September is cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) season in the southern reaches of the Indian subcontinent.
The eastern hemisphere’s answer to the vanilla bean is endemic to the Western Ghats, a mountain* range that runs though South India, then under water, to re-emerge in Sri Lanka. The Ghats are a biodiversity hotspot, older than even the Himalayas, formed when the subcontinent broke away from Gondwanaland.
The heavy rain on these slopes—an average of two hundred inches a year—would cause surface runoff rendering it impossible to grow anything here, if it were not for the presence of montane forests of mighty angiosperms that break the rainfall. The treed canopies also shelter the little cardamom bud far below.
On the Mojo plantation in Galibeedu, Coorg, owners Sujata and Anurag Goel are getting reading for a busy harvest season after a late monsoon. The monsoons here are very much like a winter, all cool temperatures, thick mists and pervasive dampness. It is a season for hibernating with multiple cups of hot chai.
The following week is the Sun Festival, marking the end of the rains. As Mojo is run solely on organic principles, it is a labor-intensive farm, and all the workers are slowly dribbling back to work. Cardamom must be hand-picked before it turns completely yellow, to ensure maximum oil content.
Anurag is a molecular biologist and Sujata, a botanist. Nonetheless, when they set up this farm twenty years ago, they turned to traditional Indian farming practices. Partly, it was out of a disillusionment with modern science—Anurag recalls that there was a push to do research in GMO at the time and he was skeptical. But it was also because it made sense.
After all, to paraphrase the environmentalist Claude Alvares, a civilization that has been farming the same soil for four thousand years surely knows a thing or two about sustainable agriculture.
Traditional farming—not just in India but in other places too—focuses on maintaining soil health, which in turn boosts the plant’s natural defense systems. It’s an approach that parallels traditional medicine, where the philosophy is to encourage the body to heal itself.
Anurag concedes that genetically modified crops increase yields, but he contends that scientists do not really understand how a single modification can affect an entire ecosystem that has co-evolved over thousands of years. Science offers short-term solutions that have the potential to create serious long-term problems.
At any rate, there is little need for such invasive human intervention when plants are already well capable of looking after themselves.
When plants are sprayed with pesticides, the pests build up resistance over time, and before you know it, it’s a race to the bottom. The benefit of using the antagonistic properties of the plant itself, according to Sujata, is that these do not create selective pressure on the pests.
When a plant is under attack, it emits hormones. These hormones trigger a chain of reactions resulting in the production of compounds that repel the insect, impeding its digestive process and even affecting its reproductive cycle.
Some plants also release volatile organic compounds as distress signals, calling on the predators of the plants’ predators to come feast on their attackers.
Underground too, the plant’s defense mechanisms are at work. Plants have a symbiotic relationship, known as mycorrhiza, with certain fungi. Here, the fungi colonize the plant’s roots and gain access to a steady supply of nutrients through the plant. In return, the fungal network in the soil (aka mycelium) breaks down a lot of otherwise hard-to-digest nutrients to make it easier for the plant to absorb them. And when the plant is under attack, the same fungi stimulate the plant to produce antimicrobial substances at the area of pathogen infection.
To facilitate the soil’s microbial health, Anurag and Sujata, just as their ancestors have done for millennia, practice multicropping. Crop variety enriches soil, improves its culture and adds to its organic content. Also, pests thrive in monocultures since they are host specific, so multicropping tends to control the problem.
Thus, Mojo grows not only cardamom, but also other symbiotic crops, such as pepper, coffee, vanilla, nutmeg, bay leaf, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, etc.
The crops are wedged between the surface roots of the aforementioned angiosperms, such as the kokum tree or Garcinia cambogia (you might have heard Dr. Oz extol the miraculous weight-loss boosting properties of this plant), or the rudraksh tree or Elaeocarpus ganitri.
By letting native forestland grow alongside their crops, Anurag and Sujata are also providing pests with alternative food sources—ones that the pests have evolved to eat, instead of exotic imported crops like coffee and vanilla.
Finally, composting is key to developing excellent humus. Mojo’s compost is made of weeds, organic farm waste and a special ingredient, panchagavya, which is a fermented mixture of cow dung, urine, curds, milk and ghee. The breakdown of organic matter is further assisted by the addition of Effective Microorganisms or EM, a mixture of bacteria and fungi developed by the Japanese horticulturalist Dr. Teruo Higa.
It is a risky business for the rational but environmentally-minded layperson to wade into the muddy waters of the organic/ GMO debate. One side yells, “But! Chemicals!” (as though all organic matter were not chemical compounds) while the other yells, “Anti-science! Luddites!” Only a few months ago, over a hundred Nobel Laureates signed a petition calling out Greenpeace over its objection to GMOs.
In a sense then, it’s a relief when scientifically trained organic farmers point out the limitations of modern science.
Yes, organic produce is more expensive, since organic farms, typically small, do not have the same economies of scale as large industrial farms. And yes, GMO crops are safe for human consumption. And they can solve world hunger. But so can a lot of other things, such as ending inefficiencies in food distribution networks or the practice of hoarding to maintain prices (see the EU’s infamous butter mountains and milk lakes).
These are all issues to mull over, but in the meanwhile, I’ll leave the last word with the Doctors Goel:
“Every application of a pesticide kills not only one species which is considered a ‘pest’ of the crop, but destroys the complex network of biotic life that supports that ecosystem.”
*It has been argued that the Ghats are not true mountains, since they are, in fact, the faulted edge of the Deccan plateau.