“Earth has plenty for every man’s needs but not every man’s greed.” Gandhi
My first memory of gardening was of helping my mother put seeds into the ground.
A straight furrow had been created. My job was to place the beans and peas at regular intervals, each representing precious potential. I remember considering whether to work from hands and knees or simply stoop and shuffle along as young children do.
I remember, too, the wizened potatoes near the end of their storage life. With sprouts removed, they’d serve for supper, perhaps with a few wizened carrots or a can of string beans, along with a nice roast of beef or a spent laying hen, boiled and accompanied with dumplings.
There were rewards to living on an Ontario mixed farm in the 1960s, the food of course, but also an appreciation of what goes into it.
These memories came to me in the wake of a conversation with Ohio State University soil scientist Rattan Lal, the most recent recipient of prestigious World Food Prize.
Lal estimates he was born in 1946 in what is now Pakistan prior the partitioning of India. His family, farmers, moved as refugees to a new location about 100 kilometers northwest of Delhi in 1947 where they worked a small property of less than 10 acres and grazed cattle in the nearby desert.
Crops could be grown the year round, things like okra, peppers, melons in the summer and daikon radish, turnips and peas in the winter. There were also wild desert fruits to gather and preserve.
Lal, as the third sibling, was the first of his family to be educated and he made the most of the opportunity. Homework was completed by the light of a kerosene lamp and he’d run the four miles to his high school where his potential was recognized and rewarded with a scholarship to an agricultural university in India. This, in turn, led to Lal earning his PhD at Ohio State and gaining worldwide recognition during a career that took him to Australia, Africa and then back to Ohio State where he founded Carbon Management and Sequestration Center in 2000.
Lal continues to farm in a small way, growing such staples as okra and bitter melon, enough to keep his family supplied for much of the year and also reinforcing his view that agriculture, if it’s to succeed in feeding the growing population, must change.
Lal’s vision encompasses many practical considerations which, in its essence, demands that as much or more be provided to the soil than what is taken away. Leave the residue. Avoid turning the soil when possible. Maintain a living root system the year round. Shift from chemical to biologically-sourced nutrients like compost and manure.
Attitudes also need change at a societal level, Lal believes.
The soil and her stewards need to be valued beyond nutrition and energy in the food produced to a level that draws us closer to the sacred.
My conversation with Lal brought to mind another memory, 20-odd years from the days I when planted seeds as a child. I was living at the time in Northern Alberta and had earned the trust and friendship of certain members of the Dene Tha’ First Nation.
Unlike the agricultural background Lal and I share, the heritage of the Dene is largely connected to hunting and gathering. The several flats of white bread and cartons of eggs that showed up at the doorstep of our mobile home one day were most obviously gathered from the back of a delivery truck at the local grocery store.
At the time I thought, “Way too much white bread.”
It’s only now, having spoken with Rattan Lal, that I know better.
Food connects us all. ◊