Freya Yost on Respecting “Farmers and Their Rightful Place in Our Food System”

A Growing Culture works to put farmers at the forefront of agriculture through innovation, information exchange, research, and farming practice documentation. Photo Credit: A Growing Culture

A Growing Culture believes “that farmers should be at the forefront of agriculture,” aiming to reshape the food and agriculture system starting with farmers. Through projects for farmer-to-farmer exchange, collective learning, and farmer-led research, A Growing Culture wants to advance innovation and farmer autonomy to create a more just and sustainable food system, and one inclusive of smallholder farmers.

Food Tank spoke with Freya Yost, Vice President at A Growing Culture, to find out what makes their approach unique, what farmers can learn from each other’s stories, and what’s upcoming for A Growing Culture in 2017 and beyond. Inspired by farmer innovation and ingenuity, Yost works to shift the food system from one of industrial domination to one based on food sovereignty that is more just for all involved.

Food Tank (FT): What is unique about A Growing Culture’s methods for supporting smallholder farmers?

Freya Yost (FY): Our methods are bottom up and focused on supporting the capacities and harnessing the potential of farmers to contribute to an equitable food and agriculture system. We are guided by a whole-systems approach to working with farmers that doesn’t isolate or silo issues into fields, disciplines or techniques—it focuses on designing strategies that work with the complexities of problems that farmers face, which are often transdisciplinary. We’ve found the best way to address these complexities is by starting with the farmers themselves. This differs greatly from the majority of development approaches, which are top down, based on charity, or pushing pre-determined agendas and products.

We like to ask: what can smallholders teach us? What potential do they have to contribute to improving gender inequality, climate change, rural livelihoods, inequality, and poverty? Now that we are actually starting to realize the potential of agriculture to reverse climate change through carbon sequestration, for example, the capacities of smallholder farmers are coming to the forefront. We lead those efforts.

FT: What inspires you to work towards a sustainable food system inclusive of farmers and supportive of farmer autonomy?

FY: The ingenuity and creativity of farmers is a constant inspiration to us. There is a false narrative going around the food and agriculture world that says we need to drastically increase yield to feed a growing population. Ironically smallholder farmers already produce enough food to feed more than 10 billion people and they do so with the odds stacked against them. What inspires us at A Growing Culture are these farmers who, despite limited access to land and far fewer resources, are managing to feed the world, increase biodiversity, strengthen rural economies, and reverse climate change through regenerative farming practices.

FT: How does your research background help you work towards A Growing Culture’s mission to bring farmers to the forefront of agriculture?

FY: I have an interdisciplinary background but my focus is largely in the realm of knowledge systems, specifically information science. Given how knowledge-intensive farming and agroecology are, there are incredible opportunities to tap into the wisdom, know-how, and traditional farming practices at play for generations. Many in our field now recognize how essential integrating local knowledge with modern science is; how, in order to create an equitable future, we must build upon the innovations of the past—not exclude them. This is key to strengthening our knowledge systems overall and will increase our ability to solve complex problems—problems that have global effects but also very real, practical local ones too.

My background in knowledge systems helps me manage the collective design of the Library for Food Sovereignty, a community-led initiative for sharing and building upon farmer innovations and knowledge. This project is part of a larger effort to bring farmers back to the forefront of agriculture. It’s the cornerstone of our programs at AGC and it’s what I am most excited about.

FT: Why is it important to protect farmers’ rights to shape the food system?

FY: There are 2.4 billion farmers in the world, yet the mainstream food movement is driven by everyone but farmers: chefs, celebrities, journalists, and policymakers, to name a few. Top-down solutions rarely meet the needs and local conditions of farmers; in fact, more and more frequently they’re displacing farmers altogether. Displacing farmers, who now account for roughly 40 percent of the world’s population and live in rural areas, will have dire implications. We must support them by working with them, not against them. Farmers have saved and passed down seeds and knowledge for centuries, and they have been some of the most effective stewards of biodiversity while using far fewer of the world’s precious resources.

The term food sovereignty grew out of a fundamental flaw with the term food security: that food security makes no mention of where and how food is produced, only focusing on whether people are fed. Food sovereignty looks to bring a just and human-rights approach to the entire food production model, from the equitable distribution of resources, social justice for women farmers, farmer control of seeds, and productive small scale farms that produce local, healthy and nutritious food. It is important that when we think about how we can change the food system we apply a whole-systems lens and remember to ask ourselves: do our solutions improve or harm the 2.4 billion farmers around the world and, most importantly, how can we bring them into the innovative process so as to create not healthy food for some but an equitable food system for all?

FT: What does A Growing Culture hope to achieve with its collaborative “I Stand With Farmers” videos?

FY: The food system has been de-humanized. We no longer buy our food directly from those who grow it, instead shopping at grocery stores and buying pre-cleaned, perfectly packaged products. Any reminder of where our food came from has been washed away. Our perception of farmers is also shifting. We’ve lost respect for them. And yet farmers around the world are tackling some of the biggest challenges of our time. They are on the front lines of climate change because it affects them in very real and devastating ways. What’s more, the creativity and ingenuity of farmers is unparalleled: we’ve seen farmers transform degraded land into lush farmland; regenerate biodiversity with simple, locally-available resources; and reinvigorate local economies while inspiring hope among some of the poorest in the world.

Our #IStandWithFarmers videos set out to change the way the world views farmers. By reframing the narrative of the role agrarians play, we can tip the balance, moving away from an industrial model to one that supports smallholder farmers and showcases the ingenuity in the Grassroots.

FT: A Growing Culture recently wrapped up a project on farmer-led innovation documentation in Kenya. Tell us more about the project’s goals and outcomes.

FY: This documentation project was part of a larger effort to gather farmer knowledge for our Library for Food Sovereignty (LFS), launching late-summer/early fall this year. Farmers have been innovating since time immemorial and continue to do so today. Many of their innovations stand out as exemplar approaches or methods to addressing the myriad of challenges farmers face. These challenges range from maximizing the potential of a landscape to adapting to a changing climate—challenges relevant to farmers not just in Kenya, but all over the world. By documenting farmers’ innovations, we hope to amplify and spread these innovations as well as recognize their work and identify opportunities for scaling out.

For this most recent project, we partnered with the Farmer-led Innovators Association of Kenya (FLIA-K) to identify 20 promising innovations addressing a range of issues, from biodiversity preservation and economic empowerment to gender equality and improved food security. The innovations themselves offer solutions to a variety of economic, health, and environmental challenges, and many innovations had an impact in all three areas. Fifteen innovations save money and increase incomes, twelve enhance food security, eleven reduce the need for external inputs, and nine adapt easily to climate change. Sharing these innovative solutions gives other farmers from across the globe access to the underlying principles of a technique, which can be adapted to meet local needs.

The process of collecting these innovations also ignited a spirit of togetherness and mutual respect among farmers in the region. Farmers have come to realize and respect the innovativeness of fellow farmers in their region, and many have expressed interest in collaborating with other innovators and collectively scaling out their innovations.

FT: What can we learn from hearing farmers’ stories, and what can farmers learn from sharing their stories with each other?

FY: As non-agrarians, we can learn to see the food system (and the solutions to fixing it) from the viewpoint of a farmer. We can see why top-down solutions aren’t going to fix our food system because they reinforce the industrial, centralized paradigm. We can learn there is another, parallel food movement that we can support—a food movement that respects farmers and their rightful place in our food system.

We hope that farmers learn not only techniques from one another, but that they are inspired by one another. We want farmers to begin to recognize themselves as entrepreneurs, scientists, inventors, educators, activists. We want farmers to hear of other farmers innovating and taking control of their own futures. Farming is a knowledge-intensive livelihood that requires an ability to manage—not control—ecological relationships. All of this must be done in the context of change in climate, poverty, and grave inequality. The farmers, herders, peasants, fisherfolk, pastoralists, women farmers, and migrant workers who face these challenges on a daily basis are some of the strongest and most resilient on earth.

FT: What new projects are on the horizon for A Growing Culture in 2017 and beyond?

FY: We are currently focusing on launching a pilot of the Library for Food Sovereignty in East Africa. While the project is globally-oriented, we believe strongly that we need to first nurture our growing community in East Africa before expanding. We’ll be working with local technologists, farmers, and grassroots groups to create the first version of this collective project. At the same time we’ll be doing a lot of community-led documentation and research projects that will be collected and built upon using the pilot.

We will be using video storytelling to show the world these innovations. We work regularly with Jason Taylor from the Source Project, who is an exceptionally talented filmmaker and storyteller. We’ve learned that it’s not enough to document and make stories accessible. We have to mobilize support from consumers and funders to really make a difference. The advocacy work we do via video has been really effective with this.

FT: What do you see as the most significant opportunities for A Growing Culture to affect food system change?

FY: Farmers have an untapped potential to drastically shift the food system from one that is industrially controlled to one that is based on food sovereignty. But this change has to come from the bottom up; we cannot use the same centralized, top-down models that created the industrial paradigm in the first place. We must tip the balance in favor of the world’s farmers and support them to lead local change and inspire global action. A Growing Culture’s most significant opportunity to change the food system lies in the potential of the 2.4 billion food producers worldwide.

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