The year 2015 is the International Year of Soils. It is also the year the UN Millennium Development Goals launched in 2000 expire, and are to be replaced by Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 goals and their 169 targets cover a vast range of issues, but care for the soil is the foundation of sustainability and is central to practically every SDG.
As the ancient Indian Vedas recognised more than 4,000 years ago: “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Care for it and it will grow our food, our fuel, our shelter, and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”
It won’t be possible to end poverty and hunger using agriculture based on the purchase of costly seeds and chemicals. This traps impoverished farmers in debt and forces many of them to swell the ranks of the urban poor. Industrial agriculture’s focus on chemical-dependent monocultures and growing “nutritionally empty” commodities such as biofuels and animal feed is an aberration when we can produce twice the nutrition the world needs through biodiversity intensification. Biodiversity intensification is also thousands of times more effective in addressing nutritional deficiencies of vitamins and minerals such as iron and vitamin A than the false promises of genetically engineered golden rice or genetically modified bananas. And it doesn’t need the pesticides and herbicides that poison our food and are contributing to an epidemic of neurological diseases and cancers.
Agriculture needs water as well as soil of course, and here again chemical agriculture represents a “lose-lose” situation. It creates water scarcity while polluting water resources and the soil, and run-off is causing dead zones in water bodies all over the world, even far out to sea. Care for the soil through organic farming would help tackle this, and help reduce threats to the oceans from warming and acidification. Ecological agriculture reduces water demand in farming, and increases the water-holding capacity of soil by increasing the soil organic matter (SOM): 0.5% increase in SOM can increase water in the soil by 80,000 litres per hectare.
Water is only one of several “balances” that industrial production tips dangerously away from sustainability. Energy is another. We need a transition from fossil fuel to decentralised renewable energy. This entails a transition from fossil fuel-intensive industrial agriculture that uses 10 times more energy as inputs than it produces as food. While industrial biofuels are diverting land and food grain from the hungry to automobiles, decentralised ecological farming can increase biogas production at local levels, transforming farm waste into fertilisers and energy.
Another problem with the fossil fuel-based productivity calculus is that it defines labour as an “input”, and defines increase of productivity and growth on the basis of reducing labour inputs, so replacing people with fossil fuels is seen as an improvement. We must abandon this old-fashioned way of thinking and the measures of growth that go along with it. The environmental, health and social costs of unsustainable economies are not “externalities”, they have costs, not least to our health, that become obvious when we think in terms of well-being and not just growth.
But even in terms of hard cash, the current system makes no sense. The non-sustainable industrial system of food and agriculture is propped up by $400 billion in subsidies, which are destroying more productive family farms and increasing disease and unemployment. The reduction of inequality within and between countries must begin by recognising and rewarding the work of real farmers who produce real food, which provides health and contributes to the conservation of soil, biodiversity and water.
Soil is a gender question, too. It is often forgotten that most farmers are women. And women farmers produce more food using fewer resources than their male counterparts. However, women and children are also the worst victims of violence, hunger and malnutrition. Putting women back at the centre of agriculture and nutrition can be the single biggest contribution to gender equality and the empowerment of women. Earlier this year, women from across India gathered at Navdanya for “Mahila Anna Swaraj” to celebrate their role as seed keepers and food producers. They made a commitment to protect the soil, their seeds, their food sovereignty and their knowledge sovereignty. A young girl who attended the gathering went back to her school in West Uttar Pradesh with this commitment and 20 schools are now planning a campaign on “Bija Bachao, Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao”: “Save your seeds, protect the girl child, send her to school.”
*Network of seed keepers and organic producers spread across 17 states in India