Redesigning agriculture for food sovereignty and subsidiarity

The world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a ‘green revolution’ to an ‘ecological intensification’ approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high external- input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small scale farmers. We need to see a move from linear to a holistic management, which recognizes that a farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods but also a manager of an agro-ecological system that provides quite a number of public goods and services (e.g. water, soil, landscape, energy, biodiversity, and recreation). — Wake up before it is too late, UNCTAD Report (2013: 2)

To explore the transformation towards a regenerative culture without taking a closer look at how such deep societal change is dependent upon and reflected in the way we feed ourselves would be negligent. The primary sector — agriculture — is the basis of a thriving regenerative culture. There are many committed people promoting the shift towards more regenerative, restorative and sustainable farming practices.

Organic farming, bio-dynamic farming, sustainable agriculture, agroforestry, agro-ecology, permaculture and regenerative agriculture are just some of the names describing related and often complementary methodologies. They offer viable alternatives. Our current industrial farming practices are not only deeply un-economical (if energy and fertilizer inputs are fully costed), they are also destroying the quality and decreasing the quantity of the world’s top-soil, on which we and so much of life depend.

2013 UCTAD Report

Despite a vast amount of disinformation — in large part based on research funded by chemical agribusiness — the misconception that local organic agriculture cannot feed the world is finally being eradicated (Halweil, 2006; FAO, 2015). From the invention of agriculture until very recently, humanity has fed itself via local, small-scale farms that employ organic techniques to maintain and improve soil health and agricultural yields. Even with the global population in rapid expansion during the last century, the majority of the food that feeds the world still comes from small-scale local farms and is grown by women (FAO, 2011).

A 2013 review by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) concluded that the adequate response to climate change and the challenge of feeding a prospective human population of 9 billion includes transformative changes in our agricultural, food and trade systems. We need to increase diversity on farms, reduce the use of fertilizers and other external inputs, and support local farmers to create vibrant and resilient local food systems (UNCTAD, 2013). Among the key challenges or questions highlighted in the report are:

How can we increase soil carbon content and achieve a better integration between crop and livestock production, and integrate agroforestry and wild vegetation into farming practices?

How can we drastically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with livestock production?

How can we reduce GHG emissions through sustainable peatland, forest and grassland management?

How can we optimize the use of organic and inorganic fertilizers, including through closed-loop nutrient cycles?

How can we reduce waste throughout the food chain?

How can we influence a change in dietary patterns towards climate-friendly food consumption?

How can we transform the international trade regime for food and agriculture?

La Via Campesina’ is an international movement of farmers, indigenous people, women farmers, agricultural migrants, and farm workers representing more than 200 million small- and medium-sized primary producers in 164 local and national organizations in 73 countries. The main aim of this massive global movement is “to realize food sovereignty” and create organized resistance against an economic globalization that favours predatory multinationals.

In its own words, the movement aims to ensure that “small farmers, including peasant fisher-folk, pastoralists and indigenous people, who make up almost half of the world’s people, are capable of producing food for their communities and feeding the world in a sustainable and healthy way” (Via Campesina, 2011).

Without food sovereignty, communities and regions lose their socio-economic resilience and vibrancy. Food sovereignty describes the rights of peoples “to healthy and appropriate food produced through sustainable methods” and the entitlement to “define their own food and agriculture system”.

Strengthening regional food sovereignty is a powerful win-win-win strategy in the response to the current food, inequity (poverty) and climate crises. Implementing food sovereignty leads to more decentralized and more highly diversified farming systems that are networked into regional food economies. This builds redundancies at different scales, and increases adaptability and resilience.

Food sovereignty prioritizes local food production and consumption. It gives a country the right to protect its local producers from cheap imports and to control production. It ensures that the rights to use and manage land, territories, water, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those who produce food and not of the corporate sector. Therefore the implementation of a genuine agrarian reform is one of the top priorities of the farmers’ movement. — La Via Campesina (2011)

Without food, water and energy sovereignty at the regional level, subsidiarity will remain a political ideal. Subsidiarity describes the principles that any central (political) authority should have a subsidiary function of coordination, performing only those tasks that cannot be executed at a local level, and that decisions are to be taken as closely as possible to, and with the involvement of, the citizens affected by them.

Without subsidiarity we will not be able to unleash the levels of locally grounded transformative innovation and widespread citizen participation necessary to co-create the transition to regenerative cultures in ways that foster health, diversity and local adaptation. Current global trade treaties and agricultural policies disregard subsidiarity and people’s fundamental right to food sovereignty.

The global Slow Food movement, founded by the Italian Carlo Petrini, aims to promote the production of “good, clean and fair” food and to nurture the healthy connections between local food and culture, politics, agriculture and the environment.

One of the roles of Slow Food was to catalyse the creation of Terra Madre, a network of networks comprising organizations, producer cooperatives and food communities in 160 countries. Slow Food published an important document on The Central Role of Food, inviting us to reflect upon the following questions (Petrini et al., 2012):

How can we strengthen and recreate food systems that build soil fertility?

What is the connection between healthy food, healthy water and healthy air?

How can promoting good, clean and fair food also act in defence of biodiversity?

What role does food and agriculture play in maintaining local landscapes?

How can we use the importance of good, clean and fair food to people’s health as a way to engage participation in sustainable food production and consumption?

What role does food and local food production play in the maintenance of biocultural diversity, knowledge and memory?

What is food’s cultural role in promoting pleasure, social relations, conviviality and sharing?

There are few better ways to engage a widespread section of society and local communities in a dialogue about creating a regenerative culture than by starting with the issue of food and how it relates to the health and wellbeing of individuals, communities and ecosystems. Local farmers and food producers, and the relationships local communities build with them, are critically important in creating regenerative cultures.

Slow Food actively helps people to stay in the countryside, encouraging young people to return to farming, fostering urban gardening and farming projects at the same time as creating co-producer networks that link urban consumers directly with rural producers. The organization is also actively working to reduce food waste — a direct result of a structural systems failure in the global industrial farming system that turns food into a commodity subject to speculation.

Local food sovereignty and the creation of a local living economy is a prerequisite for participatory democracy and vibrant socio-economic community life. Widespread citizen participation in the strengthening of local food economies requires open information sharing, continuous education and life-long learning. Slow Food therefore engages in education as a means of culture change promoting and supporting “mutuality, conviviality, the small scale and the protection of the common good” (ibid: 22).

Many inspiring organizations have been promoting the regenerative redesign of agriculture, the protection of heirloom variety seeds against corporate monocultures, and the creation of local food economies based on food, water and seed sovereignty, among them: the International Society for Ecology and Culture, founded by Helena Norberg-Hodge and the Navdanya network founded by the Indian physicist Vandana Shiva. Vibrant local food economies favour local production for local consumption where possible, yet do not oppose trade categorically.

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]

Regenerating fertile soil and increasing the biomass in soil is the basis of healthy agricultural systems and a way to respond to climate change, erosion on water scarcity, while building local food sovereignty and food security (image source unknown, let me know if you do know:-)

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