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Alternatives to dismantling the agri-food system

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By Eduard Hernández Nualart

Grassroot movements are rising all around the globe and big civil disobedience demonstrations against authoritarian governments are currently taking place in several countries. More solidarity and cooperation are needed in order to raise awareness about social and environmental injustices and fight against rising global inequalities. This is exactly what Social Solidarity Economy (SSE) stands and fights for guaranteeing dignified working and living conditions as well as promoting cooperativism and an intersectional approach for social transformation. We’ll delve into this alternative model to the capitalist system and its capacity to mitigate the climate crisis focusing on the food system and local initiatives as a role model for the needed paradigm shift towards a socio-ecological transformation.

Social Solidarity Economy (SSE) and its Environmental Impacts

There is a lot of research on how SSE plays an important role in generating employment and promoting social cohesion but not that much on the (positive) environmental impacts SSE enterprises have. So, how does SSE really help to mitigate the current environmental crisis in which we are living?

First of all, the carbon and ecological footprints ​of SSE tend to be very small or non-existent since they focus on local necessities using local resources (as much as possible); local market development reduces emissions by its nature. ​Transport and post-production ​also include costs such as packaging and processing of goods. By reducing these, we are eliminating lots of emissions that come from plastic packaging and all the energy used for processing products. Regarding the ​global industrial food

system​, examples like food coops, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) or other forms of SSE represent alternatives with incredible positive impacts on the environment. The focus on organic seasonal food and agroecological practices increases local biodiversity, reduces (once more) transport and dependency on externalities, eliminates emissions coming from chemicals like synthetic fertilizers and drastically ​decreases food waste. ​The small amount of non-distributed food is mainly used for compost, which completes the nutrient cycle by returning organic matter into fertile soil. In addition, education and social cohesion are crucial aspects of SSE: many projects are active in the field of community education, grassroots and labor organising, and training (in schools, colleges and work spaces).

Industrialization and consumerism have brought us to environmental degradation and climate change that enhance shocks and vulnerability. Not only this, the neoliberal market centred approach to the economy has shown us that levels of precarious employment continue to rise, as well as inequalities of income, especially looking at gender economic inequalities. It is clear then that if we continue with “business as usual” based on the extraction of finite resources and market competition, the climate and the society will irreparably collapse. Τhere is clear evidence that this is already happening. That’s why new approaches to the economic system are needed to ​prioritize the welfare of people and planet, and that’s what SSE does. There are other movements like The Commons, Transition and Degrowth that share many common goals with SSE. More cooperation between all these movements is needed in order to promote social communal alternatives to the current corporate-controlled system.

After mentioning how SSE helps to mitigate the environmental impacts o​f the climate crisis, ​we will link SSE to the food system, presenting how food cooperatives, CSA and other local food initiatives play a crucial role in the fundamental change needed in our socio-economic​ system.

The current (corporate controlled) Food System, SSE food initiatives and how these mitigate the climate crisis

The way modern societies produce and consume food is completely incomprehensible. We can affirm that industrial agriculture is destroying the planet and we need drastic changes in the food system grounded in sustainable practices. However, we have to be aware that big corporations appropriate terms like sustainability as green washing strategies.

Nowadays w​e are already producing enough food to feed the existing population and more, but the problem is all about inequalities and food distribution. Food for fuel, corporate-controlled food systems, land grabbing, wasted food, monocultures, chemical use and a long etc. are the tools of this economic system leading to an environmental collapse largely caused by the ​global industrial fo​od system. ​When realizing that curren​t food structure is base​d on all these industrial-based agricultural practices, it is easier to understand that the industrialized ​food system is the perfect expression of capitalism. Concentration of power and food lobbies is the perfect scenario for big agribusiness corporations to develop their business, which is further facilitated by the increase of free trade agreements.

If we look at the book published by GRAIN in 2015 The Great Climate Robbery we find evidence that around 50% of global GHG emissions come from the industrial food system. These emissions are divided into industrial farming (nitrogen fertilizers, tilling and livestock farming), land use change and deforestation (mainly used for agrofuels fields, feed for livestock and as a basis for a wide-range processed food) and post-production (transport, processing, packaging, freezing and food waste). It is important to mention that, besides the ecological disaster that this industrial economic model is causing, a societal disaster is also occurring as a handful of organizations, which exploit and enslave people and their countries in the global South, dominate the agribusiness market. ‘’La Via Campesina” is an important movement to follow which fights agribusiness and supports peasants’ organizations, ​agricultural workers, rural women and indigenous communities all around the globe. It popularized the term “Food Sovereignty” in 1996 which claims that the people who produce, distribute and consume food ​should have democratic control over their food systems​ rather than corporations and market institutions.

But instead of focusing on how destructive and unjust the ​global industrial food system is, we will analyze the concept of SSE food initiatives/enterprises and the positive environmental and social impacts they create. Presenting the concept of Food Cooperatives and CSA and referring to some local initiatives in the city of Amsterdam, we will explain how these projects help to lead towards sustainability and social/environmental/agricultural justice.

How Food Cooperatives support local organic farmers and mitigate the climate crisis?

After understanding the role of the food system in the climate chaos and sharing the positive impacts of SSE initiatives in the environment, we will describe how food/agricultural cooperatives are one of the best alternatives to achieve food sovereignty.

Looking at the three industrial agriculture categories (industrial farming, deforestation and land use change and post-production) that are destroying the planet and emitting most of the GHG, we can argue how food coops create a direct impact on fighting these issues and help reduce the ecological footprint. Most of the emissions come from methane (CH4) and Nitrous Oxide (N20) due to applying nitrogen fertilizers, livestock farming and tilling. Also heavy machinery practices emit a lot of GHG in their operation and manufacture.

On the contrary, food coops which support local small-scale organic farmers do not use ​agro-c​hemicals that pollute the environment. Through agroecological farming soil health improves and ecosystem biodiversity increases. Most of the small-scale organic farmers use heavy machinery minimally or not at all.

They also practice non-tilling farming which increases soil quality and ​reduces soil erosion. Another very important impact of food coops is that they reduce the circle ​(reduce dependencies on external industrial inputs) and increase consumption of organic products from the region. This means drastically reducing the energy used for transport and storage, which directly counters the huge impacts related to the post-production food industry. This industry also causes ridiculous amounts of food waste wrapped in fossil fuelled-plastics, which is not the case for food coops.

Supporting local small-scale organic farmers leads to seasonal food consumption and the protection and reproduction of local varieties. As Vandana Shiva says, “saving seeds and protecting biodiversity is our ecological and ethical duty”. It also has a direct impact on the local markets promoting a circular economy, giving fairer wages to farmers and agricultural workers (since it eliminates the middle-man structure) and therefore supporting the development of rural areas. We are talking about producing food for people not for profit and increasing quality livelihoods, and that consequently means living in harmony with nature with sustainable practices and increasing sovereignty. Last but not least, food cooperatives play an important role in food education and community social cohesion, critical aspects if we want to change from the grassroots the way we produce and consume food.

Vokomokum Food Coop: Vokomokum is a food collective from Amsterdam existing for more than 20 years. Inspired by the Park Slope Food Coop from New York, Vokomokum is a community of people in which everyone contributes a few hours a month. Order can be done online and pick up happens the last Friday of every month at the Plantage Dok. As a member of the community once in a while you have to contribute with preparing the market, cooking, cleaning tasks or picking up the vegetables at the farms. The role of the Vokomokum, as well as other food coops in Amsterdam like the FoodCoop Nord, the Food Cooperative or the Zuidermarkt, is to show how food coops are one of the most interesting solutions to fight big agribusiness corporations and supermarkets and mitigate the impact of the food industry in the climate. You can find a map of Food Cooperatives in Amsterdam ​here

Community Supported Agriculture; a vanguard model for supporting farmers and fighting industrial agriculture

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a great socio-economic alternative based around the concepts and practices of food sovereignty and solidarity economy. It is an agricultural model in which farmers and a group/community of people are sharing the positive aspects of local organic food but also the risks that this entails. There are different CSA models but the common point between them is the connection between farmers, a community of people and food that is weekly or bi-weekly shared between the community. The members financially support the project in advance, normally paying an annual subscription for the growing season’s harvest.

The philosophy behind CSA arguing that land should be held in common by a community was initiated by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner that also talks about different ways of cooperation and alternatives to the capitalist market. This sense of community is a very important aspect in the CSA model. For the farmers there are clear benefits like getting money in advance which makes it easier to buy seeds, farm tools or other things needed in the beginning of the season.

This also makes it much easier to plan the annual crops strategy and estimate how much food to grow since you already know the exact number of people you grow food for. And surely, eliminating the middleman means fairer wages for farmers and better opportunities to succeed. When it comes to sustainability and social/environmental/agricultural justice, CSA’s are one of the clear solutions by definition, having very similar positive aspects to the food coops. CSA’s minimise emissions due to no post-production process (transport, processing, packaging, freezing), and therefore there is significantly less food waste. Most of the CSA’s are chemical free, which means no emissions due to pesticides or synthetic fertilizers and no groundwater pollution. CSA provides seasonal local food normally based on polyculture practices such as intercropping. These farming practices increase biodiversity, re-generate soil life, and therefore increase food security and access to quality food.

PLUK! Community Supported Agriculture​: Pluk ​was initiated by urban farming collective ​Cityplot at the beginning of 2017 in order to show that it is possible to provide urban dwellers with healthy organic food. It is located at the beautiful Fruittuin van West in Amsterdam and provides an inspiring model for sustainable farming and circular living. Harvesters members of the CSA can go weekly or biweekly to harvest fresh seasonal produce. The farmers provide a list of what is ready to harvest, harvesting instructions, and the amounts that each harvester is entitled to.

For more info about CSA and food initiatives in Amsterdam, click here

It is important to mention as well that the big issues like access to land, lack of subsidies to small-scale farmers and the commercial competition against big “eco”supermarkets (importing from all around the world not supporting local season food) makes small organic farmers and CSA initiatives very difficult to sustain.

We also have to be aware of the dangerous new green trends, which are not always environmentally friendly, as well as greenwashing strategies used by corporations and banks and also “false positives” enterprises like fake cooperatives. For instance, there are large dairy food coops which are distanced from SSE ethics as they are based on large-scale and industrial farming techniques. It might be a support model for local dairy farmers but definitely not good for the environment. What is needed are resilient farming practices which are also profitable and accountable as well as networked cooperativism that is independent and decentralized.

Achieving food sovereignty through agroecological practices is a priority if we want to live in harmony with nature and fight for a just (food)system. Both, food cooperatives supporting small-scale organic farmers and CSA farms give more sovereignty to farmers and help to mitigate the social and ecological crisis. But we cannot challenge the economic system and achieve all these goals without solidarity, communitarian work, associationism and cooperativism. Social Solidarity Economy needs to be on the front page as an alternative model and solution for balancing economic, social and environmental dimensions equitably.