Alison facilitates the development and stewardship of WhyHunger's organizational vision, strategy and programmatic implementation through its Grassroots Action Network, National Hunger Hotline, Food Security Learning Center and Global Movements programs.
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Reporting by Saulo Araujo
Houses without roofs and trees without leaves is all the eyes could see in the week following the devastation that Hurricane Maria wrought. The Category 5 storm with 150+ miles per hour winds was the strongest to hit the island in over a century, leaving the entire population without water and power. Weeks later 3 million people are still without electricity.
Up in the mountains, small-scale farmers lost their crops, and their ability to feed their families was abruptly leveled. La Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica (Boricuá) a grassroots organization of more than 100 families made up of small-scale farmers, farmworkers and organizers across Puerto Rico and the islands of Vieques & Culebra, continues working to communicate with their members in rural areas and to assess the damages. Boricua has made great progress in the last three decades to organize and support farmers, facilitate farmer-to-farmer trainings, and build solidarity nationally and globally. They are helping to fuel agroecology on the island, bringing locally grown, nutritious food to their communities and to market.
International Women's Day is celebrated each year around the world on March 8. That inaugural date is linked to a women's anti-war protest in Russia known as "Bread and Peace" in the early 1900's. It was quickly replicated around Europe in the following year as women took to the streets, embracing the indisputable connection between hunger and war, expressing solidarity with women's peace movements around the world and advocating for their countries' governments to end armed conflict.
Early on rallies and protests by women were firmly established as a mechanism for building international solidarity around a feminist agenda. And the echoes of that mechanism are still reverberating today, as millions of people around the world took to the streets in January of this year (notably the largest protest in U.S. history) to remind world leaders, especially the newly elected U.S. president, that women's rights are still human rights.
Magha Garcia is an eco-farmer and environmental activist. She is a member of the Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica, USA.
Today, International Women's Day is recognized and celebrated in nearly every country—from villages to cities, from the Global South to the Global North—and has taken on a variety of hues and is realized in a variety of ways—protests, song and dance, conferences, shared meals and conversation and volunteer work.
This March 8, in honor of International Women's Day, women organizers from around the world are amplifying their voices in resistance to the structural forms of violence against the Earth, all forms of life and especially women, as a result of the unmitigated growth of industrial agriculture and international agribusiness.
Industrial agriculture is the dominant form of food production in the U.S and, increasingly, around the world. The impacts of industrial agriculture on our health and our living environment are well-documented: pesticide toxicity, water pollution, processed food, antibiotic resistance, worker injustice.
Women, who are arguably the most responsible for food moving from field to table, have the most at stake. Women are responsible for 60 to 80 percent of food production in the Global South. And the share of U.S. farms operated by women has tripled in the past three decades. Official reports tell us that there are nearly 1 million women farmers in the U.S.—a vast underreporting when small-scale, subsistence and urban farms are added to that pool. We also know that women represent more than 43 percent of the agricultural workforce in the Global South and that 50 percent of food chain workers in the U.S. are women. And, according to the United Nations, women and girls around the world disproportionately suffer from hunger and food insecurity. Conservative estimates indicate that 60 percent of chronically hungry people are women and girls.
The statistics are important in understanding the vast impacts of industrial agriculture on women and their families, as well as the role women play in resisting those impacts. But it's the stories that women tell—their words and images—that bring to life the ways in which industrial agriculture and international agribusiness are structural forms of violence against the Earth, all peoples and especially women. It's not only the contamination of their bodies by agrochemicals—it's also the forced displacement, the division of families and the loss of loved ones that results from migration and land conflicts. It is the denial of the right to food—food that is accessible, both economically and physically, adequate in nutrition, affordable and sustainable in both production and consumption. It is the denial of the right to healthy soil and clean water for food production. It is the denial of the right to sustain one's family with dignity.
It is imperative; therefore, that women's voices are at the center of the debate about how to dismantle the current food regime and replace it with food sovereignty and agroecology. Though not yet mainstream concepts or practices, the work of grassroots organizations is beginning to result in a scaling out of agroecology in both rural and urban areas. And the leadership of women has played a significant role in making that possible.
In honor of International Women's Day, WhyHunger launched a new publication, Through Her Eyes: The Struggle for Food Sovereignty, which offers excerpts of interviews and dialogue with women organizers and food producers from the U.S. and globally in response to the question, "What are the impacts of industrial food and farming on women and how are women organizing to build an alternative?" This publication amplifies the voices of women who are on the frontlines in the ongoing struggle for land, water, localized economies and a world free of violence and hunger. It emerges in a moment when arguably a new world order is beginning to take shape.
In the face of economic and social systems in crisis and deepening inequality the world over, the struggle for food sovereignty, agroecology and climate justice is a struggle for more than just the right to food. It is a struggle for a new world order that centers the rights of women to live freely and safely and to lead in envisioning and crafting a world void of hunger and violence. This International Women's Day, join WhyHunger by standing in solidarity with women whose lived experiences are forging the path to food sovereignty.
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Hunger and food insecurity affect more than 1 in 7 Americans. Those facing hunger are three times more likely to have diet-related health problems like diabetes or hypertension. Yet, far too often the solutions to help these individuals typically offered, funded and advocated for by our society address the issues of hunger and health as separate afflictions.
WhyHunger is a global grassroots support organization working with community leaders and grassroots organizations across the U.S. who are working at the intersections of health and hunger to address the complex and interconnected social determinants that leave far too many Americans hungry and sick.
We're excited to share this video from WhyHunger highlighting the innovative programs at Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger in Far Rockaway, New York, where VeggieRX programs, community farm stands, mobile pantries serving farm fresh produce and youth leadership programs intersect.
Sam Josephs, a youth leader in the Green Teens Program, serves as a mentor to her peers on the urban farm. She said, "Here in Rockaway, you don't have access to the things that you need … When you have a farm, you're producing your own food, you're watching out for your own health." Sam's testimony speaks to the value of programs like this and the importance of local, community-controlled food systems in fighting diet related illnesses.
Watch this inspiring video to learn more about Sam and BSCAH's programs:
Thank you Sam and Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger for the work that you do and for sharing this story with us!
The Kaqchikel women—one of 23 Mayan cultures in Guatemala—are fighting to protect their collective intellectual property rights to their traditional Mayan textile designs. Led by the Women's Association for the Development of Saquatepéquez (AFEDES), an organization with a membership of more than 1,000 indigenous women and supported by an association of Mayan lawyers, hundreds of Kaqchikel women artisans of all ages took their case to the Constitutional Court in Guatemala City this past June. They are asking the court to push the Guatemalan Congress to enact new laws that would protect their intellectual property rights over the intricate woven designs that have become ubiquitous in the tourist markets and are a direct reproduction of their heritage and cultural identity.
Reproduction of the Mayan textiles has become increasingly controlled by just a handful of companies that hire Mayan women and pay them very little (around 10 quetzales or just more than one U.S. dollar) for a design that might take days, even weeks, to weave. The products are sold at a much higher cost to tourists and textile buyers around the world. But this isn't just an economic issue to the indigenous women who flooded the courts this spring. Dressed in their traditional hand-woven blouses known as huipils—each design emblematic of the life in their particular community and worn every day by these women and their children as they work, play and go to school—they argued that the real value of these iconic textiles is the preservation of a way of life and the protection of a living culture.
AFEDES Director Milivan Aspuac.
In a recent field visit to accompany and support AFEDES and their efforts on behalf of indigenous women's social, cultural and economic rights, the AFEDES' Director Milivan Aspuac explained to me and my colleagues from WhyHunger that at its core their struggle is to protect the very heartbeat of Life. According to the Mayan Cosmovision, everything is connected and human beings are charged with engendering reciprocity, solidarity and harmony in all of the elements—physical and spiritual, matter and energy—that make up Life. The story of Life and the principles of their Cosmovision are revealed in the designs of the vibrantly-colored textiles that women have been creating for thousands of years—each one unique and representative of a particular time and value-system of a particular community. Protecting and preserving the way in which these designs are reproduced and the huipils worn (from adult to child, from generation to generation, from community to community) is to protect, repair and preserve Life.
There is much Life to repair in this mountainous region of Guatemala in the department of Saquatépequez, home to one of the tourist meccas in Central America, the carefully restored colonial city of Antigua which is a designated World Heritage Site. Since 1993, the AFEDES members have been organizing indigenous women throughout this state to join them in their efforts to envision a way of life that aligns with their Mayan Cosmovision while not wholly rejecting a modern world. Decolonization and reclamation is at the heart of their strategy to confront the gender, economic and racial oppression that has left them in extreme poverty and is slowing appropriating their culture. We saw evidence of the strategic ways in which AFEDES confronts oppression that reflect the holistic, complex and at times heartbreaking circumstances of women's lives. As Milvian explained: "AFEDES can't work only with food sovereignty or economic development or violence against women—we have to work on all these fronts because that's the reality of women's lives." The struggle is arduous, the losses are many, but with each win against the oppression that the women of AFEDES describe as patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism, one more strand of colorful cotton can be woven back in to their story.
Resisting Patriarchy: Self-Worth and Power in Numbers
The struggle to end violence against Mayan women in the village of San José Pacul is at the foundation of the organizing work that AFEDES does in this village and dozens of others just like it. Angelina Aspuac, one of AFEDES' organizers, tells us, "The main issue here is machismo." Sofia's story, who Angelina introduced us to, is representative, she said, of many of the Mayan women who have now come together to pool resources, share assets and work together to collectively improve the quality of their lives. "I never thought of becoming a wealthy woman," Sofia said. "The idea at the start was to start a community bank to make small loans." She explains that the men stepped in soon after and started to dictate what the loans should be used for and yet the women were still held responsible for paying the money back. Not alone in her predicament, Sofia's husband would confiscate the loan money she had intended to use for investing in a small cottage industry to make enough money to send her kids to school. She endured regular beatings and became isolated when he forbid her to attend any more of the women's meetings. Since she couldn't pay back her loans, she couldn't bring home any more funds for him to spend or invest in his own failed ventures. Eventually Sofia made the very difficult decision to separate from her husband despite the fear of retreating further into poverty. She left their home with their seven children and no money. She was emboldened to take her life in her own hands, she said, because she had the support of other women in AFEDES.
Dona Sofia and children: ""I never thought that we could become a community of strong women, with our heads full of ideas. I may not have any money but I am a wealthy woman because of my ties to AFEDES."
AFEDES has established "safe houses" for women when they report domestic abuse to the local police and their claims are dismissed. The police will often say the beatings are justified because the women did not prepare good food or did something else that provoked their husbands. AFEDES has become a space that abused women can retreat to for emotional and legal support. AFEDES is stretched thin in their attempt to attend to all the women who show up on the doorstep of the safe house. The organization does not yet have enough legal or counseling capacity to thoroughly support each woman's case. But they can listen to every woman's story with integrity and compassion and connect them to other women in their community for support. This is the first and often the most important intervention, one of the AFEDES organizers named Justiniana told us. Learning to value themselves and the other women in the community is a core aspect of the consciousness-raising work that AFEDES brings to the organized groups in each village. The issue of self-care is a part of that. "It's important that women learn to take care of themselves so they have the energy to do the work of preserving and protecting Life," she explained.
As colonialism ushered in western values, women began to be seen only as useful for work in the kitchen and the fields. Because of AFEDES the women have been able to organize, receive training in agroecology and homeopathy, learn a new trade and participate in leadership development. They recognize their own value and now their families and communities recognize their value. Sofia concluded her triumphant story with the following: "I never thought that we could become a community of strong women, with our heads full of ideas. I may not have any money but I am a wealthy woman because of my ties to AFEDES. I don't have a lot of income, but I have a community and my children are going to school. My children are behind me and supporting me. My children know that I have skills, knowledge and value. Because my children know that I have value, they come to recognize their own value and their own power."
Resisting the Capitalist Extraction of Natural Resources: Two Competing Ideologies
In the village of El Réjon—where steep and mostly denuded hillsides are lined with homes pieced together out of pallets, discarded tin and other found materials and the gullies are lined with the debris of packaged and processed food items—the Mayan people are facing pressure from the federal government to allow a mega mining operation. If the mountains surrounding their village are opened up for gold prospecting and extraction, families would have to abandon their land, their homes and their community. As in many other cases in Guatemala, these mining operations leave a path of destruction in their wake—contaminated water and soil, loss of forest, as well as illness and broken lives. For the moment, the local government is heeding the demands of the community and has declared they will not allow mining, that they will resist the corporations if they come. This is testament to efforts of the women of El Réjon who have organized themselves with the support of AFEDES. These women successfully impeached the previous mayor because he supported the mining and tried to do the bidding of the federal government and corporations who were in their back pocket.
AFEDES member in El Rejon saving seeds: "Women in this community are used to people giving them food; they don't realize that they have the capacity to provide food for themselves."
The struggle against mining is a battle over two competing ideologies, according to the Mayan women in the village. The prospectors and multinational companies who reap the profits represent one ideology. Their mentality is one of economic expansion—let's get the gold out of the mountains and sell it. Making profit in the short-term is their myopic aim. The women of AFEDES also fear that local families will not benefit from that profit as it will be extracted right alongside the gold. The Mayan ideology, as explained by the women of El Réjon, is in stark contrast. "The mountain is like a body. If you take the gold out of the mountain, you are exploiting the Life and spirit of the mountain. To us, the mountain is a living being, a part of our living culture, not just a big pile of dirt. The mountains have bones—the minerals contained there—and if you exploit that for money, then you're killing the Life of the mountain."
Resisting Colonialism: Reclaiming Health and Agriculture Through Mayan Foodways
For the Mayans, mining and other extractive industries are the continuous thread of colonialism. 524 years of colonialism to be exact. Five centuries of exploitation and hunger. According to the World Food Program, Guatemala has the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world and the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean. Those who suffer most from hunger and poverty are young, rural and indigenous. Chronic malnutrition among indigenous children is close to 70 percent. Paradoxically, 70 percent of people who are hungry in Guatemala used to be food producers. More than 50 percent of the population in Saquatépequez is malnourished, meaning that they do not have access to enough calories or nutritious food. Women and children are most affected. Traditionally, men are fed first, children second and then women. Often when the rest of the family is fed, the women are left only with tortillas.
In all of the villages throughout Saquatépequez where Mayan people live, diets have suffered as processed foods have become more available. Charity is the norm in dealing with hunger; and agriculture has become focused on mono-crops such as coffee, sugar, bananas and cotton for market and export. "During an election year, the politicians come and promise many things—even a bag of food. But now that we're organized," said a Mayan woman farmer in the village of Pachali, "they can't get away with these promises." Instead the women are calling for secure land access, a ban on GMO crops and support for seed saving to grow a diversity of indigenous foods. Diets used to be richer and more balanced in our ancestor's time, Milivian explains. AFEDES is working hard to recuperate that. "Some say the future has already passed and our ancestors lived better than we do now." AFEDES is not alone in this struggle. They are one organization among 32 women-led organizations that make up the national women's sector that are fighting to reclaim and re-energize Mayan food production and diets, as one part of their living culture.
The women of AFEDES have rejected agrochemicals and the pressure from the government and multinational companies to grow mono-crops for export. The pressure has escalated, the women of AFEDES explain, over the past two decades. "We are 20 years into this situation and there is more hunger and malnutrition than ever before." Many farmers lost their land because they got into cash crops. The story is the same the world over: Farmers were promised economic prosperity if they grew a certain kind of crop using modern seeds and agrichemicals. They had to borrow money to purchase all of the inputs as dictated by the agricultural "experts." Inevitably, the crops failed after a couple of years when the soil became depleted and/or the market shifted, so they were forced to sell their land to get rid of the debt. For this reason, AFEDES is promoting their traditional milpa or maize field. As indigenous peoples throughout the Americas have done, the thriving milaps we visited included a triumvirate of plants—corn, beans and squash—that work together in mutual support to ensure that there is a variety of food throughout the growing season that also leaves the soil replenished and ready for planting anew.
While in Pachali we visited a farmer by the name of Dona Francisca. In a half-acre plot she was growing carrots, onions and spinach in addition to participating in a traditional milpa with other women in the community. Dona Francisca explained why she has participated in a community of AFEDES women recuperating Mayan foodways for the past thirteen years. "Women in this community are used to people giving them food; they don't realize that they have the capacity to provide food for themselves."
Down the road in El Réjon we met with a woman who is growing food and medicinal plants mainly for herself and her children. She recounts her recent past, describing herself as a woman who was often sick and always depressed. She couldn't afford to go to the doctor. Two women in the community who were concerned came to talk to her and they encouraged her to join their small AFEDES group that was just forming. Thanks to her AFEDES companeras, she said, she started learning to grow medicinal plants and produce food on small plots of land around her home and in containers right in front of her house. She now has chicks and will soon have eggs to eat. She has even begun teaching other women to use medicinal plants. She is not yet earning income, she said, but her health has returned, she is engaged in the community and is saving money by not having to purchase all of her food or medicine.
Natural medicine—or medicines derived from plants—according to the Mayan people, is a critical aspect of their living culture. The Mayans believe that every plant has a spirit and that contained in each plant is both matter and energy. So, harvesting the plant for medicine requires understanding and having faith in the energy contained in the living plants.
Striding Towards Sovereignty
Sovereignty is at the heart of what AFEDES is aiming to accomplish—the right to self-govern, the right to hold on to their stories and values as revealed in the designs on their huipils, the right to land to establish milpas and seed saving practices to ensure future harvests, the right to the dignity that comes in growing healthy food to feed their families and heal their bodies and minds, the right to reproduce the living culture of the Mayan people, the right to protect the symbiotic relationship between matter and energy.
Justiniana, long-time member and current leader in AFEDES, wearing her hand-woven belt.
The symbol that AFEDES has chosen to represent itself is a belt woven with a design in the tradition of the Mayan huipils. The belt is multi-colored—each vibrant strand of cotton beautiful on its own but complex and whole when woven together. The various strands crafted into a design represent the diversity of the Mayan people, their languages and practices, as well as the diversity and strength of the women of Saquatépequez. Each small ball formed by tying strands of the cotton at the end of the belt fringe represents a different community, a different skill and a different capacity. As Milvian said: "We grew up in this organization. Our mothers brought us here. It has been our school of life."
Two organizations have been selected to receive the 7th annual Food Sovereignty Prize this year in an event that will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 14, in Des Moines, Iowa. On the heels of a visible resurgence of the struggle for black liberation made visible by a spate of police brutality against Black Americans, the two winners this year demonstrate a commitment to solidarity with Black people's struggles globally. The award—honoring grassroots organizations that uphold the right of all communities to democratically determine their own food systems and who connect their struggles for food sovereignty to those of communities fighting for self-determination around the world—goes to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives headquartered in Georgia and the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras.
Ben Burkett is 4th generation farmer in Mississippi and organizer with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Photo credit: Food Sovereignty Prize
“Everything we're about is food sovereignty, the rights of every individual on Earth to wholesome food, clean water, air and land," says Ben Burkett, a 4th generation farmer in Mississippi and organizer with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
The federation is a landmark membership-based institution keeping family farmers (90 percent of their members are black families) on the land in 13 Southern states since 1967. African-American farmers are nearly extinct: Black-owned farms have fallen from 14 percent to 1 percent in less than 100 years. Emerging from the Civil Rights Movement, the federation promotes land-based cooperatives, provides training in sustainable agriculture and organizes farmers to raise their voices in local courthouses, in state legislature and in the halls of the U.S. Congress.
The Afro-indigenous people of Honduras began organizing in 1979 to protect the fishing and farming rights of Garifuna communities along the Atlantic Coast. Tourism, land grabs for agro-fuels and climate change define their current struggles. Prioritizing the leadership of Afro-descendant women and youth, the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras has built a movement that seeks to protect the natural resources which enables them to feed themselves and their communities. As important and deeply connected to their struggle for self-determination is their efforts to protect the culture of the Garifuna people. According to Coordinator Miriam Miranda: “Our liberation starts because we can plant what we eat. This is food sovereignty."
The Food Sovereignty prize was first awarded in 2009 as an alternative to the World Food Prize (also taking place this week in Des Moines, Iowa) founded by “the father of the Green Revolution," the late Norman Borlaug. While the World Food Prize emphasizes increased production through technology, the Food Sovereignty Prize, awarded by the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, champions solutions coming from those most impacted by the injustices of the global food system. In honoring those who are organizing to reclaim local food systems, the commons and community self-determination, the Food Sovereignty Prize affirms that nothing short of the true democratization of our food system will enable us to end hunger once and for all.
The Food Sovereignty Prize is a small but growing effort to call attention to those who struggle every day—not in the laboratories, but in the fields and on the land to produce food while protecting natural resources. As Ben points out, corporate control of every aspect of the food system is being met with an intensification of these grassroots efforts. “Our system of growing food is heavy, heavy, heavy dependent on petro-chemicals, on inorganic compounds … and it takes too much control out of the local community. Now, [this corporate-controlled system] might last for several decades, but in the end it won't last."
Those same companies Ben references are the ones who are both funding and often receiving the World Food Prize each year. The event has become a megaphone for primarily corporate interests in our global food system. The list of sponsors is a veritable line-up of the biggest and most influential. Monsanto, ADM, Bayer Cropscience, Syngenta, Walmart, Pepsico, Dupont—all put up significant dollars to back the prize and spread the message that the scaling up of laboratory-derived solutions (GMOs, patented seeds, petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, mono-cropping) is the only thing that will feed our growing population.
The Food Sovereignty Prize, by contrast, honors those grassroots leaders that tell a more compelling story of the true solution to climate change and hunger, backed by years of experiential knowledge rooted in a symbiotic partnership with the Earth and her resources that sustain us. The Food Sovereignty Prize helps us amplify the voices of these stewards of land, community, culture and democracy. It helps us tell the world that the lives of Black farmers matter to all of us who want to see an end to the exploitation of people, our environment and hunger.
Join us on Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. CST in Des Moines, Iowa for the Food Sovereignty Prize ceremony. You can watch it via below or follow the conversation with #FoodSovPrize.
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It is late-July. A car drops us off at the edge of a patchwork of agricultural fields on the outskirts of Mysore in a village called Bannur in the South Indian State of Karnataka. Despite the oppressive heat, the women clad in colorful saris, and the sacred cows—more plentiful than potholes—artfully dodged by cars and motorbikes every 20 yards or so along the road, I am reminded of the Midwest.
No matter that there is no corn or soybean in sight and that parcels measure 5 acres instead of 400. It's the neatly defined fields in perfect rectangles that resemble what you see when you fly over Iowa. The field adjacent to the road where the car left us boasts a weed-free plantation of banana trees, the one next to it is lined with straight rows of sugar cane and the one just across the walking path that traverses the fields is recently sown with rice.
We walk a good half mile to the farm we're meant to visit. Leading the way are seven men on motor bikes ranging in age from 30 to 60, wearing flip flops and fabric the size of table cloths wrapped around their waists in typical farmer garb, at least two of them are boasting bright green scarves thrown over their shoulders, symbolic of the social movement they're connected to that promotes “natural farming."
We're headed to Krishnappa's farm, a member of this green-scarf social movement referred to as KRRS, or the Karnataka Rayja Raitha Sangha. Founded in 1980, this peasant farmers' movement is rooted in Gandhi's philosophy of swadeshi, or home economy, meaning that political and economic power can only be just when it is governed by democratic assemblies organized at the village level. KRRS believes that by relying on a localized economy (local production and consumption) for village needs, everyone has the opportunity and the resources to work and create a dignified life.
As we approach the edge of Krishnappa's 5-acre farm, the outward appearance is strikingly distinct from his neighbors' parcels. It seems to be overgrown by weeds and unruly plants of varying heights defending their access to sun and water. The parcel looks like an island of chaos floating next to the neat rows of plantings all around us, waiting stoically and well-behaved on scorched earth for the rains to come. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Within minutes of stepping onto Krishnappa's land, we become privy to an intricately designed coupling of various food-producing plants and intercroppings that bloom into a veritable food forest—the healthiest and most productive land we've seen in India during our short sojourn.
Krishnappa, the proverbial “poster child" of Zero-Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), has been growing food according to this straightforward yet scientifically-based method for 15 years. KRRS credits Zero-Budget Natural Farming from saving Krishnappa from the fate of so many other farmers that were featured on the front page of the The India Times almost daily during the time we were in Karnataka. These farmers had tragically succumbed to suicide in the face of unrelenting debt. Farmers in India have been forced to take on high-interest rate loans to purchase seeds and chemical inputs from banks that are profiting from agribusinesses' strategy of dictating the methods necessary to produce cash crops such as rice and sugar cane. Like the more than 3,000 farmers in India who have committed suicide in the past three years (50 suicides in 15 days in July of this year in the state of Karnataka alone) Krishnappa was feeling trapped and impotent, a victim to the whims of the loan sharks and unpredictable markets that either paid nothing or too little to make a dent in debt mounting season after season, let alone feed his family.
It was about this time that Krishnappa learned of a workshop to teach farmers an alternative to the chemical-based mono-cropping techniques, a central feature of the Green Revolution that has led to a decline in the total number of small landholders, an increase in the costs associated with farming, and a decrease in the amount of land used to grow food for local consumption in favor of cash crops. The Green Revolution has proven to be a false panacea, whose promise of a reduction of hunger and poverty was short lived. What piqued Krishnappa's interest the most in this workshop was the term “zero-input." Was it possible to recover the health and productivity of his small but adequate parcel without investing in inputs that required cash or loans? The workshop was sponsored by KRRS and was an introduction to Zero-Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), given by the pioneer of this methodology, Subhash Palekar. The two main features of ZBNF are:
- Zero-Budget: Nothing has to be purchased outside of the farm; no upfront investment is required in patented seeds, chemical fertilizers or pesticides. All you need is one local breed of cow.
- Jeevamrutha: Treatments for seeds and crops are made with a culture produced using your cow's dung and urine as the main compounds.
According to Krishnappa, there were more than 1,000 farmers at the start of this week-long intensive workshop he attended some 15 years ago. By the end of the week, there were only 13 farmers left standing and only one of those farmers was willing to take the risk of implementing ZBNF. That was Krishnappa, who now hosts regular learning exchanges on his land as word has spread through radio, newspaper and word-of-mouth about his ability to produce a multiplicity of food crops in soil that is dark and rich with microbes, requires zero cash investments and needs virtually no outside labor.
The five farmers that accompanied us on the farm tour that day, in addition to Krishnappa and a fellow ZBNF farmer, were—like us—walking his farm for the first time, too. They were fellow farmers who told us they were looking for a way out of the debts they were facing, the chemicals they and their family members were routinely exposed to, the depletion of the soils on their land and for a life that afforded them the dignity to feed their families.
There are currently close to 1,000 farmers growing with the ZBNF method in Karnataka and 100 in Krishnappa's district alone. It was easy to see why Krishnappa has become a walking-talking advertisement for Zero-Budget Natural Farming. If anyone could sell the virtues of meticulously collecting and culturing cow dung and urine into liquid gold that incites the Earth to fulfill its promise of a healthy bounty, it would be the charming and loquacious farmer we encountered that day who kept us on his farm scribbling furiously in our notebooks for hours until the sun set on the patchwork of fields around us.
“Food and income in three months, Sir!" became Krishnappa's enthusiastic mantra throughout the day. Without the proof of the bounty of fruits, vegetables and fibers we witnessed as we walked the entire length of his 5-acre farm, it would be easy to confuse him for a snake oil salesman. I don't even own one acre of land in the U.S., let alone India, and I was ready to acquire my own local breed of cow and start cultivating. I was ready to sign on the dotted line and become a ZBNF disciple that very afternoon!
The longer we walked and talked; the more times we knelt to touch, small and even taste the soil; the more birds and butterflies we encountered; the more we scanned the land from the soil to the sky—from the microbes to the earthworm to the tubers, to the beans, to the sugar cane, to the limes and finally to the coconuts ripening in the top of the trees—the less “plug-and-play" this ZBNF method became.
Productivity isn't just dependent on the jeevemrutha, it turns out. The farmer's approach to caring for the land and his or her capacity to learn is equally critical to success. And, according to Krishnappa, learning means gathering knowledge through failures and then sharing those lessons. It is important to assume ignorance in the face of the natural world, he said, so as to be able to ultimately comprehend and trust in scientific principles that dictate the designs of nature.
Krishnappa told us that he loves his plants so much that he talks to them regularly. And they answer back! They tell him to take their fruits for food for his family and community and otherwise leave them be. They tell him to take the time to observe and learn how they grow and what makes them thrive. They tell him that less is more when it comes to interaction with humans.
“It's only the farmers that are using chemical inputs that are committing suicide," Krishnappa reminds us. He proclaims on more than one occasion that all a farmer in Karnataka needs is a local breed of cow and some seeds saved by and gifted from another farmer to get started in ZBNF. He believes ZBNF is the antidote to the epidemic of farmer suicides in India. And what's more: “Farmer-to-farmer interaction and shared learning is the only way to grow the number of farmers practicing ZBNF." He went on to profess: “All the scientific knowledge I have now, I have learned through practice. I am an uneducated farmer. I didn't go to school. For me, failure is an important method of learning."
As darkness crept over the fields and we wended our way back to the road where our car was parked, the visiting farmers now climbing astride their motorbikes seemingly satisfied and sufficiently inspired by having come to see for themselves the unfathomable—that one could heal the land and grow food in abundance without incurring debt—Krishnappa, this farmer-cum-philosopher invoked us to recall something he said early on in the afternoon: “There are two kinds of truth: One that is unknowable and one that is proven through practice. Sir, food and income in three months!"
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Agriculture is often at the center of debates, research and protests when it comes to environmental activism. On those stages agriculture is often cast as the "bad guy." And for good reason. The list of offenses is egregious: pollutant run-off into streams, significant deforestation to make room for endless fields of soybeans, fossil fuels emitted into the atmosphere contributing to climate change and pesticides ingested by farmworkers and consumers. I could go on! Even under the label of organic, industrial agriculture comes under fire for the use of heavy machines, intensive irrigation and weed control, which arguably leads to soil erosion especially when monocrops are involved.
But there's a quiet revolution under way by peasants and farmers worldwide that will resonate with many of us—consumers and advocates for a more sustainable food system as well as environmental activists. It's called agroecology and it has the potential to get loud.
Agroecology is a science and practice defined in the daily lives of millions worldwide. It represents both a form of agricultural production and a process for organizing and building community self-determination. Not to be confused with sustainable agriculture, regenerative agriculture or other environmentally-friendly farming practices, agroecology is a way of life and a pathway to end hunger, protect our natural environment and transform society. It's farming, feeding, restoring, preserving, protecting and democratizing, grounded in the accumulated (and still accumulating knowledge) of those relying on nature's resources to nourish their families and communities. And it begins with an intuitive understanding that ecology is about the interdependent relationships of natural organisms—including humans—to their local environment. Key to an agroecological approach is not just the production of food, but the production of knowledge.
But don't take my word for it. Listen to the voices of the practitioners of agroecology—the peasants, mainly women, who are leading the way in engaging their communities, as Janaina Stronzake from Brazil, says, “Always with participatory and local decisions about what, how and when to produce. Every place in the world must build its own agroecology."
WhyHunger's new publication Agroecology: Putting Food Sovereignty into Action is not a technical guide or a “how to" manual on production practices. Rather it shares the perspectives of members of rural communities around the world that are fomenting a quiet revolution from the soil to the community on behalf of Mother Earth.
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Norman Borlaug, often referred to as the father of the Green Revolution, called for a World Food Prize to be established just after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. His intention was to lift up, more frequently than the venerable Nobel committee could, those who have devoted their careers to alleviating global hunger and therefore contributing to a more peaceful world.
Indeed, hunger is often cited as one of the root causes of conflict and war. Calling attention to hunger—and its constant companion poverty—as inextricably linked to peace does certainly warrant a prize that continually puts these issues in the spotlight. The tragedy of the World Food Prize is that since 1987, when the prize was first awarded, the laureates—with a very few exceptions—have been primarily scientists that have advanced food as a commodity and not as a basic human right. This week the World Food Prize is once again being awarded to a plant scientist, Dr. Rajaya Sajaram, for his development of numerous prodigious wheat varieties that have been spread around the world to the benefit of “small and large-scale farmers."
Yet, privileging food as a commodity to be bought and sold on the exchange floors of Chicago and New York has led to considerable damage to the natural environment and to our health. Not to mention that world hunger has reached the staggeringly high estimate of nearly one billion people, with more spikes than declines in the past few decades, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
Production agriculture is the source of at least 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, depends on unsustainable fossil fuels and is the consumer of 70 percent of the world's annual freshwater supply. Climate change is in part a direct result of this profit-driven recipe for efficiency and scale in agricultural production. And, like the sorcerer's apprentice, no longer able to control what he has summoned by his spells, climate change is making our Earth inhospitable to food production through an increasing prevalence of drought followed by monsoons. And what is the response historically to a dwindling access to natural resources among rural communities in particular? Hunger and conflict.
How does a prize meant to honor those who fight hunger and bring about peace reward the very science, technology and methods that are degrading our planet, our health and our ability for generations to come to feed ourselves?
Enter the Food Sovereignty Prize as a foil to the message perpetuated by the World Food Prize that industrial agriculture is necessary to feed the world. In 2009, a group of non-governmental and community-based organizations, spurred on by the world food crisis that hit headlines around the globe, banded together to form what is now called the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance and established an alternative prize to recognize the quiet champions producing food in a way that puts people and their basic needs and rights to be nourished first.
The Food Sovereignty Prize has for six years running been awarded to peasants and small farmers who, despite the billions of dollars pouring in to support big agri-business and food and farm policies that prop up food as a commodity and result in land grabs by multi-national companies, are growing food for their families, communities and local markets. These leaders are organizing their communities to reclaim their right to determine how their food is grown, and who benefits from it.
Why should peasants and small farmers be heralded as formidable foes against hunger? The majority of the food that people around the world eat—70 percent—is produced by peasants and small farmers on medium to small tracts of land and is consumed within 100 miles of where it was grown. The narrative put out by the World Food Prize that an industrial agribusiness model, requiring billions of dollars of investment in scientific research, is necessary to feed the world is false.
Not only are peasants and small farmers currently growing the majority of consumable food in the world, but food production worldwide already provides 1.5 times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That's enough to feed 10 billion people, the population peak we expect by 2050. It's clearly not a question of production keeping up with population as the World Food Prize narrative suggests.
For the first time since activists, farmers and organizers came together to establish the Food Sovereignty Prize, it is being awarded in a public ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa the same week and city where the World Food Prize laureate is traditionally honored. The Food Sovereignty Prize ceremony will take place at the Iowa Historical Building at 7 p.m. on Oct. 15 and will be live streamed.
This year's prize goes to two awardees—the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) of Palestine, and Community to Community Development/De Comunidad a Comunidad (C2C) of Bellingham, WA. Both organizations, founded and led by farmers, are being honored for their work to advance the rights and food sovereignty of communities without legal protections to the right to food and the right to land. Both organizations exemplify that people, not profits, should be at the center of the discourse on ending hunger and healing the environment.
UAWC has been engaged in humanitarian and justice work for decades in an effort to empower stateless Palestinian farmers, both men and women, who face geo-political challenges to accessing land and water in order to produce food for their families and communities. The UAWC has organized and supports 21 committees in the Gaza Strip and 26 in the West Bank. Together these committees of peasants work to protect farmers' rights to land, organize women's collectives and cooperatives that create opportunities for sustainable livelihoods, ensure access to water for food production through cisterns and grey water reuse, and to promote seed sovereignty through the development of the strongest seed bank in the region.
Community to Community Development/De Comunidad a Comunidad, a founding member of the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, is led by and works with farmworker communities, including youth, in Washington State. C2C organizes farm worker cooperatives, primarily around producing value-added goods, but also works to access land for community gardens. They are a member of the Domestic Fair Trade Association. Notably, over the past year, C2C has worked with a group of farmworkers who organized themselves at Sakuma Berry Farms because they were not being paid, the housing provided to them was poor, and discipline measures were harsh. In addition, the workers (some of whom had worked at Sakuma for many years), were going to be replaced by guest workers coming on H2A visas. This is the first major farmworker struggle related to the guest worker program impacting farm workers here and is raising important issues. The farmworker union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, has won numerous legal battles with C2C but their struggle continues.
By lifting up these organizations among the countless others around the world fighting for the right to a dignified life, the Food Sovereignty Prize is redirecting the public discourse around ending hunger from one that focuses on industrial-scale food production to one that focuses on social justice.
This year's 2014 Borlaug Dialogue international symposium, held each year in conjunction with the World Food Prize ceremony, is putting the following question front and center: The Greatest Challenge in Human History: Can We Sustainably Feed the 9 Billion People on our Planet by the Year 2050?"
We already know the answer to that. Yes, we can. With food sovereignty framing the policies and practices that map out the pathway to a just society rooted in self-determination and democratic principles, community-led responses to climate change, equitable distribution and access to land and water for fishing and farming, and—finally—science and technology in service to building resilient communities and led by the experiential knowledge of peasants, we will repair the planet and create the capacity for healthy food production and consumption for generations and generations to come. Peace begins, not when the hungry are fed, but when the people have achieved food sovereignty.
Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau contributed to the reporting and writing of this article.
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