Vandana Shiva and Hummingbird Project Devoted to Saving Seeds and Restoring Soils
Marilyn McHugh and Chris Kennedy had a honeymoon unlike most. They set out to travel around the world for a year with plans to stop in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. What was supposed to be a week in Kenya turned into six weeks when they saw how devastated the communities were by industrialized, chemical agriculture and felt compelled to help. Next, they worked at an orphanage and then with the UN as part of a Green Warrior training program in Uganda. Then, they headed to India for what was supposed to be a short stint but turned into several months.
Their whole trip was thrown off, but for the better. They saw a great need in communities in the developing world that have been wrecked by chemical agriculture much like rural communities in the U.S., but in the countries they visited, there is no government support or safety net for farmers like there is in the U.S. McHugh and Kennedy shared what they knew with these farmers about soil life and offered guidance using permaculture principles.
When McHugh and Kennedy returned from their honeymoon, they were forever changed. In 2010, they started a nonprofit, The Hummingbird Project, to "create sustainable systems using permaculture principles that enhance and benefit communities by educating and empowering individuals to improve quality of life and foster stewardship of the Earth."
The inspiration for the name, The Hummingbird Project, comes from Wangari Maathai, who tells the story of a massive forest fire breaking out. While all of the other animals sat by feeling helpless and overwhelmed and watching the forest burn, the hummingbird began carrying little drops of water from the nearby river in his mouth to put out the fire. When the other animals criticized the hummingbird for fruitlessly trying to put out the fire, the hummingbird replied, "I'm doing the best I can." McHugh and Kennedy believe we are all called to be hummingbirds and do the best we can to address the problems in our world.
After learning from some of the preeminent leaders in regenerative agriculture like Darren Doherty and Elaine Ingham, McHugh and Kennedy began giving presentations and classes on soil and seed science and permaculture, which is designing growing systems that mimic natural systems. The nonprofit has three core programs: the Living Soil Saves Lives program, Sustainable Schools initiative and Cleveland Seed Bank. For the last four years, the couple has traveled to the so-called "suicide belt" in rural India to work with farmers. This part of India—the states of Maharashtra, Punjab, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Kerala—is known as the "suicide belt" because more than 200,000 farmers have taken their lives since 1997. Chemical farming has wreaked such havoc on India's agricultural sector that these farmers have resorted to ending their lives by drinking the very pesticides that have destroyed their livelihoods.
That's where McHugh and Kennedy come in. Through a partnership with Dr. Vandana Shiva and her organization, Navdanya, they have been going to India for the last four years for four months at a time to educate farmers about the damaging effects of chemical farming. The Hummingbird Project's partnership with Navdanya, which means nine seeds and was named so to symbolize protection of biological and cultural diversity, has allowed Kennedy and McHugh to connect with rural Indian farmers and teach classes at Earth University, Navdanya's learning center. The two nonprofits have collaborated to "reduce dependency on GMO seeds, [train] farmers in organic methods, and [re-establish] sustainable agriculture throughout India." Kennedy says "The work with farmers in India is so critical because while here in the U.S., chemical versus organic farming is viewed as a choice or preference, the epidemic of farmer suicides in India shows it is often a question of life or death."
The couple also works in rural villages to examine farmers' soils under microscopes to test the quality of the soils and teach specific organic methods for improving soil health. Farmers that have adopted chemical fertilizers and pesticides are shocked to find out that their soil samples have no biodiversity whatsoever. The goal of the Living Soil Saves Lives program is to help these farmers transition back to natural, organic farming methods. Since 2011, The Hummingbird Project has "presented on the ‘Living Soil’ to more than 2,500 individuals in six different states across India and has helped 12 farmers' cooperatives by providing infrastructure such as water harvesting, irrigation and vermicompost systems."
The nonprofit's second program, the Sustainable Schools initiative empowers the school children, who McHugh and Kennedy worked with on their honeymoon in Kenya at Daraja Academy, to provide them with the educational tools necessary for them to become stewards of the land. McHugh and Kennedy have worked with students to design projects such as "biogas digestion to provide a source of clean, renewable cook fuel for the kitchen, greywater systems to recycle water to grow fruit and fodder trees in this semi-arid, equatorial region, a seed bank and an indigenous tree nursery to re-forest the degraded landscape surrounding the campus." The initiative, which they plan to take to more schools in the region, aims to empower the next generation to adopt Mahatma Gandhi's motto to "be the change you want to see in the world."
The third program connects the Cleveland natives with their hometown. They started the Cleveland Seed Bank "as a response to the unprecedented loss of our planet's biological diversity and alarming increase in multinational, corporate agriculture." The seed bank has a physical and virtual presence. Through a partnership with the Cleveland Public Library, people can share seeds—same principles as the library, but with seeds. McHugh and Kennedy have also created an online site where growers can post what seeds they have and which ones they are looking for and then swap with other growers.
Saving seeds is something that farmers have done for centuries, but in the last century many seed varieties have become intellectual property through patents by corporations. Now 67 percent of the world's proprietary seed (seed that has been patented) is owned by just 10 companies. The result of corporate control of our seed supply has been devastating to the world's biodiversity and farmers' self sufficiency. In the last century, 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost due to farmers' reliance on hybrid seeds, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. Companies can now prohibit farmers from saving and replanting their seeds (and the hybridized versions don't have viable seeds for the next season), thus requiring farmers to buy seeds each year from them. Seed libraries, on the other hand, give seeds out for free and simply request participants bring back seeds they harvested from their crop. Kennedy asserts that "seed saving is the next logical step in the local food movement" to reclaim control of our seeds and, ultimately, our food system.
But local seed libraries are under threat. Agribusiness interests have lobbied governments in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere to prevent people from saving their seeds because there is a lot of money to be made in selling seeds. The Europe Union is considering tighter controls on seed saving with the belief that these restrictions would help ensure that farmers are getting viable seeds. But those against the proposed regulations argue that if they could save and breed their own seeds, they would be able to ensure their viability.
Kennedy and McHugh are concerned about the fate of the Cleveland Seed Bank. Last July, the Cumberland County Library in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania had to shut down its seed library because the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture said it was in violation of the Seed Act of 2004. The act "primarily focuses on the selling of seeds, which the library was not doing," but state officials were concerned "about seeds that may be mislabeled (purposefully or accidentally), the growth of invasive plant species, cross-pollination and poisonous plants." The department told the library it could only have the seeds if staff tested each seed packet for quality, germination and other information.
That level of testing was beyond the scope of the library, which had partnered with the Cumberland County Commission for Women much like The Hummingbird Project partnered with the Cleveland Public Library. Most county commissioners thought the department had gone too far, but one county commissioner, Barbara Cross, believes seed libraries could pose a threat on a large scale. "Agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario," she said. "Protecting and maintaining the food sources of America is an overwhelming challenge ... so you’ve got agri-tourism on one side and agri-terrorism on the other."
Needless to say, The Hummingbird Project doesn't see seed saving as an act of "agri-terrorism." Just the opposite. To Kennedy and McHugh, giving a few multinational corporations control of our seed supply is the real threat. Saving seeds helps build resiliency at the community level to avoid the risk of disease wiping out an entire crop or the dangerous impacts of climate change.
Every state has laws requiring seed companies to be licensed, test seeds and properly label them. Some states require the licensing, testing and labeling only if you sell seeds, but other states such as Pennsylvania require these regulations even if you offer seeds for barter, exchange or trade. These laws exist because some farmers buy tens of thousands of seeds from seed companies, and they risk thousands of dollars if their seeds are not viable.
So the laws hold seed companies accountable, which is good, but proponents of seed libraries say they do not need state and federal regulation to ensure the viability of their seeds because they or their community members are saving the seeds from plants that they grew. "It's hard to justify restricting the small-scale exchanges," said John Torgrimson, the executive director of the Seed Savers Exchange. Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota are among the states looking into shutting down their seed libraries.
Luckily, The Hummingbird Project and Navdanya are at work in the U.S., India and elsewhere to reclaim our right to our seeds. In an open letter to Prime Minister Modi and President Obama, Vandana Shiva calls on the leaders to serve the interest of the people and not corporations. Prime Minister Modi has invited President Obama to visit India on Jan. 26 to celebrate India's day of independence. Invoking the principles of freedom both countries were founded on, Shiva calls on the leaders to end seed monopolies, "which have created an ecological crisis of biodiversity erosion, erosion of farmers’ rights and erosion of people’s freedoms."
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By Tara Lohan
Our plastic pollution problem has reached new heights and new depths.
Scientists have found bits of plastic on the seafloor, thousands of feet below the ocean's surface. Plastic debris has also washed ashore on remote islands; traveled to the top of pristine mountains; and been found inside the bodies of whales, turtles, seabirds and people, too.
1. There’s a lot of it.<p>In a September study published in <em>Science </em>about the growth of plastic waste, an international team of researchers estimated that 19 to 23 million metric tons — or 11% of plastic waste generated — ended up in aquatic ecosystems in 2016. And even with countries pledging to help cut waste or better manage it, the amount of plastic pollution is <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6510/1515" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">likely to double</a> in the next 10 years.</p><p>A <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6510/1455" target="_blank">study</a> about solutions to plastic waste, published in the same issue, attributed the plastic pollution epidemic to a rise in single-use plastic and "an expanding 'throw-away' culture." The researchers also found that waste-management systems simply can't deal with the onslaught of plastic, which is why so much of it ends up in the environment. We now know that only <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/whopping-91-percent-plastic-isnt-recycled/" target="_blank">9% of the plastic products</a> we use actually get recycled.</p>
2. The United States is a big culprit.<p>Plastic pollution is a global problem, but the United States plays an outsized role. In 2016 the United States was responsible for more plastic waste than any other country, a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/44/eabd0288" target="_blank">new study</a> in <em>Science Advances</em> found. Some of that waste was dumped illegally within the country and some was shipped to other countries that lacked the necessary infrastructure to handle it.</p><p>"The amount of plastic waste generated in the United States estimated to enter the coastal environment in 2016 was up to five times larger than that estimated for 2010, rendering the United States' contribution among the highest in the world," the researchers concluded. Part of that is because the United States ranks second in exporting plastic scrap.</p>
3. It threatens wildlife and ecosystems.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg3MTUwMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzE1MzM2MH0.YL5C-5GF2mq9OZBLSkcAnreq2Mai20DweKSNqeUSWM4/img.jpg?width=980" id="20233" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3db4a05d5d417d925a770cf309db1db1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A giant otter plays with a plastic bottle. Paul Williams / CC BY-NC 2.0<p>Out of sight (for Americans) is <em>not </em>out of mind — and definitely not out of our waterways. An estimated 700 marine species and 50 freshwater species have either ingested plastic or been entangled in it.</p><p>"If we don't get the plastic pollution problem in the ocean under control, we threaten contaminating the entire marine food web, from phytoplankton to whales," George Leonard, the Ocean Conservancy's chief scientist and coauthor of the September <em>Science </em>study about plastic waste's increase, <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/10/plastic-pollution-huge-problem-not-too-late-to-fix-it/" target="_blank">told <em>National Geographic</em></a>. "And by the time the science catches up to this, perhaps definitively concluding that this is problematic, it will be too late. We will not be able to go back. That massive amount of plastic will be embedded in the ocean's wildlife essentially forever."</p><p>Microplastics have also been found in terrestrial animals, soil, drinking water and, not surprisingly, <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/victoriaforster/2020/08/18/microplastics-found-in-human-organs-for-the-first-time/?sh=42994a4e16f2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in our own bodies</a>, although it's not clear yet just how dangerous that is for people.</p>
4. The fracking boom is producing a plastic boom.<p>Despite the known risks of plastic pollution and concern over its mounting presence in the environment, plastic production — driven by fossil fuels like fracked gas and its component chemicals — is on pace to increase by 40% in the next 10 years.</p><p>The American Chemistry Council <a href="https://www.americanchemistry.com/Shale-Infographic/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">boasted that shale gas drilling is driving a surge</a> in plastic production, including the investment of more than $200 billion to fund new and expanded operations at 343 production plants in the United States.</p><p>On the ground this means more harmful pollution along the Gulf Coast's "Cancer Alley," where petrochemicals have been manufactured for decades in low-wealth communities of color. And it means the build-out of new facilities in Rust Belt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.</p><p>Fracking also causes harmful greenhouse gas emissions, like methane, to be released into the atmosphere — amplifying the climate crisis. The refining process and the incineration of plastic waste also further drives greenhouse emissions and hazardous pollution.</p>
A petrochemical plant in Houston's ship channel. Louis Vest / CC BY-NC 2.0
5. Solutions are multifaceted.<p><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/plastic-pollution-do-beach-cleanups-really-make-a-difference/a-46196975" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Beach cleanups</a> tend to make headlines, but it's a losing battle as long as petrochemical companies keep producing so much plastic and we keep using plastic for products we're meant to toss after a single use.</p><p>The September study in <em><a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6510/1455" target="_blank">Science</a></em> on plastic solutions found that it's possible to cut plastic pollution — perhaps as much as 80% by 2040 — but it will take systemic change both in reducing the amount of plastic produced and in better managing the waste stream.</p><p>Regulatory efforts can help this process, including by regulating plastic as a pollution source under the Clean Water Act.</p><p>Efforts to ban single-use plastics, as the European Union aims to do by 2021, are another positive step. So too are "<a href="https://therevelator.org/california-plastic-legislation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">circular economy laws</a>," which have been <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5845?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22H.R.5%22%5D%7D&s=1&r=5" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">introduced, but not yet passed</a>, in the United States.</p><p>These laws would halt the production of new petrochemical facilities and encourage businesses to take responsibility for the full lifecycle of the products they produce by requiring them to be reused, adequately recycled or composted.</p><p>Getting circular economy laws enacted, though, will mean enough public and political will to counter the petrochemical, fossil fuel and plastic industries.</p><p>At <em>The Revelator</em>, we'll keep covering the push for solutions to the plastic problem and new science to better understand the threats. And if you want to know more about how wildlife has already been affected, what laws could help, whether industry will be held accountable and more, check out these stories from our archives:</p><p><strong>Laws and Regulations</strong></p><p><strong></strong><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-warnings/" target="_blank">Plastic Pollution: Could We Have Solved the Problem Nearly 50 Years Ago?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/clean-water-plastic/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">How an Old Law Is Helping Fight New Plastic Problems</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/california-plastic-legislation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New California Bill Could Revolutionize How the U.S. Tackles Plastic Pollution</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-laws/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">What Laws Work Best to Cut Plastic Pollution?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-illegal/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Can Plastic Ever Be Made Illegal?</a></p><p><strong>Impacts</strong></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/toxic-plastic-pollution-food-chain/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Something Fishy: Toxic Plastic Pollution Is Traveling Up the Food Chain</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-ship-shore/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plastic Pollution: From Ship to Shore</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastics-fracking-climate/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plans to Turn America's Rust Belt Into a New Plastics Belt Are Bad News for the Climate</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/trash-galapagos-ecotourism/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Trash in the Galápagos Reveals the Dark Side of Ecotourism</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/elephant-seals-diving-garbage/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephant Seals: Diving Through Garbage</a></p><p><strong>Taking Action</strong></p><p><em><a href="https://therevelator.org/story-plastic-review/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Story of Plastic: </a></em><a href="https://therevelator.org/story-plastic-review/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">New Film Exposes the Source of Our Plastic Crisis</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-movie-stuff/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">How to Win the Fight Against Plastic</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/cities-zero-waste/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Can Cities Go Zero-waste? One Japanese Town Tried</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/secret-value-trash/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Secret Value of Trash</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/junk-raft-polluted-ocean/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Junk Raft: A Journey Through a Polluted Ocean</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/bioplastics-environment/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Are Bioplastics a Better Environmental Choice?</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-straws-problem-solution/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plastic Pollution Is a Problem — These Kids Are Working for a Solution</a></p><p><a href="https://therevelator.org/thai-activists-fight-trash-taboo/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Thai Activists Fight Trash Taboo</a></p><p><em><a href="https://therevelator.org/author/taralohan/" target="_blank">Tara Lohan</a> is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://therevelator.org/plastic-pollution-archives/" target="_blank">The Revelator</a>. </em></p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Hundreds of endangered sea turtles were stranded on beaches after suffering "cold stunning" in the waters off Cape Cod, Mass. Local rescuers and wildlife rehabilitators stabilized the turtles at the New England Aquarium (NEAQ) and National Marine Life Center and began treatment. Many of the sea turtles were transported by land or air to partner facilities around the Eastern Seaboard for longer-term care to make room for more incoming, cold-stunned animals.
Rehabilitators at The Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys assess critically endangered, cold-stunned Kemp's ridley sea turtles flown in after rescue in New England. The Turtle Hospital<p>NEAQ and local rescuers begin seeing turtles every fall when water temperatures drop to that 50 degrees F threshold, and typically expect to find them into early January. After that, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/sea-turtle-cape-cod-weather-2621527394.html" target="_self">temperatures are so cold that any animals found are usually no longer alive</a>.</p><p>Merigo estimated that this year's cold season "looks very busy" and noted that local rescue efforts had already surpassed 400 turtles.</p><p>"It is a lot of animals. They're still coming in," she told EcoWatch as she surveyed 39 rescued turtles that day and 20 the day prior. "So far, this is a huge year."</p><p>At NEAQ, the turtles are gradually warmed up about five to 10 degrees F a day. More aggressive warming can cause serious damage and the turtle might not survive, Merigo said. Emergency treatments also include providing replacement fluids, balancing electrolytes and addressing pneumonia. Assessments take place for other serious problems too, such as shell or limb fractures, frostbite, emaciation and eye damage.<span></span></p><p>As local aquariums don't have the capacity to care for all the injured turtles, a group of private pilots called <a href="https://www.turtlesflytoo.org/" target="_blank">"Turtles Fly Too"</a> donated planes, fuel and time to transport some to various partner facilities around the country. Other turtles were driven to closer care facilities.</p><p>"We have a huge network of really great partners working with us, so if we can spread out the care, we can give better care to all the animals," Merigo said.</p><p>The 40 Kemp's ridley sea turtles recovering in The Turtle Hospital will continue to be treated and rehabilitated anywhere from 30 days to a year, depending on the severity of injuries, Zirkelbach said.</p><p>The turtle expert noted that while she's treated cold-stunned turtles from the north before, the newest arrivals were the most cold-stunned Kemp's ridleys ever received at one time.</p>
After rescue, cold-stunned sea turtles received immediate emergency care and assessments at the New England Aquarium. Caitlin Cunningham / New England Aquarium<p>In the past decade, the Gulf of Maine, which spans from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, has warmed 99 percent faster than the rest of the ocean, Zirkelbach said. The warm water encourages turtles that migrate north along the Gulf Stream in warmer months to stay in the bay longer.</p><p>"Turtles that fail to migrate south get stuck in the unique horseshoe-shaped topography of the Cape Cod peninsula, and when temperatures drop, the bay becomes a death trap," she added.</p><p>Before ocean temperatures warmed, the waters of Maine were too cold for many of these sea turtles, Merigo echoed. Now, with warming sea surface temperatures, Maine can reach the high 70s to low 80s, which is "perfect turtle temperature," she said. The potential for more turtles getting trapped in the bay and then cold-stunned is nerve-racking for Merigo.</p><p>In addition to shifting habitats as waters warm, warming global temperatures also disrupt natural gender balance in sea turtles, Merigo warned. Gender is determined by the temperature of eggs in nests, and as the planet warms, it will result in all females at some point, she said.</p><p>"The turtles we work with are all endangered and threatened," Merigo said. "For sea turtles in general, the future is a little grim. Climate change is real; it does impact them."</p>
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