Monthly Archives: March 2012

Organic Composting in Bangladesh

Terracotta Pots for Seed Storage

Over the past 7 weeks I’ve taken every opportunity to talk with dozens of small farmers in Bangladesh. They tell me about their lives, their crops, their struggles with changes in weather patterns, and the market. As I listen, their thirst for knowledge and training is evident. They want to stay on their land. They want to have sustainable and profitable farming practices. They want to be self-sufficient and respected.

In the Boira union of the Mymensingh District, farmers explicitly stated they sought organic agriculture as a buffer against dependency on multinational corporations and the costly input-intensive regime linked with industrial agriculture. Development Wheel, the Bangladesh-based NGO I’m interning with, has spearheaded a program which incorporates training on organic pesticide control and composting methods, many of which the farmers of Boira have adopted. Composting particularly has opened up opportunities not only for reducing expenses but also for income generation. In Bangladesh, chemical fertilizer is frequently contaminated by unscrupulous retailers who mix it with cement or other substances in order to maximize profit. By composting, farmers are able to eliminate this threat to their crops altogether.

Composting, Bangladesh-style

The composting method they’ve begun to practice uses trichoderma, a fungus that naturally occurs in soil which has all kinds of benefits for soil enrichment and protection. Trichoderma accelerates the composting cycle so that volume can be increased. The composting process also generates drainage enriched with trichoderma which can be collected and reused, with any surplus exchanged between farmers or sold at the market. It’s a beautifully simple system.

Of course I talked with Boira farmers about saving their seeds and I learned that composting is directly linked with seed saving. They showed me their method using terracotta pots sealed with mud, explaining they saved mostly local rice and jute seeds. Vegetable seeds are more difficult to save, they explained, so they tended to purchase hybrid seeds. When asked how they could save more seeds the resounding answer was increasing the volume of organic fertilizer with more composters so the healthier soil could support stronger local seeds. Boira farmers said if every household had a composter they could be organic, save seeds, and be self-sufficient.

Right now, with DEW, I’m looking at ways to make this goal a reality and sincerely hope we could at least work with every other or every third household to install the composter and train the technique. It’s exciting! As I write this I am struck by the similar struggles of small farmers – and similar aspirations. In many people’s movements for social change, the mantra is “Justice, not charity.” These farmers are asking for help in creating systemic justice so that they need not rely on charity, but rather can have the dignity of meaningful work, feeding their families, their communities, their country. I’ve said this before, but I feel so incredibly honored and blessed to be a part of this work.

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Excuse Me, Monsanto

Tradition.

Even alone, this word feels powerful.  Tradition is often so deeply engrained in us we don’t know where it manifests.  Something I have been struck by often in the days of this project is how many of our traditions and social gatherings have food as the centerpiece. Yet, the unavoidable reality of this project has meant the interruption of such traditions and social habits:

Denying a home cooked meal from friends and family…  Refusing a shared meal from people around you… Meeting up for a drink and only ordering water (unless it’s a Bring-Your-Own type joint)…  Meeting a friend for coffee and bringing one from home…  Meeting friends for brunch and bringing your own smoothie…  Attending catered work meetings with your lunchbox… Enjoying weddings with pre-made food and dessert in hand (just to be sure)… 

Why? To those who have not gone GMO-free or do not have allergies, take my word for it: it is a constant scavenger hunt to know what IS in our food, and sometimes the answers cannot actually be found (or at least not at the time you need them).  One of the craziest realities is that in order to eat Monsanto-free, you have to almost literally avoid almost everything that is easily available and accessible.   Most supermarkets, restaurants, malls, diners, coffee shops, ice cream parlors, gas station markets, and bars are off limits.  As I read labels incessantly and ask questions whenever I enter a place to eat, drink, and be merry, I find myself frustrated not only because GE products have somehow infiltrated what feels like the growing majority, but also because without any labeling this has happened without many of us even realizing it or consenting to it.  Many restaurants we have spoken to don’t even know about the genetic engineering of seeds, so how would they know the ingredients they have often relied on for over 15 years are actually now genetically altered, mostly unregulated, and with questionable safety impacts for people?  The FDA‘s policy using substantial equivalence and GRAS have allowed these changes to our food to enter the system silently.

And Now: An Awakening.

It’s food we turn to for social gatherings, comfort, energy and nourishment.

So, Excuse me, Monsanto, you’re not just modifying the food on my plate with these GE seeds,you’re modifying some important traditions as I attempt to avoid you. The very first day of this Monsanto-free project, it hit me. It came in like a musical: with the sound of champagne glasses coming together in harmony at my friend’s wedding, the smiling faces and nods during the toast to the bride and groom’s journey in commitment, and the natural, genuine feeling as we all sipped our champagne in celebration.  As I lowered my glass to the table, the music dimmed and I stared at the setting, thinking to myself, Well isn’t that something?! I just drank that champagne without even a thought about whether it contained GE ingredients.  Not even a hesitation.  Do you know how much I prepared for that wedding??  My own food, my own dessert, multiple phone calls to the hotel, bags of groceries for the weekend of traveling to the unknown GE-full land…  and here, the unconscious power of tradition spoke right to me, simply and clearly.  Food connects us all.

What industrial agribusiness has wrong as they patent these genetically engineered seeds is that food production is more than just a business- this is about our long history and relationship to the land as farmers and gardeners; to the animals, insects, bees, butterflies, and soil microorganisms we share the land with, and of course to one another.  We feed ourselves, we feed our families, and we feed our loved ones.

Did you know that prior to 1980 the patenting of life, of seeds, would not have been possible?  It’s not as if this has always been this way… it has happened during our lifetimes.  And so, it can change.

Right now my voice seems faint, but as I avoid Monsanto–laced ingredients and contribute to educating others on our research and interviews, I have already witnessed small changes. We are getting louder.  Those of us who are willing to be what could be called (and often feels like) high maintenance, picky, antisocial, elitist oddities are demanding more availability and access to the cleanest of foods. Really, we are not the ones who should feel that way! Seems a bit backwards, no?  Our goal, and of those joining us, is not to ruin meals, nights at the bar with friends, or make anyone feel guilty about what they eat.  It’s to educate enough people to demand to the FDA that it’s not we who need to change. We can have the best of both worlds with delicious favorites produced naturally, and those foods with genetically engineered ingredients labeled – Clearly and Always – if they are used in our foods.  One choice at a time, one dollar at a time, we can demand food that is grown with care for the environment, the farmers, and the eaters.

Where do you stand?  Where do I stand?  I’ve completed 8 weeks of careful, deliberate decisions of GMO-free, organically produced (locally, when possible) food and product purchases. What will be our combined role in taking back our traditions with wholesome food at the center to nourish the health of ourselves, and of our world?  How will we collectively say, Excuse me, Monsanto get out of my relationships with food  and community, because:  You. Don’t. Belong.  We must speak with knowledge through our actions, personally and communally rejecting this unprecedented and coerced appropriation of our food and our traditions.