Food Activism: A Sit-Down with Tamkeen Nadeem
I’m attending a talk at The Last Word called ‘The Future of Food’. It’s hosted by Tamkeen Nadeem, the founder of Charu, and Aysha Raja, the owner of The Last Word. Food Activism is the first thing that pops in mind.
So, what is Charu? A local brand that sources products indigenous to certain parts of Pakistan; apricot oil from Hunza, small-grained rice from Swat Valley. That sort of thing. It is largely a food brand. Tamkeen hopes to promote what she calls ‘food activism’ – convincing people to eat cleaner, healthier, and more organic food. Reducing the intake of frozen foods and processed foods, replacing them with seasonal alternatives from local markets is what Tamkeen’s initiative is all about. Both Aysha and Tamkeen discuss farming practices at length; how planting diverse crops enables the soil to be productive far longer and also, reduces the need for insecticide or other chemicals.
One of the tenets of food activism, as described by Tamkeen, is that you should know what you are eating. This sounds inconvenient in this day and age, but her logic is simple:
“You work to put food on the table. Food is central to sustaining life. Don’t you want to know what you’re eating?”
Aysha points out that genetically modified produce doesn’t taste the same as organic, seasonal produce – something desis notice, for example, when studying abroad. Flowers are bigger and prettier, but don’t smell the way they do in Pakistan. Mangoes don’t taste the same as they do back home.
Genetically modified foods carry certain risks, such as gene transfer with the human body: for example, if antibiotic-resistant genes are used to create the genetically modified food, this could contribute towards making a person resistant to a certain antibiotic. Apart from health risks, there is also the concern that GMO (genetically modified organisms) seeds are not the excellent product they are touted to be. Aysha points out that recently farmers committed suicide in India. Despite using GMO seeds, the land did not produce the expected yield. Working with nature, its seasons, and planting more seasonal, local produce seems to be the best option all around, according to Tamkeen.
Tamkeen learned traditional farming practices first hand after returning from a fellowship in Germany where she decided to start a social business (a business that benefits the community). She lived for small periods of time in various parts of Pakistan, working with farmers in Gilgit Baltistan, Swat Valley and Punjab. Most of the produce from the mountains is generally chemical free as it comes from private farms, which Tamkeen buys from directly. According to her, the contamination occurs at the stage when the middle-man steps in; most people who buy fruits and vegetables buy wholesale, giving the individual farmer very little in return.
She later informs me that the rates at which farmers sell seasonal produce are as low as Rs. 20 to 50 per tree for one season (which is around two months). According to Tamkeen, the fruit from one tree (in the case of a fruit tree) can fill up to 30 boxes per day, and one box can be sold for Rs. 300 to 450 in the market. Most small-scale farmers agree to these rates as they don’t have the labor required to do picking and selling themselves. Buying directly from them reduces the chance of exploitation and contamination with chemicals, which is what Charu is aiming for.
Eating organic is a trend many people scoff at, but it can help us to avoid major health risks. Tamkeen points out that brands/outlets require ‘organic certification’ to call their products organic. In the case of produce, it means that it should come from natural seeds (not GMO) and the soil where the produce grows needs to have been chemical free for a number of years (four to seven).
Aysha asks Tamkeen to comment on the urban diet. “It’s mindless. The reason is that we have everything available to us all the time. If we don’t like what’s cooked at home, we can dial a number and order something. People are eating a lot of meat.” Tamkeen points out that unhealthy farming practices, from excessive cattle farming (the major source of methane gas in the environment) and usage of chemicals comes from the industrialization of food.
“We’ve started making food like clothes and shoes.”
They go on to discuss exposing children to food and how it grows. “According to a study, if you grow something yourself, you’re more likely to eat it,” says Tamkeen. There is discussion of keeping organic gardens at home, which in my opinion, may not be convenient for most people. Some of us don’t have the time or patience. What can be done is raising awareness regarding food brands. Stores like Haryali (in Lahore) are excellent places to shop organic, and it’s good that some people are taking the time to identify natural brands for us.
A day later, I speak to Tamkeen on the phone about Charu being a social business. One of the taglines of Charu is ‘Empowering local communities to thrive and grow by bringing the rare and wholesome foods of Pakistan to connoisseurs around the world’. Tamkeen tells me that a social business is essentially good for the planet and invests a part of its profit back into the community. She tells me that although this is just the beginning for Charu (it’s been in action for two years), she has started giving back in the way that she planned to.
Her goal is to open up libraries in every community she works with (Tamkeen is a book lover) and her first one is in Hopar Valley. It opened last year, with the help of donations from various sources, and with the humble budget of Rs. 12,000. This is an initiative that goes a long way towards enabling children from certain communities to have access to more knowledge. People in urban areas may take books for granted, but books are hard to find in many regions of Pakistan. In my opinion, the love of learning starts with children’s books, and it is an important undertaking to provide them to remote communities.