If we want a good food system, we must build it ourselves (Part I: focus on farmers)

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Just recently, an article was published in Prachatai Online newspaper entitled “Organic Agriculture and the World Food System” by Netdao Taotawin. The article asks a number of questions about the concept, approach and process of the networks which work on sustainable agriculture and food security. She notes that they tend to think big, but when they get down to action, they get stuck on the little things at the individual level. Is that really the way to change and resolve the big problems of transnational capitalist food system? We should thank Netdao for opening up this issue for debate.

How do we identify and interpret ourselves?

Before we start, I would like to clarify that those of us who work together with the Alternative Agriculture Network, and are currently mobilizing a Network on Food Security, do not focus on the issues and discourses of organic agriculture in our campaign work. This is because using the term “organic agriculture” risks narrowing the focus onto production of “safe food”, as mentioned in Netdao’s article.

The Alternative Agriculture Network chooses to apply the term “Sustainable Agriculture” which the Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture defines as:

“Sustainable agriculture is an agricultural method which regenerates and conserves natural resources so that an ecology in balance can produce quality food that is sufficient for basic needs and a good quality of life for farmers and consumers. So that they can be economically self-reliant, and so that farmers and local communities are supported to develop independently. All of this in order to achieve happiness and survival of humanity”.

Nevertheless, there are cases when villagers adjust their production system according to a “sustainable agriculture” approach to the point of no longer applying chemical inputs. They will often call their own produce or processed goods as “self-certified organic”. Only a very small set of farmers have applied to have their farms independently verified as organic.

Not so long ago, the “First Global Encounter on Agroecology and Seeds” of La Via Campesina, which was held in Surin province, discussed and reviewed the names and meanings of agricultural systems which depend on a common philosophy. It was fiercely debated whether or not these should be called by a single name all over the world. Latin American peasant groups tried to push for the term AgroEcology. The members of the Thai network insisted on the term sustainable agriculture, as they have been using this for over 20 years already, and it’s already well understood.

The meeting [1] therefore concluded in principle that agricultural systems consistent with the philosophy of La Via Campesina must be defined taking into account ecological, social and political issues.

Thus, whether we call it agroecology, organic agriculture, natural farming, low-external input farming, sustainable agriculture or by any other name, for Via Campesina a peasant farming system that is genuinely sustainable is based on the regeneration of knowledge and traditional methods of production, combined with eco-innovations for the control and protection of territory (the resource base) and seeds, without gender discrimination.

Through seeds, you control the food system

No one doubts that at the very heart of problems in the food system are power relationships.

In other words, “the power to decide” or “the power to choose” rest in only a few hands, of a few groups. Small-scale farmers are left with extremely limited power to decide what they should produce, who they could sell to, and where. Production technologies come as a package, so all inputs tend to be sourced from one agribusiness. Consumers are left with only limited choices between brands. They could choose to buy, for example, contaminated vegetables with the Q label* or without the Q label.The monopolization of the Thai production system is not the result of some trait of the Thai people, it’s a process we see happening in countries all around the world.

The fossil fuels and agri-chemicals industries, led by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations [2], set up the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Philippines in 1960. They collected rice varieties from 70 countries around the world and developed new seeds. They followed this with support for new rice production methods, such as developing machinery and tools for paddy rice farming, and the application of fertilisers and pesticides. In 1966, IRRI presented a new rice variety that could yield 1 tonne per rai called IR8, or “miracle rice” as it became known. And following IR8, came the many numbered varieties of rice in Thailand, starting with RD 1 in 1969.

The success of IRRI led to support for the subsequent establishment of at least 16 International Agricultural Research Centers (IARCs) around the world, administered by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), whose Chairperson is nominated by the World Bank. The IARCs had a role in driving forward the “green revolution”, through its research and development of high-yielding seeds. They have organized trainings and transfer of technologies reaching more than 50,000 agricultural scientists in the last 25 years.

Control over seeds is the most critical strategy for monopolizing the agricultural system. If you change the agricultural seeds, you change all the other production technologies. Especially the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. For example, all the various RD rice varieties [developed by the Thai Rice Department] will achieve high yields only if you apply chemical fertilisers. Or as any maize farmer knows, if you plant Maize variety 888, not only will you need to apply chemical fertilisers, but these must be of the Rabbit Brand, which is produced by only one company.

Within the space of not more than 30 years, the concentration of Thailand’s agri-food production systems in the hands of a few companies has been enormously successful. Tens of thousands of rice varieties have disappeared from the paddy fields almost completely, leaving only a few high-yielding varieties of seeds which are good at taking up fertilisers. Hybrid maize varieties, the seeds of which farmers are not allowed to collect for planting in the following season, are owned by as few as 6 companies who dominate 90% of the market. And the situation for different kinds of vegetables seeds is similar.

Relating to animal breeds, the one we talk most about is chicken. Ever since 1971, when CP invited Arber Acres to form a joint venture to disseminate new technologies for battery farming, up until today, over 65 million Thai people now eat chicken produced in this way. On average, each Thai person eats 14 kg of chicken every year. As much as 70% of this is produced by only 3 companies.

Think global act local: are we kidding ourselves?

The article “Organic Agriculture and the World Food System” postulated that “recommendations for resolving problems fall back on private individuals, such as demands that farmers collect seeds to use in the following season, make their own organic fertilisers, use their own labour for farming, grow organic vegetable crops to eat at home. It is as if the campaign for food security in Thai society focuses on demands to change the behavior of farmers, in the belief that change at the level of private individuals will automatically lead to a structural change.”

So we have had to consider then whether in our campaigns, quite apart from the fact that there are so very few results in bringing about policy change since our political power to push through change is still minimal, we have also not even succeeded in getting people to know and understand what we are trying to do. By our campaigns I mean:

  • our opposition to the Thai – EU FTA,
  • our opposition to proposed amendments to the UPOV law on plant varieties that will allow greater monopolization of seeds,
  • our opposition to the opening up of GM crop experimentation in paddy fields and uplands before we have adequate biosafety standards
  • our campaign for the standards and regulation of chemical pesticides,
  • our campaign for various policies and measures to promote sustainable agriculture
  • our participation in National Food Committee meetings to amplify the definition of food security to include political and economic dimensions.

But let us return to the individual level for a moment, or I would prefer to say the level of small-scale farming households. It’s worth asking if we do not build practice at the household farm, where should we begin?

And it is of course true that if we practice only at the individual level, sitting around doing bits and pieces, here and there, all alone, we are unlikely to bring about an automatic change at the structural level. The main components of the network’s work is to develop alternatives and practice at the farm household level, community level, at the local government level, while connectings farmers and food producers together, as well as setting up links between farmers and consumers. This can help build a way of thinking that can provide a counterpoint to today’s food production system. If interested academics helped define this counterpoint, I expect it would gain a lot more strength.

As a member of La Via Campesina, the Alternative Agriculture Network has tried to adopt La Via Campesina’s ideas of “food sovereignty”, first announced in 1996, and reinterpret them for a Thai audience, without success. Whenever this term was raised, a large question mark could be seen to appear on the forehead of the listener. Mostly they imagined that food sovereignty was something to do with the state and territory. In the end, the Network reconsidered and opted instead to use the term “food security”. So we carried out studies in many agricultural communities to learn how they understood this term and we summarized the concept as follows:

Food security means having sufficient food to eat throughout the year, giving importance to food self-sufficiency, rights of access to the community’s natural resource base, ownership of the means of production, and a sustainable food production system. The food we eat must be safe for consumption, nutritious, available within a fair market, and generate a sufficient and secure income. People should participate in controlling the food system, and build equity and sustainability into the system. [3]

In a food crisis, its clear that advocating for small-scale farming households to set up a goal to produce a sufficient amount for their own consumption is just as important as selling their harvest for income. What they choose to prioritise, depends on their way of thinking, their knowledge and production planning, the size of their land, the labour available to them, the tools and machinery they have, their time management (in or out of season), and their access to different markets. It also depends on the strength of their networks. And of course doing sustainable agriculture requires full-time working, ie working in their fields almost every day.

Seize back the seeds!!! Can we do that in our lifetime?

I should explain a little more about what we mean by smallholder seeds management. This includes gathering, storing, selection and developing new seeds. This process conserves genetic materials in situ and is aimed at preserving seeds that can be adapted to meet diverse needs depending on the upcoming situation. The development of quality seeds which are affordable, yield good quality produce, and help reduce agri-chemical use, steadily reducing reliance on external inputs, in other words reducing investment costs. Recently, more and more groups are also producing seeds for trade and income generation.

Take the example of rice. For over 10 years, individuals, groups and the networks have been in a search around the country to collect remaining traditional rice seeds, including calling on the Rice Department to recover certain specimens from its seed bank. These were shared with farmers in the network who could choose around 10-20 varieties per person, to plant, store, look after and select. Some have generated their own new varieties. Currently the network has collected around 1,000 seeds from the field level. There are around 10 community enterprise groups collecting rice seeds, who are currently producing around 150 tonnes of seeds each year. These groups look set to expand.

Or take a look at the maize seeds enterprises. Right now there are 2 groups. Leaders of the group were able to learn how to grow hybrid maize after farming under contract for companies. Now they produce hybrid maize seeds for sale in competition with the agri-giants. These groups each sell around 60 million baht or 120 million baht each year. They sell in the North, in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Uttaradit, Phrae, Naan, Phitsanuloke. In one province, Naan, these enterprises have captured 10% of the maize seeds market.

The network which works on vegetables seeds is also beginning to pick up steam. They collected 250 vegetable seeds, and there has been a steady increase in market demand. At the moment there are around 7-8 groups which are producing pure breed vegetable seeds (from which you can collect seeds for subsequent planting) for sale at 10 baht an envelope (though the price is likely to go up soon). Their sales figures each year are in the hundreds of thousands of baht. However they are unlikely to have reached even 0.1 % of the sales of the seeds companies. Nonetheless the network aims to keep producing and take a larger slice of the market from the Flying Boat vegetable seeds brand (from the family of Chia Tai – founder of CP). And even hope that, one day, they might surprise their competitors.

These examples may be very small when compared with the dominance of corporations, but it represents a considerable challenge by smallholder farmers to corporate monopolies, and sends a message to Thai society that if we choose to do so, we can set up our own food production system, we can take ownership of our own means of production, and, in the near future, if we gain more friends amongst consumers, we could have a louder voice for political change.
If we can do this, then resolving structural problems especially those relating to public resources may just come a little closer within our grasp.

*translator’s note: the Q label is a quality labeling system, issued by the National Bureau of Agriculture Commodity and Food Standards.

If we want a good food system, we must build it ourselves (part II: focus on consumers)