Sunday, December 1, 2013


Ever since I decided to involve myself in the pursuit of learning a bit of ‘Organic’ farming, I have often been asked two questions. What is Organic Food? And what is GM food? Before I set out to give a lay man explanation and add my two bit on why you should be concerned about what you eat, let me say, that I find it absurd that people would have more knowledge about stock markets and politics than the food they eat.  Think about where we are as a society, if we spend a lot of time understanding health insurance policies but, do not spend any, in knowing how and where what we eat was grown or comes from.  So, as you read this rumbling from an extinct journalist, find some time to research further on the food you eat.

‘Organic’ products are any product which is grown ‘Organically’. By ‘Organic’, what we mean is using what has been given by nature and hence it would mean ‘Natural’. Every crop or soil needs some form of nourishment and in ‘Organic’ farming the manure used is natural without ‘factory produced chemicals’ or what is commonly known as ‘pesticides and insecticides’. I draw the distinction because everything, even organic manure, is made of chemicals. The difference is whether it is made naturally or made in a factory with levels that are ‘unnatural’ and hence ‘hazardous’.  As I write further I will be using ‘Pesticides’ and ‘Factory produced chemicals’ interchangeably. For the reader the two should mean the same.  Remember, there are ‘organic pesticides and insecticides’ as well.

 How do they make manure that is ‘Organic’? Simple, from cow dung, wet and dry waste and water. But, using this manure does not necessarily mean that there will be no ‘pesticide’ in the food that is produced. This is because the land in which the food was grown could already have been exposed to pesticides. Let us say you start an ‘Organic’ farm and grow your crop of carrots without pesticides but, the farmer who owned the land before may have extensively used ‘pesticides’ and ‘contaminated’ the soil. So, even though you do not use ‘pesticide’, your crop will have traces of it. This is just one factor, there are many others, like ‘pesticide’ content in the seed you sow, ‘pesticide’ use in the farm next to you or ‘pesticide’ levels in ground water.

The bottom line is, no matter how ‘Organic’ a farm may be, there are extraneous factors that may result in its produce being ‘contaminated’ by ‘pesticides and insecticides’. In effect, the farming is process ‘factory chemical’ free but, the produce may not be. So, when you buy a brand of ‘Organic’ food do not be certain that it has absolutely zero contamination. Here’s the thing, when you grow something ‘organically’ then you slowly and surely reduce the amount of that ‘factory produced chemical’ in the food that is produced. Take for example a sack of rice in your house. Let us say you have a cockroach problem and so you spray one of those sprays available in the market. The question is simple. Would you spray a whole bottle of it on the rice sack and then wash it and eat it? I suspect if you are sane, you would not.  But, you may not be averse to eating the sack of rice if it was stored in a room which has been sprayed.  Again, if the rice was to be fed for a new born baby, I am sure you would ensure that it was kept as far away from the spray as possible.

The fundamental point here is -we all know that pesticide and insecticides are harmful. Now, do we ignore it in our food or do we try and find food that has lesser and lesser ‘contamination’.  I am not suggesting that we all change what we eat from the next meal or that we all begin farming. What I am saying is, at least spend the time in knowing what you eat. I believe nature and the body will find a cure and recuperate and so, I hate those doomsday ‘organic’ thinkers. It is important to know that we have limited knowledge of life and then decide on the basis of that limited knowledge and then trust that the decision is right. Simple, find out and try to know more about the food you eat and then trust that you will make the right choice. Trust me, I still eat food that’s been grown for the ‘mass market’ but, I also try and find food that is grown ‘organically’. There are times when I say ‘I’ll take my chances’. But, the point is that I am not being careless about the food I eat and I am thinking about it as much as I think about taking a health insurance policy or buying a house.

Now, we get to the other issue, GM foods. When I grow a crop of Carrots I am absolutely not sure about which bees, birds, butterfly or insects are pollinating on it. Yes, my crop of carrot is grown ‘Organically’ but, my neighbouring farmer or the one after him may be growing a completely different crop of carrot. When the bees and birds travel from his crop to my crop they do what is known as ‘Cross pollination’. This means that my carrot and my neighbour’s carrot have had sex and are going to produce a new variety of carrot. This is a natural process and seed breeders have used this to make ‘Hybrid seeds’.  The idea is if my neighbours carrot is more resisted to disease A and mine deals with disease B better, then the chances are that some of their offspring would deal with both A and B better. This is a process of ‘Natural sex’ between the crops to make a new one which is healthier and they are called ‘Hybrids’.

GM on the other hand means Genetic Modification. This means that I will take the DNA of my carrot and ‘mutate’ it with the DNA of a cabbage. Then I call it GM Carrot or GM cabbage depending on the more dominant traits.  The farmer and seed conservator who taught me a lot about elementary farming Sangeetha Sharma of 'Annadhana' calls this ‘Unsafe Sex’.  The fundamental difference according to experts is that in ‘Hybrids’ we produce a new variety and in GM we produce a new species. This is like when a dog and a horse are forced to have intercourse and then you claim the offspring is a GM Dog or a GM Horse. The truth is the off spring is neither a horse nor a dog. It is something new.

I do not, for a moment, say that the new species is going to be bad. It may well be better than the existing ones. It may be better than a carrot and a cabbage, it may be better than a dog and a horse, BUT, it is neither a carrot nor a cabbage or a horse or a dog. It is a new species. You and I may eat it as carrots, but, we need to know it is not.  I do not want to even go near the debate over whether GM foods are good or bad. I only want people to be aware that this is what it means.

 At some level, I feel sad that we have relegated issues about food as a mere policy issue. This piece that I have written is purely an expression of frustration and a request to the reader to start finding out about the food he or she eats. I must declare that I do not have the knowledge to tell the reader what is right and what is wrong.  The decision on what you eat must be made by you, but, just remember you need to make a decision and make it with as much prudence and diligence that you show while you investing money or when you cast a vote.  After all it is you who is eating. 

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