Support local food, become a gardener, eat together, save seeds, and learn from nature. These were some of the valuable lessons I learned from the Food Otherwise conference held at the University of Wageningen, the Netherlands on 21st and 22nd February 2014. An initiative of the Food Otherwise Network, the conference brought together farmers, producers, NGO leaders, students, educators, policy makers, and agronomists to discuss sustainable and fair food and agriculture. With an emphasis on finding new alternatives to the current industrial system, being proactive was definitely promoted at the conference. The overwhelming response - a sold out crowd of 800! - showed that enough people wanted to participate in this change. Every attendee was a food activist in his or her own way.
The ambitious program of lectures and workshops spread over two days meant that we not only heard inspiring talks from renowned experts but the interactive workshops allowed us to discuss ideas and practical advice in small groups. During the keynote lectures scientist Pablo Tittonell from Wageningen University spoke about the benefits of an agricultural system based on agroecology; Hanny van Geel, farmer and board member of La Via Campesina made a plea for small-scale production; Olivier de Schutter, UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food, spoke about worldwide food problems; and renowned scientist and activist Vandana Shiva argued the urgency with which we need a new, democratic food system that is not founded on violence and which celebrates (bio)diversity. Her plea: “We can no longer afford blindness to the gift of abundance that nature gives us.” Her lecture is highly recommended, you can watch it here: http://wurtv.wur.nl/p2gplayer/Player.aspx?path=C2050/2014/02/21/3/video_post.wmv&mediaType=recordings&time=4331&layout=6 (the lecture begins 16 minutes into the video).
The four rounds of workshops covered diverse topics, many with an agro-ecology focus, ranging from soil fertility to seed freedom, food forests to food collectives and family farmers: making a choice was tough! Importantly, delegates were encouraged to mingle through drinks, shared meals and workshops. It was incredibly inspiring to meet other like-minded people who were just as passionate about food issues: all those contact details swapped will continue the dialogue and action forward. In the meantime, I’ve put together a list of lessons learned and action points that stayed with me from the conference. We make a statement everyday with what we do – or don’t do – so if you want to change the current industrial agricultural system, make a start today!
1. Support small-scale, local food: according to Vandana Shiva, 70% of food on the planet is produced on small-scale farms using 30% of the world’s resources, while only 30% is produced large-scale using a whopping 70% of the world’s resources. Vandana’s advice was simple: localise food and support small-scale farms to aim for 100%. And it’s a timely issue: 2014 has been declared by the UN as the International year of Family Farming.
2. It starts at the family table: while Olivier de Schutter’s lecture had a global focus, his advice came closer to home - eat together, cook together and teach children about good eating. Cooking connects us to culture and nature.
3. Observe and learn from nature: how can we borrow ecological principles and apply them in agriculture, in particular the functional interrelationships that combine to create a balanced (eco)system. The food forest is an example that was discussed in several workshops.
4. Take up food growing: “We must all become gardeners!” proclaimed Vandana Shiva with a hearty laugh. “Make growing food visible; gardens must be everywhere! Food is the place where we have to reclaim our democracy.” Gardens are the most visual lesson about where our food comes from: by having more food gardens, we make our message more public.
5. Save and share seeds: join the seed resistance to protest against seed control by multinational corporations. In the EU, 95% of the vegetable seed sector is controlled by five companies. Saving seeds is the biggest resistance; gardens must become seed sanctuaries. Buy non-industrial seeds. The more you grow and eat, the more seeds you have!
6. More creative action at local level: the success of today’s bottom-up initiatives shows the power of joining forces. Start or join a group in your area of interest. Think of alternative ways to make things happen. In one of the workshops I attended, one particular lady was working in collaboration with her municipality to use vacant council land for growing food as a collective. There is power in what people want.
7. Encourage more (young) farmers: In the EU, the average age of farmers is around 50-55 and not more than 3% are below 40. The fastest growing age bracket is those over 80. Since 2005, 25% of agricultural companies have disappeared. Earning a living is an issue when the average income of a European farmer is half that of the average EU citizen. “We are losing farmers,” says Sieta van Keimpema, Vice-President of the European Milk board. “Farmers are not supermen! They need to get the right price for their food.”
8. Celebrate agricultural biodiversity: estimates by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) suggest that the diversity of cultivated crops has declined 75% during last century and that a third of today’s diversity could disappear by 2050. Monoculture agriculture is a major culprit. Uniformity is not natural: “Nature has a way of always making things a little different,” said Vandana Shiva. Sustainable agriculture promotes and is enhanced by biodiversity. Let’s plant and eat more forgotten foods!
Every journey begins with a single step. It’s easy to feel small when you’re climbing such an epic food mountain. But gradually bit by bit through the act of doing, we are making an impact together. By doing, people will see the change and start to join in. Vandana Shiva: “Make food production a post-industrial act by bringing joy, freedom and life to it.” Do something you’re passionate about and show others the positive change!
Watch the keynote lectures here on the Food Otherwise website: www.voedselanders.nl/en/voedselanders_en/Start.html
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