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17 Farmers Doing Much More Than Putting Food on Your Plate

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The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that there are more than 570 million farms in the world. Behind each farm—at least 90 percent of which are considered family farms—is a farmer or team of farmers, collectively responsible for growing the world's food. Food Tank is highlighting farmer heroes who go beyond cultivating the land, acting as employers, experimenters, keepers of tradition and contributors to healthy lifestyles.

Across the U.S. and the globe, farmer heroes like Mary Seton Corboy are advocating for sustainability, ecological balance, preservation of traditions and much more. Photo credit: Jennifer Kourkounis

Family farmers are key players in job creation and healthy economies, supplying jobs to millions and boosting local markets that are vulnerable to difficult climate and financial hardship, particularly because of the disproportionate amount of work required given the financial returns in farming. Farmers aren't just food producers—they're business women and men, they're teachers in their communities, they're innovators and inventors and they're stewards of the land who deserve to be recognized for the ecosystem services they provide that benefit us all.

Meet 17 farmer heroes from around the world, working for innovation, sustainability, the environment and local economy, all doing more than putting food on our plates.

1. Janki Bai (Madhya Pradesh, India): In the Madhya Pradesh state of India, Janki Bai sacrificed an acre of her semi-arid land for the digging of a watershed pond in 2013—a significant economic project for the community. Not only could she begin to grow rice on her land, but the pond, built with the help of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics quickly began to benefit farms within a half a kilometer of hers. Today, her family has increased financial stability and her community has a more reliable water source.

2. Mary Seton Corboy (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.): Founder of Greensgrow, a Philadelphia urban agriculture non-profit, in 1998 on the former site of a galvanized steel plant. Greensgrow has since become a model for sustainable food systems in Philadelphia and beyond. With CSAs, farmers markets and more, Corboy is heralded for not only growing vegetables, but changing attitudes around food.

3. Ibrahima Coulibaly (Mali): Chosen as one of six Special Ambassadors for the International Year of Family Farming in 2014, Ibrahima Coulibaly is the president of the National Coordination of Farmers' Organizations of Mali (CNOP). Under Coulibaly, CNOP has contributed to the first agricultural policy in Mali focused on family farming. CNOP has projects for food security, natural resource management and for strengthening farmers' organizational and financial capacity.

4. Jess & Matt Fealy (Mareeba, Queensland, Australia): In 2012, the Fealys moved across Australia to begin lives as family farmers. In Australia, 99 percent of farms are family farms. Their farm, Blue Sky Produce, makes them proud to contribute to their rural community. They are grateful for the opportunity to use a variety of skills: “one day you're repairing a wiring harness on the tractor, the next you're stripping down a chainsaw, the day after that you're pouring over soil and leaf analysis," the Fealys said.

5. Bryan Gilvesy (Tillsonburg, Ontario, Canada): Originally a tobacco farmer, Bryan Gilvesy has become an ecological agriculture champion throughout Ontario with his sustainable cattle ranching operation, Y U Ranch. He works with Alternative Land Use Services, which supports farmers in restoring and preserving natural resources throughout Canada.

6. Thomas Harttung (Jutland, Denmark): Thomas Harttung is the Co-Founder of Aarstiderne an organic produce and meal box delivery program that now supplies more than 45,000 customers across Denmark and Sweden with fresh, nutritious food. He serves as the Chair of the Trustees for the Sustainable Food Trust, a nonprofit committed to building a food system that causes the least possible harm to humans and the environment. Harttung is also on the board of the Nordic Food Lab which is dedicated to exploring food diversity and potential in the Nordic region. He has an 18,000 acre biodynamic estate in Jutland.

7. Larry Jacobs (California, U.S.): Larry Jacobs suffered illness from pesticide exposure as a young farmer and dedicated his work to pesticide-free farming. Jacobs Farm, now 35 years old and the largest organic culinary herb provider in the U.S., won a notable lawsuit over a pesticide applicator whose application on a nearby field found its way to Jacobs's dill crop. Jacobs and his wife, Sandra Belin, have also helped a cooperative of family farmers in Baja California, Mexico, form an organic growers association called Del Cabo, which now imports millions of pounds of organic produce into U.S. markets.

8. Rahab Kithumbi (Ng'arua Division, Laikipia West, Kenya): Rahab Kithumbi began her research with observation of poultry in a farmer-to-farmer exchange visit. After the visit, Kithumbi experimented with rearing chickens and turkeys and found an increased hatching rate when reared together. Turkeys also provide food for her family and more manure than chickens, useful as fertilizer. She displayed her innovation in 2013, becoming one of the first participants in Prolinnova's Farmer Innovation Fair in Nairobi and earning the name “Mama Turkey" in her village.

9. Robert Morris & Gigi Pontejos-Morris (Padre Garcia, Batangas, Philippines): In 2005, Robert and Gigi Morris bought a traditional mango orchard in the Philippines and named it MoCa Family Farm. Certified for agri-tourism, MoCa is a “blueprint for family farming," lending insight into the business of farming. With “several small-scale business operations running at the same time," MoCa has incorporated specialty crops, niche market and branded farm products, farm accessory item sales and hospitality services. The Morris family promotes farm-to-fork and local food.

10. Edward Mukiibi (Uganda): Edward Mukiibi is the current vice president of Slow Food International. Living in Uganda, Mukiibi has experience developing community and school gardens in Africa through his Developing Innovations in School and Community Gardens project and sees great potential in Slow Food International's 10,000 Gardens in Africa goal. Mukiibi is working “to promote our own food gastronomy, to strengthen traditional food systems and communities and to defend African biodiversity."

11. Kathy Ozer (Washington, DC, U.S.): Kathy Ozer is the executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition, where she has worked in farm policy for more than two decades. Ozer dedicates her work to ensuring that “family farmers and fishers can not only survive but thrive in order to support themselves, their families and their communities." She has expertise in the global credit and food crisis and the dairy farmer crisis.

12. Denise O'Brien (Ames, Iowa, U.S.): An Iowa native, Denise O'Brien founded the Women Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) in 1997 to coordinate information and networking for women as supporters of sustainable agriculture and healthy food systems. WFAN provides women with agricultural educational opportunities, an apprenticeship program, as well as tools for serving as political advocates for agriculture. O'Brien farms and raises organic chickens and turkeys with her husband on their farm in southwest Iowa.

13. Bernie Prince (Washington, DC, U.S.): Bernie Prince is the co-founder of FRESHFARM Markets, an operator of producer-only farmers markets in the Chesapeake Bay region. Since 1997, FRESHFARM has been helping to provide opportunities for local farmers and has branched into other areas, like the FoodPrints nutrition and healthy eating education program for elementary school children. After retiring as co-executive director of FRESHFARM in 2015, Prince now spends more time on her 10-acre farm in Georgetown, Delaware, where she and her husband grow organic fruit, vegetables and flowers.

14. Flora Cañete de Sanabria & Edita de Jesús Franco de Sanabria (Caaguazú District, Paraguay): Once the only women members of the Paraguayan Ministry of Agriculture's Sustainable Rural Development Project committee of rural producers, Flora Cañete de Sanabria and Edita de Jesús Franco de Sanabria have influenced rural development and agriculture decisions in Paraguay and increased the involvement and voice of women in local grass-roots projects.

15. Lindsey Lusher Shute (Hudson, New York, U.S.): National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) Executive Director Lindsey Lusher Shute is a young farmer with a background in policy. NYFC believes in affordable land for farmers, sustainable practices, fair labor, farmer-to-farmer training, diversity among farmers and independent family farms for sustaining young farmers in the future. Its awareness campaigns include topics like student loans, land access, water conservation and federal policy. The White House named Shute a Champion of Change in 2014. She has a particular interest in structural issues in family farming.

16. Mike & Gayle Thorpe (East Aurora, New York, U.S.): The Thorpes run two organic family farms—one in New York and the other in Florida—with an more than 540-member CSA. The Thorpe family began farming in 2001, supporting a 42-member CSA, always with a “[belief] in nurturing the soil" by using well-composted material for the healthiest nutrient balance. The Thorpe farms are successful examples of true family farm CSA.

17. Arkhiben Vankar (Gujarat, India): Arkhiben Vankar is known as The Pesticide Lady in her community in the Indian state of Gujarat. She developed a toxin-free pesticide from herbal plants that has shown to be as effective as chemicals on pests like mealy bugs, white flies and aphids. Not only is this pesticide safer for farmers, but Vankar's pesticide is cost-effective too.

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Brazilians living in The Netherlands organized a demonstration in solidarity with rainforest protectors and against the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 1 in The Hague, Netherlands. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Tara Smith

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.

Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.

Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.

From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.

Historical Precedent

Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.

Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.

Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?

Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.

When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.

The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.

The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.

But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.

Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

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