Monday, 12 October 2015

This Tiny Country Is Going 100% Organic

A tiny country like Bhutan is going 100% organic to safeguard its citizens from the consumption of toxic residues in food and preventing contamination on natural resources. Organic agriculture not only produces safe food but it helps to support traditional rural life and build communities that respect and revere nature. The industrial agriculture has systematically destroyed the rural communities and the culture associated with it. There is a need to radically redesign the present food system to build local, regional and global food systems that are based on deep agroecological, ethical and spiritual principles for a happy planet. Bhutan's organic story is a reminder for the countries to rethink on their food and agriculture programs and policies.

Interesting article on Bhutan going 100% Organic 

Extension officials learning Organic Agriculture techniques in Bhutan

Friday, 4 September 2015

Wild Edibles

In nature there are about 7000 plants which are edible to human beings. The native tribes knew most of the edible wild plants in their locality and had a knowledge of using these plants. The advent of industrial agriculture with emphasis on hybrid crops focused on  breeding commercially important crops. About 15 crops are bred through different modern breeding techniques which fulfills about 70% of the global calorie requirement. This has resulted in mass monocultures, soil degradation, environmental pollution and systematically uprooted the traditional knowledge systems of communities in food and nutrition. 

Wild edibles are available year around which grow voluntarily and do not require any resources to cultivate and manage them. Unfortunately we have branded such wonderful edibles as weeds. Every attempt is made to destroy these edible plants by using toxic chemicals. If we can be respectful to these plants and use them, humanity will benefit from a lot. It will reduce the pressure on land to cultivate crops and reverse the degradation that is happening today. Wild edibles are rich in nutrients and has medicinal properties. 

Recently I had an opportunity to share my views on wild edibles in a radio show organized by KRUU FM's Great Taste. It was fascinating to cook lamb-squatters (Chenopodium album) a very common weed plant which is invasive in nature. Lamb squatters are rich in nutrients which can be cooked in a variety of ways. 

Monday, 26 January 2015

Course on Biodynamic Agriculture

Date: March 30 to April 23, 2015
Venue: Fairfield, Iowa, US

Biodynamic agriculture is an advanced state of organic agriculture. Every farm is treated as a “living organism” where all farm activities are self-supporting, interrelated and influence each other. Biodynamics is unique in its practices that include following the lunar rhythms  to guide planting and cultivation, using herbal preparations for enhancing the composting  process, spraying  specially aged manure and silica solutions on soil  and plants to aid the growth and development of plants.

Biodynamic farms are characterized by self-sufficiency and biological diversity where crops and livestock are integrated; nutrients are recycled to nurture the health of the soil, crops, animals, and the farmers. Scientific research in the past 2 decades has proved biodynamic agriculture as one of the efficient methods for carbon sequestration and address climate change.

Through the practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM),  a student  can establish a deeper understanding and appreciation of biodynamic agriculture and the nature’s unbound intelligence, the unified field of all the laws of nature. 

Objective of the course
To understand the principles and practice of biodynamic agriculture techniques, gain farming skills and deep understanding of the relationship of earth, life and human beings from a scientific and eco-spiritual perspective.

Course Contents

     Modern agriculture Crisis and Climate Change
     Understanding Dr.Rudolf Steiner’s 8 lectures on Agriculture through modern science.
     Principles and Practices of Biodynamic Agriculture
     Nine Biodynamic Preparations: making and utilization
     Biodynamic Composting
     Liquid Manure, Cow Pat Pit (CPP) and other formulations
     Crop Pest and Disease Management
     Animal Husbandry and Biodynamic Agriculture
     Converting a farm to Biodynamic
     Biodynamic Certification Procedures

“Biodynamics is all about  respecting nature, rebuilding healthy soil, growing healthier food, and building a conscious community of people ,”

Whether you are a student, farmer, amateur gardeners, activists, organic food and agriculture based organizations, if you want to learn about Biodynamics this course is for  You.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Introduction to Biodynamics for the Home Gardener

Workshop on April 12, 2014
Biodynamic agriculture is an advanced state of organic farming. In addition to replacing poisonous fertilizers and pesticides with composts and natural pest repellents, biodynamic farming uses lunar rhythms. All farm operations use a set of nine special preparations in homeopathic doses to nourish the soil and crops. In other words, it mimics the forest's natural ecosystem. Farmers can produce a superior quality of food in their farm or garden by utilizing the locally available natural resources.

This an introductory lecture for a series of hands on workshops. This lecture in not required to take the hands on course but it is strongly recommended. Participants will receive a free 2014 Farming Lunar Calendar.

 Sustainable Living Department,
Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, Iowa
If you are interested
Register HERE

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Economic Prosperity and Nutritional Security in the North Eastern Hill Regions

Communities in the rural hill regions face a series of challenges in food and nutritional security. The geographical terrain and vagaries of weather coupled with inaccessibility are some of the major problems faced by the farmers. The modern high synthetic agro-input based farming systems are not the solutions for these fragile ecosystems. Farmers need to be empowered with low-cost sustainable solutions .They should be least dependant on external inputs. This should not make them vulnerable to produce more food or sacrifice their crops to possible pest attack. Farming communities need to be trained in a wide variety of technologies available to address these issues by utilizing the natural resources.

Farmers are the true scientists of agriculture who know  a lot about the crops, biodiversity and ecosystems.  Their traditional knowledge needs to be understood through the lens of science and appropriate technologies need to be developed. Innumerable success stories are published from different parts of the world; some are available on the web.

To address the issues of North Eastern Hill Regions The Arunachal University of Studies, Namsai, Arunachal Pradesh, India  is organizing an International Seminar on "Economic Prosperity & Nutritional Security in Northeastern Hill regions through Horticulture" with special reference to Arunachal Pradesh on February 3-4, 2014.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Women and Small Farms in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2021 and the farmers are marching forward adopting eco-friendly approaches. Interestingly women farmers are taking a lead. View a news clipping on Aljazeera on the initiatives of small farmers going green in Costa Rica. 

Courtesy: Al Jazeera

I had an opportunity to train the farmers and farmer groups in Costa Rica in green technologies for sustainable farming. Amongst the farmers, Ms. Maria Luisa is a 'women hero' leading the small farmers movement in Costa Rica. An innovative climate smart women farmer from Costa  Rica is  extremely passionate on what she does. She also trains fellow farmers in low-cost organic agriculture technologies. These activities are promoted by Fundecooperacion, Asociacion Coordinadora lndigena y Campesina de Agroforesteria Comunitaria Centroamericana (ACICAFOC) and the National Institute for Innovation and Transfer of Agricultural Technology (INTA), Ministry of Agriculture, Costa Rica. 

Ms. Maria Luisa
Women play a very important role in farming contributing nearly 50% of the work force. Unfortunately the women farmers are not even recognised as farmers and face widespread restrictions to the access of resources, decision making and land rights. The first Prime Minister of India, Pandit  Jawaharlal Nehru said  To awaken the people, it is the women who must be awakened. Once she is on the move, the family moves, the village moves, the nation moves” 

Empowering women is very crucial  for alleviating poverty and rural development. After the Millennium development Goals (MDG) come to an end, the post 2015 sustainable development agenda should focus on  gender equity and equality in agriculture. Maria Luisa's case is a beginning  and also an example for other women,  organisations and nations to emulate.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Climate Smart Family Farm

 Family farms are small farms or homesteads wherein all the farming activities are undertaken by the family members. The size of these farms can vary from a fraction of a hectare upto 2 hectares. Some of the international development organizations define family farms, whose size is less than 2 hectares.  Globally there are about 500 million small farms and more than 85% of them are in Asian region. The major Asian countries with large number of small farms are China (193 million), India (93 million) and Bangladesh (17 million).  In addition to food security, these small farms play a very important role in ecosystem management, biodiversity conservation, climate change, youth development, gender inclusion, empowerment of the poor and urban migration. Looking into the importance of the small farms in rural development and poverty alleviation, the United Nations General Assembly has declared 2014 to be the 'International Year for Family Farming'.
Family Farm in Bhutan

The common notion is that the large industrial farms as the major source of food for the growing population which is not fully true. In many developing countries small farms contribute significantly to the food security. In India alone more than 80% of the farms are less than 2 hectares and contribute to more than 50% to farm output. Studies across the globe have shown an inverse relationship between farm size and productivity. Smaller the size of the farm more attention is given to cultural practices, selection of seeds or planting materials and crop care.  In addition the family members contribute their own labour and produce on-farm inputs which keeps them employed throughout the year. Interestingly the general trend in these family farms is the diversity of crops that are being cultivated. 

Every region has its own requirement for specific crops depending on the food choices, culture and heritage. For instance, cherry tomatoes are preferred over the hybrid tomatoes which are generally found in the markets. Likewise many lesser known vegetables are cultivated in these gardens. Moreover a majority of the crops are grown using open pollinated seeds or heirloom seeds which have an inherent diverse gene pool than the modern hybrids. The heirloom or native seeds are more resilient to the vagaries of weather vulnerabilities and are resistant to the pests, diseases, drought and water logging stresses. In other words these local seeds or vegetables assure them of food and nutritional security. Even now these farmers continue the tradition of seed sharing which is a scientific way of seed conservation and utilization of biodiversity.

Amongst the family farms most of them are of the size of a tennis court approximately 1/10th of an acre which is about 400 square metres. The question is; can a family comprising of 4 members meet their food requirements in such a small piece of land? If the land is optimally designed utilizing the available natural resources, it can produce enough food to meet the requirements of a family. There is a need to rethink on what to grow, how to grow using the concepts of deep sustainability. We hear about sustainability so often in its shallow understanding, which to a large extent emphasises on doing ‘things right’ so that our actions do not dwindle the opportunities for the future generations. They are more addressed towards solving pollution problems, mining of natural resources, recycling, reuse and other approaches to address the symptoms of the problem. We need to move further in doing ‘right things’ which has deeper sustainability connotation.

Small kitchen gardens or homesteads can be transformed into a food producing landscapes if we consider 3 important parameters; weather patterns or climatic conditions of the region, choice of right crops and farm design. Mono-cropping or cultivating of one crop would nullify the concept of family gardens. A good mix of diversity apt for the regional agro-climatic conditions would do the trick.  Our global food system unfortunately focuses on grains, few tubers, oilseeds and beans. About 15 crops meet more than 75% of the calorie requirement of the world population. However, in nature there are 7000 plants which are edible and can be used as food. Most of these plants do not require intensive care for its production.  Let’s now see how to make a small farm sustainable and productive.

Perennial crops:
Tamarillo Plant
Perennial crops are very important for small farms. These are the plants which survive for atleast one to three years or more which are grown for their edible parts like; leaves, stem, flowers, fruits, and roots. Planting these perennials would reduce lot of farming work like ploughing the land which requires manual labour or machines which does add on to the cost of production. Also there is no need to sow seeds every season, planting has to be done once while the crop needs to be tended with regular manuring and irrigation. It would also reduce the cost and time on managing weeds as there would be less weed growth.
Tamarillo fruits

In addition to reduce the drudgery and cost of production these perennial crops help to reduce the carbon emissions by building up the soil organic carbon. The deep root systems help to recharge the ground water. Some of the  perennial vegetables that can be cultivated are Tree tomato or tamarillos (Solanum betaceum), tree brinjal, Drumstick (Moringa oleifera) Curry leaf,( Murraya koenigii ), Indian Perrenial Cucumber or Miniature Cucumber or Ivy Gourd or Scarlet Gourd (Coccinia grandis, Coccinia indica), Jack fruit (Artocarpus heterophylla).

Colocasia tubers
Choice of Crops with high yielding potential:
Colocasia plants
It’s important to choose crops which can yield more from a minimal area. There are many crops which has an innate potential to produce more food that fits into the family farms or homesteads. Wise choice should be of those crops that require minimal care and maintenance. 

Cassava or Tapioca
Some of such crops are Colocasia (Colocasia esculenta) wherein the leaves and the tubers are used as food. In one hectare of land Colocasia produces 15 to 30 tons of tubers which can be  stored for a couple of months.  

Cassava or Tapioca (Manihot esculenta)is another crop which yields about 20-40 tons per hectare. Each Cassava plant in 8-9 months yields 8-12 kilograms with minimal care. Cuttings are used for planting. The nutrient rich cassava leaves can be used a a good animal fodder. Care should be taken that the leaves should be wilted in sun before feeding to animals to lower the potential cyanide toxicity and also to reduce the free tanin levels.

White Chayote
Green Chayote
Another interesting creeper which yields more is Chouchou or Chayote (Sechium edule) which yields atleast 100 fruits in a single vine. Each fruit weight 300 to 500 grams. In Bhutan and Nepal Chayote is known as 'Iskhus' There are many such high yielding potential crops apt for a particular agro-climatic region which needs to be identified and planted in homesteads.

Sustainable Farming:
Sustainable farming practices are vital to the success of family farms. Whatever biodegradable wastes that are available in the farm can be transformed into manure. The weeds and crop residues of the farm can be easily composted by using earthworms or by aerobic methods. The resulting product, compost can be used for providing crop nutrition to plants which inturn builds soil fertility. Moreover the problem of waste management can be addressed at home itself.  I would keep the surroundings green and clean.

Seed sharing event in Costa Rica
Farmers can produce their own seeds by continuing the ancient wisdom of seed sharing with the fellow farmers which would maintain the seed vigour and avoid inbreeding depression.  With simple training programs, farmers can be trained in seed production of heirloom or open pollinated varieties so that there is no mixing of unique characteristics of a particular plant due to cross pollination. Moreover the heirloom seeds are resilient to the climate change and biotic stress.

Similarly pest management measures can be designed based on the species that are available in the locality. Most of the weeds which have a strong odour can be used as bio-pesticides. Some of the herbs like mint, rosemary, thyme can also be fermented and used as sprays to repel insects and manage plant diseases.
Bhutanese women farmer selling local veggies
Family farming is very important in the present scenario wherein the arable land is dwindling and there is a global rush for land by private organizations and governments. The development of industries and housing are encroaching the fertile farming fields and displacing the farming communities. Agriculture is a sector which not only provides employment to more than 70% of the world’s population but also provides many environmental services for the very sustenance of human population. Studies reveal by 2050 about two third of the world’s population will be staying in cities. How to accomplish the food requirement of the burgeoning population? Who would provide employment to the exodus of rural populace to the cities? Many such macro-economic and geo-political questions need to be answered in the years to come. Family farms can be a solution for these global problems.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Online Course on Organic Gardening

There are very few courses available online which can teach you simple, low-cost approaches for an organic garden or farm.  Every farm or a garden is ‘an organism’ by itself. Organic Agriculture can be sustainable only if all the inputs required for cultivation of crops and livestock are produced in the farm.  Every garden or farm is blessed with almost all the resources required for crop and animal production. There is a need to understand the local ecology and expand the human ingenuity to identify the natural resources and use them effectively.

Entire globe is waging a war on weeds. What are weeds? Are they unwanted plants or plants without any worth as we generally understand? NO. If we can understand weeds they are wonderful plants full of potentials and offer many possibilities to address the present problems in gardening or farming. I wish to redefine weeds as the ‘plants whose uses are not known yet to the human beings’. There is no plant in this existence which is useless. The moment we understand the use of weeds, these plants start disappearing from our gardens.

It would be worth an exercise to rethink on sustainability and transform your garden or farm into an ecological landscape where the role of every entity is understood and used for food production. All the requirements for farming like; seeds, manures, plant growth promoters and natural pesticides can be prepared on-farm utilizing the local resources.

Do you want to know?
  1. How to produce organic seeds in your own garden or farm?
  2. How to treat seeds with wood ash, milk?
  3. Use of local earthworms in composting?
  4. Simple method of composting which does not require turning?
  5. Use of locally available plants for managing pests and diseases?
  6. Protect your trees from rabbits and deer?
  7. Homa or Agnihotra  in farming?
  8. Use of Lunar calendar (Jyotish) in farming?

You don’t need to have any prior qualification for registration. The only requirement for this course is ‘YOUR PASSION’.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Food Choice and Climate Change

Climate Change is a hot topic in every scientific forum wherein terminologies like adaptation, mitigation have become buzzwords of late. Not much discussion happens on food choices in most of the climate change seminars and workshops. It is very important to know that food choice also contribute to climate change. Every individual has a freedom to choose food, however if we do not make conscious choice we will be doubling the trouble.  One of the biggest advantages of the present information technology era, is the availability of enormous information on a click of a mouse. Prior to choosing any food one needs to ask how, where and when that food was produced. In this blog let me focus on meat produced from industrial animal farms and its impact on climate change.

Significantly large area under agriculture is for food production which also includes animal husbandry. The industrialised animal production for meat and diary is one of the major contributors to Green House Gases (GHG) leading to climate change. Meat Industry is responsible for about 18 % of GHG emission which is about 4% more than the vehicular pollution. It is unfortunate that with the increasing income levels for a large population the meat consumption is also taking an upward trend. The average meat consumption globally is about 115 grams per day which translates into 42 kilograms per annum. 

Meat production when seen in totality amidst severe cruelty to animals create a series of environmental problems which magnifies the effect of climate change. Lets examine how choosing meat in your diet will contribute to climate change.

Forests to Deserts
To meet the increasing demand for meat, more and more land is required for raising pastures and also to grow livestock feed like soybeans and corn. Consequently forests are cleared to create additional land to meet the feed needs of the livestock industry. It is a leading driver of deforestation and a significant contributor to global warming emissions. Studies reveal that nearly 60% of the agricultural land around the world is used in the production of beef, which provides less than 2% of the world's consumed calories. Shockingly, about 70-80% of the agricultural land is used by the meat industry for feeding the animals which is about 30% of the global land mass. Instead of feeding the animals, had the same land been used for food production, about one billion poor can be prevented from hunger and malnutrition.

The clearing of forests or deforestation for cultivation of feed/ fodder to animals creates many problems that are interconnected. The first impact of deforestation is the loss of top soil by rain which otherwise would have been retained in the forests. Top soil is very important as it is a rich source of nutrients for the biodiversity to flourish. Without topsoil the micro-flora and micro-fauna perish which restricts the ground water from recharge. Also rainfall which happens due to the natural humidity of the forests stop and over a period of time the land becomes arid and dry transforming into a desert. The impact doesn’t stop there. The dust storms frequently occur in these arid deserts because soils are not bound with organic matter or humus which becomes amenable for dispersion during strong winds. Such storms move quite far off distances and create respiratory problems in other countries and also severely affect the coastal ecosystem. At present about 41% of the world’s land area is arid and dry which has a direct impact on about 2 billion people living in and around such arid regions.

Animal Wastes and Pollution
One should visit an industrial animal farm to understand the ground realities. Thousands of animals are stacked together in one unit which are cramped with minimal space for their natural movement. Treatment of these animals and their slaughter is a painful situation to watch. At times I wonder why humanity has lost compassion for these creatures.

In the industrial animal farms wherein thousands of animals are reared, the generation of enormous quantities of animal wastes is a major concern. It’s a challenging task to manage the burgeoning wastes which otherwise results in environmental pollution contributing to climate change. On an average, a high milk yielding cow like, Holstein Friesen generates 40-50 kilograms of manure every day which translates to about 15 -18 tons per annum. One can imagine the quantity of wastes that thousands of such animals produce. Most of times these animal wastes are diluted with water and stored in lagoons or allowed to flow into the drainage or water bodies resulting in the pollution of  both surface and ground water.

Human Diseases
There is enough research available on the direct effect of meat consumption and vulnerability to diseases like, heart diseases, colon cancer, diabetes, obesity, avian flu, blue tongue disease, Listeriosis and bacterial disease caused by E. Coli, Salmonella, Camphylobacter etc.  The recent incidence of bird flu strain H7N9 is a matter of concern which can transmit the diseases to humans. New strains of the viruses pose a great challenge to public health. This can be an indication to opt for healthier and safer vegetarian diets.

Cause for Hunger
Research studies reveal that green house gas emissions (GHG) from beef ranges from 16-30 kg CO2-eq/kg compared to 0.8 kg CO2-eq/kg for wheat.   It would be startling  to know that  in terms of GHC emissions  one kilogram of beef consumption corroborates to about  150-160 kilometres of automobile usage. Meat based diets is one of the causes for hunger as large amount of food is diverted to animal feed.  In a piece of land which is used to produce one kilogram of meat about 200 kilograms of tomatoes or 160 kilograms of potatoes could be harvested in the same time span. It requires about 5 to 15 kilograms of feed in the form of soybeans, corn etc to produce one kilogram of meat. Moreover this artificial extension of the food chain and converting the grain to meat results in huge loss of nutrients; 90% protein, 99% carbohydrates, 100% fibre and others.

Vegetable Cultivation
Vegetables and vegetarian diets are more climate efficient to produce protein than the meat based diets. The vegetarian food helps to reduce obesity, blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, heart diseases to a large extent in addition to conserving water, land and natural resources which otherwise is used for industrial animal production.

Food choice plays a very important factor in contributing to climate change. In the present fast developing world it would be difficult to avoid many comforts of the modern days which do contribute to GHG. However, we can take small steps one at a time and begin from food. Why not reduce consuming meat and gradually stop opting for climate inefficient foods.  Why should we make our stomachs a graveyard for the animals? An ancient Vedic proverb in India says; 
                                                “As the food so the mind
                                                As the mind so the thoughts
                                                As the thoughts so the actions”

All our actions are the resultant of the food that we consume. The more violently the food is produced and consumed violent thoughts and actions will only prevail. Entire humanity is suffering from hatred, anger, deceit, stress and a series of emotional disorders.  Right type of food can be a solution.  Meat based diets are the most efficient ways to waste food.

You and I can contribute positively to address climate change by making conscious food choices.