Sunday, May 17, 2009

On one hand, we are loosing our water reservoirs - groundwater, snow packs and glaciers, freshwater lakes - rapidly. Water tables are falling almost everywhere in India, due to "Green Revolution" methods that emphasized pumping groundwater:

To date, India’s 100 million farmers have drilled 21 million wells, investing some $12 billion in wells and pumps. In a survey of India’s water situation, Fred Pearce reported in the New Scientist that “half of India’s traditional hand-dug wells and millions of shallower tube wells have already dried up, bringing a spate of suicides among those who rely on them. Electricity blackouts are reaching epidemic proportions in states where half of the electricity is used to pump water from depths of up to a kilometer.”

In Tamil Nadu, a state with more than 62 million people in southern India, wells are going dry almost everywhere. According to Kuppannan Palanisami of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, falling water tables have dried up 95 percent of the wells owned by small farmers, reducing the irrigated area in the state by half over the last decade. As a result, many farmers have returned to dryland farming. [ref]

On the other hand, impending climate fluctuations will disproportionately affect small farmers dependent on un-irrigated farmland:
Even a small increase in temperatures ... could push down crop yields in southern regions of the world... A greater frequency of droughts and floods, the agency added, could be particularly bad for agriculture.

"Rain-fed agriculture in marginal areas in semi-arid and subhumid regions is mostly at risk," Diouf said on a visit to the southern Indian city of Chennai. "India could lose 125 million tons of its rain-fed cereal production, equivalent to 18 percent of its total production."
- Warming threatens farms in India, UN official says. New York Times

The current approach to solving this problem is a combination
  • build ever larger dams and canal networks [ref],
  • exploit deep water aquifers,
  • build expensive water desalination plants [ref], and
  • commodify water [ref, ref]
Inevitably, these approaches will make water expensive for everyone and actively harm millions of small farmers that need water the most, while exacerbating the underlying resource problem.

A much better approach that solves the underlying problem, makes water truly more abundant, and actually benefits the people most at risk is to
  • promote universal small scale water harvesting, especially on drylands [see previous post] and
  • phase out annual crops that are completely dependent on rains in favor of perennials and tree crops that can withstand inconsistent and unpredictable weather patterns.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Water is probably the most critical resource for successful farming. Lack of water is certainly bad in the short run, but improper use of water also has ill effects like increasing the salt content of the soil, making it unfarmable.

We have seen before that harvesting and managing water intelligently is one of the goals of Permaculture design. The two volumes of Brad Lancaster's Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond are the most authoritative books on water harvesting that I have come across.

Volume 1

Volume 2
Lancaster has traveled the world in search of rainwater harvesting techniques, and refined the methods he found in the parched regions of Africa, India and elsewhere to create almost an encyclopedia of water harvesting and utilization methods. These are presented in a manner that's useful for the city dweller and the farmer alike.

The books are written in a very accessible language and have plenty of illustrations that show how each method works. In addition, the formulas for each method are also included, with examples, so that you can calculate the amount of water you can get. The books also contain plenty of practical tips and tricks that Lancaster has accumulated through his own experience as well as from others. Volume 1 contains an overview of the methods of water harvesting - small earthworks and water storage in cisterns etc, while volume 2 goes into deeper detail about earthworks.

Two of the most important points I learned from the books:
  1. The soil is our best water reservoir.
  2. What's important is not how much rain falls in an area, but how much stops in that area, and how it is used.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Recently I came across an exciting new project to improve sustainability and rehabilitate the environment of a group of sixteen villages in eastern Nepal. Called क्रिषिको अाशा or Hope for Agriculture, this is a movement started by Rajeev Goyal (based on his interaction with these villagers as a Peace Corps Volunteer) and Priyanka Bista. Along with a few of the villagers, Rajeev and Priyanka are also going to travel in Nepal and India to learn from various sustainability projects, and we might co-ordinate some of our visits. To plan this trip, they have started a map of such projects in the subcontinent:

View green network in a larger map.

Read more about Hope for Agriculture on their blog, and in this Huffington Post article. If you have any suggestions for organizations that should be on this map, please let us know.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Attention Conservation Notice:
A rapid education about life, consciousness, and society, as well as a thorough discussion of the problems we face in corporate institutions, globalization, and food and resource supply. This book has something for everyone, and everything for someone. Recommended.

Written by Fritjof Capra, (The Tao of Physics, The Turning Point, etc.), and published first in 2002, The Hidden Connections is a very thorough and convincing overview of the change we need to create in this world if we want humanity to survive and thrive for the next thousand years.

Part one is a rapid (and fairly dense) information download about the processes and evolution of life, cognition and consciousness, and sociology, especially with respect to the patterns and processes common to these three levels of organization. Capra then wants to apply the understanding of these patterns and processes in part two to solve problems facing big corporations, global capitalism, and biotechnology.

Part two, however, is mainly a review of the state of thing in these three arenas, the important current events, and what other people have thought and written about these. While link between parts one and two is somewhat tenuous, (both in terms of the application of the patterns to solving the global problems as well as in the writing style) the chapters in part two themselves link together very well, and explore the very important issues of global finance, and the inequality it has generated, as well as agricultural biotechnology, which is endangering biodiversity and sustainability of farming world over.

All in all, the book is an excellent overview of some of the major problems we face in the world today, and how we can solve them. Be sure to read it.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Off To India!

I'll be reaching Pune on Tuesday, May 5. The goals of my trip are:

  • To set up a network of people interested in spreading sustainable agriculture, esp. in Maharashtra.
  • To visit sustainable farms and sustainable agriculture organizations all over India, to learn about their techniques.
  • To figure out a strategy for accelerating the spread of environmentally and economically sustainable agriculture in India, and especially the states hit by farmer suicides.
If you have any suggestions or know people who would be interested in helping this project, please let me know!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Recently, I wrote about the report from the Union of Concerned Scientists about the non-existent benefits of genetically modified crops:

Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops
... Despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields. ...
Biotechnology crops, like the Roundup Ready seeds from Monsanto are exacerbating the problems they were supposed to solve:
As more acres of "Roundup Ready" crops are planted, the use of the pesticide has increased. The increased application has led some weeds to develop a resistance to glyphosate, the generic term for the chemical in Roundup. And, in turn, farmers have had to apply stronger doses of pesticide to kill the superweeds.
Nonetheless, we tend to think of technological progress as a net positive. Is biotechnology the answer to the problems of mechanical and chemical technology of the past few decades?

Do we need biotechnology to feed the world?

We've seen that the world already produces enough food for everyone. Hunger is not a result of scarcity, but of inequitable distribution.
... The second fallacy is that genetic engineering boosts food production. Currently there are two principal types of biotechnology seeds in production: herbicide resistant and "pest" resistant. [Herbicide resistant crops] allow farmers to apply [Roundup] in ever greater amounts without killing the crops. ... [The "pest" resistant crop] produces its own insecticide.
genetically engineered seeds do not actually increase overall crop yields. ... [in] more than 8,200 field trials... Roundup ready seed produced fewer bushels of soybeans than similar natural varieties.
(The other troubling aspect of GM foods - the terminator seed technology, is currently under a de-facto ban. It is legally prohibited in India and Brazil.)

Is biotechnology safe?
  • There is no overall reduction in pesticide use with genetically modified crops.
  • GM foods brings its own pollution hazard - biological and genetic pollution. The harmful effects of GM organisms on natural ecosystems is well documented.
  • Genes from modified organisms can spread to other organisms, with unpredictable consequences*.
  • Biotechnology may bring new toxins and allergens into the human food supply.*
Biotechnology is expensive and inefficient:

Despite the billions of dollars spent creating transgenic organisms, biotechnology is yet to bring to market a single product that actually benefits consumers. Why should the public pay for this effort that offers no advantages, but increases risks?

- based on pg 62-63, Fatal Harvest.

* For example the StarLink corn recall: Wikipedia, New York Times, and more stories from the NYTimes.

Friday, May 1, 2009

We've read a while ago that even many environmentalists think of the corn-belt style agriculture as a necessary evil, to be tolerated so that the environment elsewhere can be protected. I've personally heard this argument from a very well educated and knowledgeable friend. This just goes to show that Big Food propaganda machine has been very successful.

Propoganda - Sustainable agriculture is "low-yield":

A typical claim of the industrial apologists is that the industrial style of agriculture has prevented some 15 million square miles of wildlands from being plowed under for "low-yield" food production. ... They also claim that if the world does not fully embrace industrial agriculture, hundreds of thousands of wildlife species will be lost to low yield crops and ranging livestock.
There is overwhelming evidence of higher productivity and efficiency of small, biodiverse, low mechanization, petro-chemical free agriculture (see also here and here). Can anybody really believe that industrial agriculture and factory meat-farming, which are net destroyers of energy, water, and soil can benefit the environment in any way?
...sustainable or alternative agriculture minimizes the environmental impacts of farming on plants and animals, as well as the air, water, and soil, often without added economic costs. ... Organic and diversified farming practices increase the prevalence of birds and mammals on farmlands and ensure biological diversity for the planet.
Poisoning the environment:
Pesticide use - endemic to industrial agriculture - has been clearly identified as a principal driving force behind the drastic reduction in biodiversity on America's farmlands. .... there are no fewer than 50 scientific studies that have documented the adverse environmental effects of pseticide use on bird, mammal, and amphibian populations across USA and Canada.
Chemical fertilizers - which are also a key component of industrial agriculture - pose an even greater risk to soil and water quality... Aquatic and marine life are especially vulnerable to the tons of residues from chemically treated croplands that find their way into our major estuaries each year.
Wildlife habitats:
... the huge, monocultured fields characteristic of industrial agriculture have dramatically reduced the wildlife populations by transforming habitats, displacing populations of native species, and introducing non-native species. ... Diversified farming techniques, on the other hand, incorporate numerous varieties of plants, flowers, and weeds, and encourage the proliferation of various wildlife, insect, and plant species.

No myth can hide the fact that decades of industrial agriculture have been a disaster for the environment. Its chemical poisoning has caused eco-cide among countless species. ... the tilling, mowing, and harvesting operations of industrial agriculture have affected, and continue to catastrophically destroy wildlife, soil, and water quality.
- pg 60-61, Fatal Harvest.


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