Technology and food sovereignty

In News by Agroecology Now

“The knowledge of peasants, fisherfolk and pastoralists is our insurance for food during crisis.”

Andrea Ferrante (Schola Campesina)

People’s Counter-Mobilization to Transform Corporate Food Systems

In July 2021, over 300 global civil society and peasant farmers’ organizations gathered online to protest against the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit. This People’s Counter-Mobilization to Transform Corporate Food Systems is part of an ongoing series of rejections of the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS). 

Analysis shows that some of the FSS driving forces promote concepts such as ‘multistakeholderism’ and the need for a new ‘science policy interface to facilitate the transfer of power to the elites and undermine existing governance mechanisms. In earlier AgroecologyNow! post, Priscilla Claeys and Jessica Duncan showed that the failure to effectively engage civil society in the FSS process led different actors, including activist scholars and civil society organisations to the decision not to participate in the summit.

The use of the Summit to promote a “narrow technocratic vision of food systems” and the failure to address concerns raised by farmers’ organizations, social movements, civil society, Indigenous Peoples, and independent scientists, led also IPES, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, to withdraw from the summit recently. Scientists from all over the world also opposed the proposal of a new Science Policy Interface and sent public letters to summit delegates and the European Commission in this regard. The rejection of the UNFSS as a legitimate food summit also included a coalition of scientists who petitioned to boycott it.  

Meanwhile, the People’s Counter-Mobilization resulted in three days of stimulating discussions with analysis of false solutions, including so called ‘nature-based solutions’, put forward by the UNFSS, as well as the exploration of proposals for agroecology and food sovereignty. The latter included feminist economic alternatives, reclaiming African seed sovereignty, justice-based alternatives and more.

Together with ECVC, FIAN international, Friends of the Earth Europe, ETC Group, Agroecology-in-Action and Schola Campesina, AgroecologyNow! co-convened a discussion around technological sovereignty from the perspective of food sovereignty. Without any doubt, this discussion opened a lot of questions and set the tone for much more explorations to come. Who is defining technology and innovation in agriculture and for whom? What are the characteristics of the technologies that peasants, fisherfolk and pastoralists need or want? How are they produced? How is digitalization changing agriculture and food systems?  What new roles and responsibilities emerge? Who does it empower? And at whose expense? 

The video below is an integral recording of the seminar and includes the views on technology from a food sovereignty perspective from Andrea Ferrante (Schola Campesina), Morgan Ody (European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC)), Ravindu Ishan Gunarathne (National Fisheries Solidarity Organization (NAFSO)) and Hamadi Abbas Mohammed (ADJMOR- World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous Peoples (WAMIP)) as well as a testimonial regarding technological sovereignty in South America (Véronica Villa and Tom Wakeford, ETC group). 

Morgan Ody, peasant farmer and member of the ECVC, took a historical look at farm technology, their impact on peasants in the long term as well as the way they have been resisted. A transcript of her plea for technological autonomy is reproduced below the video with her testimony. 

Webinar recording 27 July 2021 Technology Sovereignty

Intervention from Morgan Ody ECVC: 

“I am a peasant farmer in Brittany and a member of the coordination committee of ECVC, the European Coordination Via Campesina.

In order to understand the likely impact of digitalization on peasants, it is useful to analyse the impact of new technologies in agriculture since the end of the 19th century on peasantry. I will talk about the European context, which is the one I have experience of, and it will be useful to discuss with peasants and small producers from other parts of the world to see whether they share this analysis or not. 

Until the Second World War, European farmers were very cautious in their approach to new technologies. The issue of self-reliance was crucial in the adoption of new machinery. For example, many innovations made by peasants in cooperation with community craftsmen appeared during the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as machines powered by cranks or animal power. In contrast, new machines that were powered by energies that the peasants did not master, such as electricity or steam engines, met with significant resistance. Numerous peasant revolts led to the destruction of the first steam-powered harvesters. 

This cautious approach to new technologies, where the question of self-reliance was an essential condition for farmers to adopt new machines, was challenged after the Second World War.

This change in behaviour was the result of extensive propaganda praising modern equipment and belittling traditional peasant knowledge. Basically, either the farmers adopted tractors, commercial seeds and chemical fertilisers, or they were stupid backward farmers unable to adapt to them. Other contributing factors were the development of companies selling farm machinery, inputs and seeds to farmers, and offers of bank credit to buy farm equipment (where debt was previously considered a shame for most farmers). 

This rapid irruption of new technologies into agriculture was accompanied by talk of the benefits that farmers would gain from adopting these new tools. What were these promises?

First of all, that of improving farmers’ income, the idea being that they would be able to produce more and thus earn a better living. However, the modernisation of agriculture has above all led to a capture of the value of agricultural work by both upstream and downstream companies. Downstream, agricultural prices have continued to fall, forcing farmers to produce more and more to maintain their income. Upstream, they have had to go into debt to buy machinery, fertilisers and seeds, and so more and more of the income generated by the farm has gone to pay off debts to the banks. European farmers are now the poorest segment of society.

The second promise was to make farm work less arduous. It is true that mechanisation has relieved a number of very physical tasks. However, it has also removed many of the aspects that made farmers happy, such as working together, working with draught animals, or the variety of tasks to be performed. The length of the working day has not been reduced; you only have to see our farming neighbours on their tractors in the middle of the night to realise this. Moreover, a new evil has appeared: stress. Covered in debts, increasingly specialised, socially isolated, the malaise of farmers has increased. Today, it is one of the professions with the highest suicide rate.

machines are often linked to a particular production: if I buy a salad planter, I will want to make my machine profitable by producing a lot of salads, and I will probably give up growing carrots.

New technologies linked to mechanisation, chemistry and new seeds have completely changed the face of European agriculture. Farms have become more specialised. Indeed, machines are often linked to a particular production: if I buy a salad planter, I will want to make my machine profitable by producing a lot of salads, and I will probably give up growing carrots. The fields took on the shapes adapted to the use of tractors: from the 1960s onwards, thousands of kilometres of hedges and embankments were cut down to enlarge the plots. Specialised farmers became dependent on increasingly distant markets to sell their produce, thereby also becoming dependent on agri-food and distribution companies.

Above all, this modernisation of agriculture has led to the disappearance of almost all farmers in Europe: from 50% of the population in 1930 to less than 2% today. It is no exaggeration to say that modern technologies have caused an ethnocide of the European peasantry, of which only a few fragile, scattered and threatened fragments remain. 

The digitisation of agriculture is based on the same promises to improve incomes and facilitate the work of farmers. But the first fully robotised “experimental farms” are already appearing, with no farmers left to look after the land or the animals. Is this really what society needs, to do away with the men and women who work the land and replace them with robots under the control of digital multinationals? 

Peasant renewal requires a critical attitude towards alienating technologies and a reconquest of technical autonomy. We are capable of inventing and building the techniques we need to produce. This implies trusting in our peasant know-how, rebuilding solidarity with the artisans of our territories and firmly rejecting the hold of the multinationals on our lives. »

Morgan Ody, 27 July 2021

Some of the resources shared during the seminar …