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Food and farming: Two futures

Vandana Shiva trained as a physicist prior to dedicating her life to the protection of India's biodiversity and food security. She is the author of numerous books and the recipient of numerous awards.
Published : Jul 12, 2017, 2:37 am IST
Updated : Jul 12, 2017, 2:37 am IST

The slogan was that there would never again be scarcity of food because we can now make “bread from air”.

(Representational image)
 (Representational image)

There are two distinct futures of food and farming. One leads to a dead end. A dead planet: poisons and chemical monocultures spreading; farmers committing suicide due to debt for seeds and chemicals; children dying due to lack of food; people dying because of chronic diseases spreading due to nutritionally empty, toxic commodities sold as food and climate havoc wiping out conditions for human life on Earth.

The second leads to the rejuvenation of the planet through rejuvenation of biodiversity, soil, water, rejuvenation of small farms diverse, healthy, fresh, ecological food for all.

The first path is industrial, and was paved by the poison cartel, which was born during the war to create chemicals that can kill people. After the wars they redeployed war chemicals as agrichemicals — pesticides and fertilisers — we were told we can’t have food without poisons.

Explosives that were made by burning fossil fuels at high temperature to fix atmospheric nitrogen were later used to make chemical fertilisers. The slogan was that there would never again be scarcity of food because we can now make “bread from air”.

There was the exaggerated claim that artificial fertilisers would increase food production and remove all ecological limits that land puts on the agriculture. Today the evidence is growing that artificial fertilisers have reduced soil fertility, reduced food production and contributed to desertification, water scarcity and climate change.

In the 1990s, we were told we would starve without genetically modified organisms (GMOs) brought to us by the same poison cartel. There was an exaggerated claim that GMOs would remove all limits of the environment, grow food in deserts and toxic dumps. Today we have only two GMO applications: herbicide resistance and Bt toxins in crops. The first was claimed to control weeds but has created superweeds. Bt crops were supposed to control pests but they have created new pests and superpests. Bt cotton has pushed thousands of farmers to suicide.

Now we are being told “big data” will feed us. Monsanto calls it “digital agriculture” based on “big data” and “artificial intelligence”. It has started to talk about “farming without farmers”. This is why the suicide epidemic of Indian farmers and farmers’ crisis has drawn no response from the government. Because they are blindly paving the next phase on the dead end highway.

Monsanto’s partnership with Atomwise allows making a guess which molecules will give Monsanto the next possible pesticide. This is not the intelligence for sustainable management of pests. Just the narrow bet on the next poison. It is turning life into a digital casino.

This is like playing poker on the deck of the Titanic while the ship is sinking.

In 2013, Monsanto acquired world’s largest climate data corporation, Climate Corporation, for $1 billion. In 2014, it acquired the world’s largest soil data corporation, Solum Inc. Climate Corporation does not bring to farmers the knowledge that the solution to climate change lies below our feet, in the soil. It sells “data”.

Solum Corporation does not work with farmers to understand the rich soil food web — the bacteria, the fungi, the earthworms. It sells data.

But data is not knowledge. It is just another commodity to make the farmer more dependent.

The farmer is being told s/he must outsource his/her mind to Monsanto. This is the next step in a dead end future that ignores the intelligence of seeds, plants, soil organisms, our gut bacteria, farmers and our grandmothers.

We can sow the seeds of another future. All over the world, small farmers and gardeners are already implementing this agriculture, preserving and developing their soils, their seeds, practising agroecology. They are feeding their communities with healthy and nutritious food while rejuvenating the planet. They are thus sowing the seeds of food democracy — a food system in the hands of farmers and consumers, devoid of corporate control, poisons, food miles and plastics; a food system that nourishes the planet and all humans.

Contrary to the myth that small farmers should be wiped out because they are unproductive and we should leave our food future in the hands of the poison cartel, surveillance drones and spyware, small farmers are providing 70 per cent of global food using 30 per cent of the resources that go into agriculture. Industrial agriculture is using 70 per cent of the resources to create 40 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions, while providing only 30 per cent of our food. This commodity-based agriculture has caused 75 per cent of the destruction of soils, 75 per cent of the destruction of water resources, and pollution of our lakes, rivers and oceans, 93 per cent of crop diversity has been pushed to extinction through industrial agriculture.

Intensive industrial agriculture is also creating a health crisis by producing nutritionally empty toxic commodities. A billion people are permanently hungry in this system, more than two billion suffer from food-related diseases.

Organic farming takes excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, where it doesn’t belong, and through photosynthesis puts it back in the soil, where it belongs. It also increases the water holding capacity of soil, contributing to resilience in times of droughts, floods and other climate extremes.

We cannot address climate change and its very real consequences without recognising the central role of the industrial and globalised food system, which contributes more than 40 per cent to greenhouse gas emissions through deforestation, animals in concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs), plastics and aluminium packaging, long-distance transport and food waste. We cannot solve climate change without small scale, ecological agriculture, based on biodiversity, living seeds and living soils and local food systems, with minimal food miles and devoid of plastic packaging.

What we eat, how we grow the food we eat and how we distribute it will determine whether humanity survives or pushes itself and other species to extinction.

Tags: biodiversity, agriculture, farming