Earth Day: Letting farmers define sustainable agriculture

A coffee farming family in Nicaragua that Food 4 Farmers works with, asking them to define 'sustainable agriculture.' Credit: Food 4 Farmers

By Rebecca Randall, special to Humanosphere

Fixing agriculture is today a high priority on the environmental, anti-poverty and social justice agendas, for good reason: Most of the poorest people on Earth are farmers and improving how we grow our food has become central to nearly every categorical initiative aimed at making the world a better place.

But how to fix farming?

Is it mostly about improving crop productivity and the income of poor farmers? Is it about finding more environmentally conscious methods, such as agroecology, which adapt well to climate change? Is it about political and economic empowerment, protecting traditional cultures and the rights of people to determine their own destiny?

All of these are strategies, arguably, aimed at making agriculture more “sustainable.” And, of course, there is disagreement over which of these approaches is more important.

A Nicaragua coconut farmer who farms for his family food and income.

A Nicaragua coconut farmer who farms for his family food and income.

Put another way, we are far from reaching consensus on what makes for sustainable agriculture. As the international community attempts to set the agenda for the next 15 years of international development, the so-called Sustainable Development Goals, fighting over the best strategy may appear to threaten progress.

But lack of global consensus on sustainable agriculture doesn’t bother Food 4 Farmers.

The Vermont-based organization doesn’t waste time dickering over agriculture practices trying to arrive at a one-size-fits-all plan or strategy. Instead, it just listens to local farmers.

The specialty coffee industry likes to see itself as a bit of an anomaly – a positive disruptor, some might say – on the global agriculture landscape. And Food 4 Farmers is capitalizing on that.

Janice Nadworny

Janice Nadworny

“I think specialty coffee is a very progressive industry in dealing with how to make a commodity crop a sustainable livelihood for small farmers,” said Food 4 Farmers co-director Janice Nadworny.

The specialty coffee movement started along with the fair trade movement, pairing high quality coffee with goals of fair wages for farmers. Specialty coffee, which must meet certain grade standards, is typically grown at higher altitudes by smallholder farmers, where all the work is done manually. It also sells for a premium price. You can tell it is specialty coffee because its label often carries information on the origin of the bean, altitude and more.

The big coffee corporations are often attacked for harming the planet and poor farmers, but Food 4 Farmers doesn’t think an adversarial approach is as effective as bringing them into the dialogues. They partner with large industry players like Keurig Green Mountain Coffee (a company not wholeheartedly endorsed by the sustainability crowd, to say the least) or Counter Culture Coffee.

Yet for all that this corner of the coffee industry tries to do to set themselves apart and promote fair and sustainable trade, the industry is acutely aware that they have a lot of work to do yet to make the industry work for poor farmers.

See, for example, my earlier post – Coffee industry aims to keep its farmers from going hungry – out of the Speciality Coffee Association’s recent Seattle confab about the stunningly high rates of hunger in poor coffee farming communities in Central America.

Many think the strategy known as agroecology – farming methods that contribute to the ecology of a local community, as opposed to methods that compete with nature – holds the answer for farmers of all stripes to respond responsibly to the environmental stresses that industrial agriculture has caused.

Most poor farmers, like Emilia shown here, are women. Food 4 Farmers

Most poor farmers, like Emilia shown here, are women. Food 4 Farmers

The tools and approaches are often nothing new, and are often seen as a region’s ‘traditional’ agriculture. Agroecologists have long recognized the effectiveness of many of these practices, such as organic farming.

Lately, agroecology has grown in popularity partly because of its role in global climate discussions by national governments, industries and NGOs. Yet, again, what we mean by acroecology can be controversial – as evidenced by more than 100 organizations expressing their disapproval in a letter following the creation Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture. What they were upset about is the ‘dilution’ of the concept.

For the last few decades, agroecologists have grown this once tiny scientific speciality into a grassroots movement that integrates social and cultural justice to advocate for communities to gain access to food they want.

Food 4 Farmer’s co-director Marcela Pino said she also supports this definition of agroecology, “But as an organization, we would never impose the implementation of agroecology as the only agricultural practice for sustainable communities, because our methodology is participatory and community centered and those decisions are made at the community level.”

In Colombia, for example, Food 4 Farmers is using a democratic process to understand needs and perspectives of local farmers for a project funded by Keurig Green Mountain.

As in all of its projects, Food 4 Farmers starts with workshops and interviews with the producers, who often are already organized into an association or cooperative of growers. This phase is meant to gather community perspective and data on the number and type of jobs in the community, diversity of diet and farming practices.

“People would say to me that the problem is that my coffee is yielding half of what it used to,” said Pino. “It doesn’t surprise anyone because they’ve been using very intensive practices… If you grow (native) foods… the natural cycle of the region works better, its more efficient, it doesn’t erode as much, the environment doesn’t degrade as much.”

Nadworny added that the intensive agriculture is too expensive for small coffee growers. “Many of the inputs—fertilizers, pesticides—are expensive. An agroecological approach focuses on what is local and sustainable, so that they’re not spending so much money on such expensive inputs.”

Though the project plan hasn’t been completely decided yet, likely it will include some kind of secondary income producing activity and a crop diversification strategy. The community will make a final decision by voting on the strategies that will be implemented.

Once the program is up and running, Food 4 Farmers will step back into an advisory role, said Nadworny, but the point is that the program have local buy-in.

“Companies that have given us funding understand that simply implementing a program isn’t enough—it needs to be managed by the community to sustain success,” said Nadworny. “Using—or advocating for—agricultural practices that purport to be in the interest of the coffee-growing community, but end up serving industry interests alone, are what we strive to avoid. Coffee-farming families need to thrive as well.”

Global industry leaders and politicians who are a part of the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture aim to change agriculture practices and reduce emissions in agriculture. Including farmers in decision-making isn’t necessarily the norm in global agriculture yet, and one acroecologist worries about it becoming more a matter of public relations than actually driving strategies.

M. Jahi Chappell

M. Jahi Chappell

“(The alliance) talks about many things, but its notion of equality and democratic participation are not there,” contended M. Jahi Chappell, director of agroecology and agriculture policy at the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy.

“We’re kidding ourselves if we think that kind of structure gives equal voice when some have more resources,” Chappell said. “It will be really easy for corporations to dominate the conversation.”

But those at Food 4 Farmer say effective, fair and empowering engagement between large industry and small farmers is possible. In some coffee supply chains, at least, coffee growers are managing a voice and reviving cultural agroecological practices—all with industry support.

Rebecca RandallRebecca Randall is a journalist, wife, mother, hobby baker, and dreamer. She’s a graduate of the University of Washington Jackson School of International Studies and is especially interested in agricultural development issues. Check out her blog Humanity in the Mirror and follow her on Twitter @beccawrites

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