By coffee time of the World Food Day conference in Bern, Switzerland I wanted to jump up on that stage and shout out: “I’m a commercial grain farmer from Canada that grew GM canola and don’t regret it. What do you have to say to that!” The speakers and attendants that day were not particularly kind to large conventional farming.
World Food Day began in l979 to bring awareness to global hunger and find solutions. This year’s theme was: ‘Agroecology: System Change in Agriculture?’ Speakers were leaders of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in developing countries, but also Swiss experts heading organic agriculture research or university programs. As a journalist for a Swiss farm paper, I should have been unbiased. As surely the only representative of large conventional farming in that room, it took me awhile to get past my personal biases and truly listen to the viewpoints being presented.
Agroecology is holistic, a system of agriculture that seeks to sustainably integrate care for the soil and the environment with the social and cultural component of food, and also the political climate. It is an awareness that the production of healthy food is about more than growing organic. All agriculture stakeholders are involved, including processors and consumers. Everyone needs to take responsibility.
A good portion of the discussions in Bern focused on food production in industrialized countries, particularly in Switzerland. What needed to change? The whole system, was the general conclusion. The current system is built on the need for profits for shareholders instead of farmers, of too much control by big companies such as Bayer, but also the food processors. A system that makes a few rich but reduces profit for many.
So why do we tolerate the system? Because it pays, said Dr. Silva Lieberherr from Brot fuer Alle, a Swiss NGO working with the poor in developing countries. “It’s not as if there were no other solutions. It’s not as if we all thought that pesticides are great, or that it’s okay for big companies to hold patents on plants. It pays for the big companies to chase people off communal property, to grow soybeans and produce more meat.” Her passionate appeal for the rights of small farmers to own their own land comes out of years of working in the developing world; of seeing the results of the injustices done to rural people. As someone who has worked with small farmers in Africa, I understood well enough what she was talking about.
Dr. Mathias Binswanger is one of the top five economists in Switzerland, according to the NZZ, a leading daily paper. He’s also an agricultural economist who dares to state things others don’t. Farmers don’t usually profit that much from exports, he stated, using recent data charts to back up his conclusions. Applying the example of cheese exports in Switzerland, he showed that while cheese exports have increased, imports have increased more. In the end, the farmer gets paid less for their milk. The winners are the food processors and exporters, not farmers. Binswanger believes that applies to most segments of agriculture in the industrialized world. Could that also be true for the Prairie grain and cattle farmers? A substantial difference between Canada and Switzerland is that Canadian farmers produce far more than the country consumes. Switzerland doesn’t even cover its own needs. Canadian farmers depend on exports. But it could be something to think about, especially for smaller farmers near domestic markets.
A clear consensus at the end of the day was the need for open, healthy discussion between both sides — the conventional farmer, be it large-scale farms as most are in Western Canada or smaller farmers as in Switzerland; and those passionately believing in a better world through a new, fairer, more sustainable system of agriculture. There were good ideas presented, especially by the younger generation. It is their future and that of their children (and my grandchildren) at stake. They believe, and they could be right, that there is little time left for us to make a turnaround to a healthier planet. Why are we so set against what they say? Partly because of how it is imparted to us — no one likes to be the constant scapegoat. But also, because a system change undermines our businesses, our way of life. Our income. Our bread and butter. (Mine too.) Maybe it’s time to acknowledge our fears first, before we get angry and fight back in a way that only enhances the polarization. It’s not about who is right or wrong. It’s about seeking a good future for us all.
When I told a young man present, “Farmers are tired of being told they are the cause of all the bad stuff in the world.” He answered, “Well, they kind of are, right?” It was the beginning of a discussion in which we both were more ready to hear the other out. If we want to be part of healthy change, we’re going to have to find healthy ways to communicate with each other.
Some in Bern said, “There’s been a lot of talk, but not much change.” I told them there is change. I see it on the agenda of agriculture conferences in Canada. Intercropping was not a big topic a few years ago. Major farm input companies are researching crop protection methods that are less toxic and more robust seed varieties. Acceptance of the conservation farming methods by most African NGOs and government agriculture bureaus is improving soil and yields. Consumers willing to pay more for regional, seasonal and/or organic food are opening up new markets.
Agroecology is a word we’ll be hearing more of. Agriculture is changing and will continue to change at an increasing rate. A grain farmer in central Alberta told me that the end of preharvest glyphosate applications is in sight. The winners of change are those who can think ahead and find ways to adapt. The future will demand a higher level of responsibility of all in the food chain, farmers included.