Living Soil Saves Lives

The spectacle of farmer suicides in India is stark and tragic, claiming the lives of at least 17,368 Indian farmers in 2009, according to data of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Since 1997 it is estimated that 125,000 to 200,000 farmers have taken their own lives.

While the numbers are debatable, the cause is not. Genetically Modified seeds, costly pesticides and high water requirements have placed all farmers just one failed crop away from economic ruin. Farmers who can afford genetically modified seeds and commercially available water can thrive. The vast majority of India's rural population cannot, far too often leaving them with economic tragedy when the rains don't come.

GM crops also require substantial amounts of fertilizer and pesticides that have played a major role in depleting soil quality, leaving much of the country rendered virtually lifeless by decades of chemical use, which goes against the natural processes which give soil its fertility and life-bearing potential.

Two young Americans believe they have an answer that can deliver farmers from this trap. They are Marilyn McHugh and Chris Kennedy, who founded a US non-profit organization called the Hummingbird Project. Speaking at the Giri Institute of Development Studies on Oct. 8, the two said their NGO strives to empower communities devastated by industrialized, chemical farming to regain control of their food supply.

Microbial life in the soil plays a crucial role in enhancing soil fertility, the two said, but the microbial process is obstructed by the indiscriminate use of chemical inputs on farms.

The two have travelled throughout India, conducting Living Soil Workshops in farming communities, telling farmers about the diversity of soil life and how soil microorganisms create conditions conducive for the growth of plant life, and how in turn plants help fertility-enhancing microbes thrive.

Preserving this intricate web of dependencies is key to creating soils which are fertile and productive. Through the use of microscopes the two enable participants to see first-hand the stark differences in the levels of microbial life in soils which have been treated with chemical fertilizers and those which have been cultivated using organic methods. With an understanding of soil microbiology and specific methods of making compost and compost preps, farmers are given the skills needed to regenerate their own soil and increase fertility.

In 2010, the newlyweds left their jobs to take a yearlong round-the-world honeymoon. Halfway through the trip, in East Africa, their lives were changed forever after they volunteered on several development projects and discovered a passion for service. Since then, they have been devoted to assisting and empowering individuals in resource-poor locales. In 2012 The Hummingbird Project was officially granted nonprofit status in the United States.

Recently the two collaborated with one of India's most prominent environmentalists Vandana Shiva, and her organization Navdanya to establish two Living Soil labs for her organization and provided training to hundreds of farmers and farmer trainers in the process.

This experience shed new light on the necessity, urgency and demand for such training. Their collaboration with Navdanya, along with several other Indian NGOs, has allowed them to personally train more than 1,000 people about organic farming methods in seven different states across India including Uttrakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa.

THP works with farmers, trainers, gardeners, students, development workers and government officials, helping them better understand the biological and chemical processes of the soil and training them in methods which will help preserve and nurture the natural fertility of soil. This results in increased productivity, lower input costs, greater levels of self-reliance and sustainability and a more ecological way of growing food.

Their previous work in East Africa included establishing composting systems, beekeeping and educating about Permaculture at Daraja Academy in Nanyuki, Kenya. They helped construct kitchen gardens at Family Spirit Orphanage in Masindi, Uganda and facilitated sustainable meat production and gardening in conjunction with the Green Warrior Program in Abim, Uganda.