By Saher Hasnain, DPhil Candidate
Modern food technology and globalization has introduced individuals to a wide array of food and food experiences to add to their culinary repertoire. However, this dazzling variety of products and associated information has its own problems for consumers, producers and policy makers alike. In recent years, increasing uncertainty about food safety has resulted in a number of food scares and distrust on food origins, processes and contents. An increasing number of scientific studies linking food contaminants to various health problems has made people wary of their food consumption habits. This caution and uncertainty manifests in a number of adaptive behaviors, some of which I saw during my fieldwork in Islamabad, Pakistan.
The conversation gains momentum at a plant nursery in Islamabad. The gentleman is purchasing a selection of seeds for his vegetable garden. He discusses the growing periods with the nursery owner and considers a fairly expensive purchase of a drip irrigation hose. We’ve been talking about his food shopping habits and interestingly, he includes his trips to the plant nursery as a key point of his route.
‘Well of course it’s not part of my usual path, but it’s very important of my personal food world. I mean, my home is still a part of my food acquiring route, right?’ Saleem throws in some more seed packets and completes his purchase. He comes here at least five times a year and purchases seeds and seedlings for a variety of vegetables. He grows most of them in his front yard, and some in flower pots along the drive way.
‘Well, I have all this space, and might as well use it for growing healthy things! At least I know what I’m putting in the ground and it’s not poison.’
Saleem has a four-year-old daughter. He confesses that he hadn’t been very interested in food properties before she was born. His wife has a medical degree and had a significant role in increasing his awareness of what food was consumed in the house: ‘She does all of the food shopping! That’s why I only brought you here when you asked me about my food shopping habits. This is the only thing I’m good for! (laughs)’. We drive back to their house, where we meet Humaira, who’s just returned from picking up their daughter from school. She inspects the purchased seeds and we get ready to plant them.
‘I buy almost all vegetables from that old man in the corner of our market. The area where he gets his produce from is mostly owned by that one landlord who prides himself on not using pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Everything is so fresh. It goes bad very quickly of course, but I still prefer to buy what I need on that day instead of stocking up.’ We help Saleem soak the seeds and plant the seedlings in preparation for the growing season, so they can start replacing some of the older plants of the peppers and gourds in the yard. Saleem has organized the yard, driveway and terrace to favor Humaira’s aesthetic tendencies by putting the flowering plants on display and hiding some of the more unruly plants behind them.
She points to the neighbor’s well-tended lawn with the row of rose bushes and says, ‘I’d like to have that. But I’d rather try and augment some of the market food with what we grow. We can never be self-sufficient of course, but I need to do something. I need to know that I do everything in my power for my family.’
Humaira and Saleem aren’t unique in Islamabad’s property owners in their love for urban agriculture. Most of the houses have space for plants, and it was very rare to find a house which didn’t try to balance the concrete and pavement with at least some potted plants or bottles of ‘money plant’. However, there primary motivation for planting only vegetables, fruits and herbs is tightly integrated with their personal health concerns and their feelings of responsibility for their daughter. They both admit that they weren’t as concerned with the growing and production conditions for their food before they had Alina. ‘I know I did medicine, but I never really internalized that knowledge until I was pregnant with her. You become so much more aware of your body and what you do to it.’
She talks about her best friend Gaitee, who grows chili peppers at her home. She distributes all of them to neighbors and friends. ‘She loses interest in them once they are about to die. I think she only grows them because they look pretty! They aren’t even spicy!’ Humaira doesn’t think that urban agriculture is alien to the city’s population. In her theory, it’s a remnant of the farm and village times that some people remember or were freshly uprooted from, where plants or crops were a norm. She doesn’t think it applies to her and her family though, considering that they were both born and raised in very urban areas in Karachi. ‘If we hadn’t had Alina, I’m sure we’d either just have a gardener to tend the lawn and plant flowers every year. We wouldn’t be so invested in this space.’
Humaira and Saleem’s spatial routine in the house revolves around the kitchen and the garden. They rightly point out that growing things in gardens isn’t new, and fruit trees, shrubs, and vines are a very common sight in the city. However, they are fairly unusual in their motivation and drive to grow the things they do. They are interested in supplementing the organic diet they try to feed their family with produce they’ve raised themselves. Their drive is health and a sense of responsibility and justification. While this is a very particular case and was fairly extreme even in terms of the health-conscious group of participants, it points to a particular trend in the middle class population group of the city, where people are attempting alternative methods of acquisition to source the best possible food for their families.