Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Healthy Living from the Ground Up

Published in the Fiji Times 5th February, 2014

Recently I was having a deep and meaningful conversation about bananas with my mother. A minister and his mother talking about bananas? You might think that we are literally “going bananas”. Actually, we were wondering why some people gas their bananas rather than wait for them to ripen naturally. Obviously a yellow banana is more attractive than a green one, regardless of the fact that the banana inside is ripe. While this may be practiced because of shipping of bananas overseas in some cases, what goes into the process of gassing? What are the effects of gassed bananas?

Often the natural ripening agent of ethylene is used to speed up the ripening of bananas. However some use other more dangerous materials. According to Wikipedia, calcium carbide is used for ripening fruit artificially in some countries. When calcium carbide comes in contact with moisture, it produces acetylene gas, which is quite similar in reaction to the natural ripening agent ethylene. Acetylene acts like ethylene and accelerates the ripening process, but is inadvisable because calcium carbide has carcinogenic properties. Industrial-grade calcium carbide may also contain traces of arsenic and phosphorus which makes it a human health concern.

Often we are too hungry, too tight with our budget, too busy or too lazy to take time to ensure that we are getting the best possible nutrition for our dollar. Sometimes we only focus on the appearance or taste rather than the actual quality of what we eat. Our food consumption may be reflective of our mass production attitude. More fertilizer or artificial nutrients for a faster, bigger crop. It may be good business for some, but is it really worth it?

An article in the Fiji Times last year on an organic farm being set up in Sabeto, caught my attention with the sentence, “Moving to organic farming can help farmers drastically improve soil quality and ensure the harvest of better and healthier produce.”

A research exercise by the Fiji Papaya Project concluded that under Fiji conditions organically produced papaya (pawpaw) is a profitable exercise with demand for organic papaya in the United States and Japan.

Last year the “Garden Island” of Taveuni’s Teitei Taveuni partnered with Organic Matters Foundation and individual farmers to deliver introductory and advanced Soil School to farmers, and provided a viable, sustainable alternative to chemical agriculture. According to the UNDP, Tei Tei Taveuni, formed in 2009 by a group of farmers interested in sustainable farming, food security and environmental conservation, aims to change farmers’ knowledge, skills and attitude towards sustainable farming through innovative trainings.

UNDP shared the stories of Taveuni farmers who have made the switch to organic farming:
“I have been blinded for so many years and now my eyes have been opened,” said 55 year old famer Peremo Nacumu. “A process that I learnt was how to make plant food from seaweed and guano (bird dropping). I have applied it on my vegetable farm and during this hot season my vegetables are green and very lush. A very big difference from when I used to use fertilizer.”

“One of my biggest mistakes was using fertilizers and not having any knowledge of what it does to the soil, nor was I aware of the impact of the overuse of weedicide. The new insights from the Soil Schools has really helped farmers. After a soil test taken from my farm land I was told that my soil lacked lime, as calcium is a vital component of the soil. So now I am using natural lime in the form of burnt crushed dead coral from the beach and thrown onto the farm. In a couple of weeks the changes were obvious and I was able to share this knowledge with about 30 farmers in the area,” said Anil, who has been farming for more than 25 years in Taveuni.

While organic practices in farming are important, attention to the sources of the plants needs to be given – what seeds are being used and where are they coming from? Case in point: Genetically-Modified Organism seeds and Hybrid seeds.
Genetically Modfied Organism (GMO) seeds are created in a lab using high-tech and sophisticated techniques like gene-splicing. GMO seeds seldom cross different, but related plants. Often the cross goes far beyond the bounds of nature so that instead of crossing two different, but related varieties of plant, they are crossing different biological kingdoms — like, say, a bacteria with a plant.

Hybrid seeds developed in the mid-nineteenth century, when Darwin and Mendel discovered a method of controlled crossing that can create these desired traits within just one generation. This method produces what’s known as F1 hybrid seeds. These hybrid seeds are just as natural as cross-pollinating two different, but related plants.

However according to, the biggest disadvantage of hybrid seeds is that they don’t “reproduce true” in the second generation. When two dissimilar varieties are crossed, the result is a hybrid which will often be bigger, brighter, faster-growing or higher-yielding than either of its parents, which makes for a great selling point. But it’s a one-hit wonder. Subsequent generations don’t have the same vigour or uniformity, and the idea is that you don’t save seed from it, you just throw it away and buy some more. This is bad for the plants, bad for the garden and bad for you, but the seed companies make a packet out of it and gain increasing control of what we buy and grow.

While there may not be anything inherently wrong with this process, it does keep you dependent on seed companies year after year since you can’t save your seeds and expect the next generation of plants you grow to be identical to the first. While this is a small nuisance to a home gardener, it can be devastating to subsistence farmers around the world.

For me this represents a major security risk for Fiji – a food security risk.

According to Small Footprint Family: when the peasant farmers grew these new hybrids, they were indeed more productive, even though they required more fertilizer and water. But when they collected and saved the seed for replanting the next season—as they had done for generations and generations—none of it grew true to the parent crop, little food grew, and these poor farmers, having none of their open-pollenated traditional varieties left viable, had no choice but to go back to the big companies to purchase the hybrid seeds again for planting year after year.

Seed manufacturing companies intentionally disrupt the traditional cycle of open-pollinated seed saving and self-sufficiency to essentially force entire nations to purchase their seeds, and the agricultural chemicals required to grow them. Most of these poor subsistence farmers never had to pay for seed before, and could not afford the new hybrid seeds, or the new petrochemical fertilizers they required, and were forced to sell their farms and migrate to the cities for work. This is how the massive, infamous slums of India, Latin America, and other developing countries were created.

There is a danger of taking the environment we are fortunate to enjoy for granted. When we do so we are disrespecting nature and the God that created it.

Organic farming is a way of not only using the land and naturally provided nutrients for producing healthy crops. It is also a way of protecting the land and our people from unhealthy and unsustainable lifestyles.

Already it is virtually impossible to determine what imported oils, grains, nuts and other food products are Genetically Modified.

The least we can do is ensure that what we grow and eat in Fiji is organic and in harmony with nature.

We are, after all, what we eat.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaniety”

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