I am attending a two-week course on “Biodiversity, Biotechnology, and Biopiracy” at Bija Vidyapeeth: International College for Sustainable Living near Dehradun, founded by world-renowned environmentalist Vandana Shiva. Having volunteered for environmental organizations in the U.S., I am eager to explore ecological issues in the Indian milieu.
An overnight train from New Delhi to Dehradun, and from there a 12-mile jeep ride brought me to this rural campus of Bija Vidyapeeth. There was a chemical farm on this site, explains Maya Jani, director of the college, which was converted into an eight-acre organic farm by Navdanya (Nine Seeds), a movement for seed conservation, sustainable agriculture, and farmers’ rights, led by Vandana Shiva.
Anybody who has heard Shiva speak can vouch for the tremendous inspiration she instills in her audiences. In the intimate, interactive format of this course, her passion is all the more contagious as she cites numerous examples, threats to farmers’ rights, and the hazards inflicted by the industrial economy. She explains how mono-cropped industrial farming often leads to loss of self-sufficiency within villages that previously met all their food needs locally. Dependent on commercial agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides, the farmers often run up huge debts.
The wide expanse of farmland surrounded by mountains provide a perfect backdrop as we delve into the complex issues of biodiversity erosion, hazards of chemical farming, biopiracy, biotechnology, and sustainable alternatives. The campus buildings were constructed mostly by utilizing local labor and architecture. The walls are coated on the inside with cow-dung that helps to keep the rooms warmer in winter and cooler in summers. The comfortable on-campus accommodations include dormitories and double- or triple-occupancy rooms. I share mine with Vijay, a young agricultural scientist from Hyderabad. We don’t have the benefit of indoor heating, and it’s the first time I’m using a razai, a North Indian style cotton comforter. They are quite warm even when the mercury dips below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
On the campus we live, eat, learn, and share together, and a spirit of cooperation and friendship soon develops. The small class size of 12 includes a diverse mix of age, backgrounds, and geography. Veronica, a lawyer from New Zealand is exploring the possibility of starting her own organic farm back home. Vijay, Guruva, and Chandra are agricultural scientists from Hyderabad looking to further their grasp of seed biotechnology. Jenna is a fresh graduate from Washington State, currently studying Gandhi in India, and Kumawatji and Moti Singhji are middle-aged environmental educators from Rajasthan. A software engineer by training, I am one of the few here lacking formal training in agriculture or ecology.
Influenced by Gandhian principles, the institute encourages everyone to participate in the campus upkeep by cleaning their own dishes, and participating in a daily morning hour of shram daan (gift of labor) cleaning the rooms and surroundings, or working in the farm or kitchen.
At 10 a.m. we assemble to discuss the topic for the day—biopiracy. On the strength of public interest litigation, the Supreme Court of India directed the Indian government to contest basmati rice patents in U.S. courts, explains Afsar Jafri of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. That lawsuit eventually forced RiceTec, the U.S.-based patent holder, to withdraw most of its patent claims on novel basmati rice lines. It is alarming to note that the piracy also extends to other forms of indigenous knowledge. For example, a patent on the method of producing atta (flour) was recently granted to Nebraska-based ConAgra Inc. All this underscores an urgent need to make sure that knowledge that exists in the commons continues to be available to everyday people for everyday use.
Another day, we debate the increasing use of fertilizers, pesticides, and monocultures like majority wheat and rice cultivation; versus the traditional multi-cropping systems with a variety of grains, pulses, vegetables, and medicinal plants in the same farm. The former encourages mono-cropping, and hybrid or genetically modified seeds that usually require application of large amounts of fertilizer and irrigation inputs. Traditional organic farming on the other hand advocates a more sustainable approach that nurtures the soil’s long-term fertility through use of composted manure, crop rotation, and integrated pest-management. Several indigenous pest-management methods exist, like using neem-based pesticide or cow-urine, or planting marigold flowers between rows of crops, which attract pests away from the food crops.
“Science was born out of curiosity, but technology, especially indigenous technology, was born out of love (to benefit humankind) and hence should benefit many if not all,” begins Bharatendu Prakash who holds a doctorate in chemistry, and is one of our instructors. “It’s when this love turned into greed, that it created problems such as biopiracy.”
Throughout the course, I learn simple alternative ways of looking at problems. Pests, for example, are an indication that the bio-diversity in the farm was disturbed. Fertilizers and pesticides also kill beneficial insects that otherwise help to control pests, or they may make bees unwelcome which in turn disrupts the pollination cycle. A healthy farm, on the other hand, has a large variety of plants and organisms that interact symbiotically with each other.
“Weeds in a farm are an indication that the soil is not healthy,” Prakash points out. “Instead of blindly applying weed-killers, you need to solve the soil fertility issue—high iron content, or micronutrient deficiency, etc. Soil grows weeds to help itself, so if you pluck weeds, try to mulch them back into the soil.” After the course ends, I later have the good fortune of visiting his village Tinwari, in Banda district in Uttar Pradesh state to study his work and help document the biodiversity of the region.
After the morning sessions, we are treated to a vegetarian lunch that features simple, nutritious, and delicious local recipes. The mustard greens for the sarson ka saag and corn for the makki roti, like much of the other ingredients, are grown on the farm itself. Everyday dishes like moong dal and wheat rotis also taste so much better, thanks to the skilled local chefs, organic produce, and everything being prepared fresh. Each day we sample different varieties of local rice, each of them a compelling argument for the value of biodiversity.
Besides crop diversity loss, biodiversity erosion also results in extinction of other plants and animal species. For example, a lot of medicinal plants that grow only in the lower Himalayas are being unsustainably harvested for commercial sale. Often, only the root is useful but since their flowers help to identify the plants, the harvesting is done before the pollination cycle is completed, leading to a higher extinction stress. According to S.K. Mukherjee, former director of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, and an instructor for this course, increased population needs and consumerism, loss of wild habitat (usually for agriculture), and invasive species are contributing to a wildlife biodiversity crisis.
At the Navdanya farm, we see first-hand the seed conservation efforts and various organic farming techniques like composting. Hundreds of seed varieties of rice, wheat, pulses, and oilseeds are preserved in storage bins and propagated by in-situ cultivation at the farm. Navdanya also has a small network of regional coordinators who share these resources with nearby farmers by collecting indigenous seed (for preservation and propagation), making it available to others for cultivation, and teaching organic farming techniques.
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Evenings are the most fun at the farm. I often join fellow participants in going for long walks in an adjoining forest. Wepass villagers carrying on their heads bundles of firewood, and tree branches for livestock feed—a reminder to me of how most people in India still need forests and nature for sustenance; hence nature needs to be preserved not just for posterity but also for satisfying people’s needs today. One evening, Tonya, a herbalist from Massachusetts, gives us a walking tour of plants around the campus that also have medicinal value in the West.
The second part of the course includes a four-day field trip. Despite the bad weather, we are able to visit several villages near Purola in the lower Himalayas, where Navdanya is starting work, and also some of us get to experience our first snowfall! The villages are at a higher altitude, and not always accessible by road; we have to hike about a mile sometimes.
The course ends in New Delhi where we visit the Navdanya store at the “Delhi Haat” bazaar, which sells organic grain, pulses, millet, spices, and other eco-friendly products like natural colors for the Holi festival. At the Navdanya Café, also in New Delhi, I dig into some wonderful organic fare such as millet soup and amaranth cutlets.
Stepping back into the crosscurrents of modern civilization after the course, I am forced to confront first-hand the conflict between comforts of modern technology, and the destruction of the environment that’s caused by unbridled consumerism. It’s disheartening to note that the general opinion in my ancestral village Satve, in Maharashtra, is largely not in favor of organic farming due to allegedly low yields. Organic methods are less attractive compared to the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides because they require regular effort and vigilance to capture biomass for composting, control weeds, or spot a pest problem in time. I also notice the unwillingness of consumers to pay a premium for organic food or native varieties. They don’t know or don’t care that the new high-yielding hybrid varieties are specifically bred to respond to high doses of fertilizers, unlike local varieties which are often more nutritious and more suitable to local soil and water conditions.
The recent controversy over pesticide residues found in Coke and Pepsi and other bottled drinks in India is a potent reminder of how unchecked excesses of chemical farming have poisoned everyday essentials like water. But as I reflect back on the course, I am reassured by the global discourse on sustainable living and the invaluable indigenous knowledge that Indian ecologists are contributing to it.
Girish Kotmire, a software engineer in the Bay Area, recently returned from a six-month visit to India. For information about upcoming courses at Bija Vidyapeeth, visit www.bijavidyapeeth.org.