“Preventing the collapse of human civilisation requires nothing less than a wholesale transformation of dominant cultural patterns”
(The Worldwatch Institute - State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures)
“Since the 1990s, two-thirds of all conflicts in the world have been caused by shortages of land, food or water”
(Julian Cribb – The Coming World Famine”)
“The Christian religion appears to many as a failed religion because it has focussed too much on ‘my spiritual life’ and not the main part of Jesus’s teachings which addressed social injustices, poverty and ecological care of creation”
(Brian McClaren - Everything Must Change)
These are some of the articles, papers and books that thinking people are writing about or meeting at conferences to discuss. We cannot ignore these warning messages.
One such conference was the 4th quadrennial conference of the International Rural Christian Association (IRCA), which met in September 2010 in Altenkirchen, Germany, to discuss the IAASTD report to the United Nations entitled “Agriculture at a Crossroads”. IAASTD is the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development of food resources to reduce poverty and hunger. The report, which was written over four years with contributions from 600 scientists and 30 governments, addressed three key questions. How can the world:
- Reduce hunger and poverty?
- Improve rural livelihoods?
- Facilitate equitable use of agricultural knowledge, scientific innovation and technology?
The World Council of Churches had asked IRCA, which has representatives from rural churches and many denominations from all continents, to discuss the global challenge of hunger from the perspective of the rural Christian church. What role can the Christian church take? Six Australian Uniting Church members attended the conference, including four from NSW – Ross Neville, Lindsay Cullen, and Kevin and Susan Harper.
Hunger is already severe across the world. A billion people are malnourished in the world today, even though enough food is currently produced to feed everyone. International reports such as the IAASTD report, State of the World 2010 and, locally in Australia, Professor Julian Cribb’s book “The Coming Famine”, all portend an escalation of the situation. Cribb maintains that causes of the food crisis are many and compounding. Some that he describes in detail are:
Biofuel competition for food; speculators manipulating food availability and prices; growth in human population; increasing weather variability; protectionism by governments in the form of farm subsidies; the lack of increases in food productivity and yields since the 1980s; limits to the planet’s natural resources; social unrest because of food shortages; consumer demand for improved standards for quality, storage and production; water shortage crises; land scarcity for farming; nutrient losses from the soil and peak fertiliser; the energy balance dilemma (the large amounts of energy required to produce food and supply it to consumers); ocean acidification and warming.
Cribb suggests the crises the world faced during the 20th century onwards, such as nuclear conflagration, the ozone hole, and global warming, are all gradually forcing the world to become a single people because we are on a single planet. “The coming threat of world famine is a trial for common humanity”, he states.
Cribbs’ assessment of world famine may be considered by some to be extremely pessimistic, but globally it is a message being repeated by many people. It is clear that business-as-usual agricultural practices are not an option. The State of the World report puts it well: “The Western way of farming is unsustainable; it destroys the resources it depends on; it relies on inputs that are non-renewable and running out; our farming systems use more energy than they produce in food output”.
The key findings/recommendations of the IAASTD report, in response to the crisis, include the following:
- Small farmers are the key to overcoming hunger and poverty sustainably
- The multi-functionality of agriculture must be appreciated and rewarded
- Food sovereignty should be a guiding principle – food security is not enough
- Women make the difference
- Public research working with farmers, not for farmers, can complement local agricultural knowledge
- We can trust and build on people’s geniality
- To overcome hunger the world needs a social and political strategy to empower people
- In short, we need an agronomic economic revolution
These messages appear to be unpalatable to many global decision makers. Unfortunately, the report has been largely ignored, including by entities which funded and initiated the project including the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, and various multinational corporations. Australia, the USA and Canada refused to be signatories to the report. The IRCA gathering expressed its deep concern about the sidelining of the report, and called upon the churches to ask for answers as to why, and to advocate for adoption of the report and implementation of its findings.
Even as agricultural reform is blocked at the global level, people are taking action more locally.
In Australia, some farmers, governments and churches are exploring options for farming that they believe are sustainable (self-replacing). For example, over the last 12 years, the Christian Farmers Conferences in NSW have hosted a variety of key speakers who have become alternative practitioners. These men and women have introduced different farming strategies in the Australian commercial context. Some of these alternative practices worldwide are:
- Organic farming, where no artificial chemicals are introduced into the system;
- No till farming, where the ground is basically left undisturbed and crops are sown into normal plant systems, allowing soil carbon build up;
- Permaculture farming, which is an integration of organic, no till and village design to allowing recycling, rotation and companion plants and animals to all work together in a system;
- Agro-forestry farming, which combines trees shrubs, annual crops and livestock;
- Perennial polycultures, which is a new system of farming being developed in USA where annual crops are being replaced by perennial crops; and
- Aquaponics, wherein fish stocks in fresh water systems work together with plants, land animals and land based crops.
While most of these alternative farm practices are considered fringe by many research scientists and the general Western farming population, they are starting to gain popularity. Very few farmers are really comfortable with the high-input environmentally damaging farming that is still being promoted as best practice. Farmers are instinctively stewards of the land. They are beginning to see sustainable and alternative farming practices springing up around the country, and are witnessing the results with their own eyes. Unfortunately, there is only a small amount of scientific research that appears to support the validity of these methods of farming. The general decline in government funded research in agriculture is an issue that the IAASTD report highlighted, as well as the concentration of research funding on large farms. (90% of research funding globally is focused on only 0.6% of farms which are over 100 hectares in size. In contrast, 85% of farms in the world are less than two hectares.)
While some farmers in Australia attempt to shift away from an agriculture that isn’t working in this changing world environment, their counterparts in the poorer countries of the world are resisting developments that are setting them on a similar destructive path – defending their rights to: self-determination against land grabs; unjust global markets; genetically modified seeds and the attendant dependency on increased agricultural inputs; and the ecologically and socially damaging ramifications of these developments. International peasants movement Via Campesina, which has 148 member groups from almost 70 countries (both wealthy and poor) in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, asserts that it is the world’s small farmers and reinvigorated local food systems that will feed the hungry, protect the environment, and provide resilience in the face of climate change and the peaking of resources. This is supported by the scientific analysis of the IAASTD report.
But turning the Western suicidal agricultural system around is not a task which farmers can do alone. Consumers also have an important role to play. People in cities and towns are demanding more sustainable methods of food growing that are environmentally sound, chemical-free, and that support small farmers. In Sydney, for example, there is an increasing number of farmers markets, food cooperatives and organic buyers groups dotted across the metropolitan area. A new community supported agriculture scheme known as Food Connect is building links between city dwellers and farmers on the rural fringe and in the larger region through the sourcing of fresh, organic, seasonal produce as locally as possible.
Not only are consumers demanding different food – they are also growing some of it themselves. As the CSIRO has noted, “many people are waking up to the wisdom of growing food within and around cities and towns, a movement that is leading to the creation of more sustainable communities” (Rachel Sullivan, ECOS Magazine, January 2010). For example, there are 13 community gardens in the City of Sydney local government area alone, with more in the pipeline.
In spite of the renaissance of community food in the city, it – like alternative farming practices in rural areas – is still on the fringe. The two big supermarkets (Coles and Woolworths) control 55-60% of Australia’s grocery sector, and increasing urban sprawl in Sydney threatens some of the most productive agricultural land in the state – land that has traditionally supported small family farmers, many of them immigrants, and provided the city with much of its fresh vegetables and poultry. To combat this, food advocacy network the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance is calling for government to commission a land capability study to identify prime agricultural land on the urban fringe, and to implement planning legislation to protect such land from development.
Although still small, the potential of community food initiatives is considerable. What is also clear is that they are not just about caring for the environment, nor about supporting the livelihoods of small farmers, or even about health concerns regarding conventionally grown food. Community food initiatives are about the hospitality and relationships that come with the sharing of food. In proactively rebuilding connections with food growing and food supply, people in cities and towns are rebuilding their communities.
According to Brian McClaren, a paradigm shift away from individualism and back to the idea of community is key to changing the “suicidal pattern” of the culture of consumerism that is driving us to the brink of destruction. Many believe the Christian church has a significant role to play in this culture shift, by grasping the gospel of Jesus and living out his commands to love our neighbours, by standing against injustice and exploitation of the poor, and by living out our calling to care for God’s creation. The Worldwatch Institute notes that “most religions and spiritual traditions have a great deal to offer in creating cultures of sustainability”. The NSW Farmers Camps are one example. Church projects in Africa, Korea, India, Romania, Germany and elsewhere that are proactively training farmers in alternative farming practices are another – and a model that we could well emulate here in Australia. Moreover, growing numbers of congregations are connecting with their local communities through community food projects in cities and towns across Australia – by using their grounds for community gardens, setting up food co-ops and buying groups, and joining community supported agriculture schemes.
Community awareness of the urgency of the issues is growing. We have an opportunity not only to sound the alarm bell, but also to be part of the solution.
To change the culture of a society is a really difficult struggle, and at times sets us against governments, multinationals, media and vested interests. But it can be done, and it is a task God has called the church to do many times over history. The difficulty this time is we don’t have a lot of time...
Margaret Mead is claimed to have said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that has.”
We in the Church don’t doubt Jesus did it, and that we are called to do the same.
‘The Coming Famine’ Julian Cribb CSIRO publishing 2010
‘Everything must change’ Brian McLaren 2007, Thomas Nelson
The Worldwatch Institute - State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures, www.worldwatch.org
IRCA 2010 Conference Resolution, www.irca.net.nz
IAASTD Report, www.agassessment.org/docs/10505_Multi.pdf
A version of this article first appeared in Insights, November 2010. www.insights.uca.org.au.