15 February 2016
Thoughts on agriculture
I wanted to only share this link, but I suffered a bout of enthusiasm.
We feel affection for traditional architecture, music, cooking methods... Why not plants?
Plants are living things, with all the uniqueness and quirks we see and appreciate in animals. The singular pursuit of seed maximisation at all costs needs to be addressed. It's the same as breeding chicken for maximum weight in the quickest time. What about well being, nutrition, taste, and the joy of watching nature? What's the point of life if this is sacrificed? Like Churchill retorted when someone suggested spending cuts in art during the war - what then are we fighting for?
First, we need to look at plants as living things, with a soul. They are complex beautiful things, the fact that we eat them doesn't prevent us from loving them. I'll use a couple of examples to illustrate..
Plants have roots, which can sometimes be eaten by us, or animals. Half the carbon taken in from the atmosphere by the plant is used to feed microbial life who fetch nutrients for the roots. There is as much living biomass as inorganic matter in soil... Can you imagine how much life there is? Roots are constantly signalling and secreting food for specific microbes based on what nutrients they need and which microbes can fetch it... Microbes are constantly eating others, some breakdown food for the plant, some become food... When the plant dies naturally, it brings whatever nutrients it can into the roots to fertilise the soil. Roots decompose slowly, creating air pockets in the soil to store water and to supply air to life in the soil... In a natural farm or forest, different plants have different root depths, and together they tap into all the water and nutrients in the soil at different times depths, loosening the soil and letting water seep in, and creating passages for air and earthworms...
In chemical farming, one consequence is the compacting of soils and killing of microbes and earthworms... Leading to forced feeding of plants. It's like having a tube up your nose and being given scientifically designed proportions of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and everything else. I'm not exaggerating - it's really exactly this. There is little use for the natural behavior of roots, so slowly, the roots get rendered soulless. We do to them the same thing we do to the Labour lifting cement or coffee bags day after day just to stay alive.
The leaves are useful to feed animals. So when we propagated dwarf varieties in the green revolution, we sacrificed a useful part of the plant. And we haven't discussed the various other little life forms that depend on leaves and branches... A perch for birds which eat pests, cover for reptiles which eat rodents... Who knows what else we are missing?
This linear thinking of maximising one thing (seed size and weight) at the expense of everything else, is the kind of dangerous pursuit we must confront before it can destroy us. We are doing the same thing with money and convenience in our lives.
We are eating poisoned food because of the pursuit of lowest cost on the supermarket shelf. We are dehumanising and deskilling jobs because that way the market price of labour reduces and we can have lowest cost. Maximise yield, minimise cost, Maximise efficiency, minimise labour... The scary part is that all this is normal. We don't even think why we need to do this maximum minimum routine in our lives.
We appreciate the need for diversity in investment portfolios. We praise the diversity of our country. We learn not to put all of eggs in one basket. We like that not all places are the same, that people look different in different places... We must apply the same to our food. Why do we conserve any endangered species? One analogy is how Indian food is thought to be Punjabi food, and how people think Tamil food is idli and dosai.
When there is a disease outbreak - and disease is as normal in nature as humanity... Just one species trying to outcompete another... Variety in agriculture is the single biggest protection against disease and pests. With our perception of human driven control, we feel this is unnecessary because we can use chemicals instead.
Even disease and pest are opportunities for the market to sell something new, for moneyed people to lend money to buy these things, to propagate the bondage of debt, dependence and demand for these products people want to sell and profit from. That's a whole discussion by itself, so getting back to the effects of these chemicals and our perception of complete knowledge and control...
We will find out in the future about the harmful things we are doing today... Like we found out about tobacco, DDT and so many other things... we look for direct causation and correlation. Nature doesn't work in linear systems. Everything is interdependent in ways we don't understand fully. And we will never understand this world fully. A little humility in acknowledging that is useful. We don't know the effects of chemicals and lab manufactured seeds and herbicides in our ecosystem. Denial to acknowledge this has caused repeated suffering in the past, and we still expect different results in the future.
If there was no alternative, like say, a life saving drug, there is an argument for use of chemicals. But why do we do it with food, where there is a natural and safe way to produce nutritious and tasty food?
If factory farming was so successful in the West, why are farm subsidies so absurdly high in every developed economy?
Over 90% of American agriculture uses chemicals that we know harms nature... From frogs to butterflies to earthworms... This is proven and widely accepted ... What is debated and contested is the effect on humans... I have one question - do we claim to know of all the effects- direct and indirect, short and long term, on humans and nature? It's like something is broken and people have to die for the world to wake up. The same way someone has to be raped sensationally for rape to be taken seriously, and a Dalit has to die sensationally for India to wake up to caste prejudices... Why are we waiting? We are like the frog in the pot of water on the stove... Slowly getting boiled and enjoying the increasing warmth of inertia.
Do you ever think how some sidewalks in the US don't have grasses popping out of the crevices and the gaps between tiles while we have plants growing on the walls of old buildings here? How can something which is so eager to grow anywhere be kept out of sidewalks? Hello Herbicide.
The beauty is that nature is so eager to grow. Yet we are made to believe that it's a specific lab science which requires so much work and inputs from faraway chemical companies to enable life to grow.
There is a beautiful line in the movie Jurassic Park. They use genes from a frog to make up the gaps in the DNA of the fossil used to produce new dinosaurs in the lab. Jeff Goldblum is told that all the dinosaurs in the park are female, and he asks how do you know? Because they control it in the lab. They deny a certain enzyme which is essential for the foetus to become male. He says nature always finds a way... Later when they observe dinosaur eggs in the park, they figure that some frogs can be asexual and so can reproduce on their own, and that's how nature found a way. It's a profound thought in a movie famous for other things.
We cannot buy time and good health. Let's wake up now.
Here a good friend asked me about the different types of human manipulation of crops.
Traditionally how did agriculture start? In the wild, the grass which produces rice has rice enclosed in husk, just like our agricultural rice. It's naturally designed to burst so that the seeds inside (the rice we cook and eat) are spread in the act of bursting of the pod. This is the means of propagation of the species. Some mutations had pods which didn't burst. These grasses couldn't reproduce. The equivalent phenomenon in humans is infertility. However if they didn't busy we could harvest them. If they burst we had no access to the seeds because it was scattered all over and we could not forage the floor for tiny seeds. So what was desirable for agriculture was actually a defective mutation in nature. We picked those seeds which didn't burst and propagated them so that we could grow grasses which didn't have pods bursting so that we can harvest them from the plant and use it as food. Like this, we selected seeds and propagated characteristics which are desirable for humans. This was a modification of characteristics which occurred in nature. There are mutants in every species. There are some trees which had more fruits than others, so we picked them to propagate. There are fruits which were sweeter than others, or any other desirable character, and we selected them to propagate. This is in some ways like how the strongest lion or man gets to mate the most. Similarly with women, some had more chances to mate than others... ignoring morality, there were reasons why the propagation of a species was selective in which members got to mate and have children. In the case of agriculture, humans chose to propagate the plants with traits which were considered beneficial to us. Typically every farmer selected the seeds from their best crops and sowed them. This was a decentralised, farm level decision. So when millions of farmers did this, it created millions of variations. Also, there is free breeding between the plants in farms owned by different farmers. Whatever nature did we selected a few naturally occurring seeds to propagate. We didn't create the seeds, but selected which ones from the naturally occurring set got to propagate.
In seeds made in labs, we have traditional hybrids (like crossing two varieties of coffee) and now GM seeds. These are two very different things, and both are different from traditional farm level selection of a few seeds from the harvest for sowing.
The hybrids are the cross breeding of different varieties of the same species. You select coconuts from one place which has high yield and coconuts from another place which are short and hence easy to harvest. Naturally these are independently adapted to their own natural environments, and would not make contact with each other to be able to breed. Like one might be in Kerala and one in Vietnam. There is a slow process of nature where over thousands of years they might slowly migrate and meet each other, but mostly humans bring them together to breed them to get the best characteristics of both. The hybrid rice in green revolution was engineered in such a way that it's short, which enabled more of the grass' energies to go into seed making, and less into growing the plant, and because it was short, it was safe in heavy winds which led to losses when the grasses were tall... and they also responded to chemical inputs better. Like this we created hybrids of all kinds, which replaced native seeds propagated by farmers. It could be sweeter fruits or shorter crops or responsiveness to fertilizers... And we gave these seeds out to farmers and also gave them fertilizers and pesticides (majority of which were terribly toxic and since banned in most parts of the world, like DDT, which is banned and Endosulfan, which is still legal in our country)... Fertilizers also require heavy water use to be effective, so we moved from traditional varieties which were adapted to the local environment to hybrids which were crosses between two or more diverse varieties with little adaptation to the local conditions... The result is that they needed heavy inputs, irrigation and attention (disease, pest) to give high yields. This was the first stage of commercialization of agriculture in the 1960s... This replaced thousands and thousands of native varieties which were naturally suited for different environments developed by decentralized selection of seeds to propagate by farmers. For example, most of India has rainfed dryland agriculture... More than half of Indian agriculture depends on rains... There are varieties of grains which are suited for that. But now the entire country eats rice, and a narrow range of varieties of rice. We moved from native grains which required less water, less or no inputs and care, highly resistant to local pests and diseases, and nutritious... This includes various varieties of rice, and mainly millets whose yields were lower than hybrids but they were super hardy and nutritious and no matter what happened, the farmer had food to eat, did not have to loan any money to buy any farm input and was self reliant to feed his family. So we have replaced all of these with one thing called white polished rice, which requires heavy investments in inputs to get higher yields of significantly less nutrition per gram of grain.
Now let's look at GM. Here we are playing God in a way that God would be shocked. It's like engineering babies, controlling their DNA, to produce fairer taller babies because that is desirable. In the case of the most popular varieties of GM, specific enzymes are controlled to get desired characteristics. I will give you two examples. BT cotton and brinjal produced enzymes which were toxic to pests. So they were natural self protected from pests. There were other characters as well, but this was the primary goal. In the US, there is a chemical called Glyphosphate, which is the most widely used herbicide in the world. So they engineered crops which are resistant to this chemical, which is poisonous to all other plants including weeds and other life forms which are considered pests. So farmers plant these seeds and spray this chemical Glyphosphate (common name is Round Up) which kills everything else, allowing your plants to grow without any life form around it to compete or co-operate or anything else. This has resulted in a dramatic increase in pesticide use across the world. This is incredibly more harmful than hybrid seeds, which are harmful for biodiversity and nutrition security to start with... Monsanto designed GM seeds that they called Terminator seeds which couldn't propagate on their own, so the farmers had to go to Monsanto every year for their seeds, creating dependence. This kind of thoughtless propagation leads to decrease in diversity, making it more prone to superbugs (nature mutates constantly and now there are pests which are immune to Glyphosphate... Like microbes immune to antibiotics)... Heavy input cost in both chemicals and water, which is a scarce resource in most parts of the world and our country... Leading to debt and dependence and suicides. The entire system is designed to create market dependence and reduce self reliance. Only in the case of GM, we don't know of the effects of human consumption of these human engineered foods. They don't exist in nature, it's man made... The enzymes, the DNA, the fundamental contents of the rice or brinjal or corn is made by man... We don't know what effects it has on our body, on other life forms when consumed... But that's not the end of the problem... We are wiping out other species, so if this propagates, all of us will be left with one kind of rice, which is under the control of Monsanto or Syngenta or someone else, and we are dependent on them, and indirectly on the chemical companies... Also, there is a difference in nutrition content between native crops and GM... We don't even understand how this thing works, what complex Web of interconnected consequences this has in nature... For example, the dodo went extinct, and a tree in Mauritius stopped reproducing... It required it's seed to go thru the gut of the dodo to be able to sprout... There are thousands of species of bees, each one has specific dependence with plants, and this is what we know, there could be other forms which are dependent on these bees, or these crops, and the diversity of these crops... By wiping out varieties we are wiping out a wide range of interdependent life forms not all of which we understand. We know for a fact that many life forms are directly affected by the chemicals which are sprayed for growing these crops, and this is undisputed fact I'm talking about, not some debatable correlation... Why do we take this risk? What benefit do we gain? Because it has left the world's farmers poor and dependent on government dole subsidies... So it has really failed humanity. The only people it has benefited are the Monsantos of the world and indirectly the Olams and Walmart and ITC... It has served no other purpose. India is simultaneously suffering from malnutrition and obesity. Please Google endosulfan and read about it. Please visit one chicken farm and see what they are fed. Please visit one conventional farm of rice and see how much chemicals and water is used. Please see how cabbage or cauliflower or grapes are grown and the amount of pesticides used. Because there are no natural balancing elements like birds or reptiles to eat the pests, we need to use high dosages of pesticides... We are taking all this risk without knowing the consequences, but for what benefit? Why don't we accept that we don't understand chemicals and modified genes and their effects, and stick to naturally healthy, tasty and nutritious food? Why this eagerness to push solutions designed to keep farmers poor and dependant and profit corporations?
I've written too much