The Fight for Food Autonomy
Rethinking Climate Change
What will Amsterdam look like in 100 years’ time? Wet, mainly. A two metre sea-level rise, a conservative estimate given our current course, is likely to overwhelm the dike, pump, and polder systems Amsterdam relies on to stay dry. The prospect looms of an extreme situation, which currently lacks a comparably radical response.
There are many reasons why this is the case. Of great significance though is the failure of the mainstream climate justice movement to meaningfully communicate a compelling diagnosis of the threat which emanates from the interconnected, endemic issues we see in Amsterdam and other societies, in varying forms, across the world.
Whether we talk about immigration, global hunger, imperialist wars, austerity, the rise of the far right, the hopelessness of the left, or a multitude of other threats and crises, the root unifying link is the marriage of the state and capitalism, solidified through neoliberalism into a centralized, authoritarian power structure.
Climate change is simply one outcome, of many, determined by oppressive, exploitative power relations under this structure. For those already struggling to survive and be free under this system, climate change is abstract, less demanding of attention. And understandably so.
But the mainstream climate justice movement, led by unaccountable NGOs that are funded indirectly by Wall Street fossil fuel magnates, is not interested in confronting these systemic causes or in making the connection between forms and instances of oppression.
Instead, their energy is largely focused on ¨shaming¨ specific fossil fuel actors, on promoting a green capitalist economy which is underpinned by renewable energy, on advocating conscious consumerism and sustainable (mass) production, and on inspiring hope in the power of technology and displays of non-violent resistance, which they see as sufficient to counter the threat of climate change. Oh, and to secure social and economic justice, as an afterthought. This strategy is delusional. It will not stop climate change, nor will it ensure social justice. It will only serve to strengthen the rule of capital in a world in climate crisis.
In short, the implicit narrative of much of the mainstream climate justice movement is about individual actors, whether it is you as a consumer (or as an activist...) or an oil executive at Shell, as being culpable of causing climate change and therefore also capable of stopping it, within a set of narrowly defined parameters determined by corporate interests.
This is total nonsense. We cannot buy our way out of this problem. Nor can we just ‘get the right people into power’, or shame those in power to alter course dramatically. Changing our behaviour as individuals changes nothing. We must act collectively. The problem is systemic.
The Role of Agriculture
The unwillingness and/or inability of the mainstream climate justice movement to meaningfully acknowledge this is demonstrated by the marginalization of agriculture in climate change discourse and action. The industrial farming and food system is responsible for about half of global greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock production causes more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire global transport sector. A quarter of the transport sector´s total emissions are for transporting food.
And emissions aren´t the whole story. The industrial food system also destroys biodiversity, clears forests, depletes and pollutes increasingly scarce water sources, creates oceanic dead zones, and erodes our soils to dust. This increases our vulnerability to future climate extremes.
And let´s not forget the social implications of the industrial food system. It decimates rural livelihoods, drives rapid urbanization and the spread of slums, facilitates the ongoing genocide of indigenous peoples, and locks billions into a system where their survival (and liberty) is based on their purchasing power.
This is not the fault of consumers, or farmers, or even the boss of Monsanto. This is the inevitable consequence of the global economic order which demands profitable economies of scale; low cost, mass production.
But our model of food production and the social relations it helps to determine need not be this way. We can have systems of food production that meet human needs, add to the health and diversity of ecosystems, whilst capturing more CO2 from the atmosphere than we currently emit.
Food autonomy, otherwise understood as food sovereignty, and agroecology communicate a tangible, inspiring vision of what our social, economic and political relations might look like in a system (or systems...) that is free from the exploitation of one another and of nature, that is oriented away from the rule of capital and the primacy of the individual.
Food autonomy demands the democratisation and relocalisation of food production that functions in harmony with local ecologies. It recognises that food is a basic necessity for life, not a commodity to be traded, hoarded and profited from. As such, proponents of food autonomy demand that local communities be able to control and determine the nature of their food system in cooperation with other communities, free from the perverse demands of the global market.
Agroecology underpins food autonomy as a method of agriculture that works with, rather than against, ecologies. Agroecology takes the health of the entire farmed ecosystem into account. Biodiversity is encouraged, soil health is strengthened and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides prove unnecessary.
Contrary to the ¨feed the world¨ narratives of agribusiness, studies have shown that agroecological approaches to farming compete with industrial methods when the two are compared on equal areas of land. In fact, agroecology consistently outperforms industrial farming, especially during climatic extremes. The crucial point though is that its output is highly diversified and labour intensive. As such, it does not conform to the economies of scale (monocultures and automation) demanded by capitalism. In other words, it does not make as much money.
This means that agroecology is more than just a system or science of food production. It is underpinned by clearly defined social and political principles. The Landless Workers Movement of Brazil (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra or MST), which comprises 1.5 million people, has integrated agroecology firmly within its political program, presenting it as an alternative to capitalist agriculture and as a solution to the social and political consequences capitalism entails. Over the last three decades the MST have carried out thousands of land occupations, with about 370,000 families settling on 7.5 million hectares of land won as a result of this strategy. Aware of the ongoing threat of capitalist hegemony, the MST have also created schools of place-based and gender equality-oriented pedagogy to help ensure local communities take ownership of their history, and become more resilient and better equipped to overturn the status quo.
The new right-wing Brazilian government, which was installed following a congressional coup, is seeking to criminalize the MST, which is now facing increasing levels of repression. They are repressed because they threatens profits and power. MST´s political program entails a radical rebalancing of social relations, nothing less than overturning the notion of private land ownership as a ¨right¨ reserved for those with capital.
This emphasis on self-determination, free from top-down authority, expressed by the MST, corresponds to the strong currents of autonomy running through Amsterdam’s history, from Amsterdam’s involvement in the 17th century Dutch revolution against Spanish occupation, up to contemporary incarnations of radicalism such as the Amsterdam squatting movement and the – albeit short-lived – student movement of 2015. The squatting movement emerged in the context of a dominant capitalist state which was weakened by the events of recent history. The student movement arose in an environment of capitalist euphoria in an era in which Amsterdam seems to be shaking off its radical past in favour of a neon-lit, neoliberal utopia built (quite literally) on shifting ground.
Yet from these disparate roots, a vision of how our communities could be organised emerges. One that recognizes and respects ecological health alongside human needs, including freedom. One that rejects, fundamentally, the state-capitalist system in all its guises. A vision not so alien to Amsterdam. This vision is that of self-organised, autonomous groups that form part of broader networks and that determine for themselves the direction and structure of their members’ lives, free from the influence of top-down authority.
Realising autonomy necessitates a movement towards the communal ownership of resources within any given community and the free association of communities with one another. It requires people to organise together taking back the fields, farms, forests and factories, and to share the produce of their labour in a needs-oriented economy.
When we work towards autonomy, food is a good place to start. Food is fundamental to all our lives, yet when living in a city (as well as in most rural settings), we are dependent – in one way or another – on hierarchical, profit-driven organisations for virtually all our food needs. Given the stunningly destructive nature of the industrial food system, it is hard to justify our implicit cooperation and passive dependence upon it and the broader system it is inexorably linked to. It is time to take action. One of the first steps we must take in our resistance is to break our dependence upon the system for our daily bread.
Food Autonomy Festival
An important part of breaking this dependency is working together. Therefore ASEED organises a one-day festival, the Food Autonomy Festival (FAF), here in Amsterdam, on Saturday 6th May, in Bajesdorp. The aim of FAF is to promote autonomous organisation as the only realistic and viable response to the interconnected problems society faces. The festival will connect and celebrate autonomous groups, especially from Amsterdam, that are working towards or practising autonomy in relation to food.
Practical workshops will give people the chance to learn skills, including how to make compost, grow food, and organise themselves in autonomous groups, while speakers will share their experiences of struggling for and practising food autonomy in Amsterdam and beyond. Food will be available throughout the day, whilst music and general frivolity follows in the evening.
If you wish to contribute to the festival in some way, please get in touch with us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can find out more about the event here:
Photo: Nikolaus Geyrhalter