Saturday, December 06, 2008

Soil Not Oil: Why We Need to Kick Petroleum Out of Our Farms

By Vandana Shiva, South End Press. Posted December 3, 2008.

Biodiverse farms offer us more food, better food, higher incomes for farmers and a defense from climate disasters.

The following is an excerpt from Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis by Vandana Shiva (South End Press, 2008).

The industrialized, globalized food system is based on oil. It is under threat because of the inevitability of "peak oil." It is also under threat because it is more vulnerable than traditional agriculture to climate change, to which it has contributed. Industrial agriculture is based on monocultures. Monocultures are highly vulnerable to changes in climate, and to diseases and pests.

In 1970 and 1971, America's vast corn belt was attacked by a mysterious disease, later identified as ''race T" of the fungus Helminthosporium maydis, causing the southern corn leaf blight, as the epidemic was called. It left ravaged cornfields with withered plants, broken stalks, and malformed or completely rotten cobs. The strength and speed of the blight was a result of the uniformity of the hybrid corn, most of which had been derived from a single Texas male sterile line. The genetic makeup of the new hybrid corn, which was responsible for its rapid and large-scale breeding by seed companies, was also responsible for its vulnerability to disease. At least 80 percent of the hybrid corn in America in 1970 contained the Texas male sterile cytoplasm. As a University of Iowa pathologist wrote, "Such an extensive, homogenous acreage is like a tinder-dry prairie waiting for a spark to ignite it."

Industrial agriculture is dependent on chemical fertilizers. Chemically fertilized soils are low in organic matter. Organic matter helps conserve the soil and soil moisture, providing insurance against drought. Soils lacking organic matter are more vulnerable to drought and to climate change. Industrial agriculture is also more dependent on intensive irrigation. Since climate change is leading to the melting of glaciers that feed rivers, and in many regions of the world to the decline in precipitation and increased intensity of drought, the vulnerability of industrial agriculture will only increase. Finally, since the globalized food system is based on long-distance supply chains, it is vulnerable to breakdown in the context of extreme events of flooding, cyclones, and hurricanes. While aggravating climate change, fossil fuel-dependent industrialized, globalized agriculture is least able to adapt to the change.

We need an alternative. Biodiverse, organic farms and localized food systems offer us security in times of climate insecurity, while producing more food, producing better food, and creating more livelihoods. The industrialized, globalized food system is based on oil; biodiverse, organic, and local food systems are based on living soil. The industrialized system is based on creating waste and pollution; a living agriculture is based on no waste. The industrialized system is based on monocultures; sustainable systems are based on diversity.

Living Soil

Every step in building a living agriculture sustained by a living soil is a step toward both mitigating and adapting to climate change. Over the past 20 years, I have built Navdanya, India's biodiversity and organic-farming movement. We are increasingly realizing there is a convergence between the objectives of conserving biodiversity, reducing climate-change impact, and alleviating poverty.

Biodiverse, local, organic systems reduce water use and risks of crop failure due to climate change. Increasing the biodiversity of farming systems can reduce vulnerability to drought. Millet, which is far more nutritious than rice and wheat, uses only 200 to 300 millimeters of water, compared with the 2,500 millimeters needed for Green Revolution rice farming. India could grow four times the amount food it does now if it were to cultivate millet more widely. However, global trade is pushing agriculture toward GM monocultures of corn, soy, canola, and cotton, worsening the climate crisis.

Biodiversity offers resilience to recover from climate disasters. After the Orissa supercyclone of 1998, and the tsunami of 2004, Navdanya distributed seeds of saline-resistant rice varieties as "Seeds of Hope" to rejuvenate agriculture in lands that were salinated as a result of flooding from the sea. We are now creating seed banks of drought-resistant, flood-resistant, and saline-resistant seed varieties to respond to such extreme climate events. Climate chaos creates uncertainty. Diversity offers a cushion against both climate extremes and climate uncertainty. We need to move from the myopic obsession with monocultures and centralization to diversity and decentralization.


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Activist and physicist Vandana Shiva is founder and director of the Research Foundation for Science,

Technology, and Natural Resource Policy in New Delhi. She is author of more than three hundred papers in leading journals and numerous books.

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