‘India’s food science respects biodiversity, the value of all life — and conscious eating’
Vandana Shiva is a distinguished environmentalist and scholar. Sharing her insights with Times Evoke , the eminent ecologist discusses India’s advanced agrarian and food cultures, why small farms and biodiverse cropping matter — and the importance of developing ‘conscious eating’: I trained in quantum theory but I turned to researching food and farming systems as a result of 1984’s events in Punjab. During my research, I realised that neither farming, nor food can be a mere ‘commodity’. Food is in fact the very basis of life which connects the soil and the Earth’s plants to our overall well-being. The food web is the web of life — how we grow, transport and process our food is the single biggest determinant of the health of our planet and our own individual health.
Recommended By Colombia Today, one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions come from an industrialised food system. Over three-fourths of the destruction of the Earth’s soil and water is also due to this system. Further, one million diverse species on Earth face an extinction crisis because of this unsustainable farming system. As my research has shown, such industrial food chains, spread over vast distances, are ecologically destructive. But through local, biodiverse and organic farming systems, we can reverse these impacts — conscious eating can heal both our planet and our own health.
Flavour of the Season: India’s culinary science emphasises local, seasonal foods. Therefore, as blossoming mustard fields characterise the Indian winter across the north, so do nourishing dishes prepared from this crop India has a rich historical tradition of such conscious eating, which recognises that food goes far beyond being just a meal. It forms the basis of our individual, social and ecological wellbeing. Therefore, what we eat and grow must respect the diversity around us. Indeed, India’s agriculture and food culture were marked by rich diversity, supported by our incredible range of climates and huge variety of plants. The science of ayurveda itself said we must consume six tastes in each meal. So, diversity was intricately woven into our culinary culture and agricultural techniques.
Our ancient sciences, like agro ecology which recognises the importance of entire ecosystems in farming, were based on valuing biodiversity. In fact, the botanist Albert Howard, who was sent to India by the British in 1905, realised he could not improve our agriculture but instead, he had to make Indian peasants his gurus. He wrote ‘An Agricultural Testament’ on the basis of what he learnt from Indian peasants. His work is often termed the ‘Bible of modern organic farming’.
A perfect blend : Indian farming science and food culture together produced a variety of seasonal sweets This culture of diversity in our farming and food was first impacted when the West imposed what I term the ‘so-called Green Revolution’ upon us in the 1960s, thrusting a huge amount of chemicals onto our fields. Our richly diverse agricultural systems were reduced to monocultures of rice and wheat — vegetables, millets, oilseeds and pulses disappeared. The next assault on our diets was heralded by certain ‘reforms’, which forced junk food monocultures on us. These give us no nutritional value — instead, embodying the damaging industrial diet of the West, these bring the epidemics of fast food-led lifestyle diseases, like obesity, heart ailments and diabetes.
Industrial food systems consistently extract — an enormous amount of fossil fuels, water and land are needed for such monocultures. As these resources are exhausted, scarcities of food and hunger will rise around the world. We can still change this worrying scenario though. As my research over the past four decades shows, biodiverse systems produce far more nutrition for more people using less resources — therefore, we need biodiversity intensification, not chemical intensification and more monocultures.
Significantly, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recognises that over 70% of the food we eat is produced by small farmers who use just 25% of the world’s land. Our research in Navdanya similarly shows that we can feed two times the population of India, with adequate nutrition, if we shift from chemical monocultures to biodiverse organic systems. Worldwide, small, ecologically biodiverse farms are the answer for growing enough food to nourish an expanding global population. The time to support such farms is opportune — the Covid-19 pandemic and multiple lockdowns highlighted how vulnerable long-distance supply chains used by industrial agriculture are. Local, biodiverse agricultural systems provide health and immunity to such shocks.
There is also the core issue of the mindset which underlies industrial food systems. The real crisis of industrial food is the factory farming of meat, which diverts most grain on Earth to feed animals locked into prisons. I find this entire way of approaching food deeply troubling — industrial agriculture is based on a worldview that plants, animals and even human beings are simply ‘raw material’ for a profit driven money machine. They exist to be used and consumed. But plants, animals and people are all sentient beings. They exist on Earth bearing their own rights, their own logic and their own special place. We must recognise and respect that fact. We need to halt ourselves from becoming an unthinking part of the industrial food machine. We need to go beyond such a mechanistic and arrogant mindset to learn what our ancestors in India knew — we are all equal but diverse members of one clan, the Earth family. This worldview is embodied in the profound words, ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, which respects the rights and integrity of all beings on Earth. These are not ‘objects’ for our exploitation. These are our family and friends. The Indian agricultural system respected this truth. To truly nourish our lives now, we need to return to our agrarian roots.
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