Food for the body, Food for the soul

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Excerpts from a talk by Satish Kumar at the ‘Be the Change’ Conference on Food, Health and Climate Change, organized by Bhoomi Network in December 2009 at Bangalore.

We are no longer in charge of our own food. We don’t know how it is grown, stored or distributed. What we know is that, the methods of growing, storing and distributing are used in such a way that they are not feeding all the people in the world. It is also creating more diseases and obesity. Food today, which is being produced without human or ecological concerns, is contributing hugely to global warming. This situation is becoming increasingly common in India.

Our priority these days is to concretize the city rather than revere the soil. It seems as if people in cities think that soil is dirty, that nobody should see soil in the city and that touching it, is making ones’ hands dirty. We then use soap to wash our hands, but it’s the soap that is dirty, not the soil! The Bhagawad Geetha says that people are sustained by food, food is sustained by rain, and rain is sustained by following the order of the Universe.

My inspiration for going around the world came in Bangalore. I was at a café drinking coffee with a friend, E.P Menon, when I read the news that Bertrand Russell, a Nobel Prize – winning great philosopher and mathematician, was in jail in England. He was arrested for protesting against nuclear weapons. I said ‘Prabhakar, if a man of 90 is going to jail for the peace in the world, what are we doing, us young men sitting here drinking coffee?’ So Menon and I decided that day, that we would walk to Moscow, Paris, London and Washington to protest against the nuclear weapons and join the peace movement.

At that time around the year 1961, when I lived in Bangalore, we could see the dirt, the soil and could smell the aromatic jasmine flowers. Now I don’t see any soil. Enough is enough! We have enough concrete, cement, tarmacs and maybe enough cars. We need more trees, more soil, more flowers, more vegetables and there is no reason why there should be any conflict between nature and culture. There is no conflict. Nature and culture can live together in any city of the world. Trees and buildings can be friends. Why do city planners visualize buildings and trees as if they were enemies? There is no reason to believe that. Every office block should be built with space, with trees, ponds and gardens where we can grow our own food. And food which is eaten by the citizens should come from no more than 50 miles radius. Just like the city of Havana in Cuba, every city has the capacity to produce its own fresh organic food.

Producing food with heavy chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides destroys our soil – and without soil, there is no life. One can have progress and technology as long as they complement our safety, security and supply of good food. Right now, we are treating Nature as if it was our enemy. We are polluting our rivers, our land and soil and are cutting down our rainforests.“We must participate in the production and cooking of food... If you are doing it with your hands and heart, imagination, creativity, spirit and love, that itself is art. Gardening is a work of art, so is cooking.”

The Bhagawad Geetha says that people are sustained by food, food is sustained by rain, and rain is sustained by following the order of the Universe. The Geetha uses the word Chakra. Chakra means the ‘Wheel of Life’ and this is the order of the universe. It means that everything we take from Nature should return to Nature. We shouldn’t produce anything that is not absorbable, bio-degradable or returnable to the earth.

If you observe Nature, it is cyclical. The soil, water and sunshine help the seed in the ground to become a plant, a plant becomes a tree and the trees have branches and leaves, they blossom and there is fruit, and the seed in the fruit goes back to the soil. And when the leaves fall on the ground they become the nourishment and the food for the soil, and don’t forget the earthworms!

Thank the cook who has cooked the food for us. Thank the host who is hosting the dinner. Thank the gardener who has produced the food. Thank the rain and the sunshine that have made food possible, but don’t forget the earthworm! The earthworms have worked day and night, without asking for any wages, without asking for a weekend holiday. They are the greatest voluntary workers to keep the soil fertile, and so, when I sit down to have my dinner, I thank the earthworms. And I thank the earth, I thank the soil.

What are we doing though? We are making our ecology and our food chain a linear system where one takes, uses and throws away - a ‘throw away’ culture. The modern industrial urbanized society is a ‘throw away’ civilization. When you have a cauliflower, the flower is good for the vegetable, for cooking, for eating and the flower comes with some beautiful green leaves – what a wonderful packaging of nature! While we, advised by highly educated scientists and technologically advanced industrialists, produce plastic and throw plastic away, which results in piles of it everywhere.“The earthworms work day and night, without asking for any wages, without a weekend holiday. Don’t forget to thank the earthworms...”

In England, a lorry comes once a week and takes the green leaves, banana peels, orange peels, and all the other kitchen wastes – which is organic material, which is gold – and puts it in landfills. The potential compost and nourishing food for the soil goes there, and what happens to the landfills? That organic waste is producing Greenhouse Gases, and leading to global warming. That is a linear economy, the linear system of modern industrial society. For me, throwing organic wastes into landfills is violence. It’s a crime against nature, an ecological sin.

Because of this, we end up importing oil from Saudi Arabia, or Iran, or somewhere far away. Some countries even go to war to get the oil. Then we make chemicals, pesticides, and herbicides, to put that in our soil to get extra crop. Where is our education? What happened to our PhDs, MBAs and Biotechnology degrees? How can we throw so much waste into landfills, create global warming and climate change, import oil and fossil fuel to add to more global warming? This is not intelligence; this is sheer stupidity.

If educated people like us can be so stupid, it is no wonder that when a journalist from the London Times asked Mahatma Gandhi in London, ‘Mr. Gandhi what do you think of Western Civilization?’ Mahatma Gandhi replied, “I think it would be a good idea!”

We are cutting down rainforests that can absorb carbon dioxide to produce soya beans, to feed animals... At the same time, we are also increasing our cars, airplanes and all the other ways of adding to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A few weeks before I came from England, the London Times interviewed Nicholas Stern, one of the most important and well-known economists of Britain. He is also the chief economist of the
World Bank who produced the great economic report for the British Government about climate change. According to Nicholas Stern, if we want to mitigate the effects of global warming, we have to change our agricultural patterns and food habits. He has said that we not only need to reduce but also if possible, eliminate eating meat altogether, since meat eating is responsible for 18% of the carbon emissions in the world. Now, that is not coming from the Buddha or Mahaveera, nor a Jain teacher or a Vaishnavite – it is coming from the chief economist of the World Bank.

The most important action that we all can do is to eat well. To eat fresh food, is to eat good, delicious, high quality food. That cannot be food packaged in plastic or on the shelves of the supermarkets, imported from long distances.

Whatever we eat, our tomatoes, potatoes, our fruits, our vegetables, should be fresh and local. So it is simple, you do not need any rocket science to see the connection between our food system and the way we are producing food and climate change and global warming. It is simple common sense but unfortunately, common sense is no longer common.

My suggestion to each one of us is, let us begin by asking ourselves, ‘What can I do?’ Climate change is a big problem. Every one of you in this room is a potential leader, and a good leader leads his or her life in the right direction. Why was Gandhiji such a popular and great leader? It was because he practiced what he said. And so, ‘Be the Change’. Just be an example, because you are a potential leader; everyone is.

One of the most beautiful sentences of Ananda Coomaraswamy, who has written many books on art, is, ‘An artist is not a special kind of person, but every person is a special kind of artist.’ I think one can paraphrase that and say that a leader is not a special kind of person, but every person is a special kind of leader. We are all leaders and can start to lead our lives, and then go to 10 other people. If you are 100 people here, you can each go to 10 other people, which will become 1000 people. If these 1000 people go to 10 other people, then it will become 10,000 people. If these 10,000 people talk to 10 other people about organic food and keeping the soil intact in the city of Bangalore, then we can very soon reach 1 million people. That’s how we can create a movement.

We are all capable of action. We will have to take our food safety and food nutrition into our own hands; we cannot leave it to somebody else. For that, we all need to touch the soil. If you are not able to reach the soil, find a friend, a relative who has a farm, or anyone who has access to land. And spend one day a week if possible on the land. We have to participate in the production and cooking of food. My idea would be, for all who work in the offices, to work half time. How about 3 days a week and not more? You work in offices, do intellectual work, student work, university work; whatever you do, keep aside three or four days a week to work for yourself, work on land and do it by hand. How about the Gandhian principle here? Let us not be consumers, let us be ‘makers’.

I was recently in Japan and people asked me, ‘What will you advice our young people in the university?’ I said, ‘My advice to you is when you leave the University, don’t seek a job’. They all wondered, ‘What is he saying? How will I survive?’ I said, ‘This was only half the sentence. What I am saying is – Don’t seek a job, create a job’. When somebody else employs you, your creativity, imagination, ingenuity, and initiative are dampened. You do what the employer asks you to do. However, when you are self-employed, you are creating your own job. You are an artist. You are able to enjoy exercising your creativity, imagination, ingenuity, initiative and you participate in the shaping of your own future.

Therefore, we should not have a society of employer – employees; we should have a society of makers – creators. In case you are employed full time already and maybe you cannot change it immediately as you have to pay bills and fulfill other obligations and excuses, I agree with all those excuses, try to atleast go part time. I run Resurgence Magazine and I don’t employ anybody full time. I suggest part time. The other part of the time, let us touch the soil. I have 2 acres of land and usually during this season, I make apple juice with my own hands, hand – pressed. The juice from this organically grown apple tree tastes like nectar.  The most important action that we all can do is to eat well, to eat fresh food...not food packaged in plastic...

It is much more joyful to have your own food, to go out in fresh air and be among the trees, touch the soil and thank the earthworms. We are conditioned to think that Nature is bad or that it is too hot outside or cold outside; the dirt is dirty, the soil is dirty.

We must participate in the production and cooking of food. That is a world of art. If you are doing it with your hands and heart, imagination, creativity and spirit and love, that itself is art. Gardening is a work of art, so is cooking.

It is a joy to bake your bread, cook your food, to serve your food on the table, enjoy the meal and have a good conversation. However, these days there is no time to eat, no time to bake bread or make chappatis, or make idli – sambhar – vada. I would say if you do not have the time to cook, you don’t have time to live. My mother always said, ‘Don’t try to save time, because when God made time He made plenty of it. There is no shortage of time. Time, is always coming to you.’

Satish Kumar is a teacher, writer and the Editor of the Resurgence Magazine, U.K.