Agriculture in India

A conversation with one of our bakers at Bread & Butter Bakery.

Over the last few blog posts I’ve talked about the magic of sourdough, the dangers of chemicals in our food and some things we can do to help save our planet. I grew up in Germany and have a pretty good idea of the agricultural system there, as well as in New Zealand, but last week I learnt about farming in India from one of our Bread and Butter bakers, Preetinderjit Singh Riar – we call him Preet – and what a shock I got! Fake milk, only three years of water reserves and possibly no more than 60 years of farming left – read on to find out more.

Preetinderjit in the fields near his home in Punjab.

Preet grew up in the town of Garhdiwala in Punjab in northern India, a state that bases its economy on farming. The cooler north is India’s main wheat-growing area, while the warm, humid south of the country produces much of the rice. His family owns a small farm, as do many of their neighbours, but small farms such as theirs don’t provide sufficient income for a family, so like many others, Preet’s father Lakhwinderjiit Singh Riar supplements the family income by working away from the farm managing a grain store. Preet’s journey to Bread and Butter Bakery was via a circuitous route that began with an interest in medicine, then physiotherapy, but struggling with some of the academic requirements, he decided instead to come to New Zealand to study cooking. The reality of a commercial kitchen wasn’t quite what he expected, but once he learnt the joy of handling dough and baking bread, he was hooked. “Baking is full of life – sourdough is a living thing. You can sense that it is alive, you have to take great care of it and handle it gently like an animal. That inspires me.”

While he loves baking and enjoys our passion for high quality ingredients at Bread and Butter Bakery, he says one of the biggest challenges in his career is getting people to understand how important it is to have good food. He says many people, even chefs and bakers, don’t ‘get’ the importance of good ingredients – it’s not given priority in training, and for many people in the industry cooking is just a job, not a passion. But for Preet, growing up on a farm allowed him to see the whole picture, from seed to table. “What people seem to forget”, Preet says “is that whatever food you grow or make it’s going to feed another living thing – to nourish and support life, and that’s a huge responsibility. So how can you make bad food?” I couldn’t agree more.

In India, the government controls agriculture, setting the price for grain, subsidising chemicals and ‘encouraging’ the use of hybrid seeds. People still plant a lot of the old crop varieties, but that’s only for their personal use ‘because they taste better’, says Preet. But 90% of all rice and wheat in India is bought by the government, who then store and distribute it around the country – and the government only buys the hybrid varieties. So anyone wanting to grow in a more sustainable way has huge barriers to overcome. According to Preet, this method of controlling agriculture was first started by the colonising British, who exported much of the wheat and rice grown. This allowed them to exert even greater control over their subjects, holding back food stocks and in some cases causing starvation. The system then simply continued on into modern times and allowed the large scale roll-out of the chemical farming system dubbed the ‘Green Revolution’.

Many factors contribute to poor nutrition in India and when the Green Revolution started to transform agriculture around the world from the 1960s onwards, India was a massive testing ground for the agro-chemical industries. While some argue that the new way of farming in India’s massive commercial agriculture system has solved one problem – that of starvation – it created many more. Farmers using hybrid seeds are paid a higher price for their crops, tying them into a vicious cycle of purchasing new seed every year, and growing crops that demand high levels of fertiliser, herbicide, and fungicide – generally made by the same large corporations that sell the seed. Sound familiar? Hybrid seeds may produce a larger crop in a shorter time, but its not without a price – Preet says in his state there are massive problems with pollution of the waterways and soil erosion where land has been abused, rather than tended. Traditional farming used seed collected from previous seasons and farmers knew which seed suited their geography and climate. Crops took longer and were smaller, but the environmental impact was a lot less harmful, and farmers worked with nature, rather than against it. After all, farming has been practiced on the same land in India for thousands of years.

In the summer months rice grows on the fields, the dry season is the time for growing wheat in India’s northern state of Punjab.

But this may all come to an end soon. The large corporations making the many agricultural chemicals have grown ever more powerful while the land has grown less and less able to sustain these farming practices. High levels of chemicals destroy the fragile biology of the soil – this biology is the fabric that holds the soil together and feeds the plants as they grow. When this is damaged, rain washes over the land rather than soaking in, picking up the topsoil and all the chemicals within, washing it into the nearest waterway. This pollutes the water, and when the soil isn’t able to retain any of the precious rain, groundwater levels drop. Groundwater provides a natural storage bank for water – a safety deposit for the dry season, when farmers rely on bores to water their crops, animals and families.  But now what little water manages to soak through to the ground water stores is often poisoned with agricultural chemicals. Cancer rates in Punjab are high, especially among the rural population. And once the topsoil is gone, only the clay base remains and without soil or water even more fertiliser is required to make anything grow, and food that is harvested will be of very low quality until nothing will grow anymore.

Preet tells me that in his part of Northern India there may only be about three years of groundwater left. This feeds into a larger worldwide pattern, which by some estimates leaves us with only 60 years of agriculture before ALL topsoil is lost, unless there’s a dramatic shift in beliefs, attitudes and practices. I asked him if there was any move towards organic farming in India, and he said that there are a few organic farms in his area, but they are purely commercial – owned by large corporations and growing single crops as a monoculture, so still harmful to soil biology. He says the people of India have no idea of the urgency of the problem, and the government isn’t doing anything to mobilise the agriculture sector into action. I think there is a similar lack of understanding in parts of our population. People don’t realise that polluted water and soil erosion are symptoms of inappropriate land use. In India, it’s more obvious because of the population density, while in New Zealand much of this happens in remote areas out of people’s view. That doesn’t lessen the damage, and the outcry should be as vicious here as it should be in India.

I ask Preet if there’s anything happening in his home state to mitigate the damage, and he tells me about a local university that runs a programme helping farmers use the correct amount of fertiliser, as many farmers are uneducated and not schooled in the use of the chemicals. When I ask about permaculture or regenerative systems in India, he says he’s seen no evidence of it, but goes on to tell me about his friend Jaskaran Singh. He has a dairy farm that also produced oranges. But when he added chickens and vegetables into the mix, he found that the system was becoming more sustainable, using less water, needing less fertiliser and needing fewer workers. The cows and chickens have their feed supplemented by orange and vegetable scraps and they produce the fertiliser for the crops. Before he got the chickens his friend needed two workers to deal with the orange scraps, now the chickens do it for free, producing eggs and meat and working the cow manure into the ground under the trees and producing extra fertiliser for the vegetables. The ground is starting to take up more water so is needing less irrigation. What Preet’s friend Jaskaran seems to have worked out – apparently unknowingly – is some of the principles of permaculture and regenerative agriculture, and he seems to be reaping the benefits already. 

Jaskaran Singh has developed a system of growing fruit, vegetables and raising animals on the same land. The result: better water retention, less fertiliser to buy, saving of labour.

Unfortunately Preet has plenty of horror stories for this one positive one. Many involve scandals about counterfeit produce. In one example a town was found to be using 80,000 litres of milk, but only producing 55,000 – it was discovered that this was one of the areas where “fake milk” was produced. This highly dangerous product is made from a small  amount of real milk, to which white paint, detergent, shampoo and a variety of other toxic materials are added. It’s often used to make popular Indian sweets, and even in small amounts is dangerous. This highly toxic synthetic milk isn’t the only fake – Preet tells me about wax posing as cabbages and plastic eggs that are so realistic you don’t know until you break them open that you’ve been duped. 

As we discuss the reasons for problems like this, Preet puts it down to one thing – money. He says people are so busy thinking about money they don’t have time to think about the consequences of their actions or to plan for the future. “We’re running in a rat race but it’s never going to end – even if we make billions, it’s never going to be enough, we’ll still want more”. I suggest that we need another ‘green revolution’ of sorts – this time one that deserves that name, and he agrees. “Everyone needs to do something, but the problem is so big, the government needs to get involved too”. 

Preet’s home in Garhdiwala. Tractors and other farming equipment is now widely used in India, while only a generation ago everything was still done with manual labour.

Encouraging sustainability is also something that can be difficult to discuss with the older generation. Preet’s father Lakhwinderjit has seen first hand the huge changes that the green revolution brought to India.  “In my childhood, the crop seed was sown traditionally and no chemical fertilizers, insecticide, or pesticides were used,” Lakhwinderjit recalls. “All of the work used to be done manually, but nowadays the crop seeds are in hybrid form and chemical fertilizer is used to control wild herbs and insects and everything now is handled through machines like tractors, combines etc. Today we use submersible pumps for watering the crops, but in my childhood, the watering of crops was done through canals or rain which sometimes failed drastically,” remembers Lakhwinder.“As a result crop yields have gone from 3 per quantile in previous time to 25 quantile at present.“ But Preet’s father also agrees that the inappropriate use of chemicals in the agricultural sector is a problem. While there are numerous programmes in place that subsidise the use of chemical fertiliser and pesticides, there is a dire lack of education about the right use of them. He also sees the negative consequences for people’s health. “Due to the huge quantities of chemical fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides used the essential quality of elements in food has decreased and the consumption of fruits or vegetables grown this way has now become harmful for humans. There is no quality control, checkup or education for use of insecticide or pesticides.” For now, Preet is preparing to visit India again and hopes to introduce rainwater harvesting and solar power systems, and he continues to try and encourage a conversation about a more sustainable life and agricultural system that’s good for people and the planet. 

Preet’s father Lakhwinderjit Singh Riar has witnessed the huge changes in the way agriculture is practiced in India, from traditional thousand year old practices to the wide spread use of modern hybrid crops and synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.

Closer to (NZ) home, Preet is investigating the milling of flour to start a kind of co-operative. He dreams of one day being able to process the grains grown on his ancestral lands and thus produce a value-added product that can be sold direct to market, a concept that a co-operative of South Canterbury farmers have realised in the Farmers Mill, the only independent grower-owned and operated flour producer in the country. The Farmer’s Mill in Timaru is the first New Zealand mill that opened to process New Zealand grown grains, since the shutting down of all the independent small mills around New Zealand by Australian mills in the 1950s and 60s.

Preet started baking bread at Bread & Butter Bakery four years ago. Since then he made thousands of loaves, bread rolls, and pretzels. Preet often works as the dough maker, since the dough in its live form is his favourite part of baking.

As Preet thinks about home and the changing crops and seasons, he’ll continue to nourish our customers with sourdough, ensuring it’s made with the very best ingredients and lots of love. Preet has been working at Bread & Butter Bakery for four years and we are extremely grateful for all his hard work and his dedication to the cause of bringing good bread to the good people of Auckland.

Thank you Preet.

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