I have just returned from a soil pilgrimage undertaken to celebrate the International Year of Soil and renew our commitment to a non-violent relationship with the earth, the soil and our society. On October 2, we started the pilgrimage from Bapu Kutir at Sevagram Ashram, Maharashtra. My fellow pilgrims were those who have contributed over half-a-century of their lives to build the organic movement — Andre Leu, president of International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) of the United States, and Will Allen, a professor and long-time organic farmer.
At Mahatma Gandhi’s hut, we took a pledge to stop the violence to the soil through chemical fertilisers and poisons and promote organic farming as ahimsa kheti. We dedicated ourselves to a transition from a violent, chemical, industrial agriculture that is destroying soil fertility and trapping farmers in debt through high-cost seeds and chemicals.
Vidarbha, for example, has emerged as the epicentre of debt-induced farmers’ suicides. It is also the region with the highest acreage of genetically modified organism (GMO) Bt cotton. Fields of non-Bt, native cotton — which is totally pest and weed-free — gives more yields than Bt cotton.
The Bt fields are being doused in pesticides because of pest outbreaks, since Bt is failing as a tool to control pests. Bt cotton fields are also being sprayed with Monsanto’s Roundup, a known carcinogen to control weeds.
There is no regulation of the poisons being used. Most of the GMO cotton seed is being blended and labelled for sale as vegetable oil. We are being fed GMO cotton seed oil, even though GMOs are not allowed in food in India. And while toxic oils spread without regulation, the new food safety rules have shut down the ghani (virgin oil press) that sold healthy and safe oils like flax, groundnut, sesame and mustard.
The oilcake is being fed to our cows. Those who kill others in the name of cow protection are silent on the fight against the toxic giants who are poisoning our “gau mata”.
The pilgrimage concluded at the Agriculture College, Indore, which started as Albert Howard’s institute on organic farming that contributed to the famous Indore process of composting.
Mahatma Gandhi came to know of the Indore process when he visited London to attend the Round Table Conference. Gandhi and Howard have shown that we can have a peaceful and respectful relationship with the soil and with each other.
Howard was sent to India in 1905 by the British Empire to introduce chemical farming. When he arrived, he found the soils were fertile and there were no pests in the fields. He decided to make the Indian peasant his professor and wrote the book An Agricultural Testament, known as the bible of organic farming.
Organic farming is the original example of “Make in India”. Howard’s book helped spread the organic movement to the US through the Rodale Institute and to the UK through the Soil Association, finding its way to far corners of the world.
The soil pilgrimage was our expression of gratitude to sources of organic farming in India — our fertile and generous land and Mother Earth that have sustained us for millennia.
Ecological and regenerative agriculture is based on recycling organic matter, and hence recycling nutrients. It is based on the Law of Return — giving nutrients back to the soil. As Howard wrote in The Soil and Health: “Taking without giving is a robbery of the soil and a banditry; a particularly mean form of banditry, because it involves the robbing of future generations which are not here to defend themselves.”
In taking care of the soil, we also produce more food on less land. Fertile soils are the sustainable answer to food and nutrition security. Organic agriculture is the only real answer to climate change.
The air pollution that has built up in the atmosphere is roughly 400 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide today. This is the reason for the greenhouse effect and climate chaos, including temperature rise. To cap the rise of temperature at two degrees centigrade, we need to reduce the carbon build up in the air to 350 ppm.
There is a need to reduce emissions and phase out fossil fuels, but it also requires reducing the stocks of excess carbon from the atmosphere and putting it back into the soil where it belongs. Here, organic, regenerative agriculture offers us the way out.
In the process, it also addresses food insecurity and hunger, reverses desertification, creates livelihood security by creating ecological security, and, therefore, creates the path to peace.
Above all, it allows a transition from the violent paradigm, structures and systems of capitalist patriarchy to the non-violent paradigm, structures and systems based on ahimsa, which include the well being of all.
Organic farming is the answer to drought and climate change. It is also a peace solution. If we do not respect the soil and our cultural diversity and if we do not collectively recommit ourselves to ahimsa, we can rapidly disintegrate as a civilisation.
For me, organic agriculture is the dharma that sows the seeds of peace and prosperity for all. It helps us break out of the vicious cycle of violence and degeneration, and create virtuous cycles based on non-violence and regeneration.
Just as humus in soil binds soil particles and prevents soil erosion, it also binds the society and prevents violence and social disintegration. Since humus provides food, livelihood, water and climate security, it also contributes to peace. Just as wet straw cannot be put on fire by a matchstick, communities that are secure cannot be put on fire by violent elements feeding on insecurity created by an economic model that is killing swadeshi and is only designed for global economic powers to extract what they want.
In taking care of the soil, we reclaim our humanity. Our future is inseparable from the future of the earth. It is no accident that the word human has its roots in humus — soil in Latin. And Adam, the first human in Abrahamanic traditions, is derived from Adamus, soil in Hebrew.
Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves.” We must never forget that ahimsa must be the basis of our relationship with the earth and each other.
The writer is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust.