The UN Food Systems Summit is a Sham

[This was originally posted on the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance website]

Long-time activists know all too well how the powers that be work to divide us to maintain their power base. They use coercion, ego stroking, and straight up misinformation to entice some of us to dance with them, while others see the devil for what he is.

This time the devil, or shall we call him the wolf, comes dressed in sheep’s clothing. The wolf is the World Economic Forum (WEF), the World Bank, an assortment of global and regional think tanks, and front men for Big Food and Big Pharma. The fluffy white fleece is none other than the United Nations itself, now fleeced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Grandma’s house is the UN Food Systems Summit, full of the scent of warm cookies and a bright future, but in reality, housing the world’s most powerful corporations waiting with cameras and recorders to focus group the f*** out of anyone who walks in.

The path to Grandma’s house is long and scary, and we recommend you read the many accounts of how we got here written by La Via Campesina, the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC), the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM), the Agroecology Research-Action Collective, and this really helpful summary by Marion Nestle, amongst others. AFSA is a longstanding member of the IPC, CSM, and La Via Campesina, with years of experience engaging with UN processes via our work with these international alliances of the social movements. But it’s time to stop the fairy tale, because there is too much at stake to speak in metaphors.

This is a call to stand in solidarity with the world’s peasants and Indigenous Peoples, with fisherfolk, pastoralists, and landless, and especially with women and young people – those who have the most to lose from letting the multinationals win.      

Join the boycott and People’s Autonomous Response to the UN Food Systems Summit. These are the key global voices for smallholders and Indigenous Peoples with 25 years’ experience in global governance – if they refuse to legitimize a corrupted UN process, you should listen.

When the world’s least powerful ask the most privileged to stand with them against exploitation, land grabbing, and corporate capture of the governing mechanisms we have to fight with, it’s our responsibility to listen. Shut up and listen. Shut up, listen, then speak up. Speak as one to lift the voices of the marginalized. Don’t marginalize them further by turning up in the spaces they have intentionally vacated because they have spent decades fighting to be heard, only to realise that in this case the only ones listening are the multinational corporations, market researchers and those interested in profit over people and the planet. The peasants of the world refuse to be focus grouped.

The UNFSS is a sham.      

Breaking with the long history of multilateralism – a process of organizing and negotiating between states – the UNFSS has taken a multistakeholder approach from the beginning, giving multinational corporations equal footing with democratic states in discussions about how to achieve the transformation of the food system we need – to ensure everyone has access to nutritious and culturally appropriate food, produced and distributed in socially-just and ecologically-sound ways.

How did we get here?

The UN partnered with the World Economic Forum (WEF) to run the Summit – you know, the world’s peak body for multinational corporations like Bayer, Cargill, Facebook, JBS, and Syngenta. Then the Secretary General appointed the leader of the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) Agnes Kalibata as the Special Envoy to coordinate the Summit. AGRA is substantially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (also a member of the WEF), which has been aggressively promoting the uptake of biotechnology in Africa for the past couple of decades. Our sister AFSA – the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa – has called for donors to stop funding AGRA and show support for smallholders.

The Gates Foundation has a well-documented Big Tech bias in the ‘solutions’ it backs. This is not a Foundation that funds programs that empower communities to be self-sufficient, resilient, and resourceful – Gates is not here for food sovereignty. His projects in Africa have steadily increased farmer reliance on annual purchases of GM seed, and his investments in lab meat startups along with two of the world’s biggest meat companies, Tyson and Cargill, clearly demonstrate the cynicism and self-interest of his philanthrocapitalism.

Kalibata and her secretariat have promoted Food Systems Dialogues at the global and national levels as well as ‘Independent Food Systems Dialogues’, which ostensibly can be hosted by anyone who chooses to. There have apparently been over 800 independent dialogues led by everything from corporations to civil society organizations across the world. According to UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Michael Fakhri, these have produced nothing substantive that has been taken up by the secretariat, and in fact not ‘everyone’ is granted the privilege to host a dialogue – the secretariat holds the decision-making power.

Critically, the dialogues have not had any focus on the causes or responses to COVID-19. In the midst of a global pandemic, caused in no small part by the expansion and extraction of industrial food and agriculture systems, world ‘leaders’ turned away, leaving the additional 100 million people who are now hungry behind.

Food Systems Dialogues are still occurring in the name of the UN around the world, including in Australia. We believe most people who participate in these do not understand the extent and gravity of the corporate capture of multilateral global food governance. Hence, AFSA has shared as much as possible to get the word out and keep well-intentioned healthy and sustainable food systems advocates from being duped into legitimizing an illegitimate and damaging process.

Four ‘levers of change’ have been selected by the secretariat from the obscure processes of food systems dialogues, champions, Action Tracks, and the Scientific Group. This is where Machiavelli pops in for a cuppa. In preparation for the Summit to be held online entirely over one day (23 September), these ‘levers of change’ are being developed into a compendium. The lead organisations for each lever are, wait for it:

It’s worth noting that the Gates Foundation provides funding to all of these bodies in addition to its support for AGRA, as does the Rockefeller Foundation. These private funders are controlling narratives and negotiations under the guise of the UN – discussions that should rightly be led by the Committee for World Food Security (CFS), which has the mandate for food systems transformation, informed by the full participation of civil society.

It gets worse. Once our corporate overlords have led the drafting of proposed solutions to the problems they have created in the world, this body of work is intended to guide the development of ‘National Pathways to Food Systems Transformation’. What that means is that many countries will at last create National Food Plans[i] – in theory a good thing – but the plans will be guided by corporate solutions.          

According to the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, ‘Even representatives of Indigenous Peoples who participated in the official Pre-Summit feel disappointed that the human rights of Indigenous Peoples were not taken into account in the conclusions, nor did FSS approve a Coalition of IPs, as they had requested. Today these IP representatives say they will be out of the Summit until their demands are met.’

What can be done?

AFSA has stood in solidarity with the boycott since the beginning, and recommends others do the same, by joining the list of signatory organisations. Plus, you can:

The Agroecology Research-Action Collective suggests some further actions you can take:

  • If you are involved in UNFSS dialogues or action tracks, or being invited to participate in its processes, engage critically and consider boycotting if rights-based governance and epistemic justice demands are not met.

[i] Fun fact – the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) was formed in response to the federal government’s commitment to a first-ever National Food Plan. Released in July 2012, the National Food Plan Green Paper reflected a heavy bias towards corporate agribusiness, large-scale food manufacturing and big retailing interests. The limited and perfunctory nature of the government’s ‘consultation’ process suggested that most or all of the key decisions had already been taken elsewhere.

In response, a small group of activists who had formed AFSA resolved to develop and implement its own process to establish a People’s Food Plan that would reflect the concerns and aspirations of eaters, farmers, community organisations, food businesses and advocacy groups. The People’s Food Plan process was open, inclusive and democratic, and brought together some 600 people across the nation in ‘kitchen table conversations’ to develop the content collectively. The People’s Food Plan reflects the needs and desires of people, not corporations. Should Australia take up the challenge to develop a National Food Plan at last, AFSA is ready to ensure small-scale farmers and eaters have a seat at the negotiating table this time around.


Regenerative Agriculture and Agroecology – what’s in a name?

As agroecology gains traction in Australia, many farmers and food systems activists have asked what the differences are between agroecology and regenerative agriculture. So today I’m going to draw from my PhD literature review to try to answer that question. I do so in the spirit of furthering the movement for ecologically and socially just food and agriculture systems, regardless of where any farmer may presently situate themselves along a continuum of agricultural production.

I’m going to take you through what I understand as the history and contemporary state of the rise of alternative agricultures. I’ll then turn to a closer look at regenerative agriculture and agroecology specifically. And I’ll finish with my views on why agroecology offers the transformation our food and agriculture systems need. I do not aim to create divisions in our beautiful fledgling food movement full of hard working and passionate farmers and advocates. On the contrary, I aim to build our collective knowledge, wisdom, and solidarity as we work to radically transform the food system from the ground up. I don’t wish to focus on what regenerative agriculture isn’t, but rather on what it can be, and highlight the dangers of corporate capture to these important parallel movements.

A brief history of alternate agricultures

Farmers and researchers have been practising and writing about the need to move away from chemical agriculture for nearly two centuries – all the way back to George Perkins Marsh’s warnings as early as 1864 in Man and Nature – awork credited with launching the modern conservation movement. Agronomist Sir Albert Howard went to India in the first decade of the twentieth century to ‘teach the locals’ how to modernise their agricultural systems, only to be transformed into an advocate of organic agriculture by what he learned there.[1] Along with Rudolf Steiner[2] J.I. Rodale[3], and Lady Eve Balfour[4], Howard is considered one of the founders of the organic movement in the Global North. All promoted the use of composts instead of chemical fertiliser, and focused on the critical roles of humus and mycorrhizal fungi in healthy agroecosystems.

We are in need of a historical corrective here that is as much about today as yesterday. The influence of Indian peasants on the rise of organics in the North is rarely acknowledged. The Green Revolution in India all but decimated small-scale farmers’ traditional, sustainable practices, though the recent farmer protests certainly demonstrate the collective will there to reclaim their right to life and livelihood. While the organics movement has clearly had a net ecological benefit due to reduced use of agricultural and veterinary chemicals (amongst other more sustainable land management practices), what started as a movement has become an industry in its own right. Industrial organics are full of vast monocultures controlled by a decreasing number of corporations. One need only look at the increase in multinational corporations claiming to promote regenerative agriculture to get a taste of what is already happening to this movement (see Walmart, Purina, General Mills, and Danone for just a few, or the consortium that includes Nestlé, Unilever, Kellogg, and McCain Foods for another).

There is an effusive and influential popular agrarian literature on the philosophy and practice of what is considered organic, biological, ecological, regenerative, or agroecological farming. This spans the lyrical musings of bucolic life in the country[5], exhortations to diversify to maintain the viability of small-scale farms[6], and socio-political treatises championing the protection of rural communities, local economies, and healthy landscapes[7].

While it can often seem to be the domain of cis-gendered white men, there are many less celebrated women, BIPOC, and queer agrarian (often explicitly anti-capitalist) thinkers and doers to engage with. One I admire is farmer-activist Elizabeth Henderson of Peacework Farm, a pioneering community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm in the American organics movement. Elizabeth has contributed decades of guidance through columns in The Natural Farmer magazine and community-supported publications on CSA, and also as a leading member of Urgenci: the International Network for Community-Supported Agriculture.

Yet while the emergence of the CSA movement in the United States is largely credited to two white-owned farms in the mid-1980s[8], it can also be tracked to Black horticulturalist Booker T. Whatley’s ‘clientele membership club’ established in the 1960s, as recorded in his 1987 guide How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres. Both of these CSA origin stories arise from economic and ecological sustainability narratives and constitute quite radical moves to solidarity economies, as small-scale farmers were rapidly disappearing in the ongoing commodification of food production. However, Whatley’s work included an explicit focus on support for Black farmers who suffered from racialized limited access to government support.

Black farmer-activist Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm is a more recent inspiration to many. In 2018 she published Farming While Black, a contemporary practical and liberatory guide to everything from land access to composting. Temra Costa’s celebratory anthology Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat [9] profiles 26 women across America farming, cooking, and advocating for change, and Trina Moyles’ Women Who Dig: Farming, Feminism, and the Fight to Feed the World [10] offers a more radical feminist political lens on the efforts of women across three continents farming against the tide of food system injustices.

In Australia, Bruce Pascoe published Dark Emu in 2014, which argues that there is a long history of Aboriginal agriculture, and his and others’ ongoing work to recuperate Indigenous farming practices has had a significant influence within the food sovereignty movement. Pascoe has challenged us with the question, ‘Black people aren’t going anywhere. White people aren’t going anywhere. So what are we going to do about it?’ My PhD project seeks to contribute to working out what we’re going to do about it in the context of small-scale farmers with exotic livestock holding title and farming on unceded Aboriginal lands. I’ll write more on this in a future post.

The origins of regenerative agriculture

Regenerative agriculture’s practices were developed before the phrase was coined by Robert Rodale, J.I.’s son, in the 1980s in the United States[11]. The early works of André Voisin[12] on ‘rational grazing’ (a strong influence on the creator of Holistic Management Allan Savory) remain deeply influential in the regenerative agriculture movement, and spawned an entire education industry around holistic planned grazing of livestock, particularly cattle.

Regenerative agriculture is described by many as an approach to food and farming systems which aims to recuperate biodiversity, soil, water and nutrient cycles, economies, and communities[13]. It has notably grown in public awareness over the past decade, and especially the last few years in Australia, as the country has suffered unprecedented fires while enduring extended droughts. The literature is extensive and still growing. Some of it focuses on farmers’ experiences and reasons for transitioning away from industrial agriculture[14], while much concentrates on the importance of soil[15], or on various techniques[16], and others on regenerative agriculture as a way to mitigate and adapt to climate change[17]. Charlie Massy’s[18] triumphant 2017 account of a dozen broadacre farmers in Australia who have overcome the ‘mechanical mindset’ to farm with nature is arguably one of the most radical of regen ag’s foundational texts, as it actively tackles questions around farmers’ very ways of thinking and being in the world.

Despite these steps forward, many believe that regenerative agriculture remains insufficient. While it accepts the shared biogeological nature of agricultural landscapes, it remains looped into the premises of economic and sociopolitical systems that treat farms and farmers as separate economic units. The two impulses are incompatible. We cannot return to an agriculture that acknowledges a more natural economy defined by a shared ecosystem that still operates under a social system that defines farmers almost entirely as segregated competitors in the market and sectioned-off on the landscape. Such systems reward practices that externalize the damage of such agriculture off-farm and onto our neighbours, both local and global.

Agroecology as ecology and social system

Let me be clear that regenerative agriculture represents a rightly celebrated step forward. There are also other alternatives that can take us a few more steps forward. And I’m sure all of us want that.

While regenerative agriculture has gained momentum and prominence in Australia, agroecology is much less well-known or understood here, though there is a deep and substantial literature on agroecology internationally. Broadly speaking, agroecology is a scientifically and experientially justified practice of agriculture that is sensitive to the ecosystems in which it is situated and that fosters the democratic participation of farmers in the food system. Its original and still predominant practitioners are Indigenous peoples and peasant smallholders the world over. Many of its advocates make a strong case for relying on peasant and Indigenous knowledge of their land and systems to produce sufficient food sustainably[19]. A science, a set of practices, and a social movement, agroecology is fundamental to my own research project[20], including its concerns with the importance of biodiversity, the role of animals in agroecosystems, and the lived social, economic, and political realities of small-scale farmers.

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The term agroecology was coined by Russian agronomist Basil Bensin in 1930, and the practice emerged as more of a social movement in Mexico in the 1970s in resistance to the Green Revolution[21]. Much research has focused on the diversification of agroecosystems ‘over time and space at the field and landscape level,’ and on enhancing ‘beneficial biological interactions and synergies among the components of agrobiodiversity, thereby promoting key ecological processes and services’[22]. There is also a focus on supporting resource-poor farmers in managing their agroecosystems with minimal inputs[23].

The democratic and ecological potential of agroecology and its political expression in food sovereignty has been well canvassed for decades. There’s been an explosion of publications in the last decade that coincided with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) launched a process and series of global and regional symposia on agroecology in 2014[24]. Political analysis in agroecology extends from Marxist ecological examinations of racism in food and agriculture systems[25], to maintaining the integration of Indigenous peoples and peasants within a matrix of wild and managed ecosystems, to rejecting imperialist attempts to lock up ‘nature’ to protect it from ‘humans’[26]. The concept of ‘nature’s matrix,’ in which biodiversity, conservation, food production and food sovereignty are all interconnected goals[27] represents a stark contrast to ‘land-sparing’ arguments that posit humans as separate from and antithetical to the health of functional ecosystems[28]. This debate is currently being played out in the UN’s work on development of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, with peasants, fisherfolk, and Indigenous peoples defending their rights to customary lands and territories as governments and conservation groups push for further enclosures[29].

Presently there are economic, political, and cultural lock-ins that limit the ability of Australian farmers to shift to agroecology. At the same time, there are what Alastair Iles[30] proposes are enablers. At its core, Iles asserts:

Geographical and environmental conditions have made – and are making – it hard for farmers to adopt agroecological practices. Strong beliefs among scientist, industry, and government elites in the power of science and technology to overcome climate constraints are leading to agroecology being ignored.[31]

He proposes that some of the implications of neoliberal agriculture policies for agroecology in Australia include:

  • Weak farmer resources for adopting agroecological practices;
  • demoralized and eroding rural communities; and
  • investment in export support instead of environmental support’[32].

In turn, enabling dynamics for an agroecological transition include:

  • crises;
  • coalescing social organization;
  • effective agroecological practices;
  • external allies; and
  • favourable policies[33].

All of the above enablers are currently coalescing in Australia under:

  • a global pandemic;
  • strengthening global and national food sovereignty movements;
  • the emergence of agroecology schools such as those run by the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA); and
  • increasingly supportive state governments offering targeted support for small-scale farmers[34].

Food sovereignty embodies the collective politicisation of agroecology. It asserts everyone’s right to nutritious and culturally appropriate food produced and distributed in ethical and ecologically sound ways, and our right to democratically determine our own food and agriculture systems[35]. With its political roots established in the mid ‘90s in the fertile soils of La Vía Campesina (LVC) – the global alliance of peasants – food sovereignty was launched into public political discourse at the World Food Summit in Rome in 1996[36]. In the words of McMichael, ‘food sovereignty emerged as the antithesis of the corporate food regime and its (unrealized) claims for “food security” via the free trade rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO)’[37].

Agroecology fundamentally aims to promote the deep ecological, social, and economic knowledge of First Peoples, peasants, and other small-scale food producers and custodians of land. It puts decision making power back in the hands of Indigenous Peoples and peasants and local communities.

Regenerative agriculture is promoted and practised by many who are thinking and acting in much more holistic ways than industrial agriculturalists, but as a people’s movement, the approach presently lacks coherence and cohesion. Too much of what I see promoted as regenerative agriculture is still just capitalist agriculture with better inputs. Its ecological work is important but ultimately iterative rather than transformational because of its lack of a political framework. In a critical way regen ag is repeating the errors of the organics movement. Organics were commodified and consolidated because the sector lacked a collective vision to unshackle itself from capitalist food systems.

To my knowledge, regenerative agriculture has not developed a theory of change for an economic or social transformation, and is growing a new generation of ‘experts’ and gurus who profit from teaching the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ or ‘why’. This is a critical juncture for regen ag – can it shift to teaching the ‘what’ as well as the ‘how’? Who will its teachers be? Will they accept the challenge to think and advocate beyond farm boundaries to the broader social and political economies and ecologies within which farmers care for country?

Agroecology, on the other hand, has a well-developed theory of change. It works to support horizontal knowledge sharing by empowering farmers and their communities to learn from and with each other and the land and all on it, rather than relying on external experts for inputs of knowledge or other resources.

Further, by collectivising and uniting the voices of the people in democratically constituted organisations like the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA), and actualizing shared decision-making, agroecology offers genuine political strength and capacity for policy reform as well as grassroots transformations. A major strength of agroecology is that it is immune to being captured as a brand due to its grassroots, democratic principles and practices – nobody can own or certify agroecology because it asserts everybody’s right to practice it without reliance on or creation of externalities.

My intentions are altruistic. I do not aim to divide us, but rather to help understand our histories and ways forward from here. Our objective should be to offer every kind of farmer a path to the next food landscape forward. Regenerative agriculture and agroecology proponents and practitioners ultimately want food and agriculture systems that are ecologically sound and socially just. If we work together, actualizing everyone’s right to nutritious, delicious, and culturally appropriate food produced and distributed in ethical and ecologically sound ways, Australia can get there.

Endnotes


[1] Howard 2010, 2011

[2] 1974

[3] 1945

[4] 1975

[5] E.g. Bromfield 1976, 1999, 2015; Seymour 1974; Berry 2004

[6] E.g. Henderson 1943, 1950; Whatley 1987; Salatin 2006

[7] E.g. Berry 2002; Rebanks 2015; Smaje 2020

[8]  McFadden 2004

[9] 2010

[10] 2018

[11] Gosnell, et al 2019

[12] 1957, 1958, 1962

[13] Massy 2017; Brown 2018; Fernandez Arias, Jonas & Munksgaard 2019

[14] Massy 2017; Gosnell 2019

[15] Brown, 2018; Masters 2019

[16] Sherwood 2000; Rhodes 2017

[17] Gosnell et al. 2020; Toensmeier 2016

[18] Call of the Reed Warbler

[19] Scott 1998; Rosset & Altieri 2017; Anderson et al 2021; Liebman, et al 2020

[20] Wezel, Bellon & Doré 2009

[21] Gliessman 2013; Giraldo & Rosset 2017

[22] Rosset & Altieri 2017: 20

[23] Rosset 1990; Altieri 1990, 1995, 2017; Gliessman 2006

[24] Agarwal 2014; Alonso-Fradejas, et al. 2015; Rosset & Altieri 2017

[25] Chappell 2017, 2019; Montenegro de Wit 2020

[26] Gliessman 20016; Philpott, et al 2008; Perfecto & Vandermeer 1995; Perfecto, Vandermeer, & Wright 2009; Liebman, et al 2020

[27] Perfecto, Vandermeer & Wright 2009

[28] Wilson 2016

[29] IPC 2021; Pascual et al. 2021

[30] 2020

[31]  Iles 2020: 5

[32] Iles 2020: 5

[33] Mier Y Teran Cacho et al. 2018; Anderson et al. 2019; Iles 2020

[34] Agriculture Victoria 2021

[35] IPC 2015

[36] Alonso-Fradejas, et al. 2015

[37] 2015: 934

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Raising rare-breed livestock: A counter-hegemonic project towards an agroecological transition in Australia

This blog started in 2006 as a place to record my musings as I undertook a PhD in cultural studies around practices of consumption (which I did not finish). 15 years later, this is my first post of a new PhD project in anthropology focusing on practices of production – how some farmers are working to radically transform the food system from the ground up.

Below is the minimally edited text of the research proposal seminar I delivered last Friday as a milestone for my PhD at UWA. Feedback welcome. 🙂

***

I’m sharing this today from unceded Dja Dja Wurrung country in the central highlands of Victoria, the traditional and ongoing lands of the Jaara people, to whose elders past, present, and emerging I pay my respects. I’d also like to pay my respects to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders reading this.

The development of agriculture over the past 12,000 years resulted eventually in what James Scott argues is ‘a contraction of our species’ attention to and practical knowledge of the natural world, a contraction of diet, a contraction of space, and perhaps a contraction, as well, in the breadth of ritual life’ (Scott 2017: 87). As a farmer myself, I find this description of my livelihood somewhat alarming.

Much later, monotheistic religions grew on foundational discourses of human dominion over nature, contributing to the move from more ecologically-sensitive traditional farming practices to the highly mechanised conventions of capitalist industrialised agriculture. This latter form of agriculture has systematised human mastery over nature (Tsing 2012) with devastating consequences, including the sixth mass extinction event in 4.6 billion years (Muir 2014).

In 2019 the UN reported that ‘many key components of biodiversity for food and agriculture at genetic, species, and ecosystem levels are in decline’ and that ‘evidence suggests that the proportion of livestock breeds at risk of extinction is increasing’ (FAO 2019: xxxviii). In Australia as elsewhere, the rise of fast-growing, high-yielding industrial genetics has led to a concurrent loss of rare- and heritage-breed livestock. While there is a movement to preserve heritage breeds led by the Rare Breeds Trust of Australia, it is still relatively nascent and unsupported by government policy (Jonas 2017; Iles 2020).

There is in fact a notable lack of research in Australia on the importance of biodiversity in agriculture (Walton 2019). Recent initiatives such as the Australian Farm Biodiversity Certification Scheme Trial funded by the Federal Government and run by the National Farmers Federation (NFF 2018) demonstrate all too clearly how far Australia has to go in understanding the urgent need for a transformation of agriculture, as to date it does not even explicitly include any focus on increasing biodiversity in agricultural produce, only in the landscape surrounding production areas. That is, in work concerned with the loss of biodiversity in agriculture in Australia, none of it appears to be concerned with the loss of biodiversity in the food we grow and eat, and very little addresses the biodiversity in the soil in which it is grown, which we increasingly understand to be of critical importance to all life.

Happily, my PhD is part of a larger project funded by a DECRA grant entitled ‘Raising Rare Breeds: Domestication, Extinction and Meat in the Anthropocene’, led by my principal supervisor Dr Catie Gressier, which aims to address this dearth of research through developing greater understandings of rare and heritage breed farming across Australia.  

My involvement in the broader project around rare breeds is born of my life as a former vegetarian tree-hugging greenie turned pig-farming butcher tree-hugging greenie. My husband and I farm on the ancient volcanic soils of Dja Dja Wurrung country, the traditional and unceded lands of the Jaara people. We moved here a decade ago, motivated by our desire to help grow the movement of ethical and ecologically-sound livestock farmers in Australia. Inspired by the rare breed movement and its biodiverse values, we chose to raise heritage-breed Large Black pigs and a variety of heritage and modern-breed cattle on pasture to fulfil this goal. We were strongly driven by our ethics to raise animals in a high welfare system on pasture, only later coming to realize the full complexity of ecological, social, and political entanglements our path would reveal.

While most these days have heard of regenerative agriculture, agroecology is much less known or understood. A science, a set of practices, and a social movement, agroecology is fundamental to this project (Wezel, Bellon & Doré 2009), with its attention to the role of animals in agroecosystems, the importance of biodiversity, and the socialities of agroecological farmers. Broadly speaking, agroecology is a scientifically and experientially justified practice of agriculture in ways that are sensitive to the ecosystems in which it is situated and that fosters the democratic participation of farmers in the food system.

While non-indigenous farmers who identify as ‘regenerative’ or ‘agroecological’ promote their/our innovations on social media, at conferences, and during farmer field days, Altieri & Holt-Gimenez (2016: 2) remind us that ‘the true roots of agroecology lie in the ecological rationale of indigenous and peasant agriculture still prevalent…’ and the UN provides empirical evidence that, globally, Indigenous Peoples and local communities are the best custodians of biodiversity (FAO 2019; IPBES 2019), emphasising the need to look to Indigenous knowledges, and to respect the customary laws and sovereignty of Australia’s First Peoples.

As we have deepened our experience and knowledge of Dja Dja Wurrung country in our relatively short time as custodians, we have also come to better understand the compelling need to ‘decolonize ourselves’ (Land 2015), and to affirm solidarity with First Peoples in order to grow a future for Australia that is ecologically sustainable and socially just for all. Indigenous Knowledges scholar Tyson Yunkaporta (2019: 19) of the Apalech clan of Far North Queensland asserts, ‘We rarely see global sustainability issues addressed using Indigenous perspectives and knowledges. […] It is always about the what and never about the how’.

With interest in Yunkaporta’s ‘how’, the project aims to examine the ways in which Australia’s ‘new peasantry’ (van der Ploeg 2017) can be informed by Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies to combat and adapt to climate change. I ask:

How can small-scale farmers inhabit and care for land in such a way as to maintain healthy agroecosystems and their human and nonhuman communities, while advancing Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty?

What are the discrepancies, and what convergence in Indigenous and non-Indigenous epistemologies is needed (and possible) (Plumwood 2005)?

I aim to contribute to the movement of small-scale non-indigenous farmers as they/we come to terms with our colonial privilege through a process of critical self-reflection alongside ‘public political ally work’ (Land 2015: 164) supporting Indigenous struggles, and to actively promote the ecologically sustainable and socially just work I find.

To explain why I use the term ‘peasant’ in Australia – a country with no history of a peasantry, the 2018 UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas defines a peasant such as to include Australian smallholders:

any person who engages or who seeks to engage alone, or in association with others or as a community, in small-scale agricultural production for subsistence and/or for the market, and who relies significantly, though not necessarily exclusively, on family or household labour and other non-monetized ways of organizing labour, and who has a special dependency on and attachment to the land.

Given my position as a farmer-activist-scholar deeply embedded in the communities of interest to this project, I will undertake multi-sited ethnography as an insider anthropologist. The fieldwork with farmers will be guided by the following broad questions:

  • Why do some farmers choose rare and heritage breeds of livestock?
  • How are these farmers fostering biodiversity and multi-species flourishings?
  • How and where are these farmers accessing agroecological knowledge and experience?
  • Why and how are farmers engaging with local Aboriginal people and their ecological knowledge? (Do they engage with the local Jaara people, or with others outside our bioregion? Directly or indirectly – why?)
  • What are the constraints and enablers of agroecological farming with rare and heritage breeds? (genetic, technical, legislative, economic, social, ecological)

Three farms will be chosen in the central highlands of Victoria (Dja Dja Wurrung country) for participant observation, based on criteria that they grow rare breed cattle and/or pigs for the commercial sale of meat and/or dairy, and that they sell their produce through direct channels. In addition to participant observation, interviews will be conducted with semi-structured questions designed to elucidate data ranging from the values and paradigms that shape the farmers’ actions, through the everyday practices of rearing heritage breed livestock, to farmers’ relationships with other farmers, those who buy their produce, local Aboriginal peoples, and the state. Questions will also focus on the extent to which the farmers are collectivised – are they associated with agroecology and food sovereignty as a social movement, do they belong to any local, regional, or national organisations, and if so, to what end? Observations of land and water use and health, animal husbandry practices and perceptions of animal welfare will help achieve the aims of the project.

Focus group discussions with more farmers of rare and heritage breeds within and outside my region will also be held online and in person, with some questions adapted from the semi-structured interviews with my key participant farmers. Drawing on the work recounted in Chambers (1989) on ‘reality mapping’ and ‘ecological mapping’ undertaken with farmers in the Global South, farmers in focus groups will be asked to draw a politico-biocultural map of their farms to gain insights into their perspectives on the ecological, social, and political contexts in which they farm.

One of the questions that orients my research is revealing the experiences of other heritage-breed livestock farmers:

What is the relationship between a focus on breed conservation and an awareness of the importance of greater biodiversity at all levels of food and agriculture systems?

By examining the grounded practices, decision-making processes, and stated values of farmers who raise rare- and heritage-breed livestock – exotic non-industrial counter-hegemonic animals – this project seeks to uncover the paradigms farmers bring to their work.

What underpins the decision to raise slow-growing, low-yielding animals to earn a livelihood?

Does the choice to raise rare and heritage breeds sit alongside other values and practices that support more ‘multispecies flourishings’ (Haraway 2016) on farms?

A guiding theme will be to ask how farmers are responding to the burden of responsibility carried by the ‘human condition of living with and for others’ (Bird 2004) as they negotiate entanglements with country and human and nonhuman animals. Yunkaporta (2020) asserts the importance of Aboriginal social structures in achieving sensitive community and land management, describing his clan as, ‘autonomous individuals syndicated together in a collective’. With this framing in mind, I seek to understand the importance of existing connections amongst autonomous small-scale farmers that contribute to cultural and ecological reparations and social organisation, and to learn what collaborative and deliberate practices they engage in to diversify breeds (and grasses and crops) within the region, and to advocate for agroecology-friendly policies. I further aim to identify pathways towards a place-based co-management of Aboriginal lands so damaged by colonial mining and agriculture that the Jaara people call it ‘upside down country’ (Dja Dja Wurrung 2016).

My project is in part a response to the UN’s critical assessment of biodiversity loss and its recommendations, which identified the need to conserve breeds as well as the need for multidisciplinary research to understand the role of greater biodiversity in agriculture more broadly. It is also a continuation of a lifetime concern about the treatment of animals in agriculture, and a long history of food sovereignty activism that ultimately led me to where I now farm with Stuart and a like-minded community that has glimmers of Yunkaporta’s ‘autonomous individuals syndicated together in a collective’.

Ultimately, my project aims to identify the ecological, social, and political factors that contribute to the successful practice of agroecology in Australia. My specific focus is on the practice of raising rare- and heritage-breed pigs and cattle in agroecosystems, and the work being done by small-scale farmers to decolonize agriculture with what I propose are counter-hegemonic breeds. Using insider activist anthropology to work with a selection of farmers in Dja Dja Wurrung country, I aim to understand the values, epistemologies, and politics that lead farmers to choose rare- and heritage-breed livestock and to farm agroecologically.

Ultimately, acknowledging that small-scale farmers operate within certain norms and rules of the state, which have material impacts on their autonomous capacity to farm in ecologically-sustainable and socially-just ways (Wolf 1966; Scott 1998; van der Ploeg 2017), I aim to understand and make visible existing state and supra-state instruments and processes that currently constrain farmers’ activities, and those that can enable agroecology and rare-breed farming in Australia.

In the face of a massive global loss of agricultural biodiversity over many decades, this research can provide critical information and recommendations to slow and address losses, and to support increases in biodiversity in farming. I will engage with local smallholder and Indigenous knowledges and practices on Dja Dja Wurrung country to uncover the diverse stories of Indigenous and non-Indigenous custodians of country. The significance lies in actively working to uncover, support, and promote the biodiverse and decolonizing practices of agroecological farmers of rare- and heritage-breed livestock, to serve the urgent need to value and protect biodiversity in food and agriculture systems in the face of multiple threats from climate change and the emergence of pandemics such as COVID-19.

The project is part of and manifests the values of the social movement for food sovereignty and agroecology. In addition to my life as a farmer, I have been president of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) since 2014, which is actively working across all six ‘domains of transformation’ to an agroecological future identified by Anderson et al. (2017). The domains include: access to natural ecosystems; knowledge and culture; systems of exchange; networks; equity; and discourse. This project will contribute to AFSA’s ongoing work for agroecology and food sovereignty, including to AFSA’s project Farming on Other People’s Land (FOOPL), which is developing resources to support diverse share-farming arrangements and farming cooperatives, and acknowledging that all non-Indigenous farmers are farming on other peoples’ land in Australia. This research will also contribute to the food sovereignty movement’s efforts to transform policies at all levels of government to support a transition to agroecology. It will contribute to AFSA’s new Agroecological Action Research Network (AARN), established in 2020 to network scholars and farmers across Australia to grow the body of participatory research towards an agroecological transition.

In following the deeply embedded stories, practices, soils, plants, human and nonhuman animals, and microbes on agroecological farms working to preserve rare- and heritage-breed livestock, as well as the rather more abstract yet specific stories and practices of the state, this project will assert an ontological politics – a politics of materiality and not just representation of ‘what is, what should, and what might be realised’ (Law 2018).

COVID-19: An opportunity for disaster solidarity

If you’ve been paying any attention to the myriad articles talking about the likely causes of the current COVID-19 pandemic, you’ll have read that the hippies were right – rampant destruction of the environment has led us into a global crisis, and industrial agriculture is a solid contender for worst offender. Whether this particular coronavirus came from bats, pangolins, or another creature isn’t really that important – the knowledge that it’s a zoonotic disease (passed from animals to humans) – and that all of the other most recent outbreaks (SARS, MERS, Ebola, Nipah, Zika…) were too – offers more-than sufficient evidence to act on. In fact, the FAO tells us that more than 70% of all infectious diseases in humans since the 1940s can be traced to animals.

Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu can answer a lot of your pressing questions on these theories, so go listen to him here. (And then google him and find the hundreds of other interviews and papers he has produced on this topic since well before the outbreak began. (One of the hardest things about being Rob right now must be resisting the daily urge to shout ‘I told you so, you bastards!’)

Read this 11-page communique from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems – it will give you all the information you need on the causes and potential solutions to the pandemic. And if you’re time poor, check out this shorter piece from New Matilda here.

The jury is in – industrial agriculture is a menace to society.

Some of us have been banging on for many years about the dangers of intensive livestock production, massive global losses of biodiversity, and the narrowing of genetic diversity in agriculture specifically, fast animal turnover in industrial systems, separating breeding and growing operations (with attendant loss of potential herd immunities), and habitat fragmentation, and it’s turned out we were right all along. So what’s going to happen? And what alternative futures lay before us?

First, a quick look at impacts, and then some hopeful possible solutions…

Impacts on the food system

The impacts are unfolding fast, and in many countries they are awful. I’m not going to write about the devastation the pandemic is having in countries where health care systems have been undermined by neoliberal regimes that have systematically implemented policies that have rejected the public interest, and nor am I going to offer analysis of the structural racism and classism that will see the most disadvantaged in society feel the brunt of this crisis. My expertise is in food systems, so that’s what I’ll stick with. I’m also going to focus primarily on Australia, because you simply can’t extrapolate the disruptions to social cohesion, well-being, and domestic economies from one country to another without making some terrible generalisations and misleading blunders.

What are the initial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Australian food systems?

Supermarket shelves emptied fast as panic buying set in. Their ‘just-in-time’ model of distribution has proven to be as precarious as food security researchers have told us for many years. But they have also aggressively hired the newly unemployed to stack shelves more rapidly – a move that could cast them in the light of savior in spite of decades of predatory behaviour.

Many farmers’ markets have been closed, either by risk-averse (and ill-informed, I would say) councils, or the organisers themselves, though others remain open, with social distancing protocols in place. This has left many small-scale farmers in the desperate position of having to rapidly find other ways to connect to their eaters, and forced some farmers’ market shoppers back into the arms of their jilted supermarkets.

Most restaurants and cafes are either closed or doing takeaway or delivery services only. The future of the hospitality sector is in question as food service workers scramble to survive. It remains to be seen whether the government’s bailout packages will be enough to keep people fed and housed through this crisis.

Farmers whose usual market is food service were thrown into crisis along with the nation’s chefs and other workers, and they have had to rapidly find new markets for their produce. For small-scale farmers, there has been a greater capacity to pivot to selling directly to households, though in many cases this has meant arduous hours doing direct deliveries without any time to develop these new systems.

The legends at Open Food Network have risen to the challenge to bring a thrilling wave of new farmers onto their platform to directly connect with eaters looking for alternatives to the stupidmarkets.

For large-scale farms, there is no such agility in a global pandemic. If you’re a watermelon grower in the Northern Territory whose market is primarily restaurants, caterers, and airlines, there is nothing to do but watch your melons rot in the fields. When you’re talking 600 tonnes v. 6 tonnes of produce to sell, selling direct to eaters is not an option.

For those just tuning in, my hypercompetent husband Stuart and I are small-scale pastured heritage breed pig and cattle farmers, and while our farm exists largely separately from the commodity food system, we remain reliant on two critical umbilicals to the industrial machine: feed and abattoirs.

When we shifted to an entirely waste-stream feed supply from our local brewery and other produce from other surplus yield, we thought we had exited commodity feed production. But the majority of our feed supply is detritus from the industrial system built on growth and volume – so we lost most of our feed sources overnight as pubs were shut down and the brewery stopped brewing. We’re still receiving occasional container loads of muesli bar ingredients amongst other diverse oddities as food waste in fact just got worse with the sudden disappearance of food service, but the reliability of the nutritional quality of our feed took a steep dive. And we’re not the only ones – small-scale pig farms across Australia have been egging each other on in our pursuit of non-commodity grain and ecologically-beneficial feed options, and many of us now face the loss of this resource and need to return to commodity grain direct from the feed supplier. A year ago this wasn’t even a viable option as the drought drove prices up to more than double in some cases. I’ll return to possible solutions that don’t involve commodity grain in a future post once we’ve given it more thought.

So more expensive and ecologically dubious feed is one direct impact small-scale livestock farmers are grappling with, and the other threat we face is the potential closure of abattoirs, as is already happening in the US. The problem of a highly centralized food system is that there are so few facilities left, nearly all owned by a handful of multinational corporations, and if they are forced to close, farmers of all sizes lose their options. Given the low margins most abattoirs operate on in the best of times, one can only assume that many may not be able to continue in the face of a prolonged shutdown. While Australia’s control of the virus is leagues ahead of the US and our case numbers still quite low, an outbreak in a large, vital facility could still be devastating.

Together, we’ve got this

Some of you reading this have read and/or heard my positions on how to solve the world’s problems before, and you, like me, may have thought, ‘sounds great, but a bit utopic, hey? I mean, capitalism isn’t going anywhere…’ But then the current consequences of humanity’s failures have offered us an opportunity to ‘test the model’, shall we say. Guess what we’re finding?

Globalised food systems, capitalism, and disconnected atomized populations are just as brittle as some of us said they were.

Local food systems, solidarity economies, and strongly networked and collectivized communities have got this.

The upsurge in people seeking memberships with community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms is breathtaking. Farms that had struggled to compete with peoples’ addiction to ‘convenience’ and achieve full subscriptions are now turning people away. Others are increasing production to let some more in. Those of us who were already full are doing what we can to support our members who’ve lost their jobs – our turn to look after them, because that’s how solidarity economies work – it’s a two-way street.

A very smart comrade asked me whether I thought small-scale farmers (aka ‘peasants’) ‘can enter and exit the market as they need to. When times get tough, cut back to subsistence (in a way corporate farming can’t).’ It’s an interesting question about the variables that might offer resilience at different scales. While I think that peasants in the Global South might have some of this flexibility where they have remained quite separate from industrial food systems, the ‘new peasantry’ that has arisen across the world over the past decade (like farmers such as ourselves) probably has less capacity to expand and contract in the same way, primarily due to carrying high levels of debt. Flirting with capitalism while trying to crush it is a dangerous game. Which is not to say that taking on debt makes one a capitalist, but rather entwined in a system that has made it genuinely difficult to make it obsolete.

But what I will say for the peasants of the world, be we from a long line of people of the land or relatively newly boots on soil is that resourcefulness and frugality are our bedfellows. Unlike our industrial counterparts, most of us eat what we grow, and we grow what we eat. We savour the products of our labour, and we maintain old traditions of preserving for the lean times. These are the hallmark attributes of peasants the world over, and as I’ve watched my peasant comrades from Australia to Italy, China to America, South Africa to Brazil, I’ve seen their self- and community- sufficiency as the world’s original preppers have found ourselves prepared. We guiltily share how much we’re enjoying lockdown, because farmers eat lockdown for breakfast – it’s like most days of the week for us, but better because we’re forced to be where we most want to be, and so have more time for growing, preserving, and planning a better system.

And planning we are, on our farms, with our communities, and in our collectives. Buckminster Fuller famously said that ‘You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.’ We have been building the new one (while also fighting the old one), and now we’re (mostly) ready. The old system is eating itself, the new one is going to feed you.

Remember – together, we’ve got this. That means all of us. If you’re unemployed or looking for ways to foster your community – find or start a local Mutual Aid Group. If you’re a farmer or an eater in Australia, join the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance. In the US, join the US Food Sovereignty Alliance. Every country has its collectives – join yours. Wherever you are, collectivise, organize, and ACT.

On Ethical Omnivorism

Eating is not just natural, it’s also an agricultural and a political act, as wise people have said before me. Everything we eat must have been grown or manufactured somewhere, somehow, and simply put, some are better than others – better for soil, water, air, plants, animals and people.

The philosophy behind ethical omnivorism is quite simple – it’s a principle of doing least harm, treading lightly and trying to produce and consume in closed systems as much as possible. Outputs are inputs, there’s no such thing as waste. Animals are a critical part of healthy agro-ecologies, but get them out of balance (or divorce them from horticulture entirely), and we have a problem. Why grow thousands of them in sheds and then try to work out what to do with the concentrated effluence when they can live a natural life on the land while benefiting soils instead of poisoning them?

The ethical omnivore doesn’t float through life sometimes eating critically endangered fish like Orange Ruffy and calling herself a pescatarian. She doesn’t refuse to eat red meat but enjoy the odd bit of factory-farmed bacon because it’s too tasty to resist. Nor does she eat meat furtively, with a niggling sense of guilt at the part she’s playing in rainforest degradation and the decimation of global fish populations. She may not have all the answers, but she’s got a framework and a commitment to finding out more and following through on her best options for a delicious, ethical dinner. She eats meat mindfully, with visceral pleasure and gratitude.

The ethical omnivore rejects the notion that the only healthy, sustainable, ethical diet is devoid of animal products, while respecting one’s right and choice to be a vegetarian. She devours a broad range of vegetable-based dishes and accepts the concern that most of the global north consumes too much meat – both a result of and catalyst for intensive animal agriculture. She agrees with the Slow Meat mantra to ‘eat better meat, less often’.

The ethical omnivore mindfully refuses to eat animals grown entirely indoors, whether in cages or vast sheds, and arms herself with knowledge to find local options for meat from animals raised outdoors and without huge inputs of monocropped grains. She prefers to eat food grown by humans, not manufactured by corporations, and supports a livelihood for local farmers instead of lining the pockets of the power brokers in today’s industrial food chain.

Sometimes the ethical omnivore might eat from the detritus of Big Food, which serves to remind her that it doesn’t even taste good. And then she moves on, continuing with her mindful choices, ever conscious of her own fallibility in a complicated world.

The ethical omnivore eats most things, not too much of any one thing, preferably whole things.

Agroecology & ‘other innovations’ – Australia on the wrong side of history

[Note: this was first posted on the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) website]

In April, AFSA attended a seminar hosted by the CSIRO in Canberra, giving the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) a chance to share their current work on Agroecology and Other Innovations for Sustainable Food Systems with the Australian public and policymakers. The HLPE is an expert panel created within the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) to facilitate policy debates and inform policy making with independent research.

The seminar was not particularly well advertised amongst farmers and their representative bodies, and I believe AFSA was the only representative organisation for farmers who attended. In fact, I learned about the seminar from activists and FAO staff in Rome – not through any local channels. Conversely, Bayer was there – the world’s largest supplier of seed and agri-chemicals after last year’s merger with Monsanto – they now control about 25% of the seed & pesticide market globally.

The event started out promisingly enough, with assertions that it used to be ‘agriculture versus the environment’ but that ‘that time is over,’ and repeated assurances that we are beyond the time for business-as-usual approaches given the urgency of the need for radically different agricultural practices in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

The Chair of the HLPE Steering Committee Patrick Caron gave an insightful overview of the context of the report on agroecology and ‘other innovations’, in which he pointed out that ‘when people talk about agroecology, sustainable intensification, precision agriculture – they have very different things in mind…’. Caron explained that this report’s role is to understand disagreements and to shape the international agenda.

He was followed by Fergus Lloyd Sinclair of the Agroforestry Institute in Nairobi, the HLPE Project Team Leader, who presented a very encouraging update on their work on the report to date. He first candidly shared what a ‘schizophrenic terms of reference’ the HLPE was given by the CFS, pointing out that ‘agroecology’ and ‘other innovations’ can be distinguished on the basis of principles. Sinclair asserted that ‘agroecology is a dynamic space, with many actors… not prescribed… locally defined in different ways by the people who are practicing it…’ and that there is a ‘strong connection between indigenous knowledge, traditional agriculture systems, and science.’

He went on to explain that agroecology as an innovation is easily distinguished from other approaches such as ‘sustainable intensification’ (and ‘climate smart agriculture’, ‘nutrient sensitive agriculture’, because agroecology (which may broadly include aspects of organic agriculture, agroforestry, silvopastoralism, and permaculture) is labour intensive rather than capital intensive. It relies on the humans in its system for knowledge and labour rather than capital intensive technological innovations that seek to largely replace human labour and often even knowledge.

Sinclair also explained the HLPE’s pitch to include ‘agency’ as a fifth pillar of food security – a concept already fundamental to food sovereignty, which asserts everyone’s right to collectively participate in food and agriculture systems.

After this rousing start, we watched as the CSIRO took to the podium. After thanking her colleagues from the HLPE and agreeing that we cannot continue with ‘business as usual’ approaches, the Acting Deputy Director of Food and Agriculture gave a 20-minute presentation on business as usual. She started with some stats:

  • Australia is 6th largest land size country in world and 55th largest population
  • Major exports: wheat, beef, wool, dairy, wine – mostly to China, USA, and Japan
  • Farmers are 2.5% of total workforce
  • 90% of our population lives on .2% of our land
  • Australian ag workforce: 82% live in regional areas, 73% work full time, 32% female (more likely to try non business as usual approaches, more likely to earn off farm income), 1% indigenous
  • Change areas for Australian ag: increasing competition, Asia’s growth, evolving consumer, biosecurity & provenance, resource scarcity, climate change, digital ag, energy disruption

She then asserted that ongoing innovations are needed to protect our natural resources as well as agriculture, requiring new forms of surveillance. Wait, what? Next, regarding upcoming innovations, she said, ‘I aspire for a future where Australian ag is a price-setter in the global market.’ Okay, but what about agroecology?

Here’s a list of some of the non-business-as-usual innovations cited by the CSIRO at this seminar on agroeocology and other innovations:

  • yield maps
  • canola yield based on average rainfall
  • nitrogen application impact
  • virtual fencing (‘quite happy cows with their lovely collars on’)
  • genetic engineering for broad-spectrum disease resistance, novel oils, nitrogen fixing plants, fixing heterosis through apomixes, pest-resistant legumes, boosting photosynthesis, and biofortified foods
  • New grains for human health – engineering health outcomes into food people eat such as barley and wheat. High amylose wheat, BARLEYmax, novel fibre wheat, gluten-free cereals, thick aleurone cereals
  • Leaf oils – ‘game changer for global oil production’ – a seed output as well as a leaf output

I guess the CSIRO is more in the ‘other innovations’ camp. (In fact when a like-minded colleague asked the CSIRO speaker between sessions why she didn’t speak about agroecology, she responded that she was ‘instructed not to.’ Let that sink in for a minute.)

Our mates from Bayer were the first question off the rank after the opening speakers, revisiting a point Sinclair made about an ‘increasing moralisation around food.’ The Bayer rep asked Sinclair how he believes the ‘moralisation of food’ impacts on equity. It is a tried and true rhetorical trick from industrial ag proponents, who often seek to establish their own moral position with appeals to equal access and the role of (presumed but not always proven) cheap technologies (that they own) to ‘feed the masses.’ They may as well exclaim, ‘Let them eat cake!’ and be done with it. Whether posed as a question or an assertion, this device always willfully ignores earlier expert points that hunger is not caused by scarcity of food, but rather by failures in governance and distribution.

During the break I was introduced to another CSIRO senior staffer as the president of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance. His response was to raise his eyebrows and yelp, ‘Food sovereignty? That raises alarm bells with policy people!’ To which I calmly responded, ‘Really? Policymakers are alarmed by peoples’ right to democratically participate in the food and agriculture system?’ ‘Yes!’ he intoned, ‘Internationally it impedes trade!’

I think that rather than bore you with the rest of what we heard from the CSIRO at the seminar, all of which is in line with what’s cited above and demonstrates their slavish devotion to free trade in capitalist global markets to the detriment of most farmers and eaters everywhere, I’ll leave you with some more interesting input from the HLPE.

Caron gave a summation of the status of the current report on agroecology and ‘other innovations’, which has passed Version 0 and a period of public consultation, with draft Version 1 due to be released soon.

Part one of the report asks: What has changed in past 20 years regarding food security & nutrition (FSN)?

  1. Acknowledgement through different definitions of FSN of the right to food. FSN until creation of FAO in 1945 was a national issue, became a global issue in second half of the century. Increasingly realised that sufficient supply doesn’t ensure FSN.
  2. In 80s and 90s we were talking about starvation, and now we talk about 800mil suffering hunger & starvation – mostly rural poor.
  3. We are mainly focusing on yield improvement when we are wasting a third of production.
  4. Hunger is not decreasing quickly enough and overweight & obesity are increasing rapidly – well beyond infectious diseases – and are the number one problem in public health.

Part two of the report examines the ways in which food systems are changing, and reminds us that the question is not how to feed 9 billion people, it’s how to feed them in a sustainable way while providing decent livelihoods for producers. We can use the food system as a lever to address all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). ‘We thought that improving supply and access to markets would help everyone but we were wrong.’

The third part of the draft report has the much-anticipated draft recommendations – what’s needed to make food systems sustainable? The answers warm a food sovereignty activist’s heart. How to improve food supply? It could be through investing in knowledge and technology, reducing food waste, internalizing externalities – they’re all possibilities. It must be through strengthening resilience – investing in small-scale ag, securing land and tenure rights, securing social equity and responsibility with social protection systems, supporting women and youth, creating decent jobs in agriculture, through investing in education for all.

The HLPE reminds us we can’t forget the need to change consumption habits, and that to do so we need to change the food environment – advertisements, subsidies, and banning some types of food like we have with alcohol and tobacco. The CFS is supposed to draft voluntary guidelines to be agreed in 2020.

Caron insists that we must improve governance of food systems and the capacity of stakeholders to participate. He says that the changes will be knowledge intensive and we have to invest in knowledge – the answers are not the ones already on the shelves. We must design new governance of food systems at all levels – including national levels.

Before closing we had a final opportunity for questions or comments, so I took the opportunity to express concern at the CSIRO’s focus over the course of the day on exports, growth, and increasing yield in spite of the obvious environmental degradation witnessed up Australia’s eastern coast over the past two years due to extreme levels of drought in a changing climate, and also in spite of the expert position presented here and for decades now that we don’t need to grow more food, we need to make food systems more democratic. The response from the CSIRO was, ‘we’re an independent science research body – we can’t take sides.’

Well AFSA can, and we choose a habitable planet for generations to come. By not joining the heavy weight of evidence showing the changes needed in our food and agriculture systems, CSIRO are taking a side too – commonly known as the wrong side of history.

Tammi Jonas

President, Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance

The UN, Biodiversity, & Climate Change

I am in mourning.

A younger, more optimistic me died last week. Not even 50, she was far too young.

As I sat with the governments of the world at UN meetings in Rome, I couldn’t get Midnight Oil’s iconic 1987 song Beds are Burning out of my head, the line ‘how can we sleep while our beds are burning’ playing over and over, drowning out the monotone of the oft-repeated refrain that ‘Canada would like it noted that the guidelines are voluntary’ and ‘specific actions are a matter for national governments’.

I want to apologise to my children for the way the generations before them have trashed the planet they need to live on – we are leaving them an inheritance of climate chaos and almost certain social collapse globally. And we’ve known we were spending the resources they’ve loaned us for decades, but our governments have continually bowed at the altar of industry, accepting tithes to retain their seculo-papal power.

I want to fall to my knees, weep, wail, tear my hair out, and retreat to a nunnery. I want to drought proof our farm and close the gate. I want to open the gate and let them all come. I want to stand on every stage and in every screen and shout ‘WAKE UP! IT’S TOO LATE! WAKE UP! IT CAN’T BE TOO LATE!’ I want to believe it’s not too late, I know it’s too little, too late.

Over a week of mind-numbing bureaucratic tedium in a theatre in the house of the dead – the mausoleum that is the buildings of the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) – we heard over and over that the FAO and its committees know very well and in fine detail what has caused and is causing climate change and loss of biodiversity.

We heard the world’s most powerful highly developed nations shrug off responsibility and distract the audience with insistence on a word change here, a denial of FAO’s role there, oh, and ‘we don’t support monitoring’ of their activities by the FAO. The US nasally reminds us (as if we could forget) that ‘we agree with Canada.’ Argentina and Brazil form their own bloc – two of the south’s biggest industrial ag countries – sometimes agreeing with their North American counterparts, sometimes not. It’s hard to get their measure – these major global exporters of soy, wheat, maize, sugarcane, and beef have some of the language of farmers’ rights and biodiversity loss, but are also averse to scrutiny and vocal supporters of further developments in biotechnology for agriculture.

The meeting was the Seventeenth Regular Session of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Members of the secretariat noted that in the past two years they have ‘firmly planted biodiversity in the global agenda’, and that ‘the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) 13th Conference of the Parties (COP) heralded a reinvigorated relationship with FAO, marking the beginning of a new era of synergies between agriculture and the environment.’ This hopeful note was for many of us the first stroke in a week of a thousand deaths, as senior bureaucrats repeatedly ‘heralded’ the realisation of things we learned in primary school.

We heard of their revolutionary work to ‘mainstream biodiversity’ – that awkward, outcast kid who has trouble getting along with all the homogenous blonde little Johnnies in her class, with her chemical-free, whole foods diet, and the rich microbiome helping her digest her morning glass of raw milk. That’s right – we’re so far down the industrial path that we now need the UN to teach us how to ‘mainstream’ biodiversity back into agriculture, forestry, and fisheries.

Some of my notes from the meeting read more like the lines from Idiocracy, where characters from the past have to teach our future selves not to put a Gatorade-like product on plants. It’s worth quoting the movie at length here to give you a better sense of where I just was.

Joe: For the last time, I’m pretty sure what’s killing the crops is this Brawndo stuff. 

Secretary of State: But Brawndo’s got what plants crave. It’s got electrolytes. 

Attorney General: So wait a minute. What you’re saying is that you want us to put water on the crops. 

Joe: Yes. 

Attorney General: Water. Like out of the toilet? 

Joe: Well, I mean, it doesn’t have to be out of the toilet, but, yeah, that’s the idea. 

Secretary of State: But Brawndo’s got what plants crave. 

Attorney General: It’s got electrolytes. 

Joe: Okay, look. The plants aren’t growing, so I’m pretty sure that the Brawndo’s not working. Now, I’m no botanist, but I do know that if you put water on plants, they grow. 

Secretary of Energy: Well, I’ve never seen no plants grow out of no toilet. 

Secretary of State: Hey, that’s good. You sure you ain’t the smartest guy in the world? 

Joe: Okay, look. You wanna solve this problem. I wanna get my pardon. So why don’t we just try it, okay, and not worry about what plants crave? 

Attorney General: Brawndo’s got what plants crave. 

Secretary of Energy: Yeah, it’s got electrolytes. 

Joe: What are electrolytes? Do you even know? 

Secretary of State: It’s what they use to make Brawndo. 

Joe: Yeah, but why do they use them to make Brawndo? 

Secretary of Defense: ‘Cause Brawndo’s got electrolytes.

I feel for the FAO staff at these meetings. Their website admonishes us to ‘eat local’ and ‘diversify your diet’, noting as per the Report on The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food & Agriculture’s findings released at the meetings, we are losing biodiversity at an alarming rate.

Just nine crops account for 66% of total crop production. Nine. Crops.

26% of livestock breeds are threatened with extinction. Bees and other pollinators are dying. The FAO are clear on the facts that lay before us, and they’re clear that the worst contributor to this dismal outlook is industrial agriculture. The report tells us that changes in land and water use and management are the biggest offenders, with de-forestation to clear the way for industrial monocultures – much of which is fed to animals in intensive livestock systems – leading our demise.

While the FAO knows WTF is wrong, governments look side-eyed at each other and angle for a bigger piece of the world’s shrinking genetic pie. They have made huge advances in recent decades on digital sequencing information (DSI, aka genetic sequencing data or ‘de-materialised genetic resources’). We heard from an FAO senior staffer that where the human genome originally cost USD $100 million to sequence, it can now be done for just $600. What are the real implications for this?

Although DSI is a de-materialised form of genetic data, it can be used to reproduce its source synthetically in the lab. Practically speaking, this means that anything that has been sequenced is available to corporations to reproduce, ‘improve’, and you guessed it, patent. They can take peasant seeds, re-fashion them as they like to be pesticide resistant or to increase yield, patent them and pocket the profits. Meanwhile, the original custodians of these seeds – the Indigenous Peoples, peasants, and small-scale farmers of the world, get nothing for their centuries and millennia of toil that made these seeds available in the first place.

Realising the inequity of this situation, the UN put in place measures to try to ensure access to genetic resources and benefit-sharing (ABS) of developments of these resources by the world’s colonisers of seed. You can see how well that is going in my account of last year’s meeting of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Plant Genetic Resources for Food & Agriculture on farmers’ rights. Spoiler: not so well.

Here we have two key issues battling for our attention – DSI and ABS – and they are deeply intertwined as physical seeds become irrelevant when multinational corporations like Monsanto-Bayer and Syngenta sequence them, and countries like the USA and Canada sit in Rome and assert that they ‘do not support monitoring or evaluation of countries’ implementation of ABS’, and insist that ‘DSI is separate from ABS’. Still with me?

In case there’s a risk that I’ve misinterpreted the motives of the north Americans, let me highlight a significant revision they demanded in the Commission’s Multi-Year Program of Work, changing the wording on the Commission’s plan for ‘biotechnologies’ in 2021 and 2025 from ‘Review of the development of biotechnologies and their potential impact on the conservation and sustainable utilisation of GRFA (genetic resources for food & ag) to ‘Review of the work on biotechnologies for the conservation and sustainable use of GRFA’. That’s right – they don’t want the Commission to review the impact of biotech on genetic resources – they’ve erased that potential and codified the notion that biotech is ‘for conservation and sustainable use’.

Next on the agenda, the Commission ‘requested FAO to prepare a scoping study on the role of GRFA in adaptation and mitigation of climate change, taking into account the forthcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special reports on terrestrial and marine systems…’ A scoping study. And if they determine that the role of genetic resources for food and agriculture are ‘pertinent’, then the working groups should provide guidance to the Commission on preparation of a ‘global country-driven assessment for review […] and consideration by the Commission in this next Session’ (in 2021).

We don’t need to scope a study on the importance of biodiversity – we don’t even need another study to tell us what we already understand quite well. The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture report spells it out and underscores the urgency of the problems of rapid biodiversity loss. Sure, keep studying the particularities of the problems, but meanwhile, STOP CUTTING DOWN FORESTS IMMEDIATELY.

IPC made an intervention on the agenda item on biodiversity and climate change, virtually begging the governments to act more swiftly to slow the terrible impacts of climate change already felt in Australia and across the globe. While we were congratulated by a number of non-state actors and a handful of state representatives from the global south, I fear that too many vested interests cotton the ears of most in the global north.

There were lengthy deliberations on the role of aquatic, animal, and forestry genetic resources for food and agriculture, punctuated with the same heel digging from North and South America’s wealthiest nations, hand wringing from Africa’s poorest, and calls for more and stronger action from countries like Ecuador and Iran. Aside from Japan’s regular alignment with the North Americans, Asia was remarkably reserved on most topics.

Perhaps this line from our intervention on animal genetic resources most succinctly highlights the interrelationships between all plants, animals, and soil that have been segmented by much of the work in governmental fora:

‘De-forestation is largely driven by industrial livestock agriculture as trees are felled to make room for monocultures of soy, corn, and other grains to be fed to animals in intensive production models. Both intensive industrial livestock production and monocultures of grain are significant contributors to loss of biodiversity and polluters of waterways, thereby also contributing to the loss of biodiversity in terrestrial and marine waters.’

Sadly, while these realities of the impact of industrial agriculture are well known, reported on, and provided the sub-text for the entire week of the Commission’s meetings, there was a unified reluctance to speak on the specificities of the problems, which might have required the Commission to debate the specificities of the solutions.

In the agenda item on micro-organisms and pollinators, peasant farmer and long-term activist Guy Kastler of Confédération Paysanne in France made this excellent intervention. While the bees die and human health suffers from the orthodoxy of sterility that is killing our own microbiomes, governments seemed most interested in working on the micro-organisms in the rumen of cattle to aid their digestion of grain in intensive livestock systems.

Aligned with work already undertaken by the FAO, the IPC recommended very specific urgent action by all governments of the world to address practices that are undermining the sustainability of food and agricultural production, including but not limited to:

  • pesticide use;
  • synthetic fertiliser use;
  • repeated tilling of soils;
  • intensive livestock production;
  • over-grazing;
  • de-forestation; and
  • over-fishing & intensive aquaculture.

We also urged member states to join the FAO in its efforts to promote the use of production models and management practices that promote and preserve biodiversity, such as agroecology, including approaches that integrate biodiverse forestry practices such as agrosilviculture, agrisilvipasture, and silvopastoral systems; and artisanal and small-scale fisheries.

Finally, we supported the Commission’s plan to facilitate the participation of relevant stakeholders in decision-making, and asked that where they have not done so already, the Commission and its member states put in place frameworks that effectively respect, preserve, and maintain knowledges, innovations, practices, and rights of indigenous peoples, small-scale farmers, fishers, and fish workers, and local communities, in particular assuring farmers’ rights as per the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food & Agriculture.  

Our final words to the Commission were:

We understand that governments are reliant on, responsive to, and at times answerable to the various industries of your nations. But no industry – including commodity agriculture – should ever have unfettered power to act against the public good. We come here as representatives of the peoples of the world, and ask that you consider your people’s interests above all. The time for decisive action to end destructive industrial agricultural practices was fifty years ago. The time for action is now.

Now it’s time to pick myself up and continue to be active in my own optimism – to be an active optimist. Our children’s future depends on us.  

Then They Buy You – the Eat-Lancet Report on Healthy Diets

[Originally posted on the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance blog]

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

What this homily so popular with activists and politicians is perhaps missing is the feature that arose in late capitalist society – then they buy you – and it’s unclear whether that happens before or after the fight, or in place of the fight.

There is currently a dramatic increase in attention paid to regenerative and agroecological farming to combat climate change – something we activists and farmers are celebrating – but with the cheers must come sobering cautionary tales.

Big Ag and Big Food have a long history of cooption and destruction of positive changes in the system – take the farce that is ‘free-range eggs’ in Australia today, where chickens need only have ‘access to outdoors’ from giant, stinking sheds where they spend most of their time, and stocking densities can be up to 10,000 birds per hectare. Industrial organics, ‘naturally grown’ claims, and now the emergence of lab-grown meat as a clean, green alternative are further examples of the subterfuge built into the industrial system.

So when the Eat-Lancet Commission Report ‘Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems’ was released, naturally many of us read the recommendations and then immediately followed the money. The inimitable Chris Ennis of CERES Community Environment Park wrote a great piece exposing the vested interests of the Eat Foundation and its scientists, with links to big fertilizer company Yara International, and partnerships with global do-gooders as diverse as Nestlé and Syngenta. At the launch last weekend in Melbourne, we heard a lot about the promise of the next Green Revolution (hang on, isn’t that what got us into this mess in the first place?) and GM, and it sure didn’t sound like we were at the launch of a report on how to achieve personal and planetary health anymore.

But what about the content of the report? Are the recommendations any good?

Not really. It starts with the reductive nutritionalist discourse that we need to shift globally to healthy diets, and they’ve got the diet for us (but no roadmap for how we’re going to shift The Entire World to said diet). First off the menu is meat – with no distinction between production models for meat, so pastured pork, poultry, beef, and lamb are treated as though they have the same environmental impact as raising animals in sheds and feedlots. And although the report calls for a reduction in sugar, it curiously recommends you get more calories from sugar (120 kcal/day) than from meat (‘optionally’ up to 92 kcal/day). An astonishing 291 kcal/day should come from nuts – astonishing because the push to eat more almonds is wildly at odds with the negative impacts those thirsty monocultures are having on places like the central valley of California or along the Murray River in Victoria. It’s like the report was written by vegans – because it largely was. In another slightly bizarre turn, potatoes are about as low on the list as meat (sorry, Peru).

While the report purports to address personal and planetary health, its focus on production models is myopic at best, and contradictory at worst. It totally ignores agroecology – the form of agriculture promoted by the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations – and it recommends an increase in nitrogen application in places like Africa. One could almost believe a fertilizer company helped write it. Oh, yeah, they (essentially) did. (See above.) Where are the peasants who produce up to 70% of the world’s food in this report? Strangely absent.

Oops – I forgot to do the feedback sandwich with a whole-grain positive bun around the vegetables of dubious origin. There are redeeming features in the report – a reduction in meat consumption in the Global North is a good thing to recommend, but should come with an ‘eat better meat, less’ explanation. Taking animals out of the system is not in fact a sustainable proposal, as many have written already. But eradicating intensive livestock production would be a great outcome – had the report suggested that specifically. Perhaps the ties with Unilever (who are now investing in lab meat) made that unpalatable?

The authors call for halving food loss and waste – this is a good call. But the means to do so remain fuzzy – ‘improving post-harvest infrastructure, food transport, processing and packaging, increasing collaboration along the supply chain, training and equipping producers, and educating consumers.’ Okay. Or how about we radically depart from the productivist mindset, long supply chains, and disconnected retail decisions made by massive corporations who reject bananas based on how much or how little they curve.

Strategy 4 in the report calls for strong and coordinated governance of land and oceans – a particularly cynical call given the infiltration of all the UN bodies who do this critical work by the vested interests of Big Ag and Big Food, including Eat Foundation’s buddies at Nestlé, Syngenta, and Monsanto-Bayer.

As I tried to work out how and what to write about the Eat Lancet Report, I stopped caring what the diet recommends or the lack of internal logic between their recommendations around production and consumption, and shifted back to the fundamental questions we ask in the food sovereignty movement – does this ‘solution’ put more power back in the hands of the people or does it remain with multinational corporations? Do people get to participate democratically in the decisions being made about where, by whom, and how their food is produced, processed, and distributed? No? Then I’m not interested. It’s another false solution offered by those who stand to profit from it.

I’ll finish where I started – then they buy us. The likes of the Eat Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Richard Branson, Kimbal Musk – and so many other charitable foundations, organisations, and people like them – aren’t advocating for a better food system because they’re just really great people – it’s because they smell the money. They’re working with the very multinationals who have created a food system that is devastating ecosystems – Unilever, Cargill, Monsanto – who are now shifting to ‘sustainable’ production of plant-based foods and lab-grown meat in a bid to ‘save the planet’ they’ve trashed.

You may (rightly, I reckon) think the philanthrocapitalists have some good intentions, but their multinational corporate partners sure don’t. They’ve just discovered their next market – and you’re it.

Tammi Jonas, President

Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance

Love is kindness, kindness is love

While this blog is primarily about food ethics and politics, it has also always been a space for my broader musings on life, ethics, love, and politics. And so today I’m choosing to share something intimate – my beloved Lover’s and my newly updated (or corrected) vows that we made to each other last weekend on the occasion of our 25th wedding anniversary.

We thanked both sets of our parents for their examples of enduring coupledom – the highs and lows, feelings of joy, sorrow, and anger… relationships are sometimes great and sometimes shite.

Watching our folks our whole lives has taught us that longevity is to no small extent built on how you respond to each other and to external stresses, how well you forgive each other your trespasses and undesirable idiosyncrasies, and whether you choose to fully see and embrace each other’s beauty and strengths.

I will preface this further by acknowledging that we have not always been kind to each other, and we have not always been our best selves. Our willingness to forgive each other must be one of the foundations of the longevity of our love and long-standing relationship. But here we are, 25 years married (27.5 together), vowing afresh how to best navigate and celebrate another 25 years together.

Without further ado, forever I do.

Stuart

I vow to always be kind. When I’m tired, when I’m sad, when I’m angry, when I’m stressed, or when I’m busy, I will still be kind.

I show kindness in my eyes – I vow to look at you with love and respect, no matter how I feel, because I love you and respect you deeply.

I show kindness with my voice – I vow to speak to you with love and respect in my voice, no matter how I feel.

I show kindness with my acts – I vow to help you be who you want to be and do what you want to do by being there when you need me, hugging you when you need a hug, and letting you go when you need to go. By doing the dishes when you’re tired, and at least sometimes greeting you with a nice lunch when you come in from the boning room.

I make sure you always have water in your truck, I give you coffee in the right cup to suit your mood and caffeine desires each day, and I vow to butter your toast all the way to the edges. I vow to remember that your hearing is more sensitive than mine and place dishes and pans down gently.

I show kindness by remembering what you like and what you don’t. I vow to never buy merlot again, to pick you jonquils when they first bloom in the dam paddock before the cattle can eat them, and to sometimes put more than just lettuce in the salad. I vow to serve others before myself, and to wait until everyone is served before I start to eat.

I am not a word person, but I know words are important to you. I vow to find words to tell you when I’m stressed, when I’m angry, when I need your or someone else’s help to solve a problem. I vow not to punish you with silence, and to just give you a hug when I can’t find the right words.

I vow to be present – to listen when you speak to me, to respond to what’s said, and to take joy in time spent together. I vow not to waste time on negative emotions, because life is short and I want to enjoy every minute of our lives.

I have loved you for most of my life, and I vow to love you for the rest of my life.

Tammi

I vow to always be kind. When I’m tired, when I’m sad, when I’m angry, when I’m stressed, or when I’m busy, I will still be kind.

I show kindness in my eyes – I vow to look at you with love and respect, no matter how I feel, because I love you and respect you deeply.

I show kindness with my voice – I vow to speak to you with love and respect in my voice, no matter how I feel.

I show kindness with my acts – I vow to help you be who you want to be and do what you want to do by being there when you need me, hugging you when you need a hug, and letting you disappear to the paddocks or another project in the shed when you need to. By helping to plant more trees and by feeding you before you get hangry.

I show kindness by remembering what you like and what you don’t. I cook your eggs to over medium and fry yours when poaching mine, I keep nuts out of your salad, and schedule orthodontist appointments on days when I can take the kids so you don’t have to. I take them shopping for shoes so you don’t have to enter a shop, and ensure there’s plenty of fruit in the house for your morning hit.

I am a word person, and I know that you are not. I vow to accept that you don’t always have the words to say what you feel, and to help you find them with kindness and love, and to just accept a hug when the words simply aren’t there. I vow to accept that not all silence is punishment, and that sometimes you need me to be silent too when your head is elsewhere solving a problem.

I have loved you for most of my life, and I vow to love you for the rest of my life.

The Fight for Farmers’ Rights to Seed

[This was originally posted on the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance website. If you are still not a member of AFSA, get over there and join us!]

Background

The idea of farmers’ rights arose in international governance in the early 1980s, a reaction to the increased demand for plant breeders’ rights, and to ensure farmers’ continued contribution to the global genetic pool – addressing the rights not of individuals, but of entire peoples. Its purpose was also to draw attention to the unrecognised innovations of peasants that are the foundation of all modern plant breeding.

The growth of the industrial seed sector and parallel loss of peasant seed systems has not occurred through some natural or inevitable process. It’s the result of deliberate policies designed to promote an industrial seed system based on seed protected by intellectual and industrial property rights in which peasants are given little or no choice to use that seed.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (aka the ‘Seed Treaty’) was adopted in 2001, and there are now 144 Contracting Parties (national governments). Its objectives are the conservation and sustainable use of all plant genetic resources for food and agriculture and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of their use, in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity, for sustainable agriculture and food security.

According to Article 9 of the Seed Treaty, the realization of farmers’ rights must include:

  • protection of traditional knowledge,
  • equitable sharing of benefits from the utilization of peasant seed systems,
  • farmers’ participation in decision making, and
  • the right to save, use, exchange & sell farm-saved seeds & propagating material.

The Treaty places responsibility for the realization of those rights on national governments.

In 2017, an Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Farmers’ Rights (the AHTEG-FR) was established to work towards the implementation of farmers’ rights established in Article 9 of the Seed Treaty. The Expert Group has a unique opportunity to contribute to the development of international norms in realizing farmers’ rights. The first meeting of the Expert Group was held in the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN buildings in Rome 11-14 September 2018, with a mandate to create an inventory of national measures that support farmers’ rights and explore options to ensure more countries implement Article 9.

Membership of the Expert Group & Farmers’ Inclusion in Decision Making

The membership of the Expert Group includes government representatives from countries in all regions of the world, mostly from ministries of agriculture, and representatives from civil society, farmers’ organisations, and the private sector. Of those chosen from civil society and farmers’ organisations, only two delegates are farmers themselves (the others are NGO staff), and one of those (a Samoan farmers’ org) was apparently selected by the Australian Government.

The single peasant farmer present at the first meeting of the group is from a rural women’s organization in Mali and was there on behalf of the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC). Her name is Alimata, and she is a fantastic advocate for peasants and especially women in Mali and regionally and globally. However, Alimata only speaks French, and while the meeting was simultaneously interpreted in English, French, and Spanish, all documentation was provided only in English – including a 91-page synthesis report of what is happening across the world in regards to farmers’ right to seed. Further, all fresh documents created during the meeting for immediate discussion and decision making were also only provided in English. This created a serious barrier to participation of peasants in the discussions around how to implement our rights.

The meeting was a striking manifestation of how corporations control the food system.

The International Seed Federation (ISF), which represents plant breeders globally (including seed and chemical giants Monsanto and Syngenta), is a delegate on the Expert Group. The ISF delegate contributed frequently and forcefully, and virtually every contribution she made was an attempt to limit farmers’ rights rather than implement them as per the mandate. An early example includes her assertion that ‘when implementing the rights of certain groups of farmers we should not be detrimental to other groups of farmers.’ This is equivalent to suggesting that protecting the rights of women or people of colour somehow damages the rights of straight white males.

It was perhaps even more galling to watch her pass notes to the delegates representing the governments of Canada, the United States, and Australia (‘the colonialists’), apparently instructing them on many of their interventions, as well as regularly exchanging meaningful glances with the colonialists.

Canada led the charge of the colonialist governments keen to protect intellectual property (IP) rights over peasants’ rights to seed. The Canadian delegate gave a presentation highlighting the massive increase in canola production, telling the Expert Group how ‘happy’ Canadian farmers are with this lucrative GM [mono]crop, and completely ignoring the environmental costs of such ‘green deserts’.

He also spoke of how the [industrial] farmers in Canada have worked to restrict their own use of protected plant varieties ‘for the public good’ by supporting an act that protects biosecurity for the industry. And then he listed all the peak industrial farmers’ organisations with whom his office consults as an example of meeting Article 9’s right to participate in decision making – even Syngenta gets a regular audience.

The example of Canada brings up the question of which kind of farmers’ rights does Article 9 seek to protect. While it is rather farcical to get into a debate about whether industrial farmers should have rights – they already have far more rights than peasant and indigenous farmers – we, civil society, want peasant and indigenous farmers’ rights protected even in highly industrialised countries like Canada, the United States, and Australia.

Every country has a responsibility to ensure that their peasant and indigenous farmers’ rights are upheld – their rights under 9.3 to use, exchange and sell seed, and their right to participate in decision making bodies. The list from Canada of organisations did not include the National Farmers Union, for example, a group that defends the rights of small-scale family farmers contributing to agro-biodiversity. How are GM canola farmers contributing to biodiversity? Canada’s list also did not include the Assembly of First Nations nor any of the other organisations defending indigenous peoples’ rights.

We heard of an interesting initiative in Chile, where the Ministry of Agriculture has a Civil Society Council within it. This is apparently a standard practice in other departments in Chile as well – one with great promise to ensure grassroots voices are not left out of important decision-making processes.

A delegate from Norway responded to Canada that Norway chose not to enter the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) because of the need to balance breeders’ and farmers’ rights. Norway pointedly asked, ‘who are the farmers we are talking about? Who is conserving and contributing to biodiversity? What needs do they have?’

Our delegate Alimata asserted that ‘we as farmers say that these rights that belong to farmers are collective and community rights. So IP rights – UPOV – this belongs to the private sphere, it can’t pertain to farmers’ rights. As far as biodiversity is concerned, we feel that it is best preserved out in the field, where farmers breed, renew, and adapt them to their environment. We’re all aware of the effects of climate change, and that biodiversity allows plants to adapt. Farmers cannot grow crops without the rights to grow, save, sow, and sell seed. The best practices also include culinary practices – we’ve lost this love of taste – improved seeds also mean that we’ve lost touch with many things that were useful.’

Alimata further noted how strange it was that there were so many discussions of how to implement farmers’ rights in the synthesis report provided, while the voices of farmers were so few. This was a point I also raised in my initial IPC report on our regional consultations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where I suggested that a room full of men making decisions about womens’ rights would be considered an outrage by most reasonable people these days, and yet here we were in a room full of bureaucrats and a handful of farmers who were mostly present as silent observers – we were not even permitted to speak as they deliberated on whether or how to implement our rights.

The delegate from the US addressed the author of the synthesis report to say, ‘if we’re pitting farmers’ rights against increased yield and farmer incomes then we have a real problem – can you clarify?’ Her response was that farmers’ rights are inhibited because of the focus on increased yield & profit.

Protection of Traditional Knowledge

There was discussion from the more sympathetic delegates that supported farmers’ rights – notably Ecuador, Iran, and Malawi frequently spoke in support of farmers. Iran noted that in many traditional communities, farming is a way of life, not just an income. For example, he shared that ‘there are certain seeds offered to the gods, not just planted, so culture is really important… but that in the meeting we seemed to be just talking about farmers’ rights as economic rights… the right to exchange, maintain seed is a part of heritage.’

Italy backed this position up by asking, ‘What does protection of traditional knowledge mean? Knowledge is reduced to a tradeable object.’ He argued that it is a struggle over meanings and values, and suggested the language move ‘from biopiracy to bioprivateering. – you are not only stealing, you are changing the way of life of the people you steal from.’ He summed up by asserting that the classical view of seeing protection of traditional knowledge only through IP Rights is a colonizing discourse.

A discussion around the issue of misappropriation highlighted some of the key conflicts – on one hand, peasants and indigenous peoples don’t want their traditional knowledge misappropriated for the profit of others, but on the other if knowledge isn’t shared it might become extinguished. Italy responded by noting that there are two ways to protect traditional knowledge – either by just protecting the object, or by protecting the subject – the people who are the holders of the knowledge. The ISF told us she ‘didn’t like’ the word ‘misappropriation’, and the US shared her discomfort with the term.

Which Farmers Should the Treaty Protect?

The IPC suggested that only farmers who contribute to the conservation and renewal of the diversity of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture own these rights. Farmers who simply buy new commercial seeds every year do not contribute to the conservation of PGRFA. They are subject to seed marketing laws and any intellectual property rights that protect them.

Farmers who use their own farm seeds from commercial seed cultivation adapt them to their terroir and their cultivation method. They select the best adaptation traits in their fields and thus contribute to improve the diversity of PGRFA. They therefore own the Farmers’ Rights.

Farmers who select, breed and conserve their own seed from traditional local varieties or PGRFA from the Multilateral System of the Treaty all contribute to the conservation of PGRFA. They are therefore all holders of the Farmers’ Rights and they are not subject to the seed trade laws or Intellectual Property Rights if they are an obstacle to Farmers’ Rights.

In India, where much work has been done by peasants and activists such as the legendary Vandana Shiva, farmers can save, use, sow, re-sow, exchange, share, or sell farm produce including seed of a variety protected under the Act. Farmers cannot sell branded seed of a protected variety, but they are protected by the ‘Innocent infringement’.

Alimata pointed out that there are frameworks and rules that limit farmers’ rights at all levels, for example:

  • frameworks in relation to intellectual property rights (patents and plant variety protection);
  • limitations in relation to the marketing of seeds (e.g. mandatory registration);
  • dematerialization of genetic resources and patents on digital sequences of information on genetic resources; and
  • phytosanitary rules.

These frameworks and rules have been created for the industrial seed system and apply to it. However, the industrial seed system is not covered by Article 9 of the Treaty, and so the creation of specific and autonomous legal frameworks that apply to peasant seed systems is a key measure to guarantee the rights of peasants to save, use, exchange and sell seeds.

From the beginning, ISF pushed to ensure the Seed Treaty is ‘mutually supportive with other instruments’ – by which she meant that recognizing farmers’ rights should not be at the expense of ensuring plant breeders’ rights to their IP (as assured for those 75 countries that are members of UPOV), which inherently restricts other farmers’ right to seed.

A delegate from the US suggested that the group limit the scope of these discussions by taking part 9.1 off the agenda. 9.1 states that ‘The Contracting Parties recognize the enormous contribution that the local and indigenous communities and farmers of all regions of the world, particularly those in the centres of origin and crop diversity, have made and will continue to make for the conservation and development of plant genetic resources which constitute the basis of food and agriculture production throughout the world.’ So America wanted to strike simple recognition of peasants and indigenous peoples from the group’s consideration.

The Politics of Recording History

Quite literally one entire day of four was taken up with a very lengthy discussion on the structure of the table that would be created to collect the national measures in place or in the process of implementation to support farmers’ rights. At first it seemed like either serious mismanagement of the process or a distraction, but in fact, there was a lot at stake. The initial proposal included a column to identify which part of Article 9 a national measure was addressing, and the colonialists didn’t like this level of specificity which might keep them from more general measures that do not in fact directly support farmers’ rights.

The true, hidden debate was exposed in the final discussion on the adoption of the report of this first meeting. The US proposed inclusion of a line that said ‘the inventory [of national measures] is not producing new obligations on [national governments]’. Ecuador, Malawi and Iran spoke in opposition to this line, noting that a) an inventory of course does not produce new obligations – it’s meant as a guide to support the creation of more such measures; and b) they already have obligations under Article 9 as signatories to the Seed Treaty.

In a fascinating case of a bureaucrat losing his cool, the US held his line – ‘I was collaborative in nature, I conceded a point earlier in the spirit of collaboration because I just wanted this sentence. I will hold steadfast to this.’ He pointed out the column he didn’t want in the template that will refer to which part of the Article the measure addresses. ‘We all agree it’s non-controversial, that the inventory doesn’t create new obligations, so why can’t I have this sentence?’ In his steadfastness, he revealed his bias to reject as much language as possible that might hold his government accountable for genuinely supporting farmers’ rights. Canada, Australia, and the ISF all supported the US’s position. The US suggested the deletion of the offending column ‘relevance to the provision in Article 9’ and then he would let the sentence go. Ecuador and Malawi conceded as Switzerland blew neutral raspberries directly to my right.

One of the most egregious efforts from the colonialists was a request from Canada to remove paragraph 11 from the report on the meeting – the paragraph in which the IPC was acknowledged as having delivered a report on civil society’s regional consultations. The US supported Canada’s proposal. The half dozen farmers in the room who were there as silent observers were in shock – not only were we there to silently listen as the colonialists and corporations negotiated to limit our rights at a meeting ostensibly intended to support implementation of our rights, they now wanted to erase us from the record.

Ecuador, the only country in the world with a food sovereignty act, passionately defended the inclusion and recognition of all the work that went into the IPC regional consultations with farmers. Italy and Iran supported Ecuador, and of course Alimata supported the inclusion of our report as well. One of our farmers present quietly informed us that he saw the delegate from UPOV suggest the edit to the colonialists in the lunchroom.

The paragraph that recorded our participation remained in the report. It was small victory in the face of intense global domination by corporations. Had we not been present to defend ourselves, we would have been erased from the history books, as peasants have been for time immemorial. But we’re getting ever more organized, and collectivized… and we will not be silent.

Viva la revolución! Viva la via campesina!

Tammi Jonas, AFSA President