Palm Jaggery – King of Sweeteners

In the first 17 years of my life in Bombay, I used to wait for Taadgola every summer. I vividly remember the vendors who used to sell Taadgola in the corner of the road 100 metres from our house in the suburbs. I used to coax my mother to buy some whenever we used to walk together from the school-bus drop-off point to our house. Taadgola, known as nungu in Tamil, used to be one of my favourite summer fruits, enjoyed as much as the beloved Mango; even though it used to slip and slither from my hand when I tried to remove the fibrous peel.

Neera used to be available in most local train stations in Mumbai during my school days; but they slowly vanished giving way to more juice+fresh-snacks+stale-snacks stalls. Never then had I known which tree the palm fruit was harvested from or Neera was tapped from. I don’t remember having seen the Palmyra tree other than in the outskirts of the city, beyond New Bombay, on the way to Pune – maybe I just didn’t pay enough attention to the trees around. Or maybe because there wasn’t enough emphasis in our education about the species, plant or animals, we coexist with. Never then had I imagined that I will be playing a teeny-tiny role in reviving produce from the magnificent tree.

~ 9 minute read

Why am I angry now?

To minimize humanity’s ecological footprint, the more production and consumption of goods are both local, the better it is. But we have created an industrialized capitalistic civilization where population, economy, decision-making processes are centred around urban centres. Subsidization of only a certain kind of capital-intensive goods ensures economies of scale despite the havoc they create on ecosystems. And therefore consumption is focused in cities. Production is focused in small towns and villages because cities are mostly devoid of natural resources now. We need to move towards localised economies of production and consumption, to have any hope of combatting climate change. One of the few ways to combat this Covid pandemic and future pandemics, is to hyper-localize economies, instead of building globalized or even national level economies.

At an individual level, once one has truly realized this or acquired this knowledge, a farmer or any producer would want to contribute towards making economies local. In Old World countries like India and China, making production local is still relatively easy because a lot of knowledge & skill exists to make local native produce regeneratively in cottage industries without fossil fuels. What no longer exist are markets for consumption. What no longer exist are economic incentives to produce healthy, pure, quality products with minimum impact in the environment.

The making of Palm Jaggery

My latest favourite example in the battle of environment-friendly healthy-produce versus cheap economies-of-scale-driven unhealthy-produce is palm jaggery versus cheap cane sugar.

Palm jaggery used to be cheaper than cane sugar up until the 1960s, I have been told by Lordusaami, the Palm expert who has been tapping Padaneer and converting it to Palm Jaggery for us. It was the sweetener of choice. By providing free water and subsidized urea, sugarcane cultivation started gaining impetus. Now cane sugar is only about 10% the price of palm jaggery. Does that mean sugarcane has become 10 times more efficient than manufacturing palm jaggery? Absolutely not.

Palm sap collection needs minimum human intervention. The trees establish themselves with only rainwater and zero manual irrigation. They need not be fed any fertilizer to grow. The palm leaves and fruits that fall provide nutrition and ideal temperature for life to survive in the soils around. This ensures that carbon is captured in the soil. Very few pests are known to infest Palmyra trees. If at all there are any, pests will only thrive in monocultures of Palmyra. But monocultures of Palmyra are rare because the trees are already wildly well distributed across the tropics.

Palm trees have been actively planted to demarcate farm boundaries by agricultural land owners in Tamil Nadu.

A palm tapper needs to climb palm trees twice a day : once for collecting the sap from the mud pot and once for slicing the inflorescence. To make palm jaggery from palm sap, dried palm leaves are used as firewood. To hang the pots from the tree, fibre from the palm leaves is pulled to make ropes. Even the ladder tied to the tree, is made using these very ropes. No industrialized product is needed in the entire process to make palm jaggery. So, the carbon footprint of the palm jaggery process is miniscule.

Here is a video of the making of palm jaggery from the palm sap / padaneer in our instagram page.

The competition, Sugarcane

Sugarcane is known to be one of the most water intensive crops of the country. Growing such a water intensive crop at such scale in a groundwater stressed country is not a wise policy decision at all. It is a crop introduced across the country over the last few decades, mostly after the green revolution made available plenty of freshwater and urea to farm lands, at the expense of soil pollution, water pollution and water abuse.  Sugarcane needs to be transported to sugar factories in diesel guzzling tractors or trucks, where energy from burning fossil fuels is needed to crush the sugarcane, cyrstallize and refine it into the final product that is cane sugar. Because factories can’t be built everywhere, the distribution chain of cane sugar from the warehouses to consumer is also long. Overall, the carbon footprint of making and selling refined cane sugar is extremely heavy.

Because, over the years, the social fabric of villages has been destroyed by providing impetus to industrialized manufacturing and service oriented jobs in cities, lesser labour is available in rural India. Despite economies of scale reducing prices of goods, goods that were bartered or were easily available now had to be purchased. This increased the cost of living for people. Wages had to increase to match this. Therefore a labour-intensive cottage-industry process such as that of Palm Jaggery is expensive, even though the process of manufacturing of palm jaggery in itself is extremely resource efficient compared to cane sugar or jaggery. If we were to cost water, pollution in our soils & rivers, the carbon in the air, cane sugar & jaggery would be much more expensive than palm jaggery or sugar. Like it was a few decades back.

The plight of Borassus flabellifer, Palmyra Palm trees

I am sure whoever declared the Palmyra tree the state tree of Tamil Nadu must have given it quite some thought. Unfortunately, Palmyra trees in private lands are being cut down and sold for an income of less than ₹1000 per tree for the land owner. ₹1000 is the wage for 2 days of work for a male labourer here. A tree whose lifespan is known to be more than 150+ years is valued at such a low price. Its death is valued at such a low price because we are not able to extract value from the tree when it is alive. Every part of the tree has several uses. If the tree’s value was determined by discounted cash flow method and all the services the tree provides be accounted as cash, the value would be sky-high.

Sadly, the tree is now mostly used for firewood in brick kilns. So, not only is the carbon capture possibility eliminated by killing the tree, further more carbon is burnt by lighting it on fire. The palm tree was the wood of choice for the framework of roof for Madras terrace – the carbon gets locked and stored away above the ground. But the lower price of concrete roof has de-incentivised masons from using this readily available material. This is a perfect example of how deviant our current economic system is.

For the purpose of brevity of the blog, I am not going to talk about the ill effects on our health of refined sugar or the benefits of vitamins & minerals available in jaggery. In short : cane jaggery is healthier than cane sugar, palm jaggery is healthier than palm sugar. Palm Jaggery is known to be healthier than cane jaggery. But, at the end of the day, any jaggery still contains mostly sucrose. And should be used sparingly in our diets.

Pure Organic Farm-fresh Palm Jaggery for Sale

Having said that, we are selling palm Jaggery a.k.a. பனைவெல்லம் a.k.a கருப்பட்டி; arguably, the tastiest, healthiest, most sustainable form of sweetener available to Southern India. Revival of the Palmyra is only possible if more of us adopt the bounty of products this tree has to offer.

Even the packaging is made with palm leaves!
Picture courtesy : Srini
  • Palmyra trees are growing in our farm where no fossil-fuel based fertilizer or any toxic pesticides have been used for the last 3 years now
  • Zero adulteration with cane sugar or food colouring
  • We sell only Direct-to-Customer. So, the produce is as fresh as it can get

Please follow us on instagram , Facebook or join our whatsapp group to receive notifications when we sell palm jaggery.

Regards
Sudhakar
http://www.VivasayeesLife.com

P.S. This is the second product from the Palmyra trees that we are selling. Another forgotten heritage product that we sold earlier this year was Palmyra Sprouts Flour. Check out our instagram page for videos on its making.

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