Without doubt, these are challenging times. Stepping back from the political turmoil that we see here and in the world around us, we are simultaneously confronted with evidence that climate change is fast unravelling the systems of the natural world that have evolved over millennia to create a habitable planet. Last week’s Climate Science report of the United States’ 4th National Climate Assessment confirms the global scientific consensus that record-breaking, climate-related weather extremes will almost certainly continue into the future, with increasingly catastrophic impacts for human society. What we hear far less of are the powerful stories of resilient communities coming together to create healthy, vibrant food and farming systems that can actually mitigate rather than intensify climate change, and that can sustain and nourish us long into the future.
Climate resilience through agroecology
Faced with the stresses of extreme and erratic weather patterns, unstable markets and indifferent (at best) government leaders, peasant and family farmers around the world are increasingly turning to agroecology. This ecologically resilient, highly productive approach to farming enables farmers to build healthy soil and provide nourishing food, medicine and fiber for their communities, while sustaining vital ecosystem functions and adapting to and even mitigating climate change.
The Ecovida Agroecology Network in Brazil is one initiative among many that illustrates the power of agroecology. In Brazil’s three southernmost states, 5,000 families have organized themselves into a collective that promotes agroecology, local economic solidarity, democratic governance and a mutually supportive relationship between producers and consumers.
Farmers like Zelma and Valdeci Steffen produce a highly diversified mix of over 100 varieties of fruits, roots and vegetables on their five-hectare farm. Their certified organic farm includes an agroforestry system that integrates bananas, açai palms and endemic trees from the Atlantic Forest — practices that draw down atmospheric carbon and sequester it deep in the soil. These perennial plants hold significantly more moisture than chemical-intensive monocropped systems — strengthening a farm’s resilience through the droughts, torrential rains and erratic weather patterns associated with climate change.
The Steffens feed their family almost entirely from the farm, and market their surplus through a local organic products consumers’ cooperative — bolstering the economic resilience of their approach as well.
One of Ecovida’s most creative institutional innovations is its approach to “polycentric governance.” Ecovida’s Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) was co-created by producers and consumers as a more democratic and less costly alternative to expensive international certification schemes. PGS has spread to countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, and is provoking thoughtful discussions about what democratic governance of food systems might look like here in the U.S.
Diversifying the landscape
Six thousand miles away in Minnesota, Carmen and Sally Fernholz manage their 450-acre family farm organically, doing their part to establish climate-resilient systems in the U.S. Midwest, using a highly sophisticated rotation of corn, soybeans, spring and winter wheats, oats, barley, golden flax, field peas and alfalfa. Productive and profitable, their farm also supports a diversity of wildlife through restored native prairie, wetlands and pollinator habitat.
For four decades, the Fernholz farm has proven remarkably resilient and successful, in part because it relies on human resources and natural ecological processes, rather than expensive fossil-fuel based capital inputs that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and erode soil and water quality. Deep-rooted perennial prairie grasses store carbon in the soil, while the rich diversity of crops enables the Fernholz family to withstand the effects of frequent commodity price swings.
But the Fernholz’s contribution to visionary farming goes beyond the farm gate. Carmen has mentored thousands of farmers, regularly hosts field days and visitors on his farm, collaborates with university scientists in organic farming research and testifies at legislative hearings about the benefits of agroecological farming. Responding to the economic vulnerability that many small-scale organic growers in the Midwest face on their own, Carmen and other farmers formed a “marketing agency in common” to pool organic grain production and foster community resilience.
Justice with joy
Urban communities too are restoring the land and reclaiming their future through agroecology. Alondra Aragon is a visionary farmer, activist, young mother and member of Urban Campesinxs, a collective in the Excelsior neighborhood of San Francisco that is building community from the ground up. An initiative of PODER (People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights), the farmers of Urban Campesinxs are committed to “growing our own food and medicine, and reconnecting to land and our ancestral roots to improve the health and well-being of our community.”
As with Ecovida, at PODER the how is just as important as the what. Urban Campesinxs are committed to building a food system grounded in justice with joy, creating “a safe and inclusive space where neighborhood folks are able to come together to govern collectively.” Bringing youth and elders together on the land, Urban Campesinxs embody the power of intergenerational organizing to nourish communities and build a just transition towards climate resilience.
As June Jordan has famously said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Wherever you are, there is a way forward. It starts with each of us, and grows immeasurably through collective action. That’s why PAN prioritizes working in coalition with frontline communities and in partnership with thousands of members around the world, as we grow climate-resilient food and farming systems, free of hazardous pesticides and rooted in agroecology and food democracy. We hope you will join the movement.
Photos: Courtesey PODER