Agriculture Without The Culture?

Today we are here to celebrate World Food Day. But many people in the world — 850 million people to be exact — have no reason to celebrate. 850 million do not have enough food to eat. This is a difficult number for us to grasp and to comprehend fully. It is a big number. 850 million is the same as bringing together the entire population of Italy, including all of you, and multiplying this number 15 times. I think you will agree that this is unacceptable. Fifteen Italies are too many people to be hungry today.
The World’s Nations have agreed that the greatest priority of this Millennium is to reduce poverty and hunger. At the Millennium Summit in 2000 and at the World Food Summit in 1996, all countries agreed to work towards the objective of halving, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger. But progress is slow.

This year’s World Food Day ‘agriculture and intercultural dialogue’ celebrates the contribution of cultural diversity to the fight against hunger. The title of my speech today is ‘Where would agriculture be without the culture?’ In its very root, the word ‘culture’ means a place that is tilled, cared for, cultivated, refined, worshipped and dwelt within. This is because it is only after the domestication of wild crops and animals and the development of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, that human populations were able to settle and begin to specialize. From that point, they were able not just to produce food, but also to spin and weave, work iron and clay, write and worship. Clearly, agriculture has never been only an economic activity. Agriculture has no price tag. It is a way of life, a heritage, a cultural identity, an ancient pact with nature. Agriculture is profoundly linked to religious beliefs, values and rituals about food and respect for the environment. In turn, the knowledge, beliefs and practices of cultures enable agriculture to feed growing populations, while sustaining the resource base for future generations.

The key idea that I would like to communicate today is that agriculture depends upon culture. Agricultural development can not be sustainable without building upon the local knowledge, skills, practices, technologies, and organizations that people have developed over time to survive in particular agro-ecological zones. This applies to all the forty two percent (42%) of all human beings (2.57 billion people) who depend directly on agriculture, hunting, fishing or forestry for their livelihoods. In some marginal agro-ecological zones, science and technology have yet to offer viable, appropriate, and sustainable solutions that can compete with those developed by indigenous cultures and knowledge.

In arid zones, for example, drought is part of life and pastoral peoples have historically developed a lifestyle adapted to variability in rainfall, allowing them to move herds wherever rain happens to fall each season. Families loan and exchange their animals with relatives living in different locations in order to reduce the risks of losing their entire herds. Diverse leafy green vegetables, neglected grain species such as fonio and quinoa, and other ‘hunger’ foods are grown in home gardens, along boundaries and irrigation ditches, and in sacred forests and occupy important niches in the system. These crops are not merely ‘hunger foods’ that enable people to survive when rains fail; many also have significant religious and nutritional value and have important potential as cash crops managed by the poor themselves.

Yet, considerable development assistance in drought-affected areas has focused on settling transhuman populations and on encouraging them to produce high yielding varieties dependent upon regular rains and inputs. As a result, in good years there may be more food, but during recurrent droughts (a regular feature of these environments), people are more vulnerable, more likely to lose their assets, and more likely to go hungry.

This is not to say that all traditional or subsistence practices are superior to scientifically or technologically-based practices. The world today no longer consists only of isolated communities producing for subsistence. But it is equally unacceptable to look at agricultural systems simply in terms of ‘traditional’ as ‘negative’ and ‘modern’ as ‘positive’. Instead, it is more appropriate to look at agricultural systems in terms of their productive capacity, and whether or not they are sustainable. Subsistence agriculture is but one of three different kinds of systems that coexist today. The others are commercial agriculture, in which there is enough surplus production that some of the harvest is sold, and industrial agriculture, in which the role of agriculture as the basis for income and employment declines and labour, capital, savings and output move to non-agricultural sectors. These three systems coexist. Subsistence, commercial, and industrial systems all involve some practices that are detrimental and some that are beneficial to the land and to people. One is not superior to or more modern than the other. In this ecologically, economically, and culturally diverse world, all of these different systems have a place. Indeed, sustainable development, the fight against hunger, and human rights and dignity depend, to some extent, upon ideas, innovations, and capacities from all three systems

The problem is that, so far, we have not paid sufficient attention to the rich tapestry of problem solving mechanisms that different communities have developed to survive in particular agro ecological zones. The spread of ideas and innovations has tended to proceed from ‘central’ economic areas to ‘peripheral’ ones, but this hampers the spread of valuable agricultural innovations from peripheral areas. Globalization, in particular, has tended to be a uni-directional process. It has tended to favour industrial agriculture over local food systems. In so doing, it has tended to give greater weight to a few commodities, a handful of industrial workers, a small number of food processors as intermediaries between the producers and consumers, and efficiency in the production to consumption chain. This preference has been principally at the expense of local food systems, and the subsistence (and to some extent commercial) agricultural systems that support them. In local food systems, hundreds of food species are cultivated, thousands of producers are employed, the link between producers and consumers is direct, and the emphasis is on food quality and human well-being. Long term food security, in terms of the future quality, access, and diversity of human foods, depends upon the maintenance of our local food cultures.

What can you do? One key step is to recognize that eating is not just a cultural practice, but a political decision. In today’s global market, your food choices influence which of these three systems (industrial, commercial, or subsistence) thrives and which declines. You are influencing not just a production process, but entire cultures, histories and ways of lives. You are essentially ‘voting with your mouths’.

Beyond this, it is important to support particular forms of intercultural dialogue. This is summarized beautifully in the Italian proverb:

‘Per conoscere bene una persona bisogna mangiare nello stesso piatto.’

Intercultural dialogue occurs when people know each other well enough to eat from the same plate. Eating together is the quintessential cultural act. In all parts of the world, sharing a meal symbolizes proximity, friendship, and peace. It symbolizes unity in a family, trust among neighbours, and a willingness to get to know a stranger. Intercultural dialogue occurs through trade, migration, tourism, and negotiation. It occurs whenever people of different cultures meet and exchange knowledge, information, beliefs, technologies and practices. So, in essence, intercultural dialogue is about having the courage to share a meal and to learn from strangers.

Intercultural dialogue is vital for the fight against hunger because it is an important source of agricultural innovation. Different cultures have learned to solve the same agricultural problems in different ways. Different cultures have contributed valuable, but very different, agricultural technologies to till the soil, harvest fish or fuel, manage pests, or store milk. Through intercultural dialogue, in the form of migration, trade, intermarriage, and sharing meals, these technologies have diffused throughout the globe and have evolved. Potatoes were originally domesticated in South America, but are now a staple food in parts of Europe. Coffee was domesticated in Africa but is a household beverage in the Americas (and in Italy). Cattle from Asia and the Near East are now an important basis of livelihoods in Africa and Latin America. The intercultural movement of crops, livestock breeds, and technologies have revolutionized diets and reduced poverty.

But as stated earlier, in reference to globalization, intercultural dialogue is not always two-directional. True intercultural dialogue requires a two way flow of information, ideas, technologies and practices. It requires a certain equality between actors, a tolerance of difference, a real recognition of the value of what another culture has to offer, and patience. In practice, poor people, women, indigenous peoples, landless workers, ethnic minorities, and the physically challenged are often not able or permitted to participate as equals in intercultural dialogue, in agricultural technology development, in policy formulation, in trade, or in agrarian reform. When information and technologies flow in only one direction, cultural diversity is lost. In this year’s World Food Day, we appeal to you to draw upon the earth’s rich cultural diversity to nurture and propagate the future agricultural innovations needed to fight hunger and poverty.

For those of you who do not know us, FAO is the oldest and largest of the United Nations specialized agencies. (FAO celebrates its 60th anniversary this year on October 17). It is governed by a Conference composed of over 180 member nations, and has 78 country offices, 10 regional and sub-regional offices, and a headquarters in Rome.

World Food Day was established in 1981. Its primary role is to raise awareness about the many dimensions of world hunger and food, and to foster national and international solidarity in the struggle against hunger, malnutrition and poverty. This is done through public awareness events, which allow the poor and rural groups to make their voices heard in local, national, and international WFD activities and by recognizing and awarding significant efforts of individuals or communities who have improved the quality, quantity or availability of food around the globe.

So what can be done to capitalize upon the earth’s rich cultural diversity to nurture and propagate the future agricultural innovations needed in this world to fight hunger and poverty? I would like to propose five courses of action.

The first course of action is to support projects fostering forms of inter cultural dialogue that value local knowledge and solutions. For example, the Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development or SARD Initiative is working to identify and build upon community good practice experiences, experiences that improve social, environmental, and economic well-being in specific agricultural settings and workplaces. It fosters intercultural dialogue through exchanges between communities confronted with similar problems. Others examples of mechanisms that promote inter-cultural dialogue include farmer field schools and integrated pest management approaches.

A second course of action is to support projects that help to maintain cultural and biological diversity. An example is the project on Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) (Sistemi ingegnosi di importanza mondiale relativi al patrimonio agricolo), which fosters the harmonious co-existence between people and their environments through millennial agricultural practices. GIAHS seeks to safeguard important indigenous agricultural systems. Agricultural Heritage Systems contribute more to food security and human well-being than is often recognized and have great potential to do so in the future.

A third course of action is to support UN conventions and systems that foster dialogue and agreement around key global issues. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (2001), the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, and the Codex Alimentarius Commission (to establish international food standards, 1962) are just a few examples of global intercultural dialogue and agreements that stand to benefit all of humanity.

A fourth action is to create and actively engage in Alliances Against Hunger. To capitalize on the world’s cultural diversity in the fight against hunger, new alliances are needed ‘to bring to the table’ the weak and the strong, the central and the marginal, ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, and the local and the global. International initiatives, partnerships, and civil society networks, such as the International Alliance Against Hunger, can help to promote the intercultural dialogue needed to help achieve these goals.

And finally, no matter who you are and what resources you have at your disposal: you can always share what you know and remain, throughout your life, modest enough to learn from others. You can take the time to share a meal with a stranger. ‘A tavola non si invecchia mai’ and you might be making a small contribution to world peace.

Human and cultural ingenuity, the right vision, partnership and support, not just from FAO and the international community, but from all of you, can surely lead to progress in achieving food security for all.

Eve Crowley is Senior Officer for Rural Livelihood Strategies and Poverty Alleviation working for the Sustainable Development Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

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