agriculture

How will agriculture have to change if we are going to successfully navigate past Peak Oil and address climate change?  A new film documentary, Voices of Transition, provides plenty of answers from Transition-oriented farmers in France, Great Britain and Cuba.    

Produced and directed by French/German filmmaker Nils Aguilar, the 65-minute film is “a completely independent, participative film project” that both critiques the problems of globalized industrial agriculture and showcases localized, eco-friendly alternatives. The film features actual farmers showing us their farms and describing the human-scale, eco-friendly, community-based alternatives that they are developing. 

You can watch a trailer of the movie in English, German and French here and read a synopsis here. Go to the film’s website to check out the public screenings and DVD versions that you can buy.  Here is a link to the campaign around the international launch of the film.

Farmer Jean-Pierre Berlan explains the problem with contemporary agriculture:  “Our society is organized in such a way that everything is turned into a commodity. How can such a society develop farming methods that are free of cost? Agronomy should be looking for better methods, but our current farming policy is opposed to that.”   

Once processing and transport are taken into account, industrial agriculture is responsible for around 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, the film explains. To produce on single calorie of food, ten to twenty times that amount of energy are needed.  Almost all government subsidies and R&D budgets are focused on this unsustainable agricultural model – and worse, most of these subsides go to the biggest, most polluting farms.

The results: Heavy chemical use literally kills valuable organisms in the soil, causing a cascade of ecological disruptions. The use of monoculture crops over vast areas of land means that wildlife and biodiversity are declining. And the centralized distribution of food makes the entire system highly vulnerable to the costs of oil and potential disruptions of supply. If trucks were to stop arriving at supermarkets, they would empty within three days.

A French farmer is reintroducing soil-enriching plants in fields, and even trees in fields, because a tree's leaves and roots enrich the soil with organic matter and aerate the soil, allowing living organisms to breathe.”  This kind of “ecological agronomy” helps maintain soil fertility and prevent soil depletion.

Finally: Open Source Broccoli and Kale

The past thirty years have seen a massive patent grab to control agricultural seeds and the crops that are grown, not just in the US but around the world.  In the name of progress and greater yields, seed companies introduced proprietary GMO and hybrid seeds, slowly squeezing out seeds that are more common and shareable. This is exactly what Microsoft did in software, using Windows to marginalize competing software systems, and this is what bottling companies have done to water, trying to supplant tap water with heavily marketed branded water.

Some folks at the University of Wisconsin have launched a new effort to fight this trend in the seed market through what they call the Open Source Seed Initiative. The project last week released 29 new varieties of broccoli, celery, kale, quinoa and other vegetables and grains, all of them licensed under the equivalent of software’s General Public License (GPL), which is what has allowed GNU/Linux to remain in the commons. 

The license, known as the Open Source Seed Pledge, lets anyone use the open source seeds for whatever purpose they want – provided that any subsequent seeds produced are also made available on the same basis.  The idea is to bypass the built-in bias of proprietary control in the patent system, and assure that the new seeds will be available for anyone to grow, breed and share in perpetuity, without the fear of someone imposing intellectual property restrictions on later uses of the seeds.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison news office quoted horticulture professor and plant breeder Irwin Goldman, one of the authors of the pledge, as saying:  “These vegetables are part of our common cultural heritage, and our goal is to make sure these seeds remain in the public domain for people to use in the future.”  Last week Goldman released two carrot varieties he developed, named Sovereign and Oranje, at a public ceremony outside of the university’s microbial sciences building.

Currently, less than 3% of the food that Americans eat is grown within 100 to 200 miles of where they live.  And many people in poorer neighborhoods simply do not have ready access to affordable local produce.

A fascinating new project, the Food Commons, aspires to radically change this reality.  It seeks to reinvent the entire “value-chain” of food production and distribution through a series of regional experiments to invent local food economies as commons. 

By owning many elements of a local food system infrastructure – farms, distribution, retail and more – but operating them as a trust governed by stakeholders, the Food Commons believes it can be economically practical to build a new type of food system that is labor-friendly, ecologically responsible, hospitable to a variety of small enterprises, and able to grow high-quality food for local consumption.

Food Commons explains its orientation to the world by quoting economist Herman Daly:

“If economics is reconceived in the service of community, it will begin with a concern for agriculture and specifically for the production of food.  This is because a healthy community will be a relatively self-sufficient one.  A community’s complete dependency on outsiders for its mere survival weakens it….The most fundamental requirement for survival is food.  Hence, how and where food is grown is foundational to an economics for community.”

Food Commons is a nonprofit project that was officially begun in 2010 by Larry Yee and James Cochran.  Yee is a former academic with the University of California Cooperative Extension who has been involved in sustainable agriculture for years.  Cochran is the founder and president of Swanton Berry Farms, a mid-scale organic farming enterprise near Santa Cruz, California.

Farmers in the small town of Hoxie, Kansas, have been pumping water out of the Ogallala Aquifer six times faster than rain can naturally recharge it.  This is a big deal because most of the town depends upon the flow of water to grow corn, which is the mainstay of the local economy.  But here’s the remarkable thing:  In order to preserve the water at sustainable levels, the farmers have agreed among themselves to cut back on their use of the water by 20 percent for five years. 

As Dan Charles of National Public Radio reported (October 21):

A few years ago, officials from the state of Kansas who monitor the groundwater situation came to the farmers of Hoxie and told them that the water table here was falling fast. They drew a line around an area covering 99 square miles, west of the town, and called together the farmers in that area for a series of meetings.

They told the farmers that the water was like gasoline in the tank. If every one agreed to use it more sparingly, it would last longer.

Proposals to cut back water for irrigation have not been popular in parts like these, to say the least. In the past, farmers across the American West have treated them like declarations of war. Raymond Luhman, who works for the groundwater management district that includes Hoxie, says that’s understandable: “Many of them feel like the right to use that water is ...” he says, pausing, “it's their lifeblood!”

It’s also their property. Under the law, it’s not clear that any government can take it away from them, or order them to use less of it.

But in Hoxie, the conversation took a different turn.

Contrary to the “tragedy of the commons” parable, which holds that no single farmer would have any incentive to rein in his or her water consumption, the farmers of Hoxie found a way to cooperate and overcome their over-consumption problem.  They came up with a set of rules to reduce their water usage for a five-year trial run; had the state government make it a formal requirement; and installed meters on everyone’s pumps to verify compliance. 

What would the world look like if we began to re-conceptualize food as a commons?  Jose Luis Vivero Pol of the Centre for Philosophy of Law at Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium has done just that in a recent essay, “Food as a Commons:  Reframing the Narrative of the Food System.”  

The piece is impressive for daring to imagine how the world’s estimated 668 million hungry people might eat, and how all of us would become healthier, if we treated more elements of the food production and distribution system as commons.  Instead of managing food as a private good that can only be produced and allocated through markets, re-conceptualizing food as a commons helps us imagine “a more sustainable, fairer and farmer-centered food system,” writes Vivero Pol. 

One reason that the commons reframing is so useful is that it helps us see the ubiquity of enclosures in the food system.  We can begin to see the galloping privatization of farmland, water, energy and seeds.  We can see the concentration of various food sectors and the higher prices and loss of consumer sovereignty that comes from oligopoly control. 

Enclosure is snatching shared resources from us and preventing us from managing them to maximize access and good nutrition.  This is often known these days as “resource grabbing,” as companies and national governments race to seize as many abundant, cheap natural resources as they can on an international scale.  This is one reason for the many pernicious enclosures of land commons in Africa and Latin America in recent years. There is a huge exodus from traditional and indigenous lands as China, Saudi Arabia, Korea, hedge funds and others buy up natural resources.  These enclosures are moving us “from diversity to uniformity, from complexity to homoegeneity, and from richness to impoverishment,” writes Vivero Pol.  

In a sign of how far the forces of enclosure have come, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday that re-using seeds that are patented, knowingly or not, amounts to an act of piracy.  Of course, re-using seeds has been the tradition in agriculture for millennia, just as re-using songs and text is an essential element of culture. 

No matter.  The masters of "intellectual property" hold the whip hand, and they don't want us to re-use and share seeds as the natural course of things. If you think that a farmer ought to be able to use the seeds from one crop in the next season, you are entertaining  illegal ideas. (Just be happy that Google doesn't have access to your mind yet -- although Google Glass may be a leading gambit!)

The Supreme Court case involved 75-year-old farmer Hugh Bowman, who bought bean seeds from a grain elevator and planted them in his fields.  Since nearly all soybeans are now genetically engineered to be pesticide resistant, Bowman suspected, correctly, that the beans he bought might also be Roundup-resistant like the earlier generation of seeds.  It turns out they were – and so Bowman grew them several seasons, using the next generation of seeds each time.  But here’s the catch – the original generation of seeds are patented, and he didn’t pay Monsanto for the right to use the second-generation of seeds for planting.

This amounts to an act of intellectual property theft, according to the Court, because farmers should not presume to have the right to re-plant seeds from prior harvests.  Companies like Monsanto now hold property rights in seeds, and they don’t like the competition from the commons.  The commons is the radical idea that the abundance of nature (self-reproducing plants) ought to be shareable. 

Time for a Copyleft for Seeds and Genes

Two cases involving the patenting of living organisms are now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the outcomes do not look good.  It appears that commoners who wish to use seeds, genes and other living things as a shared gift of nature will be cast out into the darkness once again.  The Court seems poised to privilege the private control of lifeforms, providing yet another legal subsidy for the market order. 

The seed case was brought by a 75-year-old farmer from Indiana who had bought commodity soybeans from a grain elevator.  As described by the New York Times, an estimated 90 percent of all U.S. soybean crops are now grown from genetically modified Monsanto seeds resistant to the Roundup herbicide.  Not surprisingly, many of the seeds that farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman bought contained second-generation versions of Monsanto seeds.   

The problem is, Bowman inadvertently grew a new batch of GMO seeds without paying Monsanto or getting its authorization.  Monsanto sued him, claiming that Bowman’s crops infringed Monsanto’s patent.  Accepting the view that Monsanto’s patent let it control even second-generation seeds, a U.S. federal district court forced Bowman to pay an $84,000 fine.  

In his legal filings, Bowman argues that once a patented object is sold, the seller loses control over how it can be used.  This is a legal doctrine known as “patent exhaustion.”  It’s similar in concept to the “first sale doctrine” in copyright law, which prohibits publishers and other copyright holders from charging licenses for library books or DVDs.  If the scope of copyright or patent rights is too extensive, sellers can control too many “downstream” uses of the product, usually with harmful effects on competition, innovation and price.  (Come to think of it, though, that is precisely what is also happening with e-books and e-journals:  publishers are licensing content rather than selling it, giving them much greater control over downstream markets.)

Raj Patel has been tracking the pathologies of the global food system for many years.  An activist and academic who teaches at the UC Berkeley Center for African Studies, Patel has just published a second, updated edition of his 2008 book, Stuffed and Starved The Hidden Battle for the World Food System

The problem with the food system is not that we don't produce enough calories to eradicate hunger, Patel notes.  It's that the food system has its own priorities of institutional consolidation and profit, which means that more than 1 billion people in the world are malnourished and 2 billion are overweight – which is worse than when the first edition of Patel's book came out. 

Patel has also been a serious student of the commons.  His 2010 book, The Value of Nothing:  How to Reshape the Market Society and Redefine Democracy, is a lucid overview of the fallaciious premises of market economics and its dismal performance.  He also goes on at length about the ability of the commons paradigm to help ameliorate food sovereignty, environmental sustainability and social justice.

Recommended reading is a recent interview with Patel at Stir, the vigorous, commons-oriented British political journal founded by Jonathan Gordon-Farleigh.  (Incidentally, Stir is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to pay for a print run of a book collecting some of its best articles.)

Here are a few excerpts from Stir’s interview with Patel:   

On genetically modified crops & climate change:  “We have an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that agro-ecological farming systems will be able to feed the world in the future.  The GM advocates are saying, “What about drought-resistance and climate-change-ready crops?” That seems to be nonsense!  To have a crop that is climate-change-ready is ludicrous because change is precisely change — it is so many different things.  It could be new pests, rains coming at the wrong time; it could be too much rain, or too much heat.  It is impossible to have a single crop that is ready for those possible changes.  We’ve already seen the limits of that because Monsanto has a product called ‘Drought Guard’ — a genetically-modified crop that performs no better than any conventional crop in resisting anything but a mild drought.  The problem with this is that climate change isn’t about mild anything but extreme weather events.”

A thousand-year-old tradition of farming commons in southern England may be jeopardized as housing prices drive out farmers and render the commoning rights moot.  Yes, there are still self-identified commoners in England.  BBC radio recently interviewed a handful of the remaining commoners who rely upon the New Forest in Hampshire to feed their cattle, sheep and chickens.  The 23-minute radio report focused on how the farming commons is a way of life that has preserved the distinctive ecological landscape – and how this future is now in doubt.

New Forest is said to be the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land, healthland and forest in the southeast portion of England.  The land became a royal forest in 1079 when King William I shut down 20 hamlets and isolated farmsteads, provoking an uproar.  He then consolidated the land into a single tract, the New Forest, which he used for royal hunts. 

The traditions of commoning in the New Forest are quite involved and detailed, as Wikipedia notes:

Commons rights are attached to particular plots of land (or in the case of turbary, to particular heaths), and different land has different rights – and some of this land is some distance from the Forest itself.  Rights to graze ponies and cattle are not for a fixed number of animals, as is often the case on other commons. Instead a marking fee is paid for each animal each year by the owner. The marked animal's tail is trimmed by the local agister (Verderers’ official), with each of the four or five Forest agisters using a different trimming pattern. Ponies are branded with the owner's brand mark; cattle may be branded, or nowadays may have the brand mark on an ear tag.

Rarely have I read an essay that knits together some very different commons with such wisdom and depth. Joline Blais' 2006 essay, “Indigenous Domain: Pilgrims, Permaculture and Perl,” is a wonderfully insightful analysis that reveals the underlying unity and logic of commons principles. Her piece appeared in Intelligent Agent (vol. 6, no. 2), published by the Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts.

Blais' essay is valuable because it speaks to the rift that is said to separate commons based on natural resources and those of cyberspace. The segregation of those two classes of commons has always bothered me. There are of course significant differences between managing depletable natural resources and managing cheap and limitless stores of digital information. Yet it has always struck me that the two great tribes of commoners have much more in common than not, and should be in closer consultation with each other.

Blais not only confirms this, she suggests a way forward. She does this by applying her extensive knowledge of actual indigenous peoples to contemporary permaculture and digital culture. The links that she draws among them are not rhetorical or metaphorical, but explanatory. Because she understands the common paradigm is about integrating resources, social relationships and culture into a single system, she is able to identify recurrent patterns of commoning in some very different resource regimes.

For example, Blais draws clear connections between Native Americans managing their lands and the permaculture movement.  The latter, emulating indigenous peoples, is trying to re-create sustainable human/nature relationships in a modern context. She also shows how the cultural practices of indigenous peoples resemble those of digital communities. One example is the community of programmers that created and maintains Perl, a programming language, in its low-tech, high-trust systems of self-governance.

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