Wagtail lad – Brett and his partner Keitha here!
We’re writing a little late, but this September we had the most incredible opportunity to attend Vandana Shiva’s Bija Vidyapeeth (Earth University) on her biodiverse Navdanya farm in the Doon Valley of Uttarakhand state, India.
As we’d anticipated, the trip proved to be an absolutely mind blowing experience!
Read on if you’ve got the time and would like to know more of what we were up to…
We were there to attend the A-Z of Organic Farming and Agroecology Course and for those 30 days we lived on the beautiful Navdanya farm and were inspired by everything from the tiny insects to the vast fields that grew over 1000 different food crops for food supply as well as for preservation of diversity within their Seed Bank.
The Navdanya Seed Bank itself was a beautiful example of active seed saving at work, not only did it have the most wonderful smell (all earthern buildings), but it stored the seed for around 630 varieties of rice! around 140 vegetable crops! And 90 varieties of pulses (lentils, chickpeas etc)… Not to mention 150 wheat varieties and dozens of spices, millets, oil seeds, aromatics, medicinals… It is a seed saver’s heaven and a crucial part of the Seed Freedom movement.
WEEK 1 of the course was all about Understanding Food and Farming Systems, with the incredible Dr. Vandana Shiva there for the first 3 days lecturing about The World Food System and World Food Crisis, as well as the myths of feeding the world with The Green Revolution and the Gene Revolution, sharing her extended knowledge and experiences of fighting GMOs and GE, biopiracy and the injustices that so many farmers are facing in a system dominated by corporations. The next days moved towards the Rights of Mother Earth and concepts for the New Agricultural Paradigm by going into depth on the Principles of Organic Farming and Agroecology with the wonderful Dr. Av Singh from Canada. Our practical workshops involved concepts of agronomy, different farming systems (linear, holistic, biodynamic, permaculture etc) and organic farming methods, designing our own ideal farms, observations out in the field and conceiving ways to reduce farms external inputs and create more internal inputs and complete nutrient cycles.
Such a truly inspiring first week that reinforced WHY we were here and further engrained in us the deep importance and necessity for organic agriculture around the world.
WEEK 2 we had been highly anticipating: Living Soil week! These next days involved looking in depth at the Soil Food Web with the amazing teaching team, Chris Kennedy & Marilyn McHugh from The Hummingbird Project. As well as practicals with them in Navdanya’s Soil Lab, discovering the millions of microorganisms in living soil samples taken from around the farm… We were letting out yelps of delights as we discovered fungi, bacteria, amoebas, flagellas, insect larvae and other minute beings.
We also delved into how soil fertility and soil life is destroyed by chemical fertilizers, looked at soil health in relation to plant health, how to read plant signals, nutrient mobility, ecological succession and learnt some nifty soil bio terms like how plants send out exudates (chemicals secreted through the roots) to influence the food web in the soil and bring beneficial microorganisms into their rhizosphere (the area of microbe/plant interaction in the soil around the plant roots)…
We were seasoned, happy soil geeks by the end of week.
From the tiny microbes to the visible bugs, we also studied the Web of Life and all the little creatures that inhabit it: the “pests”, the beneficial insects, the huge importance of bees and pollinators and the incredible under-appreciated earthworms, as well as learning about ecological alternatives to pesticides.
The Soil week practicals were hands on compost workshops nearly everyday! We made liquid composts, pit composts, heap composts, vermicompost (using earthworms), vermiwash and herbal pesticides as well as fermented plant teas for fertilizers and natural pest control, learning that plant teas are ready to use once they smell as bad as possible… humans don’t seem to enjoy it, but the crops do!
One of the week’s highlights: using our bare feet to squish the fresh cow manure before adding it to compost. Felt great oozing between the toes!
WEEK 3 was Living Food week was one for the foodies…
Health and Nutrition were centre stage this week with Dr. Anna Powar and Vandana’s sister Dr. Mira Shiva, among other faculty, guiding us through the benefits that organic methods have on the nutritional levels of micro and macronutrients in our food. Vandana’s Navdanya report Health per Acre, compared not only the yield per acre of crops (which so many GM products cite as a supposed benefit) but the nutritional value per acre of crops, and with organic produce, every time, the nutrition levels were hundreds if not thousands of times higher compared to conventionally grown produce using chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Links between pesticide use and diseases were deeply investigated (there are currently 1,400 pesticides being used worldwide, most of them based on nerve poisons) as we looked at the poisons that can be in our food through conventional farming chemicals and the dangers of GM foods not only on our own health but in the long term health of the planet.
With more positivity we remembered “forgotten foods” like amaranth, millet & buckwheat and their incredible nutritional values (amaranth has higher protein than milk, finger millet has same protein balance as mince – both very high in calcium, and buckwheat has all 8 essential amino acids, all the B vitamins etc etc) and shared forgotten foods from our own cultures (attendees were from all corners – Mexico to Vietnam, Australia to Slovenia…)
Concepts like the Right to Food Movement, Food security bills, Organic Certification and Just and Fair Food were in discussion all week, while our practical workshops were bursting full of cooking classes using these above mentioned forgotten foods and fresh, organic produce harvested straight from the farm.
A visit to a local potter topped off an amazing week of some essential learning and really good eats!
Our final WEEK 4 was the one many had been waiting for – Living Seed week!
With Vandana’s anticipated return to the farm we were straight into Seed Saving, Seed Conservation and Selection in the field with some memorable sessions in the seed bank.
Then we were introduced to Participatory Plant Breeding and Evolutionary breeding with leading PPB expert Dr. Salvatore Ceccarelli, both incredibly interesting concepts that were in favour of working with farmers and their fields, as opposed to conventional plant breeding which is done in labs far from the lands where these seeds are meant to grow.
With Vandana back from fighting Seed Laws in Brussels, she was quick to share with us why she started Navdanya and the Politics of the Seed, as well as her momentous role in the Global Citizens Movement for Seed Freedom and Food Sovereignty which inspire different ways for how we can change the way we think as a society so that we may create a new paradigm from within which we can act.
We also had the opportunity to visit a community seed bank in a neighbouring village and talk with the women who were actively, proudly and collectively saving seeds for their village’s annual food crops with the support of Navdanya, but quite independent and non-reliant on commercial seed. It was a colourful afternoon of many laughs and delight.
But one of the most powerful moments for us during the whole course was when women from another local village came to visit Navdanya farm’s seed bank to have Vandana talk to them about the importance of organic methods, saving seed and reclaiming their right to grow their own crops (versus being forced or tricked into growing GM crops or using chemical fertilizers and pesticides) before she handed out bags of free seed of many crop varieties among them and you could see the women’s faces changing with understanding and knowledge as they took their destinies into their own hands and determinedly strolled off into the late afternoon sunset, talking excitedly and proudly carrying their seed bags on top of their heads.
The magic and power of seeds and our deep connection through them to the earth were there in every moment that afternoon and we feel very privileged to have been witness to the movement in action.
Vandana Shiva and our entire Earth University experience also empowered us with the notion that the seed freedom, food freedom and organic movement is growing faster because it’s been driven by free people (compared to the GM campaign which is driven by force, bribes and corruption), along with the knowledge that the real change comes when we move from being simply consumers, to conscious earth citizens.
Much of what we learned while in northern India is universal knowledge and of universal importance, so from our little urban farm in Mitchell Park – South Australia, to your local patch and part of the world, we send much love, solidarity and fresh, tasty, organically grown vegetables!
B & K