For reasons of socio-cultural diversity, the organic food movements in Bangkok and Chennai should be differentiated. However, against the hegemonic ‘Western’ discourse, both examples add to acknowledgment of the existence of alternative food practices in the ‘Global South’, their sustained and inherent realization showing that they are not new. This shall be further elaborated with regards to the three themes extracted from the case studies.
4.1. The Continuity and Re-emergence of the Movement
The organic food movement in Bangkok has gained momentum recently while having its origin in the rural spheres of the 1980s when local NGOs for rural development along with individual pioneers sought to revive the traditional farming methods that were sensitive to the local environments and farmers’ self-reliance (see Section 1
). Although the industrialization of agriculture had made insertion in these regions, the traditional approaches were still available:
‘around 30 years ago, we found the very intelligence farmer in the rural area that they can create their own concept about the integrated farming’ (interview, organic urban gardening pioneer, Bangkok).
Practitioners reported the traditional farming method is inherently small-scale, diverse in agricultural crop varieties, chemical-free, and can be considered ‘organic’; they often referred to it as going beyond organic, due to the local paradigmatic conception of organic farming as the entrepreneurial and industrialized branch of chemical-free farming. The achievements of the green revolution since the 1960s proved to be unsustainable, initiating a loss of local varieties in favor of hybrid crops and farmers’ withdrawal from traditional farming methods.
The movement has since experienced several waves of impulse: In effect, past structural state crises repeatedly triggered a reemphasis on organic food, with a recent one from the late 2000s onwards. More recently, an agricultural crisis has affected farmers:
‘They have a lot of debts. They are very poor health and they is no hope in the future’ (interview, organic pioneer and NGO member, Bangkok).
The study participant continues to explain:
‘Because they don’t get […] any benefit from the green revolution. Even the high yield, they can grow two or three times per year, but the input is a lot. They must buy everything’ (interview, organic pioneer and NGO member, Bangkok).
In Thailand, this reality is associated with a stark increase in prices for chemical fertilizers, while the commodity value of rice remained low.
There is also a public health crisis, with food products on the regular market repeatedly testing positive for chemical or heavy metal residues, antibiotics or hormones. An increase in non-communicable illnesses is believed to be caused by this food pollution, but it is also thought to be caused by a shift in eating habits towards a meat-based diet, which is lower in health benefits than the traditional local dishes [39
The evolution of the organic movement describes continuity, and its contemporary impulse is re-emergence rather than new emergence: the initial impulse for the organic food movement came from rural development intervention in the 1980s, and farmers recollected traditional farming methods and ‘integrated farming’ through locally available knowledge. The movement consequently grew in several waves, adapting to new stakeholder intentions and structural settings, while keeping the original intentions and ideologies. A similar structural setting was registered in Chennai’s organic food scenes.
Embracing of Local Knowledge
The insight that the alternative food practices in Bangkok and Chennai are not new can be illustrated by retracing their incorporation of local knowledge, as an integral part of local traditional food and farming practices, which have been employed by successive generations.
Study participants in Bangkok and Chennai referred to local farming knowledge as traditional, sometimes self-reliant, farming. Traditional farming largely relies on agricultural diversity and on farm-internal inputs, such as manure, indigenous microorganisms, and compost. It is small-scale, and hence allows for manual management, and cultivates a variety of edible and non-edible plants on agro-forestry schemes; on the output side, a variety of vegetables alternate with rice, pulses and oil seeds, allowing farmers to provide for the household as well as to donate or sell any surplus. Trees facilitate water retention and nutrient-building in the soil, as seen in both case studies. Bulls and buffaloes often help with the ploughing, and rainwater is collected for irrigation. Self-reliance also means a scale that is capable of sustaining the farmer’s household, but is manageable without regular external labor.
While industrial farming using agro-chemicals for increased food security was only introduced in the green revolution about five decades ago, traditional farming methods, inherently ecologically sensitive, existed all along, which means that this ‘kind of wisdom and knowledge is really still quite present’ (interview, seed-saving activist, northern Thailand). Study participants allude to a knowledge gap grounded in inconsistent transfer of organic practices (field notes, agro-ecological farming expert, Bangkok), but it is generally found bridgeable in the sense of being retrievable within the organic farming community. It mostly circulates among the practitioners themselves and is often embedded in folk stories and even religious narration, according to several study participants in Chennai. The preservation of local wisdom thus receives cultural support.
Several institutions in the movement currently work on preserving local knowledge and agricultural diversity practice. In Bangkok, a sustainable agriculture foundation organizes an annual fair on alternative medicine derived from medicinal herbs and organic foods. In Chennai, farmers’ seed-saving networks help sustain this knowledge, vehemently advocating its preservation, and equally a foundation for indigenous knowledge systems. My case study in Chennai revealed that local food and farming knowledge are still deeply anchored in the cultural practices inherent to the daily routines of many farmers who practice organically or who have shifted from conventional farming.
‘A lot of it is also consistent with the sustainable agriculture […] because we use local knowledge’ (interview, trustee of a foundation for indigenous knowledge, Chennai).
For instance using repellents made from the neem tree or fertilizers based on cow dung and urine. The quote also reflects the coincidence of traditional practices and sustainability in agriculture, lying in the long-term benefits for soils and resources on the one hand, and farmers’ health and livelihood on the other, which participants in both case studies reported. Despite fading, this knowledge has in most cases not skipped generations, and for some young farmers who descend from farming families, traditional farming knowledge is still intuitive, hence they have ‘that traditional instinct for farming’ (interview, organic farmer, southern India). Much of this knowledge rests on a local science that deals with practices to prevent and cure plant diseases, so-called Vriksha Ayurveda.
This shows that the local knowledge continues through actual practice and imitation. In terms of knowledge preservation and transfer, study participants in Chennai in particular pointed to the oral rather than the written tradition: distribution happens via radio, television or itinerant narration by knowledgeable practitioners, reproducing first-hand farming experiences.
Accordingly, one of the study’s findings was that the present activities of the organic scenes are not a new phenomenon: their recent momentum is, rather than a new emergence, a recollection of previous activities that had not been lost and that have their source in successively transferred local practices. It may be reasoned that the relatively short period of agricultural industrialization and the reality that ‘the corporate system has never reached such an hegemony’ [6
] (p. 379) prevented local food and farming practices from completely fading, so that the knowledge of those practices persists to naturally challenge the mainstream food and farming system.
4.2. Local Sustainability Notions
Alternative food practices often challenge the general corporate food supply chain that ‘detaches food from its social, historical, and geographical context’ and substitutes natural food items with those from industrial production [6
] (p. 375). Both movements in Bangkok and Chennai equally do this, but neither of them seem to claim alternativeness in their practice, neither the farmers nor the consumers. A reason might be that stakeholders in the movements refer to their own notions of sustainability through their personal lifestyle choices, and often those notions actually integrate into common practice: ‘in India, sustainability and eco-friendliness are inherent to our knowledge systems’ [38
]. In Thailand, there is a precept of ‘no harming, [which] you can extend […] to environmental’, and temples sometimes have ‘programs that try to preserve the environment and also teach people about that’ (interview, organic social entrepreneur, Bangkok).
Sustainability implies the inclusion of a plurality of target groups with the aim of promoting organic farming and adequate livelihoods: the organic food movements in Bangkok and Chennai target the consumer and the producer in mutual support. Apart from direct consumer-producer links, local NGOs for rural development give technical and advisory support to farmers in conversion to organic farming, and a civil network draws attention to their struggles over land ownership, agrarian reform issues, and negotiation of fair market prices. A foundation for sustainable agriculture and community empowerment in Bangkok maintains inclusive activities, which they direct for example at low-income communities and at elderly and youth empowerment.
In the urban spheres, the sustainability notion goes towards urban greening and gardening, waste and water recycling and composting, as traditionally done, and thereby combining an ecological and economical component. For instance, it used to be common for urban households to have at least a few fruit trees, coconut trees, and herbs for kitchen use, and clean waste water from the households was used for watering, according to study participants in Chennai. It is typical in Bangkok to have orchards in people’s gardens, as well as along the dense urban net of canals [41
]. It is thus ‘our traditional way of […] gardening around their house’ wherever possible (interview, representative of Cityfarm group, Bangkok).
Other NGOs, as well as private stakeholders, put food safety campaigns and the advance of organic policies on their agenda as opposition against food corporations, which more and more encroach on the traditional food system.
Considering the increasing pollution of foods, access to healthy and sustainably produced foods is becoming a pressing issue and the reason for most urban farmers to cultivate their own food—more so than food security—and for farmers’ markets and food cooperatives is to demonstrate independence from the regular market.
Regarding the local farming approaches, study participants in both case studies repeatedly stressed that organic farming was natural and self-evident practice before the green revolution reformed agricultural production—‘practices of […] our alternative way of farming’ (interview, NGO expert for food safety, Bangkok)—yet under different names. Accordingly, the organic farming practice, particularly that of small-scale organic farmers, draws inspiration from local methods, as one organic pioneer in Bangkok outlined:
‘We start from most of [the] farmers’ —while organic farming scenes in other countries often began from initial concepts ‘like a Biodynamic […] the lecturer, like Steiner’ (interview, organic urban gardening pioneer, Bangkok).
This interviewee continues to explain how the organic approach—here using the term ‘integrated farming’—preceded the conventional approach and then co-existed with it:
‘The first time is good because the yield is increased by using of the chemical inputs, but after that, around 20 years ago, we found that it’s not good now’, and eventually, ‘some farmers in the remote area […] created their own integrated farming’. ‘Integrate farming is […] our local wisdom, especially in Bangkok’, where canals integrated with the land allow for efficient irrigation; therefore, ‘we grew a lot of the mixed farming at that time […], for the Chinese people and the local Thai people, too’.
With the promotion of conventional farming in the course of the green revolution, the prevalent farming system substantially changed from mixed farming to monocropping, before the original approaches were eventually refashioned, and currently are promoted by the organic food movements. In the Chennai case study, several organic farmers in interviews stressed the multitude of benefits from mixed farming, for example, soil improvement, a harvest throughout the year, and hence a constant income.
Local integrated farming approaches, including self-reliance, connect the farming method to livelihood, thereby carrying ecological and social components. They may thus be seen as a local means to sustainability. Self-reliance implies that households can sustain themselves, which is facilitated by a manageable plot scale, and appears as a recommendation in both case studies. Industrial farming, in contrast, does not allow for self-reliance and is also not economical due to the dependence on external inputs, as smallholders explained. Although economic profit is preferred over self-reliance by many farmers nowadays, self-reliance can provide a personal sustainable livelihood, and in addition to that the possibility for exchange:
‘And the surplus, we just give to another. […] We have enough for you’ (interview, organic farming pioneer, Bangkok).
This, it may be argued, relates back to the moral incentive for alternative consumption [8
] (p. 383) (see Section 1
), which motivated many study participants, particularly in Bangkok’s movement.
The organic food movements in Bangkok and Chennai show that local notions of sustainability exist, and as they have evolved from the local contexts and also co-existed along with more recent, imported practices such as industrial farming or ‘globalized diets’, they might differ from ‘Western’ sustainability approaches. For example, these local notions rooted in transferred knowledge and hence, do not need to be newly invented. These local sustainability notions may be further illuminated through specific attitudes and mindsets as follows.
4.3. Mindfulness and Spirituality
Alternative practices are cultural, and my case studies offered interesting insights into the organic food movements’ strong links to mindfulness and spirituality.
Mindfulness is a concept that Bangkok’s organic food scenes refer to as ‘one’s attentiveness to his or her environment’, which appears ‘in the context of mindful consumption’, ‘psychological motivations guiding individuals’ engagement’, and ‘Buddhist practice’ [39
] (p. 14). Mindfulness and simple living are among the organic stakeholders’ lifestyle aspirations, such as the urban gardeners for whom gardening has connotations of improved physical and psychological health. Thus, a number of organic stakeholders in Bangkok and Chennai choose to consume less, to buy sustainably produced products, to grow their own food, to recycle, to share harvest, seeds, and material and non-material goods, and to maintain consumer–producer links as a manifestation of anti-consumerism and mindful living—mindful referring to the care of one’s environment.
My two case studies revealed the self-fulfillment that the organic stakeholder gains from realizing a mindful lifestyle, which may be considered a psychological need [14
]. Study participants appreciated voluntary simple living for improving their physical and mental health and general life balance. An organic farming activist, referring to moderation and sharing with others, stated: ‘This is go to your mind, your spirit. It’s make you happy. Higher level, not just consume the material’ (interview, organic farming pioneer, Bangkok). Farmers in an organic farming community near Chennai find happiness in rural living, their mutual support and social gatherings; in urban Chennai, some urbanites enjoy their home gardens and homemade produce, and this was also my observation in weekly school gardening sessions with 10 to 14-year-old students.
Besides personal benefits, the social dimension in terms of the close interaction and social community that many farmers and urban gardeners are able to build up is important for their aspirations for personal well-being. Solidarity with rural farmers can also be conducive to perceived well-being, and leading a simple lifestyle allows some participants to have more time for others:
‘if I don’t follow a simple life, I will not have time, I will not have energy, I will not have money to spend for the others’ (interview, agro-ecological farming expert, Bangkok).
The principle of care for others seems central to the local understanding of social interaction, and in the case of the organic movement in Bangkok, it can be ascertained that Buddhist philosophies play a role. Interviews touched on various principles from Buddhist philosophies, namely the practice of metta—a kind of service to society—abstinence from killing or harming any beings and the practicing of patience, empathy, and modesty. Doing service to society and finding a deeper meaning in life through mindfulness motivated participants to engage in the organic food scene. These included an architect and pop singer who resigned from his outgoing lifestyle and well-paid job in favor of urban farming, simple living, and social community, and a former company director of a successful food cannery who wanted an occupation that serves people’s health better and so started to produce organically on his own farm, to which he invites urbanites to pass his knowledge on to.
The principle of care sometimes connects consumers and farmers in a bi-directional manner in both the Bangkok and Chennai case studies: urban consumers’ solidarity with rural farmers through purchasing their organic produce, and thereby favoring their livelihoods, and at the same time, the organic farmers commonly conveying their wish to produce good food for others. Solidarity can also occur among farmers who assist each other in farm work and marketing, just as in the organic farming community near Chennai.
Thus, mindfulness and care were two principles found in the organic food movements that majorly shaped the understanding and attainment of alternative practices.
I registered this relationship between organic farming practice and spirituality in both case studies.
With reference to the Buddhist conception of nature, organic farming goes beyond mere method to embrace a philosophy of living through the cultivation of both plants and human beings. The farmer in this conception becomes the caretaker for the land and at the same time the provider of healthy food for people. Thai language also provides a linguistic relation between nature and farming: the term kaset thammachart—natural farming—is usually preferred over ‘organic farming’, kaset meaning ‘farming’ and thammachart meaning the ‘law of nature’. In organic Buddhist farming, a parallel is drawn between the cultivation of intact soils and healthy humans, which mainstream agriculture does not attend to. Besides physical human health, it can bring spiritual health like ‘higher happiness’ and ‘enlightenment’ (interview, food safety expert, Bangkok). A more general, holistic health view is: ’Your body and universal is the same’, and ‘if you destroy the earth by putting chemical […] to the soil, the food that you take to […] [build] your muscle, your body, it’s will be [harmed] by those chemical’ (interview, holistic health expert, Bangkok).
Some of the Thai organic farmers in my case study implied in the Buddhist principle of no-harming rejected agro-chemicals, since insecticides and fertilizers destroy insects and microorganisms as well as harming the farm environment and ultimately the human consumer. The Buddhist community Santi Asoke is a notable example of this, and organic farming is self-evident in their rural centers. Farming there is considered the most reputable layperson’s occupation, and the community members—volunteers—have an intrinsic motivation since organic farming responds to their spiritual beliefs. The group has been a pioneer in promoting organic farming through workshops, using the ‘religious system to run the whole thing’ (interview, seed-saving activist, northern Thailand), and they also provide organic produce from their rural centers to urbanites in Bangkok. Visiting one of their rural centers, one witnesses simplicity and spirituality—simple wooden houses with kitchen gardens, collective bathrooms, instructions for repair, and recycling. Many community members walk barefoot, wearing simple garments mended several times, and use bicycles to get around. Meditation is part of the daily routine, and six monks live in the community.
This reflects the tendency of local alternative practices to resonate with Buddhist principles, which in turn, influences the concept of self-reliance presented in Section 4.1
and Section 4.2
Similarly, in the case study in Chennai, participants equally link organic farming to spiritual practice, as ‘everything in India is linked with spirituality’ (interview, ecologist, Chennai). Spiritual practice is a part of daily routine: ‘if you ask “are you spiritual?” to a farmer, he will probably tell you “no”. It’s in Indian practices’ (interview, ecologist, Chennai).
In fact, natural resources become worshipped for their sacredness through specific rituals:
‘Seed is sacred, land is sacred, water is sacred. Starting to do ploughing is sacred […] Starting to do harvesting is sacred. Harvesting is the start of the festival. Finishing the harvest is sacred, because when you finish your harvest, you do a ritual. […] And the first harvest is always given to the temple. For most of the farmers, even today’ (interview, ecologist, Chennai).
A spiritual aspect of farming lies within human’s relation to their natural environment and resources, such as the land or water, which require their cultivation and protection; the saving and reproduction of indigenous seeds means preserving biodiversity and cultural heritage at the same time.
Both examples demonstrate how spirituality merges with daily life practices, and particularly in alternative food practices through the organic farming approach and mindful lifestyles (see also [42
] (pp. 61–66)). This hints at the embeddedness of alternative practices in the local culture and spirituality, thus their particularity in the Thai and Indian settings. It notably demonstrates how cultural values such as mindfulness intertwine with sustainable farming principles and general sustainability notions.