Why do we have sex?
Well, one reason is that it creates genetic diversity, which means, as a population, we are much less likely to be wiped out by some disease. Though asexual reproduction is much more efficient, the benefits of genetic diversity are so big that sex dominates as a strategy amongst animals, plants, insects etc.
Worryingly, we’re not following this piece of sexual wisdom in our food production systems. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) stated in a recent report that biodiversity in agriculture is fundamental to the “resilience, sustainability and productivity” of our food systems, but that it’s “being eroded, often at an alarming rate”.
At first glance this might seem strange. More than 80 per cent of the world’s food is produced on small-scale farms, and such farms, the FAO says, encourage ecological practices and diversity. This suggests we should be doing okay on the biodiversity front. So what is happening?
The answer is that small-scale farming is being squeezed onto less and less land. Corporate-driven industrial agriculture, which “favours genetic uniformity” by concentrating on only a few crop types, now takes up a huge 75-80 per cent of farmland.
Though small-scale farming appears to be more productive than industrial farming (twice as productive, by some estimates), corporate agriculture is cheaper because it uses more machinery and less labour. This destroys rural communities, with people moving to urban areas to seek work. A large amount of crop production is for animal feed in factory farms, with industrial-scale animal slaughter dictating the workings of slaughterhouses. Abattoirs are now geared towards the corporates, paying less and less for animals from family farms, so squeezing small-scale farms out of the picture. A recent article from The Guardian, ‘How America’s food giants swallowed the family farms’, is an insightful exploration of this trend and is worth a read.
Fortunately an incredible organisation, La Via Campesina, is fighting back. The organisation unites millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world. The Australian member (though still provisional) of La Via Campesina is the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA), a farmer-led organisation working “to create an equitable, sustainable and resilient food system for all Australians”.
Last month AFSA hosted a wonderful festival fundraiser, called Farm Day Out, held at Jonai Farms. Jonai Farms is a pig farm run by Tammi Jonas and her family, with Tammi also the current President of AFSA. She calls herself an ‘ethicurean’ – someone who eats ethically without depriving themselves of taste – and you will often hear her use the word ‘delicious’ when conversing.
The farm’s pigs seem very happy. I remember the first time I met Tammi a couple of years ago at a dinner. She brought along some of her products – cured pork and pâté – and handed them round the table. Nearly everyone, with a couple of sideways glances, said, “I’m normally a vegan but…”, or, “I’m normally a vegetarian but…”, before promptly tucking in.
Farm Day Out festivities began with a tour of Jonai Farms, meeting the animals and learning about their conditions, before heading over to the on-farm butchery, part of their effort at value-chain control currently incorporating everything apart from slaughter. We learnt that they faced similar issues to that described above – that services such as abattoirs are geared to industrial farm clients, and often discourage small-scale farmers from using their services. Once, an abattoir lost one of the Jonai pigs but would only pay the export-market price of pork as recompense. Of course, Joani Farms pigs are expensive given their ethical farm conditions, so she lost close to $1000.
Through AFSA, small-scale farms such as Tammy’s are banding together to fight for regulations which don’t unfairly favour large corporates. They have set up a Legal Defence Fund, and are prolific advocates at council, state, federal and international levels. They are also at the head of a growing ‘Community Supported Agriculture’ (CSA) movement. The CSA movement, first begun in Japan in the 1970s, is based on the idea that customers and farmers should have a relationship, and through that relationship should share risk. Under a CSA, the customer pays upfront for produce at the start of a season and, if the season goes badly, gets less than they might have hoped, but, if the season goes well, gets more. This ensures the farmer can plan long-term and is less subject to ruin. It’s an excellent idea and I encourage everyone to find and participate in a local CSA.
After the farm tour, our MC for the day, Gardening Australia’s Costa Georgiadis, launched a wonderful new book, Farming Democracy. The book tells the stories of small-scale farms around Australia and gives strong credence to the idea that small-scale farming really can feed us all, without the need for industrial agriculture, even in Australia. We will need to make some sacrifices – as Tammy said, there will be sufficient food, but we will need to reduce our meat consumption. The benefits to community, sustainability and resilience ultimately far outweigh the costs.
Then there was music and dancing, talks by AFSA farmer members and – of course – food stalls featuring locally grown treats. I ate a lot, and then ate some more. Then I ordered some chips – and not just ordinary chips, but a cacophony of colours. They were delicious.
Like sex, small-scale farming delivers more than just genetic diversity – we’ll get pleasure from it too.