Do people think about the source of their food, and the struggles associated with its production, when they fill their shopping carts in supermarkets? Barring a minority who are aware of farming and the connected challenges, consumers are mostly distanced from the origin of their food. They are disconnected from the earth and the de-linking has had deeply distressing consequences. Intensive and industrial scale agriculture has become the dominant paradigm. Biodiversity and ecology have suffered, particularly in the cultivated landscape.
But the production of food does not have to be an act of war, argues Whitney Sanford in this reflective book on making agriculture natural, repaired and whole again. She challenges the idea that the realisation of food for humans could be achieved through a command and control paradigm, epitomised by industrial agriculture. A sustainable alternative would be to balance the need for food with the needs of the earth. It should ideally be a model that provides enough space for nature to flourish and for humanity to survive. This is the familiar terrain of restoration ecology, ecological agriculture and agroecology, which help in the resurgence of native species and encourage co-existence of biodiversity and agriculture.
The central question of the book, as the author puts it, is this: How can we balance the human need for agricultural production with the needs of the broader biotic community? There are no simple answers. Philosophy and religion, however, provide approaches and stories that help people review their relations with the land, water and food.
One such story is that of Balaram, Krishna's strong, plough-wielding brother, the guardian of farming and fertility. Baldeo in Uttar Pradesh is where he is most prominently worshipped. Sanford traces the contrast between the idyllic, pastoral Krishna, and the intense, anxious and goal-oriented Balaram, to build the argument that people have used fears about food supply to justify violent industrial agriculture.
The most significant episode in the Balaram story, to which the writer returns repeatedly, is his act of diverting the Yamuna river using the force of his plough. This action is interpreted as his strong response to subdue an unbending river, in the service of his community. But it is also one that emphasises control and domination — themes that are echoed by industrial farming practices.
One part of the book is an interesting narration of Balaram lore, the Holi festival and the colourful devotional rituals of the Braj region of northern India, written for a Western audience. It can be quite engaging even for Indians. As the author notes, “One can see posters and references to Krishna throughout much of India ... but this is not the case with Balaram.”
As a scholar of religion, Sanford delves into the possible meanings that pastoral and agricultural stories hold for us in the modern day. She draws interesting comparisons between the pastoral imagery of Krishna's Braj with some sections of environmental thought, in which there is no conflict in the natural landscape. There is just a lyrical, eternally peaceful quality to nature, no hint of predator-prey tensions or failures. To her, this idiom has externalised the uncertain and difficult activity that agriculture is. It also reflects the view of the consumerist urban “wildlife lover” who will share none of the stresses of life in the forest, but will romanticise it and use it as a retreat. Such activism has no patience for traditional forest residents, such as tribals. On the other hand, industrial agriculture has also kept out the needs of the environment, approaching it only from the perspective of control, extraction and subordination. That nature has agency is ignored in this narrative.
Naturally, some troubling questions arise as we seek the best agricultural paradigm for our time, hoping that it will preserve the globe for future generations. Does pristine wilderness have relevance at a time when there are competing demands for forest produce to cater to mass markets? Conversely, can agriculture make space for plant (and by extension animal) species that do not have commercial importance and yet produce enough to feed the world? Do people recognise that some amount of violence is intrinsic to their efforts to secure food, and they must therefore consciously make amends?
These questions are reviewed through the prisms of the Krishna-Balaram stories and philosophy in the book. At some points, the meanings read into the Braj religious festivities and Holi appear to be a little too deferential, and modern Indians are likely to view them as quaint. Fortunately, Sanford adds some caveats.
The central effort of “Growing stories from India” is to identify a more mutually beneficial human-earth relationship. It is profound, that the metaphor of Balaram's act of forcing the Yamuna to change its course is relevant today. In fast-growing India as well as the polluted, monoculture-dominated American Midwest, farming is pumping the land with toxic chemicals to raise yields, and killing rivers. In the end, the land is left barren.
A return to a more natural condition demands an ecological imagination that accommodates all parts of the biotic sphere, and humans should not stand apart. Sanford quotes Karl Marx to underscore the “metabolic interaction” between nature and society. “Marx and dialectical biologists' delineation of human-nature relations and all organism-environment relationships as dialectical, coevolving and non-determined offers us tools to reassess how we as humans intervene in the natural world,” she says. This helps us steer away from concepts of pristine nature and move to wise-use policies.
India is today witnessing several conflicts in the realm of agriculture. Wild animals are pitted against farmers as they roam, and policies detrimental to the small, nature-friendly farm are asserting themselves. Sanford's exploration is centred round India's cultural tradition and hence of great interest. Her idea of a more natural way for agriculture will certainly appeal strongly to India's farmers, most of whom are keen to rediscover their organic roots.