Hopeful indicators of an upcoming food revolution

Thomas Pool, Greenpeace Netherlands and Leiden University

“You can’t change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

– R. Buckminster Fuller

The most positive and life-sustaining human endeavour – the growing and eating of food – has been turned into a threat; it is the main cause of a rapid decline in biodiversity, and a significant driver of climate change.

During the ’60s, industrialized agriculture spread, mostly from America, all across the world. Everywhere the same high-yield grains where introduced, together with fertilizers and pesticides to ‘sustain’ these vast plains of monocultures. As a result of this so-called Green revolution, now only 6 companies control 66% of the global seed sales. Also six companies control 76% of the global agrochemical sales. Just 4 companies control three-quarters of the worldwide trade in grains and soy. In short, a handful of companies control what is grown, how it is grown, and where it is shipping off too. Capitalism owns the food industry. A new revolution is needed. 

There are three main actors in this drama: the companies, the governments, and the individual consumer. In order for real change to occur, all three must be capable, and willing, to change direction. 

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), consisting of 197 member states, has as its main goal the eradication of hunger. But now, ground water is polluted by agrochemicals, and every kind of life in the soil is radically depleting such that, as of today we have about 60 years of harvests remaining.[i]Yields are in decline, no matter how much fertilizer is applied. According to the FAO the costs of soil loss are now €335 billion a year globally. 

A major cause of this is the tremendous loss in biodiversity; half of all the calories produced around the world are at this point from rice, wheat and maize. This deprives the earth of its natural ability to regenerate itself. 

In search of alternatives, in 2014 the FOA initiated the first ever symposium on agro-ecology; a way of food production working in harmony with nature, employing natural fertilization methods and defending itself against plagues without pesticides. Soon after, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) was established, bringing scientists in a variety of fields together to share knowledge and give shape to this new science. They described the sheer necessity for biodiversity, and studied examples from over the world where agro-ecology was successfully applied on a small scale. In 2018, the FOA organized the second symposium, with the aim of finding ways to scale up agro-ecology. 

According to this symposium, the next decade (2019-2928) is declared to be the Decade of Family Farming. Taking up the glove against the multinationals, it aims for a decentralisation of power; setting up farmer-organisations to provide leverage and information; and to offer a replacement for the salesmen of agro-industry. 

In support, in an attempt to facilitate and guide governments, IPES-Food has published a Common Food Policy for the EU, and was in June 2019 supported by thirty-six other leading campaign groups, farming organizations, and think tanks in writing an open letter to the President of the European Commission, urging the EU to integrate the proposed food policy. 

It seems like all the pieces are in place for a real green revolution. But then there is the individual. Capitalism has always been a great promoter of individual rights: the right to own, to sell, to keep, to have. This individualism and the resulting lack of holism has created a great distance between the choice of buying strawberry’s in February, and the miniscule amount of Arctic Ice melting because some plane brought them here, or that handful of bees that died half the world away. How to explain to consumers they suddenly have to pay the ‘real’ price for their products? For many, capitalism is now so much more then just an economical model; it has become a worldview. And agro-ecology might be a more then promising model for producing food, but you can’t change a worldview just by showing the numbers. You need another worldview. 

Since the beginning of this millennium/century, a new socialism is arising in Latin America, reviving old values from a culture fundamentally averse to western extractivism, while suffering from it perhaps most severely of all. Newly resurgent where its culture was almost entirely eradicated, the Indigenous Indian community of Equador appealed to a dormant sense of humans’ communion with nature. They found themselves backed by the majority of the population. As a result, in 2008 the concept of Buen Vivir, or ‘living well’, was incorporated in the national constitution.[ii]

The basic belief of Buen Vivir is that true well-being is only possible as part of a community; a community that includes nature. Therefore, as part of the community, Nature is recognized as a right-bearing entity, that holds value in itself, irrespective of human use. In practise, the first part of Article 71 of Ecuador’s constitution now reads:

Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.

A year after Ecuador, Bolivia followed the example. Here, Buen Vivir was interpreted as one of a set of principles such as dignity, social equity and social justice. The concept of Buen Vivir thus sits alongside the so-called third generation of human rights.[iii]Again one year later, in 2010, the worldwide platform ‘Rights of Nature’ was launched, and it is gaining momentum.

Could Buen Vivir inspire western culture onto a new worldview, creating the necessary public support for a policy away from capitalism, and a social basis to take down the food industry?

For me, I would be happy to give up strawberries in February for this story. In fact I already have. Just now. 

[i]“Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues,” Scientific American, accessed July 26, 2019, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/; For a critique of this perspective, see James Wong, “The Idea That There Are Only 100 Harvests Left Is Just a Fantasy,” New Scientist, accessed July 26, 2019, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24232291-100-the-idea-that-there-are-only-100-harvests-left-is-just-a-fantasy/.

[ii]Oliver Balch, “Buen Vivir: The Social Philosophy Inspiring Movements in South America,” The Guardian, February 4, 2013, sec. Guardian Sustainable Business, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/buen-vivir-philosophy-south-america-eduardo-gudynas.

[iii]For an overview, see Natsu Taylor Saito, “Beyond Civil Rights: Considering Third Generation International Human Rights Law in the United States Colloquium Proceedings: Panel Three,” University of Miami Inter-American Law Review, no. 2 (1997 1996): 387–412; For a more critical reading, see Philip Alston, “A Third Generation of Solidarity Rights: Progressive Development or Obfuscation of International Human Rights Law?,” Netherlands International Law Review29, no. 3 (December 1982): 307–22, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0165070X00012882.

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