The Soil is Our Liberator


Excerpted from her lecture
to the Soil Association conference,
One Planet Agriculture, England

There is increasingly reference to the Carbon Economy and I kind of shudder when carbon is addressed because carbon is what we eat also. I’d rather talk and differentiate between the fossil fuel existence of carbon and the renewable existence of carbon in embodied sunshine transformed into all the edible matter we have.

I differentiate between the fossil fuel economy of agriculture and the biodiversity economy of agriculture. One is a killing economy and one is a living economy. Interestingly the word ‘carbon’ is increasingly used as an equivalence term across the board and then everyone is being made afraid of every form of carbon, including living carbon.

If we add up the amount of fossil fuels that are going into food; take production, Pimentel has done all the calculations. We are using 10 times more calories in production of food than we get out as food. And there was a Danish study done some years ago. I remember I was at the conference where the environment minister laid out these figures. For a kilogram of food traveling around the world, it’s omitting 10 kilograms of carbon dioxide. So you are wasting a 10-fold amount in the production and then generating a 10-fold amount of carbon dioxide, all of it totally avoidable because better food is produced when you throw the chemicals out…

The part of GATT that really troubled me was something called TRIPS within it – the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement – basically an agreement forcing every country to patent life. To me it was a scandal so I went back and started to save seeds and have ended up doing a lot of the work as a result of just, in a way, keeping seed free and in farmers’ hands and not transformed into the property of giant corporations like Monsanto. But even I could not have imagined what we would go through in the decade to come.

One of the things that has taken us totally by surprise is a new epidemic of farmers’ suicides. Indian peasants have been so resilient. I’ve been in villages after disasters of floods and droughts and hurricanes, you have one season of a loss of agriculture, one season of having to struggle, and you are right back again. You rebuild your hut and you’re back on the field and you borrowed some seeds from somewhere and you’re farming again.

But the new industrialised globalised agriculture is doing something different, because it’s not like a natural disaster which you know will not be there in a permanent way. The first step in the globalised agriculture is dependency on what I call non-renewable seed. We’ve even made seed the very embodiment of life and its renewability behave like non-renewable fossil fuel – once and no more. When non-renewable seeds have to be bought each year, that’s a higher cost. Then they are sold as a monopoly with intellectual property royalties linked to it. The genetically engineered BT cotton, for example, costs about 2-300 rupees for a kilogram to produce. But when Monsanto sells it for 4,000 rupees a kilogram the rest is all royalty payment.

The seeds aren’t tested, they aren’t adapted, the same seeds are sold across different climate zones, they obviously don’t perform well. Instead of 1,500 kilograms per acre, farmers get 200, 300, sometimes total failure; add to this the fact that even if they have 300 kilograms of a bad cotton variety because its fiber is of a very inferior quality. And new studies that we have done are showing that there are huge allergies linked to it because what is BT cotton but toxic? 1,800 sheep died last year feeding on the plants. Anyone working in a mill where this Bt cotton is being used is getting allergies. Farmers who are collecting the cotton ball are getting allergies.

Linked to the fact that this is inferior cotton is the fact that in the United States there are $4 billion of subsidies linked to cotton, and now with these so-called ‘open markets’ the price has started to come down. In India, they’ve dropped to half. So your costs of production have gone up two, three, four times, sometimes 10 times, sometimes 100 times depending on what you were farming, and meantime what you are earning at the end of it has fallen to a third.

It’s a negative economy. Farmers get into debt, it’s unpayable debt. The people giving them the credit are the same as the salesmen and the agents at the local level. I don’t know how many of you read the Economist – it has a special article on the farmers’ suicides in India. We have been doing reports since the first farm suicide happened in ‘97. The first report was a 10 pager because only one farmer has killed himself, now there’s 150,000 farmers.

So the fossil fuel economy, the globalised economy, is not just ruining our atmosphere. Before it ruins the atmosphere, it’s killing millions. For us, the alternative is necessary just so farmers can have a safe, secure livelihood. In addition to that we have just had new surveys again from the government, the health standards of the Indian people are falling as the economy gets globalised and food is no more food, agriculture is about exports…

The planet’s food. There are two kinds of one world agriculture – there’s a One Planet Agriculture that respects the laws of the planet and maintains the processes of the planet, and there’s another One Planet Agriculture that reduces the planet to a supermarket. And then of course it seeks the cheapest from the furthest away which means longer food miles which also means more industrialisation and more mechanisation.

For those of you who feel troubled that the new certification consideration that food that has been flown in will not be certified by Soil Association, and you are feeling troubled about the farmer in Kenya, or the farmer in India, let me tell you, by the time huge volumes of exports happen in lettuce or beans or baby corn, the farmer is the first to go.

Their land is taken away and put in the hands of agribusiness. And agribusiness through corporate farming does the exports. It’s not peasants. The peasant was finished at the beginning of the process. So in fact by your refusing to add to food miles and add to carbon emissions you are in fact giving protection. You’re not just protecting the atmosphere, you’re protecting a peasant economy.

The imperative here for you is of course to grow more food better, to grow it locally, organically and by doing that you avoid two kinds of harm to the food sovereignty and food independence of the South. The first is you contribute to the security of livelihoods by not adding to dumping. Of course organic farmers are not involved in dumping on the South – it’s too costly. Dumping means selling below the cost of production, technically, and since organic farmers aren’t subsidised they can’t afford to go around putting cotton on someone else’s market and putting corn on someone else’s market.

In any case this idea that there are surpluses to dump is a big illusion of the globalised agriculture because that surplus is created only by specialising in one or two crops so all you have is dairy and then obviously you will have oceans of milk and mountains of butter. Tracy was here this morning and I remember a piece she had done at some point in The Ecologist about how what we are seeing is not really surpluses but a swap.

So there’s huge amounts of milk in England and there’s huge amounts of milk in New Zealand and huge amounts of milk in The Netherlands and everyone’s buying and everyone’s selling and everyone’s selling is subsidised for exports so that the imports everywhere end up being cheaper than local production.

So by defending a local economy you actually protect the livelihoods of Southern farmers by avoiding dumping. Dumping takes away markets, dumping takes away options to sell your produce and when you can’t sell you produce you don’t have a livelihood. Let me give you two examples of again how serious this can be. In ‘98 the United States soya lobby managed to manipulate India’s market and remove all import restrictions on soya and edible oil imports. This was subsidised and the price of soya that year was $150 a tonne, the subsidy behind it was $191 a tonne. Now, with that kind of subsidy you could undercut even the low cost production within India and within a season all our local edible oil production was wiped out.

… By growing food locally you also prevent a second kind of exploitation and when that lettuce is growing in the land of the Masai and it’s diverting the water of the Masai’s you are actually displacing the Masai and exporting drought. You are actually contributing to displacement of local producers, pastoralists, as well as farmers.

So the energy descent here has to be an energy descent out of oil into a biodiversity economy. For us, actually the challenge is absolutely the same, except that we don’t begin with the fossil fuel economy. We have to produce more food and the idea that more food can be produced through oil and chemicals is chemically wrong, physically wrong, ecologically wrong. Food is not nitrogen phosphate or potassium. No plant is primarily NPK and yet that’s what we keep throwing into the soil.

Years ago, in 1984, I did my first major study on agriculture, not because I’m an agriculturist, I’m not, but I was very troubled about the fact that extremism had emerged in Punjab, terrorism had emerged in Punjab, and nobody could understand. Where was it coming from? So I went and did a study, and I found out the anger of the farmers – it’s a peasant state, it’s a farmers’ state, Punjab. It means the land of the five rivers.

It’s the most prosperous state of India, the most prosperous well-to-do farmers, most hard-working farmers, and yet the introduction of chemicals and mechanisation had meant that initially, they had subsidies and it looked like a free ride. Slowly, the subsidies got withdrawn, the World Bank paid for a decade but now they needed four bags of urea rather than one per acre. Their water levels had gone down and they needed more energy to pump out water, because the green revolution takes 10 times more water to produce the same amount of food compared to organic farming.

All of it added up to a higher cost farming, with not equivalent returns, and in that period, the farmers took to guns. They became terrorists, they directed their anger outwards. Now, in the last decade that same anger has been turned inwards, into the suicide epidemic, one difference being that at that time they could look at state agencies, the distributors of fertilisers, the dam managers, those were the people who were getting killed and assassinated in that period.

The key managers of the state pushing chemical agriculture on them. Today it’s anonymous, they don’t know where the real forces are, they’re not identified, it’s totally invisible. And Monsanto arrives in their farm, without the Monsanto name, it’s a local company’s name, the dealer they’re dealing with has been around forever giving them good supplies and suddenly it’s unreliable Bt cotton seed.

So it’s anonymous, it’s invisible, you can’t figure it out, and all you know is you were told you’d be a millionaire. Where did it start, this becoming a millionaire game? It started as a TV show. But now they’ve taken it to farmers’ lives, and they literally are making farmers believe that it’s possible to be a millionaire – by doing everything wrong – using more chemicals, using GM seeds. We’ve been working now for more than 20 years to build alternatives, and we are finding that every argument that chemicals produce more food and agrichemicals are necessary and fossil fuels are necessary and mechanisation is necessary, large-scale farms are necessary – every aspect of the industrial agriculture myth is totally false.

First and foremost, chemicals, especially in tropical climates, even more than in temperate climates – they are disastrous for the soil. They’ve led to the creation of a water crisis both by using more water and then polluting what remains. You might have heard of the big controversy where the Coke and Pepsi was found laced with pesticide residue.

In terms of more food, definitely not. All that the green revolution did was produce more rice and wheat by converting more land to rice and wheat and irrigating it better. Land and water can account for that increase in production, you don’t have to have the chemicals and definitely not the new seeds. I mentioned I’ve been saving seeds for the last two decades and an old variety of wheat that I’d given to a farmer…has just produced organically 6.3 tonnes on a hectare. Native seeds, organically farmed.

But very often, we think intensification of agriculture is intensification of fossil fuel and chemicals, but what we can have is intensification of biodiversity, and I have brought a few copies of our latest report, which is the ‘New paradigm for food security, biodiversity-based organic farming’. Organic farming when it’s merely based on external inputs and you have to keep buying them and it’s a monoculture will not build up the resilience that we need to deal with the climate change that’s coming. You need the biodiversity. You need the biodiversity for many, many reasons.

The first is, biodiverse farms have more biological output. They might not have more commodity output, a single commodity, they might not have more maize, but they will have more biological output and what do you need for better absorption of carbon dioxide but more biomass on your land. So it’s a mitigation system.

We are also doing very long-term experiments right now on biodiverse organic farms versus industrial monocultures and finding that there is, within one season, up to 20% higher levels of carbon build-up in the soil. That’s in the soil, that’s not even in the above ground biomass. So it’s better at mitigation, but it’s also better at adaption, and it’s better at adaption because biodiversity allows you to deal with the flood, or the drought, or the late rain or the early rain or the high temperature or the low temperature. Something in that diversified production system will be able to give you a yield.

Whereas, when it’s one monoculture, one variety, one breed of animals, something going off. And you know, one thing about climate change is we better be prepared for things will keep changing, you’re not going to have a predictable climate at all any more. But one aspect of biodiverse farms that’s often ignored is that they are actually sources of energy, not consumers of energy, but producers of energy…

There isn’t enough land to produce the biofuels industrially to maintain the levels of energy addiction that we have reached. Whereas at a decentralised level, farms can be a major source of energy and in the third world they are. Where else do women get their fuel from? There are two sources: one are the by-products of crops, particularly crops like leguminous crops, the pigeon pea, the toor dahl, the plant grows that high.

You get the beans, you get the dahl, at the end of it you’ve got food being cooked on the spares. You go to eastern India, Bangladesh, the jute, after they’ve got the fibre off, the jute is a wonderful fuel. Rice and wheat – you can’t burn the straw but you feed it to the cattle and one of my most favourite technological innovations of the world is cow dung cakes.

Now the fact that in India, in the most densely-populated part of the Ganges basin, cow dung cakes have sustained the energy economies – isn’t for nothing – it can just be renewed and renewed and renewed. And the assumption that they’re diverting organic matter from the soil is not true, except in Punjab where chemical addiction was introduced, but everywhere else the women make the most sophisticated calculation about how much should go to the soil and how much should go to their hut to cook their meals. So we need to be fully alive and fully aware that the options available outside oil are limitless. Oil was limiting and limited, but how else we get energy, and we don’t have to imagine that we are looking for energy today, we lived on this planet with energy. We invented fire, we learned how to cook, all of that was energy.

Human energy itself, which is the heart of the transition, because what was the industrial revolution but replacing human energy with fossil fuels. That’s all it was. Now if we’ve to get out of oil, we’ve got to get back human energy into the equation. And if we’ve to get human energy back into the equation, there definitely are two things that we need to do.

The first is we have to stop thinking of work, physical work, as degrading. And the minute we do that, something changes. It means you here in the North can set the example to say ‘it’s fine to work on the land’, that a peasant working on the land is not an extinct species who should disappear tomorrow.

I mentioned the Economist article and at the end of it, it’s interesting that the Economist has finally reported on Indian farmers’ suicide and it’s called the great unravelling. And 80% of it is about how the subsidies of the North are pushing down prices, how the Bt cotton seeds are failing the farmer, but at the end of it, he doesn’t say the global trading system needs to change, the global food economy needs to change, the global agriculture economy needs to change. The last sentence is ‘The solution is the farmer must escape from the soil’.

Soil isn’t our prison; the soil is our liberator. The soil is our meaning, and disembedding from the oil economy in the post-peak oil world means re-embedding in the soil and in all of its life. All of its life including the ability of the soil to renew itself, the ability of the soil to provide for the needs we have, the ability of the soil to give us another meaning. Which brings me to the second example that has to be set from the North. When I was thinking and hearing about transition towns, I was just thinking wouldn’t it be wonderful if all these gyms that have come up for people not working were shut down and everyone was told ‘your workout is going to be on the farm’.

Because surely something has gone wrong where on the one hand we say every technological invention is ‘don’t work, don’t work, don’t work, just sit’ and then health is ‘workout, workout, workout’. We have to overcome this schizophrenia. And I don’t know how many of you read the Competitive Enterprise Institute put out ads, now that Mr Bush is also making noises, they put out these ads saying ‘carbon dioxide is the most beautiful product’. And it’s true, we exhale it and plants inhale it, so to accept that we haven’t exhaled it biologically when we burn fossil fuels, that’s a whole different relationship, and within that advertisement they have the line ‘and we can’t get rid of fossil fuels because they are the reason we got out of drudgery’. Now to the extent we will keep talking of work as drudgery we will annihilate the small farmer and talk about it as their liberation. When Monsanto markets Round Up in India, it has these billboards and it has a woman imprisoned with green leaves and says ‘Liberate yourself, use Round Up’.

That work and weeding, which accounts for 50% of rural work for women in India, and when they were working on a one acre farm or half-acre farm, weeding is not like working on a 1,000 square kilometre farm in the United States. You might need Round Up there but our farms are like gardens, and on these gardens we can actually produce more food. There was another question that kept coming up this morning, about the big city, but I’ll take the issue to the large scale farm. When I go to schools the kids will always say, ‘But don’t we need large scale farms to produce more?’ and I always say, ‘What is a large scale farm? More land in the hand of one person’.

The land is the same. It could be a thousand hectare farm in one ownership or a thousand hectares with a thousand farmers. The thousand in the one ownership does not make it more productive, it just makes it more consolidated. The concentration of ownership does not translate into higher productivity. In fact the opposite is true. All the data from around the world, and this report of ours is very detailed, is showing the smaller the farm, you can produce more because you can give it more care. And biology, after all, is a living system.

So where do we meet? We meet, literally I would say, at the door of the factory farm. You’re locked into the factory farm with all the mad cow diseases and everything else that goes wrong with it and all the dependence on oil, and you need to get out. We are being told ‘you have to get in’. The free range is slavery. Free range is backwardness and under-development, and we are in the climate change discussion in this terrible, terrible dilemma.

On the one hand, the North needs to de-addict. On the other hand, the South is being pushed into addiction by the same powers that created the fossil fuel addiction in the North. In the meantime, on the ground people are being squeezed out. Farmers are being squeezed out and they are saying, ‘We don’t want to give up farming, we don’t want to give up our land, farming for us is a dignified job’. We just had a wonderful debate in Calcutta where the chief minister announced that you know these rickshaws? The non-fossil fuelled mobility? That they were degrading. And the rickshaw wallahs said, ‘But we don’t find it degrading, we find it extremely dignified to earn an honest living through hard work’.

So this idea that work is degrading is coming in the way, to the extent that it’s the tribal, the peasant, the fisherman saying, ‘I want my catamaran, I want my one acre piece of land, don’t throw me out’. They are a lone voice, and they’re a marginal voice, but if that same voice is joined from you, from here, to say, ‘The future of the world in farming is to produce more food in diversity, locally, and that can’t be done without substituting fossil fuels for renewable energy, including human energy’. Then for the first time in the last 500 years since colonialism split us into the North and South, the colonised and the coloniser, for the first time we actually have the opportunity to be one family practising a One Planet Agriculture.

What you need to do in the North is the same thing we need to do in the South, the only difference is we begin in different places, but where we have to end has to be the same end of living within the limits of this planet, producing abundance through the generous gifts the earth gives us in terms of her soil and her water and her biodiversity, and recognising that working for a living, working with the land, working with the soil, could actually be the most evolved status of being human, not something that should disappear in history and will be put into a dustbin, and that that’s our common future, everywhere.
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