Wednesday, Apr 26, 2017 | Last Update : 11:04 PM IST

Keep food diverse. It’s healthy

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 : Mar 29, 2017, 2:47 am IST
Updated : Mar 29, 2017, 6:40 am IST

Most of the chronic diseases of our times are “food style” diseases.

Health and disease begins in food, and food begins in biodiversity, agriculture and the soil. (Photo: Pixabay)
 Health and disease begins in food, and food begins in biodiversity, agriculture and the soil. (Photo: Pixabay)

India has a rich and deep scientific and civilisational heritage of biodiversity, agroecology and ayurveda, which has sustained us for centuries. We have understood that the web of life is a food web.

All that is born is born of anna (food) indeed. Whatever exists on Earth is born of anna, and in the end merges into anna. Anna indeed is the first born amongst all beings; that is why anna is called sarvausadha, the medicine that relieves the bodily discomforts of all.

In the last few decades, our agriculture, food and health systems are being devastated by the assault of reductionist science, and industrial food systems based on toxic chemicals, combined with globalisation and free trade.

Industrialisation and globalisation of food systems is driven by chemical and pharmaceutical corporations, leading to an agrarian crisis, erosion of biodiversity in agriculture, increase in toxics in our food, the promotion of fast food and junk food and a disease epidemic. The agrochemical industry and agribusiness, the junk food industry and the pharmaceutical industry profit while the nation gets sicker and poorer.

The result has been an epidemic of more than 300,000 farmers suicides because of the debt due to dependence on costly chemicals and food, and a disease epidemic due to industrial and junk food.

India is rapidly emerging as the epicentre of chronic diseases, including cancer, obesity and diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases, infertility, intestinal problems largely related to food. Around 1,300 Indians die every day because of cancer.

Most of the chronic diseases of our times are “food style” diseases.

Health and disease begins in food, and food begins in biodiversity, agriculture and the soil. When food is produced with toxic chemicals, processed and preserved with toxic chemicals it becomes a source of disease. When food is diverse and chemical-free it creates health.

Industrial monocultures using intensive chemical inputs produce nutritionally empty toxic commodities. These contribute to diseases of metabolic disorders, malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies.

Loss of biodiversity in our fields and our diet over the last half-century with the spread of the Green Revolution/industrial agriculture is not just leading to an ecological crisis, also to a disease epidemic.

We used to eat more than 10,000 plant species as humans. Now we depend on 10 globally traded commodities.

Navdanya is reversing this trend through creating community seed banks and practising biodiversity-based organic farming. This is the real answer to the ecological crises, farmers’ suicides and the disease epidemic we face.

For 30 years Navdanya has been rejuvenating the biodiversity in our farms and food systems. Biodiverse organic systems have the potential to feed two Indias and increase farmers’ incomes tenfold.

Our traditional agriculture recognised the importance of diversity. This is the agriculture that has spread across the world as organic agriculture through Albert Howard’s classic An Agricultural Testament.

Ayurveda as a science recognised that the digestive system is central to our health. Even Western science is beginning to realise what ayurveda understood 5,000 years ago — that the body is not a machine, and food is not fuel that runs the machine on Newtonian laws of mass and motion. Food is not “mass”, it is living; it is the source of life and health.

Western science is now finding out the same. As the book Mind Gut acknowledges: “For decades the mechanistic, militaristic disease model set the agenda for medical research. As long as you could fix the affected mechanical part, we thought the problem would be solved: there was no need to understand its ultimate cause… We are just beginning to realise that the gut, the microbes living in it — the gut micro biota the microbiome-constitute one of the major components of these regulatory systems.”

Our gut is a micro biome, which contains 100 trillion microbes and 1,000 bacterial species with more than seven million genes. There are 360 bacterial genes in our body for every human gene. Only 10 per cent of the cells in the human body are human cells. There are 100,000 times more microbes in our gut than people on the planet.

To function in a healthy way, the gut micro biome needs a diverse diet, and a diverse diet needs diversity in our fields and gardens. A loss of diversity in our diet creates ill-health. Adding one or two micronutrients through fortification to nutritionally empty food cannot compensate for the nutritional loss through loss of biodiversity in the diet. Fortification is a continuation of the failed mechanistic paradigm of food and health.

The ayurvedic science of food, nutrition and health recommends that we should eat food with six tastes — sweet, sour, salt, pungent, hot, bitter and astringent — in order to have a balanced diet. Behind each taste are potentials for processes that create and sustain the self-regulating systems of our body... Agni in the digestive tract is a great transformer, creating emergent properties. Taste receptors do not just lie in the tongue but are distributed throughout the gastrointestinal tract and are located on sensory nerve endings and hormones containing transducer cells in the gut wall.

The gut is increasing being referred to as the second brain. It has its own nervous system — which is being referred to as the enteric nervous system — or ENS, with 50-100 million nerve cells. Our bodies are intelligent organisms. Intelligence is not localised in the brain. It is distributed. And the intelligence in the soil, in the plants, in our bodies makes for health and well-being.

As the research by Dr Eric Seralini shows the sophisticated intelligence in the complex ecosystem of our gut communicates with the food we eat. When we eat fresh and organic food the regulatory processes that ensure health are strengthened. When we eat chemical food with toxics or nutritionally empty food, the communication leads to disease.

Eating is a conversation between the soil, plants, cells in our gut, and the cells in our food, and between our gut and brain. Eating is an intelligent act at the deepest cellular and microbial level. The cellular communication is the basis of health and well-being. We might be ignorant about the links between food and health, but our cells know it. Our body is more intelligent than the reductionist mechanical mind. Through the ecological sciences of agroecology and ayurveda our minds could catch up with the intelligence of the Earth, our bodies, its “doshas”, its cells, its microbes, which are trying to alert us to the dangers in our food and environment through the disease epidemic.

Eating is not a mechanical act through which we participate in an industrial food system. Eating is an ecological act through which we communicate with the Earth, farmer, those who transform our food and our own bodies.

No farmer should be committing suicide, no child should be hungry, there should be no epidemic of diabetes, cancers and cardiovascular problems in our biodiversity-rich, knowledge-rich land.

The same industrial food system that is destroying the health of the planet is also destroying our health. Biodiverse ecological agriculture is good for the Earth, our farmers and our health.

Tags: ayurveda, food, biodiversity