We’re excited to introduce you to our speakers for the 2016 Change Food Fest through a series of personal Q&A’s. Today we are talking with Loren Cardeli of A Growing Culture. Stephanie interviewed Loren via Skype as he finished a three-day beekeeping workshop in a small village in Uganda, a 14-hour bus ride from Nairobi.
Loren Cardeli is the Founder and President of A Growing Culture (AGC), an organization that promotes ecological agriculture across the globe. In creating AGC, Loren has embarked on a journey to shift the public’s perception of agrarians from one of passive beneficiaries to one of active innovators, searching for the techniques that have allowed societies to feed themselves for countless generations. He speaks on Saturday in Session 2: Real Change Right Now.
Q1. How are these crop and sustainability trainings are making a difference in global agriculture.
Loren: There is a real chicken and egg situation in global agriculture innovation – do farmers innovate first or does society first recognize and support farmers to innovate? Sadly, farmers have been marginalized and displaced, and yet, they are the foundation for all agricultural work. We see chefs on panels, and policy makers speaking out, but where are the farmers in that discussion? In the 30+ countries where I have worked, I see a tremendous amount of ingenuity and innovation coming out of small farmers, even peasant farmers.
For example, in this village, we asked the farmers what they needed to survive another drought like the one that has put them in pretty dire circumstance this past season. They did some research, looking at neighboring villages that survived similar conditions better than they did. What they wanted was to diversify their operations with a drought tolerant crop and product, and beekeeping was a good option. Thus, we are doing a workshop on beekeeping.
When it comes to agricultural production, I go to the root: Supporting farmers and farmer autonomy over market solutions or consumer awareness. Once they shift to an industrial model, they become dependent on petrochemicals, and while more and more of the world’s farmers have been pushed toward an export industry, that model doesn’t actually take care of them and often creates unbearable debt. For me, the way to address this is through the production model, if they can shape their model from the local proximity, and do it collectively, then we can create opportunity for local innovation.
I think what was learned from Brazil in Belo Horizonte is really powerful: A food policy was created that allowed all farmers access to markets, one that pressured governmental institutions, schools, and hospitals to buy from small- and medium-sized farmers. They took a step back and looked at the system that wasn’t working. What they saw was that although large farms represented 75 percent of the agrarian land, they supported less than 30 percent of the domestic food consumption and even fewer rural jobs. Given this reality, they acknowledged that a department of agrarian development was needed to represent these farms. This department then fought for the farmers’ rights and inclusion, instead of catering to agribusiness. That one change saw the desired impact: health went up and poverty went down.
I credit the successes of Belo Horizonte to listening to farmers and incorporating their input into a food policy. Innovation emerges when farmers are able to take ownership, which is why I don’t tell them here in Africa that they need beekeeping or water management or rotating crops. They tell me what they need, and AGC finds the people who can help them. Usually, we find support nearby, with people who speak their language and understand their growing conditions. This is how we shape the bigger picture, one village at a time. We support their initiatives, fund their research, and most importantly, share their message, all in a non-patronizing way.
Q2. What is one thing that anyone can do to help the food movement – and farmers?
Loren: First and foremost, we must start challenging the way people view farmers. There is a misconception in much of the world that farmers are uneducated, dim-witted, and unworthy of a place in the food movement conversation. It blows my mind how, even in the sustainable agriculture movement, we give the biggest praise to journalists, scientists, chefs, and filmmakers — when it’s a movement cultivated by the very ones we’re leaving out: The ones in the fields. Activists have a huge role to play in shaping the food system, but we need to do so in a way that allows farmers–their rights, their feelings, their beliefs and ideas–to be at the forefront. Our role is to be supportive.
When I say farmer, I mean independent farmers–not corporations–working on all land sizes. Women farmers, migrant farmers, fisher-folk, pastoralists, farmers of all creeds, because it is these farmers that have respect for and engage with the planet, the crops, and the system enough to bring about change and build a new system that truly works.
If we all do this, then that’s a great start, and who knows what other positive side effect we would experience if policies were actually shaped by the ones growing our food. There is only one way to find out. We all know what the landscape looks like when it’s shaped by corporate transnational companies: it erodes and degrades soils, pollutes waterways, reduces biodiversity, and, even though it produces enough food for over 10 billion people, it leaves 1.2 billion people, mostly farmers, hungry.
Q3. What, among the many things that you are doing, is most important to be fixed for farmers to be supported and recognized (and paid) for sustainable, good food practices?
Loren: Farmer research and farmer-driven innovation must be allowed to thrive – and then, let’s all learn from it and celebrate it. Really, it’s that simple.
If people could see the amazing methods and techniques being created by farmers around the world, they would certainly put their faith back in farmers. In my travels I have seen farmers that should be written about in folklore. Even those that should be pop-stars and celebrities–seriously! Bedouins can taste mineral deposits in rocks and then know which plants those rocks will best fertilize. Vietnamese hog farmers have created pig houses that didn’t smell (if you’ve ever been to a pig house, you know how incredible this is). Farmers across Asia use microorganisms that are beneficial to the crops’ health to also bait and eat insect predators. Thai Buddhist monks concoct plant-based, natural, and seemingly magical pesticides. An African woman predicts the sex of a chicken with over 80 percent accuracy by measuring the curve of the egg. What makes these approaches even more extraordinary is that they are developed with the traditions, customs, and livelihoods of a community–and the environment–in mind and therefore produce models of agriculture that are sustainable, gender inclusive, and culturally appropriate.
Communities have to design their own solutions. Once they are empowered to identify their issues, once they are listened to, they begin to see themselves as agents of change, as active innovators that can shape the world around them. At ACG we focus on the process and not the product. The magic is in the participation. Innovation is intoxicating, and our process helps each group of farmers believe in themselves, resulting in the creation of countless innovations.
Farmers’ rights have been eradicated. We live in a world where corporations have the power, and that must change if we want to see a change in our food system. We must give that power back to farmers.
Q4. What are the current food policy issues that you are advocating?
Loren: I advocate grassroots training at the farmer level and a farmer takeover of the agriculture production system worldwide. We need collective democracy on the ground. We need to connect farmers so they can learn from each other by sharing local and technical knowledge. This is how innovation happens. It is not isolated. It is not Isaac Newton sitting under a tree. It is collective dialogue and inspiration. We are supporting a horizontal knowledge sharing and dissemination — a solidarity among the world’s farmers. Each of us must then celebrate them as the innovators, teachers, researchers, scientists, guardians, and the producers that they are.
Q5. What would you like to see in the future reality for farmers – say one decade from now? What will be different?
Loren: In some ways, the conversation we would have in a decade is not that different than ours tonight. We’d be talking about all the amazing innovations that peasant, local, and other farmer groups are developing throughout the world. However, I believe that we’d be better helping them achieve their visions – with technology, funding, market creation and, most importantly, celebration. I see a massive communications vehicle that is making farming sexy again, and not just for the trendy farmer at the local farmers market.
At A Growing Culture, we’re building the Library for Food Sovereignty (LFS) for exactly this reason: To nourish and keep safe community innovation by sharing it. LFS is a participatory learning database of farmer innovations, research, and local knowledge from around the globe. The living repository brings the riches of agricultural innovation into one collaborative platform and makes them freely and openly accessible to the world. The collection is a growing and democratic resource that strives to contain the full breadth of agricultural expression focusing smallholders, revealing the diversity of challenges they face and the innovations they develop to overcome these obstacles.
Q6. How can we learn more about your work?
Loren: Please check out our website at www.agrowingculture.org.
For photos from the fields, check out my own personal Instagram: @lorencardeli.
Blog author Stephanie Miller is a food tech and digital marketing consultant who grows the market opportunity for sustainable food economy brands and products. She is a volunteer supporting the Change Food Fest.
The Change Food Fest “Growing the Good Food Movement” will take place in New York City on November 12 and 13, 2016. We will explore and celebrate change happening in the food system. Rather than simply talk about problems, we will actively look at solutions that are leading us to the sustainable food system we wish to see. Our focus will be on both real and visionary change and will include an exploration into seafood, plant based vs meat diets, possible impacts of new businesses and investment money coming into the food space – and much more. Join us – #CCFest2016! You can purchase a ticket or host a viewing party of the live webcast in your local community.
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