27 January, 2014

THE END OF MAIZE



I was at a small Newari town in the Kathmandu Valley at the beginning of the New Year. The hotel where I stayed at was perched on top of a hillock, and as the cold wind blew through the Himalayas I nestled up to the fire which an elderly woman was feeding with corn cobs. People in Kathmandu these days chuck wood frames painted with synthetic paints and inhale this dangerous fumes without a thought, so I was glad this woman, who turned out to the be the wife of the hotelier, still had some corn cobs to feed her fire.

“How much corn did you plant this year?” I asked.

The woman, who was in her Sixties, shook her head. “Its no longer worth it,” she said. “I’m going to let it fallow next year.” She picked up a cob, about a feet long, and showed it to me. “To produce this cob, we need to spend about thirty rupees on seeds, pesticides and fertilizers. Otherwise it won’t grow. Its getting too expensive. My son wants to turn the land into a fish pond and farm fish.”

Even till last year, though, she said, they got about 50 to 60 dokos of maize from that few ropanis. They ate it all through the winter. But now, she said, the cost had become too high, with new hybrid seeds which had to be bought, and agricultural workers who she had to give money to to keep the fields tended. “We go to the krishi office and get our seeds from there. That’s why it is so expensive. It is no longer viable for us to plant corn anymore.”

I asked her if they kept their own seeds, but she uttered these dreaded words: “Masiyo.” Our seed stock has gone extinct.

A few days later, I was at a mill buying oil and grains, when this polite gentleman who looked like a government beaureaucrat walked in. The mill owner asked him whether he was interested in this or that—here’s the local dal, and here’s the imported seeds, et cetera. Then he pointed to the corn and said, rather dryly: “We are lucky these days. We get to have our makai (corn) exported from Argentina. Would you like to take some?” The gentleman, who’d made a number of careful purchases, picked up the packet, weighted it in his hand, then declined.

“Gau kai mitho huncha,” he said. Our local maize is better. “I get our maize from the village. This is not so tasty. Yo ta kay ho kay ho, khaeko jastai lagdaina.” Then he went to talk about how delicious the maize back in his village was. “You didn’t even think about rice when you had some fresh cornmeal with chicken (kukhura ko jhol.) It is just something else,” he said. I asked him where he was from, and he mentioned a mid hill district. I asked if people kept their own maize seeds, and he shook his head. “Now we plant the hybrid seeds. We had those black and red kinds of maize that were delicious,” he said. “Abha masiyo.” Now those seeds are extinct.

Then a day or so ago, we got some visitors from the Terai. These men are farmers who live off the land, they know their crops with great acuity. I asked the old farmer, who’s been planting his rice and corn for a lifetime: “Do you still plant corn?”

Abha makai sidhiyo,” he said. Now the maize is finished.

Abha sabai ukhu, ukhu, ukhu cha.” Now its all sugarcane, sugarcane, sugarcane. “We still plant some wheat and rice,” he said. “That’s our winter crop. But the maize is gone. People plant sugarcane in its place.” I assume the sugarcane is a cash crop, bought by the sugar mills down in the valley. I ask if the rice and wheat seed stock is still their own, and he says they still keep their own stock. As for the maize, he again uttered these dreaded words: “Biu masiyo,” he said. The seed has gone extinct.

“We still plant a little bit of it from hybrid seeds,” he said. “But it is not so tasty. Its mostly used for chicken feed.”

It appears the maize, which was brought to Nepal from the Americas, has been decimated roughly about 500 years after its introduction by people from the same continent. Monsanto and its army are out and about, introducing new seeds that they think people will continue to buy and eat. But of course, people are versatile and adaptable. If maize seed becomes too expensive to plant and grow, people merely move on and eat something else instead.

It is entirely possible that Monsanto, with the help of local businessmen, is trying to decimate every known strain of seeds of food stock known to mankind. Lets call this the ultimate apocalyptic scenario. If the seeds of all known food grains are wiped out and people have to buy all seeds from the “krishi office” (and I would bet this is Monsanto’s ultimate aim, boosted by people like Bill Gates), what do people eat then?  Because despite Monsanto’s wishful thinking that people will be forced to buy its seeds despite its high cost of production, it appears to me that people simply drop the crop when it becomes economically unfeasible to keep planting.

In other words, it becomes “masiyo.” It goes extinct.

To me, this genetically modified seed invasion doesn’t seem like a saintly campaign to eradicate poverty. This appears to me a very dangerous trend towards eradicating a basic food crop that had given sustenance to people in hilly areas where no other crops can grow. I think hunger is going to soar in food deficit areas which depended upon this crop for months of food. I think about the Chepangs who hang off their steep hillsides and stick the maize seed into the hills with their tongues. What will these folks do once their seed is decimated? They are going to migrate to the cities, perhaps. Or else they are going to go back to foraging wild roots and plants, just as they did before the maize made its appearance in South Asia. To me, this seems like a rollback, not a forward movement, towards a more humane world.

Perhaps it is time for the international community to think about whether wiping out people’s seed stock counts as a crime towards humanity. Genetically modified seeds, and those that don’t grow again, directly attacks people’s—especially poor people’s--food security. If so, what action should be taken against the companies that are promoting these technologies without people’s knowledge?

No comments: