Seeds and Ideas: Food as a method in development practice

Where do ideas come from? is the fundamental question we address in this ‘Thought for Food’ publication by Hivos and Oxfam. We explore how new ideas that exist outside the mainstream discussions about development can be brought into its narrative and influence its course. And how food in general, and agricultural biodiversity in particular, can help facilitate this process.

Seeds & Ideas: Food as a method in development practice. Download here:

Seeds & Ideas: Food as a method in development practice. Haider & van Oudenhoven 2015.

You can download the pdf here. We hope it’s of interest! And here’s a short summary

1. How do endogenous ideas emerge?

Drawing from an exchange between Nietzsche and Foucault, we argue that norms, behaviours, actions and ideas become established when the serve a certain purpose, when they are useful. The purpose, and therefore the utility, lies in the eye of the beholder. In a development context, problems are defined by external agencies and responses designed as one-liners: poverty alleviation, market development, combatting malnutrition. From this perspective, the utility of field lies in its productive function (to combat malnutrition for example). To a local cook and farmer, the utility of the field is broader still. We draw on the example of lashak mack (rye pea field), and the soup  that is made of it in the Pamir Mountains.

To the Pamiri cook and farmer, the function of lashak-makh is broader still. They use the harvest from these fields to make a flour called hazorza, which means ‘mix of a thousand’. The crops are not separated, but harvested and milled together, and the hazorza flour is used to make bread or a nutritious noodle soup called osh, which is rich in protein and energy and has a cooling quality when working the fields in summer. Many kinds of osh exist, made with different mixed flours that come from different combinations of crops grown at different altitudes, and many songs and poems are recited about Osh. The soup and the cultivation system are interlinked; the agronomic utility of the cultivation system is connected to the nutritional and cultural utility of hazorza and osh, and strengthened by it.

Many (agri)cultural norms and practices have functions that are not readily apparent. Is it possible to know which knowledge, practice or idea that seems irrelevant now will be useful at some future point in time? And if it is possible, who are the people to decide on what practices should remain and which ones could go? Who decides on change?

We bring in a few more examples of how introduced seed varieties can become ends in and of themselves, especially when so much scientific legitimacy stands behind the improved varieties. To move the locus of power from outside organisations to people and communities who receive development assistance means, firstly, to shift the responsibility of who defines problems and solutions to those very people and communities. The ‘inevitable gap’ becomes less inevitable when the perspective on development is derived more from within, becomes more endogenous. Food may be one way to achieve this.

Food as a Method Part 1: Food is intimate and unimposing, it is a common vocabulary and it is simple but not simplistic.

During the course of our work in the Pamirs, ‘food’ proved to be a useful tool to break down or at least circumvent power relationships and help gain a deeper understanding of this place and its culture. With ‘food’ we simply mean the act of cultivating and preparing food, of eating together and speaking and thinking about it. But the experience of working on a book by no means proves that this tool would necessarily be useful in other hands or for the exploration of other questions in different cultures. Would it be something that is useful for development practitioners for their work in agricultural communities? Would redefining and redirecting development efforts around food (in its broadest sense) be meaningful? We will explore a number of qualities of food that suggest it might.

2. In autonomous spaces, where do ideas come from?

Through listening and trying to learn these skills from farmers, mothers and shepherds, our conversations with them created a space where we could speak as equals. Where power relations, if not absent, were less apparent than if we had been there as researchers or development workers. This, we felt, was a space far away from the ‘problems and solutions’ defined by the outside world of development, a relatively endogenous space in which people could speak freely and ideas could emerge. And often they did.

At times, however, we were struck by people’s seeming lack of endogenous ideas about their future; a lack of initiative in changing things that weren’t working, or protecting things people were proud of. Where were those ideas and where had the energy gone? A strange contradiction in a conversation with a wealthy shepherd in the Wakhan valley of Afghanistan suggested we ought to look at power in yet a different, more subtle way.

Food as a Method Part 2: to excavate memories and inspire ideas. Food is evocative, tangible, requires action and is a vessel of values fundamental to identify.

Food is a vessel of many things. It is not by accident that preparing it evokes memories and ideas that are otherwise buried. Using food as a method helps create a space in which novel ideas emerge and can be expressed, and where old ideas can be excavated, dusted off and become part of an endogenous perspective on development. The question that remains is how, once ‘small’ local ideas emerge, they can take root and thrive alongside or in competition with more powerful ones.

3. How do ideas take root?

To cook food with people and to eat together from a shared dish allows us to understand ideas and solutions for rural development practice as springing from the relationship between people, their communities and their landscape. Just as plants and animals are part of an ecological system, and seeds need to be understood in the agricultural system of which they are a part, ideas about food and the development of agricultural landscapes need to be understood in relation to, and as a result of, other ideas and the people who carry them. This way of understanding how ideas interact has been called an ‘ecology of ideas’ (Bateson, 1972).

In such as an ecology, as an idea becomes established, it increasingly connects to other ideas until, eventually, the idea becomes crucial to the survival of the system as a whole. Throughout this paper we have discussed some of the ideas that Pamiri farmers shared with us about their future: raising their children to maintain a connection to their land and traditional livelihoods, growing grains and pulses together in lashak-makh fields, using food and local plants for medicine. In other words seeking and adopting a type of development that does not destroy important local and traditional values. But if these ideas find no soil, no social or institutional network into which they can be incorporated and nourished, they cannot flourish and survive. Ideas are not singular entities and cannot exist as such; they need a support structure, or an ecology of which they become a part.

The reason that, viewed from the perspective of an ‘ecology of ideas’, food has such evocative power, and that phrasing ideas in the language of food may help them spread and gain relevance, is that food touches on most elements that make up daily life: health, livelihood, agriculture, science, spirituality, trade. The more such linkages are allowed to persist, the more these elements remain seen as integral parts of the food system, and the greater the power of food to help new ideas connect to an existing ecology and take root.

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Lashak-makh. A field of rye, barley, pea, grass pea, lentil and faba bean. A mess, traditional ecological knowledge, or something else? Photo by F. van Oudenhoven.

Yet unfortunately this is not usually the way development programmes introduce their ideas (or their seeds). The way in which the organisations and donors behind these programmes are organised requires that the building blocks of human life be compartmentalised into sectors that can be managed within the framework of projects: productivity, income generation, health, culture, thereby severing the same linkages that make food such a holistic and overarching concept. Imagine how an improved seed variety, designed for monoculture, would fare in the colourful chaos of a field of lashak-makh? It would not survive its difficult soils without a substantial dose of fertiliser, or competition from other plants without the use of herbicides. The agricultural system must change if the newly introduced seed is to succeed; it must be compartmentalised. And so the seed becomes divorced from the soil and the traditional practices that connect farming and communities, such as seed saving and selection. It will no longer have its place in prayer, in food and in social networks of exchange—the very things that give a local seed its relevance and that enable it to adapt to changes in its environment and culture.

The same risk exists for ideas. Let’s return one last time to the dichotomy between ideas as singular monuments and ideas as networks and interactions. Even though external ideas are part of networks as much as local ideas are, we have in this paper pictured them as more ‘monumental,’ as one-liner solutions to problems whose conception often occurred elsewhere. In many ways they are more monumental—and they take root as a plant’s taproot might: central, singular, and straight. In being monumental and more rigid, they are less able to adapt to a new home, and less sensitive to it.

In contrast, what we have called endogenous, or local ideas, are the ideas that spring from everyday processes of innovation and learning; the way a farmer learns when working her fields. Having no one source or origin, and, perhaps, also no fixed goal or direction, they evolve and adapt when faced with something unknown, drawing on a reservoir of related ideas, whether prayer, technical knowledge or folklore.

We do not argue that all ‘small’ local ideas are good and all external ‘big’ ideas are bad. Both are needed, but they need to be able to interact on a more equal level. It is in facilitating such interactions, through engagement and experimentation, through the collective interrogation of ideas, and through being modest about introduced ideas and judging them against the wisdom of ancestral knowledge present in the places where they work, that we argue development organisations have a very positive role to play.

Resilience self-assessment by communities

At the Agricultural Biodiversity Community (ABC) meeting in Boxtel, Netherlands at the beginning of October, practitioners, farmers, and researchers from Africa, Europe, Asia, North and South America came together and created a process for “Resilience Self Assessment by Communities.”

This was the fourth meeting of the ABC, and three working groups worked over four days on i) policy outreach, ii) open source seed systems, and iii) resilience assessment (the group I was involved with).

Why did we have a working group on resilience assessment for agricultural biodiversity? This was my understanding prior to helping facilitate the workshop:

  • There is an increasing demand from the international development community to ‘improve’ resilience of communities. Most communities, especially rural communities who are custodians of agricultural biodiversity, already have sources of resilience but assessment tools could help them identify and communicate this to external actors;
  • The Resilience Assessment Workbook for Practitioners is seen as an important and useful resource but with limitations for communities in a development context to use this themselves;
  • To share and synthesise knowledge and best practice amongst all the experts gathered here.

This matters because far too often external interventions, with altruistic motivations actually do the opposite of build resilience, and reduce diversity and erode local knowledge and culture that has maintained agricultural diversity for centuries (also the topic of my PhD).

Then there were two immediate contradictions to my initial understanding:

  1. Bioversity International, Satoyama Initiative, UNDP have been developing a toolbox for resilience assessment in agricultural biodiversity contexts based on the Social-Ecological Production Landscapes indicators (See also van Oudenhoven et al. 2010), and was launched at the CBD COP last week. So, what was the value added of our exercise?
  2. In the first session on the first day where we discussed setting the agenda as a group, many group participants said: “we don’t need a resilience assessment tool; we already do this in our communities and the last thing we need is some external perspective on what we already do.”

So, we threw our facilitation plans out the window.

In this first open session, many of the participants were asking what is Resilience anyways? The Thai and Ugandan farmer were saying that this is an English word and concept and might now be useful for them or their communities in their contexts.

We started by breaking down Why, How and What: resilience assessment?

WHY? We came to a shared understanding that what we wanted was a self-assessment by communities: for communities to a) identify and monitor sources and status of resilience in their communities for themselves, and b) in some contexts, to communicate to external actors and thereby possibly avoiding inappropriate development interventions.

HOW? Develop a process for communities to self assess resilience.

WHAT? The first part of this was to answer: what is resilience in agricultural biodiverse landscapes?

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Angoli cattle farmer Elizabeth telling a narrative about resilience in her community.

We listened to the narrative of our Ugandan farmer colleague, who rears Angoli cattle and the group drew this story on large sheets of paper. She told us how if she loses one cow due to some misfortune, her community will give her five in return. And she will of course do the same if something happens to her friends’ cattle. Our Thai friend, an agro-forestry farmer, then told us how she does agro-forestry because ‘she is lazy’ and it’s so easy to let the fruit and vegetables grow without her input. Her livelihood depends entirely on her forest. In a community context, she depends a lot on the connections she has with her extended family and neighbours, who all specialise in different products and share their wealth with each other. Finally, our Indian colleague led a narrative of why we need to assess resilience.

The first day ended with a shared understanding of what resilience meant to us, and why we, in our own communities, wanted to assess it.

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Identifying resilience attributes in agricultural biodiversity landscapes.

Our next steps as a group were to use the drawings to draw out attributes that were important to the custodians of the landscape. We used sticky notes on the big flipchart sheets for this. At the end, we had more than a list of attributes, but an understanding of what we valued in this community, and “what made it healthy and strong.”

 Taking a step back, we created a mindmap of the Process we were in the middle of, and what this might look as tool to share. Here is our mindmap:

1. Why is an assessment needed? 2. Who should be involved? How to achieve equitable representation.  3. Telling the Story 4. Identify attributes 5. Link to Action 6. Reflection

1. Why is an assessment needed?
2. Who should be involved? How to achieve equitable representation.
3. Telling the Story
4. Identify attributes
5. Link to Action
6. Reflection


The Agricultural Biodiversity Community is now in the process of pulling together resources to populate each of these steps with the expertise of the members of the group. For example, from MELCA in Ethiopia, experience with Eco-Mapping, and SeaRice, with community mapping. We are preparing a web-launch of this tool early 2015, which will link to other great resources, such as the RA workbook, a new E-learning course on Resilience Assessment by SwedBio to be launched soon, and the Satoyama tools.

Many of us left saying that we had achieved much more than we had ever expected. Farmers and practitioners left the workshop saying that this is definitely a tool that they can use in their communities. We will start field trials in Thailand, Uganda, South Africa, Peru, India and other countries early 2015.

As a researcher studying resilience in agricultural biodiversity landscapes, I left thinking that we achieved a milestone in co-creating a process that is accessible to communities and that we made a contribution in aggregating existing tools assessing resilience in agricultural biodiversity contexts, moving towards a specified assessment. We look forward to connecting this to the many other ongoing initiatives to assess resilience.

On a personal note, I found the workshop very challenging, but incredibly rewarding. Despite dedicating my work to smallholders, being a lover and advocate of wheats, millets, pulses and everything else, at the end of the day I am a young Northern female scientist. And my voice, especially at the beginning without any personal trust behind it, held very little legitimacy in this context. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. But, it makes it very difficult to contribute, let alone facilitate a co-creative process like this. Over time, as we got to know each other, these barriers broke down. But wow, it was humbling! I am so grateful for an incredible learning experience, where I also started a process of finding a space for my own voice in this critically important issue of conserving agricultural biodiversity that we all share a passion for.

Dutch farmer Jan at Eemlandhoeve.

Dutch farmer Jan at Eemlandhoeve.

Excerpt from: You are what you EAT @ #SES_Link

“Are you happy? (asks Feike Sijbesma from DSM).

–       yes! (Audience)

Oh. Did you hear about the horrible crisis today? Where 9,000 people died?

–       no.

That’s because nobody is talking about it. 1, 2, 3, 4… 4 seconds go by and another person dies from hunger.

9,000 will die today, and another 9,000 will die tomorrow.

So, Are you still happy?”

Yet, obesity and overweight kills more people than underweight. The richest billion people in the world consume 40% of the resources.

This is the global food crisis.

We were presented this dilemma during the EAT forum plenary. The first annual EAT Forum was hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Stordalen Foundation to bring together environmental and health impacts of the food we eat.This type of narrative may get people to act. It is certainly one approach, and undoubtedly a successful one if business leaders are using it. I’ve written a more comprehensive blog about it on our #SES_Link homepage.

But I found myself thinking: why should we be unhappy? I know the world is unjust and try to work everyday in small ways to reduce that inequity. But does it mean that I should be so miserable that I can’t act? To be honest, some days I am. Those days when the world feels too heavy, the problems too big, and my own contribution completely insignificant, or even worse, counterproductive. Speaking for myself, what I need  to hear are more positive stories, not horror stories.

A more important critique though, is that by always framing things in the negative, we may find solutions to those problems , but we won’t change the system in which the problems arose. Improving seed varieties may solve aspects of world hunger, but it won’t change the system which makes hunger pathological.

So back to my mantra, why should use food as a lens to talk about global food problems: 1) Food frames problems in the positive;  2)  Food is evocative; food is more than just calories that feed us, and more than just ingredient that create a recipe. Everyone has a story, an emotion, associated with food. This is what is behind the sovereign space in which ideas are created;  3) Food is simple and levels the playing field; everyone can talk about food.  You can read more about our approach on the SIANI blog, or on my own.

As Bill Clinton said in his keynote at the EAT Forum: “What kills people is believing that their tomorrows will be like today.” Maybe talking about food can open up new tomorrows.

Food Futures: Correction to my blog on SIANI

A few weeks ago I wrote this blog for SIANI about food. It’s a story of how our book “With our hands: A celebration of food, and life, in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs” came to be, and why we think it’s important both for the preservation of beautiful cultural traditions in the Pamir Mountains, and also globally important for social-ecological response diversity.

Link to SIANI blog

Link to SIANI blog

The point if this current blog is to make a correction: A Pamiri friend who read the SIANI blog quickly pointed out that Pamiri people are not ashamed of their food, but that it is a much more complex story than that. Of course she is absolutely right and the last thing I would ever want is to misrepresent that. The blog has now been corrected, and here is a more detailed explanation of my own interpretation of ‘ashamed’ as an outsider to the Pamirs.

This Pamiri friend explained that she loves Osh, it’s her favourite food. But that her mother made it only occasionally because it takes a long time to prepare. Many women in the Pamirs work full time jobs, are more than full time mothers, often supporting their parents, or the parents of their husbands, and very often other extended family. Pamiri women are truly superwomen. And it’s very to me to not misrepresent this.

So, using the word “ashamed”, was absolutely the wrong one! However, I think the original rationale behind it is important. Pamiri people, we found, did not like to prepare traditional food for foreigners. They rather prepared modern Russian dishes, with meat preferably, which is a sign of wealth. This is of course not at all unique to the Pamirs. My own grandmother in Austria would never dream of serving a guest a meal without meat, even if she prepares ‘simple’ local vegetarian food regularly for herself. A second anecdote which informed my use of the word ashamed includes Pamiri peoples “second flour.” Many Pamiri households have at least two kinds of flour. The first flour, is (now usually bought) white flour usually from Kazakhstan. The second flour, is a locally milled mixed flour which is much darker in colour and much more nutritious (as it’s often mixed with legumes). Again as a guest, we would only ever be served the bread of the first flour, unless explicitly asking for the second, when it was only brought out with confused and shy manners. No restaurant in the main Pamiri city of Khorog sells local food (with the exception of one seasonal summer dish, and one thermos full of Osh at the local market!), because it is presumed that people will not buy it.

As a final note, an outsider’s perspective will never be complete or wholly representative, no matter how thorough we have tried to be. After three years of work and constant conservation with Pamiris themselves, I am hoping we are not doing the Pamirs a disservice! Dialogue is the way to get through this, so I am extremely grateful for the correction!

Guattari revisited

At the Stockholm Resilience Centre in the past month, there has been an amazing initiative to revisit the classics: Durkheim, Weber, Marx. You can read about that on the resilience science blog

Frederik and I have often over the years gone back to the classics in thinking about our work on food sovereignty, development and cultural heritage in the Pamirs. Over two years ago we were inspired by French thinker, Felix Guattari, and I posted a few first reflections here. Those thoughts turned into a paper (free access here), published a year ago in a somewhat obscure French journal.

Why do I like using the classics in thinking about change social ecological systems? I have found beauty in the way that classics can provide framing my thinking in a narrower frame, much like a poetic style can channel creativity leading to the emergence of something entirely unexpected.

… we borrow from the concept of ‘the three ecologies’, developed by the French thinker Félix Guattari (1989). With this concept he distinguishes between three dimensions—environmental, social, and mental—of the current crisis of nature (both ecological and human) and illustrates how these are affected by the economic system that he considers to be the crisis’ main cause. These ‘three ecologies’ guide our analysis of development issues and the formulation of alternatives.

Implied in the following examples is the call, also emphatically stated in Guattari’s text, to abandon the professed neutrality of “pseudo-scientific paradigms” (ibid: 131) in favour of the subjectivity of aesthetic ones. In other words, to turn away, if only for the purpose of reflection, from the informational, ‘professional’, or ‘academic’ (i.e. external) narratives as a basis for conceiving development trajectories, towards the singularity and aesthetics of popular stories and memories rooted in local culture. Huyssen (2003: 2) relates the “fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures” to the differential treatment of history vs. memory. Development activities predicated on memory will be different from those based on a linear account of history and, arguably, allow for greater flexibility and creativity in responding to environmental, economic or geopolitical changes.

We go on to describe each of these ecologies in turn, the environmental, social and finally, mental:

Perhaps the most important point made by Guattari is that the degradation of the environmental and the social sphere cannot be seen separate from the impoverishment of the mind, or the mental ecology:

“Indeed, if we continue, as the media would have us do—to refuse squarely to confront the simultaneous degradation of these three areas, we will in effect be acquiescing in a general infantilization of opinion, a destruction and neutralization of democracy. We need to ‘kick the habit’ of sedative consumption […] we need to apprehend the world through the interchangeable lenses of the three ecologies” (Guattari 1989: 34).

The “media” to which Guattari refers can be seen as analogous to the role that development organizations play in the region. People aspire to achieve a model of development which they do not only poorly understand, but which, often, causes marginalization and erodes (food) sovereignty.


Afghan women baking wheat bread in a traditional oven, called kitsor. © Theodore Kaye

Food OtherWise

Food is the source of immense energy and power.

I attended the “Food Otherwise” conference hosted at Wageningen University this weekend, where this power brought together 800 academics, politicians, and farmers to discuss the revolution we need in the food system.

Vandana Shiva spoke about why we need a different food system. Her response was “… because the current one was never meant to be.”  It’s impossible to recount even with a fraction of the eloquence and power with which Shiva tells this story, so it’s better you watch the video yourself!

Her core message was that the relevance of small-scale farming cannot be disputed. Supporting small-scale farmers is not a small scale problem, and it’s not an issue that anyone interested in global food security and the daunting task of feeding 9 billion can ignore. 70% of the world is fed by small holders, using 30% of natural resources, whereas large scale industrial agriculture feeds 30%, using 70% of natural resources. This is one of the reasons FAO has announced 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming.

Oliver de Schutter was stunningly eloquent and convincing. He echoed Shiva’s point that the food system as developed in the 1960s was developed to boost production at all costs. But as his convincing stats demonstrated, this is simply no longer the end goal. Agricultural production has continued to grow at 2.1% /year since the 60s.

We need to shift from an input intensive system to a knowledge intensive system. He described the cyclical nature of hunger and poverty and 4 types of lock-in that are making the transformation in the food system difficult.

  1. Socio-technical lock-in: the system was developed for the growth of industry, and companies now struggle to deal with sunk costs.
  2. Socio-economic lock-in: the incumbent power yielded by agro-chemical systems.
  3. Socio-cultural lock-in: we are used to a fast food culture, we want convenient calories.
  4. Socio-political: politicians and lobbyists still have the veto power.

What we need is food democracy, at the local, the regional and the global level. At the local level we need to imagine food systems based on something other than the market, focus on the direct relationships we have with land. At the regional level, we need to stop talking about agricultural policies, and start talking about food policies. At the global level we need a global commitment to food security. This starts at the dinner table, he said, with making and eating food together.

We (my book co-author and I) were asked to present as part of Oxfam-Hivos Knowledge programme on some of our insights on using food as a lens to uncover sovereign development wishes and trajectories of small-scale farmers. We are working on a think piece for the programme in which we dig into the paralysis often encountered in development practice in our attempts to give the subaltern a voice (see Spivak), without influencing that voice with our own perspective. We frame this problem at three scales. First, being aware of the limitations of development interventions themselves. In framing the problem in negatives: hunger, war, destitution, we may find solutions to those problems, but we won’t change the system in which they arose. External solutions, by their nature of being outside of the system, can’t provide the knowledge generation necessary for long-term adaptation. Second, when we turn to participatory methods, to include the internal point of view, we may find that it has no voice. Food, as a method I describe below, may help (point 2). However, there is a third level of this paralysis to act. Even in our most well-meaning participatory interventions, we may find that these voices have nothing to say.

We propose that food can be a source of new novel ideas, and using food as a method has multiple advantages:

a)    Food frames problems in the positive

b)   Food is simple and levels the playing field; everyone can talk about food. Food makes the woman the expert, and the expert the fool (thanks F!).

c)    This doesn’t mean it’s not complex; Food enables us to talk about interactions between people, their landscape and ideas. Understanding food cultures tell us a geopolitical and environmental history.

d)   Food is evocative; food is more than just calories that feed us, and more than just ingredient that create a recipe. Everyone has a story, an emotion, associated with food. This is what is behind the sovereign space in which ideas are created.

But once we have arrived at this sovereign space in which new ideas emerge, how do they take root? We draw on Bateson’s concept of an ecology of ideas, and Foucault’s analysis of power dynamics on a genealogy of ideas, to assess how different ideas acquire power. More to come!

It was a beautiful conference, a beautiful meeting of ideas, and I left inspired to make the world better, starting one seed at a time.


What would you do with this rock?

We recently had a ‘Stockholm Resilience Centre’ Marathon, where we spent a day learning about each others’ research. It was an incredible day, at the ethnographic museum in Stockholm. Our instruction was to NOT use powerpoint. So we had role plays, songs and videos… and our group, the Landscapes Theme (because our centre is based around cross-cutting research themes) presented objects. Mine was a rock. And here is my 1 minute blurb:

What would you do with this rock? What productive function would this rock have to you?

In the high desert steppe Pamir mountains of Central Asia,  people make soil from rocks. With their own hands, they break the rocks with hammers, dynamite or other, bigger rocks, until they can throw them off their land and build a stone wall with them.  They then flood this field, once, twice, three times, usually over three seasons with the silt-laden water of the Amu Darya. After three years, they may have a mulch that is just good enough to grow some fruit trees, or if the silty flood is particularly rich, perhaps even some grains.

This landscape, is barren, difficult and desolate. One might even ask why anyone decided to live here. Increasing population and severe food production restrictions indeed beg the question why anyone still lives here at all. And it’s true, living here is difficult. But the life that does grow, is unique and astoundingly resilient. Drought resistant crop varieties, endemic fruit varieties prosper in micro-niches and the food tastes so much better.


Afghan farmer in the Wakhan Corridor clearing his land of large rocks. 3 seasons from now he may use this field of rocky mulch to grow fruit trees, or even grains. August 2011 (r) Jamila Haider

A scientist might look at this landscape and see only limits that must be overcome with technocratic solutions. But let’s take for a moment the perspective of the people who live in this valley; who have co-evolved with this landscape for thousands of years. This spirit and courage is ever present in the Afghan farmers who work hard on their land, as in this photo here where rocks are cleared before being smashed to mulch.

Just on the other side of the river, this spirit of ingenuity has been all but lost. Replaced by modernization schemes, Tajik farmers will tell us that they have forgotten how to work the land.

Monumental efforts have been made to overcome these barriers, first the Soviets, and then development organisations have tried: fertilizer inputs, massive irrigation schemes, riparian stabilization, improved crop varieties.

But most do not work. The fields are too high, the soil to difficult. People are incredibly poor with some of the worst human well-being indicators in the world. Traditional development has failed. Efforts to increase food production have in fact done the opposite. Improved wheat varieties have failed after 1 or 2 seasons, depleting the soils which cannot fallow, or not withstanding drought. These interventions have done little more than create new traps, dependency on a state (the Soviets were for a while flying in fodder), or development organizations introducing seeds that requires fertilizers. How can we regain the resilience of this landscape based on the ingenuity of the farmers and break the dependency trap?

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?

A hopeful harvest: Small scale solutions to the increasing yield/conserving biodiversity conundrum

Agrobiodiversity is all about trade-offs. Even from a human development standpoint, are we managing for improving yields or for improving chances of long-term well-being through diversity? For development organizations, most who suffer from short-termism, it’s usually the former.  In areas of extreme poverty and acute conflict, these tradeoffs are even more apparent and heart-wrenching. If an improved wheat variety means increasing the yield to feed a farmer’s family next year, then why wouldn’t we do it? I recently published an article with my friend Frederik in a special edition of Solutions about the inter-linkages between food security and failed state-ism. You can access the article for free here.

In this paper we draw on cases from the province of Badakhshan, in Northern Afghanistan, to present three local solutions that all have some potential to break, from the bottom-up, the self-reinforcing loop that characterizes the trap of failed states. While all deal with local-level solutions to food production and diversification, they work at very different levels of human activity: the first describes an agricultural research station’s attempt at improving agricultural production, through an innovative approach to governance. The second example is a bold and innovative experiment to teach women the skills to grow and process vegetables in the high Pamir Mountains. It succeeded in introducing greens and beans to seminomadic communities who had never eaten vegetables before. The third works at the level of identity and imagination: using food culture to rekindle people’s sense of pride in who they are, it helps to offer a different basis from which to re-imagine a future that is their own, free of war. (This is also the core of our much larger Book Project > watch this space).


Questioning the intentions of agricultural development interventions, a comprehensive blog post by Edward Carr describes the systemic patterns of state violence and food security drawing on James Scott’s work in “The Art of Not Being Governed.”

“By compelling greater and greater market integration, and doing so through a focus on fewer and fewer crops, we are effectively closing the commons and prohibiting/constraining subsistence activities among the affected populations.  The result, in the best case, is improved agricultural outcomes and incomes that translate into improved well-being for all involved.

The worst case is a scenario where various marginal populations who have developed some expertise in managing the uncertainty of their particular contexts lose adaptive capacity, making them much more vulnerable to state violence and control.  Critically, these are not mutually exclusive scenarios – what works in one year or season to improve the quality of life for rural farmers might, in another year or season with different market and weather conditions, work to extend state control over marginal populations who already receive little for their status as citizens. I am sure that nobody who works on the donor side wants to be part of a campaign of state violence (at the worst) or part of a project that results in the further marginalization of poor, marginal populations (in the better to middle-case scenarios).”

Our new economy (22 years ago); and a look to the future through food

“There is a principle specific to environmental ecology which states that everything is possible–the worst catastrophes, or the smoothest developments.”

I just returned from a self-imposed ‘writing recluse’ with my co-author for the little book Bo dastoni khud – With our hands: A book of food, and life, in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs.  There, in a lovely Swedish summerhouse on the Baltic Sea, I found the space to read a few long- overdue classics– including The Three Ecologies, by Guattari.

Guattari wrote this paper in 1989. This week, as I found myself in tightening thought circles writing about the apparent ingenuity gap of the Pamir people after the fall of the Soviet Union, I found myself in an even tighter circle thinking that Guattari wrote these words when I was two years old. And well, it was one of those slightly disconcerting moments where I was reminded that I’ve been spending my entire life trying to articulate thoughts which have already been succinctly and firmly stated before I could even speak.

Many of the discussions we have on the recession and economic growth are spent questioning alternative growth mechanisms within the current economic paradigm when Guattari stated 22 years ago that we should use “our expanded understanding of the whole range of ecological components to set in place new systems of value.” Guattari told us that Capitalism could be challenged, or at least made to incorporate methods of valorization based on existential production. He called for an active offensive, rather than a mere defence of nature. A future in which we fashion ethics appropriate to a future which is at once fascinating and terrifying. (Thank you to David Barry and others, who have recently opened a socially equitable, environmental community bank (E3 bank in the US) against all odds.)

Guattari blames much of the inaction on reductionism that necessarily accompanies the privileging of information which supplants story-telling. So, now, I am going on a bit of limb from my otherwise overly pragmatic self, and am writing a book based foremost on story-telling through which we hope to detract from the abstract, and focus on a memory with a strong sense of self and to form an identity to form a base from which to look forward to the future. The culture of food is a link from the past to the present and beyond. The question is how to maintain that culture—that sense of Pamiri-self—and move forwards. We hope our book creates such a bridge. To invoke memories of the past, record the present, and help provide a rich context for the future.

The question I’m currently tangled up in, is what the future of this region looks like to Pamiris? And what is their ability  to imagine the future, because perhaps even more severely than most, their memories have been eroded by history. In a time of transforming lifestyles and landscapes, our book presents food as a powerful lens through which to invoke visions of the future rooted in memories.

In a recent post in the Resilience Science Blog a quote from Andreas Hussyen’s book states

“At stake in the current history/memory debate is not only a disturbance of our notions of the past, but a fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures.”

Over the coming weeks, and months, I’ll be posting recipes, stories and photos here to give a taste of the coming book!

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