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

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
  26. Rosset, PM & Altieri MA 2017, Agroecology; Science and Politics (Warwickshire, Practical Action Publishing, 2017), 68
  27. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, ‘FAO’S Work on Agroecology’, FAO [website], (2018) <http://www.fao.org/ 3/i9021en/I9021EN.pdf>, accessed 30th May
  28. IPCC [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)], Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Geneva: IPCC, 2014)
  29. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, ‘FAO’S Work on Agroecology’, FAO [website], (2018) <http://www.fao.org/ 3/i9021en/I9021EN.pdf>, accessed 30th May
  30. Stocks, Caroline, ‘Why you should plant trees on your farm’, Farmers Weekly, 15 December 2017, 18-19
  31. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Summary for decision-makers: FAO Regional Symposia of Agroecology (Rome: FAO, 2016), 7
  32. IPCC, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaption, and Vulnerability (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 6
  33. World Bank, ‘Poverty Overview’, The World Bank [website], (11 April 2018) <http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview>, accessed 6 June 2018
  34. 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, 6
  35. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, ‘FAO’S Work on Agroecology’, FAO [website], (2018) <http://www.fao.org/ 3/i9021en/I9021EN.pdf>, page 6, accessed 30th May
  36. Fuhrer, J and Gregory PJ, Climate Change Impact and Adaption in Agricultural Systems (Oxfordshire: CAB International, 2014)
  37. Fuhrer, J and Gregory PJ, Climate Change Impact and Adaption in Agricultural Systems (Oxfordshire: CAB International, 2014), 10
  38. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Summary for decision-makers: FAO Regional Symposia of Agroecology (Rome: FAO, 2016), 10
  39. Rosset, PM & Altieri N, Agroecology; Science and Politics (Warwickshire: Practical Action Publishing, 2017), 92
  40. 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
  41. AFSA, ‘About us’, Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance [website], <https://afsa.org.au/blog/2017/11/29/nsw-planning-policy- reforms/>, accessed 8 June 2018
  42. 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
  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
  44. FAO, ‘Scaling Up Agroecology Initiative’, FAO, (2018) <http://www.fao.org/3/I9049EN/i9049en.pdf>, accessed 8 June 2018
  45. Daly, H., ‘Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem’ in Dawson, J et al. (eds.), Living Within Planetary Limits, (Hampshire: Permanent Publications 2010)
  46. De Wit, S., NSW Planning Policy Reforms, Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance [website], 17 Novemer 2017 <https:// afsa.org.au/blog/2017/11/29/nsw-planning-policy-reforms/>, accessed 8 June 2018

Bibliography

AFSA, ‘About us’, Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance [website], <https://afsa.org.au/blog/2017/11/29/nsw-planning-policy-reforms/>, accessed 8 June 2018

Burney, JA et al., ‘Greenhouse gas mitigation by agricultural intensification’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107/26 (2010), 12052-12057

De Wit S., NSW Planning Policy Reforms, Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance [website], 17 Novemer 2017 <https://afsa.org.au/blog/2017/11/29/nsw-planning-policy-reforms/>, accessed 8 June 2018

Daly, H., ‘Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem’ in Dawson, J et al. (eds.), Living Within Planetary Limits, (Hampshire: Permanent Publications 2010)

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

Fitzgerald-Moore, P and Parai, BJ, The Green Revolution (Calgary: University of Calgary, 1996)

Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, ‘FAO’S Work on Agroecology’, FAO [website], (2018) <http://www.fao.org/3/i9021en/I9021EN.pdf>, accessed 30th May

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Summary for decision-makers: FAO Regional Symposia of Agroecology (Rome: FAO, 2016)

FAO, ‘Scaling Up Agroecology Initiative’, FAO, (2018) <http://www.fao.org/3/I9049EN/i9049en.pdf>, accessed 8 June 2018

Fuhrer, J and Gregory PJ, Climate Change Impact and Adaption in Agricultural Systems (Oxfordshire: CAB International, 2014)

Gliessman, Stephen, Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems (Boca Raton: Taylor and Francis Group, 2007),

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

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

Hunter M. et al., ‘Agriculture in 2050: Recalibrating Targets for Sustainable Intensification’ BioScience, vol. 67 (2017), 386–391

IPCC [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)], Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Geneva: IPCC, 2014)

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

IPCC, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaption, and Vulnerability (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

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)

Metz, B, Davidson, OR, Bosch, PR, Dave R, Meyer, LA (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)

Rosset, PM & Altieri N, Agroecology; Science and Politics (Warwickshire: Practical Action Publishing, 2017)

Stocks, Caroline, ‘Why you should plant trees on your farm’, Farmers Weekly, 15 December 2017, 18-19

Vermeulen, Sonja, Campbell, Bruce, Ingram John, ‘Climate Change and Food Systems’, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 37 (2012), 195-222

World Bank, ‘Poverty Overview’, The World Bank [webpage], (11 April 2018) <http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview>, accessed 6 June 2018

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

Feeding livestock & weaning farmers off industrial grain

This is a cross post from the Jonai Farms blog: The Farmer & the Butcher, originally entitled ‘Feed: Weaning ourselves off industrial grain‘. 

I’ve spent the better part of what will soon be (gasp!) three decades worrying about the ills of industrial animal agriculture, and most of today gathering some of the relevant stats around the amount of feed grown globally to feed livestock in preparation for writing about what we’re trying to achieve in our feeding system at Jonai Farms. Bear with me…

The inconsistencies in data depending on the source have been doing my head in – does the livestock industry contribute 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) or 3%? Which life cycle analysis is accounting properly for all parts of the food chain, and which acknowledges the differences between Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and small-scale pastured animal farming? Is 60% of American corn fed to animals or is it 80%? If 47% of soy produced is fed to animals in the US, how can it be 85% globally?

And then it occurred to me that the numbers don’t matter that much. We simply must stop growing monocultures of grain crops only to process and feed them to animals. Whether it contributes 3% or 18% to greenhouse gases, it’s just bloody unnecessary and entirely a result of industrialised agriculture, which segregates each aspect of production in the most unnatural ways instead of growing food in diverse, integrated, and holistic systems.

Here are some more numbers (sorry not sorry but I spent so much time gathering them): according to the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) 26% of the earth is used to graze animals, and 33% of the earth’s arable land is dedicated to feed crop cultivation. The FAO also reckons that 50% of all grain produced in the world is fed to livestock, mostly in the wealthy countries of the Global North.

There’s a complicated discussion to be had around the differences between feeding grains to ruminants (such as cattle, sheep, and goats) and non-ruminants (aka monogastrics like pigs, poultry, and people), but that’s for another post. (Fun fact for those who don’t already know this – horses are not ruminants, they’re monogastric herbivores.) In that discussion we could talk about the suitability of a part or whole grain diet for ruminants, and differences in greenhouse gas emissions from different species, but I’ll simply offer this short quote about some of those complexities before moving on:

‘…pork and poultry production currently consume over 75% of cereal and oil-seed based on concentrate that is grown for livestock (Galloway et al., 2007). Therefore, while ruminants consume 69% of animal feed overall, nonruminates consume 72% of all animal feed that is grown on arable land (Galloway et al., 2007). Consequently, while enteric fermentation from nonruminants is not a significant source of GHG, indirect emissions associated with cropland dedicated to nonruminant livestock might be significant.’ Ref.

Like I said, it’s complicated. So this is a slightly long-winded introduction to telling you the story of what we feed our animals at Jonai Farms and why we’ve made the choices we have.

***

From the outset with our pigs and cattle, we wanted to farm agroecologically – ‘working with biodiversity to provide the farming system with ecological resilience and reduce dependence on costly, often harmful, conventional inputs’. One thing that means is that since obtaining our first pigs, we had intentions to salvage or produce enough feed for a complete diet for them without purchasing grain purpose-grown for livestock.

It’s been five years but last week we achieved that goal!

From very early on, our pigs have been fed primarily a diet of spent brewers’ grain (some of which Stuart ensiles with molasses to stabilize it for storage and increase the energy extracted by the brewing process). We drive twice a week to collect a total of around three tonnes of this grain. The cattle are fed any excess, particularly during the height of summer and depths of winter when nutrient value of the feed on the paddocks is lower.

holgate-grain

In addition to the spent brewers’ grain, Stuart has managed to salvage so-called waste stream (or in some cases ‘surplus yield’) feed from the dairy, fruit, and vegetable industries, including post-harvest ‘seconds’ of everything from potatoes to strawberries, colostrum-rich cow’s milk during calving season, and supply-chain damaged or unwanted dairy products such as milk and cheese.

Two summers ago a dairy processor delivered an entire container load of milk – in thousands of plastic bottles – when they had an oversupply due to some kind of logistics failure. We contacted every pig farmer we knew and got them to collect as much as they could haul away but were left with enough milk to feed out for many months. In consultation with our vet, we were confident that spoilt milk is not dangerous nor non-nutritive for the pigs – they continued to enjoy it well past the point where we enjoyed feeding it out.

We’ve only made minor inroads into fodder cropping, with some success at growing turnips and brassicas in the mostly rye paddocks we inherited in our attempts to wean ourselves off purpose-grown commercial grain.

piggehs-in-brassica

We have, however, planted at least one hundred oak trees and a couple dozen other nut and fruit trees to provide fodder in what we hope will eventually be a full-blown agro-sylvo-pastoral system. Trees take a really long time to grow and they’re hard to keep alive through our hot summers, but Stuart does his best to nurse them through the heat.

While the brewers’ grain is a steady supply upon which we can rely and the paddocks provide a proportion of the happy piggehs regular diet (up to 20% depending on the season), the other salvaged feed has been sporadic – not enough to rely on without ensuring we had a nutritious regular feed on hand to supplement the brewers’ grain.

This other ration has always been a pelletised grain we’ve bought from a Victorian feed supplier. The standard ration we were originally offered was a mix of barley, wheat, peas, lupins, bread mix, mill run, soy, post-industrial food waste (such as bread meal and Smarties off the factory floor to increase the energy), essential amino acids (such as methionine, tryptophan and lysine), and vitamins and minerals. We said ‘no, thanks’ and asked for a custom ration that was just barley, wheat, and lupins and paid an extra $50/tonne for the privilege of keeping all the nutrititive and non-nutritive additives and soy out of it.

The pellets formed anywhere from 15-30% of the pigs’ diet for the past five years (depending on their age and stage, e.g. wet sows get more pellets to ensure they’re getting sufficient proteins to support reproduction). It was convenient, very little wastage, and simple to monitor nutrition as the feed company’s nutritionists did all the knowledge work for us. But it never sat well with our principles – we’ve been relying on the very industrialised food system we rail against!

Last week everything changed when we got a call to collect 23 tonnes of water-damaged rice (only about 2 tonnes of which was actually damaged). It wasn’t lost on us that this rice was sent from a country with much higher levels of food insecurity than Australia only to be condemned on food safety standards when the vast majority of the shipment was perfectly palatable, but much better to at least divert it to feed and keep it out of the landfill. We shared the bounty with some other farming mates, and ultimately collected 14 tonnes ourselves, which we unloaded manually one five-kilo bag at a time into our shed.rice-haul-2016

On the second day of collecting the rice, we were also offered some 14 pallets of milk from the landlord of a distributor who’d gone into (heh) liquidation. Again we shared the love and collected five pallets for ourselves, all of us grateful to the landlord who wanted to see the milk used and not wasted.

milk-feed-2016

The rice stores well, and if we feed it out at 10-15% of the pigs’ normal ration (as advised in the plethora of research articles I’ve read on the topic) we have enough for nearly two years. The milk will last a couple of months if fed out at up to 20% of their ration. We actually live next to a dairy and have been discussing buying milk directly from him as we would pay the same as we were paying for pellets (50 cents per litre, and we pay 50 cents per kilo of pellets) for a higher quality feed, while supporting one of the many struggling dairy farmers in Australia (he’s been paid as low as 25 cents per litre this year). So if more waste-stream milk doesn’t come our way we have another source of milk, a near-perfect feed for pigs as it contains the essential amino acids needed for optimal health, fertility, and growth.

Inspired by all this salvage feed, I contacted a local free-range egg farmer we know and have planted the seed with him to get their egg seconds as well, which he said he’s happy to barter for pork (when the other pig farmers who take some don’t get in first!).

This windfall of salvaged feed sent me back into a whirl of planning for 2017 – I do love a good spreadsheet – and we’ll be adjusting a few priorities now that we’re entirely reliant on salvaged feed.

For a starter, building a shed near the pig paddocks with a 20-foot container to store dry feed in a rodent-proof box has jumped up the list. While we wait for our oaks to produce for the pigs, we’re also keen to collect acorns and chestnuts in autumn and dry store them in the container to feed out, in this case not so much diverting waste as using a wasted resource that is abundant in our region.

The tractor we’ve wanted to buy for a few years but just couldn’t fully justify in a system we are physically capable of running manually (for now – ask again in a decade!) has also climbed the priority ladder. Offloading many tonnes of feed by hand is neither desirable nor sustainable when it’s our regular feed source. One mad week of offloading nearly 20 tonnes made us feel proud and strong, doing it regularly would quite likely make us feel dumb and tired!

A critical point about the shed and the tractor is that we can afford them because we just erased a significant feed bill from our budget – as with all things, taking on more labour ourselves rather than outsourcing it to others frees up more cash to invest in infrastructure and equipment.

But on that labour point – dealing with salvage feed is significantly more labour-intensive, and it also usually comes with a level of packaging waste that ultimately costs us as well. In the case of the rice bags, we have to pay if we need to deliver rubbish to the tip more than once per month. And there’s the extra time and labour to unpackage the rice and the milk, as well as milling and soaking the rice to make it fully digestible by the pigs. Some of this is a nuisance and is a hidden cost if you’re not paying attention. I’ve adjusted our business planning spreadsheet to fully account for the change in motor vehicle use and increase in waste disposal to ensure we know how much this ‘free’ feed actually costs us (financially – we also weigh all financial choices up against the environmental and social benefits of each decision, and salvage feed wins on every count).

The necessity of learning more about pig nutrition and carefully adjusting their rations to ensure they’re getting the best possible diet is some of the real work of farming, something that’s been lost in large-scale industrialised agriculture where the knowledge and competence to source, process, mix and distribute feed has been outsourced to another segment of the ‘industry’.

Stuart and I are both feeling excited and invigorated by our newest milestone and its requisite stepping up our skills and knowledge. It’s got us back on the case of working out an effective and productive mixed perennial and annual fodder cropping system in the paddocks as well.

There are more improvements happening with the cattle I’ll write about soon enough, where I’ll include details on the introduction of the chickens and their eggmobile out on the paddocks providing an incredible ecological service to our soils while nutrient cycling what would otherwise be ‘waste’ from our own boning room. This year we not only quit commercial grain and made it fully onto salvaged feed, we also went from being ‘paddock-to-plate’ to being ‘paddock-to-paddock’!

Bring on 2017!

Postscript: A quick note on waste-stream feed, animal health, and food safety.

Swill feeding (feeding waste feed that includes any meat product or product that has been in contact with meat) is banned in Australia and much of the industrialised world. There are some good reasons for this, as some downgraded food can become contaminated with pathogens that make animals and/or the people who eat them ill. For example, foot and mouth disease, which can be derived from contaminated meat products fed to pigs, has wrought havoc with pig production overseas. A blanket ban on swill feeding is typical of most regulation – incapable of dealing with complexity – and clear guidance and monitoring of use of swill would obviously be preferable for a small-scale farm. Meat meal is actually quite common in most pig feed (they are omnivores after all) – it is heat treated to kill potential pathogens. We have concerns about the origins of said meat (and fish) meal, so always opted out of that option in the pellets.

What I will say about the moral panic around feeding pigs swill, a practice claimed to be thousands of years old, is that it serves to protect the interests of Big Ag (whether intentionally or not) to the detriment of small-scale farmers. Intentionality is to an extent immaterial – the consequences are that a) food is wasted that could have gone to producing more food, b) small-scale farmers are forced to pay higher feed costs rather than use their labour to re-purpose waste, and c) most farms are forced to rely on monocultural grain production.

While we obviously don’t feed any swill to our pigs, we would love to see a day when sensible, safe regulations were put in place to allow swill feeding to reduce waste, increase smallholder profitability, and end reliance on unsustainable grain production for livestock feed.

On jamón, Slow Food, & the aesthetics & ethics of meat

Two years ago we traveled to France and Italy to learn more about how they raise pigs and produce charcuterie and salumi. Disappointed to discover that the pigs are virtually all raised in sheds, we stopped calling our air-dried hams ‘prosciutto’ and changed to ‘jamón’ as we understood at the time that Spanish pigs with the appellation ‘Jamón Ibérico de Bellota’ are raised outdoors and finished over autumn and winter on acorns – a beautiful system.

This year we visited Spain to see this beautiful system firsthand. There is a lot of jamón eaten in Spain, and a lot more exported. In 2014, 43.5 million pigs (almost equivalent to the population of Spain, which was 46.7 million in 2014) were slaughtered. (Compare that with 4.85 million pigs produced in Australia for a population of 23.5 million.) So as we drove down through the southwest and up the western half of the country before crossing to Barcelona, we were on the lookout for these millions of pigs. There weren’t many on the paddocks, but the white concrete sheds with their signature malodorous air were ubiquitous.

img_0289

As we traveled we were interested in the aesthetics – in the texture, flavour, and colour of jamón across Spain – and we also wanted to know where and under what conditions it was produced. Only then would we ask how the jamóns are cured – what is the salting technique, the drying times, the maturation periods? Although we contacted two farms in hopes of a visit, we received no response from either, perhaps because we arrived before the famous montañera time where (some of) the pigs are actually outdoors?

We found the famous dehesa landscapes where the prized Jamón Ibérico de Bellota are finished on acorns, but most were vacant until the nuts would start to drop at the start of October. In Extremadura and Huelva provinces, some dehesa still sheltered the bulls grazing the last of the dry-standing grass of summer as they awaited their bullfighting fate. The few pigs we saw outdoors were on bare, rocky ground, and according to the FAO only around 10% of Spanish pigs (the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota) even get those few months outside under the shade of the picturesque oak forests.

img_0301

By the end of our time in Spain I was back to eating mostly vegetarian, and we will no longer be calling our hams jamón.

While the Spanish manage to produce quite a delicious product by finishing the pigs for three to four months on acorns, those pigs spend the first year of their lives in sheds, and the sows live and farrow entirely indoors. (NB I understand that there are a very small number of farms raising pigs on pasture, too few to discuss here where I’m looking at jamón production generally.) And so while the Spanish have succeeded in the aesthetics of their jamón, in my view they have not done so on the ethics.

What’s the big deal about raising pigs in sheds anyway if the final product tastes good?

I spoke recently to a crowd of about 200 people confined in a lovely long hall and asked them whether they’d be happy to spend the next five months there with no opportunity to leave. I didn’t even mention that they’d wee and poo where they sat, and if they were lucky the floor would be slatted for the excrement to drain away from the mass of bodies. Nobody popped their hand up to stay in the building, and yet I’d wager that the majority in the room would regularly eat meat from animals who never left the shed in which they were raised.

Most conventional pig and poultry sheds suffer from air quality that is so poor the animals are vaccinated for pneumonia to keep them alive until slaughter at five to six months of age. I understand that in Australia, the industry has been leading some innovative reform to build sheds that are open ended and have straw rather than concrete on the floor – definite improvements in intensive production systems.

But even if we improve the air quality and deal with the concentration of effluence in responsible ways, is it enough? What kind of lives do pigs who can only mill about in a crowded shed have?

And we need to talk about breeds and the serious risks posed by lack of biodiversity, especially when compounded by intensive confinement. Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu, talks about sheds of 15,000 turkeys as ‘food for flu’. They’re a perfect feasting ground for viruses without an ‘immunological firebreak’ due to the homogeneity of the animals. While he was in Australia recently, we discussed the idea of regional planning for diversity and resilience – active, informed, grassroots community planning to ensure we raise different breeds across a region to create that firebreak in case a virulent strain of swine or avian flu escapes the intensive sheds.

There’s a strong movement to eradicate routine use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics in intensive livestock production – administered to everything from pigs and poultry in sheds to cattle in feedlots. The industry itself is discussing the problems of over-use of antibiotics, namely the rise of superbugs like MRSA and the threat that soon we won’t be able to treat the most basic bacterial infections with the most common antibiotics like penicillin. Denmark already banned the routine use of antibiotics and yet it is still the biggest producer of pork in the world, so it’s clearly possible. The Netherlands has similarly banned antibiotics, prompted by the fact that pig farmers there are >760 times more likely to be carriers for MRSA than other Dutch citizens – if they visit the hospital they’re immediately taken to quarantine to protect the rest of the population.

So we have compelling animal welfare, ecological, and public health arguments to radically change how we raise pigs and poultry, and yet while the fair food movement consistently makes many of these arguments about the ills of industrial agriculture, there is a distinctive gap in our ethics of practice. Our time at Slow Food’s Terra Madre this year highlighted this very clearly – as we elbowed our way through the crowds of people enjoying a day of tasting alleged slow food along the kilometres of stalls, we were disappointed to learn that all but one pork producer we could find were growing their pigs intensively indoors.

While Slow Food (like the Spanish jamón producers above) excels at the aesthetics of the food it promotes – promoting ‘slow’, traditional, and delicious, how is it doing at the ethics? What do ‘good, clean, and fair’ really mean? Slow Food International took a stand against foie gras a couple years ago, but it has not done so against intensive animal agriculture, and hosts many prosciutto producers at Salone del Gusto every two years who raise pigs in sheds. I would really like to see them pursue this discussion and take a strong position against intensive livestock production.

As I said on the Slow Meat panel at Terra Madre, just because you cure it slowly doesn’t make it slow… you need to grow it slowly too.

And the same goes for serving factory-farmed meat at fair food movement events – you can’t simply intellectualise this stuff and pontificate on the ills of Big Ag and the oligarchy while munching on their produce. If procuring ethically-raised meat is impossible due to complicated catering contracts and a dearth of small-scale pastured livestock farmers, we can at least serve vegetarian food (with its own attendant issues if sourced from the globalized industrial food system, e.g. tropical fruit in Victoria in the dead of winter… that’s not even an aesthetic success.).

As most people reading this already know, food has material impacts on the land and people that produce it, the animals raised for food, and the people who eat it. If we only take a moralizing analytical stab at the problems of the food system and then serve it up for dinner we are doing a material injustice to all parts of the very system we are trying to transform. Slow Food and all of us in the food sovereignty movement can and should show leadership (as Slow Food has on many topics) and insist on the ethics of meat production being at least of equal importance to the aesthetics.

Spain: the pleasures and ethics of consumption and production

Travel consumes us, just as we consume the material and philosophical artefacts of the destinations of our desire. We bump onto foreign soil and commence imbibing difference with all senses, some more pleasant than others. We eagerly osmose saturated blue skies, reluctantly inhale the sourness of the unwashed on the train, and happily let the sweet and salty depths of jamón melt on our tongue…

Stuart and I have spent our entire shared life consuming culture, learning our way into other lands by eating churros in Madrid, gazing at Rembrandts in Paris and listening to sitars in Varanasi, reading Machiavelli and Balzac in the Tuileries, and ambling through centuries of Gothic flying buttresses and villages and cities planned and unplanned for habitation. 20 years ago we would read all the relevant novels we could lay hands on before traveling to a new country, and I would commence reading recipes and trying them out on family and friends even before our adventures, only to come home and improve on those dishes after having tasted their distinctions in situ.

So engrossed was/am I with understanding the ways in which we consume culture in pursuit of connectedness, and of a cosmopolitan ethic, that I spent eight years working towards a PhD on the topic, the formal study of which I’ve since abandoned, though it remains a lifelong preoccupation.

Since before becoming a farmer, my interest in consumption logically shifted to a more primary concern with production, ipso facto consumption’s supplier. Our recent trip to Spain, the home of jamón ibérico, exemplified this, as we searched for the roots of jamón, not just the taste. I’ll write more about our findings on jamón in a later post, as here I’d like to share my thoughts on our other observations throughout Spain.

We spent a scant 18 hours in Madrid, and in that time noted:

  1. carnicerías are everywhere in the centre with ceilings and walls lined with jamón,
  2. there’s a bottle of Spanish olive oil on nearly every table,
  3. Spanish olives are standard on tapas menus, but the quality is anything but standardised,
  4. the smoky spice of pimentón is as distinctive to Spanish cuisine as jamón.

img_0071

Where and under what conditions is all this produce grown?

As we dashed south out of Madrid in the motorhome we dubbed the Slothvan (unfair really as it was quite speedy on the autovía but lumbered around curves in a not-unpleasing sloth-like fashion), we couldn’t help but be struck by the endless monocultures of olives, seemingly Spain’s equivalence to the central valley of California’s almond groves without the obvious ecological disaster of irrigating a thirsty tree in a drought-prone land. There were rarely water pipes in sight, but also absolutely nothing but olive trees for hundreds of kilometres – no grass between the rows, no shrubs – just thousands and perhaps millions of trees dotting the rocky soils.

img_0154

I wondered who owns these orchards and just how big are they? What impact of the growth of Spain’s olive oil industry has there been on the land and local communities (let alone the Italian and Greek industries?) Surely the consequences are the same as anywhere agriculture scales up and smallholdings are lost – more chemical inputs in the name of efficiency and yield, subsequent land degradation, and reduced employment for rural communities who once relied on the viability of many small-scale farms… though a quick bit of internet research reveals that while Spain’s olive orchards are on average bigger than their neighbours’, they are still relatively small by Australian or American standards at 5.3ha (compared with just 1.3ha in Italy!). According to what I read though, lack of control of the value chain keeps the farmers from prospering, just as it does worldwide (the FAO has an entire workstream dedicated to connecting smallholders to value chains).

Dotted amongst the olive groves are huge solar and wind farms – in a dry, rocky land, the Spanish are very wisely harvesting the natural resources of which they have plenty – sun and wind. Something I read when we visited the windmills made famous by Cervantes’ madly tilting Don Quixote suggested the locals worked out a long time ago to harness these resources as their only reliablemainstays – if only Australian policymakers were so wise.

img_0191

As we rolled into the steep slopes of the southern tip of Andalucía, the olive groves shrank and seemed to welcome the presence of other species – aberrant oaks and life-giving figs poked up amongst the olives with an appealing diversity after so many homogeneous kilometres. Even grass is allowed between rows in many of the smaller farms, surely a welcome cover for hungry soils under the harsh Spanish sun.img_0178

It got me reflecting back on the abundance of Spanish olive oil available throughout the country (and indeed, in Australia and elsewhere) and wondering where the artisanal local oils are to be found? You know, that whole ‘just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s good’. For example, the region in which we live in Victoria has an abundance of potatoes, most of them grown in big monocultures and sprayed regularly – not what I’d prefer to feed my family… (fortunately it is easy where we live to access the organic and chemical-free potatoes grown by the many lovely small-scale farmers with which we’re blessed).

And then we visited the lovely mountain region of La Vera in the northerly part of Extremadura and saw firsthand how small-scale growing can be aggregated, scaled, and become ubiquitous and still delicious and fair… through the collective model (which of course the olive growers also utilise). La Vera is the most famous pimentón (Spanish paprika) producing region in Spain (Murcia being the other). Back in 1937 the local growers formed a syndicate, and then in 1938 established a cooperative to reduce competition amongst themselves and to create an entity with a real opportunity for export.

img_7545
Drying and smoking sheds for the pimenton

img_0465 A niche artisanal (arguably non-staple) product like pimentón can quickly saturate a solely local market, and given it is sold as a dried powder in a tin, it is readily transportable without refrigeration – the perfect product for the age-old spice trade. And witnessing the relatively small-scale fields growing the crops and the old drying sheds where the pimentón are still taken to be dried and given their irresistible smokiness was heartening – I’m heading home with 3kg for my chorizo making – happy meatsmith!

But of course cooperatives aren’t all fair to everyone just because they’re fair to their members. At the recent launch of the Farm Cooperatives and Collaborations Pilot Program in Australia we heard from a number of very large case studies, including CBH, the huge grain cooperative in WA with an annual revenue of over $3 billion that export more than 90% of the grain produced, largely for livestock feed and fuel. We also heard from TSBE in Queensland, a cooperative with $5 billion in revenue that owns feedlots, intensive pig and poultry sheds, and apparently got its start with CSG revenue (food and agriculture are only 15% of their turnover if I noted that correctly).

We ate quite well in Spain – we had ready access to fresh fruit and veg and a variety of interesting Spanish cheeses (such as the lovely, stinky Torta del Casar and the plentiful queso de oveja – curado is much nicer than semicurado) – and made many of our meals in the Slothvan with beautiful views of the wealth of castles that litter the landscape.

img_0497
Foraged figs & grapes from a monastery we camped next to, paired with fried potatoes with smoked piment and white anchovies…

The milk was uniformly awful (we could only find UHT, as is the norm for much of Europe sadly), and aside from rare exceptions the bread was mostly terrible. Truck stop food was inspiring – made fresh and with obvious care – there are carnicerías in the truck stops (!), and vast deli options for local cheeses as well as the meat offerings. Of course the meat is almost entirely factory farmed, but with artisanal touches in the processing… more on all of this later in the jamón post.

Truck stops were the best road trip food!
Truck stops were the best road trip food!

Our time in Spain was too short and research was mostly observational and influenced by combining a learning trip with a family adventure, but driving across its vast, dry landscapes from which water must surely be rung out of stone to produce 50% of the EU’s olive oil was certainly more informative than merely scanning and devouring the menus of its cities as we did in previous lives. While consuming food is a central and critical part of life, focusing purely on taste can too easily get stuck on the aesthetic rather than the ethic, whereas following the chain back to where your food is produced can tell you so much more about the communities who grow it and the quality of what they grow.

Having just been to Slow Food’s Terra Madre and braved the crowds at Salone del Gusto in Torino, I have many more thoughts on the problem of privileging the aesthetic aspects of food over the ethics… as well as on the importance of democracy in the food sovereignty movement to effect real change… but just now the cliffs of Cinque Terre beckon. 😉