Farmers, First Peoples, and Biodiversity

The following text is adapted from a talk I gave as part of the 2021 Wimmera Biodiversity Seminar series, entitled Farming, First Peoples, and Biodiversity: A Life in Common with Nature.

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I’m writing from the lands of the Dja Dja Wurrung, and I’d like to pay my respects to their elders past and present, and acknowledge that their land was never ceded. We are listening and learning from the Land, and the Djaara and other First Peoples how to enact a custodial ethic in all that we do here.

I’m going to briefly review some of the worst consequences of capitalist industrial agriculture for biodiversity before turning to agroecological solutions.

Biodiversity for food and agriculture is all the plants and animals – wild and domesticated – that provide food, feed, fuel and fibre. It is also the myriad of organisms that support food production through ecosystem services – called “associated biodiversity” in policy speak. This includes all the plants, animals and micro-organisms (such as insects, bats, birds, mangroves, corals, seagrasses, earthworms, soil-dwelling fungi and bacteria) that keep soils fertile, pollinate plants, purify water and air, keep fish and trees healthy, and fight crop and livestock pests and diseases.

In 2019 the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN released the first Global Assessment of Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture. The report found that ‘many key components of biodiversity for food and agriculture at genetic, species, and ecosystem levels are in decline’ and that ‘evidence suggests that the proportion of livestock breeds at risk of extinction is increasing’.

For too long, biodiversity has been considered incompatible with agriculture – something that happens on the other side of the fence, or only in shelter belts. Even the current work by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) towards a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework takes a productivist approach in its limited attention to agriculture, and a colonial approach to conservation in proposals to lock up more land away from sustainable human use – this is a fundamental violation of First Peoples’ right to land and denial of the thousands of years of care and co-production with Nature.

Australia is among the top seven countries worldwide responsible for 60% of the world’s biodiversity loss between 1996 and 2008, and we are now facing the sixth mass extinction event in 4.6 billion years (Muir 2014).

Agricultural biodiversity globally is disappearing rapidly, as industrial agriculture, forestry, and fisheries systems use homogeneous, proprietary seeds, trees, breeds and aquatic species, scientifically bred and genetically modified to include limited traits, which are useful to industry. They are grown in simplified agroecosystems that are heavily contaminated with biocides and other agrochemicals. 

Of some 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, fewer than 200 contribute substantially to global food output, and only nine account for 66 percent of total crop production.

The world’s livestock production is based on about 40 animal species, with only a handful providing the vast majority of meat, milk and eggs. Of the 7,745 local breeds of livestock reported globally, 26 percent are at risk of extinction.

Nearly a third of fish stocks are overfished, more than half have reached their sustainable limit.

Wild food species and many species that contribute to ecosystem services that are vital to food and agriculture, including pollinators, soil organisms and natural enemies of pests, are rapidly disappearing.

It is timely in this period of COVID to remind ourselves of the risks of these extreme losses of biodiversity in agriculture. The production of a constantly narrowing range of species and breeds of animals and plants is leading to greater risks in our food system. In the case of the rise of zoonoses like coronavirus, one of the most significant risks is from intensive livestock production, and the expansion of industrial agriculture into remote areas of forest, giving rare pathogens new opportunities to access vulnerable hosts, giving rise to new and more virulent strains of influenza and coronaviruses such as COVID-19.

Some of the key risks posed by intensive livestock production include: the separation of breeding animals from farms where their offspring are raised and later harvested for food, and the narrowing of genetic resources to very few breeds of genetically similar animals that are then crowded into unhealthy conditions that suppress their immune systems. This creates the perfect breeding ground for illness – these intensive sheds are literally ‘food for flu’.

Biodiversity-friendly practices are on the rise

The good news is that the FAO report highlights a growing interest in biodiversity-friendly practices and approaches. 80 percent of the 91 countries indicate using one or more biodiversity-friendly practices and approaches such as: organic agriculture, integrated pest management, conservation agriculture, sustainable soil management, agroecology, sustainable forest management, agroforestry, diversification practices in aquaculture, ecosystem approach to fisheries and ecosystem restoration.

While most have surely heard of regenerative agriculture, agroecology is much less known or understood in Australia. Agroecology is a science, a set of practices, and a social movement that fosters the democratic participation of farmers in the food system. I briefly mention this distinction to show that agroecological and regenerative farmers are all working to recuperate ecosystems from centuries of colonial damage, but also to highlight that the agroecology movement is underpinned by notions of social and economic justice as well – putting solidarity with Indigenous Peoples first, and solidarity economies that reject corporate power and capitalism next.

A Custodial Ethic

There is an ancient ‘custodial ethic’ amongst Indigenous Peoples and peasants globally, and a growing one amongst agroecological and regenerative farmers in the Global North, stemming from place-based understandings of country, reactions to climate change and loss of biodiversity, and an increasing willingness to grapple with what it means to hold title to the unceded lands of First Peoples (while working out local strategies to ‘pay the rent’, share land, or give land back to its Original Custodians). I want to share a couple of examples of farmers and First Peoples collaborating on Country and furthering the agroecological transition with you here in Australia.

Nguuruu Farm is a diverse biodynamic farm of 220 acres on Ngunnawal land in the southern tablelands of NSW, with heritage breed Belted Galloway cattle, and rare breed Silver Grey Dorking chickens and eggs, fruits and vegetables. Murray and Michelle have shared that they are making a part of their land available to local Indigenous custodians ‘for bush tucker, a native nursery, agroforestry for traditional implements, a cool burn school, or perhaps a place for guided tours. Could be all of those things, or something else.’

They wrote that ‘the partnership is struck and governed under “Yindyamarra” – the Wiradjuri lore of respect for all things. It means to ‘go slow, be patient, take responsibility, and give respect’. They are engaging in a relationalism intrinsic to much Aboriginal political ordering, a way of knowing and being where the very land is the Law, and one’s relationship to it is based on a mutualism that creates an ethical impulse to care for Country and everything on it. Embracing these ways of knowing is a critical and much-needed step in the right direction for agriculture in Australia.

Millpost Farm, also in the southern tablelands of NSW, transitioned a family sheep farm to a broadacre permaculture farm in the late 1970s. They produce wool and a small offering of organic garlic and tomatoes in addition to providing most of their own food for three generations living together on the farm. Millpost have also been working to make the land to which they hold title available to Ngunawal/Ngambri mob to reconnect with their ancestral country, while also providing access to researchers to a stone axe quarry identified on the farm. Guided by the local mob, the Watson family then provide guidance to academics on how to protect a sacred place while letting it be appreciated as a cultural place for the Original Custodians.

Our farm – Jonai Farms and Meatsmiths – is an agroecological example of a circular bioeconomy working to enact our custodial ethic. We are a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, with pastured heritage breed Large Black pigs, Speckleline cattle and purple hard-necked garlic.

Livestock are fed so-called ‘waste’ – surplus, damaged, or unwanted produce from other food and agriculture systems in Victoria (e.g. brewers’ grain, eggs, milk), creating a net ecological benefit by diverting many tonnes of organic waste from landfill, and exiting the fossil-fuel-intensive model of segregating feed production from livestock farming.

Water is moved around the property by old piston pumps powered by secondhand solar panels via treadmill motors salvaged from the local tip, as the farm strives to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels.

While animals are slaughtered off site, carcasses are returned for further processing and value adding in the on-farm butcher’s shop and commercial kitchen. I lead a small team to produce a range of fresh cuts, and smallgoods including ham, bacon, and seasonal sausages with nothing but salt, pepper, and ingredients grown here or by neighbouring farms. Pigs’ heads become pâté de tête, excess fat makes beautiful soap, and bones are transformed into bone broth. Bones that remain are then pyrolised in a retort. They are super-heated in a low-oxygen environment to create bonechar – a kind of charcoal of bones that maintains the carbon as well as trace minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium, which is then activated in barrels of biofertiliser and used to grow our small commercial crop of garlic.

95% of produce is sold to 80 household CSA members in Melbourne and the region, who commit to a minimum of one year, sharing the abundance and the risks of the farm in a genuine solidarity economy, and the small remainder is sold through the farm gate shop.

Like millions of other smallholders around the world, we are maintaining biodiversity at the genetic, species, and ecosystem levels—living a life made in common with Nature, we conserve and sustainably use the biodiversity in our care, and share the benefits of our sustainable use with the Original Custodians by paying the rent.

The Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) recently established the Agroecology Action Research Network and we are working on a concept for a de-Centre for Agrarian Futures here at Jonai Farms.

AFSA is also launching our First Peoples First Strategy at this year’s Food Sovereignty Convergence, which aims to concomitantly achieve both Indigenous sovereignty and food sovereignty for all. We are working with farmers and allies who are embracing and espousing a custodial ethic to understand how they/we are currently or may in the future be able to extend care for Land to care for its Original Custodians, bringing settler descendants full circle to find ways and means of restitution of land and rights to First Peoples.

There are various complexities involved in settler descendants being on this land. To consciously think of oneself as a settler means being conscious that we live on an Indigenous People’s Land. Importantly for the food sovereignty movement, this carries with it an obligation to support those defending their homelands, and to support ongoing attempts to unsettle the settler conscience by staying with the trouble of colonialism (Haraway 2016).

In my experience, there is often an unwarranted generosity from First Peoples in Australia towards settler descendants and other more recent migrants in the face of ongoing colonisation of unceded Aboriginal lands – a generosity Indigenous scholars have written is born of the same ways-of-being at the root of the custodial ethic. Mary Graham, a Kombumerri person, and her settler colleague Morgan Brigg (2021) recommend moving forward with ‘autonomous regard’ between Indigenous and settler peoples, ‘which can be an ethical relation that acknowledges and sits with the brutality of dispossession through settler colonialism.’

We know as a historically and currently non-Indigenous led organisation, AFSA’s National Committee and our members still have a lot of deep listening, learning and acting to do.

AFSA has worked for 10 years in solidarity with the global food sovereignty movement to assert everyone’s right to nutritious and culturally-determined food grown and distributed in ethical and ecologically-sound ways, and our right to democratically determine our own food and agriculture systems. We invite you to join us in our work to be active in our own optimism in these challenging times.

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

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