We must retrofit our corporate, globalized food system to produce healthful food for local communities. But where do we start? Last year, I spent some time in India, and in this country – which is stereotyped by the Western world as starving and impoverished – discovered a traditional food system that might make “locavores” back home drool. With innovative growing techniques, heritage seeds and a firmly agriculture-driven economy, the region I worked in manages to remain almost completely self-sufficient and food secure. Read on to discover how they do it, and what “developed” countries can learn from rural Indians.
First, farmers sent up the warning. Then childhood obesity skyrocketed, and parents and teachers started a murmur of dissent. Michael Pollan wrote a book about it and a few million more started to ask questions. Finally, President Obama admitted we have a problem. Now, just about everyone is willing to say it: Our food system is broken. The drastically inefficient and unsustainable way we produce and consume food has been linked to everything from the desertion of America’s heartland to dead zones in the ocean to cancer. Corporations monopolize our food supply, relying on chemicals to grow the ingredients for processed foods that are making us fat and sick. Meanwhile, 1 in 6 people worldwide go hungry, thanks in large part to the global trade in commodity crops that put farmers in the Global South out of business.
Certainly, there are groups of people all over the world working at the grass roots, empowering people to make agriculture less environmentally harmful, to serve children more healthful meals in schools, to take back control over our food supply and once again make people, not profits, the priority. Communities are starting to change one at a time, and not a moment too soon.
Still, amid all the chatter about how to retrofit corporate agriculture, one noticeable gap in the conversation has been what kind of system we’re actually looking for. Developed countries need a national model, one that supports and links our increasingly independent communities. For this model, some look to the past, to WWII-era victory gardens or Jefferson’s ideal of the self-reliant citizen farmer. Few, however, consider the model offered by so-called “developing” countries. After all, these struggling countries need us to help them, not the other way around, right?
Maybe not. When your resource base – capital, land – is limited and the demand for life essentials like food is high, sustainability is not just a buzzword but a necessity. In countries like India, where I stayed last year on an internship with an agricultural NGO, the traditional food system has evolved over millennia under precisely those conditions. And today, it’s remarkably good at handling whatever disasters the developed world sends its way. When food shortages gripped India this summer, the regions hit the hardest where those dominated by urbanization and commodity agriculture. In other, less “developed” areas – like the southern district that I worked in – the system of small-scale traditional farming is still intact and remarkably stable. Hunger rates here are a national low of 6.7% of the population, and not incidentally, more than half are employed in agriculture.
Over my 18-week stay, I met and worked with people growing and producing food on widely different scales, observing how each garden, orchard and rice paddy fit into the local food mosaic. This food system is not the same as it was a hundred years ago, and it is by no means perfect, but it has one quality that communities throughout the developed world are itching to achieve: it’s almost completely local. As a result, it’s also much more sustainable than the cheap, globalized, nutrition-poor diet that is hailed by the champions of Western lifestyles. Although we can’t copy India’s traditional food system piece-by-piece, we can look to it for ideas as we develop our own model for how we’d like to feed ourselves in the future. What follows is a short list of the aspects of this food system that local and sustainable-food activists in other parts of the world might find particularly relevant.
1. Diversity, diversity, diversity. One of India’s key natural resources its diversity of food crops. Pre-industrialization, it was home to at least 40,000 varieties of rice alone. In one garden I visited, a woman grew four types of heritage eggplants and six species of amaranth. The diversity theme also applies to where food is grown and in what scale. Nearly every rural home has a garden, ranging from a few herb boxes to an acre spread. To preserve heirloom vegetables, gardeners save seed and trade it as others do stock in an extremely valuable company. Finally, the rural Indians I met diversified their food sources further by obtaining some foods and spices from nearby forests, (usually) gathering only what was needed from certain trees and leaving enough to propagate for the next season.
2. Common lands and holy cows. In addition to a garden, many households I visited also keep domestic cattle as a source of milk and manure. Few of the single landholdings were adequate to support two or three cows, but thanks to the complimentary cultural traditions of revering cattle and sharing certain pieces of pasture with neighbors, the family cow is always adequately fed and never harassed.
3. Innovative growing methods. For every variation and limitation in landscape and climate, Indian farmers have creative ways to adapt while avoiding huge infrastructure costs or dependency on outside inputs. Many use intercropping methods that combine trees and other plants in a manner that takes advantage of natural ecological niches. Others apply brilliantly simple low-tech solutions. One orchard I visited was on a hillside with loose, easily erodible jungle soil, in an area that receives huge amounts of rainfall. Instead of allowing the water to form rivulets, channels, and gulches that would have washed the exposed soil away within a matter of days, the farmer had constructed an intricate network of bamboo pipes over the ground, which channeled the rain into bigger and bigger pipes. The water formed a small but powerful stream and was run through a turbine that generated electricity for the community.
4. Direct farmer-to-consumer sales. I spent some weeks working in an office in a small city, and we could get most of the food we needed within a couple of blocks’ radius from where I stayed. The corner store sold dry rice and lentils in bulk – along with anything from cigarettes to cell phone recharges – from a space no larger than a generous walk-in closet. Everything else could be purchased from independent vegetable sellers, who were often the farmers themselves, perched on blankets or behind stalls on the roadside. Though grocery stores were a growing phenomenon, I never had the need to enter one, and that culture hadn’t really caught on among most of the rural people.
5. An educated, discerning consumer base. Indian housewives do their shopping daily, and they know what they’re looking for. Freshness – an indicator of distance traveled – is key, and so is quality. In a sense, buyers of unprocessed food are their own food-safety inspectors and certification agencies. While systems are in place to certify organic produce and inspect produce that is sold, like much of India’s bureaucracy it is slow, inefficient and best to be avoided. Instead, consumers rely on their own keen eyes to spot visible signs of rot or contamination and stay away. Asking questions of the food grower is expected, and buyers will do so incessantly until their doubts about the product are cleared.
6. Willingness/ability to prepare fresh foods. Like many rural areas of North America, the region of India I worked in lacked much of the infrastructure that would have enabled it to produce processed foods – facilities to store, manufacture and pack things like breakfast cereal and canned peaches. But while in places that rely on processed foods this lack of infrastructure can put a damper on local food systems, in India, this is not an issue. All goods that comprise a traditional meal are either fresh or dried, so all that’s needed is a farm and a kitchen to get the food from field to plate.
Taken together, along with a few environmental factors like adequate water and fertile soil, the rural Indians I met enjoy greater food security than many of their counterparts in countries like the U.S. and Canada. When a major regional highway shut down or a drought ruined crops in another part of the country, life went on as usual. In the network of villages our NGO served, I never saw signs of starvation or severe need.
Some who propagate doomsday fears point to signs that the previously secure nations of the Global North are slipping into third-world status: skyrocketing debt, record unemployment, widespread hunger. While these are certainly frightening developments, the silver lining of becoming a third-world country may be that we’ll no longer be able to rely on the industrial agricultural model that has had such dire effects on our health, environment and rural communities.
On the other hand, we haven’t reached the great apocalypse quite yet. We still have the infrastructure and resources to reign in our profit-oriented food system and realign it with principles of sustainability. Now that we’ve generally admitted that we have a food supply problem, it’s time to look at potential solutions and begin putting them into action. Based on my observations in India, I have a few suggestions: Get more people involved in growing and gathering food – through home and community gardens that use innovative methods to take the greatest advantage of available outdoor space. Encourage farms that are small, diverse and committed to growing foods for the local market like grains, legumes, free-range meats and winter vegetables. Drastically reduce commodity crop exports. Loosen restrictions on where farmers can sell and on what days, placing the priority on getting the product into locations where it is convenient for buyers – Wal-Mart parking lots, college campuses, suburban street corners. Educate one another about what fresh food actually is, and how to grow, shop for and prepare it.
On the other hand, we can also learn a few lessons on what not to do from India’s traditional food system. Its biggest fault may be that it relies almost entirely on the labor of women, most of whom are unpaid wives, mothers and daughters. As these women receive educations they often decide, justifiably, that they would rather move to a city and adopt a Western lifestyle of office work and convenience food. Thankfully, in countries where women enjoy a greater degree of equal treatment, the transition to sustainability doesn’t have to mean housewives must pick up the slack. But all will need to expect to pay a little bit more for the labor that puts healthful, local food on the table.
We already have the tools to make the necessary changes from a globalized to a localized food economy. We have farmland (less than we used to, but still quite a bit), heirloom crops, food traditions that can inspire us to use fresher, better ingredients, and a workable infrastructure to put it all together. And we have people to get it done, people who, at this particular moment in history, need jobs – lots of them. After all, the globalized system we currently follow doesn’t necessarily represent the most efficient and fair allocation of our scarce resources – that’s just what we’ve been told. It’s time to rethink, reeducate, and regrow our food system. How we do it is up to us.