Food has played an important role in my life. My mother had a five-acre field. She grew melons, millet, mung dhal and sesame in addition to various vegetables. She would take me walking with her to the field and I would help her sow the seeds, water the plants and harvest.

My mother was also a very good cook. She would encourage me to work with her making chapatis (unleavened flat bread), dhal and vegetables with ginger, turmeric, coriander, cumin and cardamom. “Food is your medicine as well as a source of nutrition,” my mother would say.

Ever since, I have enjoyed gardening and cooking. When I was living in a Gandhian ashram (a religious retreat) in India, our motto was “Those who eat must participate in growing food, and those who grow must have enough food to eat.” The Gandhian principle of food is that there should be as short a distance as possible between soil, hands and mouth. If the food is coming from your own garden or a farmers’ market, it is fresh. If food is transported long distances and packaged in plastic, it cannot be as fresh as it should be. Therefore think globally but eat locally.

In 1982, together with some other helpers, I established The Small School in Hartland. The very first day, when children, parents and teachers gathered, I asked how this school would be different from any other. The answer was that every day at The Small School the children and teachers would prepare their lunch, say grace, eat good food together and wash up together, because you cannot provide good education on a bad diet. It is no good learning about Darwin and Shakespeare, science and history if we don’t know how to feed ourselves. So learning to grow, learning to cook and learning to eat together is as important in education as learning reading and writing.

Many schools have food brought to them by a mass supplier from long distances. The food is often tasteless. A lot of it is wasted, as the children do not enjoy it, and then they go out and buy junk food containing lots of sugar and salt, which may be palatable but is not nutritious.

Quite often young people leave university with BA, MA or PhD degrees but many of them don’t know how to bake bread or prepare a proper meal. So in 1982 I launched a campaign encouraging all schools to have gardens and kitchens. Schools have swimming pools, sports halls, science labs, but very few have gardens and kitchens. Why do we give so little importance to food? Food is a fundamental subject for a good life, but it is often ignored.

In 1991, I helped establish Schumacher College for adult education, and we applied the same principle there. All the students and participants are invited and encouraged to work in the kitchen. When students cook they are not missing any lessons, as cooking is the lesson. Now the college has six acres of garden and we offer a special six-month course on horticulture. The students arrive in April. They live at the college and work in the garden until the end of September. Altogether 15 people are involved in this course, including teachers, students and apprentices. We call them the Growers.

This is a hands-on course, but there is also a certain amount of theory; students learn about organic gardening, permaculture, agroecology and bio­dynamic methods of farming. In addition to the Growers, everyone else who is studying at the college is involved in the growing and cooking of food at least once a week. The emphasis at Schumacher College is on the education of head, heart and hands.

The food is vegetarian at Schumacher College. We believe that compassion for animals is the foundation for developing compassion in our hearts for humans and for all living beings. Moreover, to feed a person with a plant-based diet requires just one acre of land, whereas to feed a person on a meat-based diet requires five acres. Increasingly animals are kept in factory farms and many of them never see the light of the day. These unhappy animals are consumed by humans; how can humans be happy eating the meat of unhappy animals? The amount of water needed to maintain such factory farms and slaughterhouses is enormous. So my advice to people who eat meat is to eat less, and only to eat the meat if it comes from free-range animals who lived a good and happy life.

To enjoy a vegetarian diet we have to learn the art of cooking. If food is well prepared, if it is fresh and delicious, then you will not miss meat.

There is no need to worry that vege­tarian food will make you weak. Once I was invited to a primary school to talk about the environment, and after my talk a pupil asked me, “Which is your favourite animal?”

I replied, “An elephant.”

“Why?” asked the pupil.

“The elephant is a vegetarian animal and yet it is so big and strong. It shows that to be big and strong you don’t have to eat meat,” I answered.

“And which is your second favourite animal?” the pupil asked.

“A horse,” I replied.

“Why?” asked the pupil again.

“For the same reason. Horses are so powerful that we measure the power of a car in horsepower, yet horses are vegetarians,” I replied.

“From now on I will be a vegetarian!” the pupil declared.

So it is a complete myth that without consuming meat we will not have enough strength. My family are followers of the Jain religion, and the Jains have been strict vegetarians for more than 2,000 years. Many of my family members have lived a good, healthy life into their late eighties or nineties.

Vegetarian food should also be organically grown. Industrially produced pesticides and insecticides are often derived from oil, which has to be dug from thousands of feet underground, and this fossil fuel generates greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming. If the food is grown with chemical fertilisers from fossil fuel and then transported long distances, again using fossil fuel, then the damage to the environment diminishes the bene­fit of vegetarianism. Food being local, vegetarian and organic is a continuum.

The next step is never to entertain the idea of using genetically modified (GM) seeds produced by multinational companies such as Monsanto. Seeds have evolved over thousands of years to suit the conditions of the soil, the climate and the environment. Genetically engin­eered seeds are developed in laboratory conditions, mainly with the desire to make a big profit.

For traditional farmers the seed is sacred: it is a source of life. Each farmer is self-reliant in saving seeds, whereas for a commercial company like Monsanto seed is merely a commodity to buy and sell for profit and make the farmers dependent on the company. Thus, GM seeds are not only a commercial commodity: they are also undemocratic. They take away the freedom of the farmers to save their own seeds. The illusion is that GM seeds produce bigger crops; in reality the crop may be bigger in quantity but lacking in nutritional quality. It is better to eat nutritious food in small quantities than large amounts of fake food. Food produced from GM seeds is fake food.

Let us eat wholesome food that is local, largely vegetarian, organic and GM-free.

Satish Kumar will be speaking on food and other issues at the River Cottage Festival, 25–26 August 2018. Listen to Satish talk more about food via our new podcast, Resurgence Voices.

Satish Kumar is Editor Emeritus at The Resurgence Trust.