BALTIMORE – September 30, 2020. Earlier this year, when the coronavirus pandemic began and countries began to shelter in place, Jay Naidoo found himself in lockdown in an ashram in India. Every morning he woke at 3 a.m. and spent the next 18 hours thinking and being in ways that were new for him. One day he watched an ant for hours, fascinated. He spent a day studying a flower, its geometry and fragrance. In the ashram, he began to get a deeper sense of how much we don’t know—that when we recognize that our ignorance is much greater than our knowledge, it makes life an adventure. “For the first time in my life, I had all this time to think about who I am and why I’m here and what lessons I need to learn. I asked myself what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he said.
Naidoo, age 66, is a South African citizen of Indian ancestry, a status that often left him angry and hurt throughout his childhood during apartheid. His activism took root in the South African Students Organisation to end apartheid, his country’s institutionalized white supremacy, and led to decades of work in the labor movement in South Africa. When apartheid officially ended in the early 1990s, he coordinated the Reconstruction and Development Program, and he served in the cabinet of the country’s first Black head of state, President Nelson Mandela. Following that, he served on committees dealing with malnutrition and technology of the United Nations and other international organizations including the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. He speaks reverently of Mandela, referring to him as someone who went a long way to achieve a pure human state. “In the presence of Mandela, you feel safe, secure, you feel you’ve been seen, you’re not voiceless, you’re part of this greater humanity,” he said. “That’s possible for all of us.”
Since his time in the ashram, he’s become less interested in projects and programs and more interested in what we can do to change our mindsets. What he learned through his life as a social activist is that changing systems is the smaller part of creating a better world. The critical work is changing human beings. This time in history—we’re at an inflection point in our journey as a civilization, he says—is the time to be courageous and bold.
“No matter how progressive a constitution is, you have to change people. In South Africa, we de-racialized politics, but we didn’t de-racialize land ownership, economy or education,” he said. “We’re seeing this in the United States, now. It takes a long time to build up good governance, and only a few years to destroy it. We have to change the human being.”
During our conversation, he mentioned three big life lessons that he’s learned in the last years.
“Ecology has to be at the center of everything we do,” he said. “In 50 years of activism, I missed that point until now.” That was the first Big Lesson he’s learned recently.
His work in agriculture has convinced him that the biggest challenge we face today is that we’re destroying our soil, which is undermining all the systems that support life and health. “Industrialized, chemical-driven agriculture in the West has so poisoned the soil that it’s incapable of producing nutritious food,” he said, adding that our current model of agriculture creates disease.
Agriculture that focuses on the soil and shared ecosystem services is where we need to focus. Forms of regenerative agriculture, including biodynamics, a holistic form of agriculture that adapts to the landscape, climate, and lunar cycles, are what we need to shift toward immediately to create pathways of hope and opportunity, livelihoods, and preserve (and augment) the natural resources we still have. Agroecology, agroforestry, re-discovery of indigenous knowledge—Naidoo supports all of it. We must understand the natural environment as a living organism and stop the ecocide that permeates modern agriculture.
With the emergence of the coronavirus, we’ve seen even more clearly that the food system is broken. “There’s no question of that,” he said. “Isn’t Covid a consequence of the way we treat Mother Earth? That the human being is becoming the carrier of so many diseases?”
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Illustration by Mike Milli, 2020.
For more perspective on food systems, read the CLF Global Thought Leaders Series.