The Back-to-the-Lander

SUBHEAD: Prepare to collapse forward to a soil-based society. By Scott Carlson on 01 April 2009 in The Urbanite Magazine image above: Tradiditional Indian agriculture in crisis. From Vandana Shiva, India’s leading environmental activist, says that the industrialized West is literally consuming the developing world. We eat cinnamon that comes out of Thailand, bananas from Central America. To feed our ever-growing appetites, we push industrial agriculture methods on once-traditional agrarian societies, and now we want these faraway lands to produce a different kind of food: biofuel, to feed the West’s automobiles. At some point, Shiva argues, we’re going to have to choose between sacred cow and sacred car. Shiva founded an organization called Navdanya to promote research in organic agriculture and saving heirloom seeds. In her 2008 book "Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis", she argues that the rebirth of sustainable, traditional agriculture offers the best way forward, in both India and in the West. “There is a myth that there are agricultural societies, and then there are industrial societies and service societies, as if when you become an industrial or service society you don’t need food,” she says. “As we hit climate chaos, as we hit peak oil, assuming that you can get your food from far away and use fossil-fuel-intensive systems to produce food is totally not sustainable. Bringing food security close to home will have to be the project of the future.” Q: Soil Not Oil seems to be about the tension between traditional agriculture and industrial agriculture. How is this playing out in India? A: It is playing out in a very tragic way. An imposed, fossil-fuel-driven industrial agriculture, which has been globalized through the World Trade Organization rules, has pushed hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers to suicide. The suicides as an epidemic started in 1998. That is the year that the new seeds were brought into India in a large scale—the genetically engineered seeds. That is the year that the World Trade Organization was used by the United States to remove import restrictions. The combination of high-cost, nonrenewable seeds [that produce sterile fruit]—under the monopoly control of one company, Monsanto—and the falling price of cotton with the subsidies that the United States gives its cotton growers is really the squeeze that forced Indian cotton farmers into debt. And that unpayable debt is what has pushed farmers to suicide. Q: But if you have to feed more than a billion people, as farmers in India do, isn’t it impractical to hang on to traditional farming methods? A: Here, they want to connect all of India with superhighways, and 90 percent of the roads haven’t been built. They won’t be built because of the financial collapse. So this huge dream of a totally motorized world and tractorized agriculture is already failing in front of our eyes. It failed in Cuba under very tragic circumstances—under [the U.S.-imposed] trade embargo. But they rebuilt their agriculture [based on] principles that ancient cultures practiced. Now I don’t call that being locked into tradition. It’s highly innovative. I see fossil-fuel-free farming as a future of agriculture—not because of nostalgia, not because of romanticism, but because of a very hard-nosed realism. If your fertilizer prices have tripled in the past year, there is no way to carry on depending on chemical fertilizers. If your phosphate requirements in chemical agriculture are going to run out in the next twenty years, you’d better get ecological, organic sources. To depend on an agriculture that requires oil inputs at every step would be developing a system at this point that has no future. Q: Beyond the farm, how has the push for an industrialized culture affected the developing world? A: Third-world cultures are very culturally diverse, and India is really the home of diversity. It is our strength, as long as there is peace, justice, and sustainability. But when the stresses of the globalized war economy start to impinge on a diverse culture, we see more of the Mumbai kind of phenomenon. [The terrorist attacks in] Mumbai ended up being world news, but there have been a hundred Mumbais in the past decade in India. They didn’t become big news because they weren’t at hotels where Westerners stay; they were on trains and buses where ordinary Indians travel. Just like a field cracks up when it is dry, our societies are cracking up because they are being dried up economically. I can see that if we don’t have a major shift toward equality and justice, we will not be able to hold our societies together. This cracking up shows up as ethnic conflicts or regional conflicts, but at the root of it are two issues everywhere: access to resources and access to livelihood. As that access shrinks because of a globalized economy and a limitless appetite for growth, people start looking at their neighbors as a problem. Q: Tell me about your agricultural organization, Navdanya. A: “Navdanya” means both “a new gift” as well as “nine seeds.” I started it in 1987 when I first realized what the agenda of the chemical and agribusiness companies was, in terms of controlling the seed through genetic engineering and patenting. Their vision was one of dictatorship over life, not just dictatorship over people or one country. I wanted seeds and life forms to evolve freely and not be forced into genetic engineering or into patenting. The original idea was to create seed banks that farmers could access, get seeds from, and continue to grow crops in diversity. Of course, this led very quickly to an organic movement. The fascinating thing about saving seeds and biodiversity that I have learned is that you conserve biodiversity by eating it. Now that sounds paradoxical, but it is true. If you continue to eat amaranth, you will grow amaranth. If you eat two hundred kinds of rice, you will grow two hundred kinds of rice. So eating is literally shaping the landscape and ecology of our planet. Q: Practically speaking, how do you get back to a soil-based, rather than oil-based, society, culture, and economy? A: I wouldn’t say “get back to.” I would say “go forward to.” Going forward to a soil-based society means building economies of place, and economies of place means recognizing the ecological limits of the place where you are. It means grounded economies. The financial collapse is going to compel us to look for livelihoods beyond the false speculations and the credit spending, where you spend more than you earn. I feel that the combination of climate change, peak oil, and the financial collapse provides an opportunity for us to build economies of place that will shift not just from oil to soil, but it will shift from financial capital to people as the real wealth—people as both the generators of wealth as well as wealth of communities. If we can get there, we will have a future. If we can’t get there, we will see more and more conflicts emerge around the world in conditions of new scarcity.

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