It is late-July. A car drops us off at the edge of a patchwork of agricultural fields on the outskirts of Mysore in a village called Bannur in the South Indian State of Karnataka. Despite the oppressive heat, the women clad in colorful saris, and the sacred cows—more plentiful than potholes—artfully dodged by cars and motorbikes every 20 yards or so along the road, I am reminded of the Midwest.
No matter that there is no corn or soybean in sight and that parcels measure 5 acres instead of 400. It's the neatly defined fields in perfect rectangles that resemble what you see when you fly over Iowa. The field adjacent to the road where the car left us boasts a weed-free plantation of banana trees, the one next to it is lined with straight rows of sugar cane and the one just across the walking path that traverses the fields is recently sown with rice.
We walk a good half mile to the farm we're meant to visit. Leading the way are seven men on motor bikes ranging in age from 30 to 60, wearing flip flops and fabric the size of table cloths wrapped around their waists in typical farmer garb, at least two of them are boasting bright green scarves thrown over their shoulders, symbolic of the social movement they're connected to that promotes “natural farming."
We're headed to Krishnappa's farm, a member of this green-scarf social movement referred to as KRRS, or the Karnataka Rayja Raitha Sangha. Founded in 1980, this peasant farmers' movement is rooted in Gandhi's philosophy of swadeshi, or home economy, meaning that political and economic power can only be just when it is governed by democratic assemblies organized at the village level. KRRS believes that by relying on a localized economy (local production and consumption) for village needs, everyone has the opportunity and the resources to work and create a dignified life.
As we approach the edge of Krishnappa's 5-acre farm, the outward appearance is strikingly distinct from his neighbors' parcels. It seems to be overgrown by weeds and unruly plants of varying heights defending their access to sun and water. The parcel looks like an island of chaos floating next to the neat rows of plantings all around us, waiting stoically and well-behaved on scorched earth for the rains to come. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Within minutes of stepping onto Krishnappa's land, we become privy to an intricately designed coupling of various food-producing plants and intercroppings that bloom into a veritable food forest—the healthiest and most productive land we've seen in India during our short sojourn.
Krishnappa, the proverbial “poster child" of Zero-Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), has been growing food according to this straightforward yet scientifically-based method for 15 years. KRRS credits Zero-Budget Natural Farming from saving Krishnappa from the fate of so many other farmers that were featured on the front page of the The India Times almost daily during the time we were in Karnataka. These farmers had tragically succumbed to suicide in the face of unrelenting debt. Farmers in India have been forced to take on high-interest rate loans to purchase seeds and chemical inputs from banks that are profiting from agribusinesses' strategy of dictating the methods necessary to produce cash crops such as rice and sugar cane. Like the more than 3,000 farmers in India who have committed suicide in the past three years (50 suicides in 15 days in July of this year in the state of Karnataka alone) Krishnappa was feeling trapped and impotent, a victim to the whims of the loan sharks and unpredictable markets that either paid nothing or too little to make a dent in debt mounting season after season, let alone feed his family.
It was about this time that Krishnappa learned of a workshop to teach farmers an alternative to the chemical-based mono-cropping techniques, a central feature of the Green Revolution that has led to a decline in the total number of small landholders, an increase in the costs associated with farming, and a decrease in the amount of land used to grow food for local consumption in favor of cash crops. The Green Revolution has proven to be a false panacea, whose promise of a reduction of hunger and poverty was short lived. What piqued Krishnappa's interest the most in this workshop was the term “zero-input." Was it possible to recover the health and productivity of his small but adequate parcel without investing in inputs that required cash or loans? The workshop was sponsored by KRRS and was an introduction to Zero-Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), given by the pioneer of this methodology, Subhash Palekar. The two main features of ZBNF are:
- Zero-Budget: Nothing has to be purchased outside of the farm; no upfront investment is required in patented seeds, chemical fertilizers or pesticides. All you need is one local breed of cow.
- Jeevamrutha: Treatments for seeds and crops are made with a culture produced using your cow's dung and urine as the main compounds.
According to Krishnappa, there were more than 1,000 farmers at the start of this week-long intensive workshop he attended some 15 years ago. By the end of the week, there were only 13 farmers left standing and only one of those farmers was willing to take the risk of implementing ZBNF. That was Krishnappa, who now hosts regular learning exchanges on his land as word has spread through radio, newspaper and word-of-mouth about his ability to produce a multiplicity of food crops in soil that is dark and rich with microbes, requires zero cash investments and needs virtually no outside labor.
The five farmers that accompanied us on the farm tour that day, in addition to Krishnappa and a fellow ZBNF farmer, were—like us—walking his farm for the first time, too. They were fellow farmers who told us they were looking for a way out of the debts they were facing, the chemicals they and their family members were routinely exposed to, the depletion of the soils on their land and for a life that afforded them the dignity to feed their families.
There are currently close to 1,000 farmers growing with the ZBNF method in Karnataka and 100 in Krishnappa's district alone. It was easy to see why Krishnappa has become a walking-talking advertisement for Zero-Budget Natural Farming. If anyone could sell the virtues of meticulously collecting and culturing cow dung and urine into liquid gold that incites the Earth to fulfill its promise of a healthy bounty, it would be the charming and loquacious farmer we encountered that day who kept us on his farm scribbling furiously in our notebooks for hours until the sun set on the patchwork of fields around us.
“Food and income in three months, Sir!" became Krishnappa's enthusiastic mantra throughout the day. Without the proof of the bounty of fruits, vegetables and fibers we witnessed as we walked the entire length of his 5-acre farm, it would be easy to confuse him for a snake oil salesman. I don't even own one acre of land in the U.S., let alone India, and I was ready to acquire my own local breed of cow and start cultivating. I was ready to sign on the dotted line and become a ZBNF disciple that very afternoon!
The longer we walked and talked; the more times we knelt to touch, small and even taste the soil; the more birds and butterflies we encountered; the more we scanned the land from the soil to the sky—from the microbes to the earthworm to the tubers, to the beans, to the sugar cane, to the limes and finally to the coconuts ripening in the top of the trees—the less “plug-and-play" this ZBNF method became.
Productivity isn't just dependent on the jeevemrutha, it turns out. The farmer's approach to caring for the land and his or her capacity to learn is equally critical to success. And, according to Krishnappa, learning means gathering knowledge through failures and then sharing those lessons. It is important to assume ignorance in the face of the natural world, he said, so as to be able to ultimately comprehend and trust in scientific principles that dictate the designs of nature.
Krishnappa told us that he loves his plants so much that he talks to them regularly. And they answer back! They tell him to take their fruits for food for his family and community and otherwise leave them be. They tell him to take the time to observe and learn how they grow and what makes them thrive. They tell him that less is more when it comes to interaction with humans.
“It's only the farmers that are using chemical inputs that are committing suicide," Krishnappa reminds us. He proclaims on more than one occasion that all a farmer in Karnataka needs is a local breed of cow and some seeds saved by and gifted from another farmer to get started in ZBNF. He believes ZBNF is the antidote to the epidemic of farmer suicides in India. And what's more: “Farmer-to-farmer interaction and shared learning is the only way to grow the number of farmers practicing ZBNF." He went on to profess: “All the scientific knowledge I have now, I have learned through practice. I am an uneducated farmer. I didn't go to school. For me, failure is an important method of learning."
As darkness crept over the fields and we wended our way back to the road where our car was parked, the visiting farmers now climbing astride their motorbikes seemingly satisfied and sufficiently inspired by having come to see for themselves the unfathomable—that one could heal the land and grow food in abundance without incurring debt—Krishnappa, this farmer-cum-philosopher invoked us to recall something he said early on in the afternoon: “There are two kinds of truth: One that is unknowable and one that is proven through practice. Sir, food and income in three months!"
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- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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