Deciding upon what to grow and how to grow it is what makes farmers more autonomous in their production. Before the Green Revolution, farmers were involved in more diversified and locally-based agricultural production that offered them both flexibility in managing risks and also more sense of autonomy in their decision-making. The linear conventional model that came with the Green Revolution, while promoted by the state, made farmers more dependent on both external inputs and external knowledge. The Inter-Associations of Collective Management Learning (InterAfocg) in France helps to address this issue by assisting local producers in their development. In a conversation with DevelopmentAid, Isabelle Hagel, a project manager from InterAfocg, shares how increasing the autonomy of farmers’ decision-making and farm management helps them to become more empowered while at the same time improving their food production systems.
Autonomy vs. linearity in food production
Before the Green Revolution and the modernisation of agriculture, many small farmers were involved in diversified production that ensured their families had a variety of food including fruits, vegetables, and nuts as well as different animals such as chickens, rabbits, goats, sheep, and pigs. Such diversity also offered certain flexibility and adaptability which would ensure food safety for the family in the event of an ecological or sanitary crisis even if some crops or animals were affected by that crisis. Producers also often saved seeds for the following year and used animal manure to increase soil fertility. Larger producers also made sure they had diversified production that enabled the minimum of feed being required for their livestock. These and other practices offered farmers a certain degree of autonomy as they were not forced to buy all the required agricultural inputs.
Nevertheless, for decades countries all over the world have been supporting the linear model which reduces farmers’ autonomy. France, one of the founders of the European Union and its Common Agricultural Policy, is an example of where a large number of producers, incentivised by subsidies, have adopted the linear model of agricultural production.
According to Isabelle Hagel, “the state in France still incentivises producers to follow the linear conventional model through subsidies which are productivity-oriented making them extremely vulnerable.”
Indeed, this approach, seemingly safe at first, over time has revealed its disadvantages as producers need to purchase all the required agricultural inputs including synthetic fertilizers, seeds, equipment, pesticides, and feed for livestock. As this conventional model has many negative effects on soil, water, and biodiversity, after a certain period of time the production system will require yet more inputs for it to be sustained, making producers dependent on even more inputs. Many farmers who have been driven to indebtedness as a result of this have even committed suicide.
Better financial management helps to improve food production
It is no longer a secret that what is ecological is also economically sound. Economies can only develop if the resources they use are constantly regenerated. If this does not happen, then the loss of nature’s resources is accompanied by a loss of financial capital, sometimes reaching trillions of euros.
Whilst the calculation of environmental and social costs is complex, a simple way to achieve this is for farmers to learn about bookkeeping and the financial management of their farms. By introducing an externally created model and technological inputs, the conventional model has also caused farmers to rely on external services and consultancies to manage their farming systems thereby also reducing their autonomy. According to Isabelle, many French farmers nowadays want to better understand their production system but cannot do so when someone else is taking care of the management for them. In order not to be more independent, they need to strengthen their management skills which is where the Afocg network is very helpful as it offers training to producers to develop these skills.
“Through these trainings where producers can learn and exchange their experience with each other, they start reflecting on many things about their system and management which makes them realise that they have different options to respond to their need,” explains Isabelle.
Isabelle emphasizes that the association does not advocate for any particular model of production, but rather accompanies producers through their development and offers them the tools to be more autonomous in decision-making. Often, the changes that happen result in more environment-friendly production as agroecological solutions reduce production costs and offer the producer a margin of flexibility. To illustrate this, Isabelle shares that rather than being dependent on synthetic fertilizers alone, farmers discover that there are other options to manage soil fertility – for example, by diversifying the system and intercropping, using cover crops, or collaborating with a neighbour who has livestock and therefore plenty of manure which can be composted into natural fertilizer. All these options are nature-based and have a very positive environmental impact. In fact, the French association, Solidarité Paysans, a partner of InterAfocg, has been working for years to help farmers to adopt agroecological practices that will make their food production system economically viable.
Thus, by offering space for collective learning, the Afocg network facilitates dialogue among different producers including organic, agroecological and conventional farmers, and helps to raise questions, enable collective reflection and exchange, and, as a result, a change in practices. Also, by collaborating with organizations such as Solidarité Paysans, which is oriented towards farmers’ well-being, it can help farmers to find out how agroecological practices can reduce the workload and prevent both economic and psychological crises.
Isabelle underlines that the tendency towards more autonomous and ecological production among farmers is very positive in France. The number of organic producers joining the Afocg network every year is growing – prior to 2014 on average only 56% of new members were organic producers whereas between 2014 and 2019 this number increased to 78% (while the national average of organic producers is 10 %). Today, there are also more policy incentives for diversified production in agriculture and the French government supports initiatives such as those introduced by InterAfocg.
Last but not least, the association is currently collaborating with organizations from other European countries to share its experience and also acquire new skills and knowledge to further strengthen its work with French farmers. The project, Bridging Generations in Agroecology, developed with the support of European Union Erasmus+ program, aims to improve skills and knowledge of agroecology based on the principles of Nyéléni and “which starts from a global consideration of the earth, living beings, and ecosystems”.