Friday, March 21, 2008


Hampstead Town Hall was our destination Monday evening, as we had a very special guest, author and activist Vandana Shiva, India's leading environmentalist. Sagar Shah brought our attention to this event, and it was well worth the price of admission. The Gaia Foundation and the Soil Association were largely behind it, and they certainly picked a top notch speaker. I might note that there was also a very good spread of food, not only organic delicacies, but real food, which means it tasted good. Baby beets with soured cream, falafel wraps, Welsh Brie, and, to my surprise, a tofu canape which rose above the usual bland tofu disasters using trendiness as an excuse for blandness. However, no hemp was on the table, but there was plenty of hemp hearts and oil at home to feast on later.

The real meat of the event was, however, hearing Vandana. She hails from Dehra Dun, a city in the north, where she runs a farm. Sagar Shah had visited last year and poked around making notes for future hemp coops in India. At present, there is very little hemp grown there, though hemp was once grown extensively, especially in the north.

Instead of hemp, there are millions of acres of cotton, which Vandana notes is a major threat to people's lives. In one area in Orissa state, there is a farmer committing suicide every eight hours. The suicide rate stands in the tens of thousands (related posts on this blog can go into more detail). Not only does the cotton use tons of pesticides, but is depleting India's water. This is starting to be noticed by the more observant journalists, such as Louisa Pearson of Scotland on Sunday (previous post has link to her article), but so many trendy do-gooders in the green movement just ignore this inconvenient fact as they shop for 'organic' cotton, which actually uses more of India's precious resource, water. Vandana posits that we may be in big trouble in the near future over the diminishing water resources.

Not only is there too much cotton, but there is in her opinion too much of another plant, jatropha. Ealier this month we blogged about how D1 Oils is in a bitter controversy about jatropha, and we left it open as to whether this crop was bad or not. Vandana did not leave anything open to doubt, she cut down the jatropha as a reaper swings a scythe. Jatropha was rammed down the throats of Indian farmers who were forced by government officials to grow this plant for its oily seed to be used for biodiesel. Up to 11m ha of it were planted all over India, at times replacing rice fields and grazing land, especially in the desert state of Rajasthan, where only 11% of the land is arable (as opposed to the national average of 56%). Another aspect of jatropha cultivation is the fact that it is poisonous to man and beast; ironically, the jatropha fans put up hoarding exhorting farmers to grow lots of it: "No one can eat me, wouldn't you like to grow me everywhere?"

Apparently, no one wants to grow anymore of this unfriendly plant, even the farmers who were supposed to receive a subsidy of 18 rupees per plant; which they never did get in full, and are now regretting pulling out other plants to make way for this little crop of horrors.

One wonders why they did not plant hemp? There were lots of wanna-be environmentalists beating the drum for the poisonous little fiend, but none would mention hemp; the truth is that a few years ago jatropha was trendy and there was money behind it. So those of us talking sense were drowned out, and India lost out.

Other ways in which India loses out in include the influence of companies pushing GM crops, including Bt cotton. Vandana explained that this was pushed through use of statistics showing that after GM crops were introduced, exports increased. This statistic was due to the fact that farmers were too poor to buy local produce after using GM seeds, and so their crops were sold off to foreign lands more than in the past. Again, they could have made money on hemp, but there are too many parties pushing false environmentalism and globalism, with profits going to foreign companies. By the way, there is still an arrest warrant in place for those responsible for Bhopal, including Warren Anderson, who lives in NY.

While there was much agreement with her message, I had some question at the end when I realised there was much talk against various energy forms; nuclear, coal, petrol, diesel and even bio-ethanol were definitely not in style. Vandana runs her farm with four bullocks. That is great, but realistically, can we run the world on that model? Too often enthusiastic environmentalists get on to an idea and try to push it on everyone, tested or not; that is why we have destructive palm oil plantations and jatropha. There is often a debate as to which energy we ought to use, and I think that putting all one's eggs in one basket is wrong; as Vandana pointed out, diversity is a safer approach. With that in mind, while she might not completely agree, I support some amount of bio-ethanol, especially as this can be made from waste material - which brings me to a point on which I disagree with many so-called 'activists'. It is often stated at these meetings, especially by the more zealous and ignorant in the camp, that we ought to return all wastes to the soil and not use cellulose as a raw material for ethanol. If this lot, including Andrew Boswell, would spend time listening rather than bashing biofuels, they would realise that cellulose is only a carbohydrate, and that taking carbon, hydrogen and oxygen away does not deprive the soil of nutrients, but that these are common elements the soil can get lots of. Many of those handing out leaflets at rallies have not studied any of the science, and are well on the way to creating the next overzealous craze, following in the footsteps of the palm oil and jatropha fanatics.

On the subject of diversity, I came across a recent article in Positive News (whose editor, Jane Taylor, was in attendance) which highlighted a solar tower in Spain. Large mirrors reflect the light up to the top of the tower, where temperatures reach 250 centigrade. This heats water, making steam, and energy is produced with no carbon emissions. For India this would be good news! A second article in the same paper talked about tidal turbines supplying almost all the energy for Samso, an island with 4,000 inhabitants off the coast of Denmark. This too could be of use in India, with all its coastline and major rivers.

Also in attendance was Stanley Johnson, who looks just like MP Boris Johnson; due to the fact that Stanley is Boris' dad, no doubt. Stanley had some very positive news for me, as he related the recent Law Lords' decision to throw out the US request for extradition of Ian Norris on all but one count, which has been passed back down to the lower courts, and one would expect common sense to prevail after the senior jurists set a tone. That fact, however, diverges from the main train of thought, but it is certainly good news that deserves passing on. Returning to the subject of this blog, let me note that both Stanley and his look-a-like dad will be getting copies of Hemp for Victory soon, especially as Stanley has a very interesting environmental site,

Vandana was given a copy of Hemp for Victory so perhaps we will indeed be seeing fields of emerald in India soon. Even if she does not support its use as a crop for bio-ethanol, it has so many other uses that it will surely find a place on her bullock-powered farm.

1 comment:

Carlos said...

She ought to grow hemp, but her circle is very limited and they are not doing things they don't make $ from, liberal as they all try to seem.