By Bharat Mansatta
Caring for the environment is the fundamental premise on which the new world will be built. A few pointers on how to move in that direction
Everywhere, and at all times, the fortunes of civilisations and the well-being of people are fundamentally dependent on the health of the land. Unfortunately, we take for granted our numerous blessings – the daily smooth functioning of Nature – until serious problems shake us from our slumber.
Soil, water, forests, biodiversity – these are absolute basics, the very foundation of life. However, if India continues to ruin them as in the past 50 years, all of us may have to bid goodbye to our health, our peace, and our sanity – even if we have accumulated pots of money!
Veteran natural farmer, Bhaskar Save, acclaimed as ‘the Gandhi of organic farming’ says, “While Nature is generous, we are foolishly tearing asunder the cycles that sustain the web of life. We tragically forget that industry cannot create anew; it merely transforms raw materials sourced from Nature. Only Nature is truly creative and self-regenerating – through synergy with the fresh daily inflow of the sun’s energy. A child has a right to its mother’s milk. But if we draw on Mother Earth’s blood and flesh as well, how can we expect her continuing nurturance?”
India is blessed with an abundance of sunshine. Next to South America, it also receives the highest rainfall in the world. When the ground is covered by thick vegetation, particularly trees, much of the rain is soaked by the absorbent soil, percolating deep to recharge our groundwater. Thus, most parts of India had freshwater in wells and rivers all round the year. But clear the forests, and the capacity of the earth to soak the rain, drops drastically. Streams and wells run dry. This has happened in too many places already.
India’s first agriculture minister, KM Munshi, had declared as national priority the vital tasks of healing the water cycle and fertility cycle of Nature. Today, this is more urgent than ever.
It is estimated that India is losing 15,000 million tonnes of precious topsoil every year – eroded from denuded land bereft of trees – depleting the core ecological capital of farmers. At a nominal value of ten paise per kg – though even lifeless sand for construction costs more – a staggering Rs 150,000 crore is drained off every year! There can be no surer path to ecological and economic bankruptcy.
The global loss of biodiversity is no less alarming. For example, ‘The Gaia Atlas of Planet Management’ informs us that “Of the estimated 80,000 edible plants (found worldwide), less than 20 species now provide 90 per cent of our food!”
One needs only to pore over the multi-volume encyclopaedia of our natural heritage, appropriately titled The Wealth of India, to get an idea of the phenomenal biodiversity of this country. This includes many thousand traditionally useful species, growing wild or cultivated, not to mention the numerous varieties within each species.
Fifteen years ago, 24 of us pooled our resources to buy 64 acres in the foothills of the Sahyadris, between Mumbai and Pune. Through protection, and a little supplementary planting, it has regenerated into a magnificent, bio-diverse forest, called Van Vadi. A botanical survey by local tribals recorded over 35 species of uncultivated foods found there in different seasons. There are also numerous medicinal and timber species and plants that yield natural dyes, soaps, oils (edible and non-edible), gums and resins, botanical pesticides, and leaf plates, apart from the more commonly sourced fodder, fuel and fertiliser (green manure) plants, as also hedge (dry and live) species. Indeed, most plants have multiple uses and functions.
Our dense, regenerated forest has checked soil erosion, while the porous, living soil under it has greatly enhanced the recharge of groundwater. Earlier, the hand-pumps in two villages downstream of Van Vadi would run dry in peak summer. Now, they yield water all round the year! By absorbing carbon dioxide, the forest trees also help check global warming and climate change.
Return to roots
India has a ten-millennia history of farming. All of it was organic, barring the last few decades, when chemicals were widely promoted. This past half century has witnessed a sharp ecological downslide, and a spiralling of farm input costs and indebtedness, while yields and revenues are declining. There is a spate of farmers’ suicides, with at least 150,000 such deaths recorded all over India. The National Commission on Farmers bemoaned that 40 per cent of India’s agricultural families would like to leave farming. This forebodes a potential 250 million economic and ecological refugees pouring into urban slums in quest of any available work to earn their daily bread! Addressing the roots and remedies of the agricultural crisis, Bhaskar Save sent a detailed Open Letter in July 2006 to MS Swaminathan, chairman of the NCF, stating: “I am an 84-year-old farmer with six decades of personal experience. I say with conviction that only by organic farming of mixed, locally suitable crops, plants and trees, following the laws of Nature, can India sustainably provide abundant, wholesome food and meet every basic need of all – to live in health, dignity, and peace.” Some cynically argue that individual examples do not prove that organic farming can feed an entire nation. It is thus relevant to look at the remarkable story of Cuba’s agricultural transformation since 1990.
The Cuba story
Before 1990, Cuba had a highly mechanised and chemical-intensive agricultural sector, more similar to the Central Valley of California than the typical Latin American small farm. However, almost all machinery, agrochemicals, fuel, spare parts – and half the food people ate – came from the Soviet Bloc, while sugar and its derivatives generated 75 per cent of Cuba’s export earnings.
In 1989, the Soviet system began to unravel, and the US tightened its embargo, throwing Cuba into terrible turmoil. The loss of all import sources and export markets devastated Cuba’s economy. There were severe scarcities of food and fuel. Factories, tractors, and cars came to a standstill. In just a few years, the average Cuban lost 15-20 pounds in weight. Some cried in distress; some left the country. Under sheer compulsion, Cuba turned organic. Small, traditional farmers who had continued self-reliant, mixed cropping became the centre of all attention. As animal power was urgently needed for ploughing and cartage, the slaughter of cattle for food was banned! The best animals were selected for breeding. Thousands of small, organic vegetable gardens sprouted in the cities.
In 1999, the Swedish Parliament presented the Right Livelihood Award, or ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’, to Cuba’s Organic Farming Association – for “showing that organic agriculture is a key to food security and environmental sustainability.” In 2006, the ‘Living Planet’ report of WWF and Global Footprint Network declared, “Cuba is the only country on earth to achieve sustainable development, with high scores on ecological resource use, as well as the health and education of her people.” The American Journal of Public Health reported a 45 per cent decline in cardiovascular diseases. Three million tons of organic food, mainly fruit and vegetables, was harvested in 2006 within the city of Havana!
The way forward
On the global level, a monumental 2,500-page report was released in 2008, following four years of intensive study by an international panel of over 400 experts and a near thousand researchers and reviewers. Called the ‘International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development’ (IAAKSTD), it included representatives of governments, civil society, private sector and scientific institutions around the world, as well as the World Bank, FAO, UNDP, UNEP and WHO.
Sixty countries, including India, adopted the IAAKSTD report, which recommends that small-scale farmers and agro-ecological methods are the way forward, with indigenous knowledge playing an important role. The report notes that genetically modified crops are surely not an answer to hunger, poverty or climate change. They are fraught with grave, poorly tested hazards to health and the environment, without offering significant, proven benefits; and they threaten inevitable (and virtually irreversible) contamination and erosion of biodiversity essential for the future of agriculture.
In contrast, organic agro-ecological systems offer multiple verifiable benefits, including enhanced productivity, reduced costs, healthy poison-free food, and the regeneration of soil, biodiversity, and ground water. Fossil fuel inputs and greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced, while energy efficiency and carbon sequestration are much higher.
It is no longer a question of whether natural regeneration and mixed organic farming are the sane future for humanity, but rather a question of how rapidly we will move in that direction in our best enlightened self-interest. As the well-known health educator and counsellor, Dr Vijaya Venkat wisely notes, “Self-care is health-care is earth-care!”
Bharat Mansatta is a writer and committed environmentalist
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