An Agroecological Vision for the UK
Landscapes Podcast Episode 5 with Jyoti Fernandes of the Land Workers' Alliance
Jyoti Fernandes, farmer of Five Penny Farms and Policy Coordinator with the UK based Landworkers’ Alliance, discusses what agroecology means to her and the efforts to shape food policy in the United Kingdom. We also discuss the risk of agroecology being co-opted and the current boycott of the UN Food Systems Summit.
Five Penny Farms, Dorset
Raj Patel on Normal Borlaug | Interview in PBS American Experience
Is Agroecology Being Co-opted by Big Ag? | Civil Eats Article
Farm Protests in India Are Writing the Green Revolution’s Obituary | Scientific American Article
The Dimbleby Report | Part One of the National Food Strategy
Reframing the land-sparing/land-sharing debate for biodiversity conservation | Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences
The largest contemporary social movement in the world is arguably La Via Campesina, a global organisation of peasant and smallholders that represents over 200 million constituent farmers across 81 countries and through 182 local chapters and national organisations.
For academics and decision makers interested in designing landscape policy that meets the needs of food producers across many different contexts, it seems like La Via Campesina is an important organisation to engage with and in particular, to understand what vision such a diverse coalition might put forth as the best way to organise the food system.
It turns out that one of the main goals of La Via Campesina is to articulate a vision for the food system born out of lengthy democratic engagement with its massive network of global farmers. And throughout the many position statements and declarations,
agroecology emerges as the preferred social, agronomic and political approach to achieving a food system that represents the aspirations of the entire transnational organisation
In this episode of Landscapes, Jyoti Fernandes, a farmer at Five Penny farms in Dorset in Southwest England helps explore a vision of agroecological expansion in the UK. Jyoti is also the policy director at the Land Workers Alliance, a UK based union of farmers and a member organisation of the European Coordination of La Via Campesina.
Agroecology is oft considered somewhat of a radical approach in the breadth options to adjust the world’s food system in order to confront the triple threat of climate change, biodiversity loss and growing food insecurity. But the fascinating thing that came out of our conversation is that in recent debates about the future of the United Kingdom’s agricultural policy, agroecology showed promise as a compromise position … splitting the difference between more traditional farmer groups that wanted to ensure that the countryside would still support the goal of food production and the increasingly powerful environmental NGOS whose preference is that the land be spared from farming to allow biodiversity to regenerate.
Sometimes the promise agroecology, despite much evidence for its prioritisation, is marginalised as something that might work in the global South, but can’t really succeed in an industrial economy where farmers need to achieve productivity to feed the world. But talking to Jyoti, I wondered, is it possible that agroecology could gain political legitimacy in the unlikeliest of agricultural geographies like the UK?
Landscapes Podcast Episode 5. May 2021
*The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and comprehension
Adam Calo: [00:00:17] The largest contemporary social movement in the world is arguably La Via Campesina, a global organization of peasant and smallholders that represents over 200 million constituent farmers across 81 countries and through 182 local chapters and national organizations.
For academics and decision makers interested in designing landscape policy that meets the needs of food producers across many different contexts, it seems like La Via Campesina is an important organization to engage with and in particular, to understand what vision such a diverse coalition might put forth as the best way to organize the food system.
It turns out that one of the main goals of La Via Campesina is to articulate a vision for the food system born out of lengthy democratic engagement with its massive network of global farmers. And throughout the many position statements and declarations, agroecology emerges as the preferred social, agronomic and political approach to achieving a food system that represents the aspirations of the entire transnational organization
In this episode of Landscapes, Jyoti Fernandes, a farmer at Five Penny farms in Dorset in Southwest England helps explore a vision of agroecological expansion in the UK. Jyoti is also the Policy Director at the Land Workers Alliance, a UK based union of farmers and a member organization of the European Coordination of La Via Campesina.
Agroecology is oft considered somewhat of a radical approach in the breadth options to adjust the world’s food system in order to confront the triple threat of climate change, biodiversity loss and growing food insecurity. But the fascinating thing that came out of our conversation is that in recent debates about the future of the United Kingdom’s agricultural policy, agroecology showed promise as a compromise position –splitting the difference between more traditional farmer groups that wanted to ensure that the countryside would still support the goal of food production and the increasingly powerful environmental NGOS whose preference is that the land be spared from farming to allow biodiversity to regenerate.
Sometimes the promise agroecology, despite much evidence for its prioritization, is marginalized as something that might work in the Global South, but can’t really succeed in an industrial economy where farmers need to achieve productivity to “feed the world.” But talking to Jyoti, I wondered, is it possible that agroecology could gain political legitimacy in the unlikeliest of agricultural geographies like the UK?
Jyoti certainly does.
I was wondering if we could just start with, what kind of agriculture activities go on at Five Penny Farms?
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:02:51] Five penny farm is a 43-acre, small holding in West Dorset and we're on a beautiful hillside overlooking sea. There are two families living here. We call ourselves a low impact small holding because we've built our own houses on the land, using eco-friendly materials and we've got windmill solar panel, for our electricity.
So we're off grid. And we've got a set of processing rooms on our farm that is shared by a cooperative of small holders in the area. So we've got this kind of teaming, small holder community in the area with loads of little farms, producing different things on their mixed agroecological farms. The processing facilities is a place where people in the community can come and make apple juice, or cheese, or cider, jams cut their meat into like bacon ham sausages, that kind of thing.
Our farm feeds into all of that with the cooperative, because we're a mixed farm ourselves. I've got, some dairy cows, which I hand milk and make cheese. And we have fresh milk for our family. We've got sheep that we can use for meat. We make sheepskins and we, recently just sent a bunch of our wool to be spun, to make blankets and all sorts of, beautiful handmade cloth with.
And we make preserves with all the fruit. There's a market garden on the farm. We have a couple that comes here and grows so many varieties of fresh fruit and veg for the local market. And we've been running that market stall for the last 17 years in our local town, selling all the fresh fruit and veg and preserves and apple juice and cider and things.
We've got orchards and the sheep go underneath the orchards. All sorts of different products that come out of the hedge rows and herbs. All sorts of things. Yeah, it's a proper mix farm.
Adam Calo: [00:04:33] That sounds really diverse. It seems like not just diverse in terms of the varieties of crops, but also diverse in terms of the types of value-added products and economic activities that's going on.
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:04:44] Oh yeah. Diversity is the key to what we do.
Adam Calo: [00:04:47] So you mentioned agroecology. Do you consider that what happens on your farm is employs a practice of agroecology? And as part of that, maybe you could explain agroecology, how it may work, with your production, but also in other agricultural contexts?
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:05:01] Yeah, so agroecology is about agriculture that works with nature. So working with ecology. So basically it's looking at the environment that's around you, the landscapes around you and thinking about how to produce food and fiber and fuel and all the things that we need for our livelihoods using the resources sustainably on the land around you.
And that's what we do with our farm. You know, we looked at what resources we had here and thought what kind of a farming system can we have that has different products that can be available all different times of the year, but all the different things are being produced at a small scale, but as part of a wider system where there's kind of symbiosis between the different products of the farm.
And so one part feeds into another part. In our orchards we have all these apples and then we press them in our processing facility. And we get all the apple pulp leftover from pressing. And that goes to my cows and it goes into their cow feed mixture.
So, they're recycling and using that waste and it's making it into milk. And when you make cheese, you've got that leftover whey and that can go to pigs to produce meat, or it can go to chickens, for producing eggs. So, it's taking all those different parts of the farm and one part feeds the other.
And the great thing about that is you look all along the operations of the farms. So, where you get your seed from or your livestock breeds. We look at trying to use diverse, livestock and crop varieties, ones that are naturally reproducible, so, not hybrids or genetically modified ones and ones that we can save ourselves or breed ourselves rather than having to pay companies for the use of these inputs, into the farming system.
And then we think about what are we doing with the land that the animals are grazing or the soil that we're cultivating in and think about how we build that up and the fertility going into that soil coming from natural sources. So we use rich mixtures of grasses on the soil that fixes carbon from the atmosphere. Our grazing livestock, they're eating this grass that's full of clover that's fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere. And then they produce loads of manure which we can compost and put back onto the farm. And that's how we get our fertility instead of using artificial nitrate fertilizers, which can have a really bad impact on water and on the climate, you know, nitrous oxide evaporates when you spread artificial nitrate fertilizers on the land.
And then it's also thinking about what happens after you've produced that product, who does it get sold to and how does it go to our local community? Or are you selling into a supermarket chain that improves corporate profits. And for us, it's really important that what we're producing is producing good quality, nutritious food at an affordable price because we really try and make sure it's not just a niche high-end thing that nobody can afford.
And, having it going through channels where it doesn't create loads of transport. If you sell the supermarkets, it can often have an impact of traveling all over the place before it gets to where it's actually sold. That consolidates corporate power, because agriculture is also about the social side of things all along the chain, you want to respect the land and the animals and insects and biodiversity, but you also want to respect the people involved in that process.
Making sure everybody that's working is getting fair wages are being treated well. And that way you're selling to actually has an impact in improving people's nutrition rather than corporate profits. All of that's embedded in agroecology. So yeah, what we try and do on our farm is agroecology.
Adam Calo: [00:08:33] Listening to you talk just now, what makes that process possible for you? It seems like you need really knowledge intensive system, but it's a knowledge that can't be delivered from somewhere else. It has to be uniquely attached to your local environment. And also you need control. Agency to make decisions about where to sell who to sell to and what to produce.
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:08:56] Agroecology has been practiced all over the world for ages. You know, it's the way that food has been produced in every locality. Indigenous people for thousands of years have fed themselves using the resources that are of the local environment and built up a tremendous amount of knowledge, learning from their ancestors and applying those skills to where they happen to live and constantly seeing what's happening and learning from it and gaining more knowledge and you build a symbiotic relationship with the natural environment around you to gather those agroecology skills.
Now, fewer people nowadays, in the UK, have grown up in a farming background, a lot of that indigenous knowledge of the landscape and how to manage it has been lost. And it's happened all over the world really. And there's also been so much pressure for people to lose this connection with the land and the understanding of how to produce what we need from that landscape.
The industrialized food system has come in and lots of farmers have been taught, “Oh, well actually you need to use all these chemicals and herbicides and pesticides and things to produce your food and you need to sell the supermarkets.” And there's all this economic pressure to transition your model of farming to something different. All that's happened, but, that knowledge has been there and we can look back at it and we can learn, and we can also apply a modern understanding of science – a modern understanding of the social impact of all the changes to what we're doing to the environment and to society through more corporate control.
We can apply them differently and we can actually learn how to farm differently. You know, my family on both sides were farmers, one generation before my parents. My father was from India and his family, did farming and my mother's family was farming in Iowa.
In so many people's history will have an element of parts of their family being engaged in agriculture. Cause more of the world was engaged in agriculture before, but a lot of the next generation has been removed from that knowledge of the landscape. So to gain that back, my husband and I, when we started our farm, we had to go around and visit a lot of places that were doing this kind of agroecological farming.
We did volunteering, we did small courses. We read lots of books. We talked to loads of people and trying to pick up the knowledge and skills. And we realized that there's a lot of other people doing this as well. And that knowledge sharing between people trying to recreate what was traditional knowledge and put it in a modern context to be able to farm in a modern way that works with nature is something that we're learning together and developing together.
In order to be able to do that you do need access to land. You need water. Good quality soil. Financial resources to be able to get the tools and equipment that you need to get started properly. All of that is incredibly important, but I think as more people gain access to these things, to be able to start farms, then we'll be able to recreate these systems and hopefully pass them on so it's easier for the next generation of people going back to the land to recreate these kinds of farms.
Adam Calo: [00:11:59] I think agroecology is growing in terms of legitimacy, especially in academic circles, some policy circles. Something I've noticed though, is it kind of gets “othered” in a way in that, “Okay, well agroecology is fine for the tropics or the Global South, but you know, here in the UK or here in America, farmers are embedded in market economics. It has to be competitive. They have to have economic viability and surpluses and that can't really work here.” Could you respond to that critique?
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:12:27] I mean, agroecology is a system of thinking how you design your agroecological farming system that can be applied in any landscape. And it's particularly relevant to what we need to do to try and regenerate farming in this country. I mean, farming is actually facing a really difficult crossroads at the moment.
The agricultural bill has been passed and that means that, the basic payments, the subsidy that's been there to support quite an economically viable farms, is going and farms are going to have to figure out how they transition to something that is financially viable. And also, it looks after the natural environment because, it's been well documented, the impacts of the more industrialized, monoculture based farming. It's been well-documented that that's had destructive impacts on the soil, on biodiversity, on insect counts. And it's also had spiraling down impact on farmer incomes.
It's also made food not as nutritious as it used to be. And really consolidated the power of supermarkets for the distribution of food as well. So, all those impacts are things that people are going: “Actually, this isn't okay. It's actually not working.” And so agriculture is actually a way forward and how we create a better farming model. There was what was there in the past. And then we've had this whole push towards industrialization and intensification and many, many people moving out of the farming sector in the UK. But actually we need to move forward with agroecology, thinking of it as a really modern paradigm.
What agroecology does is one, lower your input costs. So a lot of farmers that are paying out loads of money for buying in loads of imported feed. For example, if they transitioned to agroecology, they would have native breed livestock, that might be more compatible with the conservation grazed meadow, for example.
And they'd be able to graze on that and have a lower output of milk, but they could transition it so that when they were looking after that soil, they had really good yields on the soil, through agroecology. And then if you're selling to a direct supply chain, you get a higher price per kilo, say for your milk or for your meat or whatever it is.
And that actually becomes something that's much more economically viable. And if you kind of change all those aspects of the whole farming model, you can actually come up with something that's much stronger and less impacted by stresses, by volatility, changes in weather, changes in market, all of those things.
And that's what actually government is saying we need to aim for. So agroecology, one hundred percent has a place in this country.
Adam Calo: [00:15:01] You're presenting agroecology as a complete alternative to the dominant food system, the industrial model. And you've levied some critiques of that model. For example, its failure to conserve the environment, its contribution to poor health outcomes, and its contribution to this cheap food model.
In an American education context, if you go to university and you study agriculture, you learn about Norman Borlaug, American ingenuity, and the kind of technological superiority that “fed the world's poor” via the green revolution. But then if you could go to graduate school and you continue to study this in more detail you start to learn all of the counter critiques that the green revolution was directly responsible for the entrenchment of this industrial food system that drives a lot of the environmental crisis and human suffering today.
I'm wondering, how did you arrive to this kind of ecological and political stance that you're at now?
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:15:56] It's interesting that you've mentioned the kind of glorification of Norman Borlaug. Interestingly, here in the UK, we've just released a national food strategy. Or it was a national food strategy part one anyway, which was developed by Henry Dimbleby and a panel of experts to try and look at where our food system was going.
And all these critiques that we’re saying about what's wrong with our food system were in there, but it was also really glorifying what Norman Borlaug had been trying to do. That he was a scientist that went to Mexico to try and improve the seed there to try and improve yields, saying, well, he was doing a really really good thing, et cetera.
And actually it's quite a difficult thing the way it was all framed. I found it actually quite offensive because it was talking about these poor starving peasants in Mexico. You know, he'd gone down there and seeing how poor they are and how unknowledgeable they were and wanted to try and do something to really change this situation.
What I've been learning –and I went down to Mexico to actually visit and work with peasant farmers there –is that they are some of the most knowledgeable farmers and seed breeders and agricultural scientists really, and agricultural innovators. Because they’ve been working for such a long time through their indigenous cultures, with the land with very diverse knowledge intensive systems and breeding seed that is compatible with their natural environment.
And to kind of say, “Oh, well, all that progress,” it was really very much based on this idea that one knowledge system of science is better than another knowledge of science. For myself, when we started also hear about the way that cultures are being removed from the land, losing the connections to those traditional knowledge systems, that destruction of the natural environment, all of it, it makes you realize that that that paradigm of what we're being taught is actually part of the problem.
And you know, in a lot of it's really based on racism. And actually we need to move forward and think that, you know, that kind of knowledge where you work with the natural environment is the most sustainable.
Adam Calo: [00:17:58] I mean, at the same time though, that kind of techno optimism is still alive today. You know, that the Gates foundation Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa is making the case that the first green revolution essentially skipped over some of these locations and just need to kind of bring that same kind of hybrid seed techno-fix to those places.
So there's still kind of a very lively debate about what strategies “feed the world.” It's very contested and with high stakes.
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:18:29] So in the food system summit and in all of the international platforms there's a battle basically for the future of the food system going on. There are contested ideas of what kind of vision for agriculture should go forward.
Our farmers organization called the Land Workers’ Alliance is a part of La Via Campesina, which represents indigenous people and peasant farmers around the world. And actually the amount of the food supply that's being supplied by the peasant indigenous farmers and agricultural farming systems around the world is about 70% of global food security.
In terms of numbers, small farms. There are huge, huge numbers of people employed in farming in places where they're distributing food to local communities, through short supply chains and farming agroecologically using their own resources and diverse cropping systems to feed themselves.
So these groups, our organization, La Via Campesina, plus a lot of other organizations representing civil society, have really critiqued what's going on with the narrative around food, on the international level and which filters down through every national government, through all of our food strategies, et cetera Where they're saying, well, these big farms and industrial farming is what's feeding the world and going, wait, hang on a minute.
Who's actually saying this and why are they saying that? We've got statistics that actually show, the small farms and the localized food economies are providing 70% of global food security. The industrialized food chain is providing 30% of global food security yet their voice is quite strong.
And a lot of that is the politics of the food system. There's a UN food systems summit that's coming up. The person chairing it is heavily involved in a project called the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa. And lots of the sponsorship for the food systems summit is from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.
And they're really looking at that technological solution. But the civil society mechanism that's been promoting this alternative has actually been excluded from involvement in that UN food systems summit. And so loads of organizations are boycotting turning up as delegates because they'd been excluded from actually having a place at the table to put forward what they think the solutions are.
And this is because there's a lot of money at stake. A lot of big companies are making a lot of money out of trying to gain control of the food system. And we're quite worried that at the climate change talks the narrative that gene edited seed, all these different technological things that are owned by corporations can “save land” so that we can restore nature.
We're worried that that narrative will go forward and loads of the commitments from governments, where they put money into what happens with the future of our food system, what happens with the agricultural research and development budgets, and things actually goes to solutions that just prop up these corporations, trying to sell products all the time to farmers and make money accumulate land for their own profit. It's a big problem and it really drowns out the narrative of other people saying we need to be doing things differently.
Adam Calo: [00:21:30] When I started asking you questions, I might've fallen into a trope where I was focusing on kind of the agronomic practices of your farm, but a lot of your work is focusing on the political dimensions of food system transformation. Why do this on top of all of your farming work?
I mean, I must say, that from the academic perspective, if you look at plant sciences or ecology, these kinds of problems of agriculture they're framed in terms of farmer decision-making, identifying best practices, getting farmers to learn or to be aware of these problems. Why do you think focus on politics is, is needed here?
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:22:03] The politics of the food system is just as important as the practice of the food system, because it's all embedded in the whole system that we've got really. What happens on the farm level in terms of your practices is actually dictated by the wider political context.
What you're trying to produce by being a farmer is food. Food is a basic human right for everyone. Everybody should have enough good quality, nutritious food that's culturally appropriate to be able to feed themselves and their communities. A human rights framework means that governments actually intervene in what happens, politically, to make sure that everybody's guaranteed this basic human rights.
The food system is different. It's not something that can be treated as pure market economics. It's not something that, you know, whatever corporations do for buying, selling, and trading, shouldn't be interfered with. It's something where governments should actually be thinking about, okay, what strategically do we want out of our food system?
And it's so joined with what happens with our landscapes, which happens with biodiversity, fresh water, clean air, climate change, all of these things that everybody, absolutely every person on this planet has a stake in as well as like food security for themselves on future generations.
These are things that impact everybody. And so that wider political context that it fits in is incredibly important. For a long time, the companies that have been trying to profit from our food system and very neoliberal thinking politicians and saying, “Oh no, we just leave food to the market. Farmers have to make it a really viable enterprise. We'll have to deregulate everything, because the regulations that were there in agriculture and are in some places, but being dismantled, because it was originally recognized that the food system has such an impact on the natural environment and on people's right to food.
So, they thought, okay, well, we actually intervene in that we set fixed prices. We set rules and regulations. We make sure that we stop cheap imports coming in to undercut farmers, et cetera. Farmers were given that dignity and respect as a job that is really important to society and the leeway to be able to do things well, but that was all dismantled as this kind of ideology that it should all just be left to the market and the market's going to deliver all these things went into place.
Tackling that fundamental problem, it is a part of what actually dictates the practice on the farm, because if you leave it off to the market and buying all those inputs comes into the picture or where you sell it to get it comes into the picture.
Adam Calo: [00:24:30] When you've testified at the European Parliament, and you said that, “agroecological farmers are trying to provide food security to Europe with straight jackets on.” So, it's not just that policy enables certain types of food production, but it can also disincentivize other types of food production?
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:24:47] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the politics of the food system now, mean that the rules of regulations that are out there are completely stacked against small, independent farms. You know, they drive farmers into developing these high input systems. When you drive small farms out of business that are much more independent selling to their local community, it kind of forces the land to get consolidated and start selling into vertically integrated supply chains that needs supermarkets or global markets, or to corporations.
There is a degree of force here that's happening. All the laws backing that up are. Making it very, very difficult for agroecological farmers to make a living. And, you know, a lot of the times I'll get critiqued by other people within our movement because there's lots of activists going, you know, why are you dealing with politics?
We just actually need to get on and do this ourselves from the ground up, as a grassroots kind of thing. But the thing is, all those initiatives are taking place. Even if you go and you start your own community supported farm or your urban project, or you managed to get some funds together, like through a loan to start an organic farm, you're still operating within a context of a very unhelpful, larger framework that are slowly, leaving less and less space for the alternatives to flourish when it should be working the opposite way around. Why have we got 3.5 billion pounds being given out through our subsidy system to large farms on the basis of how much land they have? That's consistently giving the upper hand to large landholdings over small landholdings, and there's only so long you can operate on a level playing field before for you totally slide backwards.
The thing that's going on in the world right now that's super interesting are the farmers protests in India because that's kind of taking this whole thing were talking about to the contra point. Basically, there's millions and millions, literally millions of farmers in India that are protesting against some farm laws that have been passed there that have removed the protection that they normally get from the government, there were protections like a minimum support price for their farm products, laws that said that foreign investors couldn't come in and buy land in agriculture that protects them against that. Certain things that helped facilitate the development of cooperatives and other ways that the state can kind of support agriculture, especially small farms, agricultural cooperatives to buy products and to sell them and distribute them in mass.
All these things are being dismantled and almost half the population in India are farmers. This kind of just happened really quickly with the government under pressure, because they wanted to enter into trade deals and agriculture always gets bartered off and trade deals all the time to try and dismantle all these protections that the farmers in India have historically been able to benefit from and thrive under. And now they're just going, yeah, this is actually something we've got to make a stand against because otherwise we're not going to have this number of people employed in agriculture in the future.
And that's millions and millions of people's livelihoods. And those people driven off the land consolidation of land, lots of being bought by corporates. Bill Gates is the largest landowner in America and that's the sort of thing they saw in Indiaas a possibility.
If you open up to that corporate investment in land as small farms are driven out.
Adam Calo: [00:28:05] So what's preventing that kind of political awakening amongst farmers in the UK? I wonder if under this market imperative, the farmers that are in the niche can eke out a nice little livelihood because they are able to get those premium prices and they don't necessarily have to engage with the broader politics.
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:28:23] Well, mobilizing for political action is exactly what the Landworkers’ Alliance is seeking to achieve. A lot of the small farms, even though they can benefit from the niche shelves and it works quite well and we can prove that it is economically viable in one sense. In another sense, there's still quite an uphill struggle.
Whoever's still doing it is doing it because they truly believe in it. Not because the system is actually helping it out. And the more that you can spread awareness and I talk to farmers all the time and spread awareness of the impacts of volatility, how important it is to have that state intervention to guarantee decent prices, we need something like the milk marketing board that was already dismantled by Thatcher.
And also actually we're the heroes of society, in some ways. If people are producing food, they should be recognized as contributing a valuable public service. They're on the front line of doing something that's incredibly important to society. Why are they treated so badly within this system?
We need to reverse the land consolidation. We need to provide more access to land. We need to provide more training for farmers so that they can be looking after them and producing our food. We need to ease farmers through a transition towards agroecology and more resilient farming models.
All of these things are things that we have a right to invest in as a society and we should be recognizing that they're important for all of us to be engaged in now. We basically try and get people to understand that, to try and help people figure out when they need to be writing petitions, when they need to write to their MPS, talking to the ministers in the agriculture department.
Also it's the things from the village level up to national levels, up to the European Union level, to the Committee on Food Security level in the UN, that narrative needs to open up. Part of it, I think, is helping both consumers who eat the food that farmers produce understand that they have a stake in this too.
So they can back up the voice of farmers who realize we want a better system that respects our dignity and the land better. And helping everyone understand that it's not just about voting with your pocketbook, which I find is a slightly dangerous concept because in this society, a lot of people think, well, you pay for what you want to see. So we'll pay a bit more for organic and that'll drive more organics, but not saying actually we also have a political voice as food citizens to say, we want a food system and where are the subsidies to go? And the regulations that are surrounding it to reflect what we need from food and farming and our landscape in society. And we expect politicians to take on board what we need.
Adam Calo: [00:31:08] So a lot of these approaches are embedded in the platform of LA Via Campesina and therefore Land Workers’ Alliance. Can you talk a little bit more about La Via Campesina as a platform, how it operates, how it comes to these kinds of conclusions and policy ideas?
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:31:25] Yeah. So La Via Campesina is a huge coalition of farmers organizations across the world representing about 200 million farmers around the world. I think we're in 181 different countries. It's a huge coalition of different organizations spanning from the United States where there's the small and family farmers coalition, the black farmers coalition and Canada, the national farmers union across Mexico.
There's those two different farmer's organizations down through South America. We've got the Movimiento Sem Terra in Brazil and all the different agroecology training networks and the IALAs throughout all the different Latin American countries. North and South Africa both have their own coalitions of farmers organizations. We've got a Middle Eastern coalition. Across Europe, there's a European coordination of La Via Campesina. Most of the organizations involved in the farmers protest in India are part of La Via Campesina. It's just this enormous coalition of different voices, representing indigenous people and small farmers in those countries and their interests.
Each of the different constituencies in these kinds of geographical areas has a process for bringing the different farmers organizations together and democratically deciding, okay, what's our platform? What do we believe in, that we can all back up together and what's our action plan to get there?
They originally came together to try and fight the globalization of agriculture in the 1990s. When they realized that actually, the integration into the World Trade Organization was having a huge impact on small producers around the world, the push for the Green Revolution and more consolidation of the farming sector was really destroying livelihoods.
And they thought, this is a global problem that's being promoted without us having a voice at the table. We've got to bring our voices together, get a solid position and push forward a different platform for food security, which they called food sovereignty at that time and kind of set out the basic premise through loads of negotiation, amongst all the different groups about what is it, we're trying to promote?
Food sovereignty is the concept that they coalesced around. And to back up that principle of food sovereignty that all the different organizations ascribed to every four years, we have these big meetings, where two representatives from every organization go there with hundreds of translators, so that people can really communicate with each other and do loads of working groups and write loads of declarations and create lots of action plans and, fine tune what those policies mean and how we implement them around the world.
We share knowledge with each other about, say, an organization in France is leading these protests against such and such. How do we learn how to do that in England? Or, the Indian farmers are talking to us about what they're doing there and we're backing it up because some of the policies in the UK are actually supporting the sort of things that they're protesting against.
So we can show that solidarity. Or we do technical knowledge exchange, like, you know, in Africa, some of the seed saving banks that are being run by their projects and communities might be able to share drought resistant millet seeds with people in a drought zone in South America, for example. And they can exchange that seed or the knowledge about how to save the seed.
That mass movement of sharing knowledge and being able to democratically decide where we're moving as a movement to move forward has tremendous power, these 200 million farmers coming together.
And we've kind of got to because, food security is such a global thing and the power of those multinational corporations is phenomenal. Syngenta. Monsanto. Bayer. The ones that are actually gaining control of our food system. We've got to be quite organized to be able to push back and spread a different narrative.
We do that through democratically getting together and deciding things, sharing that knowledge as we go with our brothers and sisters around the world and moving forward in that way.
Adam Calo: [00:35:13] It must be lots of meetings.
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:35:16] Oh my God, it is the longest meetings.
Adam Calo: [00:35:16] Through this massive deliberation process, agroecology emerges as the preferred agricultural form. it's pretty clear. Why not “Climate smart”, regenerative, organic, sustainable intensified, why do you think that agroecology is the chosen form that matches the needs of over 200 million farmers?
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:35:33] The reason we really opt for agriculture is because it was originally what was defined as this form of agriculture that would back up the paradigm of food sovereignty. So we came up with the idea that food sovereignty is, how we want to provide food security for the planet while being in the hands of the people.
And a huge element of that is looking at the political context of how that food is provided. Who owns the resources or has access to those resources because they don't necessarily need to be owned. The land can be owned but be managed as a commons and managed for food security
With food sovereignty, it wasn't just about providing X number of calories so that everybody in the planet has 2000 calories per day. It doesn't matter where it comes from, who provides it and how the land is managed to get that food and who put profits or benefits from it. Okay?
You know, food security on a very basic level could just all be about everybody gets their 2000 calories, no kind of context to that. Food sovereignty, widens that out and says, well, actually some of those things do matter who owns or manages or has control or access to the resources that produce that food is an important consideration.
And we want to see it shared out so that it's providing a livelihood for as many people as need a livelihood from the land. We want to figure out who controls all the inputs into the farming system. Where is knowledge fit into that? Where does the natural environment and working in harmony, working with it? You can't just be exploiting the land to provide those calories. We can't be exploiting animals and packing them into industrial factory farms in order to provide those calories.
And, is it affordable so that everybody can access food and you don't have some people that are getting really obese off of too much rich food and other parts of the world where there's hunger and malnutrition. It’s the workers involved in the food chain-
are they exploited and paid fair wages? Are they treated like dirt? Also, who profits from it, you know, is the profit shared out to society or is it going to corporations? All those things are a fundamental part of food sovereignty and thereby agroecology.
So when La Via Campesina talks about agroecology, it's not just about all the ways you farm the techniques about farming. It's about that wider political context and making sure that that's embedded in the farming system, who's producing it, who owns it, who it's going to and who benefits, is equally as important as how you treat the soil or which chemicals you use on your farm.
And that's what makes agroecology very different from using the term organic or regenerative agriculture or whatever, because usually those are focused around techniques, rather than bringing in that wider political dimension. It's really important that proponents of agroecology and there's a lot like the Soil Association, et cetera, talking about agroecology actually recognize the origin of that development of the term agroecology from the peasant farming movement.
And there was a lot of work being done, just after the concept of food sovereignty came out to articulate that and to help the world gain a fuller understanding of that concept of agroecology incorporating an analysis of power and the social dimensions alongside all the practices.
Adam Calo: [00:38:47] There was a recent article in Civil Eats, that suggested that agroecology, as it becomes more legitimate, also becomes more at risk of being co-opted. Have you seen this in the UK at all?
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:38:59] Yeah, absolutely. It's an interesting one because agriculture has been being used a lot more largely because we've really, really, really been promoting it through the Land Workers’ Alliance, but it's picked up by a lot of organizations that sometimes forget the political dimension. I'm just continually bringing it up and making sure that it doesn't get forgotten in that narrative.
Because we are in danger in the UK of sidelining those social issues, partly because the government, in general, is quite neoliberal. And so, looking at the practices and the financial viability of our agricultural farms is a narrative that appeals quite easily. And thinking about those wider dimensions of making sure that that land is shared out more equitably, that people get fair wages that you incorporate more job opportunities on farms, that wider communities can benefit from access to that green space. The Social justice dimension- bringing in diversity and inclusion in terms of, the types of people that farm, all of those things sometimes get a bit sidelined. And, and so we need to just make sure that they stay a part of the narrative.
A good example last week, the Soil Association was commissioning a report about looking at, “can technology fit into agroecology” and they were looking at the potential for gene editing technology or vertical farms, data sourcing- all sorts of different things, And whether or not they could be considered agroecological or not.
One thing we really needed to continually bring up when looking at those technologies is that, if the end goal would be okay, it's going to mitigate climate change … It could be considered agroecology. But in our terms, if agroecology wasn't incorporating something that said, actually we're trying to limit corporate power and corporate control of the food system, then something like gene editing technology becomes much more problematic because the patents are usually owned by large corporations.
Or if you're looking at robotics in agricultural, maybe a robot can go along and weed things, and then you don't need herbicides in order to stop the weeding, but what's the impact, the social impact of adopting loads of robots on farms?
Does that mean that we're going to bring in fewer migrant workers and those migrant workers, are up against having to pick at a rate that would compete against the robot? And so their working conditions go down. Actually thinking about that social dimension of the adoption of technologies, not just the pure absence of chemicals.
Adam Calo: [00:41:27] I wonder if you could, let me know a little bit more about specifics in the UK, because perhaps there is once in a generation opportunity has arisen after Brexit to kind of rewrite the agricultural policy and there's been a slew of debates over the Agricultural Bill. It was my understanding that at one point an agroecology amendment was introduced, but then voted down.
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:41:45] Yeah. So the Agriculture Bill in the UK was passed. So it's in place, it's called the Agricultural Act now. But there was a large run-up of a debate about what was going to happen with it previous to being adopted. And now it's in the implementation stage through a scheme that's being rolled out called the Environmental Land Management Scheme.
The subsidy system that we inherited from Europe and that we were operating to previous to this, was that farmers were given payments on the basis of how much land they owned. There was some very, very basic environmental requirements but they were super baby step.
So by and large, it was a payment per-hectare for how much land you owned. And there wasn't requirement to produce a certain type of food or not, et cetera. What the Agriculture Bill was doing was actually ending that. And we were quite supportive of the idea of ending that subsidy system because of the distortion of impact it had on land ownership on consolidation of land ownership.
It also felt like it could just be done a bit better so that public money that was out there for supporting a better food system could be used more strategically to support agroecological farming and regeneration of wildlife corridors and tree habitat and that kind of thing as well.
We got really involved in the lobbying process and it was an interesting one because, on one hand there was a farmers union representing more larger, more industrial farms called the National Farmers Union. They were saying, well, no, actually we need to keep subsidizing food production because food security is really important, which of course is a message we do agree with.
We do think that is important for our society to support food production. The difference is that we're concerned about how that food is produced and who it goes to. On the other hand, there was a lot of people lobbying, saying, well, we want to transition to a system where farmers are paid for planting lesser trees on their land, and for regenerating the environment, et cetera, but not so concerned about that they continue to produce food and saying your food is left to the market. Farmers will only be paid for environmental public goods. We're very much in the middle of that because actually agroecology combines those two paradigms and gets the best of both because it's about producing good quality food, making sure it's being produced at an affordable price and feeding our communities.
And at the same time, it's about restoring biodiversity. Bringing back the insect populations and the wildlife, that's dependent on them. And looking after the soils and mitigating climate change and planting loads of trees and restoring peatland at the same time, but combining those two models, in what we call the land sharing scenario.
It's not just loads of food production on one side, very intensively and wild nature reserves on the other. It's about farming models that are supporting biodiversity across the whole landscape and sharing those two scenarios together. So in a way, the Land Workers’ Alliance coming forward with agroecology was that middle ground.
It was the main voice putting forward that scenario that combines the two scenarios. And it was interesting to watch through that process, different NGOs and the NFU and everything started to meet more in the middle as well. In the narrative of the vision of where we're going forward with our food system, which I found very positive and a lot that we were putting forward loads of awareness about what agroecology is what that middle ground is.
There's a fantastic network called the Nature Friendly Farming Network and ones like the Pasture Fed Livestock Association. And then ones looking at the social dimension, like the Community Supported Agriculture network, Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and ones like that, where it's like we're kind of moving forward and meeting in the middle.
There's a fantastic coalition called SUSTAIN the Alliance for Better Food and Farming, that was kind of bringing these organizations together that meet on that vision of, we need healthy, affordable food production, and we want to restore the earth from the ecological biodiversity crisis we're facing.
It's a funny government to be trying to put forward anything that the government is not completely adopting forward. So we did put agroecology amendments forwards and it was turned down, but there was a bit of a compromise where they did put agroecology in one part of the Agriculture Bill.
So we did, feel that we actually succeeded there in some ways, and a lot of those groups that I was just mentioning the ones that are on that middle ground, plus these other stakeholders slowly starting to adopt this idea, are all part of what's called the ELMs engagement group. So they have a stakeholder group that many of us lobbied to try and widen and open up to bring all those voices to the table, to actually co-create and develop what our new subsidy scheme looks like.
And I actually feel like there's quite a lot of potential there. I mean, we've been really heavily involved and that process along with all my colleagues, and it's just been quite interesting seeing, everybody saying, what is it that we want out of our food system, out of our farming system and moving forward with that.
The risk is that the environmental things are moving forward, but it's looking a little bit like what used to be done under the old countryside stewardship schemes. And we're trying to push them to go a bit further because actually we're facing a climate and ecological emergency. We need to move a bit faster.
We've got to get people using less pesticides and herbicides, composting their manure instead of slurry injectors. You know, we don't want it all based on technology. We want it based on this knowledge of sustainable farming system. And then we're also a little bit worried that food production will slide and that's not being held to.
So it's just constantly making sure we're holding that balance. And making aware that, that the detail of what emerges from the scheme actually reflects that balance so that it goes forward. And we have a good amount of our own sustainability in terms of self-sufficiency of food, but we've also restored loads of land for the environment at the same time.
Adam Calo: [00:47:26] So the critique of the Environmental Land Management scheme that I've heard in this vein is that as long as the United Kingdom sees itself as mainly a food importing nation, then ELMs ends up being kind of a countryside greening program, which is great places to be in and live in. But it's not necessarily a food policy, is it?
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:47:44] Yeah I think, the narrative internally at DEFRA, they are quite aware that they want to keep farmers still producing food. But it's also educating lots of farmers. And this is where the detail comes in is educating farmers that they can transition to ELMs.
And this kind of, lower stocking density, farming, more sort of conservation grazing, more trees across farms, through agroforestry systems- that farmers can actually convert to these things and still produce food. So a lot of it's about financial incentive, but also the support for farmers to relearn how to produce food alongside these systems.
The way it's developed in and of itself right now, isn't actually anti food production. And it really shouldn't be, it's just making sure that they hold farmers through that journey. And like, it doesn't mean that like active farms actually go out of business, which is happening now with the dairy industry. Loads of industrial dairies are going out of business and collapsing right now because of this, prospect of subsidy being removed.
Do you actually keep those farmers farming, but getting them transitioned to a more sustainable dairy model? It's not necessarily a bad thing that that big industrial dairy -the ones that are putting less a slurry in order courses and stuff- are ending, but we've got to keep those holdings still producing.
Or does that land just get bought, become like nice conservation fields. And lots of people put in tourism, and not keep producing the food? And I think that the choice is there. We've just got to make the opportunities really clear and government needs to put money into that transition process, for education and for all the new equipment that you need in order to transition and some kind of a buffer for the risk involved in the transition, because transition is no easy thing. It's quite risky and it takes some time. But once you get there on your own much more resilient footing.
Adam Calo: [00:49:42] So it sounds like your participation when, I mean you, I mean the Land Workers’ Alliance and other actors in debates over what food systems should be, have actually moved the needle in a positive direction. I'm wondering … you've participated in a lot of different types of policy work, writing reports, blocking the streets with tractors meeting with high level officials. What do you think has been the most effective in your policy career?
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:50:08] No particular line of action is going to be impactful in it of itself. People who want to see a better society have to think strategically about covering all bases and building a really broad-based movement where people are engaged at whatever level they feel comfortable in doing.
So, you've got to have the lobby advocates that are there at the table in all those DEFRA meetings, talking to the politicians, consistently putting in good quality recommendations, and then that's one part of it. But it's not going to succeed unless there's that wider societal awareness. You've got to have the grassroots projects on the ground, building those positive alternatives, the pioneers, the demonstration farms, the early adopter farmers, who've decided to transition and build something different. And they're the on the ground proof that this is possible.
And then you've got to have like your consumers going, “Hey, this is actually what we want out of a better food system.” And they need to be talking to the politicians and talking to their neighbors and anybody that's been a bit of annoyance and just say “Look, this is what we actually want as a system and make that super clear.”
And direct action plays a vitally important role in all of this, because it provides that visibility. It's something where the public can go, Hey, actually, you know, the trade Bill's going through. And if they bring in loads of terrible factory farmed meat from America, that's going to completely undermine what we were just saying.
We wanted with the Agriculture Bill, which is a sustainable, high animal welfare, environmentally friendly food supply. It's all of it working together. And what's beautiful about that is that a social movement of people working together is a way you can combine everybody's power, wherever your superpower lies and what you can combine it together with somebody else's. So you're really moving social change forward.
Adam Calo: [00:51:59] Let's say that there was a national farming policy that was aimed at maximizing this vision of agroecological production. What would it look like? Paint me a vision of what an agroecological UK is.
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:52:14] One thing we've been doing in my work a is working on modeling land use. First you need to just set what the big picture is, where are we heading with our land use and our food system. So we were doing this kind of complicated thing where we were going, we're going to figure out what it is that we need to eat, with the population we've got here on in the UK for a healthy diet, a good, you know, good nutritious food. Not necessarily what we eat now, but what we could be eating in order to make it, sustainable. What land do we have available? How much agricultural land is there?
There's 18 million hectares of agricultural land available. How many trees and wildlife areas do we need to restore in order to get our biodiversity up to a certain level? And also how many trees do we need to start sequestering the carbon that we need to achieve net zero?
We were trying to work all that out and then create what we set was a land use vision sort of saying, okay, we're going to have 6 million hectares of forest and, you know, X million hectares of wheat being grown and this much land under pasture for pasture fed livestock and then kind of combine that about what that means in terms of the food system.
And what we were picturing is that about 80% of what people eat here in the UK is produced domestically. In order to achieve that people would need to eat a bit less meat, a little bit less sugar, a bit less alcohol –some of these things that take up quite a lot of land—and like a more diverse, seasonal diet. In order to achieve that level of 80% self-sufficiency, we'd have to think a little bit more carefully about how we use our land, but then also, having those farms so that they are agroecological, so that biodiversity is across the farms.
We've got really rich diverse meadows without chemicals that insects can freely travel in regenerate across them. We've got agroforestry. Trees, being planted and dotted all around fields. Multiple stacking layers of usage so that the sheep are underneath the orchards and things are being rotated.
All the waste food is going back to feed pigs and chickens instead of them being fed on soil that comes from rainforest areas. And then, the food that we do import, it doesn't undercut any of the production here in the UK. So we don't bring anything in that could actually be produced here. Don’t bring in pork, don't bring in dairy products, don't bring in brussel sprouts and leaks and things that could be produced here perfectly well, but bring in things that are the extra things we want, like oranges and bananas and rice and some of those things that make our diet a bit more diverse, but bringing them in from places where they're produced, agroecologically.
And paying completely fair prices for things so that money actually goes to the producers and thinking very carefully about what we import so that it doesn't trade off food sovereignty of other places, because there is a big problem that the food being produced in other countries that's imported to the UK can often trade off with food security in the places where it's at, because it takes the best agricultural land for these luxury export crops. And we want to avoid that kind of situation where the things that we're trading are things that are being produced by say cooperatives or their excess to the requirements of the fruit security in that country.
And then, it's bringing in a bit of extra income to the producers on the ground there. So that's all part of the big picture. We have more new entrants on the land. We have more people engaged in agriculture and on what they're producing is being processed within the local economy.
And it's being sold through local restaurants and tourist places and through the public sector going to our schools and our hospitals, and then beyond that regionally through our public sector and through those regional supply chains and everybody all along the chain of everything we eat is treated fairly and with dignity.
Adam Calo: [00:55:57] It's a bold vision. It would be a drastically different economy in the UK, wouldn't it? Or do you think that life would look just the same, but just with better food?
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:56:07] I think, I mean, it would really revolutionize the economy in so many ways, because, they're saying we need a just recovery or we need the COVID recovery or whatever we need to build back better. This is absolutely the way to build back better because if we want to regenerate our economy, we need more jobs.
They need to be good quality jobs, where people enjoy what they're doing, they can get outside and get fresh air, or creating something on a level where you're not doing the same monotonous job all the time. This is the opportunity to get more people employed on farms.
And because they're diverse and there's a lot more seasonality, they're not just stuck in these huge rows of things where it goes on forever. You can actually kind of chop and change around, and you have some flexibility to also part-time, do maybe a computer-based job or some writing or some art, whatever it is alongside what you're doing.
And then, all the product that is being sold you're creating so much of an economic multiplier because, if you've got like small scale farms doing all this diverse stuff, and it's all being sold locally, and then you've got loads of restaurants, cooking with that food and you've got market stalls, and then you've got tourists that can come and see all this amazing local stuff that's going on.
And then you've got the other people employed, doing fencing or building or whatever it is, that's all ancillary to agriculture. You know, it's like regeneration, it's, creating a vibrant fabric of economic opportunity, that's completely sustainable. It's not depleting the resources, it is actually adding to the resources we've got for future generations.
Adam Calo: [00:57:38] So the last question I have is I'm embedded in a research Institute and a lot of what I do and what my colleagues do is we respond to. Calls for funding, grants, that say the agricultural system is in crisis. The climate system is in crisis. Biodiversity is in crisis. Write a grant to figure out how to solve this, particularly in the food system.
What should an agriculturally focused research institute like the one I'm embedded in be studying? what kinds of questions should we be asking? What kinds of research should we be undertaking to align with that vision that you've suggested?
Jyoti Fernandes: [00:58:11] I think that the important thing is to be led by the needs of the movement, so there's a lot of like technical farmer-lead research that needs to be done.
And it'd be really great, if research institutes could actually work with farmers on the ground to develop research projects, directly responding to the things that need to be improved in our agricultural farming systems. It's very hard to find the R&D funding through the conventional agricultural R&D channels.
Because much of that is focused on corporate controlled agriculture where somebody makes a profit, but the sort of things like developing more blight resistant potatoes or better yielding heritage grain wheats, or you're looking at systems for recycling food waste or better nitrogen fixing things. Those kinds of technical things, doing farmer led research projects with farmers on the ground, and compiling those ground up solutions is really important, but then there's also the social side of things that needs to be done with which responds to the needs of the social movement and the political lobbying and knowledge sharing and that kind of thing.
Finding out where can academia and research intervene to provide key bits of evidence or to collate data that the social movement needs in order to make its case, or to improve their own knowledge systems or their own impactfulness or effectiveness.
And, I've always felt that it would be really good if research institutes had more of an advocacy role as well. There's so many papers and bits of research being done on this kind of work and not all of that is getting translated through to parliament, to DEFRA to places where a lot of the decisions making actually is actually happening.
And it'd be really useful if academics were also activists and took that knowledge and information to the places where it's going to make a real difference on how they think. Because I noticed like every time say the effort select committee puts out calls for evidence, research institutes should actually just put in submissions compiling some of the evidence that they've got on some of these areas directly to the effort.
So that committee who then gives it onto a government to make decisions or responding to calls for evidence from the agricultural ministries or just sending stuff straight to MPS and saying, look, we'd like to have a meeting with you about this. We're a bit concerned about how the R&D budget is going or what's happened with this. And you know, I think it could really make a big difference because evidence does have power.
The Land Worker's Alliance has just hired an agroecology research collaborator, or a facilitator and agriculture research collaboration facilitator to try and bring the needs of the movement for agroecology together with researchers that have the time and the ability to do this research.
So if you're a research researcher or a research institute that wants to get involved in that, there are a number of ways you can do that. You can contact the LWA and we'll connect you up. If it's a specific research project or if you can just generally, want to be connected and we've got research need that we want to put forward to you to see if you want to research it.
That's great. Also we could do some financial support for the agriculture research collaboration, because it would be really great if universities as part of their budget line made a firm commitment to this kind of democratic collaboration on agricultural research. And we found the means to carry it this on beyond the shelf life of the small grant that we got to try and start this collaboration up. In a way it's a method of working that should be systematically backed up by universities and how they function.
Adam Calo: [01:01:42] Thank you, Jyoti, I really enjoyed hearing your perspective on agroecology.
Jyoti Fernandes: [01:01:45] Great. Thank you.