June newsletter by Suma
All life depends on the rivers. They are our single largest source of fresh water here in India and no wonder we worship them. However the fate of the rivers is quite appalling when we really look into it. The number of dams that have been constructed on each major river system is astounding. Take the Godavari for example – 350 major and minor dams constructed in a basin that spans 1450km. Thats a dam every 5 km!! How is this sustainable? What happens to all the life when a river changes from flowing water to a standing reservoir? Can we look at the river and think beyond just water? Can we look at it as a functioning system with many many parts – one of which is the flowing water?
On a recent trip to warangal, I remember being surprised at the number of lakes that i came across. Along the road i was on, there was a lake in almost every village i passed. I remember thinking about the old design of the Kakatiyas – the chain of lakes flowing into a river. The idea of distributed storage was pretty powerful. The needs of a place would differ every 10-15 km. One village might need water for the rice fields, while another might need a lot lesser for their orchards. Another village closer to the city might need water for commercial reasons – say a factory or a rice mill. The beauty of this design was that a village could choose what to do with the water it was receiving without having to negotiate water utilisation with another village. It was up to the village, to administer, maintain and distribute the tank and its resources amongst themselves as they saw fit. It is not something unique to the erstwhile Kakatiya kingdom, although the design is named after them. Even Bangalore has a series of linked tanks that were once water sources for the city. What has changed now? How did something that had worked for a thousand years before become obsolete and irrelevant?
I don’t think there is a simplistic single answer for that but what really happened with the British starting major irrigation projects is that it began to sound easier and most importantly placed the power of the decision in a central body. This appealed to the powers that be and slowly over the years the focus of water supply shifted to major projects. The most recent one on the Godavari – the Kaleshwaram Project has been in the news. It is an engineering marvel expected to irrigate an astounding 18L acres across 13 districts in the Telangana state, built at a cost of Rs.80,000 crores. Indeed it is the largest lift irrigation project in the world and surely a feather in the state government’s cap. A first look deeper into the project and its evolution over the past years presents a different picture though. Not because it is not as great it is made to sound but it definitely forces me to think if this was the only way to cater to the drought hit areas of Telangana?
The story started ages ago in 1975, with the Godavari Water Disputes Tribunal awarding what was then Andhra Pradesh, a share of 160TMC of the water from the Godavari Basin. For this originally a barrage was proposed at Tummidihatti village to divert this share for A.P. Ideally, its great if all the intended water supply can be gravity fed. It is the easiest way of distributing water. So the location was chosen and a Full Reservoir Level (FRL) of 152m was arrived at for the required 160TMC. Since this was significantly upstream, a 152m tall dam at Tummidihatti meant thousands of acres of submerged land on Maharashtra to irrigate A.P. This was the fly in the ointment. To avoid this submergence, a lower height of 148m was proposed. However at that height, the divertable water available was only 44TMC as opposed to the 160 TMC awarded! Remember that this water availability study happened in 2015 (almost 40 years after the award). The state of Telangana had just been created. Naturally the euphoria ran high and there was a need for the ruling government, the first government of the state, to prove its mettle that it could deliver the water that was ‘due’ to the state, a right that was long denied and almost single handedly led to the creation of a separate state. So an ingenious plan was devised to move the barrage/dam almost 150km downstream to Kaleshwaram on the main stream of the Godavari river system. The problem was not the move, but the districts that would be upstream to this dam. Hence was conceived the largest LIFT IRRIGATION project in the world!
Through a series of Seven Link Systems and Three dams, the plan is to not only irrigate, 18L acres of unirrigated land, but also pump water back up into existing tributaries of the Godavari to stabilise upstream reservoirs with water from downstream!!! Beat that. So on one hand, the water is pumped up in the reverse direction along tunnels to fill up water tanks and distribution reservoirs in several districts (remember that this is the exact reversal of the Kakatiya system) and on the other hand, through another link, pump water back up and drop it into two tributaries of the Godavari – the Haldi and the Manjeera. Essentially, this translates to taking lots of water lifting it all the way back into the upstream tributaries so that the tributaries now have increased flow thus irrigating the upstream districts as well. Crudely put, this is equivalent to reversing the flow of a portion of the river using a giant pump. No wonder it costed Rs.80K crores.
Let me pull back to our original question. Is there another way? Why not revert or fall back to the good old Kakatiya mechanism? Well, for one, that would not have worked straight away. Remember in our other posts, we have discussed how the carbon content across the deccan plateau has degraded from 3% to 0.3%. This means, soil in general is just not capable of holding water anymore. So these tanks and lakes are not depressions on a giant sponge that holds water and oozes it out into the lakes and streams but more like a bowl of steel that fills up when it rains and just evaporates or floods over and the water eventually just runs off. So can we not then revive the quality of the soil? The defence that the project irrigates drought prone districts in the state ignores the fact that most districts become drought prone from a rice perspective. They are just not able to grow three seasons of rice. The 30 year average precipitations have been roughly the same in India. There is no mandal in Telangana with less than 600 mm of annual rainfall. So can we then improve the soil quality, so that the soil stores water and the lakes fill up and then we use the water in the lake? When the lake overflows, it flows into the stream which drains into the river. What would it cost? Well in our collective in Hyderabad we are working on landscapes that see a little over 600mm of rain and we can safely say that in about 5 years, the soil carbon content can be raised following some natural principles by a few percentage points. So in a decade, we can revive the magic number of 3%. In four decades (the time it took for the tribunal award to translate to water availability), these 18L acres would have been dense forests. It costs us roughly around 2.5-3L per acre in our collectives to do this. Even if we ignore the economies of scale, when you extend that as a few thousand distributed village level projects of state-mandated eco system rejuvenation, we are looking at around 45k crores to rejuvenate the said 18L acres – saplings, checkdams, lake maintenance, swales etc etc included. That is almost half the cost and whats more? We would have kickstarted a permanent loop of restoration. So the system gets better and better and better with each year.
The idea here is to not belittle this giant feat of engineering or to play a left liberal critic of everything the government does but to show that simple distributed measures done at scale, and governments have the power to do them at scale, can be as powerful as these marvellous dams. Infact, for a long time it seemed that the state government of Telangana was following this as well with the harita haram project, a sapling planting drive that fizzled out. So this is not new, in fact it can even go hand in hand with the big dams and take the heat off the major irrigation projects by a distributed capture of water.
Long long ago, the Qutub Shahi kings set up the city of hyderabad on the banks of a stream (then a perennial river), the Musi. In 1920, the city had grown to an extent where the water had to be dammed and thus was born Gandipet Lake – the Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar. They fed the city for a very long time. Soon, the city outgrew these reservoirs and we looked further away to a bigger river, a tributary of the Godavari, the Manjeera. By 1998, most of the city was being fed from a new dam on this river. By 2005, the city had outgrown the Manjeera and we looked further away towards bigger rivers – the Krishna and the Godavari. A decade later, we are lifting water from downstream Godavari as the supplies upstream are not enough. I wonder what we are planning to do once we outgrow the Godavari? Would we venture further north into the central highlands or would we atleast then look back towards another marvellous feat of engineering – the chain of lakes.!!
The thinking cap is on.
Trees are majestic beings. You have to look at them closely, spend time with your fingers touching the rough bark, looking up at the leaves high in the sky to really understand what a fantastic creature you are looking at. You read about giants and warriors and protectors in fairy tales. Well, trees are the giant-warrior-protectors of our world.
They stand quietly watching over the earth, making sure you have air to breathe, water to drink and a soft spot under their shade to lie down on, when you really need the rest. Forests give a safe home to animals as big as lions and as small as furry rabbits. They are home to plants, little creepy crawly insects, giant birds and their little babies.
If you could take one day off and spend it on something – make it a day you spend in the middle of a forest. What you would learn sitting down on the ground looking up – looking around, would fill you with wonder, it would teach you about the world, nature and life – much more than you can ever learn watching shows on tv sitting comfortably on a sofa.
Only when you feel clear cool water running over your fingers and toes, the gust of wind ruffling your little pony tail, the smell of nothing but fresh air and tree leaves – only then, will you understand why grown ups keep fussing over camping and treks and trips to a forest.
Getting to know a forest is like getting to know a great great old grandma…she is filled with stories of ancient earth. There is a story unravelling every minute around you – under a rock there would be a family of insects and worms hurrying home with a little food they found. High on the tree branches, there is a papa building a cozy nest because the mumma is to have babies soon. He has to make sure the nest is safe from bigger birds and snakes. The babies will stay here untill they can learn to fly.
When it starts to rain, little animals scurry under bushes and into burrows to keep themselves warm. Who knows, maybe this is when they sit around it is story-time for little ones..
The rain drops fall hard, but the trees of a forest protect everything like a big huge umbrella. They allow drops to only softly trickle down over the ground. The soil soaks the water up like a thirsty sponge and lets it come up through a spring. Small springs let out water slowly now, but the flow is naughty. It rushes out, looking for others. Somehow they all catch up and become a mighty river and waterfall over the big boulders.
There is so much magic and action happening in a forest – even in one single tree that it could fill you with stories for a lifetime.
I hope you take up the very next chance you get to visit a forest. Don’t fuss about the little ants that went up your feet, or the mosquitoes that keep buzzing in your ear. Get past all these and soak in the forest’s beauty. Take in every sound, every buzz, every little touch and look around – really look at everything around you. A forest is a giant straight from your fairy tales. Who knows, if you slowed down and looked – maybe you will actually see the magic happening..
I know you are locked up at home for days now. But this is not going to last very long. Soon you will be able to start going out to play. Maybe soon after that, you will get to take small holidays just outside the city. Make sure you plan at least one holiday to a forest.
Now, just because we are in lockdown, doesn’t mean you can’t plan for that. How about we start a club – call it little beforestor. You can be part of the club if you promise, you will learn wherever there is, to learn about trees, plants and the entire forest. You don’t have to learn it all in a day. You can learn a little each day as you grow up. One of you might even become a forest explorers and teach others about the great giants of the earth!
Here we go..make sure you let us know your thoughts – what you would like to learn too
Trees and forests fascinate me. I feel safe and loved among them. I and my friends at Beforest will do our best to share all the knowledge we have about trees, forests, soil, water and the earth.
I am starting off with the basics. Let’s get to know a single tree.
Just like you and me, trees have different parts and there is a lot happening inside and around them. Here are the parts of a tree.
I will start with the roots, they are very interesting and very important to the tree too!
The roots of a tree grow a little on the surface and a lot under the soil, sometimes they go down deep as 20 feet into the earth! A tree doesn’t have just one root. Each tree has its own family of roots – the Main root, lateral roots and root hair or tertiary roots.
Here are the top 3 things root do for the tree:
Roots are the feet of the tree
Roots growing on the ground and under, are like feet for the tree. While your feet help you walk, jump or run, the roots of a tree help it stay in one place. Roots can be so strong that Roots help the tree stand up even when they are fully grown big and tall. They go deep into the soil and make sure the tree doesn’t go flying even when there is a strong breeze! Isn’t that great!
Roots are like straws for the tree
Just like you, trees need food and water to grow big and strong. While you drink water from a glass or a bottle, what do you think trees do when they get thirsty?
They use their roots!
Roots and its root family act like big giant straws for trees. They go deep and wide into the soil looking for water and nutrition (minerals). The root hair absorbs water and minerals through a process called osmosis. Once water is absorbed, it moves up towards the leaves, through the trunk of the tree. This water is used by trees to cook their food. We will get to that in just a bit.
Roots help the tree talk to its family, friends and neighbors
Trees are living beings. Just like you, they like to stay in touch with their surroundings. Like grown ups use messages, calls and chats to know what’s going on around them, trees constantly talk to their family, friends and neighbors too.
But when trees can’t move or talk, how do they communicate with each other? They use their roots!
In a forest, trees share all their wisdom, food and supplies to the younger ones around them. They do this, through a vast network that runs under the soil and across the forest with help from their friends – fungi. There is a special name given to this friendship – mycorrhizae. The pronunciation is a bit tricky – Mykoraizaee.
How does this work?
Fungus friends of a tree start growing and living on the roots. They grow their own branches called hyphae. This hyphae grows and reaches out to hyphae coming from fungus friends of other trees and plants. All this takes many years. It happens quietly under the soil. You won’t even know and it’s happening right now! There is a special name for the network of fungi roots too. It is called mycelium.
Eventually, all the trees,plants and fungi are connected to each other. It’s like a big huge family of grown ups and kids holding each other’s hands. Signals, food, water, nutrients and carbon are quietly sent from one member of the family to the others..all under the ground.
The oldest trees in a forest are generally the tallest or the widest ones. They are called hub trees. You can think of them as mumma trees. They are connected to most numbers of plants and trees around.
Tree roots not only take care of the tree, they also take care of the soil they grow in. Do you know how?
Roots grow deep and wide into the soil. As they grow, they break up hard soil and make way for air and water to get into the soil. Well aerated soil is great for trees and plants and little creatures of the forest. They hold the soil under them so that when there is heavy rain or wind, the top layer is not washed away or blown away. The top layer of soil is the most fertile. It has a lot of nutrients that are great plant food. In return, some tree roots add nitrogen to the soil, making it richer. This is a process called Nitrogen fixation.
When roots go down deep, they make way for water to seep into the soil deeper too.
I hope you are as fascinated as me and look closer at plants and trees around you
I am leaving you now with an activity.
1) I want you to think about any movie, any story, any trip that you made to a forest. Remember the little details that you can.
2) Make a new journal.
3) Right down or draw what you remember of the forest. There may have been some seeds the trees dropped, a secret path that went winding down to the river side, or maybe you saw leaves of the color or shape that you would not see in the city around you.
4) Share it with me
Let’s learn what we can – from each other and plan the next thing we want to do in our club!
Please ask any grown ups in your family to send us a picture of your drawings or journals. We would LOVE to hear from you. I would love to read your stories or see your pictures. We can share each other’s experiences till we can get out and make more wonderful discoveries!
“Now have i praised the forest queen, aranyani,
Sweet scented, redolent of balm,
The mother of all sylvian things,
Who tills not, but has stores of food”
RigVeda, Book 10, Hymn 146
We have a long shared history with forests and the riches they hold. Well before our first written texts, forests were such an essential part of our folklore that there was a goddess of forests as well created by shiva and parvati themselves. Forests in our country have long been places of spiritual quests, mythical creatures and magical beings. They have inspired our traditions, our folklore, our mythology. But far beyond the stories and spirituality, forests influence our daily well being and our very lives depend on their health.
We have always appreciated the commodities that a forest provides – firewood, timber, minerals, medicines, etc but as our understanding of forests and tree systems deepens, we are beginning to realise the underlying and invisible services they provide. Forests for eg, are the best known carbon sequestering mechanism we know, far more effective and scalable than any machine known to man. Forest soils are also excellent large scale wastewater management systems, continuously filtering runoff and replenishing the underground water systems. The vast interconnected root networks (we had spoken about them previously HERE ) hold the soil together and prevent landslides and soil erosion. Take the landslides across the western ghats during the cloudburst of 2019. They were primarily caused by loose soil that resulted from years and years unregulated deforestation and construction in the hills. Forest systems lower temperatures as much as 5 degrees celsius and also regulate the weather patterns. Not just that, remember that monsoons actually last only 2-3 months in India. It is the forest soils that hold the water and release it gradually through millions of springs and many little creeks to form giant perennial river systems. We wrote more about this HERE.
As millennia passed, our appetite for the assets and commodities that a forest produces increased consistently. Along with our need for more cultivable land, and larger cities, world over, we are today left with just under 46% of forests that we had at the start of the millennium. 65% of perennial streams in the country are not perennial anymore. Huge river systems like the Krishna and Cauvery have not touched the sea in over a decade. In spite of all these visible signs, we are continuously losing 7.6 million hectares of forest every year. It is clearer now than ever that our very survival depends on the river systems, and their survival in turn depends on the forests that feed them. Let us take note of this interdependence and give Aranyaani, the forest goddess, the place she deserves.
I think I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree
Forests have nurtured and nourished mankind for billions of years. It is always a good idea to introduce young minds to the wonders of this quiet force of nature. We are starting the series with the very basics. Who knows, maybe while teaching the kids, we will pick up a thing or two!
LITTLE BEFORESTOR – Starting with the basics
When you think of a forest, what comes to mind? Lots of trees growing together in one place.
But, the fact is – a forest is made of a million different things. It’s made of trees and plants of different size and shapes. It could have rocks, hills, grasslands, rivers, waterfalls and caves. Forests are home to many different kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and insects.
But by far – Trees are the real heroes of every forest
Forests are magical
There are millions of living beings in a single forest. Some are huge animals like gorillas, giraffes and Elephants. Some smaller creatures like spiders, insects and birds. Some are tiny microorganisms that you won’t even notice. And they are all very important.There is as much activity above the soil in a forest as there is under the soil. Forests also have hundreds and thousands of plants – some small, some medium sized and some large, like trees. They all live in harmony together – like a big family.
Trees protect the forest from harsh sun, their leaves fall and cover the ground, making it all soft and cool. These leaves and old plants also turn into manure or food for other plants. Big animals eat smaller ones, small ones eat insects or plants. Other animals and birds eat fruits and drop their seeds. Little insects like bees gather nectar from flowers and carry their little seeds (pollen) around. New plants then grow from these seeds and pollen; roots protect the soil and keep it moist with water; roots also protect the forest land from flooding by soaking up excess water;earthworms and little animals burrow around in the ground and keep the soil healthy and airy. While little insects are busy foraging for food, birds are busy feeding their babies and at the same time giant lions may be lazying around in the sun.
The forest is as active during the day as it is in the night. You will hear insects, owls and other creatures talking to each other all night!
The next time you camp in a forest, be sure to look around you and watch closely in the day and at night.
India’s deep connection with forests
India has a rich forest cover. In fact we are among the top 10 forest-rich countries in the world. Our forests are home to Bengal tigers and single horned Rhinoceros. Sundarban forest of West Bengal forms part of the largest mangroves in the world.
Even ancient Indian scriptures describe three kinds of forests – Shrivan, Tapovan and Mahavan.
Many Indian mythological stories were set in forests. King Rama is said to have spent 14 years of his exiled life in a forest called Dandaka forest, close to the modern day Madhya Pradesh; Krishna is said to have lived and played near Vrindavan forest of Northern India; Gautham Buddha is said to have chosen forests of Bodh Gaya in Bihar to live and pursue his goals.
With all this, we find forests fascinating! What about you?
Have you spent time in a forest? Where was it, what was your experience? What would you like to know about forests of India and the world?
We hope you will join us in this journey to discover the incredible wonders of forests
My terrace overlooks a small pocket of a once large forest. This is the best part of my day, sitting on the terrace, with the early sun breaking the cool of the night and staring at the green. With the COVID-19 lockdown in full force, what used to be a 15 minute ritual has now extended itself into an hour long introspection. As I stare at the forest, I begin to acknowledge and appreciate the drama unfolding ever so slowly. The trees become alive and vibrant. They are communicating with each other. They are involved in a struggle for survival and a death defying drama begins to unfold. I notice the Anjan Tree, standing tall above the canopy. To reach that size, he must have paid his dues, his share of hard decisions and sacrifices. Over time, a strange web of kinships and alliances have been established in this forest to maintain the peace. Mother trees feeding the young ones with sugars and other nutrients in times of need, the scouts on the periphery warning of danger when the grazers come, youngsters being youngsters, always reckless and unpredictable, quite often leading to a fatal end – it’s all happening out there. Some of them are taking extreme risks, over-shedding leaves and doing a greedy light seek leading to strange shapes. Most interesting is the next layer of the canopy, the ones just below the anjans and the teaks – they are the crown princes, waiting for the monarch to fall for them to take their rightful place under the sun. There are predators too in this drama. Strangler figs, starting as a seed on a branch, slowly engulfing the host tree and taking its place. All this, however, is unfolding in tree-time, over decades. I was witnessing it in freeze-frame, while sipping chai!
Darwin’s theory of natural selection, has long professed that the individual trees would try to outgun each other in seeking resources like the sun, water, nutrients, etc and for a long time it seemed that way too. But recent studies are unravelling a much more fascinating and complex story. The plant kingdom is as social as the animal kingdom. Just like the animal kingdom, there are families, alliances and understandings. There are also those who are loners – the cats of the tree world! We are only beginning to understand this web, and the tip of the iceberg itself is mindblowing. As a group, the trees in an area are using game theory – everyone does what is best for the group. In the long term, in general, that turns out to be best for the self as well. It is not just the relationships formed that are fascinating but also the fact that the trees are actually communicating with one another in a measurable way!
Did you ever wonder why animals always graze into the wind? We have always thought this was because the scent is carried by the wind and hence they are drawn into the wind. But recent studies show there is far more to the story. Take the acacia trees in the african savannah for eg. when a giraffe starts pulling at one tree, it immediately emits ethylene gas into the wind, signalling to the neighbours of an attack. The neighbours start pumping tanins into the leaves rapidly making them unsavoury to the giraffe. This signal and the response, has been observed upto a distance of 100 yards. This explains an old question that has perplexed the wildlife researchers. Why do these giraffes skip the trees in between. Why do they pluck at one and then walk a fair distance before plucking another? Though we cannot say for sure this is the reason, and in nature, it’s never really a single thing that explains everything but it all adds up. The giraffe also adapted to this by walking against the direction of the wind, so the neighbours in that direction are not yet aware of the attack. Even so, they still skip a few before they chose their next victim. Why would that be? Because, ethylene gas is just one signal. Most of the action is happening a few inches below the ground.
All trees in undisturbed forests are connected to each other via an underground fungal and bacterial network. Some call it the wood wide web! The trees share water, nutrients and even communicate through this network. The beech tree experiment in Germany was a pathbreaking find in this direction. It involved a beech tree stump that had been logged down and was just a stump for over a 100 years. Yet, below the bark, the stump was still green. The neighbours were keeping it alive, by pumping sugar to it helping it generate the required chlorophyl needed for survival. This is very similar to how an elephant herd never leaves a sick or injured behind. A 100 years!!! Can you believe that? I remember being completely awestruck when a friend, who is a restoration expert mentioned to me that these fungal networks might even extend a few 100 metres. A tree on this end of the farm, might be receiving assistance from the mother tree at the other end. For young ones, below the canopy, this is a lifeline. Especially in the tropics where the canopy is very thick and the ground is almost always in the dark, it is this network that nurtures the saplings. With the strongest or the fittest supporting the young ones, the natural selection theory gives way for a more evolved society or family in the forest. These old, tall giants are often referred to as the mother trees and the name is quite apt as well. They are the source trees adjusting and buffering the shortfalls, providing for the weak ones and basically playing the matriarchs. Some research has also indicated that there is an affinity to provide for the offspring. For eg, a mother tree may provide more for its own offspring than it would for others in its system. How this affinity is created or how the relationship is recognised remains a mystery today. But like they say, DNA is thicker than water!.
At our collective in Coorg, we have noticed something similar as well. In the recent coffee picking season, the pickers noticed a lot of wasp nests and expressed concerns. Our wildlife team figured out that these wasp nests were the forest’s response to a certain pest attack. Wasps are essentially predators. At the onset of an attack, the trees send out pheromones that attract the predators. This is their defense mechanism. The wasps are the army of the forest, quickly eating up the caterpillars and restoring the balance. Once we knew this, all thoughts of intervention were trashed. Wasps were suddenly our friends. Education is an eye opener!
Personally, I think the modern scientific approach has always tried to understand things in silos, picking one observation at a time and trying to find an explanation for that observation. It also believes a lot in predictability of the outcome. There is very little room for fuzzy logic. Nature unfortunately is built on fuzzy logic. Given the same situation, the forest might respond in a different way. It may emit pheromones suitable for a particular bird this time. Why? Maybe there is a hidden order here. Maybe the trees decide that if it is always the wasps, what would the birds eat? We don’t know. At beforest, we don’t think it is possible to knit-pick and understand nature in its entirety. We believe our role is to observe and adapt and at best, acknowledge.
As the mother Anjan grows older by the tree-day, It is not so hard to imagine the smaller lot, currently subservient under its canopy, waiting with bated tree-breath for the dethroning. A tree-day will come when its trunk will snap, unable to hold on to its weight, and the mighty queen will fall to the ground, and the crown princes will heave a sigh of relief. “At last!”, they would say as another power struggle began.
Exasperated? Yeah, there’s just so much pressure these days to be a responsible consumer in so many ways, so why this now? Why for the most basic thing of them all – one’s food? Can’t we just buy cheap, plentiful, top quality produce and be done with it – after all what difference does it make when you’re buying produce that didn’t even come from a factory, or from child labour, and didn’t have harsh chemicals and dyes – oh wait!
Yep, there is good looking produce and there’s produce that’s genuinely good – for your health, for the grower and for the health of the planet.
What kind of consideration makes for a better choice when picking your produce?
The Chemicals, to start with.
Conventionally grown grains, greens and fruits and vegetables today are grown largely as monocultures, in degraded soil requiring a lot of fertilizers, pesticides and with herbicides used rampantly to keep the weeds in check. Not only is this produce toxic for you and your family to consume, it is deficient in nutrients, causes soil degradation and topsoil loss, uses excessive amounts of water – usually from deep aquifers that are getting depleted rapidly – and also contaminates the water sources for all downstream users, and the air for the folks living around.
Organic production reduces the damage considerably, but doesn’t go far enough in rejuvenating and maintaining the ecosystem – both soil and water – without considerable external inputs and energy costs on an ongoing basis.
The best alternative to fix these problems are natural farming methods where soil building and diversity are as much a goal as the produce itself.
Go with the local and the seasonal
Food has a footprint, and it often travels many many miles. It is sensible to buy what grows in your neighbourhood, and then in increasing circles outwards from there. Not only does this reduce the footprint, it also helps the local economy and makes it a lot more resilient – something we are starting to value in times of the lockdowns and limited transport.
Go a step further to eat more seasonal produce – the longer it has been in a cold storage, or the more processed it has been, the lesser its nutritional value and the more expensive it becomes as well. The food from a given region is also likelier to be better adapted for the weather there, will be fresher and hence taste better too! Local and seasonal produce is also great for the birds, insects, animals and even other plants that have “grown” up with them – and a loss in their diversity eventually leads to a loss in our food quality and diversity in this intricate web of interdependence.
The Ugly Ducklings Are Fine
Good fruit and vegetables come in all shapes and sizes! It is impossible that all the tomatoes on a plant or all carrots in a row will be of the same size and shape as they are ready to be harvested. The idea of “grading” today goes too far and wastes tons of perfectly good, nutritious food from every farm. We’ve been made accustomed to over-sorted produce in a strange attempt to make it feel like a factory product. Given that this is prevalent everywhere, even organic and natural farmers are forced to sort and waste precious food, or get much lesser value for the gourds that are too big or too small, or produce that isn’t exactly the shape the market today absurdly demands of a farm.
This is just plain wrong – and it is upto us consumers to start changing this and accepting that just like people, good farm produce comes in various shapes and sizes and even colours.
Similarly , good fruit and veggies are attractive for the fauna too – birds and insects love them because they are healthy! We should be very suspicious, in fact, of a farm where none of the produce has any insects attracted to it. Natural pest control measures and the plant’s own defences do limit insects quite a lot, and then farmers are able to eliminate most hollowed out ones at the time of harvesting, and minimal sorting. But as consumers, we have to educate ourselves better too and not completely reject produce that has minor blemishes, or even the odd one with a tiny hole in one corner – that’s often a delicious, super nutritious and perfectly healthy piece that you can cut the affected part out of and use the rest.
An educated farm-produce consumer is a less fussy, more responsible consumer. Make the effort!
Work With Nature – Quantity and Availability
A good, diverse farm produces many things at the same go. What grows well, and in what quantities also changes by the year – there are just so many variables in nature it is impossible to control or predict this too early.
Different seasons also – thankfully – produce different things. This is what we evolved with over millennia, and our biology is well adapted to being in sync with the seasons’ bounty.
It’s important to remember to work with what nature is producing at any given point in time – the more your recipes, meal plans are in sync with that, the healthier you eat and the less you demand of farms and nature.
Why is it important?
As consumers, when we create a collective pressure for a lot of a fewer varieties of fruits and veggies (and our supply chains today are always happier dealing with lesser variety!) – we force farms to be less diverse, to be closer to being monocultures than to natural systems, and to manage temperature, water and pests and other fauna out of sync with nature. This ends up being a battle with the ecosystem the produce is grown in and eventually harms the soil, the water table and quality as well as the level of nutrition you derive from the produce.
These few very fundamental shifts in our idea of fresh food, what we pick it at a store and how we plan meals and recipes send signals to the farms and farmers we depend on. As responsible consumers, we can contribute to the improvement of both our ecosystems, as well as to the nutrition we get from our food, through these few changes.
Do think about this the next time you pick a bag and head out to buy vegetables.
Soil is one of the 4 fundamental requirements of life as we know it, along with water, air and the sun. We are not in danger of running out of the sun and it seems like soil too is infinite, as it’s the basic medium on which everything stands. Hence our focus as a race has always been focussed on the depleting breathable air and drinkable water. We just never understood enough about the soil or its role to realise that we are in fact fast running out of liveable soil. What is even more interesting and a relatively more recent find, is that healthy soil directly leads to cleaner air and cleaner water. Quite literally, great soil seems to be the silver bullet we ve been looking for.
The earth’s crust is upto 70km deep but it is really the top 5 to 10 inches that contain most of the life. This ultra thin layer, the top soil is super rich in organic matter and runs the highest risk of perishability currently. It is said that good healthy forest soil contains about 7-10% soil carbon by weight. This kind of soil would contain more than 10 billion bacteria in a tea spoon (5g) of soil. Why should we care? How does this go beyond just trivia? Because soil carbon is directly related to the availability of freshwater. The organisms in the soil alter its structure at a granular level, aerating it and increasing its capacity to hold water. In fact, some studies indicate that 1% increase in the soil carbon contributes to about 95000 lt of water availability per acre. Why does this happen? Because, soil’s ability to retain water is hugely influenced by its structure, the size of the pores, the size of the granules of soil, etc. for eg, clayey soils retain a lot more water than sandy soils do. Similarly, given all other things, the presence of soil life/soil carbon – essentially influences the soil structure thus enhancing its ability to retain water and make it available to the life that depends on it. While the science of it is interesting, the consequences of better soil retention are life changing!
If we look at the most contested water body in the country, the Cauvery, its basin occupies almost 82000 sqkm of area across 3 states. The 30 year average annual rainfall in the Cauvery basin is about 108cm. That is a lot of rainfall but the problem is that most of this rain falls in the monsoon that lasts 3 months in the year. How does the Cauvery flow throughout the year then? Mathematically it is expected to flow for 3 months in a year, flood the river basin and then slowly dry off. Nature fortunately has a different and a far more efficient design. This excess water that arrives during the monsoon is expected to be held in the soil that acts like a sponge that soaks up the excess, recharges millions of aquifers and springs, and oozes it through time, via millions of trickles that become streams and eventually the perennial Cauvery. Unfortunately over the last 2 decades, the soil carbon percentage here has dropped on an average to 0.3% (from around 3% – that is a 90% drop). Which means the sponge is incapable of holding on to this deluge. This is one of the reasons why we are experiencing alternate cycles of floods in the monsoons and water crises in the summers, year after year. This is also why the Cauvery today is barely a flowing river but more a series of standing reservoirs. What if we managed to increase the average carbon content to 3%, to the same level it was 20 years ago? This would mean throughout the basin – we are talking about approximately 280000 lt of water availability in the soil per acre i.e, approximately 5.8 trillion litres of increased water availability. On an average, this is roughly the amount of water 100million people need to survive in urban india annually!! The reality is a lot more complex than this and there is no one number that will capture data for the entire Cauvery basin but you get the gist of how great soil really amounts to the tap flowing at home in the summer all the way in Bangalore and Chennai.
That being said, how do we really increase the soil carbon? what steps can we take? We will come back with more on that in another post about forest systems. Availability of water in a consumable form is a fundamental aspect of our life that soil impacts. We will be looking at how it affects the air as well in the next part. Until then, put on your thinking caps and let the introspection begin.