The first time I went to India, back in 2000, I was on a steep learning curve to learn about seed saving, industrial agriculture, and genetically-engineered foods. I was working at the International Forum on Globalization and organizing a trip for a handful of North American, European, and South American farmers, activists, and scientists to meet their counterparts in India.
What I remember best about the trip was visiting the organization Navdanya, located in the Himalayan foothills near the town of Dehra Dun. Navdanya works with farmers to save seeds that have been used by Indian farmers for generations. Seed saving is threatened by large corporations such as Monsanto and Cargill, and by global trade rules which they lobby intensively for (such as trade related intellectual property rights, or patents). Once a seed is patented, then farmers, many of whom have been saving seeds all their lives, can no longer do so because they are violating patent rights. Each year they must buy seeds to plant.
About a decade ago, neem, a tree endemic to South Asia, was part of a big patent battle in India. It has many traditional uses, including medicinal, fuel, toothpaste, and even as a type of contraception. Neem has been used for thousands of years but in the 1990s a multinational company put a patent on neem. An international coalition led a fight against W. R. Grace and the European Patent Office to overturn the patent, and eventually it was revoked. How can a company be allowed to engineer a native species and then force people to buy it when they have been harvesting and saving it for years? Well, that’s a long story and another post. Simply put, it’s the belief that man can do better than nature.
Along with seed saving Navdanya promotes biodiversity, organic farming, and farmers’ rights. They also help build community seed banks and train farmers and others in food sovereignty and creates awareness of indigenous knowledge and practices.
Now that I cook Indian dishes, I can appreciate all the seeds and spices I saw at Navdanya’s farm. Cardamon, turmeric, coriander, fenugreek and many other things I couldn’t recognize and never knew existed. It was simply amazing, as was the food they cooked up for us – all fresh and homemade. None of this processed stuff we call food.
I would love to go back and visit with the Navdanya staff and farmers, now that I understand so much more about local agriculture, Indian food, and holistic living. But I can certainly appreciate what I have here, especially in bountiful California. Support local, organic agriculture and you’ll live and eat well. Someday we’ll overcome corporate rules that really don’t benefit anyone and threaten our environment and communities. In India, farmers are fighting to protect their livelihoods, as are farmers here in the U.S. It’s a cliché, but buying local and acting global makes a big difference in so many ways. It tastes and feels good too.