The current calls for sustainable agriculture align with principles Srila Prabhupada put forward five decades ago.
By Giriraja Govinda Dasa
“One must have his food locally. That is good civilization.” – Srila Prabhupada, Lecture at World Health Organization, Geneva, June 6, 1974.
Food has a special place in our lives. It is one of the basic necessities. Across the world there are different cultures of food, and it has biological and social significance for us. Before the eighteenth century, the world was primarily an agrarian civilization. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the industrial revolution flourished in Europe, and through colonization, the industrial civilization spread across the world. Modern civilization is primarily a fossil-fuel–based industrial civilization, the resulting psyche determining our approach to food production. Pre-industrial or traditional agricultural methods are rapidly getting replaced by a factory-farming model. Food is now an important part of the globalization phenomena.
Globalization of food is not new. As early as 130 BC the famous silk routes were used to exchange Indian spices with Greece.1 After Columbus accidentally discovered America, the Columbian Exchange brought several Native American crops to Europe, such as potatoes, tomatoes, and corn.2 Today the huge scale of globalization (influenced by large corporations) enables the rapid exchange of goods, including food. After all, viewed in the factory paradigm, food is a compulsory survival commodity for all of us. With the involvement of giant multinational corporations in agriculture and the food business, along with the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank, and governments of different nations, today food is largely a product of corporate globalization.
In pre-industrial agriculture, people used oxen to plow the land, and their manure was used to fertilize crops. Industrial agriculture encourages use of machinery to till the land (sending cattle to slaughterhouses) and of chemical fertilizers to replace natural organic manure. In traditional agriculture, people grew diverse crops together (referred to as polyculture or biodiversity). This ensures food security in case some crops fail. Further, diverse crops cooperate with one another. For example, in Native American polyculture gardens, corn, climbing beans, and winter squash (the “three sisters”) were grown together.3 The corn provides a structure for the beans to climb; the beans provide the nitrogen to the soil that the other plants use; and the squash spreads along the ground, blocking the sunlight, retaining moisture, and helping prevent the establishment of weeds.
Industrial agriculture, however, selects a few commercially beneficial crops and encourages monocultures in cultivation. From 1960 to 2000, the industrialized “Green Revolution” in the Indian state of Punjab saw increased wheat acreage4 from 29.58% to 44.5% and increased rice acreage from 4.79% to 25%. Meanwhile, the area under pulses dropped from 19% to 0.21%, oilseeds from 3.9% to 0.71%, and millets from 11.26% to 0.21%.
Today India imports its pulses. Where a basketful of variety could have been obtained, now there is scarcity of important dietary supplements, severely affecting nutrition. Monocultures also result in eventual disappearance of indigenous crop varieties due to lack of cultivation. Across the world the industrial farming model perpetrated by giant multinational corporations encourages cultivation of a handful of crops, like corn, soya, canola, and wheat.5 Much more of it goes to feed animals in slaughterhouses than to feed people. Vested commercial interests limit the variety of food crops. And, as I’ll discuss further, the encouragement of monocultures and the use of chemical fertilizers work hand in glove.
“We shall never use this artificial fertilizer on our farms. It is forbidden in the sastras. If you plant easily grown crops once in the year, then the earth will not become exhausted. Don’t overuse the land.” – Srila Prabhupada Letter, January 11, 1976
Fertilizers, Natural and Chemical
Fertilizers are used to provide adequate nutrition and minerals for crops. Natural organic manure such as cow dung mixed with soil encourages beneficial algae, soil bacteria, and earth worms to form nutritious humus without side effects. The chemical fertilizers introduced by man are the hallmark of industrial agriculture. Machinery, monoculture, and the destruction of biodiversity make chemical fertilizers the only option. They consume much water because fertilizers have to be dissolved in soil; otherwise crops get burnt up. The raw materials used to make chemical fertilizers are the same as those used to make gunpowder for explosives.6 In the book The Alchemy of Air, we get the account of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, the leading pioneers of chemical fertilizers and their eventual use during the world wars and the rise of Hitler.7 After the wars, the abundant chemical fertilizers manufactured by a few companies needed a new market. Industrial agriculture provided the suitable platform. Addressing a meeting in New Delhi in 1967, Norman Borlaug, the Noble Peace Prize winner and “father of the Green Revolution,” declared, “Fertilizers! . . . Give the farmers more fertilizers.”8 Punjab, the north Indian state where the green revolution was carried out for five decades, has suffered irreparable damage. The soil is critically ill, infested with chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides. The effect on the people of Punjab is severe: A train nicknamed “the cancer train” carries a hundred cancer patients a day from Punjab to Bikaner, Rajasthan, for treatment.9
Like any other science, genetic engineering is harmful or harmless depending upon who uses it and to what purpose. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are highly controversial. Giant agribusinesses such as Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, and Syngenta patent genetically engineered seeds.10 A gene gun shoots a gene into a seed to help the plant resist a pest or weed, supposedly negating the need for a pesticide or herbicide. On real fields, however, not only do these GM crops not resist the intended pest or weed, but the pest or weed develops resistance and harms the crop.11 Worse, the GM seeds have “terminator technology,” where the seed is made to lose its natural reproducing capacity.12 Together with governments and the WTO, the corporations tweak the intellectual property laws, and such seeds get patents and entitlement to royalty collection.13 This means the farmers cannot save seeds and have to buy them every year. Monsanto alone has collected $900 million in royalties from small farmers in India.14
With nonrenewable costly seeds, increased irrigation, and costly fertilizers, farmers are pushed into debt. To recover, they need a good market to sell their crop. But they lose out due to the dumping of cheap, subsidized imported foods. Farmers in developing countries get into this vicious cycle of factory farming and, unable to clear their debt, lose their land to the bank or loan agents. Since 1995, about 300,000 farmers in India have committed suicide due to debt.15
The story is also bad in developed countries. The market is flooded with unlabelled GM food, and citizens are fighting to get them labeled. Proponents of industrial agriculture advocate that it increases yields. But when yield is calculated, only labor is taken as input, ignoring the destruction of biodiversity and the increased pollution of air, water, and land. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources in Leipzig (1995), industrial agriculture is responsible for 75% of biodiversity erosion, 75% of water destruction, 75% of land degradation, and 40% of greenhouse gases.16 As Srila Prabhupada says, growing food locally is good civilization. At present, it is not an option but a dire necessity.
The Self-sustaining Way of Life
“Produce your food locally and then support yourself.” – Srila Prabhupada, Room Conversation, June 19, 1974
Srila Prabhupada encouraged local, natural farming principles in harmony with nature. He did not like people traveling long distances to cities to work in factories. He encouraged the self-sustaining way of life where we grow our food locally and produce our own milk products with cows, thus dealing with our economic situations locally. Globalizing food at the expense of local, natural, self-sustaining farms is bringing disasters. Srila Prabhupada recognized this problem and hence advocated producing and consuming food locally, with trade only after local sufficiency.17 Solving the problem of the growing world population is the most cited reason that greedy corporations give for industrial farming. Srila Prabhupada rejected the propaganda of overpopulation,18 a seemingly radical position (especially in 1968). But Prabhupada always upheld the Vedic model on social issues.
Now the world is waking up to this issue. Recognizing the importance of small local farms, at the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), the Food and Agricultural Organization released a report stating that, even today, 70% of food still comes from small farms.19 This means that industrial farming is not the solution for so-called over-population. Small, local, natural farms are. This is what Srila Prabhupada encouraged about five decades ago.
ISKCON has farm communities like New Vrindaban in West Virginia, Govardan Ecovillage near Mumbai, New Vraja Dhama in Hungary, and New Govardhana in Australia.20 These village-size farm communities are pursuing Srila Prabhupada’s vision for local self-sufficiency. Some have won awards and have been recognized by local governments.
Every one of us can do our bit to promote natural farming and organic food. Towards this end, two ISKCON devotees are making some attempts. Abhirama Dasa, a thirty-five-year-old with a master’s degree in computer applications, lives about forty miles outside Bangalore. He has a residential plot (eight thousand square feet) on which he has set up a simple goshala (a cow and two calves). He is trying his hand at farming. I spoke with him about his experience.
Giriraja Govinda Dasa: Are you traditionally a farmer?
Abhirama Dasa: No. I worked as software developer for HP, then as a entrepreneur. I had my own packaging business.
GG: Tell us about your crops.
AD: Mostly vegetables, greens, some fruits, tomatoes, cluster beans, ladies’ fingers [okra], radish, carrots, chili, amaranth, coriander, banana, papaya, jackfruit, coconut – and flax as a bio-fence.
GG: Why so many?
AD: To increase biodiversity. Actually it’s possible in eight thousand square feet. The trick is to grow diverse with rotational crops.
GG: Did you use any machinery?
AD: The first day. I used a tractor to loosen the soil. The land was hard. Srila Prabhupada said to avoid machines as much as possible. I used the tractor once. I plan to arrange bulls from now on.
GG: Have you used any chemical fertilizers?
AD: No. Using cow dung from my goshala, I make a microbial culture called jivamruta. It’s natural.
GG: What do you advise for city devotees who do not have land?
AD: They can start terrace gardening, having small pots with vegetable plants. Eat organic food if it’s available. Food awareness is the first step. I took three years to ready my mind.
GG: When are you expecting the harvest of vegetables and fruits ?
AD: Since I have rotational crops, I get them throughout the year.
While Abhirama is trying to be a producer, another devotee, Madhura Gauranga Dasa, has ventured to become a distributor. A thirty-seven-year-old with a degree in statistics, he worked as business analyst for Symphony Services, Bangalore. He gets in contact with local farmers and inspires them to grow organic food. His job is to link the devotee community with farmers. This way the devotees can be sure that the food they get from a particular farmer is really organic.
GG: Are you traditionally a farmer?
Madhura Gauranga Dasa: No. My father was a government official. But my grandfather was a farmer.
GG: How do you contact farmers?
MG: Through several NGOs, the organic farmers’ mela [festival], Whatsapp groups of likeminded people, etc.
GG: Are you able to give your farmers some profit?
MG: Yes. I make sure they get 20–25% profit. Besides, they save money on fertilizers and seeds. The concept is zero-budget natural farming.
GG: What do devotees who consume organic food feel about it? Is the quality superior?
MG: Yes. They immediately notice the improved taste, and they feel increased energy levels within a month.
GG: Are your farmers happy?
MG: Certainly. For me, the farmer who grows the food is very important. They say they are satisfied.
GG: Was it a big risk to take up this profession? Were you scared about your income?
MG: Initially, yes. But as you get deep into it, opportunities multiply favorably.
Prabhupada’s Spiritual Perspective
Any of us can make a difference in small ways. Over time, our endeavors click, and we inspire others.
Srila Prabhupada had higher, spiritual perspectives on food, deeper than mere preference for local, natural farming. He did not want us to just grow local food and remain in material consciousness. He had a bigger vision – to transport the entire earth population to the spiritual world. Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavad–gita (9.26):
“If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water, I will accept it.” In the purport Srila Prabhupada writes:
In the Third Chapter, verse thirteen, Sri Krishna explains that only the remains of sacrifice are purified and fit for consumption by those who are seeking advancement in life and release from the clutches of the material entanglement. Those who do not make an offering of their food, He says in the same verse, are eating only sin. In other words, their every mouthful is simply deepening their involvement in the complexities of material nature. But preparing nice, simple vegetable dishes, offering them before the picture or Deity of Lord Krishna and bowing down and praying for Him to accept such a humble offering enable one to advance steadily in life, to purify the body, and to create fine brain tissues which will lead to clear thinking. Above all, the offering should be made with an attitude of love. Krishna has no need of food, since He already possesses everything that be, yet He will accept the offering of one who desires to please Him in that way. The important element, in preparation, in serving and in offering, is to act with love for Krishna.
This is the larger picture Srila Prabhupada promoted about food: Grow local, natural food, lovingly cook and offer it to the Lord, and it becomes prasada, spiritual mercy. Honor it, chant Hare Krishna, and be happy and healthy spiritually, mentally, and physically. And Mother Earth will be happy too.
8 Dr. Vandana Shiva, Chapter 3: “Violence of the Green Revolution,” in Chemical Fertilizers and Soil Fertility, Violence of the Green Revolution (Nataraj Publishers, 2010).
12 Dr. Sahadeva Dasa, Chapter titled “Food Insecurity(GM Genocide),” in End of Modern Civilization and Alternative Future (Bhagavata World Order Press, Dec. 2008).
17 Srila Prabhupada letter to Yashomatinandana Dasa, November 28, 1976
18 Lecture, December 27, 1968, Los Angeles