The Truth behind Shivansh Fertilizer
In recent months, the internet has exploded with talk of Shivansh fertilizer that is supposedly revolutionizing agriculture in India and “saving” millions of farmers from the perils of chemical agriculture. Given that Indian peasant farmers have mostly garnered international attention due to the explosion of farmer suicides due to the inability to keep up with mounting debt associated with dependence on chemical agriculture, talk of natural, organic fertilizers that is saving small farmers certainly piques the attention of permaculture-minded folks.
The Etymology behind Shivansh Fertilizer
In the permaculture world, there is a tendency to create new names for surprisingly similar techniques. Everyone, it seems, wants to share in the feeling of having “created” some surprising and revolutionary technique or system that transforms the way we grow our food, protect the soil, and interact with the natural world. Extravagant names also have the ability to catch out attention.
When you look at what “Shivansh” fertilizer is, however, it should be obvious to anyone that it is nothing more than composting, a technique held dearly by permaculturists around the world and practiced by agrarian cultures in some form or another for thousands of years. This informational pamphlet on the Shivansh technique could very well be taken from a white board drawing by Bill Mollison himself.
What, then, is behind the name Shivansh? Shivansh, from Indian or Hindu origin, simply means “from Lord Shiva” or “part of Shiva.” For those of not well versed in Hinduism, according to Wikipedia, Lord Shiva is the “destroyer of evil and the transformer.” Given that Indian peasants have suffered the worst catastrophes and “evils” of the imposition of the Green Revolution agriculture techniques from GMO seeds to infinite amounts of poisons sold as miracle cures, introducing (or re-introducing) composting techniques probably should be seen as a technique that destroys the evil of chemical agriculture while positively transforming the soil and the livelihoods of small farmers.
Furthermore, culture appropriateness is an important aspect of any technique that is introduced into the communities and cultures of small farmers around the world. It makes me cringe when I hear small, Central American farmers who have been introduced to permaculture use the words “mulch” and “swale” (pronounced moolch and swalay, respectively in Spanglish). If Indian peasants find more relevance in Shivansh than in composting, even though they are the same thing, that is their right.
Too often, privileged permaculture practitioners from the global North usurp the agrarian knowledge and wisdom that was developed over thousands of years from rooted, rural communities around the world. Though in many places that traditional wisdom (traditional ecological knowledge in anthropological terms) has been forced out by the techniques that were imposed on small farmers through the Green Revolution, it is important for us permaculturists to understand the deeper origins of so many permaculture ideas and render credit to the indigenous and agrarian communities around the world.
Who is Behind the Shivansh Fertilizer Idea?
As is often the case, anytime fancy ideas begin to make their way through the internet and viral Facebook posts, some sort of NGO or non-profit organization is behind the idea. Small farmers who practice composting techniques and have been doing so for hundreds of years, rarely feel the need to broadcast those common-sense techniques to the wider world.
The Indian-born billionaire, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Manoj Bhargava began the organization “Billions in Change” several years ago in order to “bring useful inventions to the unlucky half of the world, enabling higher quality of life for billions of people.”
Among other “inventions”, this organization offers solar panels, water purifiers, battery packs and other items that they term as inventions. Among things they claim to have invented is the Shivansh fertilizer method, which, as stated above, is nothing more than the compost pile that has been utilized by farmers around the world for thousands of years.
The Benefits of the Shivansh Fertilizer Method
Despite the obvious incoherency of a billionaire Indian businessman claiming to have invented a technique that millions of farmers around the world use on a daily basis, there are a few benefits to the promotion of this method that are worth mentioning.
Firstly, the Shivansh fertilizer method is being “taught” in communities where much of the traditional ecological farming principles have been lost. Since the arrival of the Green Revolution, a generational gap has formed between the knowledge held by grandparents who used organic, traditional farming methods and their grandchildren who were raised on lands where glyphosate, pesticides, and GMO seeds were the norm. Re-introducing the compost pile is certainly an important step to help young farmers rediscover how to protect the soil while diminishing their reliance on chemical inputs.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the Shivansh fertilizer method specifically mentions that small farmers can use “whatever is laying around” to build their compost pile. They recommend interspersing brown (carbon rich materials) with green (nitrogen rich materials) and also advocate for repetitive, consistent turning of the pile to have a finished compost in 18 days. While some hardcore composters might disagree with the recommended, shoulder height of the compost pile or the “incorrect” percentage of brown to green materials, my own thought is that most compost piles are forgiving enough to allow for variances.
The recommendation to use whatever organic material can be found locally is a very appropriate approach to composting for small farmers. Unfortunately, many “expert” permaculture composters recommend people to purchase outside inputs to make their compost truly “authentic.” The problem, of course, is that advocating for seaweed extract in the compost pile for small farmers living 1,000 kilometers from the coast isn´t exactly feasible. Allowing people to create compost from the materials they have on hand is a much more sustainable approach for small farmers.
One Last Critique
Though many permaculturists are wed to the compost pile (call it Shivansh if you so prefer), my own personal experience has taught me that “composting in place” is much more efficient and a more ecologically sound way to improve soil quality. Masanobu Fukuoka, the small Japanese farmer who was a proponent of no-till agriculture, didn´t understand why people would take the rice straw from the fields, put it into a compost pile, waste energy turning it, only to reintroduce that same rice straw (now as compost) into that same field. His system was founded on letting the rice straw decompose on the field in a no-till agriculture system that continually built soil.
Though compost might be a necessity for small garden beds, it certainly takes a lot of work to make and apply sufficient compost to a hectare-large farm when simply allowing crop residues and other organic material to compost in place on the field itself is much more efficient.