If you belong to the tribe that cringes at La Tomatina, that annual festival in Spain when colossal quantities of tomatoes are flung around and squashed just for the fun of it, then read on. You will have felt some horror seeing those images of waste -- crowds laughing and flailing about in lakes of puree, their bodies drenched in blood-red paste that could have gone into tons of curry.
Waste and greed
The desi version of wasted tomatoes is far less fun and mostly tragedy. We have all seen it on the news many times -- farmers forced to dump their produce on highways, in anger or despair, in response to prices that mock their labour and enterprise. When supermarkets vie with each other to offer cheap vegetables and fruits, most of us see a good bargain. Our greed blinds us to the unfair market system loaded against the interests of the small farmer.
The same system that pushes farmers into a tight corner also forces us to eat food that is unsafe.
But that's not all. The same system that pushes farmers into a tight corner also forces us to eat food that is unsafe. The pursuit of productivity and profits has driven the indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, lacing our food with toxins we know nothing about. And all of us, policy-makers, officials, producers and consumers alike, have conspired to mindlessly support this system that weakens our farmers, pollutes our environment and destroys our health, in one fell swoop. For the city-bred, removed from the realities of rural life, what happens in obscure villages is often of no interest. The food that comes out of the kitchen and lands on the dining table has no perceived link to where it came from or what it took to produce.
There is hope, and it's called Kedia
When Greenpeace India launched its ecological agriculture project in a small village called Kedia in Bihar two years ago, it was with the hope that however tiny the initiative, it could perhaps show the way to mend a broken system. Ninety-six families of the village made the leap of faith and agreed to participate in the experiment. They did not entirely foresee the level of transformation their efforts could deliver, nor did they expect much support from the outside world.
They took their small, bold steps. They turned their backs on chemicals. They switched to "amrit pani" and vermi-compost, set up biogas plants and eco-san toilets. They understood not just the science behind the change they started, they recognized the politics and economics. As one of the Kedia farmers put it, "Chemical fertilizers and pesticides weren't introduced for the benefit of farmers; they were introduced for the benefit of businesses."
Or as another farmer admitted, "When farmers become poor and desperate, they will apply anything to the soil if they think it gives them a chance to increase their yield. This has destroyed our soil and made food unhealthy. Consumers of food need to realize that this can't be a good thing."
The shifts have not been easy, but the farmers have persevered. And they are seeing the results. Fewer pests, healthier soil, better yields, tastier vegetables, lower costs. And what's more, earthworms and kingfishers are making a comeback.
And last month, the farmers of Kedia decided to go yet another step forwards in strengthening their enterprise. They decided that they would install a solar-powered eco-freezer in the village to store their produce to better control the timing of their sales. They hope that with such a freezer, they will be able to avoid distress sales of their produce. It is a large investment and currently beyond their means, and so this time, they are asking for help from the outside world.
Do we care?
Well fortunately, many sensitive minds connect the dots. Many hearts bleed for the struggling farmer, for the degenerating soil and environment in the country. And many more are anxious enough about their health and the health of their children that they are now waking up to the need to do something quickly.
When Kedia asked for help with the eco-freezer through crowd-funding, donors from all over the country, from Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and other places, came forward to offer their support.
Here's what Venkatesh, a software consultant from Chennai who made a contribution, had to say:
"Though I was raised in Chennai, I come from an agricultural family. I own ancestral agricultural land, taken care of by relatives at present. I understand farmers' difficulties and challenges in making ends meet. Drought, poor rainfall and insufficient funds to manage these challenges are their biggest issues. No government body is really willing to pay complete attention to their voice. So it is our duty as well to help people who are struggling to bring us healthy food products."
Others who have contributed echo similar sentiments. But it has not been enough. Many more who feel that way need to step forward to help if the farmers in Kedia are to acquire their eco-freezer.
So will you do your bit?
The farmers of Kedia are offering us something precious. It is not just their land and livelihoods they are trying to heal; they are also the custodians of our health and environment. Let us do our duty and play our part in assisting them to do just that. Do find out more about Kedia, and what you can do to help here.
Veena Krishnamurthy has worked in the development sector for over 25 years in several countries and currently associated with Greenpeace India in a communications role.