I am just back from a delightful month of lolling in a hammock among the coconuts in Kerala. This region of India has proclaimed itself ‘God’s own country’ with good reason; there is a fantastic array of food plants, mostly perennial and normally cultivated in complex mixtures, which provide a much richer environment than any farm in the UK. In addition to the dominant coconut and banana there is papaya, cacao, coffee, jack fruit, mango, black pepper, vanilla, nutmeg, tamarind and curry leaf, with the understorey cultivated for annuals such as cassava, ginger, okra and chilli. The only monocultures of annuals are the rice paddies. There is not a tractor to be seen, nor even an ox in harness as without the recurrent need to prepare seedbeds, there is no need for horsepower. I am pretty sure that the aggregate yield of the better managed areas could not be matched by any modern monoculture, however many sprays were applied.
The visit has reconfirmed in my mind how western agriculture is largely devoted to mollycoddling highly bred annuals, and maintaining the unsustainable environment needed to coax a crop from them in their short lives. This approach uses vast amounts of energy and chemicals, stripping our land of ecological diversity in the process. Such is the insanity of an agriculture that battles nature that our farmers expend ten calories to produce one calorie of food. Yet most ‘aid’ from the West, combined with trade agreements and conditions often associated with World Bank loans, seems hell bent on bullying developing nations into following our insane lead towards annual monocultures of globally traded crops rather than developing best practice of local knowledge, crops and materials.
Albert Howard, sent to Indore, India in 1905 to teach modern agriculture ended up concluding that he had more to learn than to teach: he became a proponent of composting, advocated studying the forest in order to farm like the forest and was a key influence on the founders of the Soil Association. A wise and humble man. Now we just need to persuade you to eat acorns, hazelnuts and crab apples.