A lesson for body and soul

A lesson for body and soul

May 1st, 2011 in Opinion Times

If we are what we eat - and by the measure of our health outcomes, we most assuredly are - then Dr. Vandana Shiva's message here this past week in support of sustainable and organic natural foods and healthier agricultural practices merits urgent attention.

Shiva is a globally renowned scientist and authority on sustainable and organic food and its increasingly toxic nemesis, the world's industrialized, corporate-driven food system. She spoke Tuesday to an overflow audience at UTC in the last of the season's Hunter Lecture Series, which is funded by the Benwood Foundation. Her address was riveting.

Shiva's work, primarily in her native India but often on a global stage, is to protect and nurture the type of healthy, sustainable, nutrient-rich food systems that are rooted in ecological diversity, traditional organic region-specific seed stocks, and naturally occurring pest-and-weed-resistant organic soils. That, alone, has made her an international champion of organic farming and sustainable, community-based agriculture and food variety.

A battle of food systems

But it has also pitted her campaign against the politically powerful systems of industrialized agriculture, global food commodity markets, and this system's vast taxpayer subsidies, which artificially cheapen the store price of food stuffs in America while hiding the true cost of the industry's harmful health effects and its residues of toxic soils and groundwater, dying pollinators and depletion of water and energy resources.

In explaining why natural food systems are far superior to industrialized agriculture, she has been effectively forced to give an accounting of the dark side of industrial agriculture. It is based, she has explained in such forums as the World Trade Organization and the recent World Economic Forum in Melbourne, on the use of increasing levels of chemical fertilizers and genetically modified seed stocks and crops.

Commodity profits vs. farms

This is all highly profitable to the seed companies (Monsanto and DuPont are the world's largest) and the industrial food system's global commodity brokers, but it has devastated small farmers, their land and water resources, and the prospects for a healthier sustainable food system.

The lower nutrient value to consumers of industrialized agriculture everywhere around the world, moreover, has intensified food deserts of all sorts - of quantity and diversity of foods in poorer countries, and of nutritional value in food in rich countries, worsening hunger and starvation in the former and obesity in the latter.

The seed industry's genetically modified seeds, fertilizers and crops, though billed as producing abundant harvests and pest-and-weed-resistant crops, actually do the opposite, Shiva's research has shown, even as seed companies and commodity brokers align to crowd out sustainable farming and to bend agriculture to a cog in the industry's profit scheme.

The foremost harm, says Shiva, is the vicious cycle of so-called pesticide-and-weed-resistant crops. These are now found to promote super-pests and super-weeds that evolve apace with genetically engineered seed stocks, Shiva reports, and subsequently require increasingly potent fertilizers and lethal pesticides, even as they devolve in nutrient content.

As farmers have learned the vicious spin-off effects, she says, they find themselves in India and many other countries unable to decouple from their reliance on the expensive engineered seed-stock monopolies, because their collateral heavy use of chemicals has destroyed the naturally occurring bacteria of healthy organic soils, which traditionally replenished itself with simpler farming techniques that used locally evolved seed stocks and multipurpose crop rotations.

From ruin to suicides

One result in India, she recounted, has been the suicides of more than 250,000 farmers whose land and water supplies had been ruined by the industrialized food system's monocultures and the failure of genetically modified seeds they had been encouraged to adopt by the Indian government. When they were no longer able to buy the higher levels of fertilizers and pesticides needed to sustain industrialized agriculture, they were left with depleted land and toxic water that would not again yield their traditional native crops. Their despair, she says, has driven waves of suicide, even as the country's younger population is experiencing a quadrupling of obesity rates due to low-nutrient, industrialized food systems.

Rich countries also suffer

The hidden costs of our industrialized food systems, her research shows, has hit industrialized countries just as hard. It has contributed to the loss of small farmers and sustainable agriculture, and to toxic soils and depletion of water resources. It's driven the loss of healthy, sustainable, ecologically diverse seed stocks, and the core base of agricultural knowledge needed to revive sustainable farming. And it's led to more unhealthy and obese populations whose health care costs are soaring.

Shiva contrasts this modern dilemma of industrialized agriculture with the sustainable agriculture model which has been stupidly cast aside for the seemingly cheaper convenience of industrial farms. Foods from the sustainable model may cost more at the produce and meat counters, but their inherent quality and nutritional value proves to be far more economical when weighed against the cost savings of improved health and nutrition, the conservation of water and energy resources, the value of added local farming jobs.

Boost community agriculture

Shiva strongly advocates a resurgence of community agriculture and local farms before our vital seed varieties and farming knowledge are lost. She believes, with reasonable logic, that ecological and human health can be vastly improved by a resurgence of community agriculture and the nurture of a variety of seed stocks, crops and healthy, free-range farm animals.

In her visit to Chattanooga, she encouraged the work of groups already involved in that mission - Crabtree Farms, Gaining Ground and groups of local, natural and organic farmers whose healthier, tastier foods are increasingly the choice in the city's restaurants and farmers' markets. She spoke, as well, of the intrinsic value of gardening and teaching our children to garden - at home, in schools and on communities' common grounds - both for healthy food, and a healthy spirit. If the world gets the message that gardening is "the new Prozac," she asserts, we'll all be healthier in body and spirit.