International Adventure into Sustainable Agriculture
Exploring New Frontiers for Sustainable Agriculture
Aorganic label used to be enough to distinguish a product on the market. Food that was healthy for the body and the environment was cutting edge. Ethically responsible. Forward thinking. But times are changing, and while organic products still have broad public appeal, people today also want their food to be grown by farmers who are thriving rather than just barely scraping by. Farmers who, in addition to using crop rotation, companion planting and compost to enrich their soil, are also planting hedgerows to reduce erosion and attract birdlife. Farmers who are making sure their land is able to produce abundantly beyond their own lifetimes, and have the resources to ensure that their children have access to healthcare and a solid education.
Fair trade is a term used to describe products that guarantee farmers a minimum price for their crop that does not fluctuate with the market, plus a premium (which is higher for organic crops) that is invested in social and economic development projects that improve the quality of life within the farmer’s respective community. The movement, which started in the late 1940s, has played an important role in re-shaping sustainable agriculture to integrate the socio-economic health of the human community with that of the local ecosystem.
Today organic and fair trade labels are almost ubiquitous. When I stand in front of the chocolate section in the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, most of the chocolates are either organic or fair trade—some are both. We seem to have reached a learning plateau — one that leaves me as a consumer wondering — now what? How can farmers, consumers, governments and private companies continue to build on the tremendous progress that has been made over the last 60 years?
I was recently given the opportunity to help install a drinking water system in an organic, fair trade cocoa-farming community in the Dominican Republic, as one of 10 Ambassadors for Green & Black’s chocolate company. Our team spent two weeks living in La Laguna, a tiny farming village in Dominican Republic’s Duarte province. In order to more fully experience life in La Laguna, we stayed with local families, many of whom were cocoa farmers. We visited local cocoa farms and cocoa drying and processing facilities, learning what an incredible depth of knowledge, skill and commitment is involved in growing, harvesting and processing high quality cocoa. Every day the team would wake up to the sound of roosters at dawn, enjoy a quick breakfast with our host families (usually a cup of hot cocoa made from freshly dried and roasted cocoa beans, freshly harvested bananas and slices of pineapple), and then head out, hiking the few miles down the dirt road to our work site.
In all, we dug about seven miles of trench, and lay water pipe alongside local cocoa farmers, slowly forming relationships as we worked together to make running water a reality in their lives. Every day a different village would turn up to work with us. At the beginning of the project there were no local women on site — just men — who clearly disapproved of the idea of foreign women engaged in manual labor. But, by the end of our time in the Dominican Republic, empowered by our presence on the site, many local women and children came out to dig with us, taking full ownership of the water project as their own. In the evenings we would return to our respective houses tired and covered in dust and sweat, take a refreshing shower using a cup and a bucket of cold water, enjoy a meal with our host families, and play games with the children.
When I set off for the Dominican Republic, my goal had been to install a water system. In retrospect, what we were really doing was taking that next step that I had been wondering about in the aisle of the Co-op — experiencing the reality of life for the farmers who grow our food: learning how the premium that we pay for chocolate is being invested in practical projects that improve the lives of hundreds of cocoa farmers and their families; learning the many challenges of having only sporadic access to electricity; using cold water to bathe in an outdoor shed that is often crawling with spiders and lizards; using a long-drop toilet that is often crawling with cockroaches; getting horribly sick from eating food that had been prepared with contaminated water; seeing the difficulty of transporting cocoa to the processing plant on dirt roads riddled with potholes, and listening to grief-stricken parents whose child had lost his life attempting to get to the closest high school to further his education riding a motorcycle on unsafe roads. We exchanged stories, thoughts and ideas, established long-term personal relationships based on mutual trust and understanding, and shared Green & Black’s chocolate, made with cocoa from local farms, with the farmers who had grown it.
I was at the Co-op purchasing chocolate the other day, and I found myself scanning for Green & Black’s — not because it tastes better than any of the others, and not because it presents a more socially responsible ethic. I was very consciously choosing this brand because my relationship to it was no longer solely that of a consumer, but rather that of a partner. It no longer represented simply an ethically responsible purchase. It was a tiny first step toward levelling out the economic disparities between myself and the farmers who now have names and faces — friends whose knowledge and hard work provide me with high quality, delicious chocolate.
As we look for opportunities for evolution and progress within the sustainable agriculture movement, an area that is ripe for further exploration, it is the way in which we engage with our food system. How can we (farmers, consumers, governments, NGOs and chocolate companies) be more creative and collaborative in how we relate with each other, and work to accomplish our individual and collective goals? What actions can we take to add depth, new dimensions and a greater degree of consciousness to our interactions — to become participants that actively help shape the values and characteristics of our food system? How can we create a framework that encourages involvement and participatory learning at all levels of the system, from the field to the table? Ultimately, our agriculture system will only be as sustainable as the values and relationships of those who support it.
—By By Ariana Salvo