Long-time activists know all too well how the powers that be work to divide us to maintain their power base. They use coercion, ego stroking, and straight up misinformation to entice some of us to dance with them, while others see the devil for what he is.
This time the devil, or shall we call him the wolf, comes dressed in sheep’s clothing. The wolf is the World Economic Forum (WEF), the World Bank, an assortment of global and regional think tanks, and front men for Big Food and Big Pharma. The fluffy white fleece is none other than the United Nations itself, now fleeced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Grandma’s house is the UN Food Systems Summit, full of the scent of warm cookies and a bright future, but in reality, housing the world’s most powerful corporations waiting with cameras and recorders to focus group the f*** out of anyone who walks in.
Join the boycottand People’s Autonomous Response to the UN Food Systems Summit. These are the key global voices for smallholders and Indigenous Peoples with 25 years’ experience in global governance – if they refuse to legitimize a corrupted UN process, you should listen.
When the world’s least powerful ask the most privileged to stand with them against exploitation, land grabbing, and corporate capture of the governing mechanisms we have to fight with, it’s our responsibility to listen. Shut up and listen. Shut up, listen, then speak up. Speak as one to lift the voices of the marginalized. Don’t marginalize them further by turning up in the spaces they have intentionally vacated because they have spent decades fighting to be heard, only to realise that in this case the only ones listening are the multinational corporations, market researchers and those interested in profit over people and the planet. The peasants of the world refuse to be focus grouped.
Breaking with the long history of multilateralism – a process of organizing and negotiating between states – the UNFSS has taken a multistakeholder approach from the beginning, giving multinational corporations equal footing with democratic states in discussions about how to achieve the transformation of the food system we need – to ensure everyone has access to nutritious and culturally appropriate food, produced and distributed in socially-just and ecologically-sound ways.
How did we get here?
The UN partnered with the World Economic Forum (WEF) to run the Summit – you know, the world’s peak body for multinational corporations like Bayer, Cargill, Facebook, JBS, and Syngenta. Then the Secretary General appointed the leader of the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) Agnes Kalibata as the Special Envoy to coordinate the Summit. AGRA is substantially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (also a member of the WEF), which has been aggressively promoting the uptake of biotechnology in Africa for the past couple of decades. Our sister AFSA – the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa – has called for donors to stop funding AGRA and show support for smallholders.
The Gates Foundation has a well-documented Big Tech bias in the ‘solutions’ it backs. This is not a Foundation that funds programs that empower communities to be self-sufficient, resilient, and resourceful – Gates is not here for food sovereignty. His projects in Africa have steadily increased farmer reliance on annual purchases of GM seed, and his investments in lab meat startups along with two of the world’s biggest meat companies, Tyson and Cargill, clearly demonstrate the cynicism and self-interest of his philanthrocapitalism.
Kalibata and her secretariat have promoted Food Systems Dialogues at the global and national levels as well as ‘Independent Food Systems Dialogues’, which ostensibly can be hosted by anyone who chooses to. There have apparently been over 800 independent dialogues led by everything from corporations to civil society organizations across the world. According to UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Michael Fakhri, these have produced nothing substantive that has been taken up by the secretariat, and in fact not ‘everyone’ is granted the privilege to host a dialogue – the secretariat holds the decision-making power.
Food Systems Dialogues are still occurring in the name of the UN around the world, including in Australia. We believe most people who participate in these do not understand the extent and gravity of the corporate capture of multilateral global food governance. Hence, AFSA has shared as much as possible to get the word out and keep well-intentioned healthy and sustainable food systems advocates from being duped into legitimizing an illegitimate and damaging process.
Four ‘levers of change’ have been selected by the secretariat from the obscure processes of food systems dialogues, champions, Action Tracks, and the Scientific Group. This is where Machiavelli pops in for a cuppa. In preparation for the Summit to be held online entirely over one day (23 September), these ‘levers of change’ are being developed into a compendium. The lead organisations for each lever are, wait for it:
Human Rights – a consultant hired by the UN Secretary General (!)
It’s worth noting that the Gates Foundation provides funding to all of these bodies in addition to its support for AGRA, as does the Rockefeller Foundation. These private funders are controlling narratives and negotiations under the guise of the UN – discussions that should rightly be led by the Committee for World Food Security (CFS), which has the mandate for food systems transformation, informed by the full participation of civil society.
It gets worse. Once our corporate overlords have led the drafting of proposed solutions to the problems they have created in the world, this body of work is intended to guide the development of ‘National Pathways to Food Systems Transformation’. What that means is that many countries will at last create National Food Plans[i] – in theory a good thing – but the plans will be guided by corporate solutions.
According to the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, ‘Even representatives of Indigenous Peoples who participated in the official Pre-Summit feel disappointed that the human rights of Indigenous Peoples were not taken into account in the conclusions, nor did FSS approve a Coalition of IPs, as they had requested. Today these IP representatives say they will be out of the Summit until their demands are met.’
If you are involved in UNFSS dialogues or action tracks, or being invited to participate in its processes, engage critically and consider boycotting if rights-based governance and epistemic justice demands are not met.
If you are boycotting or otherwise resisting the UNFSS, consider working with others! #foodsystems4people #boycottUNFSS
[i] Fun fact – the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) was formed in response to the federal government’s commitment to a first-ever National Food Plan. Released in July 2012, the National Food Plan Green Paper reflected a heavy bias towards corporate agribusiness, large-scale food manufacturing and big retailing interests. The limited and perfunctory nature of the government’s ‘consultation’ process suggested that most or all of the key decisions had already been taken elsewhere.
In response, a small group of activists who had formed AFSA resolved to develop and implement its own process to establish a People’s Food Plan that would reflect the concerns and aspirations of eaters, farmers, community organisations, food businesses and advocacy groups. The People’s Food Plan process was open, inclusive and democratic, and brought together some 600 people across the nation in ‘kitchen table conversations’ to develop the content collectively. The People’s Food Plan reflects the needs and desires of people, not corporations. Should Australia take up the challenge to develop a National Food Plan at last, AFSA is ready to ensure small-scale farmers and eaters have a seat at the negotiating table this time around.
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. Along with Rudolf Steiner J.I. Rodale, and Lady Eve Balfour, 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, exhortations to diversify to maintain the viability of small-scale farms, and socio-political treatises championing the protection of rural communities, local economies, and healthy landscapes.
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, 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 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 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. The early works of André Voisin 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. 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, while much concentrates on the importance of soil, or on various techniques, and others on regenerative agriculture as a way to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Charlie Massy’s 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. A science, a set of practices, and a social movement, agroecology is fundamental to my own research project, 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.
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. 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’. There is also a focus on supporting resource-poor farmers in managing their agroecosystems with minimal inputs.
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. Political analysis in agroecology extends from Marxist ecological examinations of racism in food and agriculture systems, 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’. The concept of ‘nature’s matrix,’ in which biodiversity, conservation, food production and food sovereignty are all interconnected goals represents a stark contrast to ‘land-sparing’ arguments that posit humans as separate from and antithetical to the health of functional ecosystems. 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.
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 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.
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’.
In turn, enabling dynamics for an agroecological transition include:
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.
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. 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. 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)’.
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.
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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
list of some of the non-business-as-usual
innovations cited by the CSIRO at this seminar on agroeocology and other
canola yield based on average
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
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
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.)
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.
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!’
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
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)?
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.
In 80s and 90s we were talking about
starvation, and now we talk about 800mil suffering hunger & starvation –
mostly rural poor.
We are mainly focusing on yield improvement
when we are wasting a third of production.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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
(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.
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.
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.
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. 😉
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!