Eric Holt-Giménez fights for food security

Interviewer: Courtney Boag
Images: Eric Holt-Giménez 

26 October, 2018

“We have to build resiliency, not just resiliency on the farms through these agroecological practices, but we have to build the social resiliency to deal with the effects of climate change. That’s why I think it is really important that farmers and consumers come together to build this resilience”

Eric Holt-Giménez

Eric Holt-Giménez is an agroecologist, political economist, lecturer, and author. He has been regarded as one of the world’s most “prominent critics of the global food system”. From 1975 to 2002 he worked in Mexico, Central America and South Africa in sustainable agricultural development. During this time, he helped to establish the Campesino a Campesino (Farmer to Farmer) Movement.  Eric has taught as a university lecturer at UC Santa Cruz and Boston University in the International Honours Program in Global Ecology and also gives yearly courses around food system transformation and social movements in Italy as part of the Master’s program at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Herald Tribune, Le Monde Diplomatique, La Jornada and The Des Moines Register and he is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.

In 2004-2006, he was the Latin American program coordinator for the Bank Information Centre in Washington, D.C. In June 2006, Eric became the Executive Director of Food First (the Institute for Food and Development Policy), a people’s think tank established by Frances Moore Lappé in 1975. Eric’s specialised fields include environmental studies, area studies, development studies, agroecology, and the political economy of hunger, and have published numerous texts such as; Food Movements Unite! Strategies to Transform Our Food Systems; Food Rebellions! Crisis and the Hunger for Justice, and Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America’s Farmer to Farmer Movement for Sustainable Agriculture.

So, Eric, you have worked in food justice for many decades now, can you tell me how you came to get involved in this sort of research?

Well, I grew up on a farm, so food was always a central issue for me.  But I suppose my first major involvement in this area began when I started working with a peasant movement in the 1970s in Latin America called ‘Campesino a Campesino’ (Farmer to Farmer). This was really an agroecological movement run by peasant farmers and I ended up working with them for about 20 years. The movement was essentially based around farmers recovering their land and rebuilding their soils through land conservation projects. In fact, part of this project was the detachment of the farmers from the ‘green movement’ so you know, modern chemicals, pesticides, and hybrid seeds, as a way of bringing back their traditional heirloom seeds and their traditional agricultural practices. It was a really successful movement on the ground, however, the farmers were really ignored by international agricultural agencies, centers for agricultural research, and ministers for agriculture, in fact, they were ridiculed.

However, during this time, a big hurricane hit Central America and destroyed most of the farms in the affected areas except for the farms that were a part of the movement. At that point, we had about a quarter of a million families using these traditional practices as part of the wider movement and they really demonstrated that they were more resilient than the more commercial farms, as they withstood the impact of the hurricane. So, I did a big study and we proved that agroecology and its practices were overall more resilient. As an aftermath of this study, many farmers started arguing that the land should be re-built agriculturally rather than commercially. However, to make a long story short, these farmers were substantially ignored by development agencies and big government agencies who really wanted farmers just to leave their farms to go and work in sweatshops along the coast – that was really their idea of reconstruction. So, when I saw this, I realised that it’s not enough to be right, you’ve also got to organise people politically to create a political will to bring about the changes that are really necessary. This encouraged me to explore, not just farming systems, but systems in general. So, when I returned to the United States, I fell in with the Food Justice movement and started working with Food First and was able to bring a lot of the lessons I learnt from Latin America to the food justice movement in America.

It sounds like such an incredible time to be an activist. So, as you said, you are now the director of Food First, can you tell me a bit about your role in this organisation?

Well, Food First is a people’s think tank, we produce research and analysis around agricultural practices and publish these findings regularly and we partner with other social movements to build networks around food justice. We are really aiming to amplify the voices of the social movements that are happening around the world in the efforts to transform our current food systems into more equitable and sustainable structures. As the Director of Food First, it’s my role to reach out to communities and find new ways of partnering with different organisations and movements around the world. So, this is one reason why I am here in Australia, at the invitation of some of the food movements here, so we can pursue partnerships for a food system transformation. It’s really exciting!

For you personally, what do you find are the biggest challenges and benefits to working in food justice?

Well the biggest challenge to a healthy and sustainable food system is Capitalism. I mean we have a capitalist food system which has brought us chronic hunger. At least one in seven people around the world are going hungry every day, which is roughly the same figure as it was 50 years ago, even though we produce one and a half times as much food to feed every man, woman and child on the planet as it was 50 years ago. We have a food system that uses 80% of the worlds freshwater and produces up to 40% of the worlds greenhouse gases, has destroyed about 75% of the world’s agrobiodiversity. When I say food system, I mean industrial food system, which really only produces about 30% of the worlds food, while the other 70% is produced by peasant farmers. Most of which are female farmers who, strikingly, make up most of the world’s hungry. So actually, women and young girls actually produce most of the world’s food – they feed us – and yet they are the ones going hungry. So, one of the barriers to equitable and sustainable food systems are currently the ways in which land is concentrated and commodified.

So, as a first step, we really need to be ‘decommodifing’ land, we need to make sure that small farmers have enough access to land to make a good living. Furthermore, they need a fair price based on the cost of production, not whatever the global market determines, and the barriers to this are the large monopoly’s and duopolies that hold a degree of control over our political process. So, if our current laws and institutions favour this type of capitalistic food system, we actually need to begin by changing these laws and institutions if we want to change the global food system. What is very hopeful is that there are all kinds of very productive and equitable practices and ecological practices that we can use to produce, harvest, process and transport food. However, for these very hopeful alternatives to be considered and become the ‘norm’, we need to do the political work to change the wider structure of the system.

You’ve spoken about the problems with modern ‘green’ agricultural technologies can you explain why our emphasis and perhaps dependency on these technologies may be inconducive to a more sustainable future for agriculture?

The technologies that are coming out of the ‘green’ agricultural food system that purportedly claims to mitigate environmental effects caused by climate change and to increase harvest yields are really just patches to keep the system in place rather than really solve our current problems. I don’t think that we need a whole lot of new, expensive technologies. I also don’t think that big data is going to solve our problems, and certainly, genetically modified and engineered crops are not solving the crisis, you know, food delivery by drones isn’t helping either. People aren’t going hungry because there isn’t enough food or because they aren’t receiving delivery of food from these recent drone services, they are going hungry because of how our current model is set out. So, we really need to find ways to build a food system that provides more employment, not less employment. I also believe we need to repopulate the countryside and make the country a good place to live through improving education and sustainable infrastructure and implementing more effective welfare systems and facilities in rural areas. Most importantly, farmers who are living rurally need to be given a good price for their crops, so they can afford to eat themselves.

The types of investment we need to make are not in these new fancy technologies, which I really think are just greenwashed, but in the technologies, we already know about. We also need to find a way of not just managing the land, but of belonging in the land and belonging to ‘Country’ as Indigenous people here in Australia say. I think we actually have an awful lot to learn from Indigenous communities and the ways in which they view their relationships with the land. Really, it’s not going to be enough to look at improving certain areas of our planet such as national parks and marine conservation areas. In order to reverse the effects of climate change we need to think of everything as connected. In that respect, we can learn a lot about how Australian Aboriginal people understand their country as an interconnected landscape.

Belonging in country is incredibly important. We need to come to appreciate our world on a much more personal level, rather than seeing it as one large resource to exploit in order to enjoy an excessive lifestyle. So, Eric, there is a common narrative making its way around newspapers and reports that by 2050, two thirds of the world’s population will reside in cities.

If this comes to pass, this mass shift of people will ultimately widen the gap between the middle class and the lower class and will place even more pressure on farmers to feed the world’s population. Do you think we need to start moving back to the country as a way of distributing food systems, supporting regional farmers, and creating new alternative models of living?

I think that this idea that by 2050, two thirds, or over half, of the world’s population will live in cities is another way of saying that industrial agriculture is inevitable, and I really don’t think it has to be that way. I mean, supposedly, more than half the world’s population live in cities now, well that depends on how you measure and define a city. You know, these statistics tend to include a lot of villages that are definitely not reflective of a city, and moreover, the relationships between cities and villages are a lot more permeable than these statistics make out. I’m not sure if it is a propaganda ploy to convince us that there is no other alternative – “we’ve all just got to move to the cities and Industrial agriculture will feed us”. For one, I don’t think this is inevitable, and two, I think it may be impossible and I certainly think it’s inadvisable to follow along this trajectory.

About a third of the world’s population live in the country today, if you were to drive all of these people out of the country, where would they go? There is no new industrial revolution to soak up all the extra labour. In fact, the world economy would have to grow at something like 15% over the next 50 years to absorb all this new labour, well that’s clearly impossible because we are not even growing at 2% now. So, this is why I say no, we really do have to think of new ways to spread out rather than condensing further and further into a confined city space. We can repopulate the country by working towards making it a better place to live and by making farming a healthy and profitable profession for young people. So, we should start to focus some of our efforts towards opening up better access to land and supporting young people to get started with farming or, more generally, with a more sustainable lifestyle. 

Given the issues with the interconnectedness of capitalism and the food industry, how do you see these issues burgeoning with climate change?

Well as I mentioned, the Industrial food system currently produces up to 40% of the world’s greenhouse gases, and sadly, and ironically, it is agriculture that will suffer the most from these changes in climate. We can see this here in Australia, where already they are predicting another sixty years of drought, and certainly, we see this in the United States and California where I live. If we instituted more agroecological farming practices and more equitable and sustainable forms of landscape and territorial management, we could tremendously reduce the amount of greenhouse emissions caused by industrial agriculture, we could also mitigate the effects of severe weather events, and we could certainly help farmers to adapt with any major climatic transition.

Agroecology is a sustainable approach to farming that doesn’t depend on chemical outputs but rather aims to manage the ecological processes and cycles within the landscape in order to produce food. It’s a half-century old science and practice which has spread around the world, and it’s a movement that has been taken up by thousands of small farmers around the globe, so I think there is hope in that. The challenge is that we need to communicate and create better alliances with farmers, so they aren’t left out of discussions around food security and sustainability, these are discussions which they should be at the forefront of. For countries where farmers make up the majority of the population but are fragmented, and consequently have less or no political power, we need to find ways for farmers and consumers to come together politically so they can support agroecological systems rather than industrial systems. It’s about networking, we can’t underestimate the power of creating strong connections with the very people who produce our food.

It appears that research is predicting that a lot of the world’s major agricultural lands will be some of the most climate effected landscapes, so we need to find ways of supporting farmers through these events whether it be an earthquake, a tsunami, a landslide, a drought and/ or severe storms. As you said, helping them to adapt to changing environments using technologies we already have.

I also think it’s really vital what you said about using these technologies to ensure employment is available to farmers. So often we create modern technologies to do the work for us, but if that means less people out on farms it also means less people in farming countries having access to a livelihood.

Yes absolutely. We have to build resiliency, not just resiliency on the farms through these agroecological practices, but we have to build the social resiliency to deal with the effects of climate change. That’s why I think it is really important that farmers and consumers come together to build this resilience.

So, you argue that one cannot change the food system in isolation, but rather we need to see food justice as part of a wider capitalistic system. However small-scale activism makes up so much of the work that is carried out on the ground, so how would you suggest we use small scale activism more effectively to address these larger complex issues?

Yeah, so we can’t transform the food system in isolation from the larger capitalistic political and economic environment, however, the food system is pivotally positioned to change the larger capitalistic system. We don’t necessarily see this because we are sort of blinded by what the industry tells us versus the reality of what’s going on. Food is central to the whole economic system and consequently, it can alter our larger economic structures, the different alternatives to agriculture which are popping up all around the world are providing examples of how this can be done. So, the task then is to bring all of these movements together in a powerful way to affect the more structural changes we need so that these practices can become the norm rather than the alternative. 

So, it means building powerful social movements. For example, it’s a positive start to buy our produce at a farmer’s market, but we shouldn’t just stop at the markets, we need to go to the town halls and our local councils with our farmers, we need to transform food policy, so it becomes more conducive to a sustainable future for agriculture and we need to lobby our local councils so they can positively influence food policies. In other words, food movements need to become social movements that are much more widespread. This means aligning food movements with climate change movements, women’s movements, and Indigenous movements, and in bonding together, I believe we will be able to create a more unified voice against today’s greatest systematic issues.

I absolutely agree, I think it’s time now we came together against capitalism in order to restructure economic and political models which do not serve us well anymore. Would you like to say any final words about your work, or perhaps your time in Australia?

It’s really been a wonderful experience here in Australia, I’ve learnt a tremendous amount of new things and met wonderful people who are working with food movements in the countryside, at universities, in their local communities, and within the cities. I am really very encouraged by all the work that is being done here in Australia to transform the food system and I am looking forward to taking what I have learn’t here back to the States. 

Passionate about food justice and security? Head to Food First to learn more about the work Eric and many other amazing people do around the world.


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