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Food Security and the Next Green Revolution?

Food Security and the Next Green Revolution?

March 6, 2013 Michael R. Dimock

On March 4, 2013_ at the Florida International University, in Miami, Roots of Change President, Michael Dimock, delivered the keynote for the School of Environment Arts and Society’s Agroecology Symposium.

Thank you for this opportunity to consider this vitally important issue of food security and the next green revolution. I believe the future of the planet depends on adoption of an agroecological approach to food production. I do feel such an approach is currently emergent, but still on the margins of the dominant industrial paradigm.

In the next 45 minutes I will touch upon a couple of topics. The first, what is Roots of Change, and how are we building support for an agroecological paradigm that will meet the challenge of food security in the 21st Century.

The second, what are the underlying principles or building blocks of thought that must be in place to ensure agroecological approaches take root within civilization within our country. I want to stress this because we assume that what we do in the world emerges from how we think about the world. What we think about the food system creates the food system. I also want to share my hope for the students in the room, who represent the next generation of leaders in the work to transform our food and agriculture system.

So let me begin with Roots of Change or ROC as we call it. We are a “Think Tank” and a “Do Tank.” We work with food movement leaders from diverse communities. We use the power of relationships, strategy and expertise to create new institutions, tangible projects and campaigns that are transformative.

ROC was founded in 2002 by a group of foundations and thought leaders who felt that the efforts to stop the degradations resulting from an industrial approach to food production and distribution were failing. They realized a more systemic analysis and strategic approach was required because, although an alternative food system existed, it was confined to the margins, it was niche. The alternative was not becoming mainstream fast enough. Simply put, ROC’s goal is a new mainstream in food and farming that is socially just and agroecological, that is, truly resilient and life affirming.

ROC has done three fundamental things to move us toward this new mainstream. First, we created a vision, an actual document in 2005, entitled The New Mainstream: A Sustainable Food Agenda for California, which helped many folks throughout the State in the nonprofit, public and private sectors to see how a new direction could benefit everyone. It also offered potential projects that could be used to head in that direction as well as metrics for measuring progress. This document and its diffusion into the state was like a declaration on the need to set the goal of a sustainable system by 2030. This vision and declaration helped to move the State to develop its own 2030 plan, known as the California Ag Vision that now guides our very progressive Secretary of Agriculture, Karen Ross. So ROC implanted some of our DNA in the State bureaucracy at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which creates a platform and link for collaboration with the State.

Second, ROC studied the food system in depth to understand the dynamics at play, the core systemic problem and the points of intervention that would support transformation. We call the result of this study our holistic strategy and it guides our activities. It is holistic because it covers all sectors that define the system from ecosystems to policy to economics to the mindsets of producers and because we developed the map through a consensus building process with big and small, conventional and organic, government officials, and advocates from labor, environment, health and food justice. We came to agreement on how the system actually works. It took 18 months, but we did it. In short, we defined a strategy for transforming the system that everyone believed might work.

Finally, our largest body of work has been to begin building an army of support that will have sufficient influence to alter the balance of power that keeps the industrial paradigm in place. We have built a network by investing in communities and individual leaders – the grass roots – throughout California in ways that allow them to experience the rewards and efficacy of deep collaboration, of strategic and tactical alignment. You might say, we have been prototyping activities of a mature food movement.

For example, through a partnership with an allied organization, Ag Innovations Network, we invested funds in the development of fifteen regional food system policy groups, some urban and some more rural, that bring together diverse stakeholders to pursue common objectives. The most concrete results have been policy changes in San Francisco and Los Angeles that promote, healthy local and sustainable food and the development of urban agriculture. With $1.9 million in funding from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, ROC has also invested in 13 NGO partners who have built the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, that once deployed across the nation, will accelerate the move to sustainable systems because it will allow measures of progress that major wholesale buyers can reference. Using social media we have built an on online following of over 70,000 people who receive information on food system issues as well as opportunities to act in support of system change. If you are interested I can send you a full list of impacts since 2004.

Currently and for the next several years we are focused on the formation and empowerment of the California Food Policy Council. This is the first statewide entity in the nation to be built from the grass roots up, not from the decision of a governor, a state agency or institution. It was born of the desire from 26 regions in the state that together are home to over 70% of the state’s voters. These local groups have decided they want to work together to improve healthy food access, school food, ecological farming systems, farmworker opportunities and safety, small farm viability and regional food system infrastructure. ROC focused on the California Food Policy Council and this opportunity because the holistic strategy I mentioned indicates that we must.

The underlying problem in the food system is a tragedy of the commons. This tragedy is sanctioned by law and practice and it allows externalization of negative impacts on health, ecosystems and rural economies. By sanctioned, I mean that the rules and regulations of the food system, from federal Farm Bill to local ordinances, favor those who externalize impacts and who shift the burden or costs associated with those impacts to the public.

Here is an example: many farmers have been shown to use more nitrogen fertilizer than the plant can take in because it is often better for yields to have too much nitrogen than too little. Unfortunately, that excess nitrogen ends up in surface and groundwater. In California we have real problems brewing. If all leakage was ended today, UC Davis predicts it would take 30-50 years for the current nitrogen sinks to dissipate. Nitrogen ruins drinking water. Mitigating loss of drinking waters costs the state, communities and individuals, not farmers who over fertilize. The good news is the law may soon change in California; farmers may soon need to spend money to prevent nitrogen pollution and pay even more in fines if they fail to prevent leakage. So the burden will shift back to them from the public where it now sits. Farmers don’t like this. It will make them less competitive in the world market. So they will need help.

Our systems analysis identified two major categories of change that will result from numerous interconnected actions. The first category is related to rules and regulations at the local and state level. We feel fighting for changes to the federal farm bill right now is much less productive than working within our State or a region. We can alter local and State laws that impact food and farming much easier than those at the federal level, where literally tens of millions are spent on lobbyists to ensure that those most advantaged in the system remain that way.

The second large category for action is around the economics of food systems.  I mean the challenges of scaling up what we would call restorative, distributed and diverse agriculture and food businesses. For example, how could you build a 50,000 box CSA formed through a collaboration of small sustainable farming and ranching operations within a 50-mile radius of the city that serves low-income people in San Francisco. Or how do we reduce the price differential between products that come from organic operations and those from more conventional operations that still depend on heavy chemical use.

Obviously both categories are interconnected. One way to lower the price difference is to eliminate subsidies for some crops, which will drive the price of processed foods up. Or better yet shift the subsidies to increase consumption of healthy food. There are various opportunities for solutions.

But before getting into the weeds anymore on ROC strategy and action, because I will come back to that, I want to shift to discussing our thinking or mental models for what is transformative and what must underlie the next green revolution here in the United States.

I will begin by offering how ROC broadly define sustainability: a sustainable system provides food perpetually and ensures that the underlying ecosystems and resources remain abundant and viable. It maintains the health of the soil, plants, animals, and people. The economics underlying the system allow owners, workers, and investors to live and benefit at a level that maintains their wellbeing, life-long participation, and commitment to the system's continuous improvement. __

But what would this mean, practically speaking, for those working in the food system? What would it look like? It is important to note that whether explicit or not, a social contract exists between food producers and the rest of society. The contract differs in different societies. A small farmer in an African village would feel a different obligation than that of a modern industrial grain producer in Iowa or an organic lamb producer in Wales. For a typical producer today it might be that they will provide the cheapest most reliable food supply of consumers if we keep their costs low. But that contract is frayed; it is in tatters really.

I would like to offer the defining characteristics of a new social contract here in the US between those who produce the food and those who consume it, one that would allow something that could be called agroecological: __

1.      Agriculture would move from an industrial model of production to a biological model, meaning it would seek to mimic nature not a Ford assembly line when producing food. An assembly line does not like diversity, but nature does because diversity is a strategy for long-term health and resilience. We know this is true from economics. Investors seek diverse portfolios. Regions seek diverse economies. So why do we not seek diverse farms and ranches that are resilient in the face of ecological and economic changes?By the way, this does not mean we should not have large-scale farms and ranches. The issue is how diversity is managed on any farm or ranch regardless of scale. A biological model would also incorporate the symbiotic relationship between animals and plants. We would see much more use of livestock responsibly and efficiently to manage land, to introduce fertility, and deliver appropriate soil disturbance.

2.      The diversity principle requires that we eliminate all broad-spectrum, long-lived, toxins in our efforts to control pests and weeds or increase yield. These compounds kill indiscriminately and thereby disrupt natural biological cycles or spawn unintended disease in non-targeted species. Think of the impact of Atrazine on amphibians. So yes, we need more green chemistries that mimic naturally occurring compounds that nature has already learned to breakdown and metabolize quickly. But even better, we need to use nature to manage nature. More beneficial insects to control pests, more cover crops to control weeds, supply nitrogen, and provide habitat to beneficial species. _We must learn to manage for the balance or dynamic equilibrium evident in healthy ecosystems.

3.      We need to quickly reduce and one day eliminate use of fossil fuels as a means to create fertility and power machinery. Even if climate change were not a reality, a fossil fuel-based system is not sustainable; fossil fuels will eventually run out, becoming ever more expensive as they are depleted. In a related issue, a driver of those who criticize food exports is the impact on climate. To the extent that we use less fossil fuel to create and move food, we eliminate the basis for this critique.

4.      We must end the maltreatment of farm and food system workers, even if it is the result of a few. We need to create an industry ethic that isolates and ostracizes bad actors. Further, lets transform food and farming jobs into careers that lead to advancement, pride of participation, long-term commitment through enhanced opportunity and quality of life. The divide between labor and operators is not good for anyone. As the technology sector has shown, when there is more alignment between management and labor, there is more innovation, job satisfaction, and productivity. _

5.      Likewise, we must end the inhumane and unhealthy treatment of animals in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) which are criticized by large segments of the public because theirs concern will only grow. The fight cannot be won on economic grounds. The more people know, the less they like CAFOs. Entire nonprofits have been born to stop them. Alternative livestock systems are showing us that when we understand each breed's life cycle and allow it to live stress free, we enhance animal health, flavor, and product quality and then consumers are willing to pay more. Moreover, sub therapeutic use of antibiotics is a very risky proposition and untenable in the eyes of medical professionals.

6.      The nation was founded on a fear and rejection of tyranny and concentrated power. Thus, perceived ownership of the food supply by a few, using intellectual property rights or economies of scale, although legal and economical when viewed in a relatively brief time frame, will never be politically, ethically, or broadly accepted because concentrated power undermines public trust. Farmers and ranchers suffer from concentration too. We can see clearly that those who control the supply chain closest to end users or the access to consumers increasingly dictate production practices and pricing. The higher the concentration, the lower the level of producer power.

7.      In a related idea, we here in the US must get over our sense that this nation must feed the world. Instead, we must support the development of self-sufficiency wherever that is feasible throughout the world. We can extend knowledge and technology, but we should stop building dependence abroad on US farmers. The good news is that beginning with George W Bush and continuing under Obama our foreign agriculture policy is heading in that direction. A capstone of this change will be to eliminate price supports fully. There are better ways to build safety nets.

8.     Food safety is a constant and growing challenge. What are the increasingly frequent recalls telling us? Perhaps that e coli, salmonella, and other food borne bugs like living in the huge processing or manufacturing facilities we have built. It appears that no prophylactic approach is yet thorough enough to fully control germs and viruses, at least not for long. Pathogens will always exist in a biological system because they quickly mutate. A sound systemic solution is more diversification and decentralization of production to limit the scale and scope of a persistent contamination problem. __

9.      We clearly need to end the loss of soil and over tapping of aquifers. To continue guarantees the end of agriculture and increases the anger of the public. We need to build soil and bank water. Increasing water efficiency, no till systems and cover cropping are pathways, but much more research and innovation is needed. The future of the nation requires accurate water balances and soil building initiatives that are embraced in all regions.

10.      We must recognize the impact of genes on human consumption patterns. Most people will seek out sugar and fat because their genes are programmed to find it. So to align our agriculture with the public's best interest, we need to take the lead in weaning the nation from its unhealthy addiction to sugar, fat and salt, the substances that form the key ingredients in most processed foods. We need to align with the medical profession’s call for more fresh and whole foods.

11.  We must come to see that local and regional food systems are good. Health advocates want to see regional systems develop so that more healthy food is available locally. I recommend you all watch “A Place at the Table,” a new documentary about hunger and food policy in America. It was just released and points out the need to eliminate food deserts in both urban and rural communities. Moreover, big agriculture would benefit from embracing small farmers and ranchers, peri-urban and urban food producers who are the frontline of emerging regional food systems. These small producers who live in proximity to population centers can be seen as the diplomatic corps for all agriculture. These small businesses can also be engines for job growth. We need to reverse the trend that drives labor from agriculture and develop incentives for motivating people to go into agriculture and food jobs that pay living wages. Concentration of agriculture is a cause of poverty in rural communities and poverty is the underlying cause of hunger. Farms, ranches and family owned food businesses with direct relations to consumers in the urban centers, which are the base of political and financial power, are the best way to build agricultural literacy. __

12.            It would be much better for farmers and ranchers if agricultural products were no longer seen or described as "commodities." Here are two of the entries from Merriam-Webster that define the word commodity: "a good or service whose wide availability typically leads to smaller profit margins and diminishes the importance of factors other than price (like brand name); or a commodity is one that is subject to ready exchange or exploitation within a market."

Remaining competitive in a commodity system is a thankless task that has forced huge number of farms and ranches into insolvency. Food is the basis of life; it deserves to be valuable. It is undervalued because our current system defines it as so. Our thinking is flawed. Cheap food requires that we externalize costs because we cannot pay to mitigate or avoid impacts on the ecosystem, workers and communities, which gets us into a conundrum. If we do not end the negative impacts, producers will be increasingly regulated, taxed and/or both to cover the costs of their impacts. So commoditization of food is a losing game for producers, (but consider the fact that it is good for manufactures of processed food). Farmers and ranchers would be advised to see the divergence in needs, between agricultural producers and Big Food, the mass manufactures of food like substances.

13. Obviously, this move to sustainability is a long-term affair. It will take time because achieving it is not an end point. It is actually a process of continuous improvement.  A human life span is insufficient to address the problem. Sustainability is really about millennia, not centuries. If the food movement is successful, by 2030 we should be able to see a shift from short-term profit maximization to maximization of long-term productivity and health and resilience. ROC believes sustained productivity and health are the basis for profits earned over the longest term.

So the question for all of us is who do we imbed these twelve ideas into our future system. We must begin by changing the rules of the game because the rules dictate which investments are made and how the system will evolve. We need to invest in more research and provide farmers with income for allowing research within their operations. We need to invest in regionalized, small-scale infrastructure that will lower production costs for mid and small-scale producers. Processing plants and distribution centers could be framed like public utilities for energy and water. Healthy food is a public good. We need to tax junk food and sweetened beverages to create a revenue stream that will support healthy food access, infrastructure and research that supports agroecological production systems. Let’s end price supports and direct payments for crops. This does not need to mean American farmers will lose money.

I think it would useful, productive and appreciated by the public if we tied payments to health enhancement and resource stewardship. Let's pay more money for riparian buffers, species enhancement, and on farm energy production. Payments are the incentives for creating a new system. Payments will allow farmers and ranchers to hire stewardship specialists to make conversion possible. The current rules of the game render cheap calories. Let’s devise payments that render healthy farm business and healthy ecosystems and healthier people. We engineered the current system, so we can engineer a new one with new economic policy. In past years Congress saw the need for change and built within the Farm Bill a corner stone, if not a foundation, for major shift through the Conservation Security Program.But the federal fight is long-term. Start at home like we are in California to create the types of incentive and tax programs I have described.

Whether locally or nationally, to reengineer the system agriculture and food companies need allies. Luckily, agriculture has more allies in waiting than we could imagine. Powerful environmental, health, social justice, and community advocates want to align with producers and processors to create a healthier world. If we join with them, they will help give agriculture the political support needed to create policy for the long-term health of farms, ranches, consumers and the environment.

We need more people to vote and speak for agriculture's interests. A new social contract will give us those votes we need. For instance, we need substantially more research and the public has little concept of that need now. One message we must get out is that a healthy food and farms require an agroecological research agenda as bold as that being called for in renewable energy. The trend of reducing the research funds for agriculture must be reversed, but that will be impossible without broad public support. _

This raises a controversial issue. I really don't think we should bet the farm on genetic modification. Resistance to GMO food is firm among certain consumers. And there is evidence that the hoped for results may prove much more illusive than once thought. Furthermore, the issues of concentration and tyranny over the food supply loom very large when GMOs enter the picture. I am not advocating that we discontinue research and use many of the tools for genotyping and trait analysis. These are incredibly valuable and useful and noncontroversial really.

At the very least, if we are going to commit to genetic engineering as a core tool, then we must allow labeling of engineered products to ensure consumers can make informed choices in the marketplace. It is the American way to allow people to choose based on the free flow of information.

But in the end, I would argue to farmers and ranchers and seed companies that it is much less problematic to think about mimicking natural systems in scaled up ways than it is to win the GMO fight. How could we scale or massively replicate Joel Salatin's Poly-Face Farm model of multi-species livestock production? What could be done on the plains with cattle and hogs in large open ranges managed by collaborating producers using intensive range management?  How can we accelerate the work of Wes Jackson and create a perennial poly-culture of grains in the Great Plains? How can we diversify specialty crop operations through hedgerows and more diverse cropping patterns and innovative rotation here in Florida, in California, Texas and all the other specialty crop states? None of these approaches bring in the problems associated with gene ownership and genetic pollution. _

I am a realist who looks the progress of the past and says we can, we will, and we must change continually in often unpredictable ways. Science and technology are central to rapid evolution in production. Agriculture has a history of rapid change using technology. But I am very concerned about what appears to be an underlying hubris that permeates our perception of our ability to build and maintain industrialized food production for a sustained period, particularly one based on fossil fuel and genetic engineering. The steep rise in fuel costs and impact on food prices and the degradation in efficacy of Round-Up Ready crops, due to weed adaptation clarifies the challenges.__

Deeply understanding natural biological communities, which are the result of billions of years of evolution, are the key. They share energy, feed each other, and maintain a balance. Species are interdependent. We too are one of those species. To the extent we understand in depth the survival mechanisms, the operating principles, of diverse communities of species and apply them to our agricultural and social systems, I think we will find that we will be well guided.

In short, nature is no longer our enemy. It once was, we had to fight with her to survive. I think we have evolved past the fight. It is time to relate to nature with a more collaborative approach. We are learning to surf the dynamics of nature in order to efficiently produce food, fiber and fuel in ways that restore and maintain health, not degrade it. That is what agroecology is about. That is what the next Green Revolution must be about.

I am absolutely certain that we can and will create a new green revolution because it has already begun; we are moving in that direction. We have no choice really. You all in this room are part of the solution. You are the ones who must implement change in the places that you live and work. We must all become active spokespeople or teachers or practioners of the new agroecological paradigm. Together we can create systems that ensure that our farmers and ranchers are civilization's life stewards, the most vital economic sector in the world, who will perpetually and deftly cultivate the land base that creates a safe and healthy food supply for current and future generations and respectfully and honorably employs hundreds of millions of workers.

In return, food producers need compelling return on investment, a rationale safety net and smart policies that allow rapid innovation so that they can respond to complex challenges. We need a new social contract, one that will be enduring. But this new social contract requires a new green revolution that stems from the agroecological thinking that you are advancing.

Thank you all!