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.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Medicinal plants production adopting biodynamic agriculture practices in India

I was amazed to see an article in Biolaya webpage about my advisory work way back early 2000 in Himachal Pradesh. It was fun to involve the villagers to grow some of the most exotic medicinal herbs adopting biodynamic agricultural practices. These herbs were procured by Pukka Herbs, UK for their formulations. Thanks to Ben Heron's leadership for motivating the villagers in a remote village  Deushar near Kullu in Himachal Pradesh.

Biolaya Organic Garden

Biolaya Organic Garden

By Ben Heron
When I first arrived in Kullu in 1999 I naively assumed that the Himalayan foothills would be an organic paradise. Sadly, this was far from the truth. In fact, quite the opposite: lurking under the surface is a rather shocking cocktail of chemicals.
The extent of the problem was highlighted by the difficulty we had in finding suitable farms to grow certified organic herbs. The Kullu Valley itself is dominated by apple orchards that are heavily sprayed with chemicals (mostly fungicides and some insecticides). In our search for organic land we ended up working with farmers in some very remote areas, including the Mayar Valley in Lahaul (about as remote as it gets). But even there, at over 3000m altitude, an organic inspector still managed to find an empty herbicide tin in the irrigation channel half a kilometre above the farm. There seemed to be no escape from chemicals.
The situation wasn’t much better back at Biolaya HQ. The path from the village was often littered with a few empty fungicide packs and at certain times of year the air would be thick with the smell of chemicals from the orchards.
In many ways, being in the heart of apple-growing country, Deushar was a perfect place to create an organic research and demonstration garden. The garden was on a busy path used by every family in the village for collecting firewood and taking their cows for grazing in the forest. Nobody could avoid passing it without showing at least some curiosity about what we were doing.
The Biolaya garden consisted of about two acres of land, including a small apple orchard and different areas for growing medicinal plants, vegetables, traditional grains and tree seedlings. Although not directly related to our herb business, to us the apples, vegetables, grains and trees were equally important in the context of researching and promoting sustainable farming systems (not to mention essential for feeding ourselves fresh organic food). Our intention was to promote diverse agroecosystems in which medicinal plants were just one part.
In our first year in Deushar – for our own benefit as much as the local farmers – we arranged a series of training workshops led by Dr Thimmaiah, an expert in organic and biodynamic farming. Having had our doubts, we were surprised by the level of enthusiasm of the farmers – far greater than the discarded packets of fungicide had led us to believe. Many of them wanted to stop using chemicals – they just didn’t believe it was possible without a significant drop in yields and income.
Dr Thimmaiah’s argument, shared by many other proponents of organic farming, especially in the developing world, was that any initial drop in yield can be compensated by lower costs of inputs. And in the longer term, crops grown in healthy soil in a diverse ecosystem will eventually out-perform any monocrop grown in soil devoid of biological activity and organic matter.
This made sense to us. And if the farmers were still dubious, we were willing to put theory into practice and hope that the results would speak for themselves. So, beyond basic organic principles such as crop rotations, intercropping etc., much of our work in the garden focused on creating low-cost inputs made from locally available resources. We made giant compost heaps, liquid manures, vermiwash, cow-pat pits, panchagavya and many other concoctions, all designed to optimise crop productivity and resilience at minimal cost.
A biodynamic compost heap made during Dr Thimmaiah's training
Apart from a few cases of stubborn tomato blight and some sooty blotch on the apples, the results of our trials in Deushar were promising. It was hard to narrow down exactly which methods were having the most effect as we mixed them all together in a slightly random, unscientific manner. But the main thing was that we were able to demonstrate that most pests and diseases could be controlled without chemicals and that we were still able to get good yields.
A few of the farmers, inspired by Dr Thimmaiah’s training and the results of our trials, embraced the philosophy of using low cost inputs and replicated them on their own land. Vermicompost, in particular, was a big success. For many though (especially the more wealthy apple growers), the inputs – although cheap to make – involved too much time and effort. They were used to quick and easy solutions, and preferred the idea of buying ready-made organic inputs from the market.
At the time, ready-made organic inputs weren’t easily available. They also worked out more expensive than their chemical counterparts, which meant that the only way to maintain the same level of income would be to sell the produce at a higher price. The problem with that was that there wasn’t yet an established local market for organic produce. It also led to the question of whether to go down the route of 3rd party certification, and how to tap into (often distant) high-value markets.
We soon realised that to make a real impact, not only did we need to introduce organic practices, we also needed to explore ways of creating new markets. One option we explored was to create a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) – a low-cost alternative to 3rd party certification based on trust and social control, and designed more for the local market. This is a concept with great potential, but was beyond the scope of a rapidly growing Biolaya.
As we became busier with other projects, we also struggled to find time to prepare all of our own inputs. We experimented with buying ready-made bio-pesticides and fungicides, hoping we might find easier solutions. Some proved to be very effective, but simply replacing chemical inputs with organic inputs just didn’t seem right. Why focus so much time and energy on trying to fix the symptoms rather than address the underlying cause?
Having experimented with many different crops, I personally felt that the main issue was not so much how to treat pests and diseases, it was more the suitability of the crops that were being grown. The most lucrative and therefore most widely grown cash crops, such as cabbages and apples, were also the most susceptible and required the most toxic treatments. The traditional crops, on the other hand, having been bred locally for centuries, were perfectly adapted to the environment and barely suffered any problems from pests and diseases. They were also far more nutritious, providing vitamin-packed leaves during the summer months and protein-filled grains for the winter. So why weren’t more people growing and eating these crops?
One of the reasons, as we found out for ourselves, is that they require a lot of hard work (especially in dehulling). And also because tastes seemed to have changed. Traditional grains such as millet, amaranth, buckwheat and chenopods are perceived by many of the locals to be ‘poor man’s food’, grown and eaten by their forefathers before they had the choice available today. People now prefer to eat flour and rice from the market – for many, the whiter it is the better. And when you can sell a kilo of apples for up to 20 rupees, you can buy a lot of flour and rice.
As a result, traditional crop varieties are dying out; nowadays they are only grown in the most remote villages where they still make up an important part of their diet. Like many of the medicinal plant species we were working with, these crops are becoming increasingly rare. But unlike wild herbs, which thrive in the absence of people, traditional grains rely on farmers to propagate their long-term survival.
For us in Deushar, unimpeded by the economic pressures of earning a living from the land, shifting our focus to more pest-resistant traditional crop varieties was an easy and logical decision. But for local farmers, especially those who have no other source of income, sacrificing any amount of income for long-term environmental (and health) benefits is less likely.
In reality, any significant shift from conventional to organic farming will require a combination of all the different strategies described above; for some farmers, creating their own low-cost inputs may be the only solution they need. Others will find ways of compensating for the higher costs of purchasing organic inputs by selling organic produce at a premium. And hopefully, any notion of traditional grains being ‘backward’ will be turned on its head as people realise their value, and production may rise again with the introduction of appropriate technology to help with post-harvest processing.
Fortunately, there is a resurgence of interest and appreciation of organic and traditional crops coming from the Indian cities, and there are a growing number of NGOs, such as Mountain Bounties and Navdanya, who are supporting farmers by buying their produce and introducing small-scale processing technologies. Hopefully this is the start of a much bigger movement to come.
As always, by looking more closely at the connections between what we eat and how our food is grown, we are reminded of the responsibility we all have to know where our food comes from, and to eat in a way that nourishes the diverse agroecosystems that every one of us is so intimately connected to.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Regenerative Agriculture in Italy, Interview in Telecolor, Italian national TV Channel

My recent interview in Italian national TV. Some of the major concerns in agriculture are; empowering farmers to be self-reliant, supporting local food production, low-cost methods for carbon sequestration and creating enabling environment to support ecological farmers are discussed. Regenerative Agriculture is becoming a buzz nowadays, however lot needs to be done to reduce the cost of production, policies to support ecological farmers and ways to transform farming into a profitable enterprise.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Webinar on Low-cost Regenerative Organic Gardening for urban enthusiasts.

Regenerative organic agriculture is getting very popular now as a system of farming to produce safe and nutritious food  and a solution to Degenerative agriculture. We all know that the current system of farming is against all the laws of nature. The food produced is laced with synthetic agrochemicals is hot healthy for any living system. In addition the techniques of modern agriculture make farmers dependant on several purchased inputs.

Farming is an extension of natural ecosystem. Humans domesticated a few plant species that were in wild and started cultivating them to meet their food, feed fibre and other needs. Regeneration is integral to farming akin to forest ecosystems. However the greed and short sighted views of  humans has reduced agriculture into a set of few chemicals and corporate control. Farmers committing suicide, family farms going bankrupt, loss of topsoil, cruelty to animals and rising incidence of diseases are some of the symptoms of the 21st century.

Though Regenerative agriculture is the solution to address the environmental damage caused by current farming system the concepts are not fully understood by many yet. In many discussion forums and events  the scope of  regenerative farming is restricted to building soil carbon for carbon sequestration to address climate change. I see regenerative agriculture as a system that empowers farmers. It's not limited to sequestering carbon by adopting  sane farming techniques. The purpose of regenerative agriculture is to produce safe and nutrient dense food through methods that regenerate the soil, seeds, waterbodies, biodiversity, ecosystem, economies and the human thought. In this process farmers need to trained to become least dependant on purchased external inputs.  A dependant system is not sustainable nor regenerative.

Please find below my recent webinar where I introduce Regenerative Organic Gardening to the urban enthusiasts.