If you click read more, you can see my first 3 reports from my Watson year. In true Watson style, they are not academic or rigid research reports. They are emotion filled letters to the foundation to give them some sort of update on my experiences, travel, and study. You can find them below on my blog, but I thought I would just put them in one post here.
First Watson Report
Crops and Cultures: The Preservation of Heirloom Varieties
Preface to My Report:
Trying to sum up the past three months in a concise report is an extremely difficult task. Over the past few days I have attempted to start this report many times and given up when I became overwhelmed with all the memories. Today, I typed 10 pages attempting to sum up my experiences and did not even get halfway. In the simplest terms the past three months in India has been a roller coaster ride of challenging situations, excellent tastes, foul smells, educational experiences, eye-opening moments, piercing headaches, and inspirational interviews. As I reflect on my time spent in India countless memories rush back. I remember walking through the “cancer villages” in Punjab with pesticides filling my nose and mouth. I remember the old- nearly toothless woman as she climbs down into her seed bank and returns with countless varieties of spices, millet, amaranth, rice, and beans. I remember laughing with farmers as we harvest rice and crying with farmers as we discuss their debt and the death of their son. India has shocked me, depressed me, and provided me an immense amount of hope for the world – all at the same time. I could write fifty pages on just one day spent touring farms in Garwhal or in Punjab. Nonetheless, I will attempt to sum up my experiences in a somewhat cohesive manner so you get a sense of my journey.
I woke up groggy as our plane neared Chennai and looked to the man next to me. He was praying passionately over images of Krishna; clutching the faded pictures tight to his chest, moving his hands in a rhythmic pattern. All of a sudden, I became exuberant as I realized that my trip was beginning and this was the start of a year of freedom and personal growth. However, these happy feelings were soon changed drastically. After landing in a chaotic, dirty, and extremely muggy Indian city at 3 am I was hassled by taxi drivers, swindled into a more expensive room, and pestered incessantly by hotel staff. As I finally lay down in my room I began to cry uncontrollably. The tears mixed with my sweat and the lingering water from the shower that wouldn’t dry. It seemed as if things couldn’t get any worse.
Three months later, I am now preparing to board another plane to leave this magical land and am filled with feelings of sadness that I never thought I would feel. The original sense of anger towards the filthy streets, incessant honking, and extremes between rich and poor have now morphed into a love for the chaos that is India. After three months I have come to understand why yoga and meditation emerged from this region. India is an intensely spiritual place in which religion infuses every part of life. However, it is also a truly chaotic and insane country that requires the patience gained through yoga or relaxation to deal with it happily. A week after my tough introduction to life in India I smiled for the first time as I woke up to see the sun rising over fields of corn, rice, and lentils. I had been traveling overnight from Delhi in a crowded and hot Indian bus. However, I couldn’t help but smile from ear to ear as I saw the dappled light of the early morning sun shine down on fields of villagers waking to the day – collecting water and beginning their work in the fields. Only one week into my trip I was beginning to accept the extremes of India and constant up and downs that made up my experience here.
Now after three incredible months I have adjusted to the retched smells and striking poverty, the different notions of time and the constant hassles of being a white person. I have also adapted to the massive gaps between rich and poor in a country where some people have four cell phones and drop hundreds of dollars on drinks while others who are sick from pesticide-laden water lie on the street receiving no help. As I try to remember the details of my trip, all the memories of challenges in India somehow mix with the delicious food, plethora of unique seeds and associated stories, colorful dresses, friendly families, inspiring social movements, toothless old women with bags of beans, energetic children and soulful music to create a vibrant tapestry of life in this developing nation that will stick with me for years to come.
My three months in India have developed spontaneously, as I had hoped. The only major challenges I have faced are language barriers and some health issues (mainly chronic migraines which began before the trip). Other than that I have been incredibly lucky. Not only have I escaped the many ailments that stalk travelers here, but I have also been given countless opportunities for which I am eternally grateful. My research time began at the Navdanya Biodiversity Conservation Farm. While working here I was able learn practical skills related to seed saving and organic agriculture. Additionally I was given a glimpse into the workings of an NGO dedicated to addressing these issues of seed saving and food security. Hard work on the farm was interspersed with ample reading time, learning Hindi, and over 26 interviews with farmers in the local region. My reading and interviews with both Navdanya staff and local farmers provided me a well rounded view as to why seed saving is so important, what the state of agriculture is in India, and what can be done to address the agricultural crisis that we are facing worldwide. Navdanya has done everything from starting seed banks to teaching compost workshops, educating farmers about food policy, and creating a market in the cities to sell organic produce from small scale farmers. They are a brilliant example of a successful NGO that is empowering rural farmers by reconnecting them to their roots of traditional agriculture, seed saving and cooperative sharing.
During my interviews, some farmers spoke to me simply – telling me that seeds are life and asking how anybody could survive without seeds. Others talked to me about the great taste found in native varieties and cooked a delicious meal for me from traditional recipes. Others still taught me about the many complexities of modern agriculture and the green revolution. I have learned more from my talks with farmers and first-hand observation than I learned in all my university classes related to food combined. The narrow notion I had of the importance of biodiversity and seed sovereignty has been shattered as I have been exposed to the reality of agriculture here in India, where thousands of farmers have taken their lives as a result of debt or even failed hybrid seeds. Luckily, every time I have learned some depressing information, I have also been exposed to hope. This hope comes in the form of native rice varieties adapted to saltpan and flooding, which have saved agriculture in Orissa after the 2004 Tsunami. The hope comes in the form of a poor farmer going against his neighbors and family to create an organic farm in the middle of a desert of genetically engineered cotton and pesticides. Hope comes in many forms during this trip. It has filled my soul and given me the energy to tackle all the challenges of India. After what I have seen I can now dream of a brighter future and reject the slightly pessimistic attitude that plagues my mind.
Using the oasis of the Navdanya farm as a home base I traveled to Punjab, two different areas in the Himalayas, Delhi, Hardwar and other local jaunts. In Punjab I was first deeply depressed by visits to “cancer villages” in which 30% of the inhabitants have cancer. I spoke to women whose toxic breast milk killed their babies, looked into polluted waterways that were once rushing rivers, and felt the burn of pesticides in my mouth and nose. Despite all this, I also saw an incredibly inspiring movement that is using the symbol of the seed as a way to galvanize a diverse mass social movement. In one crazy week we met with farmers (ranging from 1 acre to 400 acres), lawyers, professors, activists, journalists, and doctors regarding this movement against the green revolution and genetic engineering. The sheer number and diversity of people passionate about this movement shocked me. In the middle of a polluted land, thousands are working together to address issues of health, nutrition, pollution, seed ownership, and most importantly rural sustainability. I didn’t truly know the vast effects of modern agriculture and the inherent contradictions until viewing the situation first-hand here in India. To me, Punjab is a symbol both for the harms of chemical agriculture and the possibility of a positive rural future based on traditional crops and sustainable agriculture.
My two visits to the Himalyan hills exposed me to different social movements addressing these same issues. However, in the hills all is not lost like in Punjab. There is still a culture of seed saving, cooperation, and sharing among neighbors. In one region I visited every house has a seed bank attached, which is intricately carved and built into the earth so it is always cool. In these regions I saw how people can live happily and peacefully without relying on the market. During one family stay, we only ate things from their farm for four days and it was delicious! The inhabitants of Garwhal directly rely on the environment around them for food, medicine, tools, and their entire livelihood. In turn, they recognize the importance of their traditional crops, agricultural practices, and diet. Even rural farmers have become aware of the complex science and data that shows the loss in nutritional quality from hybrid or genetically modified food.
India has exposed me to a drastically different life. Through my work with numerous different NGO’s and social movements I have been pushed to ponder my own existence, the impact I have on the planet, and my future role as a farmer and social activist. Old notions I had about sustainable agriculture were reinforced while I learned an immense amount of new information regarding the green revolution, genetic engineering, the importance of traditional varieties of crops, and the various ways social movements can be organized. Theoretical knowledge learned through numerous conferences and books has combined with first hand experiences and memories to create an infinite web of new thoughts and ideas in my head.
I leave India enlightened about the negatives of the current path we are on and extremely hopeful that a possibility exists. The original feelings I had of loneliness and selfishness that I wasn’t doing enough to help have slightly faded as I have embraced the Watson experience. I am eternally grateful to be given this opportunity and cant believe I have 9 more months to go. These three months have flown by, but I feel as if a lifetime has passed since I left the states. I fear I will never be able to convey what I have learned on this trip to others – its just too much. However, I move on to Italy tomorrow, continuing to live in the present and ready to tackle whatever lays ahead. Namaste and Ciao!
Watson 6 Month Report - Italy and Thailand
Before I begin I must first say how crazy it is that 6 months has passed! On one hand, the time has flown by. On the other hand, it seems like a lifetime ago when I was in America. Halfway means a lot but also means that many more challenges lie ahead. No matter what, it is a large milestone. There were times when I never thought I would make it this far. Now I am here and I am filled with energy and hope. Nearly all my feelings of homesickness or just plain sickness are overshadowed by beautiful memories from the journey so far and excitement for all that lies ahead. The Watson journey for me definitely has its ups and downs. Some days I feel deeply unsettled, confused as to what I’m actually trying to accomplish, and frustrated by living in foreign cultures. Inevitably these feelings fade as I connect with farmers, interview passionate organizers, and help plant seeds. Once again, I have spent the past two days reflecting and trying many times to sum up the past three months. I have concluded that an accurate summary is truly impossible. Instead, I have decided to simply update you on random memories and my feelings and emotions at this time. Hopefully, you can check out my blog or photos to see more of my voyage.
I left India weighed down by the heaviness of massive Mumbai slums, cancer villages, and pesticide poisonings. However, inside a flicker of hope burned brightly. Over the past three months I have had time to let the lessons from India brew within me and be put to words. These lessons have been reconfirmed and expanded upon countless times by Italian farmers, a worldwide gathering of food culture, scientists in Rome, and an incredible movement here in Thailand. At the beginning of this trip I felt motivated by the need to do something to address the devastating crises facing our food. Now, I also feel motivated by hope, good food, a joyous life, and connection to the land. The seed saving world has revealed itself to me as not a movement against something, but a movement of hope and positivity.
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 facts 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 destiny. Now 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!
What really has touched me deeply on this whole journey are the hundreds of stories of hope I have experienced. When I left India I feared that this was a truly unique experience and I would not meet passionate people like that again. Italy proved this all wrong. While the conditions are drastically different, I was equally inspired by the Italians connection to the land, their respect for an ancient food culture, and the passion of so many to protect our agricultural diversity. I met a friend in Rome and we spent our first few days talking farming, composting and seeds while eating unbelievable food and wandering around the coliseum. After a week of working on a farm growing many ancient Italian grains and pulses we headed north to Terra Madre.
In the most basic sense, Terra Madre is an international Slow Food conference put on every two years in Torino. However, there is no way to explain in words the size and power of this epic event. For four days Slow Food brings over 7,500 delegates from at least 153 countries together. The delegates are farmers, chefs, students, organizers, and food activists from around the world. The motto of the event is "Good, Clean, Fair food" and it is billed as a "worldwide gathering of food communities" All these words prove to be superfluous and fall short in explaining the energy, passion, and inspiration that is Terra Madre.
Close your eyes for a minute and imagine an Olympic stadium filled with thousands of "peasant" farmers dressed in their traditional garb. Imagine farmers from Senegal in red gowns mingling with pierced students from Brazil and the USA as a slew of inspirational speakers rally us all together. There are translations into 7 languages and the largest cultural diversity I have ever seen. The opening ceremony brought me to tears numerous times as I soaked in the energy of this Olympic stadium filled with people passionate about the same thing as me. I cried as I watched farmers carry in flags from over 150 countries and became joyous when speakers ranging from Prince Charles to an American middle school student spoke about the agricultural system and how we can get good, clean, fair food.
The next four days were filled with workshops, meetings, absurd amounts of food, dances, and parties at night. However, the real power for me was found in the many informal conversation and seed exchanges held with the diversity of people. At the same time as Terra Madre is Salone Del Gusto - a humongous fair of good, fair food. There was a whole selection dedicated to products from Terra Madre delegates. These stands with farmers and producers from around the world had unique products or food varieties that Slow Food is working to preserve. All these food products have their roots in traditional agriculture and are deeply connected to culture and history. There was quinoa from Peru, unique beans from Sicily, red fife wheat from Canada, Pear wine from Norway, white honey from Ethiopia, true wild rice from USA, and hundreds more. The Italy section had an incredible diversity of cured pork products, cheeses, pasta, cardoon, celery, and much more that represented the diversity of Italy's food heritage. I tried to break the world record for how many free samples you can eat of various cured meats and cheeses! I think at one point I had at least 50 used toothpicks in my pocket (a dangerous endeavor, but someone must do it).
I will reiterate that the real inspiration came from conversations I had throughout the days and nights with cheese makers from Italy, seed savers from Japan, peasant farmers from Mali and Senegal, farmer friends from India, seed savers from Togo, and so many more. Once again the international language of agriculture, seeds, and a friendly smile proved to break down all barriers. To be honest, I was most excited by all the young people I met. There were over 1,200 young people from around the world. They inspired me immensely with their passion, music, and creative ideas (my favorite part was when a seed saving activist from Bolivia led us in a song about seeds).
The rest of my time is Italy was filled with trains, hot springs, intimidating interviews in Rome, unbelievable food, and a tour of organic farms in Umbria. The tour was the second part of a farmer exchange between Californian and Umbrian organic farmers. For a week we were all treated like kings. Our days were filled with three hour long meals of handmade cheese and pasta, prosciutto, local bread, wine, fresh olive oil and much more. I was continuously impressed by Italian food culture as well as the importance they place on old varieties and the recipes or practices associated with them. We got to tour and meet farmers who raised sheep, grew ancient varieties of wheat, had incredible olive oil, and even a wildly passionate lady preserving over 50 types of ancient fruit trees (most varieties were at least 500 years old and she was the sole keeper of many of these culturally important varieties). After this tour I spent a whole day interviewing staff at the Global Crop Diversity Trust in the UN FAO headquarters. I learned an immense amount this day on the more large scale approach to seed saving, but also felt incredibly out of place with my sandals and 2 Euros (I had lost my ATM card). Overall Italy was much less challenging than India, but still eye opening and mouth watering. Who knew seed diversity could taste so damn good!
A frantic exit from Italy and quick transition to Thailand left me feeling quite confused and actually depressed. I arrived 11 days late to the Pun Pun green building and seed saving internship. Pun Pun is an organic farm, seed-saving operation, and sustainable living and learning center. At first I had a hard time connecting to other foreigners. I didn’t want to learn a new language and felt very disappointed by the disorganized nature of seed saving at Pun Pun. However, I settled into life on the farm and really enjoyed having this relaxed and educational time. My days became filled with building an adobe house, taking care of some gardens, organizing the seed bank, interviewing farmers, and swimming whenever I got a chance.
Pijo, the Thai man who runs Pun Pun with his wife Peggy, is most passionate about seed saving. He relates seed saving to broader philosophies on self reliance and simple living. Over time Pijos' ideas began to sink in deeper and I recognized how little time in my life I had spent actually relaxing, focusing on work I love, and connecting with others. I stopped criticizing Pun Puns shortcomings and became inspired by how they had taken this awful land and turned it into such a productive farm and community. I still felt overwhelmed by being around so many other foreigners, but also enjoyed our spontaneous dance parties and deep talks at lunch.
I gave two presentations on seed saving and my year to communities of foreigners and Thais at Pun Pun. 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 filled my eyes when I remembered sons who had lost their father to cancer and gave up a job as a chemical engineer to become natural farmers. My ears 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. The presentations both ended up being long winded crazy rants about how much hope there is in the world, the immense amount of biodiversity still left, and how seed saving is the answer to so many questions. These positive thoughts are all I am able to think about these days.
After finally becoming comfortable with friends, building and farming at Pun Pun I had to pack up and leave. Once again the sad feelings which arose dissipated as I reached Joko Community Learning Center in Northern Thailand. Seed saving is their focus, but they use it as a focal point to start many school groups, train women with aids, provide healthcare and diet information, organize community forests, teach farmers plant breeding for their needs, etc. For days I just kept finding out more and more programs they have. Once again I was amazed by how welcoming and kind people are to me when I simply say I am studying seed saving. One of the staff met me at the bus station and organized every waking minute for me. I stayed in the village with their volunteers. It was great to be the only foreigner again and struggle with language. I loved cooking with them, doing interviews, meeting farmers, exchanging stories with farmers, eating with old women who grow 37 different types of yams, and much more. I got to go to a large festival celebrating rice diversity and their farmer field school. This helped to end my Thai experience on an incredibly high note as I soaked in their performances and deep connection to rice, helped give out seeds, spoke with passionate farmers, and learned once again about how deeply valuable crop diversity is to health, self-reliance, sustainable agriculture, farmers power, taste, religion, and culture.
Even though I am typing in a loud bar in Bangkok I can still close my eyes and be transported. My mind fills with smiling images of ancient fruit ladies in Italy, rice growers in Thailand, bakers in Italy, subsistence farmers in India, and thousands of farmers dancing together at Terra Madre. In some ways I feel like this is all some magical dream. Past ideas which I blew off as idealistic or silly now prove true around the world. I feel ecstatic in my conviction that through farming and saving seeds I can do more than just be happy and have the opportunity to fondle many beans. 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, feed people good-tasting food, and most importantly 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! What a journey this is! I wonder what Ethiopia holds.
As long as there are old women with seeds and organic fields, I am happy!
9 Month Report
It is a calm rainy morning in Cusco, Peru. The coca tea warms my throat and the Andean rain brings a feeling of freshness to the world. Once again, I am amazed that another three months has passed. Time has flown by, but it seems like ages ago when I wrote the last report in a crowded Bangkok restaurant. Since then I have been in Ethiopia, Canada, and Peru following my dream around the world. I left the states only 9 months ago a confused college graduate. My passion in life was certain, but I still struggled to figure out how I fit into this crazy world. Since then I have seen 6 new countries and travelled to many places I never dreamed of. Put plainly, my life has revolved around seeds: their propagation, importance, diversity, power, symbolism, meaning in different cultures, and use. The hope I have found through the seed-saving movement worldwide has been the core of my year and is something I could write for days about. I often feel like I’m overflowing with hope and respect for the power held in a seed.
However, the Watson Fellowship is about so much more than just my research. These 9 months of independent travel have given me a chance to step back and examine what my life is about. I have come to see that we learn the most through challenges. If I had simply stayed with my friends in the USA I would be comfortable and happily settled now. Instead, I have been immensely challenged both emotionally and physically. Giving up practically everything you know and love to travel the world alone is not an easy thing to do. There are times when I felt so alone it seemed as if no one in the world even knew I existed. Oddly, these feelings often came when in a city surrounded by millions of other people. Nights alone in Addis Ababa were tough as I couldn’t eat dinner without having crowds stare, beggars followed me at each turn, and young men tried to sell me anything you could imagine. I was a white face in a sea of black faces, unable to speak the local language.
There were other times I felt so constantly bombarded by people I desperately wanted to just run away and scream at the top of my lungs. There were also nights when I cried myself to sleep after hours of explosive diarrhea and vomiting (I never knew it was possible to do both at the same time!). I have spoken with farmers dying of malaria and felt children pulling on my pants to get just a piece of my bread. Through these challenges and many more I have been pushed to reexamine what my boundaries are. I have become comfortable in my own skin and have learned what it means to feel strongly out of place. Most powerfully, I have come to see the many similarities between peoples and cultures around the world. I now believe John Steinbeck was right when he said that we don’t have our own soul, but just a small piece of the much larger soul of humanity.
My journey has led me to gain a deep respect and appreciation for the human spirit in its many forms. I have shared laughs with chemical salesmen, beggars, elite landowners, scientists, farmers, racists, and everyone in between. I still subconsciously judge people based on the way in which I was raised, but now really enjoy looking past individuals harsh exteriors to see their human spirit shining within. We all are yearning to live a happy life, eat good food, find love, and gain some sort of respect or admiration. Our values and ways of living are defined in very different ways. However, there is a similar thread which links us all together on this crazy rock we call earth. This realization came to me one day in a busy market in Ethiopia. I was forced to sit down and laugh hysterically. All of a sudden, as I stared out at the mob of faces I saw that we were one and the same! I felt the anger of a drunken man inside me as he yelled uncontrollably. I saw myself in the rich businessmen pushing their way through the crowd and I felt the hunger of a desperate beggar deep in my stomach. Colors and defined faces faded away. They were replaced by a blurred mix of love, hate, devotion, dreams, and desires. Since then, I have felt content to stop searching for some huge esoteric meaning to life.
I am beginning to embrace the simple honesty of who I am. Throughout my whole life I have spent insane amounts of energy trying to impress others or define myself in relation to those around me. I was never cool per say, but I was the “compost man”, the “garden manager”, the club president, the environmental activist, etc. I hid my negative qualities and strived for some image of what I thought I should be – something that people would love and respect. Well, this year I have been away from all those who love and respect me. As a result, I have seen that I don’t have to work to impress people, it’s more important to be happy and healthy.
Many of the places I have visited this year have taught me that life is simpler than we have made it. Basic happiness is as much a part of living as any “success” we have been trained to strive for. I have become confident that I will never change the world. An individual can only do a small bit, but through our connections the actions ripple out and affect many others. Perhaps it is more important to live each day to the fullest, be joyous, and give respect to those around you than to work constantly to change the world. Life is fleeting at best and we must enjoy each minute we are given on this wonderful planet. After years of being fed depressing information on globalization and the state of our world, I have now benefited immensely from the globally connected nature of our planet.
The diverse people I have connected with have shown me what it means to live a good life. We will never go back to some ideal simple existence that may have existed in the past. However, we will continue to grow and adapt (like our local seeds). The universal nature of humanity will shine on as it has for so many generations. In times of need, leaders will step forward and movements will spread. I do not believe humanity is on a course destined for destruction. This is one possibility, but there is another path I see. Communities around the world will unite and develop local solutions to solve our many problems. Once again, food will be seen as essential to culture and life. Authentic diversity will spread and remind us all what it means to be connected to a place. We will harvest the power of the sun, create urban farms, invest in children instead of war, and learn from each other through mutual respect. Yes, this is an ideal dream. Nonetheless, this path is just as possible as worldwide destruction is! I am not saying all will be perfect. This year has taught me to be happy with imperfection and to embrace uncertainty. Armies will fight, lovers will come and go, money will be lost, land will be destroyed, and sickness will spread. But, I believe in the end we will recognize the power of food, community, and the basic necessities of life.
The Ethiopian people have shown me that there is no reason to live without hope! I stayed in areas in which farmers had faced two wars, droughts, and famines. However, they still celebrated their coffee ceremonies, danced together, relished good food, and laughed over local liquors. Hope shines in the eyes of Ethiopian farmers who trade seeds and develop new varieties which adapt to their land. It shines in the Thai children as they show me their school gardens, the happy seed sellers in Canada, the resilience of the Dukhobor community in British Columbia, and in the mountain villages that keep our ancient diversity alive. Around the world people are uniting in their awakening that we cannot continue “business as usual.” They are not just sitting back and complaining about all that’s wrong with the world. They are uniting to work for a positive solution that enables us to live a joyous life.
Ethiopia was a month filled with crop diversity, cultural diversity, passionate farmers, skipping with children, some vomiting, and plenty of good laughs with fellow seed savers. I was challenged on many levels, but left the country even more motivated and inspired than when I arrived. Through my travels and many interviews I have seen that diversity in crops is directly linked with health and diversity of human cultures. The crops and their resilient seeds have co-evolved with the cultures and eco-systems of their respective regions. When we lose crop varieties from a region this is not just a biological loss, but a loss of cultural systems, human livelihood, and farmers freedom. We lose not just an inventory of plant materials or genes, but an incredible storehouse of knowledge of how to grow and use the plants. The knowledge comes as a result of generations of men and women experimenting, selecting crops for their diverse needs, building on the knowledge on their forefathers, and passing the skills to their children. Each farming family has diverse criteria they use to determine how to spread their risk, produce enough food on marginal conditions, and satisfy local cultural needs.
Our food today did not just appear in the wild, it exists because of the hard work of so many farmers. Ethiopia is a center of crop diversity for durum wheat, barley, sorghum, coffee, and chickpeas. For years we have taken seeds from these people to develop our modern agriculture. Now, many are fighting to keep the seeds in farmer’s hands. The Ethiopian famers blew me away with their agricultural practices and complex local seed systems. In a country where nearly 90% of the population is farmers, agriculture is the central part of life. The power of farmer’s ancient knowledge can be seen quite evidently in an Ethiopian highland field with its extremely infertile, dry rocky soil that is filled with a diversity of colorful crops. These crops satisfy families nutritional, economic, gastronomic, alcoholic, and spiritual needs. Other tourists I met in Ethiopia could only talk about the extreme poverty and flies on children’s faces. However, the memories that stick out in my mind are of colorful dances, joyous families, and diverse fields. Ethiopia showed me once again how important diversity and seed saving is not just for survival, but also for community sufficiency and the enjoyment of life.
As a whole, the past 3 months were especially educational for me because I experienced so many drastic transitions. Flying straight from Ethiopia to Canada threw my body and emotions upside down. My first night in Vancouver I woke frequently to dreams of dry Ethiopian fields. For days I relished the hot water and flushing toilets, but felt disgusted by the excessive consumption. People fought in Addis Ababa over 5 cent bread while people in Canada dropped 8 dollars on a beer or 25 dollars on a breakfast. How can we explain these extreme differences? Why are some born with so much privilege while others are born with nothing? How can so many of the rich be mean and unhappy while many Ethiopian villagers in mud huts can be so kind and joyous? These questions and my withdrawal from Ethiopian coffee left me sleepless for days. However, I was cheered up my first weekend in BC by Victoria’s Seedy Saturday (nearly 2,000 people in attendance).
Seedy Saturdays began twenty years ago in Vancouver. The idea of the event was to bring together people from various fields to work together for the common goal of conservation of open pollinated seed. There are now over 70 Seedy Saturdays or Sundays in Canada and the idea has even spread to Britain. In my month in Canada I got to attend six Seedy Saturdays. At first I was very confused over how to apply all the lessons I learned this year to North America. However, I was continually inspired by the local food and local seed movement in Western Canada. The concept of food security is taking North America by storm and awareness is spreading to the issue of seeds. At each event I interviewed seed sellers, chatted with gardeners, swapped seeds and shared stories of my travels. Aside from attending these amazing events I lived with a passionate seed saver and gardener who runs “Seeds of Victoria.” She reminded me of the importance of seed diversity for gardeners in North America and taught me how to run a small-scale seed business that benefits the local food system. Other seed sellers like Dan Jason inspired me with their stories of community seed banks and small-scale grain growing.
In my first three weeks in Peru I have gotten tours of the Centro Internacional de Las Papas, visited many markets, tasted potatoes prepared in ways I never dreamed of, frolicked through Quinoa fields, and learned about the massive amount of native crop diversity here in the Andes. Once again, this locally adapted crop diversity is very important for marginal farmers because of their adaptability, pest and disease resistance, consistent yield without expensive inputs, taste, and balanced nutrition. The range of colors and varieties of potatoes in one field is truly astounding. There is beauty, health, and stability in diversity.
The farmers and activists I have met continue to show me that the power is in our hands to make change for the better. Yes, there are challenges. However, there are no excuses as to why we can’t keep our hope alive. The future is ours to grab and I see mine filled with seeds, healthy food, dance parties, friendship, love, and community. I do not need to change the world, I just need to improve the lives of some around me and have fun while doing it.
Sunday, August 16, 2009