Wednesday, 30 April 2008


ps Did you see the interview on Dateline tonight (Australian broadcaster ABC TV 9pm), with George Negus and Dr. Raj Patel? It was on this very topic and was very specific about what must happen to ensure food supply equity is restored ASAP to those who cannot afford to pay more for food produced with absurdly high inputs derived from oil. Nice to be backed up by such a well-respected and well-spoken authority, instead of always having my neck on the chopping block! But! Why has it taken 7 years? And are these just more words? Here is another interesting article high-lighting the seriousness of the problem for peasant and farmer-based food growers.

When I got up this morning I decided I wasn't going to write anything today. Nothing. NOT A WORD. Mostly to give my eyes a rest. I have always had great eyesight but...shut-up Kate. OK. I have only been sitting here for 5 minutes, reading, and that is enough to start me off again. I wrote some notes while at the shack, from a great series of articles I read in the October 2001 edition of 'Slow' - the magazine of the Slow Food movement. If you can, I would highly recommend reading it. I guess it is more of the same but it is about food security for the developing world, this time, and includes some excellent research with some facts and figures to mull over. Why, when it was published in 2001, nothing has been done by now in 2008 (as far as I know but that's not a fact) is testament to the western world's addiction to making money at any cost.

If we think food is getting expensive and things are disrupting our normally manageable lives, just take a few minutes to think about people in the third world who, on the one hand, have often had culturally rich and happy lives but, on the other, are now losing their self-reliance as big agri-business seeps like a cancer through their innocent lives. The majority of the several billion people on this planet are not part of an affluent society and do place food security at the top of the list of importance for their families. They have always - and that means for thousands of years, thousands of generations even, saved their seeds and grown their food in their home gardens. This is what a family must do - just a part of their lives - in addition to working their fields or having another job to have something to trade for money or other goods and services. Primarily it has been the women who have taken the responsibility for this seemingly simple and yet vital activity. From a small piece of land they are able to intensively harvest nutritious meals day after day from a diverse range of plants and a few chickens or other small animals. We all know how little space you need and how much you can grow.

In some parts of Africa more than 100 food crops are regularly grown among the cash crops, as food for the small-scale farmers. A study in Nigeria found that home gardens occupying only 2% of a household's farmland accounted for half the farm's total output of food. In Java, villagers cultivate at least 600 recorded species in their home gardens. Such massive gene diversity ensures food security during drought, storms and changing weather patterns as well as rising oil prices and so-called Free-Trade agreements. Nutrition supplied by the variety in these diets is responsible for maintaining a reasonable level of health, free from some of the insidious western diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancers.

In a mono-culture there is no such diversity nor is there the intensity. However, agri-business can rightly claim that an area planted with, for example, rice will reap a certain yield per acre. Since no official figures have been collated concerning the small vegetable gardens dotted about in a village nor any notes taken on the nutrition provided or the biodiversity present, these plots are rendered invisible and are not considered as part of the GDP, on paper. And of paper there is plenty when a large company proposes to install a huge mono-culture, over all this land. The villagers are attracted by these foreigners who are promising increased incomes and standards of living for the poor farmers and, in most cases, they readily accept the deals with the blessing of governments who see the growth in commercial agriculture as improving their GDP.

This makes me cry with shame - how can we westerners allow this to happen? We are quite pathetic - you, me, all of us. We can see it won't work but we do nothing to stop it. These lovely people lose their food security overnight. They become tied to a system of agriculture that requires huge inputs of chemicals and oil to sustain it and they become slaves to the company and to anyone who will lend them the money to buy the chemicals and fertilisers and the seed to grow a crop specified by the agri-business. Their food crops disappear, often becoming lost forever. The huge bio-diversity previously supported by their gardens - of plants,birds, insects, even fish and reptiles, are literally chewed up and annihilated causing large infestations of pests which now can reach plague proportions because of the lack of species able to keep them in check. The people, in one generation, often become destitute and aid workers step in to try to at least feed people whose crops fail in a drought or flood or because they can't afford the chemicals. A once proud and happy village becomes a tangle of infighting, disease and depression which can lead to suicides and total collapse. I prefer to call it pre-meditated murder.

It may seem a long shot to draw comparisons between third world experiences and ourselves in Australia but this failure to notice the small, in favour of the huge, is a cross-cultural problem. Let's take a person who grows half of their family's fruit and vegetables.This has an extensive list of benefits to the family's health and that of the planet. It keeps the gardener fit, provides the best possible nutrition for the family, maintains and improves soil health, decreases the family's carbon footprint, is water efficient compared to broad-acre production, recycles all nutrients back into the soil, reduces landfill by removing green waste from rubbish, reduces CO2 emissions as a consequence of reduces food miles, teaches children about many things not the least of which is where their food comes from, lets them connect with the earth and so on.

However, none of this seems worthy of mention or consideration when policies are made regarding how a country should tackle obesity, greenhouse gas emissions, water shortages, mental health, feeding the world, bio-diversity or any other of today's problems within our country and in other parts of the world. Recently I read that it takes about 5,000 litres per day per person for food grown by conventional agricultural methods! If I had that much water I could grow food for, let me see...that's about 1,600,000 litres per least then 10 people probably double that plus have enough for the rest of my garden and for indoor use. Big business steps in with huge plans - build pipelines, import more doctors, more engineers, more tradespeople, make farms bigger, introduce genetically modified crops, store our carbon emissions underground, grow crops to use for fuel. In short, destroy more to solve less.

The absurdity is so obvious and has its roots in the false premise that big is better. However, big problems occur where only big solutions are sought, it seems to me. Most of the above problems are enormous because no-one thought to look at what individuals could contribute, each in their own, small way. Disregarding the small is fatal. Each bee, ant, fish, bird human must be allowed and encouraged to participate if the whole is to survive. If each individual takes some responsibility then the sum of the total will be greater than that of the parts allowing harmony to have a chance to be established, as in the case of the example of the third world gardens. Basically, we can play as an orchestra or as a machine. As members of an orchestra, each gives of themselves for the benefit of the whole group as well as for the listeners, composers, instrument manufacturers, venue operators, ticket sales offices and so on. Small, united groups; big effect, and in charge of their own destiny. If we act as individual cogs of a huge machine, on the other hand, we are powerless to do other than follow the leader with the result being we take no responsibility for the workings or direction of the machine and simply use it as a means to climb the corporate ladder for personal gain.

If all people who grow their own food could stand tall, shoulder to shoulder, we would stretch around the whole circumference of the globe and could become a group prepared to orchestrate change not just for ourselves but for the whole of humanity and life on earth because we would be playing in harmony with each other and at peace with the world. Somehow we have to not just sit here and write stuff, we have to get out and sing together!

A little bit of Action in my life,
A little box of Seedlings by my side.
A little bit of Help is all I need,
A little bit of Hope is what I see.
A little bit of Dancing in the sun,
A little bit of Thinking all night long.
A little bit of Email, here I am,
A little bit of This makes it sound grand!
Mambo number five.

One of my lovely tuberous begonias to brighten a rainy day and a bowl of red capsicum soup to warm the cockles of our hearts.


Kate said...

Maggie, I am sorry this is so long and almost picture-less. You know how things are...

steph said...

I just did a little further reading and will pass on these links to you. A transcript of the Dateline interview is here. Patel works for Food First.

Kate said...

Thanks Steph - I have added the links to the post. I intended to do that this morning but just got started writing soemthing else instead!!

Greg W said...

I really like your use of the orchestra and machine to illustrate our responsibility to how we live. It is very difficult to organize those who grow their own food, and only wish to be allowed to continue doing so, against an agribusiness model that places its own financial security above the third world’s food security. And when they do it in the name of bringing a ‘better life’ to third world countries it becomes truly sad.

You present a very important aspect of this thing called life and that is growing your own food as separate from skills to trade for goods and services. The two separate entities have existed quite well for millennia until the so-called ‘rich’ nations mechanized and industrialized it all into the single-minded and diversity-destroying bottom line to improve our lifestyles.

Your points on crop diversity are very well stated. The studies in Nigeria and Java concerning home gardens are particularly fascinating. They show that properly managed farms and the continued cultivation of crop diversity is a much more responsible way to maintain health as opposed to the pharmaceutical companies ‘pills for a better life’ scheme.

Policy makers in first world countries have forgotten the satisfaction one can gain from growing your own food. The majority would rather leave that ‘chore’ to someone else and then think we live in the lap of luxury because we have what used to be ‘seasonal’ food year-round. I think we have ‘evolved’ too far from working the land and we are slowly killing ourselves by doing so. The Slow Food Movement has the right idea.

Thank you for posting this very provocative read. It needed to be said.