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

Why agroecology is the answer to reducing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions

The following excellent essay is by our current volunteer resident, Grace Jirik, who is currently nearing completion of a Bachelor of Ag Science & International Development. Grace has precisely captured why so many young people are turning hopefully to agroecological farming at the same time that others are running from industrial agriculture. With emerging young farmers like Grace lined up to take over the reins, I reckon the future looks bright!

* * *

Approximately one third of total greenhouse gases are attributed to agriculture and the food systems that support it.[1] It is predicted by climate scientists that warming of more than two degrees celsius will cause irreversible damage to the environment and catastrophic consequences for humanity.[2] Thus, it is of vital importance that the sector drastically shifts away from further industrialisation and instead adopts methods to reduce the contribution to the climate change crisis. The population is expected to reach 8.9 billion by 2050 and increase the demand for food, particularly in the world’s poorest countries.[3] However, the calls to drastically increase food production to meet demand with further industrialisation of the sector and deforestation of arable land is an unsustainable trajectory. In reality, food systems may only need to increase production by 25% to meet demand [4] which can largely be achieved by adopting agroecological models of farming. Without a drastic remodelling of world agricultural systems, the increase in food production will have catastrophic environmental consequences and further reduce the agricultural systems capacity to produce enough food.

The emergence of the so-called “Green Revolution” and the proliferation of industrial farming in the 1960s [5] greatly increased agricultural production through the introduction of artificial fertiliser and the breeding of cultivars to respond to these inputs.[6] But after 50 years, the sector is now faced with the reality that these farming methods are unsustainable and have resulted in a drastic loss of productivity in recent decades.[7] Despite this, industrial agriculture continues to hold a powerful position due to the vicious cycle that it has forged in the sector, paired with the continued availability of cheap fuel.[8] In order to change this trajectory, farming systems need to transition to agroecological models; that is, farming that strives to “mimic natural processes, thus creating beneficial biological interactions and synergies among the components of the agroecosystem”.[9] This model must be widely adopted to help curb global warming and maintain sustainable food systems that can feed the world into the future. In the words of Fuhrer and Gregory, “There is no doubt that agriculture can (and must) be part of the solution to the problem of global warming.”[10]

Agroecological farming systems can mitigate much of the greenhouse gas emissions currently produced by agriculture. Currently, 10-12 percent of global emissions are directly from agriculture [11] and a further 4-13 percent from land clearing for agricultural land use.[12] Much of these emissions come from industrial farming methods that require high inputs of fertiliser, energy and water.[13] In contrast, agroecological farming models use more holistic land management methods. For example, the use of integrated pest management uses beneficial insects, plant deterrents, and staggered crop planting to control pests instead of heavy applications of chemical pesticide.[14] Studies have shown that on farms where integrated pest management was adopted, there was a 71 percent decrease in pesticide use and a yield increase of 42 percent.[15] If such methods were embraced across the world, the energy required for manufacture and transport of pesticide would be enormously reduced and those emissions successfully mitigated.

Similarly, the overuse of fertiliser is a significant area for mitigation potential. The greenhouse gas emissions released in fertiliser manufacture and transport represent the majority of total emissions released in agricultural ‘preproduction’.[16] In addition, direct application of nitrogen fertiliser on soil is the source of most (58%) [17] of total global nitrous oxide production; a gas that has 310 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.[18] By employing the use of green manures, crop rotation and regenerative methods of farming, the use of fertiliser can be cut down without sacrificing yield [19] and consequently mitigate a significant portion of the agricultural sector’s emissions.

Another area with arguably the most significant potential for greenhouse gas mitigation is carbon sequestration in soil. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that 89 percent of agricultural carbon could be mitigated using better practices to ensure soil carbon storage.[20] Soils that contain more organic matter have a much greater ability to store carbon in the long term.[21] Due to the regenerative nature of agroecological practices such as not tilling the land, crop rotation and low stocking density, the soil on these farms tends to have far higher rates of ‘soil organic carbon’ than industrial farms [22], hence releasing less carbon into the atmosphere directly from the soil. And finally, the role of plants in metabolising carbon in the atmosphere is known, the IPCC estimates that “1,146 GtC is stored within the 4.17 b ha of tropical, temperate, and boreal forest areas”.[23] Agroforestry, the planting of trees on farmland, is a key part of agroecological farms and can be a part of the solution to widespread land clearing.[24]

In addition to mitigation, agroecological farming systems will be important in the adaptation required in the face of climate change. There are a plethora of studies that show that agroecological systems are more resilient to climatic shocks than conventional systems.[25,26] This is mainly due to the increased ground cover, higher levels of organic matter within soils and the diversified species on farm that are common in agroecological systems.[27] With the expected increase in damaging climatic events such as cyclones, floods and droughts[28], it is vital for farmers to be able to protect themselves from these events. For example, when ‘Hurricane Mitch’ hit Nicaragua in 1998, those farmers who had adopted agroecological methods such as agroforestry, had 69 percent less gully erosion and retained 40 percent more topsoil than those who had not.[29] Agroforestry is also extremely beneficial in providing shade and preventing heat stress in livestock.[30] It is also known that agroecological farms require less water[31] which will become increasingly important as temperatures start to rise and droughts become more prevalent.

Further to the physical environmental benefits, agroecological systems also build community and individual adaptive capacity. The IPCC has recognised that people who are “socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change”.[32] Thus, for the majority of the world’s poor living in rural areas and working in agriculture[33], the challenges of global warming will be especially debilitating. Many efforts in the past that attempted to improve the livelihood of these farmers simply replicated the industrial farming model of increasing inputs in order to raise yields of a globally marketable cash crop.[34] However, the failures of this method are evident, as “815 million hungry people are family farmers who produce most of the planet’s food”.[35] Agroecological farming systems can help protect from shocks in climate and in the market that would otherwise undermine these livelihoods. By diversifying what is farmed instead of producing a monocultural cash crop, the farmer is less at risk of climate related plant defects or market failure of that particular product.[36] Additionally, an agroecological model that is less reliant on external inputs such as fertilisers, chemicals and diesel fuel makes farmers less dependent on a potentially vulnerable supply chain.[37] Agroecology has also been shown to bring a strong social dimension to farming in strengthen the social security networks that are essential to resilience.[38] This is especially true when agroecological methods of farming has been disseminated from farmer to farmer through self organisation, collective action and reciprocity.[39] 

To conclude, agroecological farming can be a powerful tool in reducing the agricultural sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. The methods can successfully mitigate the majority of emissions currently released. Agroecology will also be vital in societal adaptation to the effects of climate change. It will also strengthen adaptive capacity for individuals and communities. Agroecology has the power to divorce agriculture from the industrialisation that causes global warming.

Emotional Dimension

My emotional reactions to this topic were strong because much of my life outside of university revolves around this exact issue; how can I fix farming? Half of my degree is agricultural science and in a matter of months I will be on my journey to be a farmer, outside the walls of La Trobe. Researching this topic was exciting because I was able to find actual data and evidence that showed the way I want to farm is actually the best model for the planet and for my own profit.  It was encouraging and enlightening information that I will take with me on my future farming ventures.

However, researching was also incredibly frustrating at times. To be faced with the evidence that agroecological farming could be the answer to curtailing the agricultural sector’s contribution to global warming, but no evidence of wide adoption is infuriating as well as confusing. The models that are in place at the moment are undermining farmers by locking them into a heavy reliance on fossil fuels and putting money into the pockets of middle men.[40]

Recently I have had my eyes opened to the food sovereignty movement, mainly as a consequence of being an intern for Tammi Jonas, the current president of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance. Food Sovereignty “asserts the right of peoples to nourishing and culturally-appropriate food produced in ethical and ecologically-sound ways, and their right to collectively determine their own food and agriculture systems”[41]. With my new knowledge of the movement and its importance around the world, researching how ‘big agriculture’ is dismantling farmers’ and consumers’ right to food sovereignty, was particularly emotional.

At times throughout the research I also felt helpless. Many of the industrial systems have been implemented around the world to create a dependency on the model through regulations, retail imperatives and policies that keep fossil fuels cheap.[42] This is why many farmers are ‘locked in’ to an industrial model despite how they may feel about the environmental damage they’re causing. Although I believe that there is huge opportunity for change, researching the vicious cycle of industrial farming that so many people are caught in made me feel somewhat helpless.

Existential Dimension

Much of the research on the topic confirmed my place in the world. Throughout my degree I have been exposed mainly to industrial practices of farming; however, through my own exploration I had found the agroecological alternative. I feel like I belong firmly within this space and am excited for my future in farming and being apart of the uptake of agroecology.

Additionally, I feel more encouraged to be involved in the push against industrial farming. Before researching the topic, I felt comfortable in my future of being an outlier in agriculture with alternative methods. Now I feel strongly about being a part of a global movement away from intensive farming and spreading the information that farmland will be more productive if the agroecological methods are adopted. The research showed that there are members of the industry that rely on this information not becoming wide knowledge due to their reliance on exploiting farmers. These members include fossil fuel companies, fertiliser and pesticide manufacturers and GMO companies who breed specific products to flourish in intensive environments.

However, throughout the research I found that ‘scaling up’ was a popular topic.[43] Arms of the UN such as the Human Rights Council and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) are particularly interested in how we can scale up production via agroecology.[44] This made me question my position on the issue. Although we do need to adopt better farming methods to feed the future population, one of the most significant barriers to greenhouse gas mitigation is growth.

The capitalist ideal of constant growth goes hand-in-hand with environmental degradation. And, as Herman Daly puts it; “the term ‘sustainable growth’ when applied to the economy, is a bad oxymoron – self-contradictory as prose, and unevocative as poetry”.[45] An issue that is too big to address in this essay, but unavoidable when talking of this topic, is the fact that as the population and economies continue to grow, so will greenhouse gas emissions. Agroecological agriculture will certainly bring a better environmental future, but the pressure of population is difficult to limit.

Empowerment and Action Dimension

Researching alternative methods of farming has definitely fostered a sense of responsibility to be ecologically conscious in my future farming ventures. I already knew that I wanted to run a ‘sustainable’ farm, but now I feel as if I have a better sense of direction and can better picture what form it might take.

I am at a point in my life where I believe I have the privilege to farm how I like and think that I would have enough engaged and environmentally conscious customers to be able to prosper. However, I haven’t even made it to the planning stage of my future career and I imagine that eventually I will come up against barriers and be moved to protest. For example, in Australia there has been numerous cases of overregulation of small scale farms due to the lack of differentiation between intensive and agroecological models.[46]

Though I admit that I may not be the most “engaged actor” in the near future, I believe that as I establish myself as a farmer I will become more engaged as time progresses. I will be directly exposed to the difficulties faced by small scale farmers and feel a stronger sense of responsibility to stand up for our rights. Through researching this topic and other extracurricular exploration, I have discovered peasant movements and groups small scale farmers doing exactly this and I already feel a sense of belonging among them. This subject has helped me immensely by further opening my eyes to the reality of fossil fuel domination of our society and the need to dismantle their power structures.

by Grace Jirik

Endnotes

  1. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, ‘From Uniformity to Diversity; A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, IPES Food [webpage], (2016) <http://www.ipes-food.org/images/Reports/IPES_ExSummary02_1606_BRweb_pages_br.pdf> accessed 4th June 2018
  2. IPCC, IPCC: Greenhouse gas emissions accelerate despite reduction efforts Many pathways to substantial emissions reductions are available [media release], 13 April 2014, <http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/ar5/pr_wg3/20140413_pr_pc_wg3_en.pdf>, accessed 3 June 2018
  3. Hunter, M, ‘We don’t need to double world food production by 2050 – here’s why’, The Conversation [webpage], (2017) <https:// theconversation.com/we-dont-need-to-double-world-food-production-by-2050-heres-why-74211> accessed 21 July 2018
  4. Hunter M. et al., ‘Agriculture in 2050: Recalibrating Targets for Sustainable Intensification’ BioScience, vol. 67 (2017), 386–391
  5. Fitzgerald-Moore, P and Parai, BJ, The Green Revolution (Calgary: University of Calgary, 1996), 2
  6. Gliessman, S, Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems (Boca Raton: Taylor and Francis Group, 2007), 3
  7. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, ‘From Uniformity to Diversity; A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, IPES Food [website], (June 2nd 2016) <http://www.ipes-food.org/images/Reports/ IPES_ExSummary02_1606_BRweb_pages_br.pdf> accessed 4th June 2018
  8. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, ‘From Uniformity to Diversity; A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, IPES Food [website], (2016) <http://www.ipes-food.org/images/Reports/ IPES_ExSummary02_1606_BRweb_pages_br.pdf> accessed 4th June 2018
  9. Human Rights Council, ‘Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food’, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, (2010) <http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/food/docs/A-HRC-16-49.pdf>, accessed 30 May 2018, 2
  10. Fuhrer, J and Gregory PJ, Climate Change Impact and Adaption in Agricultural Systems (Oxfordshire: CAB International, 2014), 94
  11. B. Metz, O.R. Davidson, P.R. Bosch, R. Dave, L.A. Meyer (eds), Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 499
  12. Fuhrer, J and Gregory PJ, Climate Change Impact and Adaption in Agricultural Systems (Oxfordshire: CAB International, 2014), 94
  13. Vermeulen, Sonja, Campbell, Bruce, Ingram John, ‘Climate Change and Food Systems’, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, vol. 37 (2012), 198
  14. Reddy, Parvatha, Climate Resilient Agriculture for Ensuring Food Security (New Delhi: Springer, 2015), 207
  15. Reddy, Parvatha, Climate Resilient Agriculture for Ensuring Food Security (New Delhi: Springer, 2015), 208
  16. Vermeulen, Sonja, Campbell, Bruce, Ingram John, ‘Climate Change and Food Systems’, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, vol. 37 (2012), 195-222
  17. IPCC, Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (New York: Cambridge University, 2007), chp 8
  18. Environmental Protection Agency of the United States, ‘Understanding Global Warming Potentials’, EPAUS [webpage], (14 February 2017) <https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/understanding-global-warming-potentials>, accessed 6 June 2018
  19. Rosset, PM & Altieri N, Agroecology; Science and Politics (Warwickshire: Practical Action Publishing, 2017)
  20. Human Rights Council, ‘Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food’, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner [website], (2010) <http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/food/docs/A-HRC-16-49.pdf>, accessed 30 May 2018
  21. National Academy of Sciences, ‘ Breakthrough study shows organic cuts agriculture’s contribution to climate change’, NASDAQ OMX’s News Release Distribution Channel, 11 September 2017, ProQuest Central [online database], accessed 28 May 2018
  22. Fuhrer, J and Gregory PJ, Climate Change Impact and Adaption in Agricultural Systems (Oxfordshire: CAB International, 2014), 75
  23. Danesh Miah, Man Yong Shin and Masao Koike, Forests to Climate Change Mitigation (Heidelberg: Springer 2011)
  24. Fuhrer, J and Gregory PJ, Climate Change Impact and Adaption in Agricultural Systems (Oxfordshire: CAB International, 2014), 77
  25. Gliessman, S, Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems (Boca Raton: Taylor and Francis Group, 2007), 3
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  43. Human Rights Council, ‘Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food’, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, (2010) <http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/food/docs/A-HRC-16-49.pdf>, accessed 30 May 2018
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Connectivity to Collectivity

This is the keynote I prepared for the 14th Australian Permaculture Convergence in Canberra 15-19 April 2018.

(Unfortunately I was not able to deliver it myself as I was laid low with the flu, so it was read for me instead by the handsome, passionate fruity farmer Ant Wilson.)

Our theme here at APC14 is ‘connectivity’ – and I can’t imagine you’re an audience that needs to have the importance of connectivity in the food system explained to you. This is a group of empowered people motivated to make the world better one homegrown carrot at a time, a group that seeks to ‘be the changes we wish to see in the world.’

I am one of you.

We had our first permaculture garden in Melbourne in 1995 as we attempted to move away from being simply consumers to mindful producers of our own food, growing it in a system designed on ecological principles as we had learned from David and Bill’s book (never realizing we would end up neighbours and friends of David and Su 16 years later).

Many permaculture-esque suburban gardens later, we made it to our own farm at Eganstown, outside Daylesford, in the heart of a community that cares deeply about ecology, food systems and a just world for all.

We set out to farm pigs and cattle on 69 volcanic acres because as a former vegetarian, I felt compelled to grow more pigs outdoors to offer a true alternative to the horrors of intensive livestock production. For more than two decades I’d been aware that people are only eating those pretty little plastic-wrapped trays of pork and poultry from the supermarkets because they are totally disconnected from the source. If you ever set foot in an intensive pig or poultry shed, you’d have to be either willfully forgetful or downright heartless to continue eating meat from that source.

Within a year of selling our uncommonly delicious pasture-raised meat, I took over the butchering and we started our CSA – community-supported agriculture. CSA was started in Japan in the 70s under what are called the Teikei Principles. The most basic principle of Teikei is a direct distribution system based on relationships, not mere transactions. It is also based on sharing not only the rewards of organic or agroecological farming, but also the risks.

I’ve written in Pip Magazine and on our farm blog about the ways our members have supported us through some hard times, but I want to share another farmer’s story here – Shinji Hashimoto in Japan.

At the International Network for CSA (Urgenci) conference in Beijing in 2015, Shinji shared two examples of the power of CSA. In the first, there was a tsunami in the town where his members live. Knowing they would have limited access to food, Shinji harvested as much as he could and delivered food not only to his members, but also to others in need.

The second story really drove the reciprocity home – an earthquake caused a landslide that covered Shinji’s fields. He thought he was done – without heavy equipment and already in his 60s, he was devastated to think this was the end of a long and fruitful life of farming. But within a couple of days, his members turned up with equipment and numbers, and cleared the rubble from his fields, leaving him to commence prepping his beds again, only one season lost instead of an entire future of farming.

That is connectivity.

It goes way beyond knowing your farmer to nurturing your farmer. Beyond knowing your members to nurturing your members. When your connections are this strong, you simply couldn’t in good conscience make food that makes people sick, like the rubbish peddled by the likes of Nestlé, Pepsi and Coca Cola.

So now let’s have a look at disconnection in a hyper-connected, globalized world.

I’ve just returned from UN meetings in Fiji, where we learned many things, including that 60% of Fijians are overweight or obese. This shocking statistic is due to a reduction in traditional diets based on root crops, fish, coconut, bananas, avocados, mangos and breadfruit, which are being replaced with imported sugary, highly-processed so-called food like industrial white bread, margarine, soft drinks, cereals and animal fats – more than 50% of calories consumed in Fiji are now from imports. An amputation due to diabetes is performed every 12 hours in Fiji.

Not long before I was in the Pacific, I was in South Africa at the General Assembly of the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC). There, we heard repeatedly from small-scale famers and fishers of how they are being forced from their traditional lands and waters by environmental degradation caused by mining – and most of the mining operations in South Africa are owned by Australian companies.

At another meeting in Rome the previous May, I sat in horror as an advocate for fisherfolk in Tanzania told us of the vultures waiting at the watering holes for the children who ‘didn’t make it’ as their mothers trekked further and further to dig for clean water in the midst of a severe drought.

No matter how well we raise our pigs or tend our tomatoes, our actions will not help the Fijians, the South Africans, the Tanzanians, nor the one in five Australians who may be food insecure at any time. We have no choice but to go beyond connectivity to collectivity – only by collectivizing, organizing, and mobilizing can we ever hope to radically transform global food systems to make them fair for everyone.

People these days openly criticize capitalism, an economic system that feeds profits over people and that has undeniably failed us all. The Fijian and South African stories are cases in point of the destructive impacts of unchecked capitalism, as is the rise of free trade agreements that are not only spreading obesity such as in Fiji, but also the spread of diseases such as the new strains of influenza coming out of the pig and poultry sheds and threatening us all with a global pandemic, what my friend and scholar Rob Wallace calls the rise of the ‘NAFTA flu’.

Those who ‘opt out’ of the system are ‘being the change we wish to see in the world’, but we have to do it collectively or ultimately very few of us will benefit. One of the most legitimate critiques of the various aspects of the food movement is that it is ultimately a movement for privileged white people. It is up to all of us to take the movement out of our own backyards and into the streets.

Apartheid didn’t end because white people suddenly decided to stop being racist dicks. It ended because the people revolted.

Joel Salatin is fond of saying that governments only regulate the things that kill us quickly, while largely ignoring those that kill us slowly. I’d add to that and say we the people aren’t very good at fighting revolutions against the things that are killing us slowly – we find it difficult to sustain the energy (and also to work out how to fight these more complicated battles).

We no longer have a choice. As Charlie Massy has urgently explained, we are in the midst of the Anthropocene, where human impact has permanently altered the Earth’s geology and sustaining systems, causing ecological destruction and extinction of species. “It is the greatest crisis the planet and humanity has ever faced,” he said, “It makes a world war look like a little storm in a teacup. And we are in denial.”

Driving to Mildura recently, I realized that Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu has given me new lenses for this ancient land. Thanks to Bruce, I can not only see the clapped out paddocks that have been tilled and sprayed until there’s nothing but a toxic desert out there, I can just make out what was there before – the fields of myrnong – and so now I realise even more what a travesty our industrial agriculture systems are on this fragile landscape.

So I ask all of you, a group of people who must surely be some of the most connected to your food systems in the country, will you collectivise beyond the permaculture [insert any other aspect of the food] movement? You have passion, knowledge, and experience to build on – hell, you even have science! Now how about political will – do you have enough of that?

In two more recent must-read books, Beginning to End Hunger by Jahi Chappell, and the Foodies’ Guide to Capitalism by Eric Holt Gimenéz, Jahi and Eric both make the same point – that people in the food movement typically concentrate on one or two issues rather than the system as a whole. So we focus on the right to food, urban ag, CSA, regenerative ag, animal welfare, GMOs, or pesticide contamination to name a few.

As Eric elaborates, ‘Given the severity of the problems in our food system, this is understandable, but this focus often eclipses work to build longer-term political movements that could address the root causes of those problems. What’s more, organisations often find themselves in competition for funding, making it difficult to forge diverse, cross-issue alliances dedicated to systemic change. Intrepid individuals and food entrepreneurs working on their own in specialised market niches are even less likely to address systemic issues.’

Here today I reckon none of us are just ‘stupid optimists’, we are rather what Adriana Aranha calls ‘an active optimist.’ The more we collectivise our action, the quicker we can restore everyone’s right to culturally-appropriate and nutritious food produced in ethical and ecologically-sound ways, and our right to democratically determine our own food and agriculture systems.

Viva la revolución!

 

If you haven’t already joined the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA), what’s stopping you?

AFSA calls out biased reporting on Victorian planning reforms

[Cross-posted from the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance]

Peter Hunt, a Weekly Times reporter, has treated the concerns of Victoria’s pastured livestock farmers over proposed planning reforms with total contempt, calling them ‘delusional.’

This seems unsurprising given Hunt spent many years in a policy role with the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF), a body whose reputation for attacking small-scale farmers is increasing.

Pastured pig and poultry farmers have rejected factory farming and are instead growing animals outside in the fresh air. They devote their farms to growing healthy animals in ethical and ecologically-sound ways.

In an op ed in last week’s Weekly Times, Mr Hunt trotted out the drivel the Victorian Government is seeking to rectify when he called pastured livestock farms ‘intensive’.

Hunt went on to make spurious claims about the biosecurity risks of free-range poultry and pigs. However, it is sheds full of thousands of animals living with their own excrement that are the real source of a massive public health threat – those sheds are ‘food for flu’ as evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace states.

The Government’s attempt to reform the planning provisions has fallen short of the 2016 recommendations of the Animal Industries Advisory Committee (AIAC). The AIAC called for the scheme to recognise the lower risk small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms pose, and for planning controls to be commensurate with that risk.

The AIAC called for small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms to be treated like other grazing production systems.

The AIAC went through an independent public consultation. However, once handed to Agriculture Victoria, the ongoing consultation was limited to peak bodies for intensive agriculture – Australian Pork Limited (APL), Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), and the VFF, and a handful of cattle farmers. There was no representation for pastured pig and poultry farmers, and Ag Vic came back with a draft that sees all pig and poultry farms with more than 200 birds or three sows needing a permit.

The Government, the VFF, and the likes of Hunt keep repeating that all pig and poultry farms have always needed to get a permit, however, they fail to acknowledge that requirement was only recently established by a VCAT case in 2015. This was a trigger for the need to reform the planning scheme. Calling a farm with 100 pigs on 40 acres ‘intensive’ was deemed inappropriate, and the controls applied incommensurate with the risk.

Hunt’s track record of sloppy and inaccurate journalism does the public interest no favours, and his disdain for pastured pig and poultry farmers tells where his allegiances lie.

Tammi Jonas, President

Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance

Dead Local Meat: Building and Operating a Small-Scale Abattoir

Introduction

Lack of access to abattoirs is affecting small-scale farmers across Australia. Small regional abattoirs have been closing down for years, and the issues smallholders face in accessing large industrial abattoirs are diverse. With the loss of regional abattoirs, farmers are driving very long distances to process small numbers of animals at larger, more centralized facilities. A shift to export focus at large plants has seen pigs ejected from multi-species red meat abattoirs. And at least one poultry abattoir in Victoria has denied farmers access based on the perception that they are ‘competition’ because they produce the same breed of ducks as the abattoir owner, and the same abattoir just informed small-scale growers that they will no longer process their birds at all – with many scheduled to process the very next day.

In an attempt to stay one step ahead of this growing problem of access to processing facilities, we started considering abattoir solutions four years ago. (At the same time we built an on-farm boning room and commercial kitchen to ensure access and control of more of our value chain.) Our initial focus was on mobile abattoirs in hopes of achieving the highest possible welfare at slaughter – no transport, and ideally a totally un-stressed animal whose life is taken without any fear.

Two years ago, I went to see a mobile slaughter unit (MSU) in Kansas in the US, but found that it was in reality parked permanently in a shed. Owner Mike Callicrate, who was very generous with his time and knowledge, shared that it’s difficult to prove a viable model unless you can get a higher throughput than a single farm is likely to generate, and that movement between farms comes with a number of associated costs (e.g. staff accommodation). There are also issues with compliance when operating an abattoir across multiple sites, all with potential zoning issues and/or complicated overlays. Further research has led me to believe that mobile abattoirs might work in remote areas, where the farmers could bear a higher slaughter fee in recompense for the recovered opportunity and motor vehicle costs of long transport distances, but that in a region populated with small-scale livestock farmers such as the central highlands of Victoria, a fixed abattoir is more likely to be both viable and sustainable in the long term.

Shifting our focus to fixed facilities, in July 2017, my life and farming partner Stuart and I went on an abattoir tour and visited eight small-scale abattoirs in nine days over 4200km from Georgia to Vermont to Indiana in the US (one abattoir was still under construction, the other seven were all operational). We found that there are many committed people running viable businesses but that there are significant challenges to sustaining small-scale slaughter facilities, and in particular poultry abattoirs.

The following report was created based on our years of research, the recent tour of abattoirs in the US, and knowledge subsequently shared with us by Amanda Carter of Cool Hand Meats in North Carolina when we flew her out to participate in Australia’s first Slow Meat Symposium, as well as that gleaned from other farmers and processors who attended Slow Meat. The fully operational farms and plants we visited include: White Oak Pastures (Georgia), Cool Hand Meats (North Carolina), Alleghany Meats (Virginia), T&E Meats (Virginia), Vermont Packinghouse (Vermont), Maple Wind Farm (Vermont), and Gunthorp Farms (Indiana).

We’d like to thank the many farmers and abattoir operators who opened their doors and shared years of experience, knowledge, and wisdom with us. Your openness and generosity are deeply appreciated as we embark on a venture to build our own local abattoir and support others across Australia to do the same. To paraphrase a famous philosopher, ‘those who control the means of production control the world,’ and I’m glad to be in the company of the likes of you taking that control back for the people!

I would also like to thank the Victorian Government for their support in awarding me with a Food Source Scholarship to help make the trip to the US possible.

Lesson One: Slaughter is a break-even business & there’s no money in poultry

Multiple operators told us that slaughter is a break-even business, and that the boning room (further processing) is what makes it work. Having cooking and/or other value-add facilities further increases profitability. We learned that red meat is demonstrably more viable than poultry – just consider that it requires as many people to break down one poultry carcass as it does one beef or pig carcass. Clearly that is an enormous amount of labour for a very small yield, so high numbers of birds through the system are required to justify the process. We were flat told by more than one operator that there’s no money in poultry, and even that some lose money on poultry – dispiriting for poultry growers to say the least.

While the average poultry processed across four poultry abattoirs was 1450 chooks a day, the majority were only up to 1000 in a day. When processing ducks it was frequently emphasized that you need to double the time it takes due to QA time. In terms of staffing – we saw no facilities with less than eight people, even in poultry plants without a boning room. Note that wages in the US are at best 50% of what is paid in Australia, but then they also only command around 50% of the price Australian pastured poultry growers can charge.

A key challenge will be to prove a viable business model for slaughtering poultry. There are a number of on-farm poultry abattoirs in the US (we visited three) and in Australia, which seems to demonstrate that there is a viable model there. However, I’m keen to do more investigation and seek financial insight from those with on-farm abattoirs into just how viable that business model is before promoting it to others.

As I write this, Cool Hand Meats run by Amanda Carter in North Carolina just slaughtered its last chickens. The community came together to keep the plant operating while living in hope of investment from quarters that did not present themselves. While not wanting to be too doomsday, I can’t help but share Amanda’s comment when she was with us in Australia that if they were to go under, she sometimes thought it would be a ‘mercy killing’ for her community of small-scale pastured poultry growers as they struggled to make a decent living.

Lesson Two: Operational Insights

 

Lairage

Temple Grandin has revolutionized the conditions for slaughter in America and elsewhere, and part of how she has dramatically improved welfare for livestock is to design much better lairage that takes into consideration the things that spook or stress animals as they are in holding pens and walking through chutes to approach the knock box.

The best lairage we saw was at Vermont Packinghouse, where Arion has used high poured concrete walls for the holding pens. The solid walls ensure lower stress for the animals (as Temple says, ‘they don’t fear what they don’t see’), they are easy to keep clean, and they should last a very long time. We saw Grandin’s influence in a few other places as well, such as in curved chutes to entries to kill floors.

At one plant we saw workers using high pressure hoses just outside the kill floor, and even though the cattle were in holding pens some distance from the activity, they were clearly stressed and cowering from the noise and flashing movements in the summer sun. It sharpened our focus on the need to get the lairage right to ensure the highest welfare environment pre-slaughter. And it also highlighted the importance of training for all staff to ensure they understand the fundamentals of high welfare livestock handling.

The point was also made that plants need sufficient exterior holding pens for the planned throughput, and that these should also be carefully sited.

Stunning

Knock boxes – we saw one modified beef knock box with head resting and a drop down collar for complete immobilisation before the bolt, which is desirable in the American context as their standards have a zero tolerance for failure in stuns. However, my understanding of Temple Grandin’s work is that she believes that cattle are stressed by total immobilization, so this may not be entirely desirable – more research to be done!

While most plants had separate knock boxes for large and small animals (e.g. cattle v pigs), some had simple modifications in the beef knock box (steel inserts) to make it smaller for pigs. At one plant we also saw the ‘v’ shaped design where the floor drops out from underneath and the ‘v’ holds the pigs suspended, which was used to calm and better immobilize the pigs.

Stunning method – no facility we saw used gas stunning, only captive bolt or electric. Previous research had indicated that carbon dioxide stunning was considered best practice in spite of its potentially aversive qualities due to the lesser (stress-inducing) restraint requirements and lower reliance on highly trained staff for mechanical stuns, but our discussions with Amanda Carter of Cool Hand Meats and others offered other insights. An issue with gas stunning is convulsions – there can be bruising because of flailing, unlike in an appropriately applied electric shock. For further comparison see EFSA ‘The Stunning Report’.

According to Joe Cloud of T&E Meats, ‘when stunning for hogs, electric is definitely preferable to fixed bolt or bullet.  More sure; far fewer, if any, bad stuns; less thrashing, thus less chance for carcass damage or employee injury; less blood spotting in carcass.’

More research is warranted on stunning methods, and of course cost is a consideration and gas chambers and associated infrastructure may prove prohibitively expensive.

Staffing and Space Requirements

Labour is the most expensive aspect of running a small-scale abattoir, and even more so in a country like Australia where we have a commitment to fair work provisions and a living wage for all. From our observations, the design of the abattoir can play a significant role in having a sustainable staffing profile for the business.

A take-home point after viewing seven operational plants is that dead space causes a loss of efficiency and increased labour component. Smaller spaces encourage highly efficient staffing quotients, a key difference between viability and non. Sometimes automation actually appears to require more people on the floor – there’s a trade off between speed and number of staff required to manage the equipment that needs careful costing to ensure the right decisions are made when purchasing equipment.

‘Every time you pick up an animal and put it back down you lose money,’ said Amanda Carter.

It is considered advantageous to move product out of a plant quickly so as not to take up space. Time in refrigeration needs to be as short as practicable to make room for the next product to maintain optimal throughput.

Conversely, there is a demonstrated demand for dry-ageing facilities for beef, and provision of this is highly desirable in the oft-artisanal space of small-scale producers. Victoria presents a particular challenge in this regard due to the stringent requirements demanded by PrimeSafe for the dry-ageing of beef, in which a separate dedicated chiller would have to be installed, and a testing protocol not required in other states observed, as well as a mandated reduced shelf life. Ageing only the argie (porterhouse/rump/scotch) rather than the whole carcass is an obvious and common way to reduce the space requirement of the dedicated chiller.

Even distribution of slaughtering across the week, months, and year is important for staff. Seasonal livestock such as most poultry can create a problem for a viable operation as staff need secure and regular employment. A stand-alone poultry abattoir would need to manage this risk, and one that is part of a multi-species facility might still present difficulties as staffing quotients might need to fluctuate throughout the year.

In regards to building a multi-species red meat abattoir, the height of the ceiling is important if you want to slaughter cattle, and should be included in the design from the beginning when building a new structure. Three rooms – kill floor, boning room, chill and store – seems to be a common and practical design across species, with a RTE room as a desirable final addition. You need separate curing and product chill rooms for RTE, and possibly packing space as well, to avoid cross-contamination

Customer Relations/Scheduling

Running a small-scale abattoir means dealing with far more clients with custom needs. The work this creates cannot be over-estimated. Amanda Carter of Cool Hand Meats shared that she spends one-third of her time on customer management, and Joe Cloud of T&E Meats said ‘you have to do a LOT of education and hand holding.’ While we were at Cool Hand Meats a woman came with two rabbits to be slaughtered, and Amanda shared that there had been multiple phone calls and emails – a customer relations workload totally incommensurate with the return to the abattoir. This is just one area where tiered pricing depending on the number of animals being processed is critical to ensuring a viable operation.

In a small-scale abattoir you need to have at least one dedicated office staff member who sets the schedule and handles customer communications by phone and email. It is envisioned that this person also orders consumables, handles compliance, etc.

Many of the operations we visited have a six-month schedule. While this might be good for security of throughput for the abattoir, it has obvious drawbacks for small-scale producers who may not be able to confirm their slaughter dates so far in advance. In the case of a cooperatively-owned abattoir, it exists to serve the needs of its members, and in this case there is a potential conflict as on the one hand, there is a duty to remain viable for the benefit of the whole community, and on the other, to support small-scale farmer members with sufficient flexibility.

Abattoirs are industrial as well as agricultural facilities

Joe Cloud of T&E Meats provided the following very useful input around the siting and design, and energy and water needs of abattoirs, highlighting planning for resilience in the face of climate change:

I cannot emphasize enough that while abattoirs are agricultural facilities, they are also industrial facilities, and they work best with access to adequate infrastructure. Immediate access to public water, power, sewage treatment, gas, plentiful trained tradesmen, and rendering are all preferable to other situations, if possible. Of course, these often aren’t. If you don’t have this you will have to plan very carefully. If you are on wells, you need to test your water regularly & have robust filtration/treatment systems. If you are far from your local substation, you will need a good back-up generator. If you are on a drainfield, you will need to invest in a very good design, and also have traps and sumps to remove as much blood and grease and fat as possible from graywater.

I also think that in the years ahead, with climate change, we have to think differently about our world, and plan more robust adaptive infrastructure systems. Think about winds. We are likely to have more and higher wind storms. How are you planning for that? Especially your roof systems, and your back-up generators for when power lines are blown down. Look at Puerto Rico right now – a disaster. What about fire? If you are in a rural area, are your facilities vulnerable to wildfire? What about drought? If you are on well systems, what will you do in a severe drought? Are you capable of enduring one? What about flooding? We are going to be experiencing much much more precipitation levels in the years ahead. What is now considered a 100 years flood will become commonplace – look at the recent hurricane in Houston, TX – a disaster. DO NOT site your facility where it is vulnerable to flooding, unless you can also provide some adequate mitigation infrastructure.

I think that solar panels are great. But, unless you have a significant battery system (very expensive) your system will be inoperable in case of a regional power outage. Still need back-up generators. Also, a solar array may be vulnerable to damage from high winds – must be built stout.

In the design phase hire a very good mechanical engineer, and emphasize qualities of sustainability and low cost of operation over low initial costs.

Ideas – cluster compressors together and capture waste heat through de-superheaters. Use gas conversion solar technologies to preheat water for sanitation. Abattoirs use a LOT of hot water.

When we installed a new hot water system, I looked at a lot of on-demand systems, like Renai, and I thought I was going to go that way. But in the end, I realized that they were fussy, and needed a good bit of tinkering, and that I was not going to have a qualified and dedicated engineer on staff, and so went with a high efficiency but more traditional system of ganged up hot water heaters. You want simple robust systems.

Think about solar angles and roof lines when siting and designing your building – if your roof is designed as a solar panel support system, that can reduce the costs of such a system, which in the long run can really help save money for refrigeration/water heating costs. Find someone who is forward thinking. However, also give a lot of thought to maintenance trade-offs. You DO NOT want down-time.

Waste management – an opportunity rather than a liability

The on-farm abattoirs we saw appeared to be making the most of what are often waste streams for abattoirs sited in industrial areas. There are opportunities for further revenue as well as ecological benefits from processing ‘waste’ on site into compost or other value-added products. However, Joe Cloud offered a note of caution:

As Will Harris showed you, you can do your own waste management through compost. But you need a good design, and adequate supply of inputs. And that will require labor adding to overhead costs.

Compost – make ‘lasagne’ of windrow compost heaps with abattoir waste and local agricultural and forestry carboniferous waste (See Cornell Waste Management Institute for excellent resources on safe carcass and waste processing options.) We saw a great example of this at White Oak Pastures, where Will Harris makes good use of his abattoir ‘waste’ mixed with ubiquitous local peanut shell husks.

Value add bones, etc

  • Dehydrated chicken feet, pig trotters, ears, etc as dog treats
  • Tallow and/or lard candles
  • Tallow and/or lard soap
  • Decorative skulls
  • Hides salted on-site and tanned – potential relationship with local traditional tannery to make a range of leather products.

Business Structure & Funding Model

One reason it is difficult to run a viable abattoir is because in a highly industrialised food system that values cheapness over quality the profit margin will never be high, and in many cases will not be sustainable. We believe that nobody should profit from slaughter – it’s a critical part of the food chain that should provide a service for a fee, not profits for shareholders. In Australia we’ve seen the closure of countless abattoirs over the past twenty years, including the recent shut down of Churchill, Australia’s largest domestic-only abattoir (which processed up to 2300 beef carcasses per week and did 20% of Woolworths’ northern processing).

Given this context, I’ve always believed any abattoir we build must be a not-for-profit, and preferably also a cooperative. That is not to say it shouldn’t pay all workers fairly and run as a highly professional business with clear accountabilities, but there should not be shareholders who take an enduring profit from early investment and drive the cost up and viability down. As such, the start-up funding must be carefully procured, most likely from a mix of government grants and community funds.

In terms of those accountabilities, Joe Cloud says, ‘responsibility and authority has to be clear – and simple. When things break or go wrong – and in a meat plant that is likely to be EVERY DAY – it needs to be clear who has decision-making authority, and that person or those persons need to be right there, right then.’

Our Hope: the feasibility of Hepburn Meat Collective

We want to build a multi-species abattoir in Daylesford, here in the central highlands of Victoria. We have a thriving region of small-scale producers who regularly collaborate and support each other, a strong community of like-minded eaters, and also a thriving tourism industry, with a Council that has included outreach and educational opportunities from agriculture as part of the strategic brief of our shire. Together we are working to build food and agriculture systems that are ethical and ecologically sound, and the Hepburn Meat Collective is the next logical step to ensure our ability to continue this important and fulfilling work.

Our initial thinking was that we would start with poultry, then add a boning room with cook facilities, then build the red meat facility and ensure it’s of a size to slaughter everything from lambs and pigs to full size cattle. We’re seeking advice from the consultants to whom we have access through the Federal Government’s Farming Together program to see whether we can demonstrate a viable poultry facility before settling on the exact model and build process.

For the reasons discussed above, our preference at this stage is also that the abattoir will be a cooperative – co-owned by farmers and potentially other community members (there is much more to be discussed before we can determine the optimum model for coop membership). Including all species from the beginning will ensure buy in from more farmers than if we only focus on poultry in the initial stage. So while a staged build is envisioned, the entire project should be scoped, costed and planned for.

Staffing – our aim is to have a diversified facility where staff can work across the system – e.g. a day on a farm, a day on slaughtering, a day on processing, a day on distribution… and no one killing five days a week. As a small-scale abattoir, we don’t envision being able to fully employ people at just one thing, but there is potential employment across the value chain. The facility could in fact function as a farmer incubator, teaching whole value chain skills to help develop a future generation of farmers and farm and food workers.

While this highly diversified farmer incubator model is our preferred staffing model, we acknowledge the need for specialization and the challenges of cross-training a diverse workforce. We envision a need to balance our hope for a socially just and transformational system with the pragmatism required to run a successful operation.

The current preferred site is at the old Daylesford abattoir which has 100 acres attached – this gives a great deal of scope for the project to develop into a world-leading food hub. We envision that the project that starts with an abattoir, boning room, and commercial kitchen, but could also include on-site composting, rendering, leather production, and other methods of creating a no-waste nutrient-cycling operation, as well as ensuring highest animal welfare practices by locating the holding pens somewhat removed from the entrance to the kill floor. The site also already has like-minded small-scale existing tenants with food processing and distribution facilities, something we see as deeply synergistic to the project.

Download the full report below with additional appendices regarding ‘the need’ for abattoirs and detailed notes on the facilities we visited.

171103_Jonas abattoir research report_final

Planning for Industrial Intensive Animal Agriculture: The Regulation Diaries (7)

In October 2015, I visited Jo Stritch of Happy Valley Free Range, Livestock Farmer of the Year in 2014.

Jo had just been ordered to remove all her pigs from her farm after losing a case in VCAT trying to prove that her farm wasn’t ‘intensive’.

One of these is not intensive.

According to the Victorian Planning Provisions (VPP), intensive animal husbandry refers to ‘importing most food from outside the enclosures’. “In Happy Valley Piggery v Yarra Ranges SC, VCAT [2015] determined that ‘most food’ meant most nutrition. This had the effect of making a free-range piggery fall under the definition of Intensive animal husbandry. This classification was counterintuitive to some people as a ‘free range’ piggery was not seen as ‘intensive’.” (AIAC 2015)

In late 2015, an independent body (the Animal Industries Advisory Committee (AIAC)) was appointed by the Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford and the Minister for Planning Richard Wynne to address concerns that the planning provisions were no longer sufficiently meeting the needs and expectations of farmers nor the community.

I will here quote extensively from both the consultation paper and the final report of the Animal Industries Advisory Committee (AIAC).

The VPP Advisory Committee of 1997 that reviewed the implementation of the VPP said: It does not matter where the food is sourced from because it is the concentration of the animals which leads to the need for planning control. The current definition is an input measure – it seeks to define the use based on the source of the feed inputs. What matters in planning are the outcomes, or impacts, of a use. Shifting the definition and control of animal industries to focus on their impacts would seem to make more sense.

Victoria’s planning approval system for intensive animal husbandry is unique compared to other states in that Codes of Practice have been developed for a number of livestock industries that rely on intensive housing and production systems, to support the planning process. There are codes for the piggery, cattle feedlot and broiler industries. These are incorporated into the VPP and all planning schemes in Victoria.

Development of the codes was triggered by expansion of these industries coupled with a recognition of the need to achieve environmentally and financially viable development. The intent of the codes was to provide a detailed and stringent framework of accepted principles and where possible standards for the establishment and operation of intensive animal industries under Victorian conditions. (AIAC 2015)

In 2016, the AIAC recommended a ‘graduated approach to planning controls based on risk’, pointing out that “some intensive animal industries are of a scale that people not associated with the industry might find confronting: chicken farms of 1.2 million birds, goat dairies of 14,000 goats.  But many intensive animal industries are of a small scale catering to local or boutique markets – the planning system needs to manage the lower risk these operations pose in a manner commensurate with that risk.” (AIAC 2016)

So the AIAC recognized that the relevant permit requirements of the VPP and associated codes of practice were designed to address the risks to environment and amenity posed by large-scale industrial sheds of pigs and poultry and that free-range pig and poultry farms had been inadvertently caught up in the definition over the technicality of importing the majority of the feed. The independent committee also recognized that the risk profile of a small-scale free-range pig farm is very different to a shed full of pigs, and that the planning provisions should account for this difference in risk.

The AIAC recommendation that there be graduated controls that would treat small-scale pig and poultry farmers much like other grazing systems (subject to meeting minimum standards), would have removed the onerous and unnecessary requirement for a permit.

They also recommended to allow these low risk farms to be allowed operate in Green Wedge Zones with a permit, which is significant because the prohibition on intensive animal husbandry in Green Wedge Zones is what ultimately caused the move of Happy Valley Free Range to a different shire in order to continue farming. This was broadly acceptable to most small-scale pastured pig and poultry farmers and the eaters who want access to ethical and ecologically-sound meat.

What is also significant is that the Government is now proposing to allow intensive pig and poultry sheds into Green Wedge, Rural Living, and Rural Conservation Zones with a permit, quite contrary to the recommendations of the AIAC.

The Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) put in a submission to the AIAC and attended the public hearings, and felt that the committee captured our members’ concerns reasonably well, and that we had reason to be hopeful that the Government would take the recommendations and rectify the situation where pastured pig and poultry farmers had become collateral damage of the need to more closely monitor our industrial counterparts.

The Final Report was delivered to the Victorian Government in April 2016, and so we waited. And waited.

In September 2017, the draft of the graduated controls – the tool we expected would rectify pastured pig and poultry farmers’ inadvertent treatment as though we were industrial intensive livestock producers – were released for public consultation, and we were beyond disappointed.

While the independent committee (the AIAC) had demonstrably understood how unnecessary it is to apply the same controls to low-risk pastured systems as to large-scale intensive sheds, once the report disappeared behind government doors, it appeared that the Big Ag lobby (in particular Australia Pork Limited (APL), but also the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) and Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA)) have virtually written the draft provisions. I cannot shake the phrase ‘where malice is enabled by incompetence’ from my head.

Make no mistake – APL, VFF, and MLA are no friend to small-scale producers. APL have been sending their representative to VCAT hearings to testify against small-scale pastured pig farmers such as Jo Stritch. President of the VFF Livestock Group, export beef and grain farmer and feedlot owner Leonard Vallance (who is also the former chair of the Board of Victorian meat regulator PrimeSafe) is on the record saying that “Farmers’ markets are the achilles heel of the Victorian food industry,” he said. “The reputational risk to our export markets is massive…”. Head of the VFF Pig Group is 500-sow intensive pig producer John Bourke. And Head of the Egg Group is a caged-egg producer.

The VFF even submitted to the AIAC that the Public Health and Wellbeing Act should be amended to exempt agricultural producers from nuisance complaints.

In a recent newsletter, the VFF asserted that they:

do not support the planning permit exemption for some piggeries and poultry farms for a number of reasons. Often people start small and grow over time. Will the person who started with 150 hens know to get a planning permit when they have 1000 hens?

Planning is about asking the questions on land use, environment and amenity – 200 hens on a quarter acre block has a different impact on five hectares and 33 pigs is a large number of pigs even on this same area. We feel these questions need to be asked of all pig and poultry farms given these aren’t grazing animals and will always need additional feed.

This is intensive.

This is not intensive.

 

 

 

 

 

To summarise some of the key issues, the draft provisions would:

  • Treat a pastured producer with 500 birds the same as an intensive producer with 500,000 birds in sheds.
  • Treat a pastured pig producer with more than 8 sows on paddocks (around 80 pigs) the same as an intensive producer with 800 sows in sheds (possibly 8,000 pigs in total).
  • Allow an existing intensive poultry farm to open a new range for up to 150,000 chickens without any of the restrictions placed on a farmer with 500 chickens.
  • Enforce 100m buffer zones from neighbouring dwellings on pastured poultry farms with up to 450 birds and pastured pig farms with up to 8 sows – rendering small scale farming on land less than 200m wide practically impossible (to give some perspective, at least 1000 birds and 100 pigs is typical for viable small-scale systems).
  • Allow cattle feedlots with up to 1000 cattle to be established with no permit.
  • Allow intensive pig and poultry sheds in the Green Wedge, Rural Living, & Rural Conservation Zones with a permit (currently prohibited).

To be clear, where we expected the new provisions to rectify the unintended consequence of recently treating pastured pig and poultry farmers the same as intensive shed producers, the Government’s draft instead codifies this interpretation.

No longer does risk to environment or amenity appear to be a key consideration – intensive producers have successfully lobbied the Government and the result is prohibitive and expensive permit application requirements that will be the death knell of the growing movement of small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms in Victoria.

Taking only pigs as an example, here is the striking difference between what the AIAC recommended and what the Government is proposing.

AIAC Recommendation (April 2016)

Category 3 – Midscale           No permit if specified standards and requirements are met

Intensive supplementary feeding of cattle, sheep or goats (not a feedlot) where provided for in a code. Small sheep feedlot where provided for in a code. Small free range pig and poultry farms where provided for in a code.

SOMEHOW BECOMES

PSAI Draft (September 2017)

Permit required – Streamlined application process*

No more than 8 sows + 1 boar + progeny

No pigs located in these setbacks: 100m from other dwellings

I’ll save it for our longer public submission to explain the entirely arbitrary nature of the numbers proposed by the Government that is rendered even more meaningless by failing to attach any land size specification to the number of stock.

FAQs

So why shouldn’t small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms be required to seek a permit to farm in the Farming Zone?

Because we are farming, and the Farming Zone’s purpose is to enable farming, and because other pastured livestock systems do not require a permit to farm. Even the potato farmers whose paddocks are routinely kept barren and many of whom spray glyphosate and fungicides right up to their boundaries do not require a permit, so why should we?

And what is the big deal if the Government insists that we must obtain permits despite the lack of evidence-based arguments for why we should?

Because it is an expensive and complicated process. In our shire, for example, a permit costs about $1300. Most people do not feel confident writing their own applications with all the attendant documentation and need to access multiple government agencies for information, and so hiring consultants is the norm, at many more thousands of dollars. If subject to a notice and review period, one must post notices and alert neighbours to the application, and then sit through local council meetings and be interrogated about the plan, often questioned about aspects totally irrelevant to a highly mobile, pastured livestock system (‘please explain the siting of the sheds’ – ‘there are no sheds’).

The history of the Victorian Planning Provisions reads like Dracula meets Yes Minister. If we take away the intentions – good and bad – and seek to enable farming while judging farming systems on their merits, it’s really not that difficult. Here are some useful principles:

  • The Farming Zone is to enable farming.
  • Pasture-based livestock systems are (potentially) healthiest for soils, animals, water, air, and workers.
  • A permit should be required for technologies and systems known to present higher risks to environment and amenity.
  • There must be recourse for complaints and enforcement when farmers (of any size or production model) are failing to farm responsibly.

So what do we want?

AFSA has started a petition that needs as many voices as possible. The Government needs to know that the people want access to ethically and ecologically-sound produce, and that you stand as and with small-scale producers working to grow a better, fairer food system for everyone.

We call on Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford and Minister for Planning Richard Wynne to explain why low-risk small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms are to be subjected to greater scrutiny and compliance costs than cattle feedlots.

We demand that small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms be treated under the Farming Zone like other low-risk grazing systems that rely on supplemental feed such as the majority of Victorian beef and dairy cattle.

Sign the petition NOW.

Join AFSA and add your voice to the food sovereignty movement that is working to secure access to nutritious and culturally-appropriate food grown in ethical and ecologically-sound ways, and our right to democratically determine our own food and agriculture systems.

References

Animal Industries Advisory Committee Discussion Paper (Dec 2015): https://www.planning.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/10080/Animal-Industries-Discussion-Paper-Revision-1.PDF

 

Animal Industries Advisory Committee Final Report (April 2016): http://agriculture.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/323424/PPV-Animal-Industries-Final-Report-.pdf

 

Planning for Sustainable Animal Industries (Sept 2017): https://www.planning.vic.gov.au/policy-and-strategy/planning-reform/sustainable-animal-industries