Updated: Oct 9, 2019
Everyone seems to know what organic means. But do we really understand it?
When we moved to the farm, I chose a landrace of dogs popularly known as Tibetan Mastiffs to live with. These ancient guardians of the Himalayas are neither exclusively Tibetan nor mastiffs – it is a name given to these dogs by western travellers and writers. For thousands of years, these dogs have guarded flocks, herds and villages across the Himalayas. I had first come across these dogs as a child during holidays in the mountains and was instantly attracted to their intelligence, temperament and dignity. Nobody created this breed. It evolved to fulfil a specific function as a landrace.
Tibetan Mastiffs come in different shapes and sizes, depending on the terrain they live in. Highland dogs living on the Tibetan plateau are generally heavier and bigger, with longer coats while those that live in steeper terrain and valleys are smaller and lighter with shorter coats. The one thing common across all these types is their temperament – fiercely loyal, extraordinarily brave, physically strong, intelligent and independent, they are ideal for the task they are meant for.
Around the year 2000 something bad happened. They suddenly became popular in China and breeders started to 'improve' them. More fur, larger size, red colour and heavy wrinkles became fashionable. Some unscrupulous Chinese breeders started mixing other breeds with Tibetan Mastiffs to create designer dogs. Like all fads, the craze for designer Tibetan Mastiffs died in China but the damage was done. This beautiful, majestic guardian of the Himalayas is now threatened by the spread of the hybrid mongrel bloodlines. Man's quest to 'improve' that which evolved over thousands of years is now poised to destroy it.
Why am I talking about dogs in an article about organic living? Isn't the organic lifestyle about what we eat and drink? No, it isn't.
Organic is a way of thinking. It entails a deeper understanding of nature and how it works, and respect for it. It transcends a mere pursuit of profit and scale, to aim for something higher – long term sustainability of who we are and the place we belong to.
There is a tipping point that comes when progress becomes excess
There was a time I remember when nothing in the world was organic. We didn't know what it meant, nor used that word. The milk we drank did not have hormones. The water came from the river, not a purifier machine. The meat was not frozen, the vegetables were – well vegetables – not small packets of pesticides. Sugar was sugar, not white sugar or brown sugar. We didn't know organic because there was no 'inorganic' stuff in our lives.
There is a constant drive in homo sapiens to improve things. This is not all bad. If we didn't have this instinct, we would still be plucking berries in the jungles and hunting mammoths. No science or art would have been created, no music, no literature, no higher thoughts or emotions.
But there is a tipping point that comes when progress becomes excess.
As I was growing up, India was in the throes of the 'Green Revolution.' Farmers across the country were adopting civilised, modern methods of cultivation to satiate the appetite of an exploding population. High yielding varieties of seeds, ground water irrigation, industrial fertilisers and pesticides multiplied production. Famines disappeared.
The magicians who brought this transformation, a western educated bureaucracy and scientists schooled in industrial agriculture arrived on Indian farms and like parents to an ignorant child, scolded poor farmers to shape up or else. It was so easy not to starve, they said. The farmers agreed.
The people who ate the food – us – hardly noticed the difference. In fact, we rejoiced. As a child, I had heard the stories of India literally begging for American wheat. Now we were self sufficient. No one could twist our arms anymore.
This was not just an Indian story – it was happening everywhere else. No one objected to this 'development' of agriculture. Not the developed world, nor the developing.
I am boring you with this monologue to illustrate how pervasive the industrialisation of agriculture has been. Was it necessary? Was this the only way to feed the starving millions? Did we see far enough to make the right decisions?
While we are producing record breaking crops every year, there are more than just cracks in the soil to contend with. We have reached a saturation point where it is doubtful if we can really grow more food. Groundwater exploitation has depleted water levels to such depths that large parts of North India are undergoing arsenic poisoning. Soil quality has taken so much beating that desertification is knocking on Delhi's doors. Monoculture has destroyed all biodiversity on farms. Excessive fertilisers and pesticides have wiped out all soil organisms, critical for soil health. And the cost of intensive agriculture is slowly killing farmers – by first drowning them in debt and then pushing them over the edge to suicide.
There had been voices in the wind warning us even during the heydays of industrial agriculture, when it was growing to take over the world, but no one listened. In fact the word 'organic farming' was first used in the 1940 book 'Look to the Land' by Walter John James, 3rd Baron Northbourne, where he raised many of the issues current to discussions of organic agriculture and described "the farm as organism". Ironically, 1940 was also the year when industrial production of pesticides commenced and the decade is notoriously referred to as the 'pesticide era.'
If you talk to the agricultural scientists populating the various government institution about these issues, you will get a variety of reactions – denial, 'facts' and data to refute your argument, and very often, the statement: “We cannot turn our backs on progress. Do you want farmers to revert to medieval, marginal practices?”
The fact is, organic practices in growing food are proven to be beneficial for all stakeholders in the farming eco-system – soil, water, plants, insects, food quality (which benefits consumers) and most importantly, the farmer. There are no losers. What is equally true is that it is difficult to monetise organic farming on an industrial scale – corporations cannot make large sums of money from it. Do you see the picture?
Earth is tolerant, but there is a limit to how much you can bleed her
The difference between organic and commercial thinking is this: Organic way of life seeks to strike a balance between human convenience and lifestyle sustainability, between progress and available resources. Commercial thinking wants to maximise profits, to the cost of everything else. It is an isolationist approach where man is an island, cut off from the very earth that gave birth to him and sustains him, where resources are assumed to be limitless and nature is assumed to have an enormous tolerance for abuse. Earth is tolerant, but there is a limit to how much you can bleed her.
When we were conceptualising the guest house for the homestay on our farm, we decided to make just 5 rooms on a 2 acre plot of land. Hospitality experts will tell you that this is not right. You can easily – and should – build at least 30 rooms for the establishment to be viable. 5 rooms on 2 acres is such a waste of resources and is a defective business model.The experts however forget one thing – if you put 60 people on a 2 acre piece of land, you are simply simulating a city on a farm. Sure, it will maximise profits, but we will not be able to preserve our quite lifestyle, nor create the experience we want to share with our guests.
Pursuit of profit is not a bad thing, as long as you know where to draw the line. Because in the end, you can't eat money.