Even in our sprawling, globalized world, it's possible to produce nutritious, wholesome food without negatively impacting the planet or undermining its myriad cultures and farming traditions that rely on local resources: land, water, seeds and the many benefits of biodiversity. While this may seem idealistic as we're told that a handful of multinational companies are needed to feed 7 billion mouths, there is a growing agricultural and food production revolution providing sustainable, healthier alternatives on the local level.
This movement revolves around the principles of agroecology: using ecological concepts to create food systems that ensure healthy ecosystems and secure livelihoods as the surest path to see that everyone has access to food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the environment.The philosophy extends well beyond just eco-friendly practices, and is built on a holistic approach that recognizes the influence of both governmental and social factors in ensuring fair, sustainable agriculture.
University of California Professor Miguel Altieri, a Chilean agronomist and entomologist, recognized by many as the Father of Agroecology, has traced the ways ancestral knowledge of farming communities in Latin America has allowed agriculture to coexist with the natural environment for thousands of years. During a Dec. 10 live "Food Talk," Prof. Altieri will also explore how agroecology can reduce the impacts of pandemics like COVID-19, as part of Slow Food's ongoing Terra Madre digital conference.
From smart legislation to seed education to an alternative to massive rice farming to local initiatives, here are some key battles in the fight to change the way we grow food:
Common Agricultural Policy
When analyzing how legal systems can protect healthy agricultural values, the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP, is a great place to start. Recognizing that farming has unique challenges which don't apply to most industries, the European Commission created the CAP — which accounts for about 35% of the EU's budget — to address problems in modern agriculture.
• CAP Goals: Ensure that farmers make a reasonable living, support environmentally-friendly practices and maintain food security.
• CAP in Practice: Through the framework, farmers can receive income support and subsidies to address the specific needs of rural areas. CAP also regulates the market through crisis prevention measures such as encouraging EU governments to buy farm products to be sold at a later date.
• Keeping CAP On Track: CAP is built through legislative processes that also involve consultations with stakeholders. Today, there is still room for improvement, and activist groups like the Food Policy Coalition are calling for stricter CAP reforms that would further align it with the ambition for higher sustainability as outlined in the European Green Deal.
In the past century, more than 250,000 plant varieties have become extinct. Yet many of today's seeds are engineered in a lab, and four international corporations control 63% of the seed market. To foster biodiversity and local economies, activists and grassroots groups are campaigning to bring back nutritious, natural seeds:
• Seed Education: The Colorado Grain Chain is an initiative that aims to spread "grain literacy." Created by the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and the University of Colorado, the organization is made up of local farmers, millers, bakers, brewers, distillers, chefs and consumers. It offers technical support for grain growers, as well as workshops that teach producers and consumers alike the benefits and uses of local, ancient and heritage grains.
• Freed Seeds: The German non-profit No Patents On Seeds! is driven by the mission to "liberate" seeds, plants and farm animals from being patented under European law. They argue that the uptick in these patents has created both a market that is unfair for small-scale farmers and increased the risk for food security, as a few big corporations minimize biodiversity by deciding what gets grown and where. With help from member organizations like Oxfam and the Corporate Europe Observatory, No Patents On Seeds! publishes reports, organizes protests and circulates petitions to keep the agricultural sector healthy and just.
Small Scale Production
A key tenant of agroecology is the idea that increasing the impact of small farms leads to more environmentally-friendly production, better food security and an equal playing field on the market. NGOs around the world are stepping up to the plate to foster shorter, healthier distribution chains:
• South Africa: The Meat Naturally project recognizes not only the ecological issues with mass meat farming, but the negative impact it's having on communal farmers, who own nearly half the country's livestock yet supply a mere 5% of the market. The initiative partners with NGOs to promote regenerative grazing techniques and rangeland restoration practices. It also organizes mobile auctions, giving these producers a fast, inexpensive and accessible way to sustainably provide meat to their communities.
• Philippines: By joining the energy of NGO and knowledge of scientists, MASIPAG is an association originally founded to improve and promote small-scale rice production. It has expanded to support the objective of fostering "people's control over agricultural biodiversity." Programs help small farmers cultivate crops and livestock naturally adapted to the local climate, shifting farming techniques from chemical to organic, and training farmers in business development. As Alfie Pulumbarit, who heads advocacy for MASIPAG, explained at a recent Terra Madre panel: "It's a bottom-up approach, rooted in the needs and aspirations of the small farmers."
Terra Madre is an event organized by Slow Food, Regione Piemonte and Città di Torino.