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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

September 14, 2009

Coal stories…

“How can we get digital cable and Internet in our homes, but not clean water?”

This was a quote from the mother of a child who was severely effected by the polluted water from a coal slurry. The quote appeared in a NY Times article that can be accessed here. It is easy to miss the innocence of individuals who use technology. Most people are often unable to see that the very lifestyle they want demands the large-scale environmental plunder and pollution (Note, I said lifestyle they want not lifestyle they need). The 400-channel cable network that they so much enjoy, the internet, the 5-star safety rated sedan, and the 4 bedroom “modern” home, all have their parts to play in the pollution game.

Coal slurry is a by-product of mining; coal is apparently not very clean and has to be washed before it can be used. The slurry that comes out of washing is composed of several chemicals, some that are used in the washing process and some that come out from the coal ore. A list of these chemicals can be found here. Many of these chemicals are quite dangerous. Slurry is a regular by-product of several mines; even Uranium mining results in slurry. Imagine the water coming out of your washing machine; it obviously is not palatable. Now consider that you are washing coal, and the water would be much worse. Now, imagine washing radioactive Uranium and similar minerals that power the nuclear energy, and the nuclear defense world. The waste generated while cleaning minerals is hazardous to say the least.

Several mining firms do try to implement controls to contain and re-process these wastes. And we cannot really take chemicals out of our life; the paint on your wall is a chemical, the air that you breathe is a chemical. The problem starts when these mines are used beyond their design limits, and larger than acceptable concentrations of dangerous chemicals are created at a single location.

A reason why most people do not appreciate mining as problematic could be because a majority of their lives are far from mines and the consequent ill-effects. Invariably, they see the benefits of using coal (steam engines, thermal power plants), Uranium (Power plants, nuclear bombs) but do see the true cost of these comforts. Worse still, some users would not even want to see the true price others have to pay, and also do not want to use these resources in moderation.

More such articles on coal, and its complications:

The above spill happened on 10-11-2000; Quotes from the above:

Local people remember the boom years fondly. Anyone who wanted could get a job, and unemployment went from 25 percent to 3 or 4 percent, they say. “First a guy would get a job at the mine, and after that he’d get himself a trailer, a four-wheel drive, and a color TV. After that he’d get either a boat or a wife,” a county resident recalled. Intense gratitude toward the coal companies may be found in the county to this day.


On the scale of spills, it was about thirty times the size of the 10 million gallons from the wreck of the Exxon Valdez. Aside from good local reporting, especially by Ken Ward Jr. in the Charleston (W. V.) Gazette, coverage of the spill had been sparse. Trying to make sense of it from a distance, I wondered mainly about the place: What could it possibly look like after suffering a wastewater-and-coal-slurry spill of 300 million gallons?

At a hearing in March 2001, a resident told Art Smith, the EPA official in charge of monitoring the cleanup, that backhoe operators were merely turning over the earth and burying the sludge underneath.

Greg Preece said that many of those affected by the spill were burned out on talking about it.

(Excerpt from an interesting interview from the above article)

N.: “An independent test had said that there were six heavy metals, including cadmium and arsenic, in the drinking water, and finally the EPA said, ‘We’ll check into it.’ And we still don’t know if our water’s safe or not.”

M.: “An EPA lawyer at that meeting told everybody, ‘Listen, people, coal mining is a dirty business, and you-all better get used to it.'”

N.: “People around here hear you criticizing the coal companies, and they start moaning, ‘But what’ll we do if the mines shut down? What’ll happen to those jobs?’ I sympathize to a certain extent, but I also tell them, ‘Lots of places in America don’t have coal, and don’t have coal companies, and they manage to support themselves OK.'”

M.: “‘Jobs’ is a sacred word. It’s a word like ‘shareholders.’ To some people, I’m the turd in the punchbowl because they think I don’t believe in jobs.”

N.: “And how good a job is it, anyway, if you have to risk the lives of the same people you employ?”

M.: “If people are all scared about jobs, that gives the coal company more power and makes it seem more important than it is already. That’s what happened with this cleanup — the coal company announced what it planned to do, and the government and everybody basically just rolled over and said, ‘OK.'”

His grandfather raised twenty-four children on the farm’s 8-plus acres. His father raised two, and Glenn raised six. The farm’s creek-valley topsoil produced fruits and vegetables that won prizes at the county fair. The soil had hardly a rock in it; but after the spill and the cleanup, the replacement dirt supplied by the coal company was all rocks and clay left over from strip mining, compressed to an impervious hardness by cleanup vehicles.

A video on coal mining in West Virginia Appalachians:

An article on Uranium mining:

March 25, 2009

Research on global warming.

Filed under: global warming, NGO, science — neosurya @ 22:33

Saw the following article in the Times of India, page 18, 25th March 2009….

Ocean test to fight global warming fails
Amit Bhattacharya | TNN

New Delhi: LOHAFEX, the Indo-German Antarctic scientific expedition that had triggered a storm of protests when it set sail in January to test a controversial method of fighting global warming by getting a huge amount of CO ² to sink deep into the ocean, has returned with disappointing results.
The team found that the amount of CO ² —a greenhouse gas chiefly responsible for global warming—eliminated from the atmosphere as a result of the experiment turned out to be far less then expected. This has led the scientists, 29 of them from India, to infer that the Southern Ocean near Antarctica may not be as good a site for ‘ocean iron fertilization’ as previously thought.
Iron fertilization is a method of seeding the ocean with iron to prompt the blooming of phytoplankton, a class of tiny plant algae which take up CO ² from the air and quickly die off, sinking deep into the ocean with the carbon. If conducted on a large scale, it was touted as a way of sucking millions of tonnes of CO ² , thus reducing the level of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. The LOHAFEX team, however, found that though the algae mass doubled in size after four tonnes of dissolved iron was dropped in a 300 sq km patch of ocean, most of it was quickly eaten away by a crustacean zooplankton species. ‘‘This grazing resulted in most of the CO ² trapped by algae to be recycled into air,’’ said S W A Naqwi from National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, the co-chief scientist of the project.

Funny feeling I get – A few days ago, I had written about the one straw revolution, and how science and business collude in an unholy matrimony, resisting from seeing all parameters before implementation of an idea. This article is another (though milder) embodiment of that observation.

March 12, 2009

Bangalore getting hotter.

Filed under: global warming, social change — neosurya @ 15:00

The Hindu had a post about how Bangalore temperatures are soaring. It doesnt need a rocket scientist to say that temperatures will be higher if we cut down trees.

We will need scientists, or maybe magicians to figure out a solution after enuff of those trees are cut.

October 16, 2008

“No Fridge”

So, I have been living without a refrigerator for the past few weeks. And I buy vegetables once a week and cook at home every day. A few friends asked me how I manage to keep things fresh. The following pictures show how it went; I had taken the first picture on Monday when these vegetables were purchased. The second image is from Thursday; one of the carrots has gone bad, but most of them are all right. The third and fourth images have been taken on Sunday. How to do it is shown in images 5 and 6.

Day 1: Monday

Day 4: Thursday

Day 7: Sunday.

Solution: A wet cloth.

For the skeptics among us, please recall the local bhaji-waala… Do you remember any refrigerators lurking away in a corner of their shops? Oh yes, one very intelligent friend pointed out that they have these cooling units at their homes where they store the veggies. Very innovative; I presume the units are capable of storing some 20-30 kilos of vegetables, and the thela-waala runs a very profitable business by paying for electricity in their shanties. Dudes, ever notice the gunny bags and the big wicker baskets? Wonder why the bags are perennially wet, dark and not dry. Put one at home with a tomato or two in it and you would know why.

Several vegetables and fruits are naturally capable of staying fresh for at least a week on their own. They only need to be draped over with a wet cloth for the time period. I am not suggesting that one should replace their refrigerators. I am not a fanatic Greenpeace activist. However, I would prefer to use technology when nature may not work; like making ice for your Patiala peg :). I also believe in eating fresh vegetables, and absolutely hate the “fridge stink” that tends to stick onto veggies.

BTW, a wet cloth does not work for everything. For example cracked coconut, or ginger. I am sure there are ways to keep them fresh for a few days without the use of a refrigerator. When I find the method, I will post it promptly. In the meantime, I have found a possible solution for keeping milk fresh. Figure below:

Keeping milk fresh: The most popular approach at Shekhar’s farm.

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