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February 16, 2012

The dead farmer and me.

Filed under: agriculture, common man — neosurya @ 06:25

Extract from an interview in Tehelka with our Environment minister “Jairam Ramesh” [1] (Words of the reporter tho, not of Jairam).

We are inextricably linked with the dead farmer in the emerald green field. Every high-velocity water-tap we open, every light we switch on, every extra hour of air-conditioning we carelessly run, every drop of petrol we waste, snakes back to the battles being fought with blood and bullet on the ground. It has never been more imperative that we understand that.

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September 25, 2010

Environmental concerns in agriculture – a very old problem

Filed under: agriculture, common man, environment, gandhi, gandhian principles, global warming — Tags: — neosurya @ 17:21

I often used to think that the environment concerns in agriculture could not be very recent. Similar concerns should have been present earlier as well. After all, the human species has been cutting down trees and establishing itself as a mono cropper from sometime now. I used to wonder how early people would have reacted, especially the farmers in India.

I have been reading Ramchandra Guha’s “India After Gandhi” [Reviews: 1, 2]. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary India. Since we are talking about agriculture here, I will put a few relevant excerpts. Guha’s book contains the following discussion between a village lever worker (VLW) and a farmer (MS):

VLW: What do you think of the new seed?

MS: What can I think? If the Govt. thinks it is good, it must be good.

VLW: Do you think it is better than the local variety?

MS: Yes, It resits disease much better. It can stand frost and rain, and there is more demand for it in the market.

VLW: What about yield?

MS: I cannot say. Some people say it is more, others say it is not.

VLW: Some people say it is not as good in taste.

MS: They are right. It is not half as good. If the roti is served hot it is more or less the same, but if we keep it for an hour or so it gets tough as hide. No, it is not as good in taste. People say that we all get very weak if we eat this wheat.

VLW: What is your experience?

MS: Many more people suffer from digestive disorders these days. Our childern have coughs and colds. Perhapes it is becasue of the new seed and sugar cane. It may be that the air has been spoilt by the wars.

VLW: And what about the new fertilizer?

MS: They increase the yield; there is no doubt about it. But they probably destroy the vitality of the land and also of the grain.

There is another quote included by Guha, a letter by Gandhi’s disciple Mira Behn dated 1949:

The tragedy today is that educated and moneyed classes are altogether out of touch with the vital fundamentals of existence — our Mother Earth, and the animal and vegetable population which she sustains. This world of Nature’s planning is ruthlessly plundered, despoiled and disorganized by man whenever he gets the chance. By his science and machinery he may get huge returns for a time, but ultimately will come desolation. We have got to study Nature’s balance and develop our lives within her laws if we are to survive as a physically healthy and morally decent species.

The discussion between the VLW and villager was first published by S C Dube in 1958 [Links to book: 1, 2], and the letter above was written in 1949. One can imagine how far back people were thinking about the effects of chemical farming and the resultant socio-environmental issues.

For those who are new to environmental problems in agriculture, I had previously blogged about a few aspects: Bt Brinjal, Double standards in Organic food, One Straw Revolution.

India’s changing villages: human factors in community development

March 30, 2010

All you can eat Buffet

Filed under: agriculture, social change — neosurya @ 19:40

Jyostna and I were watching the Discovery Travel channel last night. Why we are watching travel, you ask… We find most channels doling out rubbish; Even National Geographic has become voyeuristic at times, or a fear fantasy (assassination this [1], behind the bars that [1], hot rods, boys toys etc). Travel and cooking seem to be the only sane things on the TV. That will change soon, I guess.

Anyhow, we are watching Discovery Travel one Monday evening, and they had this special on “All you can eat buffets” [1]. Pretty harmless, one may think. Until my wife muttered – “What a country we left behind”. I realized that such buffets are possible only in USA. I have not traveled a whole lot, but within India at least I have rarely seen an all you can eat buffet except at weddings. And even then, the buffet is frowned upon in traditional South Indian weddings.

Then there were a few other things that I recalled about buffets: (1) Any food left at the end of business has to be thrown out. (2) There is immense wastage if the business makes an error in predicting their estimates. (3) Cooking different foods under one roof is a supply chain nightmare, and comes at a huge carbon footprint. I mean – think of crab legs for a few thousand people in Las Vegas. Nevada does not have such a large population of crabs, and they definitely cannot get them from the Grand Canyon.

Looks like there are other locations around the world where all-you-can-eat Buffets are available [URL here: 1]. These are, however mostly in the “developed” countries. I do not like such large-scale wastage. Not to say that I do not enjoy food; I do enjoy it… And I wonder what a food connoisseur ought to do in this case…

October 15, 2009

Feels wierd…

Bt Brijal was given an approval for commercial cultivation in India [1, 2, 3].I did my bit by sending a fax about this, and am consciously trying to do my bit by doing other things, and writing about them.Interestingly, the Govt body employed to be in charge of genetic products has been called “Genetic Engineering Approval Committee”. It’s URL has a one line explanation about its’ role. I am curious as to why this body is called the “approval committee” as opposed to “regulatory committee” or something else. Guess the underlying assumption is that somehow GE is already going to be approved and, once it is approved there would be little there to be regulated.  Incidentally, all the safety reports related to Bt Brinjal were from the company Mahyco itself (URL).

But this is not the only thing I am feeling wierd about…

China is pretty pissed that our PM visited Arunachal Pradesh [1,2], and our media did give a whimper of response [1]. China had sometime back also started issuing visas to J&K/Arunachal residents on a piece of paper, as opposed to stamping them on the Indian passport [1]. China’s attitude reminds me of a distant cousin who used to resort to cheap tricks in order to make me look bad in front of parents.

I believe that India can be very strong when it comes to things like these. But my belief aint good enough, a billion other folks need to share the belief. Ahem… well, a few among the billions would be OK.

July 21, 2009

Proposal for a Dwelling – An ecological gated community in Bangalore

I do not know if this is desperation, or if this is strategic thinking. I am writing this in a bid to gather like-minded people who respect nature and can plan on staying together on a common area along the lines of a gated community. Yes, I know we have the private gated communities and BDA complexes, and oh yes – we also have rental accommodation. But nothing lets us live in a sustainable, ecological, vibrant community that respects nature and enjoys it.

I and Jyostna have been looking for land in Bangalore for quite sometime, and the options are not yet perfect. In too many locations, we have seen that builders focus on “herd mentality”. Land changes hands frequently with people mainly aiming for profit and not really looking at it as a place that can sustain life. Living has become equivalent to spoiling nature and living against it. Gated communities boast facilities like swimming pools which one hardly ever uses; they are too small to be of any value. But most seem to replicate a different place and are totally out of place with our reality (My blog post on Palm meadows in a desert). While even the human species needs to survive like any other, we believe it is possible to organize our own place in this measly planet of ours.

A possible option we are looking at:
Gather together a few like minded folks and obtain property on the fringes of BLR; for example 4 people buy one acre and we have ~10,000 sq foot plots for each family. Each family builds a house on 2000 sq. foot of their land and leaves the rest open. Rely as little as possible on external resources, and share some resources such as wind energy, well, security, ground-water recharging. Not quite Navadarshanam, but regular 9-5 working people who want to be close to nature and lead a calm life. The goal would be to live in harmony with nature, but retain several urban comforts. If it becomes really feasible, we could implement a gobar gas plant and other such, but that would be a stretch goal.

What it would entail:
In terms of money:
One acre of land about 10-15 Kms from Bangalore costs 48 lakhs. I have some options that I can talk about. If four families share one acre, the cost will be 12 lakhs per family. For 1,400 rupees per square feet, it is possible to construct a house that will be ecologically sensitive, and have among other features, it’s own sewage disposal and water harvesting. I have some figures from firms that do ecological designs of homes. For a 2000 square foot home, that would mean about 28 lakhs. The total seems about 40 lakhs. But with registration, electric connection, size of house, delays and other factors minimum-maximum cost could be 45-60 lakhs.

In terms of personal commitment:
Mutual respect that we will not violate building standards and not succumb to selling our respective 10,000 sq. feet of property in the form of parcels when the surrounding areas “develop”.

Best case scenario to make this happen:

20-25 families will participate in this, and we shall have a very vibrant community.
4-5 families will participate in this and they will have a nice place to stay.

BTW, we are not real-estate agents, we do not have experience in doing this. We think this is very difficult, we have a whole bunch of optimism, but we think the outcome is worth the effort. This is a five-hundred foot idea; the exact details can be worked out if and when folks think this is feasible. Comments are welcome.

What are we planning to do if this does not work:
Get a 40×60 plot in a decent locality in Bangalore, have an independent house. We may even have to revert to a gated community :(.

Comments are welcome.

July 20, 2009

Hillary harps on GM food for security. Whiter organic food?

So she does, huh…

And what does the president of United States eat… Why, Organic food of course. This includes the White house state dinner, where the Obamas had apparently insisted that even the wines should be organic. Other links stating that the White house is turning organic: [1, 2, 3]

So, it is “technology” in agriculture for the developing world, and organic food in the developed world. Actually, it is technology for the poor people and organic food for the rich ones. Processed food is most popular in the west, and the US insisted that “Swine Flu” be publicly renamed as H1N1 virus since it could damage its pork processing business interests.

Apparently, the Bush administration was much worse, with Laura Bush openly advocating organic food in their kitchen and Bush policy driving exactly the opposite in American markets.

May 6, 2009

Potential cause of swine flu – our food chain.

Pigs. Lovely things. But when you have too many of them at a single place, it could be slightly problematic. Anyone who has been to a pig farm or a passed by a slaughter house would know this. But what does this have to do with Swine Flu? Quite a lot, if one  goes by newspapers and reports from labs such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

pigs

pigs

The guardian carried a news article [1,2] that highlighted how industrialized farming consistently looks at optimizing food produce with any and whatever means possible. The means could include large scale operations that generate coresspondingly large amounts of waste, and complicate management of stock. Excerpts related to the scale of operations at one of the world’s largest pig “manufacturing” company:

It operates on a grand scale. The volume of its pig waste is extravagant. But just as RBS did not alone cause the financial crisis but merely conformed to the latest banking type, so it is the very nature of today’s globalised meat industry that is at the heart of this emerging swine flu pandemic. The factory unit near La Gloria fattens nearly a million pigs a year.

Intensive factories of densely packed hogs, like those of the rest of the large-scale industry, produce vast lagoons of foul-smelling discharges. In many of the areas where it has sited its factory farms or slaughtering and processing complexes, activists and locals have campaigned against it, accusing it of environmental pollution, labour rights abuses and in some places operating without proper permits.

If you had a farm with about 50-60 livestock, one could estimate how they are behaving, and this can give an important clue to their well-being. In practice animals behave oddly when they are sick, and growers of livestock learn how to understand such behavior. To take blood samples and measure the disease in each animal is at best difficult, and at worst impossible. When you talk about lakhs of animals at a single location, being grown for the sole purpose of being killed and consumed, things can get a little haywire. It is practically not possible to understand their behavior. As for regular blood tests and similar – well that will be too expensive, so tests will be conducted on samples. Then there is also the use of anti-biotics and steroids. Excerpt form the Guardian:

Health experts have warned for years about the danger of intensive livestock farming creating new and rampant human disease. If these new viruses are the toxic debt of the food system, the genetically improved pig is its highly engineered and artificial derivative. Pumped up like a bodybuilder, dependent on antibiotics and vaccines to keep it going, it has disproportionately large back legs to meet a market that likes hams more than shoulder of pork; it has tiny ears and no tail to limit the scars from the aggressive behaviour distressed conditions produce; and it is bred without hair for ease of slaughter. When herds of 5,000 of these genetically identical modern animals catch flu, it rips through them.

At CDC the head of virology had completed the genetic fingerprinting of the swine flu and was able to say that it has arisen from a strain first identified on industrial pig units in North Carolina in the late 1990s. ….. “North Carolina has the densest pig population in North America and boasts more than twice as many corporate swine mega-factories as any other state. With massive concentrations of farm animals within which to mutate, these new swine flu viruses in North America seem to be on an evolutionary fast track, jumping and reassorting between species at an unprecedented rate.

Novel human disease is the toxic debt of today’s industrial livestock farming. The influenza virus has eight genetic segments. If two different types of flu infect the same cell at the same time, the genes from both viruses mix, swapping segments to form totally new hybrids.

….

The 1918 flu pandemic was an H1N1 strain and was a kind of bird flu new to humans so they had no immunity to it. It killed at least 50 million people as it raged around the world in less than a year. The 1918 H1N1 strain passed from humans to pigs, and became the dominant form of flu among pigs, albeit one that evolved into a fairly mild strain.

But then in 1998 there was an explosive new outbreak of swine flu in a factory farm in North Carolina that made thousands of pigs ill. The virus had evolved into a triple hybrid that had never been seen before, containing gene segments from bird, human and swine flu. It had found the ideal breeding ground. Pigs, whose immune systems were suppressed by the stress of crowding and fast feeding, and kept confined indoors, were perfect disease incubators for flu whose preferred method of transmission is virus-infected aerosol droplets, expelled by the million in the hog’s famous barking cough. Thanks to the modern practice of transporting live animals, the new virus spread rapidly through pig herds around the country.

Despite this information, it is the common consumers who will continue to use such products:

But instead of addressing these wider issues, the response to the flu pandemic in terms of food production is “carry on as normal”. Urged to spend our way out of ecological recession, we are exhorted to keep eating pork products. Keen to protect the economic interests of its meat industry, the US government took to calling this swine flu “H1N1 flu” a couple of days ago, in order not to put people off their chops. The World Health Organisation, which depends on the US for a large part of its budget and has been bullied by it before, has now followed suit, rebranding the flu influenza A (H1N1). But simply saying “as you were” is no more an adequate response to the cause of this current crisis than it is to the banking collapse. If we carry on as before, the pigs may yet have their revenge. And if not the pigs, the chickens.

Food production has become more about economics than about good food. No matter what the management tells us, if a company has to generate tons of toxic waste and pollute the surroundings, such food is of dubious distinction. Livestock manufaturers, some of the large ones have had to pay large fines for polluting surrounding areas. I for one believe that non-Vegeterian food has become high-risk . It is also very horrible treatement of animals. This condition is not only of pigs, it is true about beef  (Mad cow disease: 1, 2, 3, 4), chicken (Bird flu: 1, 2, 3) and all forms of industrialized non-veg food [1, 2, 3]. Mass farming of animals combines several ills like anti-biotic overuse, bad treatment of animals, poor feed to livestock, and profit-maximizing mentality. These techniques become a breeding ground for genetic mutation of multi-drug resistant diseaes like MRSA [1, 2]. There is a risk of something similar happening in agriculture through the use of pesticides and chemicals in farms. But thankfully for the vegeterians, plants are much more sensitive than animals. Plants do not survive the use of more than milder doses of chemicals. Hence, it is not easy to alter plants and disease mutations in plants is yet unknown. However, Genetic engineering in agriculture is a big concern [1, 2, 3]. Greed and errors in livestock farming has already given us Avian and Swine flu. Will we spoil our agriculture as well?

April 19, 2009

Visit to Shekhars farm

Filed under: agriculture, personal — neosurya @ 20:36

The family went to visit Savandurga, and later to Shekhars’ farm. I had Sri Kruti touch one of Shekhar’s cow. Shekhar is a colleague from work who has gone down the agri route. His way is not the same as that of Srikanth and Priti, but it is close.

Buffalo??, Texas??, No - our very own Bangalore. Not that I am really hung up on good roads, but it helps to have them.

Buffalo??, Texas??, No - our very own NICE road in Bangalore. Not that I am really hung up on good roads, but it helps to have them.

Dad and daughter in their natural surroundings. Jyostna was taking the pictures :)...

Dad and daughter in their natural surroundings. Jyostna was taking the pictures :)...

Cows !!!

Cows !!!

April 16, 2009

Village games – workshop by Sudha and Dwiji

Filed under: agriculture, NGO, social change — neosurya @ 19:14

Last Sunday, we had a workshop by Dwiji and Sudha, two colleagues from AID who are doing excellent work in Sitapur, UP. The workshop placed the attendees in different groups with roles modeled around the lives of villagers. For example, we had:

  • Five village families, each with about 2-3 members.Two of the families were dalits. These families had various assets. E.g. 2 acres of irrigated land, 1 acre of un-irrigated land, one unmarried daughter, 0-1 old parent, Rs 10K of debt with monthly interest of 2K (!!!) etc.
  • A rich farmer, alo called बडा किसान (bada kisan). The kisan would employ villagers and pay them some amount of money.
  • A contractor, ठेकेदार (Thekedaar). The contractor would employ villagers to go to the city and work for a season.
  • A pradhaan प्रधान (village chief). The village chief executes various Govt. programs. This workshop limited him to the NREGA, which provides a minimum of Rs100 per day of work.
  • A social worker. The social worker conducts programs to develop the land quality. He can give the farmer some money to participate in land development, and the farmer in return has to pay him a portion of his produce.

The game is played out for three years, with each year divided into three seasons. Each of this role had a goal to achieve by the end of the game: The villagers had to stay alive, make sure that their daughters were all married etc. Staying alive or dying was determined based on meeting food requirement for the family for three consequtive seasons. The contractor had to make money, the social worker had to do a few projects etc…

Vagaries of weather and fate was determined by a draw of lots. A draw of lot could indicate that your farm got pest-infested and you lost your crop for the season. Such incidentals could even include death in family, sudden increase in debt. All was not bad in the lots and occasionally a village family could be graced with a bumper crop.

As we played the game, we realized how difficult it was to even “play” the role of a villager who very much a hopeful human, but subject to vagaries that were hopeless, and most inhuman. Even in a non-drought year, several families opeted to fast. Most of the players were educated and could still not figure out how to balance the debt payments, food consumption and plan for next season’s food intake. And, this was without complexities of having to buy seed, pestiside, managing health and a host of other factors that accompany village life.

March 20, 2009

I met “The One straw revolution”….

Filed under: agriculture, book, Masanobu Fukuoka, the one straw revolution — neosurya @ 03:01

Sometimes, you read a book and feel that you have met in the author, a part of yourself. In my case, “the one straw revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka is one such book. Some quotes:

==== page 74.

Modern research divides nature into tiny pieces and conducts research that conforms neither with natural law nor with practical experiments.

Even if you can explain how metabolism affects the productivity of the top leaf when the average temperature is eighty-four degrees (Fahrenheit), there are places where the temperature is not eighty-four degrees. Moreover, if the temperature is eighty-four degrees in Ehime this year, next year it may only be seventy-five degrees. To say that simply stepping up metabolism will increase starch formation and produce a large harvest is a mistake. The geography and topography of the land, the condition of the soil, its structure, texture, and drainage, exposure to sunlight, insect relationships, the variety of seed used, the method of cultivation-truly an infinite variety of factors-must all be considered. A scientific testing method that takes all relevant factors into account is an impossibility.
==== page 87.
If one farm household or one cooperative takes up a new process such as the waxing of Mandarin oranges, because of the extra care and attention the profit is higher. The other agricultural co-ops take notice and soon they, too, adopt the new process. Fruit which is not wax-treated no longer brings so high a price. In two or three years, waxing is taken up all over the country. The competition then brings the prices down and all that is left to the farmer is the burden of hard work and the added costs of supplies and equipment. Now he must apply the wax.
====

In this chapter, Fukuoka indicates how physical deformities are not indicative of the nutritional value, but are still preferred.

==== Page 97 first paragraph.
It is the same with fertilizer and chemicals. Instead of developing fertilizer with the farmer in mind, the emphasis is on developing something new, anything at all, in order to make money.
==== Page 97
The fundamental question here is whether or not it is necessary for human beings to eat eggplants and cucumber during the winter.
====  Page 115
I do not particularly like the word “work.” Human beings are the only animals who have to work, and I think this is the most ridiculous thing in the world. Other animals make their livings by living, but people work like crazy, thinking that they have to in order to stay alive.
==== Page 158
Why do you have to develop? If economic growth raises from 5% to 10%, is happiness going to double? What’s wrong with a growth rate og 0%? Isnt’ this a rather stable kind of economics? Could there be anything better than living simply and taking it easy?
====

This book does not subscribe to escapism, or suggest that one should be lazy. Fukuoka makes it very clear that the life of natural farming is very difficult, that every plant has to be studied, and significant manual labor is involved.

As for me, the current definitions of development, and the behavior of science and business are quite irresponsible, and out of balance. The book says the same in the area of agriculture.

For example, the quote from page 87 (above) describes a “Waxing” phenomena that we can see happening at several other industries. The parallel is easier to understand in the IT business where margins have become razor thin as more companies outsourced and competition increased. IT companies routinely slave their workers. The loss of quality of life was not apparent initially, but is now being seen all around.

I do not think that one should stop scientific research; I believe however that large scale experiments with untested scientific research is akin to shooting yourself in the foot.

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