Global Forces Rile Farm and Food Realities: A Path Toward an Agroecological Future

Reader Contribution by Steven Mcfadden and Chiron Communications
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WorldwideWhirl by Wilgard Krause/Pixabay.com

Colossal forces—social, financial, technical, environmental, governmental, and climatological—are whirling emphatically this year, directly engaging, disengaging, and impacting our farms and food. Each human being on Earth has a stake in how it all settles out. It’s that basic.

Among the forces: climate extremes, environmental breakdowns, food security threats, the Covid-19 pandemic, all accompanied by a burgeoning corporate involvement in the realm, including big finance and the advance guard of data-driven AI technologies.

Those forces are met with the soul-yearnings of millions of human beings of all colors, faiths, and nations. They hunger and thirst for a planet-wide realization, a spiritual awakening that results in a sincere, whole-hearted, justice-based reckoning with the critical, foundational matters of our farms and food.

This is no time for co-opted or fake measures, no junk agroecology. Things are real.

The consequential vectors—big money, big tech, big GMO, big chemical, the human beings, and the poisoned politics of our times—are engaged for a defining moment, a moment likely reaching a crescendo in September, in New York, at the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 #UNFSS.

A classic yang-yin polarity thus emerges in sharp relief as we move through critical points on the pathway to the future not just of farms and food, but also of all that rests upon the foundation that farms and food constitute. Mechanical, material, technical efficiency and profit reside in a yang zone, while the yin realm is home to the basic, upwelling needs of every human being for dignity, respect, justice, adequate clean food, a beautiful, sustainable world to live in, and a dynamic active vision that includes the full circle of life.

Vectors of Change

Consider the following vectors of change. They are representative, not comprehensive; yet collectively they convey a useful vantage on the powerful forces now in motion.

  • Hungry World. “Global hunger is chronic, urgent, and set to intensify,” said Michael Fakhri, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, in an official report, January 2021.
  • Silent Earthquake. ETC (the international Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration) has published a short YouTube video: Big Brother is Coming to the Farm. In the video they report that “a silent earthquake is fracturing our food systems.” These fracturing forces, such as artificial intelligence (AI), are spreading from digital giants in Silicon Valley and Seattle, as well as from shadowy Wall Street asset management companies, throughout the industrial food chain.
  • Organic Standards? With the promise of bigger profits, multinational corporations like Walmart, Target, and Amazon have systematically edged into the field of organic farms and food. Their marketing interest, and the parallel entry of big money into the field, has engendered compromising consequences for the standards the USDA uses to certify something as “organic.” Soil-free hydroponic systems are one major issue. Historically, organic food has been grown in healthy soil under a simple philosophy: feed the soil, not the plants. Hydroponics uses no soil, but rather grows plants off the ground with roots in a slurry of “organic” nutrients. Likewise, organic livestock was traditionaly raised in pastures, not in large-scale confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), as is now allowed.
  • Open Letter. Forty-one former members of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) sent an open letter to the sitting Board, as well as to key members of Congress on April 22, 2021. Their unprecedented letter stated that in their view the government’s organic certification has been and is being degraded. The letter argued that the erosion of USDA Organic Standards violates the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and is undermining consumer confidence in the integrity of organic food. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack apparently took the letter seriously and responded promptly by meeting online for 45 minutes with former NOSB board members ,and Tom Chapman of the Real Organic Project. 
  • Really Organic. At least two other organic certifications and labels have been developing out of their recognition that USDA certification has been compromised from its original intent and specifications. Take note of the soil-based standards of The Real Organic Project. Note also the Regenerative Organic Certified label (ROC), advanced by the Rodale Institute and Demeter certification, long available for Biodynamic farms and food processors, has also earned wide respect for integrity.
  • Gourmets Go Vegan. According to CBS News, Eleven Madison Park, a renowned fine-dining establishment, has announced plans to operate as a vegan restaurant. In so doing they become one of the highest profile names in hospitality to stop serving animal-based products. This is a trend. Many individuals and corporations in the dining industry are reconsidering their relationship with meat in light of the impact that diets heavy in animal-products have on the environment and on human health. Many of the big burger chains in the Americas are now offering plant-based options to accommodate the growing number of people who have reduced their intake of animal protein.
  • Aplenty Advances.  Amazon.com, Inc. has recently unveiled Aplenty, their new private-label food brand. Aplenty will include hundreds of products. Internet and artificial intelligence giant Amazon is expanding its lineup of house brands amid an intensifying focus by other food corporations on private-label products, which promise larger profits.
  • Sourced for Good. Whole Foods Market, which is now owned by Amazon.com, Inc., has launched the Sourced for Good That’s an exclusive third-party certification program which grants qualifying products the Whole Foods seal. The corporation says their Sourced for Good program includes products certified by internationally recognized organizations such as Fair Trade USA, the Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade America, the Fair Food Program, and the Equitable Food Initiative. 
  • Absentee Ownership. Farm land has become an investment darling. Dozens of investment corporations and foreign capitalists have targeted farm land as a valuable commodity, It’s put forward as a reliably profitable investment for retirees, banks, and investment houses. Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) are one particular vehicle. REITs typically purchase farmland, then lease the land to farmers. The relationship between farmer and farmland is thereby morphed. The farmers are employees of a remote corporation. Farming is more definitely a way of business, and less a way of life.
  • CAFOs on the March. Missouri regulators dropped some of the regulations governing CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations). That move will grease the skids for more of the huge, industrial animal factories to move into the state. As CAFOs and all their problems proliferate in North America, critics repeatedly point out that regulators are putting corporate agricultural interests above the welfare of the community. According to the EPA, there are now 20,000 CAFOs in the USA, a number rising each year. As has been argued in countless towns and villages, CAFOs do pollute water, soil, and air. They are a form of machine-like animal mistreatment. And they generally debase the quality of life in surrounding communities.
  • Cellular Agriculture. Whole Foods founder John Mackey has invested substantially in food-technology company Upside Foods, a manufacturer of “cultured meats.” According to online references, cultured meat and seafood is produced by in vitrocell culture of animal cells, instead of from slaughtered animals.
  • Flaming Bowels. According to a 2021 study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Cleveland Clinic, eating a processed-foods diet that’s high in sugar and fat can impair the immune system in the gut. This type of diet causes damage to Paneth cells, which are immune cells that help to regulate inflammation. Via a diet of highly processed foods,  the intestinal immune system experiences a steady flow of burning irritants. That in turn increases the risk of irritated bowel syndrome, and then possibly inflammatory bowel disease. This serious health condition is by now widespread in the US population, along with a host of other diet-related diseases, ranging from diabetes to heart disease and beyond.

While there are a great many vectors at work on our farms and food, this short list gives some insight into what is unfolding. Change is the order of our era. Where will all the change lead? The September 2021 UN Food Systems Summit in New York is poised to engage many of the possibilities and likelihoods. But the process leading up to the summit, and the summit agenda, have drawn profound criticisms.

At the time of this writing it appears as though the yang and yin polarities at the heart of the matter are a million crop rows away from the realm of synthesis.

 

Wrong way train by Lisette Brunner/Pixabay.com 

The UN Food Systems Summit 2021

The public face of the UNFSS appears inclusive and egalitarian: “The need is urgent, and our ambition is high,” declares the official website. “The UN Food Systems Summit will launch bold new actions, solutions and strategies to deliver progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), each of which relies on healthier, more sustainable and more equitable food systems.

“The Summit will awaken the world to the fact that we all must work together to transform the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food.”

That all sounds great. But many individuals and organizations, having closely monitored the process leading up to the summit, say such statements are primarily lip gloss that disguise reality. They have leveled profound criticisms.

Last Fall over 500 civil society organizations voiced their collective concerns about “corporate capture” of the UN summit. They charged that as a consequence of this, the summit will serve mainly as a forum for corporate greenwashing. They argued persuasively that the UNFSS was on track to gloss over the essential earth-and-justice respecting ways of authentic agroecology. Many of those civil society groups are boycotting the summit The boycott has become a global movement.

The UN Summit won’t be setting laws or regulations. That’s beyond its purview. But it will be framing the future, and setting a direction. Those outcomes will be highly influential in the coming, critical years for both nation states around the world, as well as for multinational corporations.

Dismantling Democracy

In a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, three scholars (Matthew Canfield, Molly D. Anderson, and Philip McMichael) take a hard look at UNFSS. Their provocative paper, which merits wide attention, is titled UN Food Systems Summit 2021: Dismantling Democracy and Resetting Corporate Control of Food Systems.

They write that the vision of a just, egalitarian, and truly democratic food  system has been routinely undermined by powerful corporate and national actors. These actors have instead promoted international finance, global regulations, and public-private partnerships that push industrial agriculture, high-tech efficiencies, and trade liberalization at the expense of global food security, and the livelihoods of small-scale producers and rural workers. 

The paper’s critique includes this resonant charge: “As the world is increasingly cognizant of social and environmental problems caused by the industrial food system, the UNFSS has emerged as an elaborate process to undermine more democratic arenas of global food governance, while reinforcing corporate control over food systems.

An Impoverished View. Members of the international Agroecology Research-Action Collective (researchers, faculty members, and educators who work in agriculture and food systems) joined together this spring to announce their boycott of the UN Food Systems Summit. Their boycott letter states: “…from the start, this summit has been deeply compromised by a top-down exclusion of many food systems actors and an impoverished view of whose food system knowledge matters…This exclusive approach undercuts ongoing work by farmers, farm workers, and food workers worldwide to advance transitions to justice and sustainability. “

Wrong Way Train

The largest international nexus of civil society organizations working in the realm of farms and food is known as the CSM. That’s short for The Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism and it has a broad constituency. Significantly, CSM, together with Slow Food and hundreds of other organizations, have also declined involvement in the UNFSS process.

They say they have unanswered concerns around undue corporate influence on the summit, and a lack of transparency. They say the summit must have a philosophical grounding in justice and essential human rights, and that it does not. Civil society organizations are striving to articulate to the summit and to the world that these are essential matters for billions of people, and that the UN’s food systems summit is not reckoning with them rightly.

As a spokesperson for Slow Food put it, they do not want to hop on a train that is heading in the wrong direction.

Call to Action

The Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism for relations with the UN Committee on World Food Security (CSM), has issued a call to action focused on the Pre-Summit of UNFSS, a meeting to be held in  hybrid format in Rome from July 26 through 28, 2021.

Reckoning that his UN gathering will likely be decisive for the final direction and outcomes of the summit itself,  CFS is organizing dramatic, and colorful parallel gatherings that are intended to bring wide public attention to the issues at stake.

Taking the Long View

Into the global swirl of forces bearing upon farms and food comes the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), and the ETC Group. Their joint paper, A Long Food Movement: Transforming food systems by 2045, sets out a vision that many millions of people can and should engage.

It’s among the few carefully wrought, earth-and-human-rights-respecting visions put forth for agriculture since The Land Institute published its visionary report in 2009, a widely discussed proposal for gradual systemic change known as A 50-Year Farm Bill.”

The new Long Food System paper first considers “what food systems could look like by 2045 if (agri)business-as-usual is allowed to run its course.” It then imagines what could happen if, instead, the initiative is reclaimed by civil society and social movements.

Scenario I. In the first scenario, the keys of the food system are even more comprehensively held and controlled by biodigital megacorporations, data platforms, and private equity firms. Thanks to proliferating merger deals, they evolve to become tomorrow’s agri-food giants.

These players advance a range of techno-visions: producing protein in petri-dishes, inventing novel ultra-processed foods, employing AI logarithms to manage farms and manipulate consumer behavior, and attempts to slow down climate change with massive geoengineering projects. With financial and technical might, they thrust their technological visions forward steadily, arguing that these are the most scientific ways to attain resilience against the rapidly shifting climate and its worldwide impact on farms and food.

Scenario II. In the second scenario outlined in the paper, the human beings and organizations of civil society—striving to faithfully represent millions of voices of citizens in fields, processing plants, slaughterhouses, and elsewhere—seize the initiative and develop deeper, wider, and more effective collaborations than ever before.

The paper’s authors argue that—from ongoing Indigenous struggles against colonization to the anti-globalization protests that gave rise to the concept of food sovereignty—civil society can be a positive and powerful agent of change.


The paper imagines this scenario via four interrelated pathways of food systems reform and transformation through agroecology—authentic agroecology not the watered-down junk agroecology being promoted by some multinational corporations. Real agroecology offers real, essential, just, and progressive pathways forward. What the authors describe as A Long Food Movement takes time to attain realization.

The definition of agroecology is still in flux. Some in the industrial realms claim the word, using it as a greenwashing cover while employing practices that diverge from the spirit. Our precarious global circumstances call upon us to engage and to clarify the term agroecology so that its principles and practices hold true and helpful meaning, and are not watered down or degraded.

Your Part in an Agroecological Future

In the context of all the factors and forces bearing upon our farms and food right now, it’s easy to feel impotent, as if you are only a pawn in a game of global giants. That path leads to surrender and despair. While there is an element of truth in that dimension of reality, it’s also true that by remaining informed and taking action for community food security and food sovereignty, you make a positive and necessary difference.

As celebrated agrarian author Wendell Berry has often reminded us, eating itself is an agricultural act. From Systems Theory we know that changing one part of a system—even as small a part as the contents of our cupboards and refrigerators—incrementally brings about adjustment and change in the other parts of the system. It’s all connected.

Thus if something like the second scenario envisioned in the Long Food System paper is to be fulfilled—the healthy and just agroecological vision—then it’s going to be because enough individuals, households, and communities woke up, took action, and made wise and sustainable changes.

Agroecology is an expression of practical, purposeful, and realistic hope. It’s a global vision that has been dreamed and then acted upon by millions of people around the world. But many millions more human beings are needed to take up and follow the vision now. 

Whatever comes out of the UN Food Systems Summit in September, I believe that individual and community actions will continue to grow the vibrant farm and food web envisioned by agroecology. Those initiatives embody the hopes and dreams of billions, literally, of human souls for adequate good food, and for respect, dignity, justice, and a whole planet of abundance and beauty. That vision will persevere, for everyone has a stake in how our farm and food systems evolve.

 

Soaring agroecology
Photo by Radovan Zierik/Pixabay.com


Independent journalist Steven McFadden is rooted in cyberspace at DeepAgroecology.net.Information about his wider work and all of his nonfiction books is available atChiron-Communications.comand on hisYouTube channel.You can read all of Steven’s Mother Earth News blog posts here.


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