In the nearly 50 years since the Park Slope Food Co-op Brooklyn opened, it has become both legendary and taken-for-granted. People seem to forget that its success was based on heroic struggle and lots of difficult internal commoning. Many outsiders see a gilded precinct of New York City filled with affluent professionals, not realizing that the Co-op arose from within a funky neighborhood of ordinary people who wanted high-quality, affordable, responsibly produced groceries. And indeed, most of its members are still ordinary, middle-class New Yorkers.
A lengthy piece in The New Yorker magazine (November 25 issue) captures the complicated and colorful history of the Co-op magnificently. “The Grocery Store Where Produce Meets Politics,” by Alexandra Schwartz, dives deeply into the inner life of the Co-op and the people who both venerate it and condescend to it. The Park Slope Food Co-op is a landmark achievement of what can be achieved through commoning in a co-operative organizational structure.
The Co-op's most salient achievement may be its sheer scale. It has more than 17,000 members and annual sales revenues of $58.3 million. Yet it is still run as a participatory, democratically managed operation whose members actively care about eco-friendly agriculture and socially minded practices.
Unlike many co-ops that regard themselves as quasi-corporations competing in the market, perhaps with a nod to social concern, the Park Slope Food Co-op remains unabashedly committed to functioning as a commons. It is a self-help collective, as one of its leaders put it, not a do-gooder project.
In her early encounters with the Co-op, journalist Alexandra Schwartz found it “to be claustrophobically crowded, illogically organized, and almost absurdly inconvenient. In other words, it was love at first sight. Suddenly, on my editorial assistant’s salary, I was eating like an editor-in-chief.” The Co-op is not a sleek, modernist Whole Foods store with precious upscale touches. It’s a place where you can get fantastically fresh local produce, inexpensive cheese, and high-quality expeller-pressed cooking oils. Prices are generally 15% to 50% less than those of a conventional grocery store.
As readers may have noticed, I have not been blogging much in recent months. That's because I've been completing a new book with my colleague Silke Helfrich that has been consuming most of my time. (More about that soon.) Fortunately, only a month or so is left before we finish the manuscript! At that point I expect to resume blogging on a more regular schedule.Thanks for your patience!
In the meantime, I have been getting out and about a bit. On September 29, I delivered a keynote talk at the Prairie Festival in Salina, Kansas, hosted by The Land Institute. The annual festival, now 40 years old, brings together several hundred progressives from around the country concerned about agriculture, food, land, and social change.
The Land Institute, founded by a hero of mine, Wes Jackson, is a leading independent agricultural research center. Its plant breeders and ecologists have an ambitious mission: to develop "an agriculture system that mimics natural systems in order to produce ample food and reduce or eliminate the negative impacts of industrial agriculture."
One of the most impressive achievements of the Land Institute is its development of a perennial wheat called Kernza, which could radically reduce the ecological impact of conventional agriculture. The Institute is also developing a range of other crops using the principles of "perennial polyculture," which relies on complementary, mutually supportive crops in the same field.
The event's main events were held in a large, open barn that felt unusual warm and intimate despite the chilly weather that day. A print version of my remarks are below; a video can be seen here. (My talk starts at the timemark 41:00 and goes through 1:22.)
Imagine that you’re a farmer who bought a John Deere tractor for $25,000 – or perhaps a big, heavy-duty model for $125,000 or more. Then something goes wrong with the computer software inside the tractor (its “firmware”). Thanks to a new licensing scheme, only John Deere can legally fix the tractor – for exorbitant repair prices. Or maybe you want to modify the tractor so it can do different things in different ways. So sorry: the license prohibits you from bypassing the encryption, taking it to an independent repair shop, or fixing it yourself.
As reported by Jason Koebler in Vice Motherboard, lots of American farmers frustrated by John Deere’s licensing terms are now turning to Ukrainian and Polish hackers to buy software fixes. They want to be able to fix and modify their own legally purchased tractors. (“Why American Farmers Are Hacking Their Tractors with Ukrainian Firmware,” March 21, 2017.)
This very type of problem inspired hacker Richard Stallman to invent free software in the late 1970s. When an experimental laser printer donated to MIT by the Xerox Corporation kept jamming, Stallman tried to develop a software fix so he could help everyone who used the printer. He quickly discovered that the source code for the machine was proprietary -- a stupid, self-serving limitation that prevented him from helping his colleagues.
This sort of copyright control has frequently crippled machinery over the decades. The basic point is to protect a company's market power and proprietary control -- a form of power usually protected by law. Under US law, for example, bypassing “digital rights management,” or DRM, systems on DVDs, CDs or websites is against the law.
In the case of land vehicles such as tractors, a legal exception was carved out under US copyright law in 2015. But John Deere was able to evade that provision by requiring farmers to sign a new licensing agreement when they buy a tractor. The license prohibits “nearly all repair and modification to farming equipment, and prevent[s] farmers from suing for ‘crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment … arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software,’” Koelber writes.
As more and more plant varieties have become privatized through patents, and as large corporations have bought up smaller seed breeders, a dangerous consolidation has occurred. The genetic diversity of agricultural crops has shrunk, making crops more vulnerable to disease and our food supply more insecure. Meanwhile, farmers and the public have become more dependent on a few large agrochemical companies.
In short, seed patents have become a tool for privatizing seed from the pool of open and commonly owned plant genetic resources: an insidious enclosure of seed commons.
This scenario is eerily similar to the consolidation of software for personal computers some twenty years ago. Microsoft used its market dominance to incorporate all sorts of software programs into its Windows operating system, a strategy sometimes referred to as “embrace, extend and extinguish.” As Microsoft exploited its de facto monopoly over common software systems, programs for word-processing, spreadsheets and other functions began to go out of business.
But just as open source software served as a powerful antidote to proprietary software, so a group of academics, activists and plant breeders in Germany has now pioneered a similar antidote to seed patents: an open source license.
The Open Source Seed license, recently released by a group called OpenSourceSeeds, is trying to “make seeds a common good again.” The license amounts to a form of “copyleft” for new plant varieties, enabling anyone to use the licensed seeds for free. Like the General Public License for free software, the seed license has one serious requirement: any seeds that are used, modified or sold must be passed along to others without any legal restrictions.
This essay was published in Patterns of Commoning, which is now online for free at www.Patternsofcommoning.org.
By Véronique Rioufol and Sjoerd Wartena
A feeling of joy and achievement runs through the group of ten people gathered in Robert’s kitchen. After three years of planning, they have come to celebrate: Ingrid and Fabien will soon be able to settle down and develop their farming business. The farm is theirs!
In this small, pastoral village of the French Pre-Alps, establishing young farmers is an act of will. Everywhere, small mountain farms are closing down; work is hard and the business not deemed profitable enough. When aging farmers retire, they do not find a successor. The best land is sometimes sold off to one of the few more or less industrialized farms that remain. Overall, villages are progressively abandoned or become havens of secondary residences.
In Saint Dizier, a small village of thirty-five inhabitants, local people have decided differently. Municipality members, local residents and farmers have decided to preserve agriculture as a component of local economic activity and lifestyle. They also view farmers as young, permanent residents for the village. So they keep an eye on land put for sale, and have contacted farmers and landowners to learn their plans for the future. The municipal council has sought public subsidies to acquire farmland and rent it to young farmers, but with no success.
In 2006, villagers started to work with Terre de Liens, a recently established civil society organization focused on securing land access for agroecological farmers. Everywhere in France, high land prices and intense competition for farmland and buildings have become a major obstacle for young farmers. Obstacles are even higher for those doing organic agriculture, direct sales or other “alternative” forms of agriculture, which usually are not deemed profitable enough by banks or worthy of public policy support.
Amazingly, it is sometimes a criminal act to retrieve food that has been thrown away. Often it is simply seen as culturally inappropriate or embarrassing. But when an estimated $165 billion worth of food gets thrown away in the U.S. every year, surely it’s time to change our attitudes about food waste.
That was the point behind Rob Greenfield's cross-country bicycle trip this fall. To call attention to the amount of food that is wasted, the San Diego activist spent months on the road, surviving entirely on food that he pulled out of dumpsters behind grocery stores and pharmacies.
Typically Greenfield would arrive in town on his bicycle and start to rummage through dumpsters. He usually emerged with perfectly good food – bunches of bananas, apples, boxes of unopened crackers and cookies, packs of soda, bottles of iced tea, and a smorgasbord of other perfectly edible food. Then he would take a photo of the haul of "waste."
In a trip that took him to some 300 dumpsters, Greenfield estimates that he recovered over $10,000 worth of food and fed well over 500 people. On his website, Greenfield posted many photos of his dumpster harvests.
Greenfield said, “I’ve learned that I can roll up in nearly any city across America and collect enough food to feed hundreds of people in a matter of one night. The only thing that limited me was the size of the vehicle I had to transport it. My experience shows me that grocery store dumpsters are being filled to the brim with perfectly good food every day in nearly every city across America, all while children at school are too hungry to concentrate on their studies." About 50 million of 317 million Americans are food insecure, he notes.
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.
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.