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October 8, 2021

Recognizing Smallholder Farmer Achievements

An interview with Max Darcey, Navitas Organics' Director of Sustainability & Quality and Loren Cardeli, A Growing Culture's Executive Director.

By: Max Darcey, BA, MS

In celebration of National Farmer's Day and our continued partnership with A Growing Culture (AGC), we're recognizing the incredible achievements of smallholder farmers. Get the scoop in this exclusive interview with our Director of Sustainability & Quality, Max Darcey, and AGC's Executive Director, Loren Cardeli, who reveal how these achievements have prevailed despite having the decks stacked against them.

MD: To start—and I know this is a huge question—but can you just talk a little bit about the scale and importance of smallholder farmers’ contribution to the global food system?

LC: When most people talk about “our food system,” they tend to be talking about the global industrial food chain. The reality is there isn’t just one food system. Communities around the world have their own interdependent systems of feeding themselves and each other. But the chain has effectively erased local food systems around the world in its quest to consolidate profits and control in the hands of transnational corporations.

Often, small-scale farmers, peasants, and Indigenous communities’ contributions to food production are left out because they are measured through the lens of the industrial food chain.

But when we start looking at the plurality of food systems, we see a very different story.

Small-scale food producers are responsible for feeding 70% of the world on less than 25% of the land. They develop and sustain locally-adapted indigenous seeds—80-90% of which are saved, shared, or traded within and between communities. They’re responsible for cultivatingover millenniathe seeds that corporations are now trying to patent and control.

The industrial food chain, on the other hand, is responsible for 85-90% of all agricultural emissions and only 24% of the total calories the chain produces are eaten by people.* For every dollar a consumer pays, society pays another two for the chain’s health and environmental damages. For comparison, the chain’s real total cost equals 5 times the world’s annual military expenditure.

A lot of people ask how these numbers are possible.

Small-scale, peasant and Indigenous producers tend to have complex and dynamic foodways that are deeply embedded in social and ecological systems. As a result, their practices actually sustain, rather than deplete, our crucial biodiversity. Their foodways are meant to feed their communities, and so food doesn’t travel as far, and little is wasted.

MD: From the amazing work that you and AGC have done, can you share a story with us about a farmer innovation project that created a positive impact, and how that idea or process was, or could be, replicated elsewhere?

LC: MASIPAG is an organization based in the Philippines. They were formed in 1985, when a group of farmers, NGOs and scientists came together to respond to the threats of the Green Revolution. They recognized the damaging effects of the hybrid rice varieties that the Rockefeller Foundation-funded International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) was developing at the time. The varieties IRRI claimed to be “miracle” varieties were not locally adapted to climatic conditions and required chemical fertilizers that degrade the soil over time. Ultimately, these seeds were leaving farmers with poor soil, and forcing them into dependency on expensive corporate inputs that created debt cycles.

MASIPAG set out to restore their own control over their seeds and markets, through a participatory rice breeding program that has now spread throughout the country. The result is an example of radical farmer-led transformation and resilience.

It began as an experiment. They first hosted a conference, and the farmers and scientists in attendance donated 47 traditional and locally-bred rice varieties to a community-managed seed bank. They also started their first trial farm, then called “satellite farms,” where they would test and breed new varieties without the use of chemical inputs. The rice breeding objectives are set by the farmers themselves.

Today, in partnership with local crop scientists and partner organizations, MASIPAG has grown to include 50,000 farmers; 272 trial farms across 47 provinces; 10 community seed banks; and a total of more than 2000 locally-developed seed varieties. The varieties are completely free and open-source to farmers if they contribute a few hours of labor for monitoring and upkeep at one of the trial farms where the new seeds are developed.

What’s so exciting about MASIPAG is that they have created a process that is decidedly farmer-led. It centers the needs, priorities, and expertise of farmers. Scientists and NGOs are brought into the research and development process to support farmers’ needs and goals, not the other way around.

While the contexts and needs might differ for other communities around the world, the decentralized structure at the heart of MASIPAG is definitely replicable and requires few resources to run successfully.

MD: It’s amazing that these growers, farmers and land stewards can face this scale of adversity and lack of resources yet produce a majority of the global food. With recent events like the World Bank canceling the publication of their Doing Business Report (DBR) because of corruption, and other attention brought to farmer movements globally, do you feel like the tables are turning? Are we, as a society waking up to the injustices facing the Peasant Food Web?

LC: The World Bank’s Doing Business Report was a relic of colonization. It forced lower income countries to deregulate—abolishing minimum wages, worker protections, and taxes—in order to attract investment from rich countries like the US. It showed that health and equity don’t matter to Global North countries; what they care most about is the ability to exploit and extract from Global South. Its cancellation is definitely a success.

But the reality is that things like the Doing Business rankings are endemic to our global systems. There are so many ways wealthy governments, corporations, and institutions maintain a grip on power.

In the case of the recent UN Food Systems Summit, we can see an example of the largest intergovernmental body claiming that they understand the problems of our dominant food system and are committed to fixing it. Definitely hopeful on the surface.

In reality, the Summit was a chance for the same powerful governments, corporations, and institutions to make decisions that further consolidate their control, while selling an image of a sustainable, democratic food future.

We’re seeing the corporations most responsible for environmental degradation and violations of worker rights rebranding as “sustainable” and “regenerative”. In other words, we see the same actors selling false solutions, and all the while pursuing profits. So unless we’re really looking at power and control, it’s easy to buy into some of these solutions.

That being said, there’s also more recognition of the role of small-scale farmers and the mass movements that represent them.

What’s clear is that the real solution is not to turn the tables, but to get rid of the tables altogether and reimagine what it looks like to build new systems rooted in equity and justice. And it seems like there’s more people today than ever before excited by that prospect.

There is so much resiliency and strength amongst the smallholder farmers fighting against industrial agriculture. What is the future of our food system going to look like? Is it reasonable to be optimistic?

There is no future under a singular globalized food system. Our dominant food system is an expression of our global economic system, which is built to extract and exploit, not to nourish and sustain. So the future of food is a future of diversity, where many systems are given the chance to grow and thrive.

For many of us, we’ve only known life under our dominant system, so that makes us ill-equipped to imagine something else, something better.

But that imagination rests in small-scale, peasant, pastoralist, fisherfolk, and Indigenous communities around the world who have known a life under systems built out of respect and care—for each other and the land. The future of food looks like them.

Of course, those communities are marginalized every day by our dominant system, so we’re far from a world truly ready to give up power and resources, to listen and learn from them.

We’re not optimistic—we’re hopeful. For us, optimism leads to apathy, but hope leads to action. As long as those communities are fighting, we maintain that hope, and we keep that fire alive each day by doing what we can to support the grassroots and struggle alongside them.

MD: What can we do, as small businesses and as consumers, to be allies in this movement and ensure agrarian reform is not overlooked but prioritized?

LC: The first thing we all need to do is prioritize equity and justice in any efforts to change things for the better. It’s easy to get caught up focused on environmental problems and tangible outcomes, like reducing pollution or building soil. But the reality is that our environmental problems, while important, are rooted in deep social inequity. As long as our systems exploit human beings, they’ll exploit the land.

Once we start focusing on our root social problems, we can ask ourselves where our lives intersect with marginalized communities around the world. We can’t be working from the belief that their problems aren’t also our problems. We can’t be claiming that we’re free when they’re not. When we see that our freedom, too, is contingent on dismantling our current systems and seeding more just systems, then we’ll be better allies in the fight for change.

True allyship is really about redistribution — of resources and power. It’s not enough just for businesses to give. To make a real difference, they need to be focused on building cooperatives, and fostering worker-ownership models. Farmers need to not just be advertised on packaging, but they need to have a real say in how businesses are run.

Consumers should recognize that ultimately, shopping is not a moral act. We all need to buy food to survive under our dominant economic system. Some of us have more means than others to choose what we buy.

That being said, those of us who have the resources should be looking for businesses that go beyond labels and buzzwords, and have justice embedded in their practices. We should be looking for direct access to buy from farmers. And we should be looking to support the peasant and Indigenous-led food sovereignty movements around the world that struggle on their behalf.

We should understand that our power is always located in the collective. It’s not on any one of us to change things. But it is on each of us to commit to learning and unlearning and joining in solidarity with the movements who have been fighting for justice for decades.

Click HERE to learn more about our partnership with A Growing Culture and ways you can join in the fight for a more just food future.

*All data pulled from ETC Group. (2017). "Who Will Feed Us? The Industrial Food Chain vs. The Peasant Food Web". ETC Group.

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