The sound of threshing murmured softly in the background as I stood in front of a striking one-dimensional frieze at Navdanya, an organic farm and biodiversity conservation centre in northern India.
A painted white spiral was set against the backdrop of the seed storage building’s mud wall. Simple figures with stick legs, featureless heads and joined arms spun together, revolving four times from the centre. This human chain ended with the last figure who was holding a pitchfork, but the story continued, exploding around the spiral’s perimeter. A peacock sat atop a hut, where beneath, someone lay lazily in a hammock. Other figures were at work, bent, leaning over crops depicted by three simple lines converging at one point. Hands held these lines like a trophy.
I tapped into the rhythm of the scene’s movement, a scene that traverses the boundaries of culture and time. Dried grain stalks rubbed against one another, bare feet worked the grain until separating the seed from the chaff. At Navdanya, they are not concerned with efficiency of food production, but with sovereignty of food.
While in Ladakh, the opportunity to participate in a two-week conference on food and hunger issues at Navdanya, led by internationally known food activists and authors Vandana Shiva and Frances Moore Lappé, fell in my lap. Attending felt like the logical next leg of my journey, having initially come to India to explore the links between cultural, agricultural and global change. What better place to witness an effort to strengthen these links in a just and sustainable way, than Navdanya. It’s a farm borne out of vision in which every species has a future, every farm is free of toxics, and every person is free from hunger. To those in the Navdanya food sovereignty movement, it starts with the seed. Bija.
I’ve often overlooked the immensity of the seed. At times it has seemed both ubiquitous and insignificant. Some seeds are so small that isolating a single one seems impossible. The planting of that seed, acting upon the potential protected within that very small shell, feels naïve and wishful. But there are wars over seeds. Some are out to make seed sharing and saving a crime, to turn a collective heritage into intellectual property and hijack access to food by turning it into a market-based commodity. There have been times I’ve forgotten that the seed is essential for life.
Shiva has written extensively about agricultural and societal changes in India since the green revolution; the work at Navdanya clearly stands as a statement against the trends of large scale, industrialized agriculture. Red, brown and yellow piles of drying seeds lie atop white sacks; thirty or so are spread out on the cement slab just outside the seed storing hut. Close by, Indians mingle with a few other foreigners, heads bent as they sow seeds by hand and listen to the advice of an elder. It isn’t hard to see, even as a newcomer, why she has the responsibility for the seeds: her words hold the weight of generational knowledge, and her hands are maps linking that knowledge to future survival. These maps have transformed the 8-acre farm, once left barren by eucalyptus monoculture, into fields where more than 600 varieties of plants now thrive—fields of lentils, ginger, turmeric, barley and oilseeds.
On my first reconnaissance of the farm, I slowly made my way down the narrow dirt paths that separate the fields, though not the crops, from one another. My hands gently caressed the grains of the millet plant, which grow like golden hands whose fingers curl upward, grasping. The iron-filled, tall red plumes of the amaranth brilliantly call to mind their rich protein source, for which the Indians call them God’s own grain. In the light cotton bag slung over my shoulder were several pamphlets that I picked up from the office when registering. The pamphlets highlight Navdanya’s impressive mission and work, the origins of which are found in the concept of seed saving and draw upon Gandhi’s use of the spinning wheel as the symbol and tool with which each Indian could resist imperial rule. It was a way to take back control of their lives by clothing themselves. Has the seed become the spinning wheel of our times?
In May 2001, Navdanya launched a campaign on food rights and food sovereignty—or Anna Swaraj—demanding that food be recognized as a fundamental human right under a genuinely decentralized democratic and sustainable food system. Thousands of villages have taken the pledge to save their food and the culture associated with it from corporate onslaught. As part of this movement, Navdanya has established 54 seed banks in 16 states across India, and more than 70,000 farmers have received seeds and training from Navdanya on sustainable agricultural methods. These farmers, in return, promise to spread the movement and the seeds in their neighbouring villages. These grassroots efforts have saved more than 3,000 rice varieties and hundreds of wheat and cereal grain varieties.
Each day of the conference we gathered under a thatched roof gazebo to listen to Lappé and Shiva talk to us about their perspective on the global crisis of hunger and its root causes. Twenty of us from around the world, talking about the effects of industrialized agriculture in India and the West, about the ideals of a living democracy, and efforts in creating a world based on mutual collective interest, where there exists self-governance over seed, water, food, land and biodiversity. In between talks we did yoga, helped with chores around the farm and learned about traditional North Indian agricultural practices.
On the first day we were asked to do a simple exercise: articulate our personal perspective on the root causes of hunger. Lappé insisted that we’re all educators and that articulation is an important tool. I didn’t disagree; I just didn’t have that tool. Forming a small circle with two Indian women, I wondered how to express my struggle—the struggle to make intangible concepts—like a consciousness of separation and lack of interconnectedness—into concrete, real terms. I spoke of land, community, of self, but my feeble attempt held no grit. My two young companions spoke animatedly about everything but the topic at hand. I didn’t really mind. I just watched the movement of their colourful bangles as they slid up and down their arms.
I liked the way Lappé spoke of circular patterns, rather than seeing separate issues all adding up to impoverishment, disempowered citizenry and inequity. She threatened to disallow me my apathy by showing that if I entered the circle where I could—where I am—that one “chink” then affects the whole. The social butts up against the economic, the political and the spiritual. I liked the way Shiva didn’t stumble over her words as I did. She spoke of separation in the same breath as economics. An economics now separated from both ecological processes and basic needs, though both ecology and economics have emerged from the same roots—oikos, the Greek word for household. She spoke of the Newtonian/Cartesian divide between mind and matter, the historical root for the paradigm in which we now live—where abstract construction has become more real than lived reality and is blind to the disintegration that results from separation of that which is interconnected. When she said those words—as a scientist, an activist, a powerful woman engaged in creating change—it made sense. She can articulate a breadth of knowledge that includes global politics, scientific discourse and village life.
It felt dizzying. I admit to being easily overwhelmed when recognizing the need for—and my own intense desire for—participating in efforts to create a just and harmonious world. The farm continuously forced me back to the tangible. I needed the smell of freshly cut grass and the sounds of the cicada to quiet my mind. I needed to see the vivid orange of the drying corn, the gentle rising of dust as the oxen plough the neighbouring fields, and the moisture of the flour between my hands as I rolled and flattened chapatis for our meal.
On the last night of the conference, the moon was a day away from full, holding the pink and red glow of the polluted sky. Words that I had read when I first arrived at Navdanya from Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution came to mind: “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” Lying on the mats of the gazebo, I wondered if it’s possible that the answer was so simple. Can the seed not only reflect the potential for economic freedom and ecological and cultural diversity, but also the potential of my true nature? Is the way to embody connectedness, to link the spiritual and the mundane, by farming? By witnessing and participating in the natural cycles of life, and being present to the vulnerability of my dependence on these cycles?
Closing my eyes, I saw the moon again, but this time as the red dot between the brows of an Indian woman, placed on the symbolic spot of the third eye—a place of clarity. I knew that in reality, I might not ever be a farmer. And I knew that I might not ever be as brave, and clear and radical as I wanted to be. But I also knew that a seed had been planted; that the soil that is my mind-body was reverberating with a YES, witnessed by a million unseen seeds in the fields around me also shimmering in the light of the moon’s eye.
Watch Seeds of Freedom to learn more about food sovereignty