"Food shouldn't be marginalised by politics. Itis the most important economic activity and everyoneneeds three meals a day," says Helena Norberg-Hodge,founder and director of the International Society forEcology and Culture (ISEC).I met Helena at the recent "A Taste of Slow FoodFestival" in Melbourne and was inspired by herpassion for what she refers to as the "localisationof food". ISEC, a not-for-profit organisation basedin the UK and the US, has been promoting local foodinitiatives in numerous countries for over 15 years,and organises conferences and workshops to highlightthe need to shift from a global to a locally based foodeconomy.
Many of us are becoming aware of the creeping globalisationand corporate control of our food supply. "Whyis it," Helena asks, "that butter sourcedfrom 1000km away costs less than butter produced ata local farm 1km away?" Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser'stale of GM contaminated canola crops and his legal battlewith Monsanto over patent infringement is becoming wellknown (regular readers will have read about Percy inprevious issues of NOVA). His experience is a soberingreminder of what can happen when farmers are forcedto sign away the right to their own seeds, livelihoodand production methods.
Against this background of corporate control and centralised"bigbucks" agribusiness, Helena offers a rayof hope and points out that there is a growing countermovement aimed at reinvigorating local communities.The growth in local food initiatives, school and communitygardens and farmers' markets all demonstrate growingconsumer awareness and concern about where our foodis sourced and how it is produced.
Helena, who has been awarded the Right Livelihood Award– an alternative Nobel Prize – talks ofthe need to shorten the distance between the food producerand the consumer. She quotes facts and figures thatmake a mockery of the global food economy: the averageAmerican meal has travelled more than 1500 miles beforeit arrives on the dinner table. Meanwhile in the UK,scampi are sent to Thailand to be peeled and then backto the UK to be sold.
Education and awareness raising are the basis of allthe programs run by ISEC. Helena equates education withactivism and encourages a bottom up approach. As votersand consumers, we can all help by voicing our concernsabout GM food, for example. "Don't feel disempowered,"she says.
Listening to Helena talk about the concept of shorteningthe distance between farmer and consumer, I am struckby just how obvious it all seems, and yet it is no longerthe norm in today's global culture. Shortening the distancebetween grower and consumer encourages farmers to diversifyproduction which, in turn, improves the health and thewelfare of the soil and wildlife. A healthier growingenvironment helps to increase productivity, reduce costsand boost profit margins. A win-win strategy that issimple and makes sense.
Helena was inspired to take action after witnessingthe dramatic changes in Ladakh (Tibet) once so-calleddevelopment and industrialised farming took hold inthe 1970s. She realised then the localisation of foodwas vital for human wellbeing as it helped to createthe necessary conditions for the "economics ofhappiness", by maintaining the fabric of a community.Development and industrialised production, by contrast,can undermine and challenge the traditional culturein developing nations.
"Television with its remote role models and glamorisedimages of life in the West serves to destroy culturalidentity, community pride and individual self esteem,"she says.
Helena's book "Ancient Futures: Learning fromLadakh" has now been translated into 30 languages.The central tenet of the book is that people in Ladakhwere content with their simple lifestyle and self sustainingculture until development turned it all upside down.As farmers were forced to move to urban centres in searchof jobs, unemployment rose, families began to scatterand ethnic groups came into conflict. What has happenedin Tibet has been replicated in many developing nationsaround the world.
In India, the introduction of expensive mechanisedfarming has made many farmers redundant and createdhigh levels of personal debt. As a result, the suiciderate among farmers has escalated. The environmentalcosts have been equally high: the accumulation of chemicalsin the soil has eradicated the vital layer of topsoil."Soil in India has become merely a means of keepingplants upright," says Barbara Burstyn, an investigativejournalist from New Zealand. Barbara travelled to Indiawith her husband, Canadian cinematographer Tom Burstyn,and biodynamic farmer Peter Proctor to produce an award-winingfilm "One Man, One Cow, One Planet".
Speaking at "A Taste of Slow", Barbara presenteda graphic demonstration of how modern chemical agriculturehas waged war on the land. Forget PowerPoint: Barbaratook a humble apple which she dissected into quarters.Once water, inhospitable land, housing and other factorsare taken out of the equation, we are left with onequarter and only a quarter of this quarter remains asavailable land to feed the world, with the skin representingthe only remaining topsoil. Food for thought, if you'llexcuse the pun.
Driven by corporate and government interest, Indiahas been at the forefront of GM experimentation. InGM areas, Barbara learnt that previously unknown illnessesand unexplained rashes are occurring, along with higherasthma rates among young children. Barbara explainsthat women are particularly exposed to GM organismsas they work the soil directly with their hands: "Itis never like that in a laboratory situation,"she adds. GM has also entered the food chain via animalfeed: cottonseed using leftover GM cotton is fed toanimals and so affects the entire food chain.
Keen to find out more, I telephone Barbara in New Zealand.She tells me that farmers in India are very clear thatthey are either chemical farmers or biodynamic and organicfarmers. Travelling throughout India, she was encouragedthat many of the farmers in rural areas had one messagefor the West: "Leave us alone: we don't want yourfood aid, your highways or your free trade." Moreover,young literate farmers in their twenties are conversantwith GM and related issues and are returning to theland to grow their own food using regional varieties.As smallholders are being driven off the land in favourof large privatising landowners, these younger farmersare becoming increasingly militant in their fight forthe right to continue to farm traditionally.
One village Barbara visited was "so strong inits sense of what organics does that I felt it a verypositive and uplifting place to be." One of theproblems, in her view, is that we have not only forgottenhow to live sustainably, but we have forgotten thatwe have forgotten. But there is hope. She believes thatthere will come a time when agribusiness will collapseas it is essentially "anti human" and "antigrowth." She explains that India used to rely ona well functioning ancient system of irrigation forits water supply. Thanks to the "Green Revolution"and the introduction of pumped-in water, many rivershave now dried up.
The solution, she believes, is to maintain a sufficientbank of knowledge about traditional human based systems,"so that we will be ready to forge ahead when everythingelse falls over".
And this is where the work and legacy of Peter Proctorcome in. Travelling around New Zealand for many yearson behalf of the Biodynamic Farming Association, Peter,now 80, gave up a comfortable retirement in New Zealandand, instead, started to travel regularly to India withhis partner, Rachel, to promote the benefits of biodynamicfarming. Using cow dung to enrich the soil is centralto his teachings, a method which has clearly found resonancewith many Indian farmers. As the old Indian saying goes,'The Goddess of prosperity lies in cow dung.'
"What Peter has been doing is to divest his knowledgefor the benefit of the next generation," explainsBarbara.
As with Helena's work in Ladakh, it is the return tosimple, local traditions that empower rural communitiesto break away from the corrosive influence of developmentand agribusiness. Films such as "One Man, OneCow, One Planet" are helping to encourage dialogueand understanding between developed and developing nations.Each side needs to understand, respect and observe theculture and traditions of the other.
ISEC organises reality tours for Ladakhi communityleaders to come to the West to observe life in the developedworld as it really is, rather than as portrayed in themedia. Participating Ladakhis have commented that peoplein the West have lots of money but little time for communityand for each other. ISEC's "Learning from Ladakh'"project enables Westerners to live and work with Ladakhifamilies and gain insight into their traditional cultureand lifestyle. Participants usually return with a differentidea of what constitutes happiness – the kindof happiness that money can't buy.
Global warming continues to loom large in our mediawith laudable initiatives such as Earth Hour takingplace in many cities around the world, but the linkbetween food production and global warming is seldomhighlighted. Food production is a major contributorto global warming and we need to do more than just turnoff the lights for an hour at 8pm. As individuals wecan do a great deal to influence change by making ourvoices heard and exercising our choices wisely.
"I'm not underestimating the power of the individual– the small farmers in India. They want to beable to do it themselves. There's a groundswell of powerthere that you can't stop," says Peter Proctor.
We must take our lead and inspiration from campaignersand awareness raisers, like Helen and Barbara, and playour part in creating a groundswell of power –whether it's by lobbying supermarkets over food labelling,writing to MPs to question the introduction of GM, buyinglocally, growing our own produce, supporting farmers'markets, avoiding food laden with air miles or simplyspreading some manure on our gardens.
There's no excuse for apathy or indifference and noroom for wistful comments such as, "But what canI do?'" We can all do so much. It just takes alittle awareness, effort and commitment. As Barbarasays, "All you can do is more."
"One Man, One Cow, One Planet"
can be ordered from www.cloudsouthfilms.co.nz
ISEC - www.isec.org.uk