Monday, February 15, 2021

Low-cost solutions to tackle climate crisis? Let's start with our own kitchen wastes

When we think of climate change, some of the solutions that come to our mind are shifting to green technologies in industry, agriculture, transportation, energy coupled with legal binding climate enabling policies at national and international level. These macrolevel solutions no doubt are vital to address climate change. However, the moot question is what you and I can do to mitigate the current crisis. Some of the steps that we can take is to reduce the wastage of water, food, drive electric car, use energy efficient gadgets and more. But it’s not enough to reduce the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

We, the human species are responsible to a large extent to the current climate crisis. The way we live, eat and act matters a lot. Rehumanizing the connection between humans and nature is becoming more important in the current context. No animal produces as much wastes as human beings generate.  Lets take the example of household wastes. What do we do with them? Conveniently we dispose our wastes into a trash can, which gets into a larger trash can that gets picked up by the city municipality which further gets into landfill, a much larger trash can. Landfills have a limited capacity to hold wastes, eventually it gets filled, after few years new landfill sites are identified and the same process continues.  

If you have visited landfills, they are not pleasant sites. Whenever we drive pass landfills immediately we turn on the air recirculation button to avoid the stench getting inside the car. Landfills liberate several gases and the liquid that comes out of degrading wastes (leachate) is toxic to environment and pollutes water bodies. In addition, landfills are the breeding ground from rodents and animals. Most of the problems in the landfills are due to the biodegradable wastes that we throw in the trash cans. The common household biodegradable wastes are food wastes, vegetable and fruit peels and garden wastes. Instead of throwing these wastes they can be transformed into sweet smelling compost. It doesn’t require compost turners or special bins. If you have a small garden you can bury these wastes in the garden during spring and in winter you can compost in any container in your garage or outside.

Personally, I manage my household kitchen wastes and try to motivate my friends to manage their wastes. I would like to share a story of my friend Mr. Shreyas Nayak who lives close to my residence in Fairfield, Iowa. Shreyas and his wife Reena got interested into turning wastes to wealth and they share their experience.

Household Kitchen Waste composting journey- Experiences of Nayak family in Fairfield, Iowa

Our journey on composting our kitchen waste started in May of 2020.This was after the first COVID-19 lockdowns and gatherings of up to 10 people were allowed. We invited Dr. Thimmaiah to a barbeque on our deck wherein we decided to try making rice pancakes (dosa) on the grill.  It was a super duper successful effort and we enjoyed the gathering.

Shreyas and Thimmaiah
Shreyas and Thimmaiah

Making rice pan cakes (dosa) on the grill

In between our fun, frolic and experimentations, Dr. Thimmaiah walked over to our vegetable garden patch to inspect the quality of our soil. He immediately identified the lack of organic material in our soil as the reason for our poor crops the previous 2 years.  Shrey – you need to increase the organic content of this soil, he said.  How do we go about that, we asked.  For the next 1 to 2 years, you have to put all your kitchen waste in this patch of soil, he responded.

And that is how our endeavor to prevent our kitchen waste from entering the Iowa landfills started and it has now become an obsession.

Collecting kitchen wastes in a container 

We selected a couple of containers, with tight lids on  them, to store all our kitchen waste of a few days (usually a week or so).  These included all vegetable and fruit peels, cut off unusable pieces of bread and other foods gone bad. It really included everything you can literally think of including coffee and tea grounds, juices and milk products gone bad, paper napkins, etc , but excluded plastic, metals, aluminum and other non-biodegradable products.

Once we’ve collected enough waste, say in about a week or so, we would go to our vegetable garden patch and dig a hole about a feet or so deep.  Drop in all the kitchen waste and cover it back up with soil completely (the one that came from digging the hole). 

Digging a shallow pit (1 feet deep)

Kitchen wastes in the pit.


Covering the wastes with soil
Wooden planks to prevent rodents



This felt very fulfilling and mentally rewarding when we began and the joy lasted for about 2 to 3 weeks. Then the trouble started. Living in Iowa which is full of critters like ground hog, gophers, squirrels, raccoons, etc, one day when we went to work on our patch, we realized that the critters had sniffed out our waste and started digging out our composting waste. So we had to think about reinforcements to prevent the kitchen waste getting raided by the critters.

Fortunately we had some wood planks lying in the backyard.  We figured that strong / hard cardboard pieces would also do the trick.  We started covering our composting waste with wooden planks and laying some bricks on top of them to prevent the critters from getting into the waste. 

Vegetables grown from using wastes

We were diligent in the effort from May 2020 to November 2020 and could really tell the difference it was making to our soil and our plants.  The plants started having thicker stems and providing us a lot more produce, not to forget a much healthier produce than the past.  Plus the land and the plants did not need as much watering as the plants got a lot of their food/nutrients from the kitchen waste buried in the soil.

Middle of November or so, the ground started freezing up as temps went below 32F here in Iowa. We thought that it was the end of our composting of kitchen waste till next spring. The next batch of our kitchen waste that we had collected was about to give into our garbage can and then onto the landfill but before doing that, we decided to check with Dr. Thimmaiah if there were any other options available to us. 

As usual, Dr. Thimmaiah’s brilliance shone thru.  He said that we could compost our waste in buckets inside our garage.  The temperature in our garage ranges at about 45F and Dr. Thimmaiah said that at that temp there should still be some microbial activity to allow for composting of the kitchen waste. At these cold temperatures breakdown of wastes is very minimum. 

He shared the following pic with us on how he was doing it and that is all we needed to embark on this journey. Dr. Thimmaiah explained - Use a burlap bag in a bucket.  Start with 1 to 2 inches of soil or compost.  Add your kitchen waste on top and cover it up with 1 to 2 inches of soil or compost or potting mixture. Keep repeating to the top of the bucket.

Composting in a burlap bag during winter

Covering the wastes with compost or soil


So, we used one of our garbage cans for this effort.

Composting in a garbage can
Wastes covered with soil or compost


We are glad and surprised that because the waste is covered with the soil, there is absolutely no stench at all.

So here we are at the middle of February 2021.  Since May of 2020 to present – there has been no kitchen waste going into the landfills of Iowa from the Nayak household.

This has now become such an obsession that we look forward to burying our kitchen waste into the soil every week.  We collect our waste for the entire week and bury it in our soil on the weekends. When we get back into spring, March / April timeframe, we look forward to taking this fertile soil and spreading it on our vegetable garden patch for another awesome crop in 2021.

Myself and my wife both have full-time jobs that require about 9 to 10 hours of commitment each day. Apart from that we also spend an hour or so meditating each day and then another hour or so working out.  We also cook and eat at home most if not all the time. If with such a schedule, we are able to accommodate composting kitchen waste in our soil, we think most others should also be able to do it.

Do take on this journey.  It will be one of the most fulfilling endeavors of your life.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Millennial entrepreneurs venture into commercial regenerative agriculture in Indonesia

Every year I had travel plans to advise 4 - 5 international projects. The current pandemic restricted my travel, I could not travel out of the US during the current year. Interestingly, this crisis led to innovative ways of consulting, thanks to technology.

Earlier this year, out of blue I received a call from Meraki Farms based out of Jakarta, Indonesia expressing their interest in ecological agriculture. They were keen to transition their conventional farms into low-cost regenerative systems. Initially I had doubts about the commitment of this group to take a U turn in their current farming practices. It was not surprising for me because ‘regenerative agriculture’ is a buzzword where people have their own thoughts and ideas. Some companies who apply herbicides in their farms call their practice regenerative while others who use chemical fertilizers with organic manures proclaim their practices as regenerative. It made me to wonder how serious this group of millennials are to take up this task.

I was equally keen to know how they found my reference. They told me that they learned about my work in Bhutan online and were interested to change their current practices and set an example in Indonesia. Some of the common questions that popped up during the conversation were, could they manage the farm commercially without using synthetic agro-chemicals, would the production reduce, how to manage the pests and diseases. I told them that there will be some hard work and unlearning process initially, however regenerative systems are commercially viable compared to the conventional systems. I also shared my experiences working in different countries designing low-cost techniques using local resources that convinced them to firm up their decision for adopting regenerative systems in their farms. The discussions that followed through convinced me that these nerds are committed to change the current food systems through a solid business plan. 

Meraki farms is a subsidiary of Pt Meraki Agro Indonesia founded by 3 young entrepreneurs Mr.Ravi Sadarangani,Mr. Manish Nathani and Mr.Mohit Pursani. The founders had a purpose to produce nutritious and quality food for the growing population of Indonesia and rest of the world. Meraki flourished through its successful business model producing quality fruits and vegetables locally through the distribution network of a chain of major supermarkets and exported through global food distributors. They began adopting “all modern” systems of farming adopting conventional farming practices using external inputs like synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and a set of agro-chemicals for increasing the production and improving the visual appeal of the produce.

Commercial farming of cantaloupes and melons

It was an epiphany of sorts for the team when they came to know about a movement to revive a river in South India by Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev, a yogi and an environmentalist. River Kaveri is considered as the lifeline of farmers in Karnataka and Tamilnadu states of South India. It was a massive movement calling for the communities and farmers to involve in protecting this river through agroforestry projects that could prevent the erosion of topsoil and the pollution due to agriculture activities.

Sadguru’s mission struck a chord with one of the founders and with further research and brainstorming with the team and other experts in the field, they decided to change their farming methods towards life-supportive systems. Regenerative or biodynamic agriculture caught their attention. It was a U turn from their existing farming practices to a gentler and more natural approach that used natural resources to a large extent reducing dependancy  on external inputs over time. Their purpose shifted from monocultures and input dependent approach towards creating a biodiverse and self-sustaining farm.

It was my pleasure to sow the seeds of regenerative agriculture in the minds and hearts of Meraki Agro team. My purpose was to teach them how to be self-sufficient in all farm inputs required for crop production and protection by understanding and mimicking nature. Simultaneously the focus was on transforming the farm into a commerically viable venture.

Composting in progress

Regenerative agriculture is not about substituting chemical inputs with natural or organic inputs. Its about creating systems within systems where one interacts with the other. A symbiotic interaction of biotic and abiotic factors like soil, plants, animals, water and humans is necessary for creating a self-sustaining ecosystem. Its very important that all the farm inputs are produced in the farm itself. Seeds, manures, bio-pesticides, plant growth promoters are all produced within the farm using the natural resources. Shifting monocultures to diverse polycultures. Simple techniques to attract an army of beneficial creatures like earthworms, pollinators, predators and nurturing an array of soil microorganisms are the foundation for a successful regenerative systems. It may require some additional time and efforts initially but offers solace, freedom and liberates farmers from dependance on external inputs. 

Constructing a vermicomposting shed using bamboo

The receptivity of the founders and the managers of Meraki Farms was inspiring for me to consult this project online due to travel restrictions. In my regular consulting work I visit the farm in the beginning of the project to visually have a feel of the place and technically assess various factors that contribute to the success of the enterprise. This project was my first experience to advise a farm virtually and was possible with the help of technology. I used the drone videos of the farm, topography maps, soil and water analysis reports to understand the farm and the surrounding areas. Since the owners of this company were techy savvy millennial entrepreneurs it was possible to get all the information required up to precision.  Every week we organized online meetings on crop planning, nutrient management and approaches towards low-cost regenerative systems followed by discussions. I had to schedule these meetings late night US time to suit the farm team in Indonesia. The managers of the farms were keen to unlearn the practices that they were trained in and were eager to relearn new approaches of regenerative agriculture.

Meraki Farms commercially grows papaya, avocados, vanilla, cantaloupes, watermelons, durians and bananas. Besides, they integrate agroforestry systems using teak and bamboo. In all these farms, crops are intercropped for instance, papaya are cropped with melons and avocado’s with papaya. Timber trees and bamboo are planted on the fence that serves as windbreaks and also provides biomass for soil rejuvenation.

Meraki Farms

In large scale commercial farms like Meraki, reducing the cost of production is very important for successful transition into regenerative systems. Ideally all inputs required for production like seeds, manures, growth promoters, bio pesticides has to be prepared on farm using the available natural resources.It requires some expertise in understanding local ecology and biodiversity for identifying the available resources and using them for producing different inputs for farming.Several weeds are important resources for producing plant tonics and pest managing formulations. In the first couple of years some inputs may have to be purchased but over a period the dependance on inputs needs to be curtailed. Unless a farm is transformed into a self-sustaining organic entity the cost of production will keep rising and the profitability of the farmer will dwindle. There is lot of discussions on regenerative food and agriculture,time has come to act by creating successful examples in differnt ago-climatic regions. I am confident that millennials will be the beacons to clear the mess what the elders have created in the past 5 decades of ‘degenerative systems of agriculture’


Monday, September 7, 2020

Edible Insects: Alternative protein source and potential market

The industrial ways of meat production is unsustainable causing deforestation, soil degradation, pollution of soil and water bodies. The animal feedlots cause severe human health issues for people living close to these confined industrial animal production units. There are concerns on use of hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals that has severe effect on human and animal health. Growing population and rising meat consumption is driving disruptive innovations for alternative protein sources. Entomophagy or consuming insects offers lot of potentials to address the current concerns.

Insects are historically consumed as food in many cultures. The consumption of insects started about 7000 years ago. The Bible mentions the food of John the Baptist was locust and wild honey (Matthew 3:4). In Asia, Africa,  Europe, central and south America’s  several insects are eaten. About 2300 insect species of 18 orders are consumed as food in 113 countries. Most of them are harvested from wild, however few species are reared commercially. Insects are common snacks in the streets Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and several African countries. The most commonly eaten insects are grasshoppers, termites, crickets, larvae, beetles, bees and ants.  

Insects as food is becoming a trend now, it’s no more a poor man’s food. Edible insect industry is growing very fast in the US and Europe. In addition to food, insects are used in pharmaceutical, cosmetics, pet food and agriculture industry. The research and development on edible insects is still in its nascent stage. Both fundamental research and its application offers tremendous potential to address some of the current environmental and humanitarian challenges. It may take a while for insects to be consumed as food in the US and other countries where eating insects is not a part of the local tradition. 

Insects are made into powder, commonly referred as flour that is used in snacks and nutrient bars. Insect flours has several applications as feed sources for pets, fishes, livestock and poultry. Insects can be reared using the biomass from the farm and recycled back as feed sources for livestock and pets. It perfectly blends into the concept of circular economy and regenerative systems. Insects can be reared in a low-cost simple insect farm to a highly sophisticated system with automation, sensors, robots and IoT.

Insects can also be used as food additives. For example the dark red dye carmine is used for clothes, cosmetics and food. The red dye of lac insect is used for cloth dying and beverage industry.Likewise there are several applications of insects in healthcare and industrial products.

Use of insect waste products

While rearing insects their droppings commonly referred as frass that also contains outer skeleton (exoskeleton) is generated in large quantities. Frass has an application in agriculture industry as a manure. I was involved in advising a company for using the frass in agriculture and realized that it cannot be used directly in commercial agriculture. However with technical tweaks the product can be redesigned to suit appropriate soil and crop conditions.

Insects offer several solutions to address the current challenges of food and nutrition security. Rather than focussing on 30 major staple crops, entomophagy offers diversification of food sources that not only supplements protein but also reduces the ecological footprints. However care needs to be taken on food safety concerns. Some insects can have poisonous products in them. For example the giant African silkworm has thiaminase that is considered as carcinogen. People experiencing allergies after eating grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas and wasps are reported.

Entomophagy is a sunrise industry. It perfectly fits into a decentralized setup where people rear insects in their houses or backyards like kitchen garden, say, ‘edible insect gardens’. Several companies are now producing insects at an industrial scale that has a great potential with the rising market for alternative protein sources.


Sunday, August 30, 2020

Regenerative urban garden in Italy

 Italy, known for its food and gastronomy still sustains their culture and traditions. While walking through the lanes and streets one feels the reminiscence of European novels dating back to few hundred years. The ancient architecture is restored and preserved for the future generations to visualize history in their surroundings. Certain provinces have restrictions on the use of certain colors of paint on their houses. During my morning walks it was a common scene to see the elders of the house busy cleaning the surroundings of the house. They look like a tribe of clean freaks!

In the past 2 years I had an opportunity to visit Italy 4 times. People are very friendly, I consider it as my second home. There is a growing awareness on safe, nutritious and local food. Large number of Italians are concerned about the rising popularity of junk food outlets in cities. However, several little towns have farmers markets where local farmers sell their produce. Farmers sell fruits, vegetables, breads and a variety of local food.

This local movement of creating awareness in regenerative urban gardening was started by Ms. Michela Savia who came to know about my work in Bhutan and other countries after reading several articles on the internet. Michela is the proprietor of an Ayurvedic spa in Borgomonero near Milan. She along with a group of women were interested to learn low-cost farming methods utilizing the resources available locally and promote these practices to a large group of rural and urban farmers. Though organic agriculture or regenerative agriculture systems are becoming popular, farmers and gardeners are still dependent on purchased inputs like compost, growth promoting sprays and bio-pesticides. It defeats the very purpose of regenerative gardening.

Nature provides all the requirements for proper functioning of a healthy plant or animal. If we could mimic the forest ecosystems where every plant and animal cooperates and shares the resources. Moreover, the waste of one is the resource of the other. If the same principles are used in gardening farmers can be independent and self-reliant. For example, the fallen leaves, pruned litter, hedge clippings, weeds, food and kitchen wastes are disposed as trash. My workshops in Italy were focused on how to use the wastes in gardening as a resource. It was well attended by several people and now there are several examples of success by people who are adopting these simple low-cost practices in their gardens or farms.

Manuring Peach trees

Bountiful Harvest

Friday, May 1, 2020

Biodynamic Agriculture: Farming in service of life

It was a pleasure to share my views and participate in a beautifully shot short film " Biodynamic Agriculture: Farming in service of life" by Kiss the Ground team. I appreciate the professionalism of the young team of film makers Ben Cowan and Taliesin Black-Brown. Thanks to Erin Sojourner for the introduction.

Biodynamic agriculture has changed my perceptions towards life and environment. The deep ecological concepts facilitated me to understand the fundamental sublime creative principle of life that we see around us. Rudolf Steiner was a mystic and a clairvoyant who studied the eastern philosophies of life. He was very much influenced by the Vedic scriptures and mentions those concepts vividly.

Steiner reiterates the ancient wisdom of viewing nature as an organism that is harmonious, self regulating entity. Unfortunately the 16th century concept of " fallen nature' that considers nature as disorderly and chaotic changed the perception of humans towards nature. It was felt that humans have a reason to control the blind forces of nature. Manifest destiny and dominion of nature became the progressive paradigms during those period. The impacts of of such ignorance can be witnessed even today.

I was fortunate to get introduced to Peter Proctor from New Zealand in 1996 who became my 'guru' in biodynamic agriculture. Peter was a great human being who was passionate about biodynamics and its field applications. The deep spiritual underpinnings of this system of agriculture helps to understand the holistic integrity of creation.

In the past 20 years I have advised large scale projects in organic and biodynamic agriculture in 10 countries across Asia, Europe and the US. It's such a fulfilment to see the transformation that can be seen on soil, health of plants, quality of food and people who are engaged in farming. Food tastes good when it is produced in tandem with laws of nature. Food nourishes not only our body but also our thoughts. There is a old saying " As the food so our mind, as the mind so our thoughts, as our thoughts so our actions". All our actions are due the food that we consume. The quality of food determines the quality of our actions.

I would like to share this beautiful short film "Biodynamic agriculture: farming in service of life" and also a brief conversation during the premiere of this film. Hope you enjoy it !

Biodynamic Agriculture: Farming in service of life

Interview on Biodynamic Agriculture

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sustainability in Bali: Through the lens of perennial wisdom

During the past two years I visited Bali, Indonesia 7 times! Bali is a fine tourist destination with its beautiful shores, splendid peaks, great cuisine and culture. One can spend their entire life in Bali, there’s so much to explore and learn. Balinese are wonderful hosts, they greet people “Om Swasti astu” meaning, may health and wellbeing be upon you. It’s a common way of saying hello when we meet people in the island.

With progressive farmer Mr.Suweden in Bali
The perennial Hindu philosophy of Bali is called ‘Agama thirta’. It can be summed up as the grand narrative of the island, an incredible concept called ‘tri hita karna’ means three actions for fulfilment. It’s all about human relationships with fellow human beings, the environment and the divine. The human pursuit to live in harmony with nature by being gentle and respectful to her during changing times and situations. Life is a worldwide web where every species are interconnected and each of them play an important role to regenerate nature through their endeavors. 'Tri hita karna’ guides a person to dig deep into their consciousness to find the purpose and meaning for their life. It sets a inquiry in our minds; how can I add value to people and planet and influence people to add value to the environment.

Rice terraces in Bali
In Bali, I was advising the Government's Ministry of Education to develop a curriculum to integrate Balinese Hindu culture with Agriculture in collaboration with Bali Schools Project. It was a great opportunity for me to research the subject, meet people to understand their culture and practices. Their understanding of nature and her personification was an epiphany, a revelation that blew my mind. Agriculture in Bali is not just planting seeds and harvesting the produce. It’s a sacred act, a collaboration, a promise with nature that all human actions will be under the laws of nature. It’s all about treating nature as we wish to be treated. 

With the officials of Bali Government 
Rice is one of the major crop in Bali. They grow many tropical fruits, vegetables and  also coffee. Coffee plantations are close to my heart since I was born and brought up in a coffee estate. Coffee is intercropped with mandarins and bananas. They also have 'luwak coffee'. The wild civet cats are called luwak in Bali, they feed on the coffee beans and their droppings are collected, cleaned and roasted. It's a speciality coffee that is sold 10 times higher the price of a regular coffee. I call it " poo coffee" !! We live in an interesting world.

Every rice field has a small temple, it’s a sacred place. Rice cultivation for Balinese is festival of life, a celebration of nature for her kindness and generosity for providing bountiful gifts. It’s a miracle of mother earth where one seed of rice multiplies to 10,000 seeds, a perfect interplay of matter and energy. They practice about 40 rituals from the day when rice seed is sown unto the harvest.  The rice plants are cared as their fellow beings, not different from their family members. Balinese farmers seek permission from mother earth before tilling the rice terraces and before harvest.  They adopt an ancient system of fair sharing of water among all the rice farmers, it’s called as ‘Subak system’. All the members in the village discuss how to manage the irrigation water so that all the farmers benefit. I feel it’s the world’s oldest living democratization system of natural resources to benefit the community. This echoes with the thoughts of Buckminster Fuller,” A world that works for everyone and no one is left over.”

Farmer Suweden with 5 feet high paddy crop

I love meeting farmers and learn from their wisdom. Farmers are the best teachers of agriculture. I met farmer Mr.Suweden, the head of a farmers group in a village Jutiluwih known for it's picturesque rice terraces. My purpose was to introduce the ‘System of Rice Intensification’ (SRI) in Bali that could reduce water usage in rice cultivation by 50%. Mr Suweden agreed to experiment in one of the rice terrace. He was surprised to see paddy plants reaching a height of 5 feet. He never saw such robust, tall rice plants. Through this simple technique he could double the rice production. There is a need to promote SRI method of rice cultivation in Bali to reduce the ecological footprint.

With actor Jim Carrey planting rice seedlings in Iowa.
I had an opportunity to meet the renowned actor Jim Carrey to plant rice seedlings in Iowa ! Jim is known all over the world for comedic and dramatic roles in movies. Little we know about this great actor and his passion to support smallholder farmers. In many countries women are predominantly involved in transplanting and weeding of rice. They spend several hours standing in water logged paddy fields. Water stagnation breeds mosquitoes and other parasites causing several diseases to the farming community. Jim's Better U foundation promotes the SRI method of rice cultivation in Asia and Africa. 

Having fun with actor Jim Carrey !

The Governor of Bali, Mr. Koster is keen to transform entire Bali into a green island and shift to regenerative agricultural systems. I had a wonderful discussion with him and was invited to speak at an event in Bali to connect the ancient culture of Bali with the concepts of ecological agriculture. Besides I developed a course curriculum for Bali Government by integrating their culture with agriculture. The Minister of Education, Province of Bali, Ms. Tia Kusuma Wardhani and representatives of Bali Schools project Adam and Wayan Sutrisna were very supportive in evolving a new curriculum that is rooted in the values of Balinese culture and heritage.  

Meeting Governor of Bali Mr. Koster (Photo: Bali Post)
There can be no better way of communicating sustainability and ecological consciousness by connecting the people through their own traditions and culture. Communication is all about connecting people to create a passion to influence others. When native cultures are embedded into our communication, people own the knowledge and connect to their glorious past and act consciously in the present. It has a great potential to impact communities leading to social change.

Speaking on Connecting Agriculture with culture
Sustainability is better understood through native cultures and perennial philosophies. It's an amazing experience of unlearning, learning and relearning. Schools, Universities, developmental agencies and foundations need to integrate culture into their pedagogy and communication strategies.  Traditional knowledge systems have their depth and width  in their concepts and approaches since these thoughts and experiences evolved over a millennia. They are ancient, time tested, scientific and replicated over the years by several generations. Bali is a great place to learn and understand deep sustainability through their perennial wisdom and culture.  " Om swasti astu"

Monday, January 6, 2020

Crop Insurance and Organic Agriculture in the US

Irregular weather patterns are becoming regular, posing a great risk for crop and livestock production. During the last few years variable weather patterns were observed globally affecting food production. Flooding, droughts, fires, hailstorms, heat waves are becoming a common norm. The current bush fires in Australia and its impact in neighboring New Zealand is a testimony of the risks that farmers and ranchers face irrespective of their geographical location. Crop insurance is a great tool to manage risk and adapt to climate related uncertainties and market price instability.  

Crop insurance are broadly two types; one protects the yield and the other provides revenue protection. Crop Yield insurance is also called as multiple peril crop insurance predominantly suits commodity crops and crops that have a well-established yield history in a county or nearby counties. In US, commodity crops have a very well documented yield histories and easily qualify for protection against yield losses. Up to 95% of the crop yield could be insured.

Organic agriculture predominantly is a biodiverse farming system. Whole farm revenue Protection (WFRP) is a perfect match since it’s designed for a diversified cropping system. In WFRP upto 85% of the revenue generated from the farm from crops and livestock can be insured upto a maximum limit of $8.5 million of insured revenue. If the farm is a livestock operation or a greenhouse/nursery the insurable income is $2 million maximum.   Farm revenue is the price of the farm produce. For farms to be eligible under WFRP, farmers need to cultivate three or more crops and have a history of farm tax forms (Schedule F) for atleast 5 years. Beginning farmers (having 10 years or less farming experience) or Veteran farmers or ranchers need to have 3 years of farm tax forms.  There is a scope for mix and match with WFRP and Crop Yield Insurance. One or two main crops can come under crop yield insurance and the rest in WFRP depending on local situation and farmer’s choice.

I would like to share my experiences of my discussion with organic farmers on crop insurance and what are some of the reasons for not opting them.  Large number of farmers are still not fully aware of WFRP and its benefits. Farmers felt the insurance agents are not well equipped with answering questions related to organic agriculture and diverse farming systems when compared to their expertise in commodity crops. They also feel insurance agents promote the most popular crop yield insurance products that are at times more expensive to organic farmers when compared to WFRP. Few organic farmers were still of the opinion that 5% surcharge is charged on organic operations which is not true anymore. There is a need to educate the farmers that no such surcharge is levied on organic farms. In 2014, Risk Management Agency (RMA) has eliminated the surcharge that was charged on organic operations. Creating awareness amongst organic farmers and associations is key to educate farmers on WFRP so that they can take advantage of federal programs and simultaneously mitigate risk.

The growing organic sector has tremendous scope to recover a large portion of the expected income in the advent of crop failure or loss through WFRP. Roughly about 60-65% of the premium is federally funded. In the 2018 Farm bill 24% of the total budget is allocated for crop insurance. Even industrial hemp is covered under insurance protection from the loss of farm revenue. Crop Insurance companies need to train their insurance agents in regenerative organic agriculture practices so that they understand them and confidently interact with farmers. WFRP is a great choice for organic farmers and comparatively less expensive compared to individual crop insurance products. WFRP can not only mitigate risk in diverse cropping systems but also promote regenerative agriculture to conserve soils, produce safe food and nourish our environment.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Regenerative Organic Agriculture - Television interviews in Italy

Telecolor the national television channel of Italy has been very kind to interview me whenever I am in Italy for my consulting projects. The Director of Telecolor Ms. Micol is very passionate to promote regenerative agriculture in Italy, she comes from a farming family. Telecolor is known for creating programs in food, agriculture, health and alternative lifestyle that that are not  common in the mainstream media.  Following are my 3 interviews translated in Italian. Thanks to Michela Savia for translating my spontaneous thoughts so well.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Bhutan, a leading example for our planet's fight for life

1st March 2017
Bhutan is well on its way to becoming the greenest nation on the planet. In his Special Report for the Ecologist, photojournalist MICHAEL BUCKLEY explores the reasons why the country's ecosystems and dazzling biodiversity remain intact - and highlights the one thing that threatens this admirable integrity...
Radical times - climate-changing times - require radical solutions. In his book, Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life, biologist Edward Wilson set forth his radical plan and argued: "The only solution to the "Sixth Extinction" is to increase the area of inviolable natural reserves to half the surface of the Earth or greater."
Wilson's solution sounds like an impossible order, but the nation of Bhutan has already achieved that goal. Bhutan claims to have just over 50 percent of its land area assigned as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries - all connected by biological corridors. And Bhutan keeps adding protected areas, with several new wetland reserves declared recently at Phobjikha and Khotokha. This vast green coverage is possible due to a combination of factors: minimal exploitation of natural resources, Royal Family patronage of parks, and a very small population in Bhutan-officially totalling 768,577 people in 2016.
Unlike the neighbouring Chinese-controlled Tibet, where nomads have been kicked out of so-called ‘national parks,' the sanctuaries in Bhutan keep ethnic groups in place. To the Far East, the Brokpa, (semi-nomadic people of Tibetan descent) live inside Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. In Jigme Dorji National Park to the Northwest of Bhutan, Layap yak-herders live in their traditional villages.
Across the border in the North, the Tibet Autonomous Region claims to have a third of its land area devoted to national parks and sanctuaries, but these appear to be on paper only and designed to pave the way for Chinese dam-building and mining exploitation. By contrast, Bhutan's national parks and sanctuaries are monitored, patrolled and policed by rangers and there are heavy penalties imposed for hunting or for felling trees. Killing a Takin, the national animal of Bhutan, for example, could result in five to 10 years in jail, plus a hefty fine.
Arriving in Bhutan (flying into Paro) the first thing that strikes the eye is the majestic alpine forest. Travelling on main east-west highway, I rarely lost sight of forest. We're not talking small forest cover here, we're talking about massive forest cover. The scenery reminds me a lot of alpine forest in Canada - fir, spruce, and pine (without the pine beetles). Over 70 percent of Bhutan is cloaked in forest, tropical, temperate and alpine, depending on the altitude. A minimum 60 percent forest cover is enshrined in Bhutan's constitution.
Bhutan is a remarkable repository for fauna and flora of the Himalayas. The national flower, the rare blue poppy, grows at over 4,000 metres. The 5,000 known species of plants include 47 rhododendrons and 600 orchids. Over 675 species of birds inhabit Bhutan. This rich biodiversity is possible due to extreme altitude range, encompassing 7,500 metres. From a low of 97 metres at the Drangme River to a high of 7,565 metres - the summit of Gangkar Punsum, the highest unclimbed peak in the world.
Spiritual Beliefs that enhance Protection
The reason Gangkar Punsum remains unclimbed is that Bhutan has banned climbing of all of its peaks above 6,000 metres, a number of which are regarded as sacred summits and believed to host guardian deities. Having witnessed the circus that prevails at the summit of Everest in nearby Nepal, along with huge amounts of trash involved, Bhutan decided that its sacred peaks are better left untrammelled by the boots of mountaineers.
Education in Bhutan promotes enormous respect for the environment. Indeed, glowing pride in the environment is the basis for trekking and nature tourism - the country's greatest tourist draws. Spiritual beliefs that sustain environmental protection are heavily imbued in Bhutanese culture, which is a mix of traditional Bon animist belief and Tibetan Buddhism. Bon adherents, being animist, believe that guardian spirits reside in the mountains, the trees, the rivers and lakes. And that these spirits should not be disturbed by either pollution or misconduct. Offerings must be made to these spirits and deities to ensure the success of crops.
Fully Organic Nation
Due to terrain that runs great extremes of elevation, there's no place for farming or herding on an industrial scale. This is a nation of small farmers, determined to keep the likes of Monsanto, Syngenta, and GM crops out. Bhutan has become the first fully organic nation in the world. In fact, there is no multinational presence in the food line at all in Bhutan - no McDonalds, no Starbucks, no KFC. 
In the quest for food security in a changing climate, a 300-page UN report titled Wake Up Before it is Too Late (published in 2013) identifies small-scale farming using an organic system as being the sustainable way forward and not monoculture-based crops and corporate-controlled GMOs that are reliant on toxic pesticides. By this reckoning, Bhutan is a true leader for Asia. The country has also banned the import of chemical fertilisers.
Genetically-modified crops are making in-roads into Asia. Monsanto has returned to Vietnam (previously engaged in spraying the deadly defoliant Agent Orange), and is involved in the cultivation of GM corn as animal feed, operating under the name Dekalb Vietnam. In 2012, the International Rice Research Institute and Monsanto spent US$2 billion to develop a GM rice that is iron-fortified to deal with the problem of anaemia in India and Bangladesh. The resulting GM rice was found to pale in comparison with scores of traditional seeds, which naturally have a good amount of iron in them. 
In Bangladesh, a GM crop known as Golden Rice is under trial. Funded by the Gates Foundation, Golden Rice has been developed by Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta, which has a controversial track record. Golden Rice claims to contain Vitamin A - said to cure that vitamin deficiency. Golden Rice is named after its bright saffron colour. But the Bhutanese are sticking to their staple of red rice. Those savvy about seeds and crops will tell you that local Bhutanese varieties are both hardy and resilient to climate-change factors and have good nutritional value. The owner of River Lodge in Bumthang told me he grows a special variety of potato that is not affected by potato blight. He cultivates his own strawberries, plums and apples, and makes his own jams and apple cider. Bumthang has a small factory that makes Swiss-style cheeses with milk from local cows. Nearby is a micro-brewery that makes Red Panda Beer.
Rice is ridiculously water-intensive: indeed, the most water-intensive crop on the planet. So here lies a great problem: how to get enough water to irrigate that rice. Fortunately for Bhutan, its rivers rise on its own side of the Himalayas and so farmers are not dependent on trans-boundary rivers from Tibet (as India is). Bhutan is water-blessed, not water-stressed.
Climate change has brought unwelcome water problems to Bhutan. The threat of GLOFs (Glacial Lake Outburst Floods) looms large in the northern Himalayan parts of Bhutan. In the monsoon season, flashflooding causes landslides and erosion. I saw more than my fair share of landslide activity travelling on Bhutan's main east-west road, which is undergoing widening from one lane to two lanes. Driving along this route in a 4WD vehicle, dodging landslide-prone zones (undergoing blasting by road-crews) was a real cliffhanger.
Green Dams'
There are some glaring obstacles in the path of Bhutan's clean and green vision for keeping its ecosystems intact - mainly, megadam building on Bhutan's powerful pristine rivers. These new dams are being built by Indian engineers: about 75 percent of the hydropower is slated for export to power-hungry India. Hydropower has become Bhutan's number one export.
Bhutan's government describes these as ‘green dams.' In fact, a major Bhutanese hydropower player is Druk Green Power Corporation. Putting a positive spin on things, Bhutan claims that its up-and-coming megadams are harmless river-of-the-river dams (no vast reservoirs). But when you build a pair of 1-GW-capacity dams on the same river, you cannot expect the riverine ecosystem to operate the same way ever again. This is precisely what is happening in the Punakha-Wangdi Valley, where two destructive dams are underway: 1200-MW Punasangchu I and 1020-MW Punasangchu II. Both megadams are on track for completion in 2018. Construction is advancing and a roadtrip into this valley reveals the vast scale of digging diversion tunnels, with loads of muck dumped onto the riverbanks, along with great piles of gravel and sand. Run-of-the-river dams let water through but block silt - and that means crops further downstream will not get the valuable nutrients they need. Although the Bhutanese rarely fish, the megadams will also block fish migration, which in turn, will affect communities downstream in India, in the states of Assam and West Bengal.
Ironically, hydropower output drops in the winter months, and Bhutan does not have an electrical network that is reliable enough to carry its citizens through the winter. In the freezing cold of the remote northern mountainous region, locals depend on the bucari, a wood-fired stove. The wood is culled from stands of trees set aside as ‘community forests.' Although Bhutan's population is very low, the nation has one of the highest per-capita rates of fuel-wood consumption in the world. These wood-burning stoves are adding CO2 to the atmosphere. More to the point, they are sending up black soot particles that will rain down on Bhutan's Himalayan glaciers, hastening glacial meltdown. But at least Bhutan has decided not to engage in large-scale logging to sell on to India as a source of income.
At the December 2015 climate-change conference in Paris, Bhutan pledged to be carbon-neutral. However, part of Bhutan's calculation on carbon-neutral is that it is exporting renewable energy, which can only be a reference to megadams on the rivers of Bhutan. That makes this a dubious claim. Bhutan plans to exponentially increase its export of hydropower to India by the construction of more megadam projects, targeting 10 GW of power output by 2020. And it is this which is a huge spanner in the works if Bhutan wants to keep its ecosystems intact.
Overlooking the last few paragraphs, you have to give Bhutan full credit for prioritizing ecology over economy. The Government is making a determined effort to steer away from unchecked exploitation of its natural resources. And you can only admire Bhutan for setting aside half of its land area for environmental preservation, fulfilling the vision of Edward Wilson. This is the only nation on the planet that can claim to have done so and this alone sets a shining example for other nations to follow. The survival of the planet depends on the visionary incentives that are being implemented in Bhutan.
This Author
Michael Buckley is a photojournalist and the author of Meltdown in Tibet (Macmillan, NY, 2015) and a companion digital photobook Tibet, Disrupted (Apple iBooks, 2016). He is also author of Tibet: the Bradt Guide. He is a regular contributor to the Ecologist and has travelled widely in the Himalayan region, visiting Bhutan a number of times.