Yearnings for Alternative Food and Farming Systems

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Photo by George M. Groutas         

           “Men who can graft the  trees and make the seed fertile and big can find no way to let the hungry people eat their produce . Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby their fruits may be eaten. And the failure hangs over the State like a great sorrow.”

– John Steinbeck in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

            The food and farming system at the world level has been getting increasingly dominated by powerful corporate interests and the motives driving them of  maximizing their profits and dominance. In the process the food and farming system has been moving away from the objectives of producing safe and adequate healthy food on sustainable basis while ensuring creative and satisfactory livelihoods. In these difficult conditions several groups and individuals have been steadfastly working for creating an alternative food and farming system. It is useful to look at some of these efforts and their vision.

Several  UK farming, consumer, organic, animal welfare, environmental and Third World groups  formed the Sustainable Agriculture, Food and Environment (SAFE) alliance. The SAFE Alliance  tried to define the requirements of a good agricultural system:

         An agriculture that is supportive of rural communities, that halts the decline in full-time farm employment and provides a stable livelihood for farmers and farm workers;

         An agriculture that does not jeopardize the health of those who work or live on the land or the consumer through the use of polluting or toxic production methods;

         An agriculture that is capable of flexible response to national food and nutrition goals designed to improve public health;

         An agriculture that produces affordable food, of high nutritional quality and that minimizes chemical and microbiological contaminants;

         An agriculture that does not lead to the reduction of soil fertility, that minimizes reliance on non-renewable resources and that is sustainable;

         An agriculture that both conserves and enhances the countryside, not only in its visual aspect but also in terms of its resources and wildlife;

         An agriculture that respects the welfare needs of farm animals;

         An agriculture that does not threaten the development and maintenance of food security and sustainable agriculture in other countries, especially those in the Third World.

My own single sentence definition of a good food and farming system is–A good food and agricultural system is one which makes available satisfactory livelihood to all members of the farming community ( including landless workers and sharecroppers or tenants)  and wholesome, nutritious food to all people in a sustainable way, ensuring welfare of farm animals, protecting bio-diversity and environment with emphasis on protecting soil, water and pollinators for future generations.

Unfortunately at present the world is far away from such a system. There is a lot of economic tension and uncertainty among farmers not only in developing countries but also in some of the richest countries like the USA. A significant share of the farming community is landless (or near landless) and it is deprived of  a fair share of the farm income. Many landholders are themselves in danger of losing control over their land.

Again even in the richest countries, care of soil is badly neglected. The machines that have taken over most of the work on farms can produce more food but cannot protect soil for future generations. As more and more skilled peasants are being driven away from agriculture, it becomes more and more unlikely that enough people will be available not just to produce food but also to protect land. Farm animals and other forms of life are being treated ruthlessly with least concern for their welfare and for their farming protecting role, such as the soil fertility enhancing role of earthworms and the pollinating role of bees and birds.

On the consumption side, not only do poverty and inequalities deny adequate food to a large number of people (probably in the neighborhood of one billion) but even those with enough purchasing power find it increasingly difficult to get wholesome, nutritious food due to the domination in markets of food which has been heavily treated by chemicals or subjected to other processing (or adulteration) which have peeled off valuable nutrients while adding some harmful substances.

So the basic priorities of improving the farm and agriculture system should be:

         Empower those who work on farmland to maintain their close links with land.

         Support them to get an adequate livelihood from cultivating the land and protecting its soil and water.

         Establish harmony between the welfare of farm animals and economic returns of farming. In other words make such productive use of farm animals as can bring economic returns without causing any cruelty to them.

         Establish direct links of farmers and consumers so that consumers can get good quality food and farmers can get a fair price in return. Monitor trade, processing and middlemen interests carefully to ensure that interests of farmers and consumers are not violated. Role of small traders is often OK but that of big  business has to be checked.

Unfortunately almost all these concerns are being neglected and existing distortions are getting worse due to the domination of quick profit interest of big agribusiness in policy matters while ignoring the wider, longer-term and much more significant interests of ordinary farmers and consumers. A lot of the confusion arises from treating agriculture much like an industry (or even mining) with a single minded pursuit of maximizing short turn production and profit. The fallacy of this widely held view has been very aptly exposed by Wendell Berry, farmer- philosopher from the USA, “The farmer differs from the industrialist in that the farmer is necessarily a nurturer, a preserver of the health of creatures.”

“The economy of industry is, typically,  extractive. It takes, makes, uses, and discards, it progresses, that is from exhaustion to pollution. Agriculture, on the other hand, rightly belongs to a replenishing economy, which takes, makes, uses, and returns – it involves the return to the source, not just of fertility or of so-called wastes, but also of care and affection.”

Arguing why this basic understanding of agriculture is so widely missed these days Wendell Berry writes, “The ‘free market’ – the unbridled play of economic forces- is bad for agriculture because it is unable to assign a value to things that are necessary to agriculture. It gives a value to agricultural products, but it cannot give a value to the sources of those products in the topsoil, the ecosystem, the farm, the farm family, or the farm community. Indeed, people who look at farming from the standpoint of the ‘free market’ do not understand the relation of product to source. They believe that the relation is merely mechanical because they believe that agriculture is or can be an industry. And the ‘free market’ is helpless to suggest otherwise.”

There are thus very strong reasons why several economists, other allied experts and politicians advised by them are unlikely to see and appreciate the true nature of agricultural work. This also explains why governments are so reluctant to implement the really needed agricultural reforms, even though many experimental initiatives of farmers are providing a strong case for much needed reform. Instead of bringing reforms that are actually needed, government policy and business interests, including experts who function as the fronts of these business interests and are generally selected for official committees, distort badly the meaning of the word reform and actually increase distortions in the name of reform. Hence farmers in many parts of world have become very wary and skeptical about the experts who dominate the farming discourse.

 Bharat Dogra is a h journalist and author. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children and Man Over Machine.



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