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

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

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

A brief history of alternate agricultures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The origins of regenerative agriculture

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

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

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

Agroecology as ecology and social system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In turn, enabling dynamics for an agroecological transition include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endnotes


[1] Howard 2010, 2011

[2] 1974

[3] 1945

[4] 1975

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

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

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

[8]  McFadden 2004

[9] 2010

[10] 2018

[11] Gosnell, et al 2019

[12] 1957, 1958, 1962

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

[14] Massy 2017; Gosnell 2019

[15] Brown, 2018; Masters 2019

[16] Sherwood 2000; Rhodes 2017

[17] Gosnell et al. 2020; Toensmeier 2016

[18] Call of the Reed Warbler

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

[20] Wezel, Bellon & Doré 2009

[21] Gliessman 2013; Giraldo & Rosset 2017

[22] Rosset & Altieri 2017: 20

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

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

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

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

[27] Perfecto, Vandermeer & Wright 2009

[28] Wilson 2016

[29] IPC 2021; Pascual et al. 2021

[30] 2020

[31]  Iles 2020: 5

[32] Iles 2020: 5

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

[34] Agriculture Victoria 2021

[35] IPC 2015

[36] Alonso-Fradejas, et al. 2015

[37] 2015: 934

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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

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?

The Regulation Diaries (6): Winning the Salami Wars

Just over two years ago, around 3 o’clock in the afternoon before an early flight to France and Italy to research the old traditions of charcuterie and salumi making, inspectors from the Victorian meat industry regulator PrimeSafe rolled up our driveway and destroyed all our personal salamis.

Early this year we received a letter from PrimeSafe with a vaguely threatening instruction not to run our popular Salami Days. At least three others (that we know of) who run similar workshops received nearly the same letter, and I momentarily despaired that the vibrant and delicious skill of salami making was about to come to a sad end in Victoria.

But I never despair long, and I soon requested a meeting with PrimeSafe. And so late one morning after an abattoir run in April Stuart and I parked the aromatic stock trailer out front of the South Melbourne offices and went in to meet with two members of PrimeSafe staff. The good news is that The Inspector we’ve dealt with is apparently absent for now, and the staff we now deal with seem much more earnest at fulfilling their duties, and much less interested in standover tactics. Promising days.

I won’t use space here on the initial agenda items regarding rillettes and cryovac-ing smoked hocks except to say it went reasonably well, and as soon as our supply gets back to normal (a story I’ll write up soon…) we’ll be getting those products approved in spite of last year’s difficulties over them.

Here’s how the discussion of salami workshops went (this is of course a paraphrase as best I remembered it when I documented it after the meeting):

***

Me: So can we talk about our salami days now, please?

Officer A: Yes, Tammi, first I have to ask you, are you prepared to become an RTO [a Registered Training Organisation, e.g. a TAFE or similar]?

Me: No, that’s irrelevant. We aren’t trying to give anyone a qualification or certificate, so we don’t need to be an RTO. I was a Senior Risk Analyst for the regulator for higher education and am well aware of the role and requirements for RTOs and universities, and they don’t apply to what we do. We spend one day teaching how to transform a whole pig carcass into cured muscles and salami, we enjoy a long lunch with wine and a band, and it’s a really lovely day…

Officer B: So would you say it’s more of a festival than a workshop? Because that would be regulated by your council.

Me: Not really a festival, but sure, you can call it what you want if that helps. But we can’t be regulated by our council for matters you have an interest in as the regulator, as there’s a double jeopardy rule as you know. But we don’t believe you have jurisdiction over our salami days as we’re not processing meat for sale and none leaves the property…

Officer B: Okay, maybe it’s more of festival…

Officer A: But Tammi we still have concerns over you teaching people to make salami. What if one of them goes home and does it badly and somebody gets sick?

Me: Are you familiar with YouTube and Michael Ruhlman’s books ‘Charcuterie’ and ‘Salumi’? People learn how to make salami any number of ways, just as they do cheese and other cooking skills… surely you’d prefer your licensees to teach these skills as we are knowledgeable about food safety?

Officer A: Well, we still have concerns…

Me: Officer A, I have concerns over whether you had McDonalds for lunch but I have no legislative authority over whether you choose to eat that. So if you have something in the [Meat Industry] Act of which I’m unaware about the legality of our salami days, please let me know, because if there’s nothing there to stop us teaching people to make salami, I’m frankly not interested in your concerns.

Officer A: [crickets]

Officer A: Well, I guess ultimately it’s a matter for our CEO.

Me: Oh, really? Seems to me it’s a matter for the Instrument [aka the Act]. Here’s my plan – I’m going to run our salami days same as I have for the past three years. If you have new information you need to share with us you know where we are.

***

And here we are five months later, three Jonai Salami Days and many #youcantbuywhatieat potluck protests later, one Melbourne Salami Festa approaching, and on the eve of the King Valley Salami Festa

We’re sharing this story to give hope to others who have been harassed out of running workshops that maintain these beautiful old food traditions. We called the regulator’s bluff and found that there was no ace in the hole, nothing in the legislation to stop us hosting Salami Days.

Just don’t let anyone leave with meat processed outside a licensed facility and you’re well within your rights to teach more people the delicious joys of skilful curing of whole carcasses. And make sure you know what you’re doing – that someone with experience and knowledge of safe food handling has taught you best practice. We’ve been fortunate to learn from Australian farmers and butchers, Italian saluministi, and French charcutiers, and we’re about to add the Spanish masters of jamón making to our mentors…

It’s 3 o’clock the day before we fly to Spain and Italy on another research trip to learn more about the very old arts of jamón and salami making… so we’re just going to leave this here.

…but this time we’re leaving a resident lawyer at the farm while we’re away. 😉

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Food Sovereignty asserts the right of peoples to nourishing and culturally appropriate food produced and distributed in ecologically sound and ethical ways and their right to collectively determine their own food and agriculture systems.

This year the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance is fundraising to establish a Legal Defence Fund to support small-scale farmers and makers in their efforts to grow, process, and distribute food grown in ethically- and ecologically-sound ways, and eaters’ right to access this food.

We’ve currently raised over $22,000 and are looking forward to distributing some of the funds to the farmers most in need when we reach $25,000 (with an ambitious goal of $100,000 by the end of Fair Food Week 23 October!).  

If you want to protect your right to grow and eat nutritious and delicious food as you and your community see fit, join us today!