Hailed as one of the emerging great economies, India boasts some of the wealthiest people in the world.
It is also home to more of the world’s poor than any other country on the planet.
Whilst the country has seen a huge expansion in its technology and consumer goods industries over the past two decades, around 70% of India’s inhabitants still live in rural areas and have been largely untouched by the economic upturn. There, amongst small-scale farmers in particular, debt and poverty is rife.
I have written previously about the shocking rate of suicide amongst poor Indian farmers (official figures put this at 270,000 suicides since 1995). In most instances it is believed to be a combination of crop failure and debt that lies behind these tragic deaths.
This explosion of farmer suicides is also linked inextricably to the country’s agricultural reforms, and in particular to the deregulation of its seed sector in the 1990s, a move which paved the way for companies like the global chemical giant Monsanto to move in on the market.
Seeds are the source of life, the very start of the natural food cycle. But in India (and elsewhere) Monsanto has fractured that cycle by deliberately creating sterile seeds, containing a so-called “suicide gene”. This suicide gene prevents farmers saving and sowing the seeds from one year to the next, meaning they must buy them annually from Monsanto.
In other words, the seed – for centuries a natural, renewable resource and a symbol of continuity – has been replaced across much of India’s farming community by an engineered, patented commodity which is the exact opposite.
The reason so many farmers bought into Monsanto’s “suicide gene” seeds in the first place (often borrowing money to do so) was the lure of greater yields claimed by Monsanto’s advertisements. In practice, those claims have often not been realised. In the case of cotton, in particular, some Indian farmers have instead experienced devastating crop failures.
Another problem is that the sheer cost of annually purchasing GM seed has forced many small farms away from traditional crop diversification and into monoculture. This is especially true of crops such as cotton and coffee. By its very nature, monoculture is much more vulnerable to disease and pests (concentrate any crop in a large area and you will attract its natural predators). Monoculture makes the grower more vulnerable too – if the crop fails, the farmer has no other crops to turn to.
Increased monoculture has also led to greater use of pesticides and weedkiller, not only damaging the soil and the environment but costing poor farmers more money. By coincidence, it also boosts Monsanto’s profits as the company happens to manufacture the world’s most widely used herbicide “Roundup”.
In August 2012, India’s parliamentary committee on Bt crops (“Bt” is the name of a variety of genetically modified crop patented and marketed by Monsanto) released a damning report, recommending a ten year moratorium on field trials of all genetically modified crops.
That recommendation has yet to be enacted by the Indian government, but already it may be too late. In a few short years, Monsanto has managed to make itself indispensable to India’s farming community, with a monopoly over many of the seeds on which they have come to depend.
As Monsanto’s grip has intensified, so many of the traditional, natural, heritage seed varieties that used to be sown have not been collected and may have been lost forever. In some cases there is now probably no alternative to Monsanto.
We live in a world on the brink of crisis: intensive agriculture is patently unsustainable, the total human population continues to grow whilst the amount of land available for agriculture continues to shrink. In this context we should be alarmed at Monsanto’s ruthless quest for monopoly ownership and control of the world’s seeds, the stuff of life upon which every single one of us ultimately depends.
On to the recipe. I cooked this side dish as part of an Indian meal to celebrate my eldest son’s return last month from India, where he had been living and working for three months. Like so many visitors to India, Jack fell in love with the country and although he is planning to start university next September, he hopes to return to India in the new year. He was, of course, also deeply affected at the way enormous wealth and abject poverty coexisted so closely in cities such as Mombai and Delhi, and by the apparent lack of serious political will to tackle the degrading conditions in which so many are forced to exist.
Jack also developed a love for Indian street food whilst he was out there, and this dish, aloo chaat, originating in Uttar Pradesh, is but one of a great variety of wonderful street foods to be found across India.
My version uses some of the Setanta potatoes from this year’s crop on my allotment plot, the Circus Garden, but any variety of maincrop potato would work just as well.
Aloo chaat is a very simple but deeply satisfying dish which which can be eaten as a side dish or on its own, street-food style. It would also work well as a lively alternative for breakfast, served with grilled tomatoes and a poached egg or two.
450 g potatoes, peeled and cut into roughly 1-2cm cubes
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 red chillies, seeds in (deseed for a less hot version), chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp sea salt
150 ml water
juice of half a lemon
1 tbsp fresh coriander leaves, chopped
1 tbsp ground nut oil
1. Place the chilli and garlic into a mini chopper or a pestle and mortar and blend or pound to a coarse paste.
2. Heat the oil in a frying pan or skillet over a high heat. When hot, add the mustard seeds and the cumin seeds. The mustard seeds will start “popping” after about. 30 seconds, at which point add the asafoetida. Stir and cook for a further 30 seconds then add the onions and reduce the heat to medium.
3. Fry the onions, stirring every so often, until they are soft and translucent. Now add the garlic and chilli paste, the chopped potatoes, salt, turmeric and ground coriander and stir.
4. Continue to cook and stir for 5 minutes, then add the water and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer then reduce the heat a little to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook for around 15 more minutes or until the potato cubes are tender and the water has been absorbed or evaporated. Remove from the heat, squeeze the lemon juice over the top and scatter with the chopped coriander. Serve immediately.