We were headed in the wrong direction, I was sure, and today I take no pleasure in realizing that I was right.
This historic shift to large-scale, corporate-dominated agriculture continues the centuries-old process shift black farmers in the United States; and indigenous and peasant farmers in much of the world. He has poisoned those who work the land and spread an ultra-processed, meat-centric diet that is now involved globally in our deadliest non-communicable diseases.
I will never forget the doctor from rural India who, over a decade ago, told me his patients suffered from low calories, but not anymore. With companies spreading ultra-processed products around the world, now its patients main diseases are heart disease and diabetes.
My daughter Anna and I traveled to India for our book, Edge of hope. Before hearing his shocking words, we had first seen the evidence of the overlapping sources of these diet-related illnesses. A sign ? While driving along the rural roads of northern India, we saw groves of trees painted with large Pepsi logos just at eye level.
As this power and profit-driven agricultural regime spread – in tandem with the deterioration economic inequalities – hunger persists. Forage crops and cash crops for export have replaced many indigenous and seasonal food crops, and today, around the world, have caused severe calorie deficiency for no less than 811 million of us. That’s almost two and a half times the American population. By a larger measure, one in three people on Earth do not have access to adequate food, reports the food policy arm of the UN.
This suffering continues even as the world produces a lot of calories and a fifth more calories per person that when I first wrote Diet for a small planet.
Despite this devastation, I now write with a new hope – a hope founded on evidence.
Today, we have proof not only of courageous resistance to the failing food model, but also of ingenuity and cooperation creating ways that serve life. Emerging grassroots movements produce healthy food by diffusing energy and supporting the tapestry of life in soil, water and atmosphere.
In other words, they create a democracy defined not just as elected governance, but as a way of life – what my young self envisioned was indeed the way forward to end hunger. However, I did not appreciate it then in its existing forms or foresee its current emergence.
Along the way, I have been continually fed by the research of Professor Jules Pretty at the University of Essex in the UK. But his most recent discoveries excite me the most.
Last year, Pretty and her team released a Perspective at 50 on the evolution of agriculture, especially in low-income countries. They found that after decades of top-down neoliberal approaches starting in 2000, a radically different way of being with Earth was beginning to emerge – this time from the ground up.
Growing at remarkable speed in 55 countries, they write that bottom-up collaborative groups have begun to spread sustainable agriculture and forestry. Their vital practices are reminiscent of how we humans have taken care of ourselves and the earth for eons – through “common rules and sanctions” derived from “shared values,” observes the Pretty team. They noted that “relationships of trust, reciprocity and mutual obligation” were the key to their success.
These self-governing groups are part of what I have come to call a living democracy.
The astonishing overall conclusion of the Pretty team? While in the year 2000 there were around half a million such groups, over the next two decades, eight millions emerged.
Eight million in twenty years – whoa!
So, in short, 8.5 million There are now self-organized community organizations that align their agriculture and forestry with nature, almost all in low-income countries. Together, they revive the land near the india size. These organizations have contributed to the adoption of policy changes in many countries, such as the recognition of the rights of nature in Ecuador in 2008.
The brilliance of Pretty and her team, I believe, is that they have traveled the earth and learned lessons of empowerment, cooperation and relentless persistence that we can all use.
Even I might have been skeptical if I hadn’t had my own unforgettable tastes of this global emergence.
One of the most memorable was when I had the opportunity in Hyderabad, India, to meet women in one of the 75 villages in the Deccan Development Corporation (DDS), a biodiverse agriculture initiative that I have admired from afar for years.
Sitting surrounded by smiling women wearing gorgeous sarees, many enthusiastically shared their stories with me.
Two decades earlier, hunger was their daily reality, and many reported feeling helpless in their own homes.
But then a few women started to meet – and to dream. Others joined in and once a week they started to congregate at night after their children fell asleep. Their “sangham” (women’s group) devised joint plans to transform the nearby arid and abandoned lands into fertile agricultural land by growing organic and diverse food crops. A savings circle, each member paying modest sums, enabled Sangham members to afford revolving loans to buy or rent small plots of this land.
This self-financing approach of the group towards the organization is not unique to DDS, as it has appeared in many regions of the world, as the 2014 book points out, In their hands: how savings groups are revolutionizing development.
Today there is “no hunger in our village,” said the women, beaming as they guided me through their fields, each no more than an acre or so, to see for myself at at least twenty varieties of crops – millet, legumes, green vegetables, and other vegetables – all thrive together.
Deeply moved by everything I had learned, I expressed my thanks and started to leave the village. But suddenly I heard voices. Turning around, I saw women rushing towards me shouting, “We forgot to tell you the most important thing!” I stopped, and this is what I heard: “Mostly what we get from our sangham is courage.
Their courage enabled DDS to change. For example, they influenced state policy to include their healthier cereals in school meals. Their beautiful message goes straight to the heart of everything I have learned over this half century: Answers come when we build courage through bonds of deep trust.
These women embody the broader renaissance of the findings of Professor Pretty and her team: they feel that almost 30 percent farms around the world are now using environmentally friendly practices, such as agroforestry, that keep soil, water and species diversity healthy and the families that depend on it.
Contributing to this progress is Via Campesina. Formed in 1993, its 200 million peasants form a network in 81 countries, linking 182 peasant organizations. Together, they create “food sovereignty,” a powerful expression of living democracy based on self-determination, ecological principles and justice.
Hope has power, so let’s get the word out about what’s not only possible, but also what these pioneers are already creating. Together, let’s find our own courage to demand policies that support family and cooperative farming that protect our soils, our water and our people.
THIS ARTICLE IS ON the topics covered in the 50th anniversary edition of my book, Diet for a small planet, released in September 2021. This release features an all-new opening chapter, simple rules for healthy eating, and updated recipes from some of the country’s top chefs with a focus on plants and the planet. We are delighted to share this with you; order your copy here now! You can join the Movement for Democracy on www.democracymovement.us.