Why we must celebrate the ingenuity, resilience and wisdom of small-holder farming communities now more than ever, as the damaging agenda for lab-grown foods gains pace.
The community of Puerto Colombia lies on the Tiquié River in Vaupés, one of the most remote regions of the Colombian Amazon. The six families who live here thrive through a combination of hunting, gathering, fishing and small-scale farming. Each has several ‘chagras’, or forest gardens, where the community collectively grow over 70 varieties of cassava, a dozen types of plantain and six varieties of pineapple. Crops are planted for three to five years before the garden is moved to another area, allowing the rainforest to regenerate naturally. In this way, farming is undertaken with a deep respect for the forest as a source of life and their place of origin. The families here seek to maintain a dynamic balance between the world of the forest, the world of the ancestors (the spiritual world) and those of humans, through the wise council of the shamans.
Heading west to Europe and the Sierra de las Nieves mountain range of Andalucía, Alonso Navarro cultivates fruit, vegetables, cereals and medicinal herbs on hundred year old terraces that make up his small farm, El Viso de Los Romeros. Despite the Spanish heat, there is no shortage of water which gushes along the ancient internal channels from the Jorox mountains. Against this lush backdrop, Alonso runs a small seed business and is president of the Andalusian Seed Network, a large network of 160 dedicated seed savers who are bringing back traditional and lost varieties of vegetables and fruit.
Unlike most people today, Alonso has always been connected to seeds. He grew up in rural Andalucia in a traditional peasant farming family and learnt to save seed from his grandparents. Each autumn they would roll the seeds up in tobacco papers, put them into envelopes and store them carefully, ready for sowing the next year. In those days, there were no such thing as seed companies. Family and friends would meet once a year to swap their seeds. ‘I’d get radish seeds from my uncle, melon seeds from my cousin, and Camorra beans from the other side of the family.’ Before seed became commodified, selecting, saving and sharing seed was an inherent part of farmers knowledge and practice.
With up to 90% of Andalusian vegetable varieties estimated to have been lost, Alonso has devoted himself to preserving ancient diversity, which he sees as the legacy of our ancestors and key to adapting to climate change:
“From the innocent practice of harvesting, we conserve a whole culture in our own hands. This knowledge was passed down to us from our grandparents and these seeds are transitory, passing from generation to generation, in a journey through history.”
Meanwhile, in the mountains of Guizhou province, Southwestern China, farmers of the Dong people have formed the Yangdong Rice Cooperative and harvest their rice on six-hundred-year-old terraces using farming methods that hail back to the Han dynasty. For the Dong people, all Nature is regarded as sacred and having a spirit. During harvest, as a way of giving back to Nature, a small portion of the crop is left for the birds and smaller creatures. The trees are considered as the ancestors of the village: it is forbidden to cut them down and so the forests are left untouched. The village has renounced chemicals and machines completely, preferring instead to rely on the ‘cow-duck-fish’ trinity to control both the weeds and pests. Meanwhile, oxen are revered and considered the driving force of the paddies as well as the principal fertilisers.
It is this rich tapestry – woven between people and place – that still underpins most of the food and farming cultures around the world today. An intimate knowledge of the landscape, a reverence for other species, and an agri-culture that treads lightly on the land, working with and not against nature. These are recurrent themes in the stories gathered through We Feed the World, a global photographic project and book drawn together by The Gaia Foundation.
Featuring work by internationally renowned photographers, We Feed the World is a celebration of smallholder farmers and fishers, their ingenuity and resilience. As Vandana Shiva says in her foreword to the book:
“Food is not stuff. Food is not a commodity. Food is the currency of life. The food web is the web of life. Growing food according to the laws of the Earth regenerates the land and produces nourishment. Food as life and nourishment is real food, grown by real farmers.”
It is with these stories in mind that elements of George Monbiot’s latest book, Regenesis, are hard to digest. His illumination of the world beneath our feet is groundbreaking – that “ecosystem so astonishing that it tests the limits of our imagination. It’s as diverse as a rainforest or a coral reef. We depend on it for 99% of our food, yet we scarcely know it. Soil.” This reverence for, and restoration of, the foundation of our food system is at the heart of regenerative agriculture. A growing movement of regenerative farmers are reversing the harm done by decades of state-sponsored poisoning, ploughing and erosion, by working with nature to revive soil’s “biological structure, built by living creatures to secure their survival, like a wasps’ nest or a beaver dam”. Working from the ground up, their efforts are not only restoring this web of life, but re-rooting people to place, through locally-produced and locally-loved food. And this is where the regenerative agriculture movement’s vision diverges from that of Monbiot, in his push for lab-based fermentation as the main thrust of food production globally.
In his newly released book, Saying No to a Farm Free Future, Chris Smaje challenges the wisdom of pursuing Monbiot’s “enabling technology”. Smaje argues that manufactured food perpetuates a long history of agricultural ‘improvement’ geared to the overproduction of food as a cheap commodity. These systems are based on state-corporate monopoly and come with a raft of explicit and implicit subsidies which make it near impossible for small-scale farmers to stay afloat. In the book, Chris points out that:
“[Regenesis] misses the truth that the most powerful people in the countryside aren’t farmers, or even the people who necessarily live in it, but the corporate, governmental and global geopolitical actors whose decisions shape the prices for such things as food, energy, land and labour… In Regenesis, Monbiot has a habit of imputing dysfunctions to farming that are really dysfunctions of the wider political and economic system within which it operates.”
He goes on to say that:
“If Monbiot’s proposals in Regenesis and the reboot food agenda were fully implemented, they would involve the expropriation of a lot of small-scale and traditional farmers. Small farms constitute the majority of the farms worldwide and, by some estimates, holdings under 2 hectares occupy 40 percent of agricultural land areas in lower-income countries. It’s hard to square a farm-free future with a pro-peasant one. …A turn to manufactured food in the name of rewilding farmland would, if it were technically possible, be the final step in the industrialisation of food production, removing existing impediments to monopoly in the form of local property rights to agricultural land that puts food production into diverse hands.”
Whilst The Gaia Foundation are hugely supportive of much of the rewilding taking place globally, Earth’s ecosystems have evolved with people as part of them and we believe that humans belong within this community of life, not outside or above it. Rewilding can give nature the opportunity to self-shape a resilient future; it can also give us the chance, by participating in that future, to change our perspective from human-centred to Earth-centred. This transformation needs everyone at the table – recognising the rich ecological wisdom of our elders living on the land, valuing the diverse voices of those young people whose future hangs in the balance, and listening to our more-than-human allies.
Indeed, Monbiot warns that lab fermentation “is threatened by intellectual property rights: it could easily be captured by the same corporations that now monopolise the global grain and meat trade. We should fiercely resist this.” It is a fight that Gaia’s own UK & Ireland Seed Sovereignty Programme knows well, in their resistance to the intellectual property paradigm that has developed alongside genetically modified seed. Through patents, contracts and surveillance, farmers are being locked into a corporate system that consolidates power and money in the briefcases of the few. This approach denies grandparents the ability to pass on seed to their grandchilden, as a gift from the past and a promise for the future; it enables biotech corporations to cultivate only greed.
Advocates for regenerative agriculture and agri-rewilding have rightly been disappointed by Regenesis’ tacit support for this ‘reboot food’ tech agenda. It flies in the face of thriving grassroots movements growing a food future that can also address socioeconomic injustices. This holistic approach to healing inextricably linked crises feeds off diversity – the foundational principle of resilience. Combined with less meat consumption and less waste, it holds far more hope for a future in which we and our food web must collectively adapt to climate chaos.
In Saying No to a Farm Free Future – The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Food, Chris Smaje sets out a vision for agrarian localism, favouring an increasingly rural and land-based trajectory for humanity, restoring connection to the land and prioritising locally grown food above all.
Chris unpicks many of Monbiot’s arguments, including highlighting the huge energy implications of Monbiot’s vision. He critiques the techno-fix, eco-modernist ‘reboot food’ agenda, pointing out that:
“pressing Ctrl-Alt-Del on millennia of complex adaptation may be one of those ill-considered system fixes that only makes the crash permanent. The reboot food agenda neglects more usefully disruptive and more promising efforts to rethink the food system from the bottom up by small-scale farmers and activists under the umbrella of food sovereignty, agroecology and the local food webs rebelling against monopoly platforms of the industrial food chain.”
Groups like La Via Campesina, the Landworkers Alliance, the Nature Friendly Farming Network and Gaia’s own Seed Sovereignty Programme are actively creating and supporting the movement for regenerative and diverse seed, food and farming here in the UK, Ireland and beyond. Most recently, we have captured the faces of the movement as part of We Feed the UK, a celebration of the agroecologists, seed savers and regenerative farmers sprouting up at pace across the British Isles. You can see recent portraits from the Oxford Real Farming Conference and Groundswell on our website and Instagram, shot by Louis Little. An in-depth photographic series focusing on ten farming stories will be published in the months to come.
For The Gaia Foundation and our allies in the regenerative farming movement globally, Saying No to a Farm Free Future is a much-needed response to the misguided, growing interest in lab-grown foods which serves to play into the hands of corporate profit and control. As a lifelong ally of The Gaia Foundation’s, and a woman who has dedicated her life to speaking up against the corporate monopoly of the food industry, we will give the last word to the unstoppable Vandana Shiva:
“As we look to the future, there are two divergent paths before humanity – one rapidly moving down an industrial path, promoting ‘farming without farmers’, and ‘food without farms’. This path will uproot more farmers, destroy more forests and biodiversity and spread more food-related chronic diseases. The other is the agroecological path of food sovereignty. This path is being protected, nurtured and promoted by the millions of small farmers and fishing communities across the world who have kept their eco-friendly practices alive in spite of policies, subsidies, research and markets promoting inefficient, planet-destroying, heath-destroying industrial agriculture. …The ecological path is imperative for the survival of our species.”
Article by Rowan Phillimore and Amy Forshaw, The Gaia Foundation