The Cannes film festival took place earlier last month from the 14th of May to the 25th.
I haven’t had an opportunity to track movies/winners yet. But a news bulletin brought my attention to an award for a new format short film making. And to make it even more noteworthy, two out of the top three awards went to films on farming, and natural farming at that, with the theme of the award being “We are what we eat“.
Here I present to you, Nespresso 2019 talent winners: Subak and Seed Mother. Seed mother captures snippets of Rahibai Soma Popere, who has been helping conserve and propagate native seed varieties for famers. She was named by the BBC as one of the 100 influential and inspirational women of 2018. Here is a link from BBC’s own site.
If you pushed some seeds from a tomato pulp into a pot of soil; kept it in the sun and watered it; soon enough, a tomato plant would start growing.
Where did the plant come from? How did the stem, branches, leaves, fruits happen? To build anything, you need raw material. Where does the plant get its raw material?
Guess #1: The raw material came from the soil.
You can verify this rather easily. Keep weighing the pot everyday. If the soil is the raw material, then the weight of the potted plant should remain the same. And you will notice that the soil in the pot becomes lesser. But, you will notice that the pot gets heavier as the plant grows bigger, and the amount of soil is the same, it doesn’t get depleted. This means the raw material is coming from somewhere else.
Guess #2: The raw material came from water.
Weigh the water prior to pouring into the pot. Also keep weighing the pot on a weekly basis. You will notice that the weight gain of the pot is higher than the amount of water being poured in. Second, water’s chemical composition is just hydrogen and oxygen. The growth of the plant requires carbon, which is not present in water. So, that cant be the answer either.
Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. – Sherlock Holmes
The Correct Answer : The raw material is air. More specifically, the carbon dioxide in air. The plant absorbs carbon dioxide, uses the energy from the sun to release oxygen back into the atmosphere and builds itself up into a larger plant.
Let that sink in, it is really a fascinating phenomenon. A seed, sown in the soil, starts sucking carbon from the air and using sunlight, starts to build itself into any and every tasty fruit and vegetable that you have ever eaten. Your Alphonso mango, French grapes, the avocado from Chile. The forests of the Amazon, them California Redwoods…. they were all built from thin air.
Love has no labels but bottles, jars and grocery packets do. Labels make promises and raise expectations. Words like “Natural”, “Pure” and “100%” are used loosely and liberally on packets of food items. When you are out shopping for organic food you must look for authentic labels. Here are a few labels to keep an eye out for:
Indian Organic is a mark of assurance for organically grown food and processed food made in India. The certifying agency and regulatory authority is APEDA (Agriculture and Processed food products Export Development Authority). This is an accredited certification and legally valid for importing food products. APEDA runs under the National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP). All Indian organic products must display the India Organic logo for customers to easily identify certified products.
Indian Organic label is recognised by the US and the European Union.
Food Safety and Standards Authority of India(FSSAI) launched a new logo for organic products in Decemeber last year.
Indian Organic Standards:
Decoded further, the Indian Organic label means:
The land from where the produce is obtained, has been upgraded for organic farming and no chemicals are used in the farm practices.
All inputs like fertilisers and pesticides are and must be natural.
No genetically modified inputs or Irradiation technology should be used.
All the farming practices and food processing techniques – physical, biological and mechanical must be verifiable.
No contamination from neighbouring farms must be present.
The farm must follow sustainable practices.
The organic certification is not easily obtained and is quite an intimidating exercise. The farmer has to approach agencies that give the certification. The NPOP has a list of third party accredited bodies like INDOCERT, ECOCERT etc who carry out the certification procedure. A farm is given certification after two years of organic farm practices. A fruit orchard is given certification after three years of organic farm practices. A dairy unit on certified land can get it in 90 days, whereas a food processing unit can get it in one day provided all the biological, physical and mechanical inputs are convincing.
The organic certification for any produce is also valid for three years and must be renewed after that.
An individual farmer spends anywhere between Rs 25,000/- to Rs 40,000/- for organic certification. A group of farmers who pool their land holdings for certification may spend between Rs 40,000/- to Rs 1,00,000/-.
On some products you may also find the label of PGS India Green and PGS India Organic. PGS India Green indicates that the fields from where the produce is sourced are in the process of conversion to organic and PGS India Organic means that the produce is obtained from fields are completely organic. PGS stands for Participatory Gaurantee System for India. It is a decentralised organic farming certification system run by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, Government of India.
Some of the other international organic labels are the USDA and Organic EU.
USDA stands for United States Department of Agriculture and USDA Organic seal means that the product has been certified organic and contains 95% or more organic ingredients.
Presence of Organic EU logo means Eurpoean Union certification standards were followed while growing or making the product.
This is the new logo of Organic EU.
Logos give a visual identity to the organic farm sector and differentiate them from the conventional farm products, apart from making it easy for you and me to pick the food of our choice.
Winter is on its way out in most parts of the country and the ‘now warm-now cold’ weather is giving many of us the sniffles. You pack away the warm blankets one day, only to pull them out the next. The first to be attacked by the flu are those with low body immunity. It is at times like these that we wish our immunity was higher and our body constitution stronger to weather the seasonal changes.
Your grandparents and other family elders would have probably told you that they were much healthier than you even though they didn’t have such a variety of things to eat. Hearts of hearts we have envied them and wondered about the secret of their good health.
There are many ways to boost the body immunity – exposure to sunlight, regular intake of greens, fruits, vegetables, onion, ginger, garlic, probiotics and fermented foods. Consuming cold pressed oils is also one way to boost your body immunity. Your grandparents will vouch for this one, but the term cold pressed wasn’t around when they were young.
Cold pressed oils give us immune benefiting components, antioxidants and substances that trigger the healing process.
So, how can we slip in cold pressed oils in our diet regimes? Here are a few suggestions:
Hot soups are welcome when you have the sniffles. Add teaspoon of cold pressed oil to stir fry the veggies that go into the soup. It will give your soup some texture and also make it healthier.
Salad dressings are another super easy way you can add cold pressed oils to your diet. There are many delicious salad dressings that are best made at home. Choose one that suits the taste buds of your family and toss up a tasty salad.
Homemade mayonnaise is another way you can use cold pressed oils. Flavourful and creamy mayonnaise can be had with sandwiches and salads.
Make peanut butter at home. Add a tablespoonful of cold pressed groundnut oil for extra creamy smoothness to the peanut butter.
And the best way to use cold pressed oils I would say, is to have nalla kharam or molaga podi or gun powder as it is popularly called, with hot rice. Normally we use ghee with our molaga podi, but you can take half ghee and half cold pressed oil. Heat it in a pan, add some mustard seeds and asafoetida. When the mustard splutters, drizzle this ghee-oil mix on the hot rice. Sprinkle a tablespoonful of molaga podi, mix it and enjoy. Out with the sniffles!
When we are healthy and well rested, we feel better and do better. We are also kinder, smarter and more productive. So eat healthy and live better!
More than 30% of the world’s organic producers hail from India, according to the World of Organic Agriculture Report 2018published this month. Of the total 2.7 miliion organic producers in the world, 8,35,000 organic producers are Indians. This makes it the country with the largest number of organic producers. In terms of numbers, it is way ahead of other countries. Uganda comes second with 210,352 producers and Mexico is third with 210,000 organic producers.
On an average each organic farmer in India has a farm holding of less than two hectares. Most of these are marginal farmers. In India, the area under certified organic cultivation, is only 2.59 per cent (1.5 million hectares) of the total area (57.8 million hectares).
For once China is nowhere in the scene, rather it is battling with heavy pesticide pollution of its land and water resources. This year China ranked first in the list of world’s worst food safety violation offenders.
The 19th edition of the World of Organic Agriculture report claimed that organic agriculture area, and its products value has increased. The data was collected from 178 countries by the research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), the State of Sustainability Initiative (SSI), and International Trade Center. The report was released during the 2018 edition of BIOFACH, world’s most well known organic agriculture show, held in Germany. Read more
I kid you not. Before you guffaw or roll your eyes. Here is the video proof. (There is more about betel dosa at the end of this post)
The Natural Food Festival in Hyderabad happened on Feb 17 and 18. I took the tribe along. Humera and Rayyan were motivated by the food, Rajaa was there to get nice pictures and I was curious. I swear that the millet and jaggery chocolate brownie takes the cake. Put it on your bucket list.
So, it turns out (you didn’t watch the video, did you?) the vegan fish curry was a vegan (fish-less) curry made with the same spices, and vegetables. Yes, I tried tasting it and I finished all of it. It was lip-smacking-ly goooood. But on to the main story, after all, isn’t all food natural? Valid point. Chew on a millet cracker while we explore this.
The natural food festival, should have really been called the Slow Food festival. As opposed to fast food…. food that is chemically laced, unhealthy and more often than not, unethically, factory produced. Food that is heavily promoted by multinational food conglomerates. Slow food is nutritiously tasty food cooked from traditional recipes from local, organically grown crops and grains and naturally raised animals.
It was a surprise in many ways. First, it is not very often that a government decides to promote Natural Foods. We sauntered in at the closing bell of the last day. I was fully expecting to see a deserted place. No, I was surprised !!
There were many familiar faces. Deccan Development Society was there. For those who came in late (and read Phantom comics), a documentary film maker, Sateesh decided to go native and returned to his village in Zaheerabad district a few decades ago. He started to work with the local farmer women and soon developed an amazing society of empowered women who grow, negotiate, think, make movies and generally give everyone a tough time. Here is one of them talking about their exhibits
There were quite a few participants from really far off places. There was this young woman from Siliguri (the pitstop for Darjeeling). She gave us a taste of Litti Choka. This is a dough ball made with whole wheat and stuffed with sattu and other spices and herbs. It is normally roasted over wood fire and served with Ghee . It is best eaten with aloo bharta or baingan bharta accompanied with a generous portion of curd.
And there was a phenomenal spread of Millet snacks. Remember the jaggery and millet chocolate brownie I mentioned?? This is the video I shot.
I will update this post later with more pictures from the festival. I hope to return next year with more of the gang and on both days. Don’t miss it the next year.
Did you wonder why the farmers’ feet bled so much during their march to the Assembly building in Mumbai?
I did too. The one word explanation is – Soil. The soil in our farms is teeming with chemicals and it is bleeding the farmers’ feet…. it will get to us as well.
A longer explanation took a better part of my day with Dr. Sultan Ismail who is a rock-star soil scientist of India. An expert who can still breakdown the complex challenges of farming into kidsplaining. I took the liberty of recording some of that conversation with him and in this post, is a gist of what he had to say. (We will carry his interview in a separate post)
The Farmer is the Indian
If you thought that farming is what gets us food…. that’s just a very small part of the story. Farming is what we do as a nation. It is India’s largest economic activity. It is our national occupation.
A bit of a digression is necessary here. 40% of rural India subsists on agriculture, even now. It was 50% earlier. That’s a substantial chunk. If that many people voted for any party in India, the party would get 2/3rd majority, change the constitution to declare themselves as the rulers for eternity. I am being frivolous. The point is that farming is what we as a nation do. It is often a fact lost to most of us who try to ‘solve the problem’ of farming. Farming is, above all, the only sustained employment this country has seen. Successive governments have almost succeeded in discouraging farming folks to give up farming, sell the farms and move to the city to work as labour. Once they are dispossessed of land, they rapidly descend into even greater precarity in the cities. Homeless, landless, jobless. Next time you are entering your office, stop for a moment and ask the security guard where he came from. I bet you five Facebook likes that he gave up his farm to manage your gate security. With that picture in mind, let’s get back to the question of Soil.
The Soil does it
There is nothing simple about “Soil”. Soil is not just pulverised rock. It teems with life. Each place has a different soil. It changes within yards from soft black clay to being red hard. At times it is just a few inches deep under a sheet rock and at other places it can be as deep as a kilometre. Though we walk on it almost everyday, our understanding of soil as a system is even weaker than our understanding of the galaxies and the stars. Within the first few inches of soil, there are complex and interconnected systems of regeneration, production, consumption and outrageous magic.
If you still can, on your next walk, get down on all fours and examine the soil. Use your fingers to scrape it around. Notice the small insects that scurry away. There is a thin layer at the very top that moves when you scrape it. That’s “top soil”. This is where all life happens.
Not on TV, not in hospitals, not in the battlefields. Within those two inches, Dr. Ismail said, is where more life happens than at all other places combined. There is no way to measure life, but you get the picture. There are microbes, there are insects, there are worms. There are things in-between. They all eat up each other, digest each other, help each other. The cycle of life is just two inches deep here. Get up now, dust your knees.
Into this soil, if you dropped a seed, the soil rallies around and nudges the seed to sprout, push the leaf up, pull the root down. Earthworms have already riddled the soil with holes to make it soft for the sprout to find space, microbes have fixed nitrogen for the sprout to consume, bacteria have mulched the previous generation of plants into food for the new sprout. As the little sprouting pushes itself above the soil, things are getting more interesting under it. One longish root is digging deep into the soil to firmly affix the future plant, the sideways roots are reaching out horizontally to absorb moisture and nutrients. At times, a senior plant’s roots touch those of the young ones, and a bit of elderly help is offered by transferring nutrients between the roots. The soil, it would seem was almost waiting for the seed. On the other hand, if a rodent died, it would be gorged by microbes and composted into becoming one with soil. In reality, soil is just a name for a complex system of millions of different organisms that live there.
The farmer needed the soil. A healthy, rich, happy soil to grow on.
In 1961 something happened. We had a famine that shook the young nation to the core. Nehru and his team, swore: Never again. We will never run out of food again, they pledged. Just then, Ford foundation, Rockfeller foundation and the rest suggested that we must adopt the best thing since sliced bread – “scientific” agriculture. It will produce more wheat and even more sliced bread. It looked too good to be true. With modern science at the farmer’s side, we would be able to keep soil healthy, new breeds of crops would grow faster, with greater yield. Dr. Swaminathan was the hero of that moment. The man of science to help the farmer in distress. Get the picture?
The only way, asserted the Green Revolution, is to get aggressive with soil and the plants. To increase the yield per acre, you have to make soil “better”, crops “more resilient” and aggressively kill “pests” and “weeds”. This method consisted of injecting “nutrients” into the soil, and force feed plants by flooding fields with water.
To keep weeds and pests away, they introduced a range of chemicals that will wipe out every living thing on the farm. It is like providing your army with gas masks and releasing nerve gas in the city – staple theme of almost every superhero movie. Well, the analogy isn’t very far from the truth. Many of the chemicals were actually chemical weapons used in Vietnam and Korea.
Living in an ICU
Here is an analogy. To be a productive individual, you need to be happy and healthy. How do you do it? You exercise, get clean air, eat in moderation, have a healthy work/life balance and be nice to everybody around. Now, instead, I give you a deal : why bother with all that? Chuck your home life and start living in a Hospital’s ICU. For food, we will feed you a steady diet of vitamins, proteins, carbs and micronutrients, for happiness there will be Prozac. We will inject you continuously with the best antibiotics money can buy, so that no bacteria will ever bother afflicting you. Air is completely filtered and clean, you get to wear a new scrub everyday and someone will give you a sponge bath while you sleep every night with intravenous sedatives. Deal?
Deal. The Punjab farmers took it. That was the laboratory. The results were mind blowing. The productivity jumped up many times over. India’s days of starvation were over. The grainy film documentaries, the mandatory viewing before a masala movie showed flowing fields with wheat and paddy, set to the fast jhala of Pandit Ravishankar’s sitar. Food? Done.
As the Green revolution spread itself all over the country : from Punjab to Maharashtra to Andhra Pradesh, there was celebration in the air, and problems on the ground. Farmers started to notice that the chemicals that were meant to kill bad things also killed the good things. Killer chemicals don’t distinguish. Termites, microbes were all dead. Soil collapsed. The earth became rock hard. Tractors were brought in to till the hard soil. The tractors killed the earthworms. The plants that took in the fertilizers needed inordinate amounts of water but the water didn’t seep into the hardened earth. So, more water to quench the thirst. Dams had to be built. Water had to be diverted, forests collapsed. To fix one thing, another thing was broken. That broke yet another thing, so on and on it went. The cascading effect was dramatic and catastrophic. The farmer needed money to buy more medicines, I meant the fertilizers and pesticides to keep going. Each year, they needed more of the same. The cycle of debt set in. Chemicals seeped into the soil.
Now, you know why their feet were bleeding. Doesnt stop at the feet. Cancer is rampant among Punjabi farmers. Children are born with gene injuries. Last year Rs.500 crores were paid as compensation to Kerala farmers for suffering from the ill-effects of Endosulfan. The stuff that goes into Indian soil is not even touched by anyone outside India. In many countries, if you were caught with it, you’d be booked for possessing chemical weapons.
Then, what will we eat?
Is there any better way than this? If we do not produce more, how will we eat and what should we eat? Let’s look at the second question first. Over the last century, Indian taste buds have been hugely affected by ads and marketing: Basmati Rice, Sharbati Wheat, etc. These are very water intensive crops that have low yield per acre. So, there will be enough to eat if we begin to relish more millets, and dals in our diet. If we eat more seasonal fruits, if we start discovering the Indian foods from before the 70s. I am not being a luddite, just being practical.
The other question ‘Is there a better way’ is an interesting question that has an interesting answer. In short… YES. There is a better way. To begin with, it was a myth that the chemical way of farming gave magnitude of a larger yield. It is now thoroughly debunked. Over a long term of ten years, a farm will produce not more than 25% more than what it would produce naturally. That is just volume-wise. On the other hand, if you look at the cost of production, naturally grown food wins hands down. Everything from pests to weeds at soil health can be taken care of without needing intensive money and aggressive technology.
It must begin with first, respecting farming traditions: there is an evolving knowledge base that is a result of slow weeding out of bad ideas and assimilation of the good practices through experience, and multiple growing cycles.
In other words, farming is as scientific a pursuit as it gets. So, respect traditional ways. They are not based on mumbo-jumbo of superstition. Don’t assume that a limited test tube hypothesis is automatically superior to what a farmer knows, just because she wears tattered clothes and doesn’t speak English. Seek inspiration from Albert Howard who ironically was hailed in the west as the “father” of modern organic farming, for having learnt and disseminated traditional farming practices of India.
Second, we must disseminate these ideas of natural farming in new ways and make them contemporary. This is the sort of work that people like Masanobu Fukuoka, Bill Mollison have discovered, curated, documented and spread. It is a tough challenge to promote a self sustaining method of feeding the world in the face of some of the most aggressive propaganda by the world’s most aggressive companies. The natural farming community needs all of us to stand by them in solidarity.
We will talk about the ways and means to get back to natural farming in cost-effective and sustainable manner in future posts. This one was just about what I learnt from Dr. Ismail Sultan. Narsanna was not wrong when he called him “Soil-tan” of natural farming. Here is a great TED talk by him. Have a great weekend.
Here is a simple question: If farmers produce food and food is a basic necessity, why are they not getting a fair price for their produce?
Therein lies a conundrum. Those who produce the most basic things needed for our lives: food, shelter and clothing are the ones that have the worst lives in our country. Sure, we can be ashamed, we can beat ourselves up, or we can, as CM Fadnavis did, form a six man committee to ‘study the problem’. Let’s first understand the extent of the challenges in the a few posts and then bring the possible solutions to these in the following posts. Bear with me when I take no pleasure to say ‘it is complicated’.
It is complicated
If you plan to get onto the farmers’ case saying they cannot be bailed out all the time, I would suggest you get off this blog and read about tax holidays, land and money that our government and financial institutions have poured into the hands of beacons of capitalism. Start from the techies and proceed towards the diamantaires. We will keep those rants and woes for another place and time.
A farmer needs water and seeds to begin with. Push the seed into the soil, water it and watch it grow. In six months, harvest it and sell it at the market. Go home and have a great holi. Life looks simple from the outside. But we have already dropped too many words. Water, Seeds, Soil, Market. That’s what a farmer needs to grow. We’ll just talk about water in this post.
Water – The demand
There is no water. We are running out of it. Each of us needs 100 litres of water a day. That is 125 billion litres of water a day for 1.2 billion people in India. To give you an idea of what that is, a litre is held in a cube of 10 cms to a side. A billion litres will need a tank that is about five kilometers high, five kilometers wide and five kilometers long. 125 billion litres is just one day’s water. That’s bheja fry for sure.
You protest and say, I barely drink a litre and bathe in another 10 litres, that makes it 11 litres. Did you forget to tinkle after you sprinkle? Each toilet flush releases 20 litres of water, go and calculate. Then add the water that your dishes take to get washed, your laundry, cooking, gardening, car wash.. I suppose you get the picture. Probably, even the 100 litre figure is quite conservative for us, the urban middle class. And remember: electricity needs water, every material we use on a daily basis needs water as a basic commodity in its manufacturing.
What’s worse is that we haven’t yet counted water required for farming and for industry. So, here goes : 1 Kg of rice can and usually does take 1200 litres of water to produce. Meat requires even higher amounts of water. It would be mind boggling to imagine the shape of a water tank that is needed to grow all the rice that the country needs.
Even worse. Our current ways of chemically dependent farming need far far more water than organic farming needs.
In a nutshell, we are more mouths to feed than before, we are eating more water intensive foods than before and we are growing them in ways that need more water than before. It is a perfect storm.
Water – the Supply
Have you heard of water farmers? No, silly, not the ones who grow food with the help of water. Water farmers are folks who decided that as water is the most precious input into farming, it makes sense to just sell their water off. Tankers come in, fill up water from their bore-wells and head to the cities to fill up the sump tanks of apartments and bungalows. Water is becoming more expensive than grains.
How has that come to pass? We can all hazard a guess. My guess is that many of us are willing to pay the price for more water. We are the most water consuming society that ever lived.. and we live in times of the greatest water scarcity ever.
So, when we need so much water, given that rains are erratic and they are bound to get even more erratic in the future, the only way to get more water is to draw it out from the earth. Dig a well, drain the water out. The well goes dry, dig deeper, keep going. The deeper you go, the older the water. Typically the water in the bore-wells of Hyderabad is 6000 years old. It took 6000 years for that water to accumulate. What happens when we dry them out? Guess!
So, what is happening now?
Urban lakes that served urban water needs have been reclaimed. Cities are drawing water from rivers and irrigation reservoirs.
As water table sinks lower and lower, farmers need more electricity to draw water from their wells because the wells have gotten deeper. The local ponds have dried up. All this while, we want more of rice and meat and other water heavy foods on our tables because we can afford it.
What’s the solution?
Yes there are solutions, they are hard. Water is just one challenge as I had written above: soil, seeds and market are the other challenges. If we take a good long view of these four together, solutions emerge. Many are already working on these solutions, we will explore these in the next few posts.
A woman is like a tea bag. Put her in hot water and you will see how strong she is (attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt). We have all heard this one at some point. Time and again women have shown that they are adept at managing home, hearth and work with equal ease.
This year Nari Shakti Puraskar (The Women Achievement awards given by the Indian government) was given to 38 women. Notable among these are the All India Millet Sisters Network, Deepika Kundaji, Vanastree and Sabarmati Tiki. All of them are working in rural areas, with women in agriculture, promoting neglected grains and traditional seeds.
The Hyderabad based All India Millet Sisters Network (AIMS) is the first of its kind women millet farmers in the country that is dedicated to the cause of the neglected coarse grain. Millets are a traditional crop in the country and this network has brought together women farmers who are cultivating and conserving millets. It was set up eight years ago with 100 women. Today, it is a network of 5000 women across the country.
The story of Anjamma is an interesting one. She is a poor farmer from Telengana. She preserves seeds in a traditional way without using any chemicals. She stores seeds for next season in a cane basket, using easily available ash and neem leaves and seals them with cow dung and mud. Despite a drought spell and zero rainfall she reaped eight quintals millet and six quintals of toor dal from her bio diverse farm. Her work in keeping alive a traditional knowledge system in the preservation of seeds was recognised by Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Authority, India (PPVFRA).
There are many stories like this one and they are getting noticed by none other than the Minister for Women and Child Welfare, Maneka Gandhi who is an environmentalist herself and rooting for women farmers. Read about the rest here in her own words.
Daana salutes all the women engaged in farming and seed preservation.