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The deadly threat of gene drives

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The UN Biodiversity Conference began on 13 November 2018 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, and until its close on 29 November will call on decision makers from more than 190 countries to step up efforts to “halt biodiversity loss and protect the ecosystems that support food and water security and health for billions of people”.

On 17 November, the Conference of Parties to the Cartagena Protocol of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity begins. On the agenda is a vital subject that has been moved to the centre of the meeting’s deliberations: a technology called ‘gene drives’. This part of the UN Biodiversity Conference will discuss several key draft decisions about the risks it poses and how to deal with them, including through a moratorium on the technology.

What are ‘gene drives’? Gene drive organisms are supposed to ‘force’ one or more genetic traits onto future generations of their own species. The term for gene drives used by French scientists, ‘Forçage Génétique’ (genetic forcer) makes the intention clear: to force an engineered genetic change through an entire population or even an entire species. If permitted, such organisms could accelerate the distribution of corporate-engineered genes from the lab to the rest of the living world at dizzying speed and in an irreversible process.

As a must-read explainer of this menacing new technology, prepared by the ETC Group and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, has put it, such organisms “are designed, over time, to replace non-gene drive organisms of the same species in a population via an uncontrolled chain reaction – this ability may make them a far more dangerous biohazard than genetically modified organisms (GMOs)”. [The report, released in October 2018, is ‘Forcing The Farm: How Gene Drive Organisms Could Entrench Industrial Agriculture and Threaten Food Sovereignty’.]

Recently, a study by the Bundesamt für Naturschutz, which is the central scientific authority of the German federal government for both national and international nature conservation, warned that “with gene drives, GMO applications are moving directly from crop plants to modifying wild species. Major consequences on semi-natural and natural ecosystems are expected.” The research concludes that “a clear understanding
and analysis of these differences is crucial for any risk assessment regime and a socially acceptable and
ethical evaluation that is vital for the application of [GDO] technology”.

More pertinent to the current model of the transnational cartelisation of industrial agricultre, a group of French researchers recently concluded: “The time frame of gene drive perfectly fits the economic development strategies dominant today in agribusiness, with a focus on short-term return on investments and disdain for long-term issues. The current economic system based on productivity, yields, monoculture, and extractivism is a perfect match for the operating mode of gene drive.” [From ‘Agricultural pest control with CRISPR‐based gene drive: time for public debate’ by Virginie Courtier‐Orgogozo, Baptiste Morizot and Christophe Boëte in EMBO Reports.]

Reading these warnings helps form better clarity about what GDOs are and are not. From what I have been able to understand, normal reproductive biology gives the offspring of sexually reproducing organisms a 50:50 chance of inheriting a gene from their parents. The gene drives however is an invasive technology to ensure that within a few generations, all that organisms offspring will contain an engineered gene!

Why the phase shift from the already dangerous GMO to the threatening of an entire species by GDO? Thanks to rising consumer awareness of the dangers of GMO food crops, vegetables and fruit – which is now visible even in India (a generation-and-a-half later than Europe) where the central and state governments have put not a rupee into educating consumers about pesticide and synthetic fertiliser poisoning, let alone GMOs) – the uptake of GMOs is levelling off as the predicted risks have become evident, such as the intensification of the treadmill of increased use of toxic chemicals. The so-called ‘gene editing’ techniques, and particularly GDOs, has given the industrial agriculture-biotech-seed multinational corporations a strategy to regain the pace of their domination of food cultivation and therefore food control.

Recognising the extreme danger, the UN Biodiversity Conference which is now under way in Egypt, and particularly the part of the conference beginning on 17 November which is the Conference of Parties to the Cartagena Protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), have placed gene drives on the agenda. [The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity is an international agreement which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health. It was adopted on 29 January 2000 and entered into force on 11 September 2003.]

The meeting will discuss, under ‘Risk assessment and risk management’ (which are Articles 15 and 16 of the Protocol) draft decisions on gene drives and, we must hope, take them while imposing a moratorium on this evil technology. [Draft decision document CBD/CP/MOP/9/1/ADD2]. The draft decisions are:

3. Also recognises that, as there could be potential adverse effects arising from organisms containing engineered gene drives, before these organisms are considered for release into the environment, research and analysis are needed, and specific guidance may be useful, to support case-by-case risk assessment;

4.Notes the conclusions of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology that, given the current uncertainties regarding engineered gene drives, the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and local communities might be warranted when considering the possible release of organisms containing engineered gene drives that may impact their traditional knowledge, innovation, practices, livelihood and use of land and water;

5. Calls for broad international cooperation, knowledge sharing and capacity-building to support, inter alia, Parties in assessing the potential adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity from [living modified organisms produced through genome editing,] living modified organisms containing engineered gene drives and living modified fish, taking into account risks to human health, the value of biodiversity to indigenous peoples and local communities, and relevant experiences of individual countries in performing risk assessment of such organisms in accordance with annex III of the Cartagena Protocol;

The concerns of the CBD and the warnings of scientists have been entirely ignored by the agricultural biotechnology corporations and by the inter-connected funding organisations and research groups engaged in synthetic biology. As the report, ‘Forcing The Farm’, has said, multimillion-dollar grants for gene drive development have been given by Gates Foundation, the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, the Open Philanthropy Institute, the Wellcome Trust and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. These include generous allowances for what is called ‘public message testing’ and ‘public engagement exercises’ – making GDOs sound beneficial to society and glossing over the dangers – and lobbying of governments and policy-makers.

What is particularly worrying for us in India is the role of the Tata Trusts in financing research on GDOs. In 2016 October an American university, the University of California San Diego, received a US$70 million commitment from the Tata Trusts (which now is the umbrella organisation for what earlier were the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, the Sir Ratan Tata Trust and the Tata Education and Development Trust, and in terms of funding capacity is probably the largest in India) to establish the Tata Institute for Active Genetics and Society (TIAGS).

This new institute is described as a collaborative partnership between the university and research operations in India. A university press release had said: “UC San Diego, which will be home to the lead unit of the institute (TIAGS-UC San Diego), will receive US$35 million in funding, while the remainder of the committed funds is anticipated to support a complementary research enterprise in India (TIAGS-India).”

India is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity (signed 23/01/2001, ratified 17/01/2003, entered into force 11/09/2003) and its reporting to the Protocol on risk assessments of GMOs (which have officially not been used on food crops) has been worse than desultory – the five risk assessments submitted by India are all in 2012 for Bt cotton hybrids.

The shameful co-option of the statutory Genetic Engineering Approval Committee by India’s biotech companies, which was fully revealed in 2016 during the furore over the Committee’s bid to have GM mustard approved, has shown that the entire biosafety assessment process in India and its ability to actually protect our environment and citizens’ health from the profoundly menacing risks of biotechnology, is compromised.

The Gates Foundation, which has graduated from influencing central and state government policy in health and agriculture to becoming an implementing agency, and which has invested heavily in synthetic biotechnology and GDOs (such as ‘Target Malaria’, which uses gene drives against mosquitoes) is now collaborating with the Tata Trusts in health, nutrition and crop cultivation together with the American aid agency USaid and other foundations that claim philanthropic intentions. The risks to our agro-ecological methods, our local crop cultivation knowledge, our food and our public healthcare system have now become far more threatening.


Unmasking the new food syndicate

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An agency of the central government is serving as administrative cover for an inter-connected group of international donor agencies, multinational corporations, international policy and advocacy groups, Indian industries and Indian non-government organisations, all bent on bringing the next wave of industrialisation to food and its sales.

The FSSAI communication to consumers highlights the look, texture, weight and size of vegetables. Good organic produce however is never uniform and is frequently ‘blemished’, which the FSSAI warns against buying.

This next wave of industrial food is based on existing and new genetic engineering and manipulation technologies, none of which there is adequate regulation for (nor, for some of these technologies, even recognition of). The justification created for claiming these technologies are needed is the shift from ‘hunger’ to the successors of ‘malnutrition’ which are: ‘hidden hunger’ and ‘micronutrient deficiency’. This shift is seen as having the potential to open up a vast and very lucrative new area of the food sector.

Because of the growing (slowly but steadily) tendency of consumers towards organically grown staple food crops and horticulture, and because of the growing opposition to genetically modified seed and food, the food industry in India is following a new strategy through this central government agency. The strategy includes:
1. Defining what ‘safe’ food is and defining what ‘nutrition’ is.
2. Strengthening and deepening the consumer markets for industrially grown and controlled crops from which processed and packaged food products are manufactured.
3. Protecting the businesses of Indian food (and beverage) companies and foreign food MNCs through legislation.
4. Consolidating the ‘back end’ of industrial retail and processed food – which is the interest of the agricultural biotechnology (agbiotech) corporations, the fertiliser and pesticides companies, the farming machinery industry, the food processing machinery industry, the food logistics sector.
5. Facilitating the further integration in India of the food and pharmaceutical industries through the promotion of food ‘fortification’ and food ‘supplements’.

Buy milk pasteurised, buy it packaged and buy it sealed says FSSAI. Milk is considered by the FSSAI’s international collaborators and local ‘nutrition coalitions’ to be the ideal medium for food ‘fortification’. Using what material? There are no answers.

The agency that has taken the responsibility for seeing this strategy through is the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). It was established under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (No.34 of 2006). The FSSAI is described as having been “created for laying down science based standards for articles of food and to regulate their manufacture, storage, distribution, sale and import to ensure availability of safe and wholesome food for human consumption”.

The 2006 Act subsumed central acts like the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954, Fruit Products Order 1955, and the Meat Food Products Order 1973. Other legislations like the Vegetable Oil Products (Control) Order 1947, Edible Oils Packaging (Regulation) Order 1988, Solvent Extracted Oil, De-Oiled Meal and Edible Flour (Control) Order 1967, Milk and Milk Products Order 1992 were repealed when the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 commenced.

It is during the last two years in particular that the FSSAI has become very much more visible and active. This heightened visibility is a result of the FSSAI using the powers it has directly through the 2006 Act, but also because of its widening alliances with the food and beverages industry, with the dairy and milk products industry and with the global ‘nutrition’ consortia.

Edible oils must be packaged says FSSAI. The oil ‘ghani’ is scarcely seen nowadays, but its produce was fresher and gave households more confidence about the purity of the produce than blended oils can. Edible oils from GM oilseeds or GM vegetable oil sources are being imported with no safety oversight whatsoever, but FSSAI’s insistence that packaged edible oil is ‘safe’ discriminates against oil pressed at small scale from local oilseeds that may be entirely organic.

Today the FSSAI is very close to becoming a single reference point for all matters relating to food safety and standards, and is also very close to becoming the most important arbiter of what is considered ‘nutrition’ and what is considered ‘safe food’ in India. Because of the growth in recent years of the processed and packaged food industry (not the same as agriculture, horticulture, collection of forest products, inland and coastal small fisheries) the importance of a single reference point agency increases even more.

The largest formal industry associations – CII, Assocham and FICCI – estimate that in 2017 the retail or store value of packaged and processed foods (and beverages) was about 2,048,000 crore rupees (about US$ 320 billion) in 2016. This enormous estimate is thought by the industry to be able to rise much more to around 3,400,000 crore rupees (about US$ 540 billion) by 2021-22 provided of course changes are made in regulation, called ‘ease of doing business’ (the calamitous benchmark of the World Bank). The FSSAI is to be seen as a critical part of the overall apparatus to reach this gigantic sum in the next five or six years.

It is entirely possible if the FSSAI and its accomplice government agencies and ministries are permitted by us to get away with it. The same industry associations (interest clubs of companies and investors) say that the FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) sector in India has grown in rupee terms at an average of about 11% a year for the last decade and that four out of every 10 rupees spent on FMCGs are spent on food and beverages.

With practically no remaining restrictions on foreign direct investment (FDI) in the food and retail sector, and with the former Foreign Investment Promotion Board (under the Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance) being replaced as an ‘ease of doing business’ change with the Foreign Investment Facilitation Portal (under the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, Ministry of Commerce and Industry) the central government has done its bit to level – dangerously for both consumer health and for environmental well-being – the playing field.

For cereals and pulses too the FSSAI wants consumers to buy packaged, uniformly sized and fortified produce. The don’ts are fair but the dos only fulfil the agbiotech-pharma agenda.

The web of inter-connections that together exert great power over the food industry – and because of it over agriculture, horticulture, forestry products and fisheries – can be seen in how the FSSAI is set up and which agencies it advises. Its administrative ministry is the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The FSSAI works closely with the Ministry of Women and Child Development (its object being the Integrated Child Development Services, ICDS, which provides food, pre-school education, and primary healthcare to children under 6 years of age and their mothers), with the Department of School Education and Literacy of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (its object being the Mid-Day Meal Scheme).

The FSSAI relies on the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (Ministry of Commerce and Industry) to bring in (through the FDI route) or encourage private sector units that will prepare and deliver the material for food ‘fortification’ and food ‘supplements’. It coordinates with the Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries (Ministry of Agriculture) concerning the dairy industry – working directly with the National Dairy Development Board to ‘fortify’ milk. It synchronises its rules and regulations with the Ministry of Food Processing Industries, which is the single point of reference for an industry that has become gigantic.

Frozen foods are energy sinks and are the very antithesis of healthy meal ingredients. But FSSAI has a place for them in its advice to consumers.

Furthermore the FSSAI works in tandem with the Department of Biotechnology (Ministry of Science and Technology) and the Department of Health Research (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare) in a joint effort to bring in and to develop biotechnology, genetic engineering and gene modification, and to find ways to publicise justifications (contrary to the great mass of scientific study that show GMOs to be harmful to humans, animals, soil and insects) for the use of these technologies and methods.

Thus although the FSSAI is considered by the Union Government of India to be an agency that has replaced multi-level, multi-departmental areas of control to a single line of command, just like the Foreign Investment Facilitation Portal or the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, these are agencies which do their work in concert, and that concert is played to the tune of the global agbiotech industry, the global food retailers, the e-commerce merchants and all their Indian corporate partners, subsidiaries and otherwise serfs.

Where genetically modified seed and crop, genetic engineering and gene manipulation in food ingredients and therefore food products are concerned, the FSSAI adopts the principle of lying low and saying nothing. In this its behaviour is consistent with that of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC, under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, but over which the Department of Biotechnology has controlling influence) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (responsible for the formulation, coordination and promotion of biomedical research and which is administered by the Department of Health Research, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare), both of which lie lower and say even less.

Even condiments and spices are passed by FSSAI as good to consume provided they are packed, packaged and sealed. In this way, the agency is preparing the ground for outlawing non-packaged, freshly ground and prepared foods and spices.

Such incoherence may partly explain why while the FSSAI collaborates with the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (which is under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry) towards its idea of ‘safe food’ and ‘nutrition’, the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (also under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry) was asked by the Ministry of Environment to stop imports of GM soybean for food or feed without the approval of the GEAC.

The Coalition for a GM-free India has noted a string of imports of agricultural produce which should have been halted at the sea ports of entry and tested for whether they were GM/GE. The FSSAI has inspection sites at 21 locations including six sea ports. But the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) tested seed samples in Gujarat and found them to be genetically modified, while the Soybean Processors’ Association of India has raised serious concerns about the alleged import of GM soybean and farmers in Maharashtra complained about GM soyabean being cultivated for the last three years in Yavatmal.

There can be no excuse of any kind for these imports having taken place (and these are only the ones we have learnt about – seeds for planting can be imported via airfrieght at any international air cargo terminal in India). Till today, the Department of Consumer Affairs (Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution) has a well-publicised programme and campaign of consumer awareness – on such matters as maximum retail price, expiry date of food products, batch number and correct weight – but not on whether a food product has ingredients from GM crop and why it is important for a consumer to know this.

This is deliberately withholding information from consumers about food and food products that government agencies are certifying and permitting to be sold. While for organic foods there is a new regulation requiring quality assurance and traceability – under the Food Safety and Standards (Organic Foods) Regulations, 2017 – which attest to a product’s ‘organic status’ and its ‘organic integrity’, there is none whatsoever for products that have a GM ingredient.

“Essential nutrients”, “daily requirement”, “fight infections”, “strong and healthy”. The FSSAI uses the marketing gibberish of the infant and baby foods industry to daze consumers into believing that food ‘fortification’ is essential.

Under its ‘Safe and Nutritious Food’ programme, the FSSAI seeks to direct home consumers and institutional buyers of food products (such as company staff canteens) in all manner of standards relating to fresh, processed and packaged foods, edible oils, dairy products, meats and beverages. The FSSAI talks about standards for goat and sheep milk, chhana and paneer, whey cheese, cheese in brine, dairy permeate powder, refined vegetable oil, synthetic syrup and sharbat, coconut milk and coconut cream, wheat bran, non-fermented soybean products, processing aides for use in various food categories, limits for heavy metals, standards relating to pulses, millet, cornflakes, degermed maize, formulated supplements for children, honey, beeswax, additives in various food categories, tolerance limits of antibiotic and pharmacologically active substances.

But not a word about GMOs, over which we have had scarcely any regulation, and none at all about synthetic biology (also known as GMOs 2.0), which are not even close to being recognised as needing immediate regulation in India. Both generations of GMO survive by inventing and exaggerating claims of experimental science whose human, toxicological and environmental safety has not been studied thoroughly, by an absence of labelling to stringencies that are demanded of organic produce, by putting industry in control of food systems, by threatening biodiversity.

Some examples from elsewhere in the world are ‘probiotic yoghurt’ made out of engineered bacteria and other microorganisms which are intended to change bacteria inhabiting the human digestive tract, ‘gene sprays’ that can be sprayed directly onto crops in the feld to manipulate the genetics of pests and the terrible ‘gene drives’ which permanently ‘drive’ a genetic trait through a species to change the entire population forever by making it dependent on chemicals or to go extinct.

Warnings about allergies and additives. Why not about GM ingredients?

The FSSAI and its host ministry, the GEAC and its host ministry, every administrative apparatus of the Union Government and of the state governments are silent on this matter. They are just as silent on the question: of what materials are these so-called ‘fortification’ made?

The international donor agencies working with the FSSAI and being consulted by the agency on ‘safe food’, ‘nutrition’ and food fortification are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Clinton Health Access Initiative, the Coalition for Food and Nutrition Security, the Food Fortification Initiative, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, the Iodine Global Network, Nutrition International, PATH, the Tata Trusts, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organisation and the World Bank. Each has an agenda that goes far beyond ‘food safety’. One or more of them undoubtedly has the answer.

All the conditions that are pointed to (wasting, stunting, chronic under-nutrition, anaemia) as needing remedies from food ‘fortification’ and ‘supplements’ can be easily remedied through more sensible crop cultivation choices and diets that are agro-ecologically and culturally sound. But food has long been a means of control, and this is the work that FSSAI does beyond and behind the ‘safety’ and ‘standards’ part of its mandate.

Vegetable hocus-pocus in India

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Which one of these two statements is false?

‘India has more than enough vegetables to feed its households, which need about 144 million tons per year’

‘There is a deficit of about 20 million tons in 2 out of 3 vegetable types India’s households need’

Which one you choose as false depends on whose interpretation of vegetable self-sufficiency you lean towards: the Ministry of Agriculture’s triumphant announcements of ever higher vegetable tonnage, or the data on crop quantities combined with current population and dietary needs (as I do here).

My answer is that the second of the two statements is nearly true whereas the first is entirely false. This is the explanation, and it is based on the data using which the startling graphic presented above was drawn.

In its ‘First Advance Estimates of Horticulture Crops’ for 2017-18, the Ministry of Agriculture has said that a record quantity of 180 million tons of vegetables has been cultivated.

This is no doubt a quantity record for vegetables. It apparently exceeds by a wide margin the quantity required to adequately provide all our households with vegetables for their daily meals. How many household would that be? My calculation, based on the projected increases in population and household contained in Census 2011, is about 270 million (or 27 crore) households in 2018, and with the mean size of the household being 4.8 members.

Such a typical household needs about 1.44 kilograms per day of vegetables as part of a well-balanced diet. Adjusting for the smaller portions eaten by children (up to 14 or 15 years old) and the elderly (from about 65 years old) and further adjusting for the losses and waste that take place from the time vegetables are brought to mandis till they cooked in kitchens, a total of about 144 million tons is needed to supply all our households for a year.

With 180 million tons cultivated and 144 million tons needed, we seem to have a surplus of some 36 million tons of vegetables.

Not so. This ‘surplus’ needs closer examination, which the chart guides you towards. As you see, the biggest circles belong to five vegetable categories: potato, tomato, other vegetables, onion, and brinjal.

What these biggest circles represent needs to be connected to what the National Institute of Nutrition has recommended as the required daily quantities of vegetables. And that is, not just 300 grams per day, but 50 grams of green leafy vegetables, 100 grams of roots and tubers and 150 grams of other vegetables. A household consuming the stipulated 1.44 kg/day of vegetables if those vegetables are a kilo of potatoes and 440 grams of tomatoes is not a household eating vegetables – it’s a household eating far too many potatoes and tomatoes.

The chart shows us dramatically how unbalanced the cultivation of vegetables has become in India. Nearly 40% of the total cultivated is onions and potatoes (70 mt). Add tomatoes and the three account for 51% of the total (93 mt). Add brinjal and the four account for 58% of the total (105 mt).

Our 270 million households should be buying, cooking and eating about 95 million tons of vegetables that are green and leafy, or are ‘other vegetables’. But in these two categories, we are growing no more than about 75 mt – which reveals a massive shortfall of 20 million tons.

This is the truth behind the tale of booming, record vegetable production. Those five big circles in the chart should never have been the sizes they are. Our households do not need an allocation of 500 grams of potatoes per day (no, Lays, Pringles, Doritos, Kurkure, Uncle Chipps, Bingo, Haldirams chips and wafers are not food).

What we need instead is for every taluka, tehsil, block and mandal to value and grow its local varieties of leafy greens, roots and tubers, shoots and stems, edible flowers and buds. That is what will bring back genuine vegetable nutrition and diversity.

Written by makanaka

January 8, 2018 at 19:50

The struggle for the soul of food

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There is food. There is no food. There is no contradiction in there being food and not-food at the same time.

But the not-food is not ‘no food’, it is primary crop that has been passed to food industry, instead of directly to households, and in that industry it is converted into a raw material that is entirely different from the cereals, vegetables, pulses and fruit forms that we consider food and which farmers grow.

That conversion is the food industry, and the demands of that conversion include the use of ‘high-response’ crop varieties, livestock and aquatic breeds, enormous doses of synthetic agro-chemicals and the flattening of ecosystems.

The food industry makes plants grow by applying pesticides and herbicides that sterilise all other life, takes those grown plants and reduces them to components, re-mixes and alters those components, infuses them with deadly formulations of chemicals so that they withstand the treatment of the supply and retail chain, packages them and sells them as ‘food’. This is the not-food that a majority of households in countries now eat.

The industrial food model is predicated on waste, on a false economy of surplus production of commodities rather than on the basis of ecological sustainability, on a biological science that has hideously distorted the rhythms of life.

In the last few weeks, several incisive new reports describe the problems with the industrial food model, and I have drawn quotes from four here. These are not the first. But the conditions they now describe for an old malady are not what we have seen before.

There is a fifth, which I call a pseudo-report. It describes the problems differently, as if they were disconnected from the source of the problems which the other four reports correctly identify. The FAO State Of Food And Agriculture 2017 report refuses to acknowledge the macro-economic, corporate science and finance capital causes for the problems.

Here are the summaries, with links:

Whereas historically the organisations’ proposal for agrarian reform referred particularly to land distribution and to access to productive resources, such as credit, financing, support for marketing of products, amongst others, the integral or genuine agrarian reform is based on the defence and the reconstruction of territory as a whole, within the framework of Food Sovereignty. The broadening of the object of agrarian reform, from land to territory also broadens the concept of the agrarian reform itself.

“Therefore the contemporary proposal for integral agrarian reform does not only guarantee the democratisation of land, but also takes into consideration diverse aspects that allow families to have a decent life: water, the seas, mangroves and continental waters, seeds, biodiversity as
a whole, as well as market regulation and the end of land grabbing. Furthermore, it includes the strengthening of agro-ecological production as a form of production that is compatible with the cycles of nature and capable of halting climate change, maintaining biodiversity and reducing contamination.”

From ‘Struggles of La Via Campesina, for Agrarian Reform and the Defense of Life, Land and Territories’, La Via Campesina, 2017

The Industrial Food Chain is a linear sequence of links running from production inputs to consumption outcomes. The first links in the Chain are crop and livestock genomics, followed by pesticides, veterinary medicines, fertilizers, and farm machinery. From there, the Chain moves on to transportation and storage, and then milling processing, and packaging. The final links in the Chain are wholesaling, retailing and ultimately delivery to homes or restaurants. In this text we use ‘industrial’ or ‘corporate’ to describe the Chain, and ‘commercial foods’ should undoubtedly be associated with the Chain. Just as peasants can’t be comprehended outside of their cultural and ecological context, the links in the Chain – from agro-inputs to food retailers – must be understood within the market economy. All the links in the Chain are connected within the financial and political system, including bankers, speculators, regulators and policymakers. The Chain controls the policy environment of the world’s most important resource – our food.”

From ‘Who Will Feed Us? The Peasant Food Web vs The Industrial Food Chain’, ETC Group, 2017

A significant horizontal and vertical restructuring is underway across food systems. Rampant vertical integration is allowing companies to bring satellite data services, input provision, farm machinery and market information under one roof, transforming agriculture in the process. Mega-mergers come in the context of an already highly-consolidated agri-food industry, and are ushering in a series of structural shifts in food systems. Agrochemical companies are acquiring seed companies, paving the way for unprecedented consolidation of crop development pathways, and bringing control of farming inputs into fewer hands.

“The mineral-dependent and already highly concentrated fertilizer industry is seeking further integration on the back of industry overcapacity and a drop in prices; fertilizer firms are also moving to diversify and integrate their activities via hostile takeovers, joint ventures, and the buying and selling of of regional assets– with mixed results. Meanwhile, livestock and fish breeders, and animal pharmaceutical firms, are pursuing deeper integration with each other, and are fast becoming a one-stop shop for increasingly concentrated industrial livestock industry. Leading farm machinery companies – already possessing huge market shares – are looking to consolidate up- and down-stream, and are moving towards ownership of Big Data and artificial intelligence, furthering their control of farm-level genomic information and trending market data accessed through satellite imagery and robotics.”

From ‘Too big to feed: Exploring the impacts of mega-mergers, concentration, concentration of power in the agri-food sector’, IPES-Food, 2017

Power — to achieve visibility, frame narratives, set the terms of debate, and influence policy — is at the heart of the food–health nexus. Powerful actors, including private sector, governments, donors, and others with influence, sit at the heart of the food–health nexus, generating narratives, imperatives, and power relations that help to obscure its social and environmental fallout. Prevailing solutions leave the root causes of poor health unaddressed and reinforce existing social-health inequalities.

“These solutions, premised on further industrialization of food systems, grant an increasingly central role to those with the technological capacity and economies of scale to generate data, assess risks, and deliver key health fixes (e.g., biofortification, highly traceable and biosecure supply chains). The role of industrial food and farming systems in driving health risks (e.g., by perpetuating poverty and climate change) is left unaddressed. As well, those most affected by the health impacts in food systems (e.g., small-scale farmers in the Global South) become increasingly marginal in diagnosing the problems and identifying the solutions.”

From ‘Unravelling the Food–Health Nexus: Addressing practices, political economy, and power
relations to build healthier food systems’, The Global Alliance for the Future of Food and IPES-Food, 2017

a) Industrialization, the main driver of past transformations, is not occurring in most countries of sub-Saharan Africa and is lagging in South Asia. People exiting low-productivity agriculture are moving mostly into low-productivity informal services, usually in urban areas. The benefits of this transformation have been very modest.
b) In the decades ahead, sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, will face large increases in its youth population and the challenge of finding them jobs. Workers exiting agriculture and unable to find jobs in the local non-farm economy must seek employment elsewhere, leading to seasonal or permanent migration.
c) The world’s 500 million smallholder farmers risk being left behind in structural and rural transformations. Many small scale producers will have to adjust to ongoing changes in “downstream” food value chains, where large-scale processors and retailers, who are taking centre stage, use contracts to coordinate supply and set strict standards to guarantee food quality and safety. Those requirements can marginalize smallholder farmers who are unable to adjust.
d) Urbanization, population increases and income growth are driving strong demand for food at a time when agriculture faces unprecedented natural-resource constraints and climate change. These increases have implications for agriculture and food systems – they need to adapt significantly to become more productive and diversified, while coping with unprecedented climate change and natural resource constraints.”

From ‘The State Of Food And Agriculture. Leveraging Food Systems For Inclusive Rural Transformation’, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, 2017

Eating out, or India’s exorbitant world food bill

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(This article was published by Vijayvaani in June 2017.)

In the Konkan, small electrically operated oil presses that ingest limited amounts of dried copra to expel oil for households to cook with are common. These can press enough in a day (electricity supply permitting) to fill several dozen glass bottles with coconut oil. As such a filled bottle of freshly pressed coconut oil usually sells for Rs 130 to Rs 160, the price per litre may be estimated at about Rs 180. This price compares quite well with the price range of Rs 190 to Rs 220 that is paid by the household buyer for a litre of branded coconut oil.

But it compares not at all with the trade price of an imported shipment of sunflower-seed or safflower oil which in 2016 was imported into India at an average price of just under Rs 60 per kilogram. India imported 1.53 million tons of sunflower-seed or safflower oil last year, and the Rs 9,080 crore spent on it pushed the total amount spent on imported ‘edible’ oils to beyond the Rs 70,000 crore mark. [The cultivation of oilseeds, like the cultivation of all ‘commercial’ crops that are not food staples, is a matter of crop choice, for which see ‘Why our kisans must make sustainable crop choices’.]

Palm oil

Both by weight and by the total amount paid for it, palm oil is the most visible imported food commodity in India today, and has been for the last five years. In 2016 India imported 8.25 million tons of palm oil (the supplying countries being Malaysia and Indonesia) for which the importing agencies paid Rs 38,900 crore. This immense annual flood of a sort of oil that ought never to have touched our shores let alone ooze into our home kitchens and canteens came at less than Rs 48 per kilogram last year. For this reason – the absurdly low price per landed ton of Malaysian and Indonesian palm oil, a low price that hides from the Indian consumer the deforestation devastation and species extinction in those countries, new cooking oil blends are being shoved into the foods market every other month by the edible oils industry.

Biomedical research which is independent and not either funded by or influenced by the oil palm industry and edible oil traders (which means the world’s largest commodity trading firms) indicates that palm oil, which is high in saturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fat, leads to heart disease. It is considered less harmful than partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, but that is no redemption, for palm oil can under no circumstance be compared to our traditional cooking oils, coconut included.

The colonisation of the Indian kitchen and of the processed foods industry by palm oil has taken place only on the basis of landed price per ton, and that is why this oleaginous menace is now found in many everyday products such as biscuits and crackers and cookies (which school children develop addictions for), snack chips, shampoos, skin care and beauty products, and even pet food. [For a longer discussion on this problem see ‘Let them eat biscuits’ and ‘Cornflakes and oats invasion, 10 rupees at a time’.]

Soya oil

The next largest oily invasion is that of soyabean oil, of which 3.89 million tons (mt) was imported by India in 2016 (3.5 mt in 2015, 2.1 mt in 2014). Most of this was of Argentinian origin, just over 3 mt, and because more than 98% of the soya that is grown in Argentina is genetically modified (GM) the millions of tons of soyabean oil India has imported from that country has been used, blended, fractionated, caked and consumed by humans and animals with no indication about its GM origin and with no tests whatsoever for its effects on human and animal health. In terms of rupees per landed kilogram of soyabean oil, at about Rs 53 it is between palm oil and sunflower-seed or safflower oil. These landed prices show dramatically the effect exporting countries’ subsidies for a commodity category have on the related industry (edible oils) in an importing country.

Just as the vast palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia have waxed luxuriant in place of the old growth tropical rainforests that were cut down, turning the wildlife of these forests into hapless refugees, swelling the lucrative and thoroughly illegal forest timber trade, so too have the vast soya plantations in Argentina immiserated that country’s rural population and caused hunger because of the soya monocrop that has replaced their food biodiversity and whose need for fertiliser grew (as it did with Bt cotton in India) instead of shrinking. Both these long-drawn out eco-social catastrophes have been prolonged because of the inability or unwillingness of Indian consumers and regulatory agencies to acknowledge the faraway effects of our considerable ‘demand’ for palm oil and soyabean oil.


Second to palm oil by weight amongst food commodities imported by India is pulses, of which 6.18 mt were imported in 2016 for a price of Rs 27,700 crore. The annual import pattern of a decade of 4 mt to more than 6 mt of imported pulses last year are a large fraction again of the average 18.7 mt of pulses a year grown in India for the last five years (until 2016-17).

Between 2003-04 and 2009-10 the quantity of pulses (tur or arhar, gram, moong, urad, other kharif and rabi pulses) harvested scarcely changed, averaging 14.2 mt over this period. There was a jump in 2010-11 to 18.2 mt and then another plateau followed until 2015-16, with the average for those six years being 17.7 mt. With the 22.7 mt estimated total pulses harvest in 2016-17, we can hope that another plateau is being scaled, and indeed this pattern of a plateau of several years followed by a modest increase does tend to indicate the following of a more agro-ecological cultivation of pulses (these being in rainfed farms) than intensive cultivation dependent on fertiliser, pesticide and commercial seed. [This does have much to do with cultivation practices in different regions, for which read ‘Seeing the growers of our food and where they are’.]


What is a new concern is an item that by weight is fourth on the list of food commodity items imported, and that is sucrose: India imported 2.11 mt in 2016, in 2015 it was 1.6 mt, in 2014 it was 1.37 mt. The country with the greatest consumption of sugar, estimated by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Food and Public Distribution to be around 25 mt per year and growing disproportionately above the natural growth in the number of households, the processed and packaged food sector is the destination for the 2.11 mt of sucrose imported in 2016. A ready consumer for the sucrose is the commercial fruit juice sector, which bases its produce on a small amount of fruit pulp (vegetable extract is often added for bulk), water, chemical preservatives, food-like colours, artificial flavours and sweeteners.

The giant bulk of our sugarcane harvests distract from the ratios calculated – that a ton of raw sugar is obtained from 13 or 14 tons of cane. (This is usually net of jaggery / gur / khandsari and also net of molasses, which is used by distilleries and animal feed.) The mountains of bagasse – the crushed residue from which the sugar has been extracted – which remain are used in the paper and pulp industry, are an ingredient in cattle feed, and are used as biofuel. [Commercial crop or food crop is the question every cultivating household faces. See one district’s example in ‘Masses of cotton but mere scraps of vegetables’.]


At 730,000 tons imported in 2016 and under the international trade category of ‘edible fruit and nuts’ is cashew nuts and Brazil nuts, on which Rs 8,345 crore was spent. A second important sub-category is ‘dates, figs, pineapples, avocados, guavas, mangoes and mangosteens, fresh or dried’ and 350,000 tons were imported in 2016 (for Rs 6,204 crore), while 280,000 tons of apples, pears and quinces, 182,000 tons of ‘other nuts, fresh or dried’ were also imported.

Under 23 main categories food commodities, which include 167 sub-categories and more than 400 subsidiary categories, the bill for imported foods (including dairy and beverages) and food products that we purchased from all over the world in 2016 was USD 22,041 million (USD 22.04 billion), or at the average rupee-dollar exchange rate for 2016, Rs 152,088 crore! In 2015 this bill was USD 20,877 million which at the average annual rupee-dollar exchange rate for 2015 was Rs 137,794 crore. In 2014 this bill was USD 19,372 million which at the average annual rupee-dollar exchange rate for 2014 was Rs 123,015 crore.


These amounts are astronomical and underline the strength of globalisation’s thrall by which we are gripped, exerted upon us not only by the World Trade Organisation but also by the agreements that India has signed (or intends to, and demonstrates intent by importing) with regional trade blocs of the European Union, the OECD and ASEAN. The financial allocations to some of the largest central government programmes, and the budgetary sums of some of the biggest successes in the last three years shrink in comparison to the size of these purchases: the spectrum auction in 2015 brought in Rs 110,000 crore, the 2016-17 central government pensions budget of Rs 128,166 crore, the Rs 47,410 crore transferred so far as subsidy directly into accounts under the Direct Benefit Transfer for LPG consumer scheme, the expenditure of Rs 51,902 crore in 2016-17 on MGNREGA (the highest since its inception).

Bringing about stability in farmers’ incomes (let alone an increase), encouraging rural and peri-urban entrepreneurship based on traditional foods cultivated by agro-ecological methods, ensuring that consumers can find [read about the link with inflation in ‘The relative speeds of urban inflation’] and are assured by the quality of food staples which are free of GM ingredients, chemicals and additives, and the saving of enormous sums of money can all be had if we but reduce and then cut out entirely the wanton import of food and beverages, and processed and packaged food products.

Masses of cotton but mere scraps of vegetables

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The sizes of the coloured crop rectangles are relative to each other based on thousand hectare measures. The four pie charts describe the distribution of the main crops amongst the main farm sizes.

For a cultivating household, do the profits – if there are any – from the sale of a commercial crop both enable the household to buy food to fit a well-balanced vegetarian diet, and have enough left over to bear the costs of its commercial crop, apart from saving? Is this possible for smallholder and marginal kisans? Are there districts and talukas in which crop cultivation choices are made by first considering household, panchayat and taluka food needs?

Considering the district of Yavatmal, in the cotton-growing region of Maharashtra, helps point to the answers for some of these questions. Yavatmal has 838,000 hectares of cultivated land distributed over 378,000 holdings and of this total cultivable area, the 2010-11 Agriculture Census showed that 787,000 hectares were sown with crops.

Small holdings, between 1 and 2 hectares, account for the largest number of farm holdings and this category also has the most cultivated area: 260,000 hectares. Next is farms of 2 to 3 hectares which occupy 178,000 hectares, followed by those of 3 to 4 hectares which occupy 92,000 hectares.

The district’s kisans allocate their cultivable land to food and non-food crops both, with cereals and pulses being the most common food crops, and cotton (fibre crop) and oilseeds being the non-food (or commercial) crops.

How do they make their crop choices? From the agriculture census data, a few matters immediately stand out, which are illustrated by the graphic provided. First, a unit of land is sown 1.5 times in the district or, put another way, is sown with one-and-a-half crops. This means crop rotation during the agricultural year (July to June) is practiced but – with Yavatmal being in the hot semi-arid agri-ecoregion of the Deccan plateau with moderately deep black soil – water is scarce and drought-like conditions constrain rotation.

Second, land given to the cultivation of non-food crops is 1.6 times the area of land given to the cultivation of food crops (including the crop rotation factor), a ratio that is made abundantly clear by the graphic. This tells us that the food required by the district’s households (about 647,000 of which about 516,000 are rural) cannot be supplied by Yavatmal’s own kisans.

The vegetables required by the populations of Yavatmal’s 16 talukas (Ner, Babulgaon, Kalamb, Yavatmal, Darwha, Digras, Pusad, Umarkhed, Mahagaon, Arni, Ghatanji, Kelapur, Ralegaon, Maregaon, Zari-Jamani, Wani) can in no way be supplied by the surprisingly tiny acreage of land allocated to their cultivation. Nor do they fare better for fruit, which has even less land (although this is a more complex calculation for fruit trees, less so for vine fruits).

Third, 125,000 hectares to wheat and 71,000 hectares to jowar makes up almost the entire cereals cultivation. Likewise 126,000 hectares to tur (or arhar) and 94,000 hectares to gram accounts for most of the land allocated to pulses. Thus while Yavatmal’s talukas are well supplied with wheat, jowar, gram and tur dal, its households must depend on neighbouring (or not so neighbouring) districts for vegetables, as a minimum of 280,000 tons per year is to be supplied to meet each household’s recommended dietary needs.

What the graphic helps us ask is the size of the costs associated with crop cultivation choices in Yavatmal. The cultivation of hybrid cotton in India’s major cotton growing regions (several districts each in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat) is associated with heavy chemical fertiliser and pesticides use. Whether the soil on which cotton has grown can be sown again with a food crop is not clear from the available data but if so such a crop would be saturated with a vicious mix of chemicals that include nitrates and phosphates.

The health of the soil in Yavatmal’s 16 talukas is probably amongst the most fragile in Deccan Maharashtra, and after years of coaxing a false ‘productivity’ out of the ground for cotton, it would be best for the district’s 516,000 rural households to take a cotton ‘holiday’ for three to four years and revert to the mixed and integrated cropping of their forefathers (small millets). But the grip of the financiers and the textiles intermediaries is strong.

Written by makanaka

May 10, 2017 at 16:13

The drying of the Deccan

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This panel of 12 images shows the change that takes place in a region of the Deccan. Each image shows what is called a Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) for the region. This is a rolling eight-day series computed daily using imagery from the Terra/MODIS system and viewed using the NASA Worldview website.

The colours (green and brown shades, whitish shades) show us the vegetation health with deep green being better than light green, dark brown being better than light brown. The index is also used to signal where areas are beginning to experience arid and water-scarce conditions.

The region is the west-central Deccan – the Karnataka Plateau – corresponds to the Vijayapur (Bijapur) district of north Karnataka with parts of Bagalkot district and is part of the central Indian semi-arid bioclimatic zone.

The pictures in the panel show the vegetation extent and health (NDVI) calculated on that day for an eight-day period. Each picture is a fortnight apart, and this series starts on 4 November 2016 (bottom right) and ends on 7 April 2017 (top left). The retreat of the green is seen clearly from one fortnight to the next.

Of interest in this region is the Almatti dam and reservoir, in the Krishna river basin, which is visible in the lower centre of each picture. On 13 April there was no water in Almatti, which has a full capacity of 3.105 billion cubic metres (bcm). For the week ending 30 March it had 0.015 bcm of water, the week ending 6 April 0.001 bcm.

For the week ending 3 November 2016, which is when the panel of pictures begins, Almatti had 2.588 bcm of water. The reservoir water runs a hydroelectric power plant, of 240 MW, and which needs flowing water to turn the turbines.

When the reservoir is full, the hydel plant produces about 175 million units of electricity. But on 13 March the Central Electricity Authority’s daily report showed that Almatti could produce only 3.02 million units. On 10 April, this had plunged to 0.04 million units, but the hydel plant had produced no power since 1 April.

Written by makanaka

April 19, 2017 at 13:07

Seeing the growers of our food and where they are

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Where the food that we eat is grown, who the growers of our food are, these are the sort of questions that independent Bharat ought very early to have made central to our understanding of the growing of food crops and the uses to which harvested food crops are put. Instead, we have an administrative understanding, weighed down completely by the bits and pieces of method left by an imperial British administration – whose interests were exploitative and fully colonial.

And assisting this anachronistic administrative view of food and agriculture is a more recent ‘market’ view. This is even more distanced from the farming household and the consuming household than the colonial view was, because its engine is constructed according to the blueprints drawn by a western macro-economics which has served neither the populations of the western countries nor the post-colonial populations of former colonies. The ‘market’ view survives till today only because of the continuous creation of new consumers for food ‘products’ – which is quite different from the seasonal consumption of raw food staples provided by local cultivators.

For these and allied reasons the ability of the central government administration of Bharat – from the time of the First Five Year Plan of 1951-56 – to consider agriculture and food as something other than a ‘sector’, a contributor to gross domestic product (GDP), as an activity through which employment could be supported and poverty kept at bay, has been crippled. There is no reason for it to continue being crippled today. It has continued only because of the legions of planners, advisers, economists and econometricians, academics and researchers, bankers and financiers, and to which assembly must now be added the social entrepreneurs, fin-tech (finance technology) start-ups, and ‘innovators’ who derive dubious means and transient currency out of it.

For this reason I have in a number of articles, papers and writings such as this one sought to describe ways in which the circumstances of the food grower should be, and must be, seen – very often by using the public data and statistics freely available. Some of the indicators we need to have in the foreground – and these are very much more important than the area-produce-yield obsession of our agricultural science establishment and economics planners – are: how many rural households does it take to feed an urban household? Where are farmers, food growers and cultivators a large part of those who work? What role do the smallest urban settlements (census towns) have in the growing and consuming of food?

This is the result of a very small attempt, using Census 2011, to answer such questions.

1. There are 152 districts in which the ratio of the number of rural households to urban households is 8 and above. This means that in 152 districts, rural households outnumber urban households by a factor of at least 8. In 102 of these districts, the ratio is 10 and above, in 45 of these districts the ratio is 15 and above, and in 24 districts the ratio is at least 20.

Among districts which have a high ratio are Ramban in Jammu and Kashmir has a ratio of 24.7 to 1, Sheohar in Bihar has a ratio of 24.6 to 1, West District of Sikkim has a ratio of 23.7 to 1, Anjaw in Arunachal Pradesh has a ratio of 23.7 to 1, Bhabua in Bihar has a ratio of 23.6 to 1 and Baudh in Odisha has a ratio of 22.5 to 1. Whereas Bhabua has some 2.4 lakh rural households, West District has only about 27,000 rural households.

2. There are 174 districts in which the rural farming population, that is, the number of working adults who are engaged in cultivation of their plots or as agricultural labour, is 80% and more of the total rural working population of that district. In 90 of these districts the percentage is 85% and above, in 25 districts it is 90% and above.

Among districts which have a high percentage of cultivators and agricultural labour in their rural working population are Washim and Nandurbar in Maharashtra (90.7% and 90.5%), Dhar, Khandwa and Khargone in Madhya Pradesh (90.6%, 90.5% and 90.5%), and Jashpur and Surguja in Chhattisgarh (both 90.4%).

3. There are 211 districts in which the number of rural households is 3 lakh and above. Of these in 161 districts the number of rural households is 3.5 lakh and above, and in 129 districts the number of rural households is 4 lakh and above. From among these 129, there are 29 in Uttar Pradesh, 19 in Bihar, 15 in West Bengal, 15 in Maharashtra and 13 in Andhra Pradesh.

Among districts with large numbers of rural households are Krishna in Andhra Pradesh with about 7.53 lakh households, Mahbubnagar in Telengana with 7.43 lakh households, Ahmednagar in Maharashtra with 7.39 lakh households, Malda in West Bengal with 7.34 lakh households, Darbhanga in Bihar with 7.29 lakh households, Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh with 7.21 lakh households and Belgaum in Karnataka with 7.19 lakh households.

4. There are 202 districts in which the farming population both rural and urban, that is, the number of working adults who are engaged in cultivation of their plots or as agricultural labour, is 70% or more of the total working population of that district. In 116 of these districts the percentage is 75% and above, in 58 of these districts it is 80% and above.

Among districts with a high combined percentage of rural and urban households engaged in agriculture are Pratapgarh in Rajasthan (83.8%), Mahasamund in Chhattisgarh (83.6%), Mandla in Madhya Pradesh (83.6%), Katihar in Bihar (83%), Khunti in Jharkhand (83%), Uttar Bastar Kanker in Chhattisgarh (83%), Malkangiri in Odisha (82.9%) and Dohad in Gujarat (82.8%).

Written by makanaka

April 4, 2017 at 20:47

The origins of spiritual agriculture, 2

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In his ‘The twelve ‘ayagars’ of village community in medieval Karnataka’, K S Shivanna has explained how the office of these ‘ayagars’ was hereditary, hence this hereditary character infused in each ‘ayagar’ a devotion and love towards his own village.

In his ‘The twelve ‘ayagars’ of village community in medieval Karnataka’, K S Shivanna has explained how the office of these ‘ayagars’ was hereditary, hence this hereditary character infused in each ‘ayagar’ a devotion and love towards his own village.

Generations of spiritual farmers of Bharat, who have safeguarded the ‘parampara’ of dharmic cultivation, have shown us the worship that ties together the cultural, religious and biological richness of our civilisation. This article follows my earlier writing on the subject, ‘Old krishi for new Bharat’ (part 1 of the krishi series), and ‘How we almost lost our growing tradition’ (part 2). This article was written for the Indic and Indology study website Indiafacts and here is the first part, The origins of spiritual agriculture, 1.

Taking the ‘yajnas‘ and the injunctions about “annadana” as pointers to the size of a society that placed demands upon agricultural production, and of the size and vibrancy of the cultivators to meet that demand, we find that the practice of spiritual agriculture in Vedic, ancient, earlier and later medieval periods, and during the periods of foreign occupation (Muslim, Mughal and British, such as it was able to continue) required a supporting web of knowledge types. These included knowledge of the organisation and administration of the ‘gramas’ and their groups, of the varieties of crops and their properties (for nutrition under several circumstances, for ritual purposes, for medicinal purposes, etc.), of the soils and the cycles of water, of the calendrical and astrological observances and influencers of the seed and its growth.

The study of epigraphs and inscriptions of the different eras, which the Indologists of the modern era (from the mid-nineteenth century) have served us through their laborious researches, have given us a picture that adds to the profundity and breadth of information contained very much earlier in the ‘shruti’ and ‘smriti’. These do in the first place highlight in many ways the size of the populations of the earlier eras and the vitality of the agricultural practices that sustained such large populations. In our times, our view of population and its growth is ordinarily linked to the decadal censuses that began to be undertaken from 1901. The overall trend of these censuses taken together is to show rapid growth in a century, but the trend cannot, in the face of the evidence gathered even by the time of the end of the nineteenth century, be similarly extended backwards.

The records of inscriptions, often copper plates, are from different eras and from a number of locations in Vedic, ancient and medieval Bharatvarsha, include the assigning, by grants, villages, for purposes such as the maintenance of temples and places of religious learning, for senior or high officials of a raja, the maintenance of the families of those who had died on the battlefield. These provide a rich source for understanding the administrative structures to which the ‘gramas’ belonged, and their relationships with the administrators. Under the Chandellas, villages were grouped into ‘vishayas’ or ‘pathakas’, while the heirs of the Pratiharas (of the middle Ganga region) also mention ‘vishayas’ and ‘pattanas’ for towns (as is brought out in ‘The Struggle for Empire’, volume five of ‘The History and Culture of the Indian People’). In dakshin Bharata, under the Chalukyas, there were regions (corresponding to southern Maharashtra) in which the number of ‘gramas’ were grouped into 500, 1,000 and 2,000 under officers whose title was ‘mahamandaleshwara’. Farther south, the number of ‘gramas’ in large groupings rises to 12,000 and more (there are two recorded instances of a Chalukya queen having administered such a large group, and a Chalukya princess having done so).

With ‘vishayas’ and ‘mahamandalas’ containing within their administrative boundaries, several thousand ‘gramas’, and the kingdoms and empires of Bharatavarsha encompassing an area from Kabul to the river Airavati (Irrawaddy) in present-day Burma, the number and density of provincial divisions and the ‘gramas’ and ‘pattanas’ they sustained can only, pending painstaking research, be surmised. The fertility of the soil, which was already legendary in the wider world of the ancients (as evinced by exports to the regions of Babylonia and Rome), and the application of the interlinked modes of spiritual agriculture are the factors that made this astonishing scale of sustenance possible.

In the 'gramas' were the practitioners of spiritual agriculture, which included as a practice the manner in which they maintained both their own autonomy and the autonomies of the religious institutions – the temples and associated 'mathas'.

In the ‘gramas’ were the practitioners of spiritual agriculture, which included as a practice the manner in which they maintained both their own autonomy and the autonomies of the religious institutions – the temples and associated ‘mathas’.

At its base lay the ‘grama’. Around the ‘grama’ lay its ‘khettas’ or pastures, and its woodland or uncleared jungle. Agricultural land is considered among the ten kinds of external possessions (other being buildings, gold, seeds of grain, collected wood (for fuel), grass, friends and relatives, means of conveyance, furniture and utensils). The ‘khetta’ was divided into ‘setu’ and ‘ketu’, the former being irrigated by water-wheels (also called Persian wheels, or ‘arahatta’) and the latter by rainfall. Agriculture was required ploughing. There was a ploughing deity (‘Sita-janna’ is one such given name) in whose honour a festival was held. “In a prosperous country, the land was ploughed with hundreds of thousands of ploughshares; and sugarcane, barley and rice were cultivated by ‘karisaya’ (farmers),” as explained in ‘Life in Ancient India as Depicted in the Jain Canons’. “There is mention of the limiting of the cultivable land for each plough could plough one hundred ‘nivartana’ of land (as stated by Baudhayana), which is described as an area sufficient to support one man by its produce.”

Indian farmers in their wisdom have followed certain precepts throughout history. For example, on sowing of seeds, a handful bathed in water and a piece of gold was sown first with the following mantra (as transmitted by the Arthashastra):

Prajápatye Kasyapáya déváya namah.

Sadá Sítá medhyatám déví bíjéshu dhanéshu cha. Chandaváta hé.”

(“Salutation to God Prajápati Kasyapa. Agriculture may always flourish and the Goddess (may reside) in seeds and wealth. Chandaváta hé.”)

They likewise took guidance from Rishi Parashara (about 400 BCE), who wrote a general text on field crop agriculture and whose contents are so arranged that they may with scarcely any alteration be followed today as a book on introductory agriculture:

“Even the rich who possess a lot of gold, silver, jewels, and garments have to solicit farmers as earnestly as a devotee would pray to God.”

“An agriculturist, who looks after the welfare of his cattle, visits his farms daily, has the knowledge of the seasons, is careful about the seeds, and is industrious, is rewarded with the harvests of all kinds and never perishes.”

“Even a fourfold yield of crops procured at the cost of the health of the bullocks perishes soon by the sighs of their exhaustion.”

As the predominant grain harvest was rice of different varieties, the methods for its storage was a science unto itself. The paddy was sown during the rains and when ripe was harvested with newly sharpened sickles, threshed, winnowed and then taken to the granary, where it was stored in new earthenware jars, says the Vyavahara Bhasya. Elsewhere, piles of rings (‘valaya’) made from interwoven straw and leaves also served as receptacles for the grain. The floor beneath these receptacles was coated with cow dung and dried. Such heaps of grain were arranged close to the wall, besmeared with ashes, sealed with cow dung and screened with straw and bamboo. In the monsoon, the grain was stored in a variety of ways: in earthen containers, in receptacles of woven straw and bamboo, in granaries that stood on pillars, in upper storeys of houses, always well sealed with fresh clean mud and cow dung, often sealed with earthen seals. ‘Kumbhi’, ‘karabi’, ‘pallaga’, ‘muttoli’, ‘mukha’, ‘idura’ and ‘alindaa’ are among the more common forms of storage. “Those, who stored crores and crores of ‘kumbhas’ of these grains in their granary were called ‘naiyatikas’,” the Vyavahara Bhasya has tantalisingly mentioned, indicating the great yields and the equally great responsibilities of those, the ‘naiyatikas’, in whose care the stored grains reposed.

Such a person represented the harmonious combination of a practitioner, administrator, and a religious institution (in the form of a temple or a temple complex with an associated seat of learning, a ‘matha’) that characterised agrarian-centred life in Bharat. Crop production, ownership, land tenures, assessment and revenue were the subjects that brought together the three parties locally and the fourth, the administration of the desa or the kingdom, distantly. Two kinds of land tenure, ‘agrahara’ and ‘devadaya’, were followed in the lands being utilised and belonging to one of the better known of such temple complexes in dakshina Bharata, that of the Somanathapura, on the banks of the Kaveri, in Mysore district. Teachers attached to the temple were given land grants in lieu of salaries, thereby illustrating the continuum of education, sustenance from the produce of the land, the crop cultivation knowledge ‘parampara’ of the region, and the support of the ‘parampara’ scripturally with the participation of the teachers.

Under the Hoysala (and subsequently the Vijayanagara), temple lands were managed by the ‘sthanikas’ or managers and the tenants of such lands were named differently from tenants of other cultivated land. Whereas the Somanathapura of Mysore was relatively large, well known and attracted large numbers of worshippers, its regular daily and festival consumption of agricultural and non-agricultural produce is common to all such temples and temple complexes. The ‘mahajans’, ‘sthanikas’ and ‘nambis’ of the Somanathapura temple purchased locally: rice, paddy, wheat, toor dal, green gram, black gram, soapnut powder, turmeric, jaggery, pepper, cardamom, sesame, arecanut, oil, sandalwood, ghee and curd. Where such temples and temple complexes thrived, they motivated agricultural expansion, mobilised and redistributed royal resources, linked ‘mandis’, gave employment to craftspeople and a great diversity of non-agricultural professions, all on the basis of the inseparable ties between the cultivator and the temple.

The complaint that though the Hindu rulers spent very little on themselves, they suffered from “two great vices”, which are the giving away of most of what they had to the Brahmins and to the temples, was made by an early governor-general of the British occupation, and by several of his predecessors and successors, as recorded by Dharampal. He has remarked that it is possible that the terms ‘Brahmin’ and ‘temple’ were used in a much wider sense and included all who were given to scholarship and support of one kind and another, and to institutions which catered not only to religious needs, but which also served purposes of scholarship, culture, entertainment and comfort. “It does imply that every person in this society enjoyed a certain dignity and that his social and economic needs were well provided for,” Dharampal has written. “Food and shelter seem to have been a natural right, given India’s cultural norms, and made easier by [the] fertility [of the soil].”

Hence, it is the village communities, by which term is meant the ‘grama’ with its cultivators, its professions and vocations agriculturally related and not, the associated temple (or where extant a temple complex with possibly a ‘matha’), with its intricate and mutually supportive webs of knowledge and scriptural practices, which altogether was later described as the agrarian institutions of Bharat. In his ‘The twelve ‘ayagars’ of village community in medieval Karnataka’, K S Shivanna has explained how the twelve ‘ayagars’ contributed to the growth and the self-sufficiency of the village. “The village hardly received anything in return from the towns. The village produced all its own needs from within. The affairs connected with agricultural production were conducted by the cooperation of a body of these twelve village functionaries. Each one of them rendered service to the economic well-being of the village. The office of these ‘ayagars’ was hereditary, hence this hereditary character infused in each ‘ayagar’ a devotion and love towards his own village. The British in the early 19th century were struck by the vitality and usefulness of this system.” Shivanna has quoted Mark Wilks, who spared no admiration for the timeless resilience of the system, he had beheld, one which no conquests, usurpations, or revolutions have been able to influence, whose whole frame of interior management remain unalterably the same, with “every state in India is a congeries of these little republics”.

Such self-sufficiency and insulation as ‘little republics’ can in no way be interpreted to mean that the ‘gramas’ stultified in any respect. On the contrary, particularly for cultivation (and animal husbandry) techniques, aspects concerning the employ of water and soil, and innovations in the use of the many materials of natural origin (furniture, vehicles, basketry and crafts), the network of markets served as mediums of exchange. The renown of regional and local varieties of cereals owed much to the exchange of method and modification between the ‘gramas’ that had been conveyed through such media. For example, in aromatic rice, following local varieties had attained renown: the ‘panarsa’ of parts of modern Himachal Pradesh, ‘laungchoor’ of Mirzapur and Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh, ‘ambemohor’ of Pune district in Maharashtra, ‘badsabhog’ of Paschimi Champaran in Bihar, ‘borjoha’ and ‘krishnajoha’ of Assam, ‘chinoor’ of Bhandara and Gondia districts in Maharashtra, ‘katanbhog’ of Coochbehar in West Bengal, and ‘vishnuparag’ of Barabaki and Bahraich districts of Uttar Pradesh. Aromatic rice varieties such as these, prized for centuries, require a depth of knowledge and application of practice that must nonetheless be added to with every season, to judge the ‘gunas’ of their favoured soils, supervise the passage of ‘jala’ into and from their fields, gauge the temperatures, plan their sowing by the ‘nakshatras’, time the festivals and then proceed to the labour.

In this, our agriculturists met and even excelled the expectations of the vaidyas, who had long ago enumerated the foods, their qualities and their uses based on the principle that there is no medicine comparable to food and it is possible to free a person of ailments solely through diet. One such compilation is the treatise, the Bhojanakutuhalam of Sri Raghunathasuri, which in 44 sections deals encyclopaedically with foods. In this, rice is classified as growing in burnt soil, wet lands, uncultivated soil, by cultivation, from fresh paddy, grown after harvesting. As major groups, they all have combinations of properties and tastes, and affect the three ‘doshas’ (‘vata’, ‘pitta’ and ‘kapha’) differently. The ‘kutuhalam’ dwells on certain rice species that are valuable from the perspective of ayurveda. Amongst these are the ‘rajanna’ of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh; ‘krishnasali’, which is famed for growing on the banks of the river Godavari; ‘raktasali’, which is highly valued for its effect on all three ‘dosas’; ‘mundasali’, which treats poisoning and wounds; ‘sthulasali’ or ‘mahasali’, which is sweet and wholesome for children and youth; ‘suksmasali’, ‘gandhasali’, ‘tiriya’, ‘sastivasaraja’ and ‘gaurasali’.

These few examples is sufficient to illustrate the presence of wide range of crop varieties and their associated, abundantly spiritual webs of knowledge, throughout Indian history. This article and its earlier companion article provide a very brief outline of the spiritual basis of agriculture in Bharat, the characteristics of the ‘gramas’ in which the practitioners of such agriculture were to be found in earlier eras, and the manner in which they maintained both their own autonomy and the autonomies of the religious institutions – the temples and associated ‘mathas’ – with respect to the administration of the region and of the raja. The practice and the application of generationally transmitted knowledge, strengthened by the dharmic principles retold in each age, and the expectant resting of an exacting ayurvedic tradition (itself as ancient as the texts in which the nature of food is revealed to us) upon the methods of the cultivators, serves to illumine the integral whole that is ‘prana’, desh and ‘anna’.

Subhash Palekar, who is Bharat’s foremost ‘karyakarta’ of spiritual agriculture, has often, and in writing, rued the slow, but inexorable dismantling of the little republics so admired by Dharampal, Wilks and Shivanna. He has said that when farmers began purchasing their seeds from the towns, when fertilisers (instead of the ‘bijamrita’, ‘ghanjivamrita’ and ‘jivamrita’ that he makes) is bought from the town to be applied to the fields of the ‘grama’, when the flow of goods that was earlier from ‘grama’ to town has been reversed, that is when the natural order was upturned, and that is why spirituality in agriculture must be restored. Over the last three or four decades, ideas from the west, which are termed ‘agro-ecology’ or ‘organic farming’ or ‘bio-dynamic agriculture’ or ‘holistic farming’ have found currency in the Bharat, whose spiritual agricultural practices are superior to these concepts, in the way that a summit of the Vindhyas is superior to the just-assembled mound of the mechanical earthmover. Palekar and his peers (the late Bhaskar Save and late G Nammalwar among them), the generations of spiritual farmers of Bharat, who have safeguarded the ‘parampara’ of dharmic cultivation, have shown us the worship that ties together the cultural, religious and biological richness of our civilisation. Behind them stands Balarama, the eighth avatar of Vishnu, and on his shoulder is the plough.

Written by makanaka

January 4, 2017 at 14:39