Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet

Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet

by Sarah Elton


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226093628
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/04/2013
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Sarah Elton is the author of Locavore:From Farmers’ Fields To Rooftop Gardens—How Canadians Are Changing the Way We Eat. She has written for publications such as the New York Times, Atlantic, Maclean’s, and Globe and Mail and is the food columnist for CBC Radio’s Here & Now. She lives in Toronto.

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Copyright © 2013 Sarah Elton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-09362-8


Table for One Billion: To See Our Future, Visit Sunny India

The road can tell you so much about where you are, especially in India. Certainly the twenty-kilometre stretch of road that connects the city of Aurangabad to Bidkin, a farming village in the traditionally agricultural state of Maharashtra, says a lot about the massive change that is under way there. On a trip from the city one morning, I passed the usual cows nosing around garbage heaps looking for food alongside wild pigs roaming free. There were the dudhwalas, young men with aluminum milk cans strapped to the back of their motorbikes returning to the farm from their morning deliveries; women and children balancing metal water jugs on their heads; and two boys, smartly dressed in their navy blue school uniforms, hair slicked with almond oil, walking arm in arm down the road from a vegetable seller, his wares spread on a blanket. A man soaked in a tub in front of a little shack. Another got a shave with a straight razor in a tiny roadside barbershop, lit by a single bulb hanging from a wire. A blacksmith worked a piece of metal with his hammer over an open flame. And at a cluster of stalls selling snacks and bright-coloured packs of supari (areca nut and betel leaf to chew), a group gathered for a breakfast of hot chai and a dish called pava.

Then there were the signs of the twenty-first century creeping out of the city towards the rural areas, along the road that is like a wick, drawing change to the villages and farms. Aurangabad was founded in 1610, and at least for the past fifty years, the city has been a sleepy town in an arid agricultural area where farmers grew grains such as sorghum and millet and, more recently, cash-crop cotton. That's now changing. Today Aurangabad is one of India's fastest-growing cities, in large part because manufacturing industries have moved here. In 2007, the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development listed the city as one of the top 100 fastest-growing large urban areas in the world, and according to the Indian census, between 2001 and 2011, Aurangabad's population jumped from 2.8 to 3.6 million. About 65 percent of those people are under thirty-five years old.

When I visited, the city's first traffic lights had recently been erected in an attempt to control the growing number of motorbikes, rickshaws, trucks, and cars. Before the installation of the stoplight, a policeman wearing white gloves had directed traffic at the intersection where the road to Bidkin forks off. He now looked hopelessly at the mess of vehicles that continued past the red signal. A nearby billboard advertised a new flavour of artisanal ice cream, an appeal to a growing middle class. Then, farther along the Bidkin road, towards the outskirts of the city, fallow fields were interspersed with new housing developments of concrete multi-storey buildings. Farther still, there were signs for future construction projects. One sign, for the Sai Labh Enclave, promised "The Touch of Luxury and Comfort Living" in its bungalows, row houses, and flats. And even farther down the road to Bidkin, a man and a boy led a herd of goats through a roadside field to graze under yet another billboard offering building plots for sale. In the previous four years, the price of real estate had increased fivefold here. This is what some people call India Shining.

After that, the factories began: the steel mill with a tall chimney exuding a constant stream of black smoke, the paper mill, a plastics plant, and the Videocon campus, one of India's largest manufacturers of fridges, air conditioners, and televisions. And all along the road near the Videocon factory were little white shacks cobbled together from the Styrofoam packaging in which the electronics components likely arrived before the products were assembled in Aurangabad. Then finally: Bidkin. A bustling place, with its own collection of roadside stalls near the central bus station. This is the town where farmers come from the vicinity every Wednesday to weigh and then sell, depending on the season, their cotton or their sugarcane at the state-run wholesale market or visit the Bidkin bazaar to buy food and supplies.

But I was heading beyond Bidkin to visit a smaller village, Dhangaon. I was on my way to visit a woman named Chandrakala Bobade, an organic farmer whom I had met a few days before at a meeting in Bidkin of women farmers. Chandrakalabai—the "bai" appended as a term of respect—is a leader in her community, in a region where more than a thousand other small farmers have managed to build a resilient local food system that doesn't rely on expensive inputs. In so doing, they have improved their livelihoods and changed lives, particularly the lives of village women. And quite inadvertently, these farmers are proving that small-scale organic farming can feed a country the size of India. They are showing that their way of producing and selling food is an important part of a new sustainable food system that can feed us into the future.

The day Chandrakalabai greeted me in her home, she had pulled her long grey hair back into a braid and draped the tail of her sari over her head like a loose scarf. She wore a nose ring, a blue stone set in a gold star, and on each wrist, about a dozen matching mint-green bangles. In between her eyebrows, she had a vermilion bindi, and on her feet were chappals, handmade leather sandals that she wore while working in the fields. Chandrakalabai is one of the most successful farmers in the area. She is a pioneer who set an example in her village and whose work has been emulated by others. Still, she's a quiet woman who prefers to wait to speak until asked. At the meeting of extension workers hired by the Bidkin-based Institute for Integrated Rural Development, where we first met, she didn't volunteer to talk but was called upon by the others to tell her story first. When she did, she spoke matter-of-factly about what she had achieved—though her life has been far from easy. She had dealt with domestic violence. She had lived in poverty, in villages where basics such as electricity and water are an occasional luxury. And most poignantly, of the three sons she had given birth to, only one survived past babyhood.

I liked Chandrakalabai right away. I liked her thoughtfulness and how she smiled with her eyes. We got to know each other over several days, though we were unable to talk directly with each other. Chandrakalabai speaks Marathi, which I don't understand, and she didn't speak any English. We could communicate only through a translator. Despite the cultural gulf that existed between us, there were nevertheless certain details of her life she shared with me that I could relate to: the love a mother feels towards a child; the desire to work hard and to make a comfortable home for the family. She told me of her need to get away to a quiet place to do her work—she enjoys walking the few kilometres to the small shelter made from branches and straw at the edge of her fields and sit in its shade, surrounded by her crops and the sounds of birds, to do her paperwork.

The morning I arrived in her village of Dhangaon, Chandrakalabai had called a group of women to gather at her small house. It was an old stone house with a carved wooden door painted bubble-gum pink. The house was well kept. Inside were a four-poster bed, two plastic lawn chairs, a television, a machine to crush chilies into powder, and, taking up about a third of the small space, a heap of her recently harvested cotton crop that she was storing to sell as soon as the wholesale price went up. On the wall were two hand-painted murals of Hindu gods as well as old family photos. There was no kitchen in the house. Chandrakalabai had done so well as an organic farmer over the last decade that she had been able to buy another plot of land across the street to build a kitchen house, with running water and a stove. The toilet, another sign of prosperity, was outside, attached to the living quarters.

The group of us squeezed onto the bed, the chairs, and the heap of cotton—it felt soft and cozy, just as you'd imagine a pile of freshly picked cotton would—and the women began to tell me about their farms. There was Kavita, a young, smiling kindergarten teacher and cotton farmer, who soon had to excuse herself to go to class; there was Smita, who grew cotton and the yellow pigeon peas—toor dal—that are a staple, and a woman named Duarka, who grew cotton and chilies. Over the next half-hour, more women arrived, pressing into the small room to tell me of their farms and of how their lives had improved since switching to organic methods. "It's profitable because it is less cost," explained Nanda, who grew cabbage, sugar cane, bananas, and sweet lime, a delicious citrus fruit as big as a baseball with green skin and orange pulp and the taste of a mild orange.

All their stories were similar to Chandrakalabai's. About twenty years ago, she was a typical subsistence farmer, growing millet, sorghum, vegetables, and cotton using the tools of modern agriculture such as hybrid seeds, chemical pesticides, and fertilizers derived from fossil fuels—when she could afford them. She struggled. Then, in the early 1990s, Chandrakalabai heard about a way of farming that didn't rely on any of these external inputs. A non-governmental organization working in the region—the Institute for Integrated Rural Development, where she is now employed part-time as an extension worker—taught her about organic farming. Over a few years, she changed the way she farmed.

Chandrakalabai's story shows us that small farmers in the developing world can lessen their input costs and grow organically, which increases their yields. If they can then embed themselves in a local food system with a minimum of intermediaries between them and the consumer, they can earn more money and secure a better future. It's a simple story that has big implications for the rest of the world looking for an answer to how we can feed our growing population, sustainably, by 2050.

But it's hard to be optimistic about India's future when we consider climate and population. The forecasts are bleak. Demographics, environmental change, and human decisions are together creating challenges we've not yet had to face. To start, the population is spiking. Today there are more than one billion people in India; it is forecasted that by the 2020s India will surpass China as the world's most populous country. These numbers, along with a growing economy and agricultural sector, are straining the country's natural resources. India is already running out of water. People are draining the river systems and groundwater aquifers primarily to irrigate their fields. In 1950 in India, the amount of water available per person was 5400 cubic metres; by 2000, the number had dropped by more than half. According to a report by the International Water Management Institute, people in India are taking two times more water from aquifers than can be replenished. As the aquifers diminish, lakes and rivers dry up, compounding the problem. And it is agriculture that uses 90 percent of the water, with domestic and industrial uses accounting for a mere 5 percent each. In fact, there is so little water to go around that in the city of Aurangabad, the municipality turns on the civic water supply in some wards for one to two hours a day, and in other parts of the city there is running water only one hour every other day. Farmers in the countryside don't even have that luxury. There isn't running water in most villages, and those that do have it find it in their pipes only for a few hours a day, only some days of the week. Most small farms don't have the irrigation that crops need to thrive.

At the same time, the amount of available farmland is shrinking. Not only must existing farms be divided between more and more people as the population rises, but vast swaths of agricultural land are being turned into industrial areas for manufacturing. Between 1955 and 2001, around 2.3 million hectares in India have been taken over by growing cities. Around the capital, Delhi, 17 percent of the farmland disappeared to urbanization between 1992 and 2004. Land for growing food is also lost when soil is contaminated by agrochemicals, sewage sludge, and municipal garbage, and when mining and other resource-extracting industries take it over. Poor land management, such as allowing livestock to overgraze, leaves the soil vulnerable to erosion by wind and rain.

Agriculture employs about half of the Indian labour force—down from two-thirds in the last decade—and the majority of Indians still live in rural areas. Yet the Indian farmer is struggling. After independence from Britain, India had a hard time feeding itself, and agriculture in the country was plagued by low productivity. The green revolution, which imported new growing technology such as pesticides and artificial fertilizers from the West, did change things, but these new tools came at a high price. Many small farmers in India spiralled into debt because they couldn't afford to pay for seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. Chandrakalabai lives in the state of Maharashtra, known for its cotton-growing but also for its farmer suicides. Between 1997 and 2005, in Maharashtra alone, nearly twenty-nine thousand farmers killed themselves in despair, often by drinking the pesticides that had helped put them in debt. The problem isn't going away. According to a report published in the newsmagazine India Today during my visit, a farmer commits suicide in the country every thirty seconds.

Now add climate change to the mix. Climate modelling demonstrates that India is one of a handful of countries where agriculture will fare the worst. Because of the country's latitude near the hottest part of the earth, temperatures are predicted to rise to the point where plants such as wheat can no longer yield as much food. By 2020, according to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, crop yields are expected to begin decreasing because of rising temperatures, though only marginally; the real drop it predicts will be felt about sixty years later. But the institute says that as soon as the 2020s, the warming conditions will affect livestock. It estimates that about 1.5 million tons of milk will be lost from the dairy industry that decade. By 2080, climate change will be so severe that India may experience crop losses of between 30 and 40 percent of today's yields.

This is all happening at the same time that agricultural productivity is slipping while the country's demand for food is rising. The Indian Agricultural Research Institute predicts that by the 2020s, people there will require more food than the country currently produces. That decade, economists and agricultural analysts predict that demand for domestic cereals will exceed what the country's farmers can produce by more than 20 million tons. To put this number in perspective, in 2012 in Canada—one of the world's top five wheat producers—the crop on the Prairies was around 26 million tons. To feed India in the 2020s using today's methods of industrial agriculture, the country would need to increase its agricultural land by almost the equivalent of a Canadian Prairies' worth of wheat. Either that or boost yields on the land people are already farming (when this is done sustainably it is called ecological intensification). With competing interests vying for that land, a growing population, and climate pressures, what's happening in the country has implications for the rest of the world.

Excerpted from CONSUMED by SARAH ELTON. Copyright © 2013 Sarah Elton. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Countdown to the Future of Food

Target 2020: Soil

Chapter 1: Table for One Billion

To See Our Future, Visit Sunny India

Chapter 2: Faster, Bigger, Richer, Weaker

The Trouble with the Green Revolution

Chapter 3: The Money Knot

Food Prices, Profits, and the New Global Food Trade

Chapter 4: Local versus Industrial

The Alternative Economy of Food

Chapter 5: The Twenty-First-Century Peasant

But Who Will Grow Our Food?

Chapter 6: Land as Good as Gold

Mega-Parks, Mega-Farms, and the Global Rush for Farmland

Target 2030: Seeds

Chapter 7: Two Thousand Years of Rice

What China Knows That We Don’t

Chapter 8: The Genes in Our Seeds

The Big Business of Food Security

Chapter 9: Lab Rice

A Better Seed for a Hotter Planet

Chapter 10: SOS

Save Our Seeds

Target 2040: Culture

Chapter 11: From Home-Cooked to Takeout

A Culture of Food for the Future

Chapter 12: The Terrorists to the Rescue!

The Pope of Aligot and the French Culinary Resistance

Chapter 13: Culinary Biodiversity

You Are What Your Ancestors Ate

Chapter 14: Introducing…Food

The Culture Shift

Conclusion: Target 2050

The Future



Selected Bibliography


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