These past months, Ruth and I have had the opportunity to participate in the activities of several centers for organic farming. These experiences have given us the opportunity to open ourselves up to a world we didn’t know much about, but which fascinated us. The world of agriculture is going through profound changes, slowly but surely. Through this article, I would like to present and compare the traditional and the emerging models, totally opposed in their values, mission and vision, both on the production side and the distribution aspects.

Industrial agriculture

During the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century, agriculture did not escape the ideology of productivism, characterized by the obsession for economic growth; a food revolution happened then, a transformation that created the current agro-industrial model. This system is controlled by large for-profit businesses and the mechanisms of production and distribution are inspired by the laws of economics to optimize short-term financial returns.

This system is based on a pyramidal organization of production, a characteristic of the industrial age. As this model continued to grow, the power became concentrated in the hands of a few players. Most of the land is now owned by a minority of manufacturers: Pareto’s law holds truth in most parts of the world where less than 20% of the owners control more than 80% of the lands. In France, there are now 50% less farmers than in the 1990s. Concerning distribution, power is also condensed in the hands of a few players. For example, in 14 member states of the European Union, the five largest retailers hold a combined market share of more than 60%; in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany it’s even worse, with the ratio exceeding 80%.

This model doesn’t seem to be working. As the expert in alternative farming Pierre Rabhi said:

“In this era of technoscience, heavy industries, limitless productivity and commodification for everything that can have a potential value, we only see the planet, plants and animals as financial resources. With the standardized degenerative and non-reproducible seeds, the patented genetically modified organisms, the chemical fertilizers, the synthetic pesticides, the monocultures, the excessive irrigation, the intensive mechanization, a deadly process is already underway.”

His analysis is pretty relevant: the agro-industrial system creates a lot of waste and fails to supply food equally to all of us. One third of our food is wasted even though nearly one billion people are struggling to find enough food to live. And these productivist methods have seriously damaged the planet: since 1970, we have lost more than 50% of the global biodiversity, soils have been depleted and groundwater tables contaminated. In factories, in order to lower production costs and increase margins, natural ingredients are replaced by chemical elements. Food becomes less nutritious and undermines the health of millions (We have never had so much obesity issues in history for example). Finally, from an energy point of view, the method is extremely inefficient: we need up to twelve fossil calories to grow one food calorie; the food is then transported over long distances to reach cities, releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Today, even in the most remote rural parts of Asia, we saw farmers working with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and often with genetically modified seeds. In Thailand for instance, 99% of the food comes from industrial agriculture. Short-term financial gain seems promising, but these chemicals are expensive and farmers fall into debt (sometimes dangerously) to acquire these “miracle solutions”. They lose some of their freedom at the same time: in this system the bargaining power of these “small” farmers is almost zero because the distribution channels and resale prices are determined in advance by multinationals. The farmers become dependent on financial markets’ fluctuations. Strategic decisions are made thousands of kilometers away from the place of production by “experts” who usually have a vision of agriculture that is far more speculative than philanthropic. Finally, chemicals impoverish the soil and a smooth transition to healthier production methods becomes nearly impossible: the land becomes dependent on fertilizers and yields would collapse if the chemicals aren’t sprayed any more. Because of this vicious cycle, nearly 400 000 farmers commit suicide worldwide every year, often because of significant debts.

A community revolution

The first mission of agriculture is not to produce but to feed, which is very different. On the five continents, citizens are gradually becoming aware of the madness of our agro-industrial model and have begun to re-organize themselves on a peer-to-peer basis. A new model is emerging, a decentralized system that promotes localized, organic and small-scale farming, and one that strengthens biodiversity as well as the work in community. Projects dealing with agroecology (an alliance of agricultural and ecological practices), permaculture (the creation of sustainable ecosystems by mimicking nature’s functioning) and agroforestry (the association of trees, crops and / or livestock on a same plot) are blooming. These techniques optimize the natural resources so farmers don’t need to use destructive industrial techniques. In the end, they even succeed in regenerating degraded soils.

More and more people grow their own food in their gardens or on shared plots and unite their efforts to buy products from local farmers. In the past decades a multitude of projects focused on localization and decentralization has emerged: community-supported agriculture, buying clubs, cooperatives, farmers’ markets and so on. Initiatives that aim at using the maximum of public spaces in cities to grow food are also spreading. Such is the example of the Incredible Edible project led by the city of Todmorden in the UK. Through all these movements, producers and consumers are regaining control over their food supply and reclaiming food sovereignty. In the process, they limit carbon emissions by avoiding unnecessary transportation while supporting their local economies, creating job opportunities and strengthening community resilience.

These processes are facilitated by the emerging collaborative technologies. The Growstuff and Prêter son jardin platforms have recently been developed to help people who want to produce food for themselves find free land. These online platforms have become catalyzers for building the new community-centric food systems. You may also be familiar with the Food Assembly or Open Food Network platforms for example. These online services help members become more transparent about their food supply chain and open new distribution channels for producers.

Localization does not mean that people in colder climates will be completely denied foreign products such as, let’s say, avocados or oranges. Rather, it means avoiding unnecessary transportation for the food that is the most consumed: 80% of food should be produced regionally. By changing this paradigm, communities are moving towards more sustainable and resilient food systems.

– Ruth is taking care of the young coffee plantations –

Contrary to common belief, buying organic food does not necessarily mean participating in building a new model. For example, many organic farmers keep working with methods that are similar to those used by conventional peasants. Certainly they do not use any petrochemical-based fertilizers, but they still focus on intensive farming methods that do not promote biodiversity, rely on heavy mechanization and sell their products to the main traditional retailers. Therefore, the revolution is not about adding a green patch on the current dominant destructive food system, but to create a new one. And we will not solve the problems by waiting for the agro-business giants to change their practices. If we want more sustainable food systems that take care of the planet and all living things, we need to take responsibility and work together in developing these emerging models. The transition has already begun; whether you are a producer or a consumer, your contribution is needed to strengthen it!