Killing the skills that feed the world and economies
When you kill skills, you take away livelihoods;
When you de-skill peasants, you take away survival
Think before you eat!
December 11, 2013
Wishing to help empower women while operating their own farming enterprise, a family sought women cultivators specifically to grow vegetables and fruit trees and generally run a traditional farm. While they were able to find any number of general workers from among the rural women, they were shocked when they couldn’t find any who could produce food on their own without direction — something the family thought to be basic enough to be taken for granted.
Not that the women didn’t know how to work the land – but only under supervision by being told the exact individual task such as weeding, or harvesting a specific crop they were accustomed to. They knew little or nothing about the entire, continuous process from seed to fully-ripened plant, or when to seed which crop. They did not know how to retrieve and preserve seeds or do basic tasks such as composting, introduce earthworms, curing manure and knowing when and how much to apply. So it could not be expected they would have any idea of ‘companion crops’ – mutually beneficial crops planted side by side – or plants that were natural pest repellents which could attract pest predators. They had to be taught from scratch.
It was not that these peasant women had forgotten to grow crops like their parents and grandparents did. They’d never learnt at all! Within the space of a generation they became de-skilled through disassociation. Large-scale monoculture had taken over and mixed crops on the same farm was no longer the norm. Modern farming is a lot like the factory system. It is not for nothing it is called industrial farming. As in the manufacturing process which breaks up each step of fabrication into a separate operation – no worker gets to know the whole process. The worker is no longer an artisan who can innovate on his or her own.
This may not necessarily be the case everywhere in Pakistan, but it certainly is the trend. Also, landlords had become even less generous towards peasants, most of them are reduced to being seasonal workers. A few NGOs are re-teaching them. But just a handful.
In another earlier but typical case, an entire village of smallholders had been heavily influenced by large-scale chemical monoculture practiced by neighbouring big landlords. They switched over from traditional multicrop and manure farming, even though they received no informed instruction on chemical farming. They pooled all their land to grow a single crop – tomatoes.
A time came when the chemical fertilizers stopped working, and the crops were no longer as red or juicy, and they were advised to add manure to ‘jump-start’ the chemicals. It never struck them why then they should bother with the chemicals at all! It still didn’t particularly improve the quality of their produce. They didn’t know – and nobody told them – that the chemicals were also killing off most of the essential microorganisms in the manure too, after having killed off all those in the soil earlier.
And then, a full-scale disaster hit them during a drought year when irrigation failed. By then, the tomatoes were already much smaller, the cores white instead of red, and far from tasty. What survived of the largely lost crop was rejected by the market.
Within a few years of farm ‘modernization’, the women had also stopped maintaining their individual kitchen gardens, thinking the extra income from their farms made it unnecessary as they could afford to buy. They were completely unaware of what chemicals did to nutrition factor. When it was suggested that they revive their kitchen gardens, many had to resort to their elders for information.
The consequences of half a century of intensive chemical industrial agriculture produces enough food for 10 billion people when we have a world population of only 7 billion. To what avail? Most of the arable land has been poisoned to death or is suffering from erosion and desertification. With a billion starving people, (half are not well-fed because of joblessness), and the majority eating already-chemicalised food further processed has spread cancer and obesity (among other diseases) globally, and turned America into the cancer capital. At the same time, 40 percent of edible food, mostly imported from developing countries, is discarded or destroyed for lack of shelf-space in the west.
Yet more than enough food can be produced through natural means which would create self-employment and freedom from hunger, while regenerating the soil every season, the evidence suppressed by the corporate media.
While in Europe and America awareness is growing about the dangers of chemically processed food and widespread attempts are being made to return to organic farming (which is also suppressed in the corporate media), it’s far more difficult here, as much because of peasant landlessness as disinformation by vested interests.
Organizations like the Soil Institute in UK, the Land Institute in the US, Navdana in India, and others are trying to break through the mass mindset moulded by agri-corporations, to make people relearn basic truths and realities. That good food does not depend on growing methods alone, but mainly on the health of microbe-rich soils which alone can ensure nutritious food in natural, chemical-free conditions should be taken as gospel truth. The need for small-scale natural farming methods to regenerate dying soils is dire.
It’s something a group tried to impress on Pakistani student doctors from an elite medical school. They stressed direct and inescapable linkages between soil health and human health via food, whether plant or meat. The budding doctors were not impressed by the simple fact that there are millions of microorganisms in a handful of average-quality fertile soil, mostly invisible to the naked eye, essential for converting organic matter into forms that plants could absorb and which humans and animals could subsequently eat.
They were neither interested in the fact that organic decay and waste is just a passing stage in a continuous cycle, which is about how nutrients contribute towards fresh plant life, nor in the horrific effects of synthetic chemicals. Soil and farming was for peasants, they opined, not for medical scientists. Perhaps they looked like doctors knowing nothing better about prevention than surgery.
Maybe it wasn’t entirely the fault of the medical institution. Maybe in large part, the “hands-off” education is to blame. But the ‘know-all’ arrogance among the professionals must end.
This article was published in the The Nation in 11 December 2013