Monday, June 25, 2012

There's a Fish in my Tomato


Look closely at that tempting tomato, especially if you are vegetarian. Is it 100% tomato, or is there a fish gene lurking in its succulent, scarlet squashiness? What about that cob of corn? Is that a human or a jellyfish gene spliced into its crunchiness?
Makes you think twice, doesn’t it, about the food that you put in your mouth?
GM foods are more mainstream than you think, and if those aromatic displays of fruit and veg in your supermarket aren’t organic, you may want a closer look at their labels.

The Fish Tomato and other Marvels
The fish tomato, a genetically engineered marvel conjured up in the labs of biotech firm, DNA Plant Technology, never quite made it past its USDA field test. But many other genetically modified foods have. GM watchdog, the Institute for Responsible Technology,
provides a chilling list of GM-fortified foods that make it to the table of unsuspecting consumers:
"bread, cereal, peanut butter, pasta, ice cream, infant formula and commercial crops like sugar beets, zucchini, soy  and canola."

Frankenstein Foods
Despite the claims of Monsanto, Dow and other biotech companies that champion GM engineering, the inherent safety of so-called Frankenstein foods remain unproven, hinging on longterm studies that haven’t yet occurred. In fact, there is a growing body of proof to the contrary - reports on sterility, allergies, auto-immune diseases, eczema and epidemics among animals and some humans exposed to GM foods –  are not uncommon on Google and in your daily paper!
Together with irrefutable evidence that pesticide residues in food create havoc with our bodies, this information raises the worrying spectre that because of our diet, future generations will spring from a distinctly odd gene pool.
Sangita Sharma, Eco- Warrior 
In Bangalore, India, one woman decided that educating the public about toxic foods and campaigning against the GM industry wasn’t enough. In Jallahalli, on the outskirts of Bangalore, Sangita Sharma, a feisty organic farmer, is paving the way with innovative solutions to organic food production.
Sangita  runs Annadana, ( a verdant, self-contained farm, where her minimal but efficient team grows, harvests and conserves seeds in a seed bank that has become a lifeline to many small scale farmers.
At Annadana, Sangita practices and advocates low-cost, sustainable, organic farming techniques, aimed rural farmers and farming communities.
Farmers, Debt & Suicide
The harsh reality is that hybrid GM seeds are not self-sustaining. Traditionally, says Sangita, farmers who used to save seeds for their next crop cycle, are now are relying on subsidies, year after year, to purchase hybrid seeds from agribusiness giants such as Monsanto and the Swiss Syngenta. The backlash of this dependence  - rising debt and farmer suicides - has been explored in Frontline, a US documentary series, the award winning Indian film, Peepli Live (2010) and Mahesh Bhatt's 'Poison on the Platter' (2009).
But what does this dependence on GM seeds and subsidies really mean? To Sangita, it means:
“that farmers today are losing their age-old knowledge of seed saving techniques” .
So at Annadana, her mission is “to revive the ancient art and science of seed saving, restore the farmers' right to open pollinated heritage seeds and empower them to be debt-free.
How Annadana works  
In the seed gardens that dot Annadana’s five acres, Sangita and her team cultivate  traditional vegetable seeds - diverse varieties of corn, capsicum, brinjal, chillies, squash, lettuce, tomato  - and as well as field crops of ragi, paddy and wheat.
The team follow crop rotation cycles and traditional farming technology - such as raised vegetable beds (reframed every four years when they shrink), and net covered tunnels to prevent natural hybridisation between varieties.
Rainwater collected in five harvesting pits scattered around the farm and natural fertilizer mixed with rich, eroded topsoil, are used to nurture growth.
Natural pesticides made from biomass plants – neem and mango leaves, congress grass, cow manure, weeds and urine, among them – keep pests and vermin at bay.
Sangita follows the constellation cycle when sowing seeds - in traditional farming, the four elements of air, water, fire and earth influence the growth cycle of seed, flower, root, leaf and fruit – a process that "enhances taste to its fullest potential."
These simple, natural and inexpensive techniques, says Sangita, can easily be replicated in farming communities around the country and restore to farmers, an age-old tradition that was once theirs.
The Seed Bank
The farm sells and exchanges only seeds, and its produce is not for consumption. So once the seeds are harvested, they are processed, stored and packaged in an insulated, temperature controlled unit. The seeds are dried on mesh-covered wooden trays that provide both shade and ventilation. A warm oven is used to eliminate moisture and ensure both the longevity and viability of seeds.
Farmers have access to organic, open-pollinated vegetable seeds at a fraction of what it costs them in the open market.  Twenty to thirty thousand packets are distributed free of cost to nearby farmers. Sangita also takes her seeds to farming expositions across the country to introduce farmers to the possibitlity of low-cost, hybrid-free farming.
All you need  are a few pots
Sangita’s vision for eco-friendly farming includes more than just the farming community. She urges people to grow their own vegetables..”all you need are a few pots“ and organizes field trips to Annadana for local schools.  Children particpating in her farm trails project, "From Soil to Seed to Plate' refuse to leave: 
She is a passionate advocate of eco-friendly farming at corporate events, runs campaigns and takes her message to symposiums across the country.
It's an incredible achievement from someone without a background in science or agriculture; in fact in her previous avatar, Sangita worked in the media, and she clearly understands its power as a medium for her eco-farming message.
“Just try it, farming is not rocket science, if I can do it, so can you! ….my lessons are learnt from nature and time-tested farmers' wisdom.”
Annadana in Sanskrit means ‘the gift of food’ ....and Sangita’s seed bank does just that!
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Talking Cranes is a social site founded by Hyma Menath, based in the San Francisco bay area and Aneeta Madhavan, based in Oxford, UK to create an online space for women of South Asian heritage and people interested in a multicultural world. We were joined by Meera Kymal and Lakshmi Rao Sankar, both from New York. The four of us had a blast creating and shaping the site. We want to provide a platform to communicate ideas and share stories, ask questions and get support and mostly find humor in our everyday lives. So that's the "Talking" part of Talking Cranes.
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