The relation between people, their food, the way of producing it and the way to have access to food saw big changes in the last decades. The mainstream idea that food production is not enough to feed the world’s increasing population is changing. The principles prescribed by the green revolution to achieve food for all are today controversial and arguable. Scientists, farmers, students and civil society gathered in a conference at the University of Wageningen (Netherlands) to discuss the changing environment of our food systems. Today, an important portion of our food production is lost, for reasons which can be attributed to: inefficiencies of our food chains; in other cases a lack of adequate storage facilities or poor post-harvest techniques; or the opportunistic mechanisms created by policies that drive farmers to discard their own production . There is a growing consensus that in order to reduce poverty, hunger and exclusion, we don’t need to increase production but we must link people to food by increasing food accessibility, both physically and financially, rather than remaining focused on increasing the supply of production. The chemical industry, which during the 60’s saw the agricultural sector as a great business opportunity, is omnipresent in our global food systems; the aggressive lobbying put in place by the industry allowed them to reach their dominant position in the food production sector. This industry is pushing the agenda toward a “privatization” of the genetic resources that nature has provided us since life on earth began.
The core of the conference workshop held by Vandana Shiva and the ASEED team members discussed a number of issues related to seeds, seed trading and the new seed law proposed by the European Union. Seeds are basic for the reproduction of the farm; making farmers dependent on companies for this central component of farm life, increases financial risks linked to the volatility of seed prices, their most important input to production. In different regions of the world, and especially in India, the effects of such dependence have been already shown a heavy burden on family farming – the suicide belt (a term to describe the upsurge of rural suicides due to irreversible indebtedness) in India is a perfect example. Vandana Shiva started by highlighting the importance of land races and open pollinated varieties for farmers. The ASEED team presented the results of studies showing that over 50% of the world seed market share is controlled by five multinational companies (Dupont, Syngenta, Kws, Monsanto, Limagrain). This is not only a threat for farmers, but for biodiversity in general. For this reason Vandana Shiva encouraged the creation of local seed banks and the use of open pollinated varieties, which promotes ex-situ and in-situ conservation of genetic biodiversity for future generations. Vandana Shiva concluded with an interesting and inspiring statement “concentration (of power) creates a system of slavery, when you can control food you can control people, when you control seeds you control life, the darkest way of dictatorship”.
Encouraged by the same interest, understanding the importance of biodiversity in providing the world population with fundamental services, the workshop “Food sovereignty in practice” held by the members of ILEIA, FIAN and TNI presented case studies that demonstrate how agroecological practices can make a difference in building more resilient, adaptable and sustainable food systems. In many regions of the planet, projects to encourage farmers to grow cash-crops (e.g. coffee, cocoa) – mainly to satisfy the western appetite for such goods – were carried out in the past decades (and continue today). The population and the territories involved in such projects in many cases found themselves involved in a “common” spiral; first the projects bring intensification, land use intensification which ends up degrading soil quality and lowering its productivity, which is both a physical loss as well as a financial loss. The said spiral can be also seen from another perspective, as the workshop’s speaker showed. Relying on monocultures in a global markets where prices are subject to fluctuations highlights the instability of such cash-crop based systems. The need for change, the need for practices which are more diverse, such as polycultural (in opposition to monoculture) systems, make people think and question what alternatives could be used to establish a new paradigm. On this regard I would like to bring the example of a Cameroonian farmer, who recognized by his own experience the importance of diversified systems:
“In 1987 is when I started planting cocoa, before I was only cultivating food crops with my wife; in a period of two years together me and my family planted 5 ha, something like 5 000 plants and along with that I planted 3 000 plantain suckers and about 300 orange trees. After seven years […] I got at least 50 bags of cocoa. 10 years later since plating some of the cocoa plants started to dry out – I think the land was not good, just too much rocks in this plot – and I lost at least 2 000 plants. I started replacing them with oil palm that I knew was more resistant […]” the discussion continues but it switches to the drop on cocoa prices “[…] by now I’ve come to realize that when cocoa is not doing well I can rely on the oil palm and when this is not doing well I’ve my oranges, so I don’t miss any season and the farm pays me well all year round”
This example shows how agroecological practices that encourage the use of agro-forestry systems help maintaining an equilibrium in the food production system from the farm to a global level, from the economic point of view as well as from the environmental one.
The UN special rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, concluded the conference in a plenary session. By compiling the interesting elements presented in the conference, he drew a road map to lead to a new paradigm for moving forward in the agenda of reducing poverty and hunger and creating of innovative food systems. Still there is a lot of ambiguity on what agroecology is and what it means. Mr. De Schotter made clear how agroecology should be intended and what agroecology is; this, in opposition to industrialized farming – the result of the green revolution – seeks for the creation of food systems which are circular and capable of reproducing themselves. Our food systems today are fully dependent on fossil fuels, which are injected in the system and consumed in a linear way, creating a circle that could never close. Putting the intensive and industrialized agriculture in contrast with the agroecological approach Mr. De Schutter called for an agriculture which needs to be more “knowledge intense” rather than “input intense”.
The green revolution, its agricultural and environmental policies, were not able to put the many elements that constitute our food system together in a harmonious way. Prioritizing production at very high levels in order to satisfy the growing demand was achieved while disregarding the environment and the socio-economic components of our food systems and societies. The bitter feeling that I sensed at the end of the conference is that mass agriculture created more problems than solutions.