, 2018). ConFarm, by involving its consumer in the food production process, re-builds the relation between farmers and urban consumers where consumers and farmers together co-create the meaning of food.

All farmers associated with ConFarm are small and marginal women farmers. DDS supports women farmers and those involved with the initiative. These farmers are engaged in millet-based biodiverse farming for generations (Dundoo, 2020). This association could be the reason for developing a social bond among the initiative members and for developing positive group dynamics. Further, Tejaswi Dantuluri, claimed in an interview with Dundoo (2020) that around "98 farmers from Arjun Naik Thanda of Zaheerabad no longer depend on loans with interest. They also don't depend on outside markets to sell their produce". Even during the pandemic, when food supply chains faced problems, "farmers from state's Pasthapur village sent their produce to more than 35 out of 120 partner consumers in Hyderabad on April 8 with permission from government authorities" (Dantuluri and Sebastian, 2020). Thus, the food supply chain could function effectively during the pandemic and maintain the producers' self-sufficiency. 

According to Dantuluri and Sebastian (2020), consumer Swati emphasized her association with ConFarm and food security. She claims that she knows what she eats and gives to her family during these trying times. Similar security in terms of food was emphasized by Sukanya Ramesh, who states, "[W]when all of us are confined to our homes with restricted access to essentials, our farmer friends offer solace. They ensure access to good food even during the crisis" (Dantuluri and Sebastian, 2020). During difficult times consumers get an uninterrupted supply of healthy grains even during lockdown (Dundoo, 2020). Thus, consumers find a sense of food security through ConFarm during the pandemic. 



3. Conclusion

ConFarm in the Indian context provides an example of a food supply chain where producers (rural) - consumers (urban) share social relations beyond market relations. The initiative by reducing food miles played an essential role in ensuring food security in the urban areas amidst pandemic. Though the initiative is new, it creates avenues for food to be co-generated and the food's meaning to be co-created. However, being relatively new, the initiative has not led to alternative forms of food provisioning, bringing a nexus between civil society, the market, and the state. It provides an example of innovation in short supply food chain, which could be beneficial during challenging times like pandemic, ensuring food security in urban areas. In addition to this, civic food networks can help small and marginal farmers meet their production needs during challenging times. The study was based on secondary sources and could be enriched further by other studies through primary data, adding to the existing literature and other dimensions in the area with an Indian perspective.




I am grateful to the two anonymous reviewers for their invaluable comments on the drafts of this short paper.



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