Monday, September 5, 2011

Life or death and everything else

Western popular culture seems to think that mortality is a choice. Take this pill, drink this juice, eat that food, and your body will forget it’s made for seasons, both beautiful and bland. But what do Azerbaijanis think is required to live a healthy and fulfilled life? This is the question I presented to a group of students at the Agriculture University in Ganja, Azerbaijan. In an unused laboratory once a place to measure quality, and distill ideas, now dormant, dry and dust covered, we mused on one of humanities oldest questions. From behind empty beakers and broken pipettes I saw hands go up. “Vugar, yes what is your opinion”….The students are in the their 2nd year at the Azerbaijan State Agrarian University, a school with an enrollment of around 3,000 students, and a history dating back to 1929, making it the first and only agriculture university in the country. Vugar responds with, “never drink cold water (in fact the less water you drink the better), mix jam with hot tea to fight a cold, use cactus to combat computer rays, and don’t sit on uncovered concrete,” typical answers for this formal and skeptical culture. The goal for the day was to discuss the organic agriculture movement both in Azerbaijan and abroad. Worldwide Industrial growth, a hungry and growing population, and a jump in scientific capabilities has led to questionable practices and a growing concern for the impacts modernity has on our health and environment. In the US the concept of organic is in vogue, and although I have not heard of a cactus cure for radiation, just about every other remedy exists - coconut water to wash away the toxins, a cut from a cow that’s been treated kindly, or a peanut butter and potato diet. Azerbaijan’s organic movement seems to have started out of necessity, but now has the opportunity to transition to a market driven by demand. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, farmers were left with little choice, no nearby industry, poor infrastructure, limited access to fertilizers and pesticides, but as the country moves towards development farmers are being given other alternatives. In the US, organic begins with a set of standards that limit: pesticides, hormones, radiation, antibiotics, genetically modified inputs, and is monitored through strict documentation. This process usually leads to higher quality, but higher prices and lower quantities as well. Here in Azerbaijan the question is whether or not people will choose organic when given the option. As Vugar and the rest of the class continue to argue over what is the best way to fight against mortality, I thought about the food we eat and the benefits of a choice. I believe freedom starts with a choice. But what about the source of that choice? Is it internal, something you have the power to control, or external, only available when offered by the standing government or nearest bully. I believe the former, and because of that I see the steps towards organic as monumental. Not due to the added nutrition value, or the few extra years it might add to your life, but that it will provide the people of Azerbaijan with a new choice. We may not have a choice in life or death but in everything else the freedom lies in the option not the outcome. Vugar, the boys, and the one girl in the class, never conceded agreement with my argument, but I saw Vugar’s eyes shift to the floor when towards the end of the discussion one student stood up and mockingly ask “What good is another head of cabbage on the shelf if it costs twice as much?”….

Dustin Windham
Peace Corps Volunteer
Ganja, Azerbaijan