Environmental Activism Begins at Home

When Americans try something new, they act as if no one else in the whole wide world has ever thought of it before. So a guy named Michael Pollan has written a book about eating organic, in which he discusses a novel experiment he claims to have invented: of eating a meal for which he has almost total personal responsibility. The idea is to identify where the food comes from.

The modern “organic” industry symbolized by outfits like Whole Foods, he alleges, is not really organic in the true sense of the word, because it uses mechanized techniques similar to those used by non-organic agribusiness, and consumes as much energy, water, and soil resources. The shorter the distance between the consumer and the producer, the author claims, the more the transparency of agricultural practices.

After reading the article, I felt eerily nostalgic. I soon realized the reason. The New Yorker article made me wonder if Pollan had stolen his idea from my grandmother. On a certain panchami (the fifth day of the moon) in the month of shravan in the monsoon season, my aaji celebrated a festival in which she ate only foods grown at home.

I may not be quite accurate about the exact date in the Hindu calendar, but you get the idea.

We lived on the outskirts of Nagpur in a bungalow surrounded by a yard on all sides, a rarity in those days. As soon as the rains started, our neat, brick-lined flowerbeds, the tidy plot of dirt in the front, indeed the whole neighborhood, would burst into an explosion of green. My grandmother would venture out into the mud and plant spinach, tomato, and cucumber.

Next door to us lived a teacher. He would regale us with stories of the village where he farmed his land and where he lived when not teaching.

My grandmother and the teacher would plan for weeks for this one auspicious meal, planting vegetables and grain. She would provide him with guavas, lemons, spinach, bananas, papayas, and ears of wheat from our garden; he would trade with her giant ears of corn, beans, and other foods grown on his farm.

They would exchange seeds and saplings throughout the year.

That was a time when we had in our garden gavti chaha, or grass tea, the leaves of which we boiled with turmeric, ginger, and milk to ward off colds. We grew onions, potatoes, pumpkin, tur beans, and sugarcane.

In his experiment, Pollan ate a meal made of wild morels foraged in the Sierra foothills, the braised loin and leg of a wild pig he had shot himself in Sonoma County, a chamomile tisane made from herbs picked in the Berkeley hills, salad greens from his own garden, cherries taken by right of usufruct from a neighbor’s tree, and sea salt scraped from a pond at the southern end of San Francisco Bay. I missed a beat as I read about the poor pig that had to be slaughtered in the cause of organic food.

In contrast, my grandmother’s homegrown meal was more spiritually rewarding, because it involved no killing of any animal.

I wonder now if someone in India is still celebrating the old festival, and whether a revival of it might not be a good thing for the survival of our planet.

Perhaps we need to initiate an international Shravan Panchami, akin to Earth Day, on which presidents and prime ministers, film stars and athletes and spiritual leaders will eat food grown with their own hands. Once you get Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in the act, teenagers like my own sons will be soon follow suit. And wouldn’t you be curious to find out what George Bush can grow or what the Dalai Lama would eat on such a day? Once you have The New York Times publishing Tiger Woods’s or Lance Armstrong’s homegrown meal, Fox News will be vying with its own focus on the O’Reilly dinner.

Of course, the problem is that if the planet returned to organic methods of agriculture, it will be hard to feed 6.6 billion people. But if we continue the current methods of agriculture, we will starve everyone in the long run anyway by degrading the soil beyond repair.

So I think the celebration of Shravan Panchami will serve to remind us of how our daily bread is grown and what we need to do to preserve its source, the good earth.

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