Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hopeful Journal Entry from Thailand a few weeks ago

Here is a positive reflection on ym current relationship with seeds and this international movement!

Last night we had a dance party and it felt so good to move. I felt nostalgic for friends I used to dance with, but once again realized how happy dancing makes me feel. There is no feeling as powerful as the freedom which comes when I let the music enter my soul and gyrate my limbs to the beat. Some mimicked me, others complimented me, and the Thai guys pushed whisky on me. Last night reminded me how important it is to keep celebration as a part of any movement or project I start.
There is an infinite amount of negative information in this world and to be honest I have had enough of it. Over the past 4-5 years I have read, studied, and heard an exorbitant amount of depressing information on our food system, the state of the environment, the oppression of many through globalization, systematic, racism, sexism, etc. I am glad to have learned about the negative effects of our social and environmental systems. However, I have had enough! My education has motivated me and led me down a path which I feel is my ultimate dream and destiny. Now that I feel confident of my path in life and my true dream of how I want to live. I am ready to fully dwell in positivity!!

As I lie here in the hammock my mind fills with smiling images of ancient fruit ladies in Italy, rice growers in Thailand, grain growers in Italy, subsistence farmers in India, and thousands of farmers dancing together at Terra Madre. In some ways I feel like this is all a magical dream. I feel ecstatic as I accept that by farming and saving seeds I can not only be happy and have the opportunity to fondle many beans. But, I can also select crops to grow well on my land, preserve our history, spread good tastes, become self reliant, bring back ceremonies and recipes, and most importantly feed people good tasting food and spread the beauty of diversity. In diversity there in strength and survival. Climate Change is coming, but these crop varieties can adapt to the conditions, help us to adapt, and reconnect us to the land!

I know that climate change looms imminently. I know we face a dire future with loss of crop diversity: over 75% of the world’s agricultural biodiversity has been lost since 1900, atleast 90% of all fruit and vegetable varieties in the US are lost. I know that our agriculture system is inherently unsustainable (food production counts for over a fifth of all America’s energy). At this point we are basically consuming oil by using more fossil fuel to produce our food than energy we receive from the food (in the US the typical meal has travelled over 1500 miles from source to table). Nitrogen fertilizer use has gone up four times in the past 40 years and 37% of the world’s cropland has been eroded since WW2. Topsoil is being destroyed 17 times faster than it can be regenerated. Our waterways are polluted (animal waste from factory farms has polluted over 25,000 miles of waterways in the US alone). Forests are being destroyed for more cattle at an alarming rate. Disease like cancer and diabetes are spreading at epic proportions (1 out of 3 children born in NYC last year will develop diabetes in their life). In America, we are the first generation that will not have a longer lifespan than the our parents.

I have stayed in villages in which over 30% of the inhabitants had cancer from heavy pesticide use (most of these chemicals are banned in America and farmers use no protection). I have met farmers poisoned from pesticides – unable to walk anymore, struggling to raise their children who can’t verbally communicate. Women have cried to me and told me of their husband’s suicide as a result of farm debt. Farmers from Canada, Italy, and India have all told me of their battles with Monsanto or other large pesticide/ seed companies. I have felt the burning of pesticides on my body in a GM cotton field and I know the horrid stories are true. Many of them are not exaggerated. Our agriculture is not only poisoning the land, it is killing us. We dump our banned agricultural chemicals on third world countries and the worldwide power dynamics are furthered as farmers become sick, poor, and fully reliant on large agribusiness. The world’s ancient seeds are being lost at an alarming rate and with this rich diversity go our vibrant heritages and cultures. The seeds are our link to the past and our answer to future crisis.

In the past I was motivated to take action in the field of seed saving because of depressing statistics. My brain is still filled with them. I know that only 5 companies now control over half of all seed sales in the world (60 years ago not one company controlled more than 1%). I was shocked by statistics that over 75% of our world crop diversity was lost in one century. If we continue on this path, a small handful of companies will take control of the world’s food system and patent must of our crop diversity. “He who controls the seed controls the world.”

With these ancient crops goes an amazing array of cultures, diets, ceremonies, and sustainable farming systems that have proven themselves over hundreds of years.

I could write for days about the destructive qualities of our food system. Each negative thing I read, hear, or experience about the chemicals in our food, the sickness in our people, and the destruction of our land sickens me to no end. However, as I started to say before – I have had enough of it! Nearly every farmer and seed saver I have met on this journey does not do what they do because of depression of anger. Mostly all do it because they want to create a brighter future. Farmers save and spread seeds to put control back in the local community, save money, be self-reliant, preserve their culture, farm with no inputs, for the great taste, for ceremonies and festivals, and so much more.

One farmer last week told me, “Seeds are our power. They are our heritage. They are our property and our right.” Farmers tell me that if they lose the seeds they lose their livelihood and their power or control over their lives. Everyone I have met with does not just protest or give up when faced with these daunting conditions. They get out there and grow food, train others, spread seeds, work with children, teach self-reliance, start community gardens, and much more. To many farmers, seeds represent their ancient learning and knowledge. They save seeds to stay connected with their heritage and to continue learning. Others save seeds because they simply love purple rice. The reasons are extremely diverse, but to most they save seeds because they don’t see their kids will be able to survive in the future without these crops. They want to have a healthy family, clean water, be healthy, and survive economically. All these things are impossible without seeds that can grow with little inputs, adapt to weather, pests, and diseases, and are generally much higher in nutrition.

At the start I was drawn to seed saving by an overwhelming sense of duty to do something to stop control of our food and destruction of diversity (both biologically and culturally). Nonetheless, I was simultaneously motivated by the beauty of our crop diversity which still exists, the power held in a seed, and the true contentment I feel when farming. Since I was first exposed to agriculture I have felt a joy unparalleled by anything else. To put a cool seed into moist soil makes me feel happy to be alive and joyous to be a part of the world’s bountiful cycles. I also just love holding and caressing seeds. One of the best moments so far on this trip was just holding bean seeds and laughing for about ten minutes with the head seed saver at Navdanya in India.

Since the first seed swap I attended I have felt the power of seed diversity in my blood. Approximately three years ago I walked into the seed swap at the ecological farming conference feeling drunk of the pressed grapes of organic dreams. I was immediately blown away by the bounty which lay in front of me. Dozens of farmers covered tabled in red amaranth, black beans, native tobaccos, ancient wheat’s, Ethiopian barleys, tomatoes of every shape and color imaginable. I filled my pockets with these seeds and filled my heart with the stories of beans carried across the trail of tears by Cherokee Indians, tomatoes from ancient Siberian gardens, cucumbers from Indian mountains, and much more. I took these seeds and placed them in gardens at my university in California, and in community gardens in NYC. Soon every soil I touched became filed with colorful, eccentric veggies, wonderful tasting tomatoes, majestic barleys, and beautiful beans. Working with ethnic gardeners in NYC further inspired me to connect with the cultural diversity and diets associated with seeds. Gardeners had jungle corn from Cameroon, amaranth from Jamaica, chilies from Thailand, and much more.

Before I ramble too long, I should try to get to my point. I started this trip with a mix of positive and negative feelings toward the seed movement. I felt overwhelmed by our environmental and social crisis, but stayed slightly hopeful I may find some answer. This journey has turned out to amaze me at every turn and filled me with an immense amount of hope! I feel the power of seeds and diversity as I walk. It tingles my skin when I try to sleep and rattles my bones upon waking. Through this journey the ground below me has been shaken so hard that a large part of me has ruptured and through this void hope has poured in. I am no longer motivated by depressing statistics. Yes we are running out of oil. Yes a food system is controlled by a few greedy white men while millions starve, become sick, or are kicked off their land. However I have seen that the ones who are worse off are the ones with the most hope and the most passion to create a new positive solution.
What really touches me are the hundreds of stories of hope I have experienced.

Over the past two weeks I gave two presentations on my year to communities of foreigners and Thais here. As I prepared for the first talk I studied facts about seed control, loss of biodiversity, pollution, etc. However, all this faded as I looked through my pictures. Joyous tears filed my eyes as I remembered sons who had lost their father the cancer and given up a job as a chemical engineer to become natural farmers and help start community seed banks. My skin felt the joy again of a 90 year old woman’s laughter as she led me into her cool seed bank and showed me seeds of millets, pumpkins, cucumbers, red beans and green amaranth. She told me they were from her grandmothers, grandmothers, grandmother (in an interview last week I asked one farmer where the seeds came from and they looked confused and said “maybe god”). She filed my pockets with ancient millet seeds and cooked me a meal of jangora pudding (a sweet dish made from barnyard millet –made only for very special occasions).

As I looked through my photos the memories became so vivid that I could taste the Indian meals made from only their farm, each family trying to outdo the next. Countless farmers in both Italy and India told me their variety was better than the neighbors (but it was a friendly pride and they still shared seeds). Farmers told me how they traded seeds or how their family had grown this bean longer than they could remember. Some swore by the taste and convinced me that we need to save crops even if this was the only reason (who wants to each a tomato that tastes like paper or rice without any aroma??). Others showed me how seeds of 12 crops could be grown together in 1 field and produce al the dietary needs of a family. I saw countless crops adapted to their local land growing with no water and a small amount of cow dung (farmers that tried hybrid seeds in these organic systems failed miserably. The hybrids rely on high inputs of water and chemicals to produce).

It seems everything has just revealed itself to me this year and pushed me down this path of beauty. Old varieties of crops not only taste good, but they are healthier and give us considerably more nutrition. I was given sacred barley used only for the baby’s first meal, presented meals ranging from handmade truffle pasta to homemade ghee on millet chapatti. I have worked on farms with over 26 varieties of turmeric. Here we grow over thirty varieties of tomato, three types of basil, 4 types of long bean, 25 types of lettuce, many local mustard greens, 5 types of eggplant, and much more. The list goes on and on.

The biodiversity still being preserved in this world never ceases to amaze me. In some areas of the Himalayas each family still had a seed bank which was intricately built by hand and designed to fit in the natural environment. Their entire year (including rituals, holidays, and recipes) were based around the diverse crops they grow. Most recently I got to learn about the four rice ceremonies in Thailand and take part in one! In the Himalayas all dietary needs were fulfilled by the crops grown in small terraced farms. The slopes in between were covered in grassed which fed the cows and buffaloes. These sacred animals provided milk for the home (cheese and ghee), fertilizer for the fields, and plowed the land. Labor was shared among farms depending on the need of each family in the village (the same is true here in rural Thailand).

Despite the immediate pride families had in their amaranth beauty, or how well their rice grew they were still willing to share their seeds with anyone interested. Swapping or exchanging seeds is an ancient practice in India, Italy, Thailand, and I suspect the world as whole. Sharing and exchange has been an important part of rural life for generations. In some ways this left farmers vulnerable to new hybrid crops. When extension agents, scientists or other farmers came into rural areas and preached about the value of hybrids farmers were excited to accept because they were used to sharing seeds with neighbors or those who passes through. In many cases farmers took a new variety of soybeans for instance. They inserted it into their system of planting twelve crops together and the entire system collapsed. Farmers had saved the seeds of beans, lentils, millets amaranths, and lentils to grow well together with little inputs or management. The new soybeans were bred to grow in monocultures and respond to agricultural chemicals. Countless studies have shown that old agricultural systems fall apart after only a few years when new seeds and chemicals are introduced. Farmers need participatory breeding that helps their local condition and not a foreign hybrid that can’t grow without massive amounts of chemicals.

This same story rings true around the world and I have witnessed it in such diverse regions as the Himalayas, dry plains in Punjab, the Tuscan hills of Italy, and now in tropical N. Thailand. However, in all these places and many more there is a movement of positivity and hope working to reverse the trend. Farmers from India, Italy, Thailand, Kenya, Uganda, Germany, France, Canada, and many more have blown me away with their power and passion. The farmers of the world are a force to be reckoned with and many are now working to save what’s left and create a good life for their family and their village. No matter how far removed we are from the land, we rely on these farmers!!

This movement to reverse a loss of culture and food diversity is filled with people from all walks of life. Every day I hear a new reason farmers or even lawyers cite for why they are trying to save seed. In Punjab, farmers, politicians, journalists, and professors are teaming up to declare a war on Multinational Companies pushing their seeds and associated chemicals. Farmers are called freedom fighters and seed saving is seen as a way to put power back into farmer’s hands. For the journalists it is a political statement. For the doctors this movement is crucial to the health of their region. For the farmers it is a way of survival and a positive protest to right the wrongs they face each day. Along my journey, many farmers are tired of organizing and speaking out against the atrocities that plague their lives (cancer, pollution, suicides, increased osteoporosis, diabetes, debt, etc).

Community Seed banks allow people to organize something positive in their community. Farmers are given titles or roles as seed collectors, bean growers, seed bank cleaners, etc. The seed also help to wean them off chemicals. The organic growth also becomes a source of immense pride and discussion. The success of organic crops grown from good varieties proves many naysayers wrong. In areas like Punjab or here in Thailand where most crop diversity is lost- farmers have collected seeds from other regions and are creating diversity again by selecting crops good for their local conditions.

At the start of this year I expected farmers in all my interviews to talk about impending environmental doom or peak oil. However, many farmers were confused by my questions. TO them it didn’t make sense to ask why we save seeds. The only way to survive for many is to save seeds and grow seeds adapted to their lands. Even in Italy many organic farmers must find old grain varieties that can grow without water. To the western world self sufficiency is a difficult concept to grasp because we are so dependent on outside sources (companies) to provide all our needs. However, self sufficiency is reemerging or expanding widely in India and Thailand. Villages in these areas are often new to our system of consumption and externalization. Many farmers I interviews tried growing high yield hybrids earlier. They accepted new seeds and chemicals like all their neighbors. However, many began to fail as farmers and saw the shortcomings of this system. They have chosen to revert back to past ways. Some got very sick from chemicals or saw widespread malnutrition as a result of the new monoculture system. Almost most common is the fact that farmers haven’t been able to afford inputs as prices double and tripled in the past five years. Others simply missed the tastes or felt they had let their ancestors down.

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