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The Blessings of Dirty Work

Navdanya now hosts what Shiva calls the Grandmothers' University, a series of cooking festivals to help connect the conservation of traditional crops with the practical skills of cooking and eating them. Clearly, traditional farming and time-honored food customs are mutually dependent.

Less clear is whether this country could lose its powerful food culture -- what is more important to an Indian girl's education than perfecting the art of making her mother's daal? But Shiva warns that even here, the consumption of packaged foods is on the rise. "The nutrition transition is driven by economic changes that coerce people into jobs that give them no time for food culture," she said. "Tech jobs, telephone industry jobs here are mostly held by kids who may have very few other employment prospects. They are making great money by local standards, but they are sometimes working 20 hours per day! In a life like that, there is no time for your mother's daal."

Industrial farming -- however destructive to the land and our nutrition -- has held out as its main selling point the allure of freedom: Two percent of the population would be able to feed everyone. The rest could do as we pleased. Shiva sees straight through that promise. "Most of those who have moved off of farms are still working in the industry of creating food and bringing it to consumers: as cashiers, truck drivers, even the oil-rig workers who generate the fuels to run the trucks. Those jobs are all necessary to a travel-dependent, highly mechanized food system. And many of those jobs are menial, life-taking work, instead of the life-giving work of farming on the land. The analyses we have done show that no matter what, whether the system is highly technological or much more simple, about 50 to 60 percent of a population has to be involved in the work of feeding that population. Industrial agriculture did not 'save' anyone from that work, it only shifted people into other forms of food service."

Waiting tables, for instance, or driving a truck full of lettuce, or spending 70 hours a week in an office overseeing a magazine full of glossy ads selling food products. Surprise: There is no free lunch. No animal can really escape the work of feeding itself. We're just the only one with fancy clothes and big enough brains to make up a story like that: Hooray, we are far from the soil, and that has set us free.

I'm not convinced. When I consider my own employment history, I can see how much of it was somehow tied to feeding my species. My first writing job was in the public relations office of a university College of Agriculture; I was prouder of the "office" than the "aggie" part of my title. As a 20-something with a paycheck and benefits, I had risen above my rural roots and thought myself quite the professional gal. I wore stockings and pumps to do important interviews. I can still remember how my feet felt at the end of a day when I kicked them off.

These days when I finally kick off my shoes, they are apt to be muddy. Then I can see myself for what I am: an animal that hasn't quite escaped from the land that feeds me.

Barbara Kingsolver is the author of 12 books of fiction and nonfiction, including, most recently, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life."

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