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Taking care of our common home through an ecological agriculture

22 July 2020
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Navdanya, a women-centred movement for the protection of biological and cultural diversity and founded by Dr Vandana Shiva, set up a biodiversity conservation farm in Doon Valley, Uttarakhand in northern India where the actual practices of agroecology and organic farming take place. (photo: navdanyainternational.org)

Dr Vandana Shiva

For thousands of years, when you do agriculture, caring for our common home, you can farm forever. This is the system of agriculture that should be called agroecology, the science of ecology, the science of how nature works, applied to the field of agriculture. The field is new, the practices are ancient.

But you have another system called industrial agriculture, which not only treats agriculture as an industrial activity and no more as the care for the land, but uses industrial products, particularly war chemicals as the base of agriculture.

I have worked from 1984 onwards to solve this puzzle: Why are we destroying the earth? Why are people starving? Why are there conflicts? Why is the water disappearing? Why are the bees and the pollinators disappearing? Why is the land being “desertified”?

I realized over 36 years of study that actually, industrial agriculture is not a science, because science is a framework that explains how the system works. Industrial agriculture doesn’t have a system view, a holistic view of how the soil works, how the plants work, how the pollinators work, how pests and weeds are created, what’s in our food. It has absolutely zero idea.

In effect, what had happened is, a group of companies had been asked by Hitler to make chemicals to kill people in concentration camps and to make chemicals for war. Zyklon B was the gas that was used to gas people in the gas chambers. Ammunitions were made; poison gases were made. (Editor’s note: Zyklon B is a toxic gas from hydrogen cyanide and originally manufactured in 1919 as a pesticide.)

One of the techniques was fixing atmospheric nitrogen by burning fossil fuels. The same technology then became the basis of synthetic chemical fertilizers, which is why you have so many fertilizer bombs.

[From there, manufacturers said,] “Why don’t we just change the story and say, without this, we can’t feed the world? That this is necessary for food production?”

War chemicals then became agricultural chemicals, and the story became “feed the world” without the science; without the system. The soil became an empty container for foreign synthetic fertilizers.

For 33 years I’ve been protecting the seeds, preventing patenting because seeds are not inventions, preventing GMOs because of the harm that they do. We managed to pass laws in India including Section 3(j) of the Patents Act of 1970 which says plants, animals, and seeds are not inventions, and in a way, this is a distillation of our ancient ecological philosophies, and also a distillation of Laudato Si’…that we are in one Common Home. (Editor’s note: Section 3 in The Patents Act, 1970 of India states “What are not inventions. The following are not inventions within the meaning of this Act,- …(j) plants and animals in whole or any part thereof other than micro-organisms but including seeds, varieties and species and essentially biological processes for production or propagation of plants and animals;”)

We are one community. There is no one less, and no one more. Other species are not inferior to us. Other people are not inferior to us. People of a different color, people of a different race, women are not less than human. And these are basically the marches that are taking place today everywhere on the issue of justice.

Fr George Pattery talked about the times we are in, the corona lockdown. I did ecological reflections on the coronavirus. It isn’t that a virus came out of nothing and attacked us. The virus came out of our invasion into homes of animals. Of the 300 new infectious diseases in the last 50 years, all have come because we haven’t learned to respect that in our common home, there are different rooms, there are different cultures, different species and each of them has a right to their ecological space. SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola, Corona, are all spillovers of the invasion of agribusiness into forest systems.

We are always told that industrial agriculture produces more. But for me, this has been proven to be very, very false.

If you look at the facts, 80% of the food we eat today comes from small farmers. Only 20% comes from the large farms that are invading the Amazon and invading the homes of Indigenous Peoples; invading Indonesian forests and destroying habitats of wild species.

We are measuring the wrong thing to say we are producing more food. We measure yield per acre. Now when you grow a monoculture with lots of chemicals, and you don’t count how much chemical, how much energy, how much water, or the soil status, or the quality of the food you produce, [and just relying on] the quantity of nutritionally empty, toxic food – which often is not food, because 90% of the commodities are being used for biofuel and animal feed – it tells you nothing.

I decided I was going to measure the biodiversity. When you look at everything we can produce with agroecology, and all the inputs that go in, ecological systems use only one unit of energy to produce 10 units of food. Industrial agriculture uses 10 units of energy to produce one unit of bad toxic food that causes cancer and all the other chronic diseases that are impacting us.

We have done a major study over the years, we did a biodiversity analysis, and then I converted them to nutrition tables for the National Institute of Nutrition (please see the book Health Per Acre).

If we take care of our common home, we grow biodiversity; we actually feed two times India’s population. No child needs to die of malnutrition; no person needs to die of hunger. The figures are shocking. Every year, 80,000 children below five die because of lack of food. Twenty-four percent of Indians are hungry, not because the soil won’t provide us with food, not because the farmers are not brilliant, not because we don’t have agroecology systems that can do it, but because the greed of agribusiness keeps taking root.

Why should 400,000 farmers commit suicide since neoliberal globalization? We are now the hundredth out of 219 countries of the hunger list. We are moving very fast towards a water famine, we are moving very fast to desertification, loss of biodiversity. Because of industrial agriculture, 75% of the soils are destroyed, 75% of the land are destroyed, 75% of the water are destroyed, 90% of the biodiversity are destroyed, and 50% of greenhouse gases destroying the climate come from the industrialized globalized systems of food and farming.

We now have an option. Not only have we done the right thing thousands of years ago, but science now is recognizing – the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the ISTD – all are recognizing that chemical farming/industrial farming is not the way forward, agroecology is.

What does agroecology do? It reminds us we share this earth with other species. Therefore, agriculture has to be for creation with other species, and when you work with the soil organisms, you produce more food.

When you don’t spray poison, our research shows that food production increases by 30%. One third of the food we eat is created by pollinators. But most importantly, the water gets generated, the water in our land is now …higher than it was when we started. And we produce nourishing food.

Let’s grow gardens everywhere. Let’s turn our lands into gardens of nourishment. I call them gardens of hope. These will teach our schools, our children, our colleges to learn how to take care of our common home. They can be extensions of classrooms.

We can grow enough food for the last person. No one has to go hungry; no farmer commits suicide, no one gets infected by diseases. We need hands and heads and hearts to take care of our common home. Therefore, we need an agriculture that is an ecological agriculture.

Dr Vandana Shiva is the Director of Navdanya International and who shared her inputs as one of the panelists in the first episode of the new ecology webinar series titled Protecting Earth-Our Common Home: Reviving Agro Ecology on 4 July 2020, hosted by the Jesuit Resource and Response Hub in collaboration with the Ecojesuit network of South Asia.

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