Saturday, 25 May 2013

March Against Monsanto

Thousands of activists across the globe are expected to ‘March Against Monsanto’ today. Besides the U.S., which will be the main theatre of action for this event, marches are being planned in over 30 other countries in different parts of the world. This movement was the brainchild of Tami Monroe Canal, who says she just wanted to do something to protect her two daughters. “I feel Monsanto is threatening this generation’s health, fertility and longevity. I couldn’t sit idly, waiting for someone to do something.” And so this bold woman created the idea of ‘March Against Monsanto’.

The key reasons behind the March are: “to protect our food supply, support local farmers, spread awareness about the harmful effects of genetically modified foods, promote organic solutions, expose the cronyism between big business and the government. bring accountability to those responsible for corruption”.   

Promoting the ‘March Against Monsanto’, Vandana Shiva calls the “Monsanto dictatorship” a “new form of fascism” that seeks to “outlaw all diversity”. She points out that “Monsanto has become the new centre stage for the destruction of our seeds, our diversity, our food and our freedom”. Hence, she describes this March as a “march for freedom” which is “inspired by our deep love for life on earth”. Encouraging people to take up this fight, Vandana Shiva makes a passionate plea: “let us plant gardens of resistance against this new form of dictatorship”.

In India, genetically modified crops have been at the centre of a bitter debate – a debate which is often connected to farmer suicides. I have just finished reading Kota Neelima’s ‘Shoes of the Dead’, a brilliant piece of investigative journalism on farmer suicides that is well crafted into a fast-paced engrossing novel. While political manoeuvrings and moneylender manipulations dominate the plot, the role of GM crops as one of the ingredients of the fatal concoction causing farmer suicides is well exposed in this book. Sadly, for most us, a tragic tale like this is nothing more than ‘a good book’ – but for the farmers in India’s heartland, it’s quite ‘a different story’.

If the ‘March Against Monsanto’ is happening in your city, do be there. And for those of us who don’t have the opportunity to participate, let’s at least set aside an hour to read up and educate ourselves on this dastardly killer that is stalking our earth. 

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Apathetic Mumbaikar

The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI) has recently completed a survey in six major Indian cities – Mumbai, Bangalore, New Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chennai. The aim of the study was to assess people’s perception, behaviour, awareness and opinions on various environmental issues. About a week back, TERI released the findings of the survey with regard to Mumbai.

So how have we Mumbaikars fared in this eco check-up? What’s our perception on environmental issues? And our behaviour, does it call for a pat on the back?

Ok, I don’t want to play the eternal pessimist, so let’s talk about the positives first.  The study indicates that our awareness levels are high and we have strong opinions on various environmental concerns. Take climate change for example, 79 percent of the respondents were aware that we are already facing this phenomenon. With regard to the air we breathe, 99 percent were of the opinion that pollution has led to the deterioration of air quality and that this in turn is causing respiratory and skin diseases. To remedy this problem, 75 percent suggested conversion of polluting industries to environment friendly units, while 67 percent suggested the imposition of congestion and other taxes to discourage private vehicles. And there are several other stats that I could quote from the report, which, like I said, prove that we are well aware of the situations we are facing and have our own opinions on each of them.

But the study also reveals a sad truth – we are not willing to personally do much to remedy the problems. For example, a shocking 80 percent of the respondents said they were not willing to segregate their waste before disposing it, even though these same persons were of the opinion that waste segregation is an important strategy to manage the problem of solid waste in Mumbai! Not surprising then, 66 percent felt that the responsibility for improving the state of the environment in the city rested with the government, while 40 percent were of the opinion that it’s a problem that NGOs should take care of.

So that seems to be our general attitude – yes we have a problem, but let someone else fix it. Apathy, I guess that’s the word that best describes us, at least when it comes to environmental matters. 

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Reaching A Scary Milestone

We woke up this morning to the news that a new milestone had been reached – but unfortunately, not a milestone to be celebrated! For the first time in human history, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm). Two independent teams of scientists, one from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the other from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, confirmed that the daily average had crossed 400 ppm for the first time in its half century of recording. According to available data, the last time CO2 levels had reached this mark was probably 3 million years ago, that is, before we humans had evolved. Crossing this scary threshold simply means that we could be seeing many of the predicted impacts of Climate Change even faster than we expected.

"The 400 ppm threshold is a sobering milestone and should serve as a wakeup call for all of us to support clean energy technology and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, before it's too late for our children and grandchildren," said Tim Lueker, one of the scientist at the Scripps Institution.

The question is: who is listening to this wake-up call? While we may point a finger at China or the United States as being responsible for this catastrophe, and angrily demand that their governments immediately take the long overdue steps to reduce carbon emissions, we should not forget that India too is among the top 5 carbon emitters. And it is the daily lifestyle choices that we make – the energy guzzling choices – that have dragged us to this regrettable milestone. It’s a wake-up call especially for people like us in Mumbai, where an energy devouring lifestyle has become a status symbol.  It's a time to resolve that our personal carbon footprints will not lead the world to the next cataclysmic milestone.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Is that a Cow?

A few days back the Times of India carried the story of a survey that was recently conducted in Mumbai. Two thousand children, aged between 3 and 4 years, participated in this brand recognition study. According to the news article, 85 percent of these children were able to distinguish the logos of different chocolate brands; similarly 85 percent were again able to identify the logos of cartoon television channels. Further, almost all the children could recognize the brand logos of fast food and pizza joints. But then comes the shocker! When the survey shifted to birds and animals, 70 percent could not recognize the picture of a sparrow, and 1 in every 5 kids surveyed could not identify a cow!

Reading this story, my mind went back to the session on 'Green Cover' which we did with the schools in Mumbai about a year back. As a fun exercise during that session, we showed pictures of trees to the students and asked them to identify the same. Well, we had quite some interesting answers, like the Banyan tree being thought to be a ‘tomato tree’ and the (false) Ashoka being mistaken for a ‘grape tree’! And close to none of the students were able to name the Rain Tree or the Copper Pod, although almost every street in Mumbai is lined with these trees! And yes, these students were not 3 or 4 year olds, they were all at least 10 years older.  

Obviously there is an increasing disconnect between children and nature today. Discussions on this issue are dispassionately put to rest with the rhetorical question: “but how do you expect children to connect with nature in a concrete jungle like Mumbai?”  That, again, is a clear sign of the disconnect, because although Mumbai has degenerated into a concrete chaos, it still continues to be home to an amazing variety of trees, birds and insects. For example, I was fascinated to know that Mumbai has about 160 species of butterflies!

If kids can easily recognize cartoon channel and fast food logos, it’s because they've been exposed to those brands. I guess our kids need a lot more exposure to cows and birds and butterflies! 

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Growing Food, Growing Attitudes

Precisely a month from today – on 5th June – we will be celebrating World Environment Day (WED). Undeniably, WED is the most prominent global environmental event celebrated annually. The theme for WED 2013 is ‘Think.Eat.Save.’ This theme seeks to turn the spotlight on food wastage, which is estimated to be approximately 1.3 billion tonnes a year. Further, ‘Think.Eat.Save.’ is also an invitation to reflect on the environmental impact of the food choices we make.

I guess this theme – centred on the issue of food – sets the stage for the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF-2014). The IYFF, with its catchy slogan, ‘Feeding the World, Caring for the Earth’, aims at promoting family and community based agricultural systems which respect the environment and biodiversity.

Considering these upcoming food and farming focused events, our starting work on a ‘Terrace Farm’ at Matunga this morning, seems to be a step in the right direction. Led by the ever enthusiastic Preeti Patil, of Urban Leaves fame, some two dozen volunteers occupied the morning with laying out bricks, creating beds, filling drums with compost and compostables, planting saplings, fighting the heat, teasing one another, and generally having an enjoyable time!

So do these ‘urban farms’ actually produce ‘food’ or are they mere showpieces? Well, they certainly do hand you a crunchy salad or a bowl of fresh fruit periodically, but I doubt they would keep your kitchen going for 365 days of the year.  

So what purpose do they really serve then?  

In a city like Mumbai, having a farm on your own terrace, which affords you the opportunity to play around in the soil, to plant and transplant and replant, to watch the seedlings mature into handsome young trees, to smile at the ripening fruit and scream at the crows who lustily devour them... is the ultimate de-stressor. To be able to soak our lives – which have literally turned grey with the soot and the scourge of the city – in our own green pools, well, what could be more rejuvenating?

But beyond being a leafy spa, this enterprise has a further value. And that, I believe, is its real value.

This messing around with mulch and manure is not only about cultivating food – it’s about cultivating attitudes. Green attitudes. Green culture. Someone who soaks his hands into the soil, or spends hours pottering around her plants, is eventually bound to get interested and involved in all things environmental. So, clearly, this venture is not just about growing green vegetables, it’s about growing green people!