Sustainable Food Gardening

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1. Introduction

Agriculture has significant influences on several global environmental and social crises facing our world today including, global warming, water crisis, land degradation, biodiversity loss, food crisis, energy crisis, poverty, malnutrition and health problems. Low-input sustainable organic gardening on a small scale and on vacant or marginal land in urban or rural areas can provide huge benefits to the nation’s environment, society and economy. Some concepts that could be included in the methodology are listed below.
While most of us complain about and criticize the unsustainability of modern life, few of us get down to doing something about it. In fact small steps in taken in sustainable action can bring big environmental benefits. One such step is making an organic food garden on vacant land in your neighborhood. Such a simple, zero technology kitchen garden plot of a few square meters provides tasty organic vegetables and fruits on inputs of:
  1. Your own kitchen organic waste.
  2. Greywater recycled from your own kitchen and shower rooms. Alternatively, recycled effluent-treated water can be used. However, it does take substantial amounts of energy to treat wastewater and pump it back for gardening.

2. Socio-Environmental Problems and Benefits of Food Gardens

Sustainable and organic food gardens that supply even a part of a family’s food requirements reduce a large number of socio-environmental problems that lead to unsustainability. In that sense, these sustainable organic gardens are partial solutions to the unsustainability of modern life. Described below are some of the socio-environmental problems of today and how organic gardens can reduce their impact:
  1. Food crisis and land availability: The Indian subcontinent supports 50% of the world’s hungry. About 1 in 12 children world over (160 million), are malnourished. Asia has only 0.13 hectare (14,000sq.ft) arable land/person. A massive food crisis is expected in the near future due to the combined effect of the exploding population, increasing water scarcity, rising land degradation, global climate change, economic upheavals and disruption of distribution systems. In this context it is of utmost importance to utilize every square inch of available vacant land for food production. Organic gardens provide a local and assured food supply that utilizes vacant land for fulfilling local food needs.
  2. Nutrition: Organic food gardens provide fresh and tasty organic food, free from pesticides at your doorstep. This reduces malnutrition resulting from deficiency of essential vitamins and minerals. Organic produce has been found to have higher levels of vitamin C and essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, and chromium (totally, some 21 nutrients). Higher micronutrient contents have been found to contribute to better health and consumers have been found to have a lower incidence of non-communicable diseases.
  3. Freshwater scarcity: Irrigation constitutes 80% of India’s freshwater consumption. By 2025, some 50 countries (including India), will be hit by water stress or water scarcity. Every product or foodstuff contains large quantities of ‘embodied water’—the scarce and precious freshwater used in the production, distribution and waste disposal of the product. Re-using your own greywater (shower and washing water) for irrigation, displaces some of the demand on the precious and scarce freshwater that would otherwise be used to cultivate crops for feeding you.
  4. Solid waste management: India’s solid waste management infrastructure is overburdened, inefficient and in many places simply non-existent. Over 70% of the Indian cities lack adequate capacity to transport the waste and there are no sanitary landfills to dispose of the waste collected. Thus even the waste that is collected is often disposed of irresponsibly. More than 25% of the municipal solid waste is not collected at all and is left to rot on the streets or collected by scavengers. Approximately 48% of solid waste in Indian cities is biodegradable (i.e. potential manure). The best use of such waste is to compost it locally and apply it to food gardens. This eliminates the need for collecting and transporting almost half of the nation’s solid waste. Moreover, by applying this compost to food gardens, we can convert the waste to the greatest wealth—FOOD.
  5. Poor fertility of agricultural soils: In India, land degradation affects 105 mi. ha (32.07% of arable land), out of which 81.45 mi. ha (24.78%) are desertified. Loss of soil moisture and loss of soil organic matter are among the most common characteristics of such degraded soils. These can be easily remedied through the addition of organic manures or carbonaceous biomass to the soil. Adding of biomass or manure to degraded soil can substantially increase crop yields (e.g. Adding the equivalent of 1 ton carbon /ha can increase yields by 20-40 kg/ha for wheat, 10-20 kg/ha for maize, and 0.5-1 kg/ha for cowpeas). Moreover, the humus from the decomposed biomass also helps the soil hold more water, reducing the need for irrigation. Thus, composting organic waste and applying it to food gardens achieves a dual purpose of reducing the solid waste problem and improving soil fertility.
  6. Domestic effluent treatment: In India, the municipal wastewater treatment capacity developed so far is sufficient for only 27% of wastewater generation in Class I cities and Class II towns. Over 73% of sewage water in these Indian cities and towns is not treated at all. For smaller towns and villages, there is no concept of effluent treatment. All the untreated effluent finds its way into surface waters and groundwater, which are also the sources of drinking water. Contaminated water kills 1 million children/yr due to diahorrea alone and totally affects some 45 million people/yr. Resuing greywater for food gardens considerably reduces the volume of wastewater going to the overburdened municipal effluent treatment plants.
  7. Food miles and green house gas emissions: Locally grown food, saves food miles—the miles that the food has to be transported from the farm to your table. This greatly reduces green house gas emissions from the transportation fuels.
  8. Embodied energy and consumption of foreign oil: Agriculture is a big consumer of energy (for farm machinery, pumpsets, making the petroleum-based agrochemicals, transportation, storage, food processing etc.). Thus every kilogram of our foodstuffs has some ‘embodied energy’—the energy used in producing and distributing that foodstuff. Since more than 85% of our energy comes from fossil fuels, there is a proportionate emission of greenhouse gasses. Thus, the food we consume inevitably causes global warming and environmental damage. Also unfortunately, India does not have much oil reserves and we depend on foreign oil. Organic gardens greatly reduce the energy consumption and the organic produce has very low embodied energy. They also reduce our food supply’s dependence foreign oil.
  9. Pollution and eutrophication of water bodies: Human nitrogen inputs to the land (through synthetic fertilizers) have risen so rapidly in the past few decades that they now equal biological fixation. The excess of nitrates from the soil, leach into water bodies leading to an overgrowth of some plants and algae. This causes great loss to aquatic life and even loss of biodiversity on terrestrial ecosystems.
  10. Food spoilage: About 30% of the value of Indian fruits and vegetables ends up destroyed or spoiled on the way to market, mostly because of bad infrastructure; most of all bad roads. Sourcing your food locally (food gardens) reduces food miles and food spoilage at various stages of transportation and storage.
  11. Quality family and community time: Organic gardening is a great way to spend quality time with your family, children and neighbors. It has high instructional potential too. So parents can teach children many concepts such as the value of life, growing, nature, cooperation, hard work, dedication etc
  12. Reduce TV-watching and get healthy: Last but not the least, food gardens are an excellent opportunity for the entire family to reduce TV-watching and get into shape by doing some mild physical activity.

3. Amma on Sustainable Gardening

Amma says that she has the same feeling for green fields that one might have for an old friend he is meeting after a long time, or reuniting with the mother who had been long lost. Amma says “Nature is God in a form that we can directly perceive even through our limited senses”. Amma advises students to utilize any available space even on the terrace or the upper floors, to grow their own vegetables which are not loaded with harmful chemicals. She says that we must bring back the culture of cultivation and attain self sufficiency as far as possible by putting aside at least one hour every day for this purpose. Amma feels that agriculture is life itself and She feels sad that it is being lost now. But, upon seeing the enthusiasm of Her children, She feels confident that it will not die out. Amma recommends crop rotation so that rice, mustard and vegetables can be grown every year in the same tract of land[1].

4. Sustainable Practices for Food Gardens

There is a huge variety of sustainable practices adopted by farmers around the world. Many of them have shown truly impressive results in terms of yield, productivity, produce quality, and the reduction of environmental and social impacts. While there the science behind many of them is quite complex, most of them are quite easy to implement, and with some trial and error, one can have a flourishing garden. A brief outline of some such sustainable practices that can be easily adopted are given below:
  1. Minimal Tillage (Ploughing): Minimal tillage practices help the soil retain soil structure, porosity, organic matter, biota, high groundwater percolation rates, and high C-sequestration. In fact, soils under conservation tillage have been found to contain 30–50% more carbon than soils under traditional tillage.
  2. Minimum Machinery: By using only hand tools, we can reduce the energy footprint and foreign oil-dependence of our gardening. On a larger scale, not only does it save on capital expenditure, but it can also create more jobs. In the case of community gardening, we can experience a healthy community spirit as we work in the field together.
  3. Seeds: Locally adapted, indigenous seeds can be chosen. These crops are well adapted to local conditions. They have good natural pest resistance, and are not addicted to fertilizers and pesticides unlike many hybrid and GM crops. Indigenous crops might not give the highest yields, but they can continue to yield even under adverse conditions, when the hybrid or GM crops might take heavy or total losses. This is especially true in the case of polycultures (a harmonious variety of crops planted in the field). They provide wholesome nutrition without the health risks associated with genetically modified (GM) crops.
  4. Interplanting/Polyculture: Planting a variety of plants in your garden (greater crop diversity) can better maintain soil fertility and provide better resilience to climatic variations and disease and pest attack. Commonly, leguminous plants are interplanted among other crop plants. These plants fix nitrogen in the soil and improve its fertility.
  5. Ground Mulch (ground cover): The ground mulched with inexpensive waste biomass such as leaf litter, grass clippings, dried weeds etc. leads to reduced water evaporation from soil. As the soil retains more moisture, plants are subjected to lesser water stress. The mulched ground serves as an ideal habitat for natural pest-predators, such as spiders, toads, praying mantises lizards, etc. As the populations of the predators rise, pest attack is considerably reduced. The mulched ground remains cool and moist and shaded (not exposed to sunlight). This encourages the growth of soil biota like earthworms and microorganism, which greatly improve soil nutrients, texture, soil moisture management and plant growth. Mulched fields retain far greater levels of soil carbon leading to higher soil carbon sequestration. As the mulch decomposes, it turns to compost, speeded up by the activity of earthworms and microorganisms. This provides balanced nutrition to the crops.
  6. Organic manures and compost: In addition to the mulch, organic manures provide balanced nutrition to the crops without micronutrient deficiencies. They also provide large quantities of beneficial bacteria, fungi, and other organisms, which are necessary in any healthy living soil. Compost teas, panchagavya and similar concoctions are also very effective in promoting plant growth and productivity.
  7. Natural pesticides: Natural pesticides such as neem oil emulsions, chilli powder etc. can be used for pest control. These are preferable to the chemical pesticides due to their low or no toxicity to humans. They also have low adverse impacts on field biodiversity.
  8. Beneficial organisms: Bees and other insects help in crop pollination. Bee boxes located at various places in the campus can help in pollination. Mulching creates a favorable micro-habitat for natural pest predators, pollinators and soil organisms such as earthworms.
  9. Water conservation practices:Mulching minimizes the need for watering by conserving soil moisture. Moreover, by using only recycled water, for watering, there is no need for using the precious and scarce freshwater resources.
  10. Eliminate toxics from water: Using herbal items like soapnut, shikakai, neem, vinegar, etc. as cleaners and disinfectants in your home, eliminates toxic chemicals from your greywater. It also eliminates the need for a vast gallery of chemical industries that are responsible for huge energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution of land, water and air. The mentioned herbal items (plants) can grow even without irrigation in your backyard or neighborhood and serve many other ecosystem functions. If you use these natural non-toxic cleaners, your greywater can be used directly for garden plants, without any effluent treatment.

5. Facilities for Organic Gardening on Amritanagar Campus at Amrita

5.1 Staff Organic Gardens

Mr. Sivakumar, Head, Estate office, has been kind enough to provide space next to the children’s park for organic gardening. Recycled water for irrigation has also been arranged. Hand tools, organic compost and leaf mulch will also be available shortly. Families and individuals interested in organic gardening, may kindly inform Nikhil Kothurkar (, demarcate a plot of roughly 10 ft x 10ft, and start gardening.

5.2 Student Garden Plots

Photo slideshow :

photo courtesy: Sanjay Bharadhwaj

6. Students’ Experience

Student feedback collected voiced an almost unanimous opinion that the organic gardening project was a highly enriching experience which brought them closer to Mother Nature and humanity.



[1] Harvest Festival