Can small-scale producers nurture climate resilience and feed us all?

Small-scale farmers and fishers and community producers, especially those from BIPOC communities do more than growing and catching food. Their work directly impacts community health and wellbeing, and because many of them use ecological agricultural practices rooted in traditional farming, their efforts contribute to improving soil health, increasing regional biodiversity, and ultimately mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis. Community farms, cooperative and urban gardens have also historically been spaces where people can gather, and reconnect with the land and their people.

Industrial agriculture is designed around an extractive relationship with the land, water, and other natural resources—large scale monocropping, or the practice of growing the same one or two crops (mostly corn and soy today) on the same plot of land, ultimately depletes soil health, making it less productive over time and increasing farmers’ reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. A lot of these crops go toward animal feed used on factory farms, aka Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). CAFOs contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, and burden workers and rural communities with polluted air and water. Industrial fisheries have a similar impact on our oceans. Large amounts of pesticides and antibiotics are used in on and offshore aquafarms, and overfishing, bottom trawling, and longline fishing not only impacts fish stock but can harm ocean biodiversity. Emerging developments like genetically modified salmon also pose a threat to native species and undermine indigenous communities’ food sovereignty.

This extractive mode of production is at the root of our food system’s role in the climate crisis. It’s behind the greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution, biodiversity loss, and soil depletion that are symptoms of a failing food system.

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A remedy to the climate crisis

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than 90% of farms around the world are run by an individual or a family and rely primarily on family labor. Despite the myth that industrial agriculture and biotechnology are needed to feed the world, these family farms produce about 80% of the world’s food. Throughout time, people have evolved place-based cultivation techniques and trading systems, adapting to ecological and social conditions. And while industrial agricultural systems rely heavily on fossil fuels and chemical applications that contribute to climate change and biodiversity loss, smaller-scale producers not only depend on thriving ecological systems, they often contribute to them through nutrient cycling, habitat creation, and more.

Several studies have shown that utilizing traditional farming practices, which are rooted in stewardship and the interdependence of environmental and human health, can help mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis. Traditional agroecological practices (also known as regenerative agriculture) are built on a mutual relationship with the land.

Instead of using harmful pesticides, fertilizers, and monoculture practices, the majority of farmers around the world are small-scale producers using compost, cover cropping, minimal tillage, and crop diversity to grow food. In doing so, they are nurturing soil health, protecting biodiversity, and sequestering carbon in the soil, thereby reducing the amount of carbon in our atmosphere. Scientists say that transforming our food system to reflect these practices can potentially change the fate of our planet. Many farmers are already seeing small, but significant results like richer soil, increased biodiversity in the surrounding areas, and improved water retention. Many BIPOC producers who neither benefit from nor have an interest in industrial agricultural practices continue to farm using this traditional ecological knowledge.

EXPLORE: Real Food Media’s Tackling Climate Change Through Food Organizing Toolkit

Building community and resilience

For BIPOC communities, food and farming have long been connected to civil rights, community self-determination, and collective liberation. Many BIPOC agricultural communities have long been at the forefront of creating models that are heralded as part of a new sustainable agricultural movement.

While the predominantly white back-to-the-land “movement” of the 1970s is often credited for food distribution models like Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s, often known as “the box”), its origins are simultaneously rooted in Japan and birthed in the US via Black communities in the deep South in the 1960s. The original CSAs served as a means for consumers to buy-in and share the risk of crop failures due to weather or other unforeseen circumstances, and to share equally in the harvest.

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Cooperative practices by farmers in the South played a key role in the Civil Rights movement and because Black and Brown communities continue to experience food apartheid to this day, they have always turned to each other and to the community to feed themselves and provide healthful food for their families. Some For many that have been systematically left out of the food system and often borne the brunt of a food system that was designed to amass wealth through their oppression, growing food on their terms and ensuring the communities’ access to it, is in itself a radical political act. The majority of BIPOC producers today are politically motivated by the need to fight for a more equitable, and ecologically sound food system and reclaim their connections to the land that has been historically denied to them. They use their position as providers and their land access to create space for learning, healing and resisting. Organizations like Truly Living Well in Atlanta and La Semilla Food Center in Anthony, NM have succeeded not only in growing food for local communities but also in creating a welcoming space for people to reconnect with their food sources, with each other and learn how to farm. The Dine Food Sovereignty Alliance is working with indigenous producers to honor their ancestral traditions and heal their land and advocate for a return to traditional farming practices and stewardship that their communities have used for generations.

READ: Diné Food Sovereignty – A Report on the Navajo Nation Food System and the case to Rebuild a Self-Sufficient Food System for the Diné People

Even as the largest chemical pesticide, fertilizer, and pharmaceutical companies buy up the food system and consolidate power by controlling seeds and inputs, indigenous communities and other BIPOC producers continue to grow, save and trade seeds – and with these traditional heirloom seeds – keep their cultures alive.

WATCH: Rematriation of Seeds | Rowen White

As we take measures to mitigate the climate crisis and commit to fighting systemic racism and white supremacy in our food systems, we should start by acknowledging the stewardship and resilience of these producers and organizations and their contributions to the community, the movement, and the planet. We should be asking ourselves what we can do to ensure that small-and-medium producers, especially those from BIPOC communities need to thrive. Apart from changes in policy and leadership, philanthropic dollars, community patronage and institutional funding can go a long way in honoring the work of BIPOC producers and ensuring that they can continue their critical work.