Food disempowerment

In this post I will argue that taking away staple crops from the producers disempowers farmers and rapidly erodes culture, heritage and ecological knowledge.

The Planetary Boundaries Initiative recently argued for economic/ecological models as food production hits the boundary. I agree, and that’s not a new argument. But in addition to combining ecological and economic models, I would urge we need to be concerned with mental models, particularly in food production and consumption. The food debate is too often centred around the calorie vs. conservation nexus. Perhaps this is the most important issue to deal with. But still, I would like to think there is a way to preserve people’s culture, heritage and pride in food production so that we don’t all end up eating Soylent Green (1973 American Science Fiction film).  My own personal morality when it comes to food fluctuates as much, or more than my intellectual views of food production: from vegetarian, to eat-only-local, to eat-only-wild meat etc. etc. I just say I’m a flexitarian now. I try to make moral decisions when I can. If someone kills a goat for me, I’ll eat it. Harder when trying to choose a protein source in Stockholm…

Do we need to sustainably intensify? Are GM crops needed to feed a 7 million, and growing, world?  Do we spare land to conserve biodiversity or do we share agricultural land? At the crux of it all, do we need to produce more, or waste less? Probably a combination of the two. It’s all context dependent and our arguments are motivated by our own experiences and emotions. And it will become obvious here that my heart and mind are on the side of small-scale producers who remain voiceless in this debate. Not just voiceless, but I would argue often have lost the power to have an opinion on this at all.

Friends and I had recently gone to an event in London on Small-holder farming and the future of food.  It wasn’t a great debate, mostly because the speakers who clearly had divergent opinions decided not to voice them. Sam Dryden of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation described their work at putting the small-holder (her) at the centre. He called the multi-scale complexity of modern farming systems “circles of trust.”

Figure from Sam Dryden at Impatient Optimists.

What I would like to know, is how does Sam Dryden know what ‘she’ wants? How are ‘her’ visions influenced by the development agenda and the agro-industrial machine?

Afterwards, a few friends and I got talking about the article in the Guardian last month “Can Vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about Quinoa.” The article warns that Bolivian farmers can no longer eat their staple grain after global demand has driven up the price of quinoa to the point they can’t afford to consume the quinoa they produce (the price has tripled since 2006). So should we all immediately stop eating quinoa and the prices plummet and all the farmers are even more screwed? Probably not. Eat quinoa in moderation, particularly given how difficult it is to produce locally anywhere in Europe? Flexitarian, yes.

Fine, but many of the arguments critiquing the article centred around the fact that producers are now (should be, but are they?) receiving more income from the quinoa and can now buy more  food from abroad and possibly send their kids to school with the added income. So Bolivan farmers can just start importing rice from China. From a caloric point of view that might not be that bad. What about the culture, the heritage and the history and ecological knowledge that goes behind producing quinoa? The recipes that go with it? Most of all, how is it fair that we, wealthy first world consumers get to choose which colour of organic quinoa we want to buy for dinner that night while the farmer eats low-nutrient, protein void Chinese rice?

This argument was countered with: But the farmer can choose to keep a bit of quinoa for consumption and sell the rest.

As far as I know, people living on or below the poverty have very little decision-making power, and often limited foresight potential. If you are struggling to survive, you’re going to do what gets you more money in the short term. (The sudden commodification of staple crops into liquid financial capital also undoubtedly affects the way in which producers exchange products with each other). Decision-fatigue has been documented as a major contributor to trapping people in poverty (see Dean Spears’ study on farmers in Rajasthan). Poor people have a lot more trade-offs (the life/death kind) to deal with on a daily basis severely limiting their productive capacity, and their energy to make decisions.

Another example of this disempowerment of the producer came up in class at the SRC yesterday, where a researcher told us about her work in East Africa where fishers who have traditionally fished piscivorus fish for consumption are now fishing increasingly more to meet the needs of the tourism and hotel industry. They consume less (if any) themselves, depend on middlemen for loans and become trapped in a low-income, malnourished state.

Thrashing wheat with oxen in Jomarji Bolo, Afghanistan. Tajikistan on other side of the Amu Darya River.

Thrashing wheat with oxen in Jomarji Bolo, Afghanistan. Tajikistan on other side of the Amu Darya River (August 2011) (c) Jamila Haider

Finally, coming back to the Pamirs. Same issues hold as above. Except I understand the mental models behind it a bit better.

On the Tajik side of the Pyanj we hear that farmers have forgotten how to be farmers when their staple crops were substituted for internationally competitive crops though Soviet modernization projects. FAIL. In the past generation many Tajik

farmers, those who are not scraping around the poverty level as migrant workers in Moscow, have gone back to their Afghan relatives to ask for seeds.

Meanwhile, the Afghans tell an eerily  similar narrative:  “Our livelihoods will be improved if only we had access to better seeds and to markets. Our lives would be better if we didn’t have to go to pasture and could buy margarine from the market. Except for that the margarine makes us sick…”

What role do development narratives and global market forces play in shaping small-holder’s vision of their future and their well-being?

Who’s future is this anyways? How do we, as scientists, know what ‘she’ at the centre of the circles of trust wants? My question is how to give people the power to make their own decisions. How to create a global food system based on local producers who can choose to grow and eat what they want?

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2 Responses to Food disempowerment

  1. lisa says:

    Great writing 🙂 just reading a book written by Jan Douwe van der Ploeg about the future of the peasantry (eg peasant farming builts upon sustainable use of ecological capital and oriented towards defending and improving prasant livelihoods) in todays global food empire…. He argues that the peasantry is not dying and the futur for our food production and those critical voices like yours are needed!!! I think that there are different devlopment trajectories, agriculture when thinking of my field in Morocco is chaotic and disordered…. o_O helping out here?! 😉 look forward to your next post! Sweet dreams 🙂

  2. Mei says:

    Great article on how consumption and economics have clearly had an impact on not only the environment but rights and choices of those whose own needs depends on it. As we literally ‘eat the world to death’ there needs to be considerable rethinking of how our own consumption habits affects us all, the current horse meat scandal could be the shape of things to come as meat producers are revealed to use substitutes. Those living below the poverty line as you rightly point out above will be most affected by it. Given we waste 1/3 of the food the world produces, one of the answers is clearly not to produce more but to distribute more responsibly.

    Thank you for quoting our article on food production above, I’d appreciate your making a minor correction to the name of our organisation which is Planetary Boundaries Initiative. I look forward to your next post.

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