Sustainable sourcing: Western Ghats, Kerala, India

For our first sourcing trip we travelled to Southern India and the centre of the global spice trade. Moving inland from the port city of Cochin, lies the Western Ghats mountain range which is home to many of the spice farms in India today. The Western Ghats stretch 1,600 kilometres in parallel to the western coast of the Indian peninsula traversing the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujara. In 2012 the region was granted World Heritage status as one of the worlds most prominent areas in the world of biodiversity. So fertile are the growing conditions that the saying goes if you lean on your walking stick for too long it will grow roots.

Sunrise view in the Western Ghats

The challenges we face in food production as a global society are becoming increasingly apparent. Extreme weather events, declining soil fertility, and biodiversity loss are threatening worldwide and in India it is no different. In 2018 mass flooding in Kerala during the monsoon caused widespread destruction to many of the spice farms in the region. Farms and farmer incomes were decimated and prices of spices such as cardamom saw huge increases due to the lack of supply. 

Following on from 2018 it is encouraging to see how spice farming in the region has begun to adapt. On one of the black pepper farms we visited, it was great to see many different varieties of black pepper being farmed to help build resilience in production. Currently around 70% of black pepper in India is grown using the Panniyur-1 variety. This has been increasingly adopted by farmers over the years due to its high yield and large berry size. Despite the obvious benefits to this in terms of trade, a reduction in black pepper varieties has the potential to cause large scale production loss if a disease were to take hold.

Building resilience through variety is exactly what the food system worldwide needs to be doing. Not only does this give the farmer more security in production in the face of climate change but it can also offer the chance to decouple from large scale commodity pricing. One of the peppers that is currently being trialled by the partner farmer co-operative in Wayanad is the Karimunda variety. It is a slightly smaller berry size but more resilient to a changing climate and so we have opted to include this in our offering. The 'King Karimunda' as I like to call it is probably my favourite black pepper that they currently grow and boasts a caramel aroma with slightly sweet citrus flavour. 

Karimunda variety black pepper seedlings

Although many countries have begun to chip away at India's dominance in different areas of the spice business, global turmeric production is still very much concentrated in India. Unlike with black pepper, there were no specific varieties of turmeric that were being experimented with by the farmers. This is in part because turmeric is a root and so is less prone to disease from exposure to the elements compared to berries such as peppercorns. That being said, it was great to see many of the organic farms using crop rotation and mixed farming techniques to build soil fertility and increase productivity. The turmeric we have imported, from the same co-operative as the black pepper, is both high in curcumin content and flavour oils, all the good stuff basically. This is almost certainly down to the increased nutrients in the soil that improved cultivation techniques promote. 

Young turmeric roots

Spice farmers from the organic farming co-operative in Wayanad

All in all the trip to the Western Ghats was a great success. It was fantastic to have the opportunity to visit a variety of spice farms and really encouraging to see how the spice farmers and co-operatives were adapting to the climate challenges in agriculture by building resilience in ecosystems.

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