Globalization and food futures in Ladakh

HELENA NORBERG-HODGE

I FIRST arrived in Ladakh in 1975, intending to spend only six weeks there to help make a documentary about the traditional culture. I was trained as a linguist, and having fallen in love with Ladakh, I decided to stay on to work on the language. At that time the Ladakhis seemed happier and healthier than any people I had ever encountered. As I travelled throughout the entire region, I saw no sign of hunger nor obesity, and found that people were generally fit and healthy virtually until the day they died. And the Ladakhis described themselves as having everything they needed; ‘za-bos, thung-bos’ was a commonly heard phrase – ‘self-reliant in food and drink’.

In the traditional Ladakhi farming and food system, the sun provided the primary energy, enabling plant growth, muscle-based labour power and fast-flowing water for milling and irrigating. The fertility of the soil and crops came from recycling of manure and compost into the fields and from minerals in the glacial melt-water. ‘Packaging’ – if any – was in the form of hand-made woolen sacks, wooden and clay vessels, willow baskets, and masonry granaries, all of which could be safely returned to the soil after they wore out. Transportation of the crops was done with muscle power, and cooking done with local renewable fuels like dung cakes or wood sticks.

Care was taken to conserve pasturelands through rotational grazing, and farmers tried to minimize harm done even to insects in the fields. The ecological footprint – meaning total ecological impacts including energy and water consumption, waste generation, etc. – was very low. In current terms, we could say that the traditional Ladakhi farming and food system was solar-powered, zero-external input, zero-waste, closed-loop, and sustainable.

In succeeding decades, India became integrated into the global economy after embracing neoliberal economics, and Ladakh in turn became further integrated into the Indian economy. A few decades of exposure to the ‘modernity’, globalization, mass tourism and other forces introduced by this seismic shift have had profound impacts on the local food culture. Because of these forces, Ladakh is no longer self-reliant in basic foods, but has like most places in the world become import-dependent. A deluge of imported packaged foods are dominating the menus and the shops. Diets, food preferences and habits are changing and homogenizing accordingly, affecting people’s taste buds – especially the younger generation. This excess of processed food is quickly leading to a public health crisis of non-communicable diseases.

Beginning in the 1970s, subsidized ration foods flooded into the region, undermining local grain and cooking oil economies. The govern-ment at the time started promoting pesticides like DDT that had been outlawed in the West, as well as a narrow range of species of crops
and animals; they brought in Jersey cows which were not suited at all to the climate. People were exposed to consumer messages that denigrated traditional, land-based living and glamorized the urban, western consumer culture. Development, advertising and tourism made young Ladakhis in particular look down on their own culture as backward and primitive. They rejected the food their parents and grandparents thrived on, in favour of packaged and processed, imported food. Such corporate-industrial food itself was penetrating every corner of India only because of liberalized trade policies based on orthodox neoclassical economic dogma embraced by the country’s policy elite.

In the early days, even school teachers – sent up from India – would scold their Ladakhi students for eating traditional staples like ngamphe (roasted barley flour), telling them such food would make them stupid. The opposite was of course closer to the truth. The foods that were being sold as symbols of ‘progress’ were in fact empty of nutrients and positively harmful. The toxicity of ingredients such as trans-fats, processed sugars and chemical preservatives is increasingly well known, especially in the western world, where, after generations of exposure to corporate food, people are experiencing serious consequences. Epidemics of diabetes, heart-disease and cancer are only the tip of the iceberg; increasingly, studies are linking the consumption of nutrient-poor, highly processed foods with rising rates of auto-immune disorders, depression and anxiety.

Another worrisome change ushered in by the modern, globalizing development paradigm has been the decline of villages and the farming-pastoralism systems that sustained them for centuries. The growth of tourism, the army, and competitive education have combined to drain young people, and young men in particular, out of the villages and into Leh, or even further away. As a result, there is less farm labour available, and more farming work has fallen on village women and paid labour. Many fields that were once lush and green in the summers today lie fallow for lack of people to work them.

With fewer people, livestock herds have decreased significantly, and in the case of goats and sheep nearly disappeared from many villages. This in turn has reduced the amount of rich, organic local manure available for soil and crop nutrition. To make up for this, many farmers substitute highly subsidized synthetic fertilizers which pollute both water and air, and are very energy-intensive to manufacture from fossil fuels. Synthetic fertilizers also disrupt the availability of natural nitrogen in the soil, which requires more fertilizers – a chemical addiction. Besides the loss of livestock manure, the shift to flush toilets and septic tanks accompanying tourism – especially but not only in Leh – is also depriving the soil of rich human manure from traditional compost toilets.

To meet the growth demands of tourism, there is a construction frenzy in Leh that is transforming the ecological landscape of the town. In and around Leh, tourism is leading to a rapid loss of fertile land as it is getting built over with hotels and guest houses. This irreplaceable loss reduces self-reliance in food and increases dependence on imported foods. Scores of trucks carrying vegetables devoid of nutrients roll in every day, spewing out tons of carbon, while agriculture lands in the villages lie fallow due to lack of a labour force. Such dependence increases vulnerability in the case of any disruptions (like fuel shortages, or road closures) in the transportation network across the Himalaya.

The decline of agriculture is also seen in the reduction of diversity in crops including pulses, cereals and pseudocereals like buckwheat (although efforts are slowly being made to bring back buckwheat). Fewer local pulses like the traditional peas and black beans in Ladakhi fields and kitchens diminishes the health of the local diet as well as local soils. Pulses naturally fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, so when they are planted there is no need for nitrogen fertilizers. Without them, however, an important source of natural fertility is lost. In terms of oilseeds, whereas Ladakhis formerly cultivated local mustard more extensively and produced much of their own edible oil, today mustard farming is also declining. Commercial edible oils, packaged in plastic bottles and trucked in from the Indian plains are now widely used in Ladakhi kitchens.

Perhaps the worst and most visible impact of imported industrial food is plastic packaging waste, which is now accumulating across Ladakh at alarming rates, seen in streams, villages, mountains and in a ghastly open dump in a valley adjacent to Leh. Plastic, like fertilizers, is made from fossil fuels, and is non-biodegradable. There is no ‘good’ way to manage such waste material. Whether it is littered or collected by municipalities and dumped elsewhere, it harms livestock and wildlife, both through ingestion and entanglement but also by contributing to uncontrolled growth in feral dog populations. When it breaks down into tiny fragments, it contaminates soil and water, eventually entering the food chain. If it is burnt, the smoke contains toxic gases that harm public health.

These are some of the interlocking destructive consequences of the dismantlement of a local food economy and its rapid substitution by a commerical, corporate-dominated, import-dependent industrial food economy – what Ivan Illich once termed the ‘war against subsistence’ that has characterized much of the colonial and then ‘development’ eras. Food self-reliance has often, perversely, been considered a metric of poverty by modernizing governments, while replacing that with cash incomes and commerically purchased food is considered a sign of development. Today in India, as in most countries, we are seeing two diametrically opposing trends – on the one hand, commercial interests, supported by corporate-friendly policy makers, continue to infiltrate even the most isolated villages, pushing people into dependence on destructive food systems and disenfranchising local producers.

On the other hand, however, people at the grassroots are pushing back against the tide and succeeding in creating flourishing alternatives. After witnessing first-hand the disturbing changes ushered in on the wake of globalization, it became obvious to me that it was vitally important to counter the romanticized images of western consumer culture and to bring information to the Ladakhis about what was actually going on in the West. Together with local leaders I helped to set up the Ladakh Ecological Development Group and the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh. Along with promoting organic agriculture, renewable energy and respect for Ladakhi culture, we organized village meetings, conferences and seminars that raised awareness about both the harmful effects of processed foods and about the health benefits of local alternatives.

In recent years, more and more Ladakhi food restaurants are opening up in the capital of Leh, and young people are beginning to revalue what their grandparents once took for granted. The local government’s new agricultural vision and policy is to make Leh district fully organic within the next decade, and as a result, synthetic fertilizer use is decreasing and pesticides are being phased out. The traumatic experience of the pandemic and lockdowns shocked many people into a new awareness of the vulnerability of reliance on commercial imports and rampant urbanization, and conversely of the urgent importance of revitalizing local food production, villages, and food systems.

As climate change and the spectre of disappearing glaciers looms as a major challenge to local agriculture, efforts are underway to revive drought-resistant crops. People are increasingly realizing that local food cultures not only protect the health of the Ladakhi people, but also provide a vehicle for cultural revitalization, stronger local economies and genuine ecological sustainability.

 I FIRST arrived in Ladakh in 1975, intending to spend only six weeks there to help make a documentary about the traditional culture. I was trained as a linguist, and having fallen in love with Ladakh, I decided to stay on to work on the language. At that time the Ladakhis seemed happier and healthier than any people I had ever encountered. As I travelled throughout the entire region, I saw no sign of hunger nor obesity, and found that people were generally fit and healthy virtually until the day they died. And the Ladakhis described themselves as having everything they needed; ‘za-bos, thung-bos’ was a commonly heard phrase – ‘self-reliant in food and drink’.

In the traditional Ladakhi farming and food system, the sun provided the primary energy, enabling plant growth, muscle-based labour power and fast-flowing water for milling and irrigating. The fertility of the soil and crops came from recycling of manure and compost into the fields and from minerals in the glacial melt-water. ‘Packaging’ – if any – was in the form of hand-made woolen sacks, wooden and clay vessels, willow baskets, and masonry granaries, all of which could be safely returned to the soil after they wore out. Transportation of the crops was done with muscle power, and cooking done with local renewable fuels like dung cakes or wood sticks.

Care was taken to conserve pasturelands through rotational grazing, and farmers tried to minimize harm done even to insects in the fields. The ecological footprint – meaning total ecological impacts including energy and water consumption, waste generation, etc. – was very low. In current terms, we could say that the traditional Ladakhi farming and food system was solar-powered, zero-external input, zero-waste, closed-loop, and sustainable.

In succeeding decades, India became integrated into the global economy after embracing neoliberal economics, and Ladakh in turn became further integrated into the Indian economy. A few decades of exposure to the ‘modernity’, globalization, mass tourism and other forces introduced by this seismic shift have had profound impacts on the local food culture. Because of these forces, Ladakh is no longer self-reliant in basic foods, but has like most places in the world become import-dependent. A deluge of imported packaged foods are dominating the menus and the shops. Diets, food preferences and habits are changing and homogenizing accordingly, affecting people’s taste buds – especially the younger generation. This excess of processed food is quickly leading to a public health crisis of non-communicable diseases.

Beginning in the 1970s, subsidized ration foods flooded into the region, undermining local grain and cooking oil economies. The government at the time started promoting pesticides like DDT that had been outlawed in the West, as well as a narrow range of species of crops
and animals; they brought in Jersey cows which were not suited at all to the climate. People were exposed to consumer messages that denigrated traditional, land-based living and glamorized the urban, western consumer culture. Development, advertising and tourism made young Ladakhis in particular look down on their own culture as backward and primitive. They rejected the food their parents and grandparents thrived on, in favour of packaged and processed, imported food. Such corporate-industrial food itself was penetrating every corner of India only because of liberalized trade policies based on orthodox neoclassical economic dogma embraced by the country’s policy elite.

In the early days, even school teachers – sent up from India – would scold their Ladakhi students for eating traditional staples like ngamphe (roasted barley flour), telling them such food would make them stupid. The opposite was of course closer to the truth. The foods that were being sold as symbols of ‘progress’ were in fact empty of nutrients and positively harmful. The toxicity of ingredients such as trans-fats, processed sugars and chemical preservatives is increasingly well known, especially in the western world, where, after generations of exposure to corporate food, people are experiencing serious consequences. Epidemics of diabetes, heart-disease and cancer are only the tip of the iceberg; increasingly, studies are linking the consumption of nutrient-poor, highly processed foods with rising rates of auto-immune disorders, depression and anxiety.

Another worrisome change ushered in by the modern, globalizing development paradigm has been the decline of villages and the farming-pastoralism systems that sustained them for centuries. The growth of tourism, the army, and competitive education have combined to drain young people, and young men in particular, out of the villages and into Leh, or even further away. As a result, there is less farm labour available, and more farming work has fallen on village women and paid labour. Many fields that were once lush and green in the summers today lie fallow for lack of people to work them.

With fewer people, livestock herds have decreased significantly, and in the case of goats and sheep nearly disappeared from many villages. This in turn has reduced the amount of rich, organic local manure available for soil and crop nutrition. To make up for this, many farmers substitute highly subsidized synthetic fertilizers which pollute both water and air, and are very energy-intensive to manufacture from fossil fuels. Synthetic fertilizers also disrupt the availability of natural nitrogen in the soil, which requires more fertilizers – a chemical addiction. Besides the loss of livestock manure, the shift to flush toilets and septic tanks accompanying tourism – especially but not only in Leh – is also depriving the soil of rich human manure from traditional compost toilets.

To meet the growth demands of tourism, there is a construction frenzy in Leh that is transforming the ecological landscape of the town. In and around Leh, tourism is leading to a rapid loss of fertile land as it is getting built over with hotels and guest houses. This irreplaceable loss reduces self-reliance in food and increases dependence on imported foods. Scores of trucks carrying vegetables devoid of nutrients roll in every day, spewing out tons of carbon, while agriculture lands in the villages lie fallow due to lack of a labour force. Such dependence increases vulnerability in the case of any disruptions (like fuel shortages, or road closures) in the transportation network across the Himalaya.

The decline of agriculture is also seen in the reduction of diversity in crops including pulses, cereals and pseudocereals like buckwheat (although efforts are slowly being made to bring back buckwheat). Fewer local pulses like the traditional peas and black beans in Ladakhi fields and kitchens diminishes the health of the local diet as well as local soils. Pulses naturally fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, so when they are planted there is no need for nitrogen fertilizers. Without them, however, an important source of natural fertility is lost. In terms of oilseeds, whereas Ladakhis formerly cultivated local mustard more extensively and produced much of their own edible oil, today mustard farming is also declining. Commercial edible oils, packaged in plastic bottles and trucked in from the Indian plains are now widely used in Ladakhi kitchens.

 

Perhaps the worst and most visible impact of imported industrial food is plastic packaging waste, which is now accumulating across Ladakh at alarming rates, seen in streams, villages, mountains and in a ghastly open dump in a valley adjacent to Leh. Plastic, like fertilizers, is made from fossil fuels, and is non-biodegradable. There is no ‘good’ way to manage such waste material. Whether it is littered or collected by municpalities and dumped elsewhere, it harms livestock and wildlife, both through ingestion and entanglement but also by contributing to uncontrolled growth in feral dog populations. When it breaks down into tiny fragments, it contaminates soil and water, eventually entering the food chain. If it is burnt, the smoke contains toxic gases that harm public health.

These are some of the interlocking destructive consequences of the dismantlement of a local food economy and its rapid substitution by a commerical, corporate-dominated, import-dependent industrial food economy – what Ivan Illich once termed the ‘war against subsistence’ that has characterized much of the colonial and then ‘development’ eras. Food self-reliance has often, perversely, been considered a metric of poverty by modernizing governments, while replacing that with cash incomes and commerically purchased food is considered a sign of development. Today in India, as in most countries, we are seeing two diametrically opposing trends – on the one hand, commercial interests, supported by corporate-friendly policy makers, continue to infiltrate even the most isolated villages, pushing people into dependence on destructive food systems and disenfranchising local producers.

On the other hand, however, people at the grassroots are pushing back against the tide and succeeding in creating flourishing alternatives. After witnessing first-hand the disturbing changes ushered in on the wake of globalization, it became obvious to me that it was vitally important to counter the romanticized images of western consumer culture and to bring information to the Ladakhis about what was actually going on in the West. Together with local leaders I helped to set up the Ladakh Ecological Development Group and the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh. Along with promoting organic agriculture, renewable energy and respect for Ladakhi culture, we organized village meetings, conferences and seminars that raised awareness about both the harmful effects of processed foods and about the health benefits of local alternatives.

In recent years, more and more Ladakhi food restaurants are opening up in the capital of Leh, and young people are beginning to revalue what their grandparents once took for granted. The local government’s new agricultural vision and policy is to make Leh district fully organic within the next decade, and as a result, synthetic fertilizer use is decreasing and pesticides are being phased out. The traumatic experience of the pandemic and lockdowns shocked many people into a new awareness of the vulnerability of reliance on commercial imports and rampant urbanization, and conversely of the urgent importance of revitalizing local food production, villages, and food systems.

As climate change and the spectre of disappearing glaciers looms as a major challenge to local agriculture, efforts are underway to revive drought-resistant crops. People are increasingly realizing that local food cultures not only protect the health of the Ladakhi people, but also provide a vehicle for cultural revitalization, stronger local economies and genuine ecological sustainability.