Small Voice, Big World

In my last blog, I will deviate, but not entirely, from the theme that I had been following in my previous blogs. By focusing on the rise of behemoth companies and food chains, I want to highlight the plight and uphill battles that small-scale, traditional and organic farmers face when juxtaposed next to McDonald, Walmart, and the likes, in this ever competitive global food economy.

When I visited my friend’s aunt during fall break, driving to farmers market with her reminded me not only of my home (Nepal), but also the sad fact of how healthy food options here in the US is a luxury and a privilege. With chains like McDonald offering deals like “McPick 2 for $5” on one hand and organic produce costing more than a dollar for just an apple on the other hand, it is no surprise that healthy options are out of the expenditure equation for most of the mass population. And thus, despite the push for awareness regarding healthy diets many people are obliged to resort to cheapened (as Professor Fabos had mentioned in class), mostly sugarcoated, GMO products from the never-ending aisles of Walmart and thus most organic or traditional farmers are dissuaded from implementing sustainable methods in their fields.

Whats-in-That-Big-Mac-copy

Therefore small-scale farmers are unable to compete with juggernaut corporations like Walmart and Target. Among several negative consequences that arise from this dynamic, the ones that stand out to me are:

 

  1. Loss of traditional and sustainable farming methods
  2. Health effects that arise from consumption of GMO products
  3. Exploitation of farmers who give their produce for almost nothing in return

And even though it has been proven time again that GMO products can cause infertility, promote gastrointestinal and immune disorder, increase the use of herbicide (its effects would require a whole new blog post), and the list can go on, governments are nonchalant about these consequences. In fact, “the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for example, doesn’t require a single safety study, does not mandate labeling of GMOs, and allows companies to put their GM foods onto the market without even notifying the agency” and most of the “health and environmental risks of GMOs are ignored by governments’ superficial regulations and safety assessments.

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When the governments themselves are oblivious to the health of the people, it is no surprise that mega corporations parasitically suck farmers dry, from grabbing lands to paying abysmally low costs. Raj Patel in Stuffed and Starved paints an eerily gloomy picture of how Nestle makes profit off of Ugandan coffee farmers who are on the verge of slumping below the poverty level. I will never be able to look at a Nestle product the same now with the knowledge that they pay 14 cents per kilo (which is laughably low) of coffee beans to Ugandan farmers while they themselves make profits out of US$ 26.40 per kilo. And this is just a picture that captures one company, one set of farmers and one commodity. In a larger global scale, the exploitation and profits are magnified by insensible degrees.

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So it was a breath of fresh air when Costco announced that it would be lending money to farmers for their organic produce after it witnessed high demands for those produce, even though it is only a pilot program. And Whole Foods is also embarking on a similar journey. But do these initiatives effectively mitigate all the problems mentioned above? Personally, I don’t think so and I don’t expect them to carry all the weight on their shoulder. We have to remember that corporations like Whole Foods, although great in their own way, are projected towards and can only be afforded by select bourgeoisie and thus do not effectively solve the larger problem at hand.

So the ability to tackle this multifaceted problem that plague not just the US but places all over the globe should be undertaken by the governments. Some of the points that I took away from one of my discussion classes was the need for the governments to provide subsidies to organic and traditional small-scale farmers so they can compete effectively. On personal levels, we should overcome our obsession with perfect and glossy products and support our local farmers. Corporations like McDonald’s should be responsible to notify customers about where the products they use are sourced from (my friend from France told me that McDonald’s there have started doing so).

An Indian farmers reacts to the camera as others work at a paddy field in Mauayma village, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Allahabad, India, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010. India's economy grew 8.8 percent in the June quarter, its fastest pace in over two years, as good farm and manufacturing output lifted growth back to its pre-crisis trajectory. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

Of course, my blog post does not hold the answer to everything. But it is a small step and I believe every single action, though it may seem inconsequential in a larger scene, is at least a step towards betterment.

Work Cited:

Jeffery Smith. “10 Reasons to Avoid GMOs.” Institute for Responsible Technology. 25 August 2011. http://responsibletechnology.org/10-reasons-to-avoid-gmos/

Ryan Grenoble. “Costco is Selling So Much Organic Produce, Farmers Can’t Keep Up.” The Huffington Post. 13 April 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/costco-organic-produce-farmers-partnership_us_570d0a80e4b01422324a1f6c

Angel Gonzalez. “Largest Organic Grocer Now Costco, Analysts Say.” Seattle Times. 1 June 2015. http://www.seattletimes.com/business/retail/costco-becomes-largest-organic-grocer-analysts-say/

Christine Wang. “McDonald’s McPick 2 for $5 Menu to Feature its Classic.” CNBC. 26 February 2016. http://www.cnbc.com/2016/02/26/mcdonalds-mcpick-2-for-5-menu-to-feature-its-classics.html

The Maasai Tribe

The Maassai tribe is comprised of people with richly beautiful culture who primarily inhabit southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are famed as herders and warriors, moving from place to place within East Africa but always respecting nature when doing so. While many of their ways have had to change with changing times, diet for instance, they are still remembered for being a “disease-free tribe” by Dr. Weston A. Price in 1935 A.D. when their diet comprised almost only of raw milk, raw blood and raw meat.

maasai-profile_cropped

Another aspect of their life that has had to change is their pastoral way of life. Since 6000 years ago when Sahara witnessed lower moisture and rainfall, pastoralism has been ingrained in Maasai lives as a means of subsistence and living in general in response to climate variability. They inhabit arid and semi-arid lands “with no reliable sources of permanent water, (so) pastoralism enabled people to adapt to an increasingly arid and unpredictable environment by moving livestock according to shifting availability of water and pasture. This opportunistic management system continues to this day, making pastoralism and effective and efficient land use and production system for the dry lands of the world”.

Maasai-pastoralists-livin-008

So it is no surprise to find out that a Maasai man’s wealth is measured in terms of the cattle, and children, he owns. Maasai people, however are not nomadic, they are semi-nomadic tribal people. The moranis, young warriors (mostly boys), herd cattle migrations whereas the rest of the family and small livestock remain at the main homestead.

Pastoralism “is the finely-honed symbiotic relationship between local ecology, domesticated livestock and people in resource-scarce, climatically marginal and highly variable conditions. It represents a complex form of natural resource management, involving a continuous ecological balance between pastures, livestock and people”. And the Maasai people, with the great expanses of the Great Rift Valley, have always been respectful of the natural resources bestowed to them. Their mindfulness of the dynamics of the grassland, and the livestock and wildlife that share it reflect the “finely-honed symbiotic relationship” that is essential in sustainable ways of living. Maasai, for instance, are also admired for their tolerance of wildlife when it comes to livestock and land management.

Young_Maasai_herder_Kenya,_1979

Moreover, there are more gains from pastoralism as per the World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism (WISP) than just its effectiveness and efficiency. Pastoralism’s “direct values” include products such as milk, fiber (wool), hides; and other values such as employment, transport, knowledge, and skills. “Indirect values include the benefits of agricultural inputs such as manure, and products that complement pastoral production, and services from good rangeland management like biodiversity conservation, and wildlife tourism.”

Instead of being respected, the pastoralists have been politically marginalized, challenged by climate change and denied traditional land rights. Further more, in a world with increasing resource competition, pastoralists like the Maasais have been forced to give up their lands. So much that “they are now confined to a fraction of their former range”.

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Oxfam, however has taken the initiative to call into attention of East African governments’ regarding the importance of pastoralism in terms of adaptability. According to them “if it come down to the survival of the fittest, pastoralism could succeed where other less adaptable livelihood systems fail” given the right enabling environment. Kenya’s northeastern minister, Mohammed Elmi said, “pastoralists have been adapting to changes in climate for millennia, and these skills could help them cope with the continent’s increasingly hot weather” and all we can do is this is one of the first voices raised in favor of the Maasais.

A single post to describe a tribe like the Maasais, however, would be an insult to its complexities and beauty. So I just want to use this opportunity to set light on it that it so deserves in this ever changing world of ours.

Citations:

“Survival of the Fittest: Pastoralism and Climate Change in East Africa.” Oxfam Briefing Paper. Oxfam International. Web. http://www.oxfam.org.hk/content/98/content_3534tc.pdf

Nori, Michele and Davies, Johnathan. “Change of Wind, or Wind of Change?: Climate Change, Adaptation and Pastoralism.” IUCN. 2007. Web. https://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/c__documents_and_settings_hps_local_settings_application_data_mozilla_firefox_profile.pdf

Conroy, Andrew. “Maasai Agriculture and Land Use Change”. FAO. Web. http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/lead/pdf/05_article01_en.pdf

“Kenya’s Masai Traditions Threatened by Climate Change.” The Guardian. 24 Nov. 2011. Web. http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2011/nov/24/kenya-masai-climate-change

“Maasai ‘Can Fight Climate Change'”. BBC. 18 Aug. 2008. Web. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7568695.stm

The Tainos

The year 1492 A.D. did not really mean much to me. With no impactful event to make me remember it, it was a bygone year floating in the history of time like so many other years. However, 1492 A.D. was the year that Christopher Columbus set sail in search of the New World and the first land his ship touched, was inhabited by the Tainos. The year that would change the fabric of the world we inhabit socially, environmentally, racially, economically.

The Tainos were a subgroup of the Arawak people, indigenous inhabitants of some areas of South America and the Caribbean, known for their amiable, gentle and peaceful nature. Little did they know that their population was to be drastically decimated, almost to the verge of extinction, when they greeted Columbus and his entourage.

The Tainos were the principal inhabitants of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (present day Dominican Republic and Haiti) and Puerto Rico. In pre-Columbian times, their daily rituals consisted of farming, fishing, canoeing and sleeping in hammocks at the end of the day.

As peaceful as they were within the society, they were also very attuned to the environment surrounding them. Historians and archeologists call their agricultural practices to be very “environmentally friendly” and “maintenance free”. While the men cleaned the fields and fished, the women took care of crops for cultivation and managed household chores. The primary crops that the Tainos cultivated were cassava, corn, beans, peppers, and peanuts among others.

taino-plants

Cassava, better known as yam, was the major staple followed by sweet potato. The bitter variety of cassava, manioc, although containing toxic levels of cyanide and so used by the Tainos to commit suicide, was grown extensively because when processed not only was it edible, but also highly drought resistant, had high caloric content and did not perish (its flour could be stored for many months) as easily as the sweet variety.

The Tainos’s reliance on root crops, therefore, gave rise to a farming technique called conucos. Conucos were heaped up mounds of soil, often three feet high and nine feet in circumference and arranged in rows, tailored for efficient cultivation of root crops. The conucos were packed with leaves thus improving drainage, increasing fertility, aerating the soil, delaying soil erosion, and allowing for longer storage of crops in the ground.

The Tainos were also heedful of the paradoxical nature of the tropical forests they inhabited. Although the forests seemed nutrient rich with lush vegetation, the often impoverished and shallow soil was susceptible to erosion during heavy rains and to scorching during by the tropical sun. The heedful Tainos accordingly adopted the “slash and burn” horticulture technique- plots of land were cleared of trees and bushes which was burned releasing nutrients to the soil. The Tainos were also among the first to use aquaponics. Not having refrigeration they created ponds fed by fresh water and stocked them with fish so as to have easy access to them.

But with the arrival of Columbus and his entourage, the Tainos population gradually shrunk. What was initially a three million or three hundred thousand population (very contentious speculations) dwindled down to sixty thousand in 1507 A.D. and to a mere six hundred in 1531 A.D. The Tainos perished to European diseases to which they had no resistance, extreme working conditions in mines and farms to which they had no self-governance, and attacks by the invading Europeans to which they had no comprehension. Sadly their farming techniques also perished to Spanish methods and it is almost impossible to trace a human with full Taino lineage today.

To my dismay, there hasn’t been any governmental initiative to re-adopt the admirable farming techniques of the Tainos. Independent organizations in Dominican Republic like the Taino Farm and Schools for Sustainability, however, have realized the importance of the ecologically sound Taino methods and thus work to preserve them in this modern context. Schools for Sustainability strives to “honor and follow the example of the peaceful and innovative Taino, who were driven into extinction on Hispaniola by Columbus within 50 years of the Spanish having arrived on the island” by integrating water remediation, farming organic food, and relying on renewable energy for greater sustainability. Similarly Taino Farm relies on aquaponics, vermiculture and permaculture to “foster growth in community,  environment, and society with sustainable farming” clearly reflecting the Tainos’s influence.

Taino methods may not seem very viable in the present day scenario but its history definitely stresses on respecting one’s environment and greeting people with cordiality.

Citation:

Keegan, Bill. “Talking Taino: Eat Roots and Leaves”. Times of the Islands Magazine: Winter 2004/2005. http://www.timespub.tc/2005/01/talking-taino-eat-roots-and-leave/

“Taino Lifestyle”. Taino Gallery. http://tainogallery.com/history/lifestyle/

Figueroa, Ivonne. “Tainos”. El Boricua Magazine: July, 1996. http://www.elboricua.com/history.html

What do you know about the Incans?

I had always associated the Incans, and also the Mayans and the Aztecs, with violence and South America. Upon arriving in college, my limited knowledge of those civilizations were added to with insights from friends from Peru and Chile who told me that they were not just violent, but barbarous and cruel. And it’s a shame to have been oblivious to their terrific farming techniques and intuitions that, people now speculate, could be the alternatives to face the inevitable climate change and food insecurity for people of the Andes today.

The Andean platform is in itself an obstacle for farming with its mountains and intermittent waterways. But the way that the Incans maneuvered yields from this terrain is fascinating. From creating Andenes, terraces dug in mountains for agriculture, to engineering irrigation systems that retained water efficiently, the Incans coaxed crops such as quinoa, potatoes and maize from the unlikely terrains of the Andes. They used stones of various dimensions along with dirt, gravel and sand to create excellent drainage systems in terraces, which were equally efficient in retaining water. The stones used in terraces were more advantageous as they not only made terrace farming plausible, but they also retained heat that was beneficial to plants with sensitive roots when the temperature plunged.

The Incan knowledge was not just bound to infrastructural techniques. They were also well acquainted of the fact that different crops like corn, quinoa and squash, when planted together as opposed to individual plots, yielded better results because they symbiotically protected and nourished each other. They were also well equipped with crops such as , a bitter potato variety that resists hail, frost, droughts and excess rain that can be dried and stored for years, to avoid famine.

Quinoa harvest in Peru

But with the onset of the sixteenth century, when the Spanish invaders colonized the areas of Incan civilization, Incan lives perished and with them their inspiring agricultural methods. It is estimated that more than half of the Incan population was wiped off and those who survived were forced to assimilate their traditional farming knowledge to Spanish choices of crops and methods. And what remained was the residue of the achievements of the past: remnants of ancient terraces and hollows of dried up canals.

Luckily, the Cusihaca Trust has taken the initiative to prevent the Incan ways from just being penned in history books by reviving those ancient ways in present day Peru. The Trust that initially started as archaeological investigation in 1977 at sites in the Cusichaca Valley close to the famous Inca ruins of Machu Picchu now pioneers in the restoration of traditional Andean agricultural terraces and irrigation canals to reduce poverty and increase self-sufficiency amongst isolated rural communities in Peru. The trust has rehabilitated ancient terraces and canals, encompassing 160 hectares of the Patacancha Valley near Cuzco, thus uplifting the most vulnerable people in these regions by flourishing the possibilities of agriculture. Farmers are also readopting the tradition of multiple crops together and the results are valuably both economically and environmentally.

Not only trusts like the Cusihaca Trust, but even the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment have stressed the importance of practices such as reclaiming diverse native Andean crops and rebuilding the infrastructure of pre-Hispanic irrigation to counteract the grievous impacts of droughts, shrinking glaciers, unpredictable climate changes, and food insecurities.

The Cusihaca Trust has been fruitful in its endeavors and is steadily expanding its practice and visions to more areas. With support from the government itself, it is evident that reinvigorating ancient and wise techniques are far better than forsaking them.

Citations:

Graber, Cynthia. “Framing Like the Incas”. Smithsonian. 6 Sept. 2011. Web. 18 Mar. 2016

Krajick, Kevin. “Ancestors of Science: Green Farming by the Incas?”. Science AAAS. 4 Nov. 2005. Web. 24 Mar. 2016

Look Back to Move Ahead?

That civilization came into existence because of agriculture is not an assumption but a fact. Agriculture was the cornerstone that marked Homo sapiens’ turn from nomadic gatherers and hunters to dwellers in a settlement. And these settlements are what constitute a civilization. In this way I find it intriguing to realize that agriculture was not just the basis of sustenance, but also the seed through which civilization was born.

And what intrigues me even more is how farming techniques all over the world were different, unique and thus reflected the collective and adaptive intuition of people molded according to the topography, climate and features of the space they inhabit for their need. From the idea of companion planting of crops, especially the Three Sisters (squash, maize and beans), practiced by the Native Americans to the instinctive choice, which can be traced back, to the techniques mentioned in ancient Roman literature, of planting legumes to naturally fixate nitrogen in the soil, to the economic use of manure for many purposes in villages of South Asia, it is evident that traditional farming techniques were creative, constructive and conscious.

But the environmentally sound practices of traditional farming were either swept away by or had to conform (and still do) to the demands of colonialism, postcolonial development projects and globalization. Monoculture farming usurped farming various crops. Chemical fertilizers increased yield in shorter period of time as opposed to traditional options like organic manure. And hybridized seeds replaced natural seeds.

Many will argue that with the booming population, industrialization of agriculture is the only answer but more than often being oblivious to its environmental repercussions. And my doubt over that notion may sound naively idealistic but I will be writing on how traditional or indigenous agricultural practices may be the better alternatives to commercial agriculture.

References:

Landon, Amanda J. “The “How” of the Three Sisters: The Origins of Agriculture in Mesoamerica and the Human Niche”. Nebraska Anthropologist (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska-Lincoln). 1 Jan.2008. Web. 18 Mar.2016.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Head Count”. The New Yorker. 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 18 Mar. 2016

Graber, Cynthia. “Framing Like the Incas”. Smithsonian. 6 Sept. 2011. Web. 18 Mar. 2016