SARASWATHI DEVI ODIAN
Agriculture Without Agrochemicals for a Brighter Future
For Saraswathi Devi Odian, agroecology is not only an indispensable part of her daily tasks but also her life force. As an agricultural and education officer of the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), she has been doggedly working towards incorporating good agricultural practices into Malaysian society. The thriving environmental and agricultural activities of CAP bear testimony to the success of the task she has undertaken.
Saraswathi says it is all rooted in her upbringing. In most instances, what one yearns for in life is, what one has enjoyed and cherished in the past. For Saraswathi, it was the farming experience with her father.
“My father, after his normal working hours, in the evening, planted a variety of vegetables in a small farming plot adjacent to our house at Waterfall, Penang. I used to accompany him to the farm. He would pluck the young okra and long beans and ask me to eat them raw.
“Most of us would imagine how bland the vegetables would have tasted. But believe me, they were delicious, and every farm visit after that was an anticipation of tasting those crunchy raw vegetables.
“I still remember how my father created a bonfire with a combination of dried leaves, green leaves and banana stems, which emitted smoke with a distinct aroma that could repel mosquitoes. Our evening snacks, most of the time, would be tapioca and corn burned in those bonfires.
“It was all an indelible memory of my life,” reminisced Saraswathi.
The year 2004 marked a new beginning for Saraswathi. That was the year that paved the way for the agricultural interest that was buried within her to resurface. Over the years, her interest has proliferated into a myriad of agricultural activities benefiting countless people.
“Nammalvar, the crusader of organic farming from Tamil Nadu, visited CAP in 2004. He was clad in a simple white dhoti and moved with agility that defies his age. In CAP-organized talk programmes, Nammalvar shared his vast agricultural knowledge and philosophies.
“Despite his wealth of knowledge of agriculture and environmental issues, he was unbelievably self-effacing. A fatherly figure emanating humility and wisdom, he was a great motivating factor for me at that time.
“Dr Sultan Ahmed Ismail, with his in-depth knowledge of earthworms and soil, introduced a host of methods and techniques by which composting can be carried out for a different target group.
“The guidance of many more agricultural experts from India enriched us. Their valuable input helped our progress and set us in the right direction towards achieving our goal.
Our local farmers and agricultural enthusiasts, T. Kaniappan and K. Sanmargam, have been of great help in the fledgling part of our endeavours through their trials of various farming methods and the constructive discussions we held.
“All the experts’ guidance and input helped us tremendously in establishing a natural farming learning centre. The many discussions and the application of the knowledge in the field transformed us into informed personnel and boosted our confidence to organise natural farming programmes,” shared Saraswathi.
“Past years of experience interacting with Malaysian farmers and consumers have opened my eyes to the ways of the world in agriculture. In Malaysia, farmers are drawn into a deep delusion. They have been irretrievably convinced that agrochemicals are the only answer to increasing farm input.
“The grip and lure of the agrochemical companies on them are at their highest. The free supply of fertilisers, plant boosters, and many more agrochemicals by the Agriculture Department hinders farmers from opting for chemical-free farming.
“They are in their own comfortable cocoon of applying chemicals and harvesting yield. Their agricultural knowledge had narrowed down to what fertilisers to be applied and what pesticides to be sprayed for their crops. So, convincing them to shift to chemical-free farming proved to be a daunting task.
“Nonetheless, through our talk programmes and farm visits, we keep badgering the farmers on the long-term benefits of chemical-free farming,” explained Saraswathi.
“The Agriculture Department officials, in their zeal to introduce and popularise the fertigation farming method among the farmers, extol its benefits while simultaneously implanting the false notion that cultivating in the soil causes a wide range of plant diseases.
“Farmers also consider natural farming to be labour-intensive and thus costly. Although all these factors at times impede our progress towards healthy farming practices, we continue to advance.
“Our environmental education and natural farming programmes have reached all levels, from kindergarteners to students at higher learning institutions. For schools, we organise it in a way that teachers, students, and the school’s gardeners are all involved in the whole process.
“While students tend to the soil and carry out planting and other farm experiments with their teacher’s guidance, the school’s gardeners play a supportive role in ensuring the overall plant’s growth, such as watering the plant during school holidays and other related work like digging and performing strenuous tasks.
“Soil health, the role of microorganisms, and the damage inflicted on the soil by chemicals, are compulsory topics introduced in each school as they are core elements of agroecology. Through our concerted efforts, young minds have been tuned to think and act to nurture nature, and we are optimistic that in the near future, this will herald positive developments on issues relating to the environment and agroecology.
“Over the years, we also learned that different methods should be applied to handle different target groups. For example, when introducing gardening to urban students, we realised it was an uphill task to convince them to connect with the soil because urban students, due to a lifestyle completely detached from the soil, viewed soil merely as a lump of dirt and therefore, were averse to touching it.
“We make sure they handle the soil with their hands and tell them that as long as they consume food, they are connected to the soil. However, with rural students, it was a different story. Not only did they connect comfortably with the soil, but they too, at times, shared their valuable snippets of gardening.
“Escalating prices of essential food items and the increasing awareness of food safety have stirred many to plant their own vegetables, and this has eased our task towards implementing the urban garden projects. Techniques for planting in urban settings and creating simple growth promoters and pest repellents are taught to urban gardeners through lectures and demonstrations.
“In our monthly urban garden training programme, together with vegetable planting, we introduce medicinal herbs that are easy to grow, thereby making the learning more holistic.
“We guide them on how to turn their daily kitchen and food waste into compost. We educate them on how their actions help to divert organic waste from ending up in landfills. We dispel the myth that only those with “green fingers” can plant, and convince them that, like eating, planting too, is within the grasp of all.
“For those who had learned composting and planting, the follow-up training would be on making pest repellents. Many urbanites, inspired by our teachings, have set up their own urban gardens. They clear their doubts and enhance their knowledge of farming through the WhatsApp group set up for this purpose.
“Years of conducting environmental programmes for people of various age groups and backgrounds, served as a real-life lesson for us in CAP to understand the thinking pattern and the notions about the environment that are ingrained in society. Some are very highly educated as per worldly standards, but their knowledge of even the most common herbs is nil.
“On the other hand, those newly introduced to the world of gardening become overly enthusiastic to the extent of catching the insects that damage their plants and bringing them to CAP for further clarification and demanding an immediate solution.
“Both ways, each and every programme and training session and the ensuing problem-solving have enriched and widened our horizons.
“Seed is a crucial part of agriculture, and it is stressed without fail in all our programmes. Every year we distribute hundreds of pouches of a variety of seeds to the public, encouraging them to save their own seeds. In our own small way, our yearly seed-sharing fair is a proactive measure towards combating the seed monopoly that plots to rule the agricultural sector.
“We are determined to intensify our move towards this end in the near future,” concluded Saraswathi, expressing her hope for a brighter future.