Friday, March 27, 2009

End of Canada Rant

Well, tomorrow I head out for Peru and the next leg of my journey begins. I am so excited to enter the Andes and begin my study into Potatoes, Quinoa, and traditional Peruvian agriculture. It’s time to learn another language and culture – this time I feel ready!

Also, I’m so excited to work in some fields again and open myself fully to learning from the Peruvian farmers, scientists, breeders, etc. I think that the greatest skill I have honed on this trip is the ability to honestly and openly listen to people and take in what they have to teach me. In most of the countries I’ve been to over this year, the rural people are used to white people only coming and telling them they are backwards and poor, pushing chemicals or technology, and trying to change their lives. My study is different because I enter a village and do not tell them to change at all, instead I listen to them for hours (or days), ask questions about their traditional knowledge, eat with them, drink with them, cry with them, and restore a little bit of their pride through my deep interest in their knowledge.

Many of the farmers I meet with are so amazed that I would fly around the world to learn about their seeds and farm. At first, many are nervous or resistant to speaking with me, but when they see I am genuinely interested in hearing their stories – they open up and fill with pride. So many families have rushed to cook their special rice of teff variety for me, pushed their unique seeds on me, or shown me how great their organic fields look. I have discovered the international language of agriculture and food. Food is not only our deepest connection to the land, it is also what unites and defines nearly all cultures.

The most powerful thing I have seen this year is that our foods today are only here because generations of small-scale farmers have grown, selected, experimented, and interacted with crops to develop our immense diversity. None of the food we eat just appeared in a forest like it is now. Before there were any official plant breeders there were farmers which creatively interacted with their land and local plants. For over 10,000 years traditional farmers have developed complex systems of plant selection, breeding, seed exchange, and broader agricultural systems. Their knowledge has been the base and the core of all science which exists today. Our crop diversity was developed first because of sheer survival and risk aversion. However, it has also been differently developed around the world in connection to local cultures, diets, ceremonies, and social structures. If you look into any culture, you will see that they are defined at the core by what they eat and how they relate to their food.

In the USA, we have greatly removed ourselves from the land and authentic crop diversity. However, a movement is sweeping the world to reconnect with our food and in turn the land and our communities. I am not saying we need to go back to any traditional ways, but we can honor our elders, learn from the immense amount of traditional knowledge, and enhance it to adapt to our current times.
Despite all the depressing statistics, the staggering amount of crop diversity or agricultural biodiversity left in the world provides an immense amount of hope for me. Crop diversity has proven to be much more resilient than many believed. I gave two lectures over the past week in Canada and was able to pass on a little of the hope which I have found through our farmers diversity. It feels great to be able to pass on some of the stories of farmers to Canadians and many came up to me afterward to say how inspired they were. One women even cried when she told me how moving the slide show was.

Perhaps the UN is right that we lost 75% of the worlds agricultural diversity in the 20th century. However, there is still an immense amount of crop diversity which has been protected and continuosly developed in the remote areas of the world. Many farmers see the power held in their seeds and the crucial ties to their culture. Despite decades of opression, farmers have fought with everything they have to keep their agricultural diversity alive and continue to adapt the local systems to our changing climate. For some this is simply a matter of survival – they cant afford new seeds each year and need seeds which can grow with few inputs (chemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, etc).However, the majority of farmers and seed savers I have met equate their work with much more than just survival. It is about local power and control, taste, respect for the land, local dishes, cultural ceremonies, and health. The reasons go on and on.

Keeping alive traditional crop diversity doesn’t just mean basic survival – it means cultures and communities can stay vibrant and intact. When the traditional seeds are lost the local cultures are lost. When the local cultures are lost the traditional seeds are lost. Crops and cultures are so intertwined that they cannot be separated. Nearly all rural villages base their year around the agricultural cycles and the crops which are grown. A wheat in Ethiopia is not just grown for its profit, it is grown because the women like to cook with it, the men like to drink beer from it, priests receive it for Timkat, the cattle grow strong from the straw, and it is a familys’ connection to their past. When I asked one Ethiopian farmer where he got his seeds – he said, “They were given to me by my father and his father gave them to him. I will give them to my son and he will pass them on to his son.” During this whole time the crops are selected, traded, and further developed to continue adapting. In much of North America our agricultural chain has been broken. The term “heritage” or “heirloom” has begun to be used as a marketing tool.

One Ethiopian farmer told me “If we lose our seeds – we lose our pride and local ownership. The men must move to the city to find work and our women become prostitutes.” While this may sound extreme, one cannot deny the atrocities farmers have suffered as a result of a continual push to modernize and spread monocultures throughout the world. I am not against modernizing at all. But, it should be done in a way that is people centered or farmer centered and is not solely focused on profit. It should also respect local knowledge and includes people unique traditions and food systems in to new systems. For nearly a century now we have pushed a model of “modernization” which suppresses all local traditions and encourages villagers to become like the dominant western culture. Traditional knowledge is demonized and value is place solely on money and material goods. We must join those around the world who are resisting this uniform monoculture. Seeds are one entry point in which we can fight control, ownership, and profit, oil driven cultures. Read More......