Loren Cardeli, co-founder and president of A Growing Culture (AGC), has spent the last 10 years traveling the world, learning from farmers and realizing that farmers are our solution to the current environmental crisis. I sat down with Loren to learn more about the amazing organization he started, and how he aims to change the way we view farmers and their critical role in changing our food system.
MD: What inspired you to start A Growing Culture?
LC: My love of agriculture and farming has led me to explore communities around the world and learn how they’ve been growing their food. These experiences triggered my interest in this movement, but my “lightbulb” moment came from a personal experience I had while working in a community in Belize. We were growing our own food, living off our own produce, hunting our own meat, deep in the jungle. One day, I walked to a local community to purchase some chickens for dinner and heard someone screaming. I saw a man holding his young son, who looked pale and limp, and it turned out his son had mistakenly ingested pesticides that were used on his crops. Tragically, his son ended up dying. Seeing this shook me, but it also opened me up to understanding that there are two models of agriculture. Just a few blocks away, we were living organically, growing our own food and connected to the source, while this nearby community was connected to a logging road, and down that road was the access to market inputs, fertilizers and chemicals. This community had become dependent on these connections with industrial and chemical farming, and what blew me away was how close, yet how far away these communities were from each other. It showed me how the industrial model not only erodes the environment, but it also erodes the culture and the community. At that moment, I decided I wanted to work with farmers all over the world to unite and amplify their solution to a better food system for all, absent of foreign, chemical and dangerous inputs.
MD: What are your views on how agriculture holds the potential to drive social and environmental change to create a better world?
LC: When AGC started working in the field 9-10 years ago, we were initially interested in the environmental systems of farming – how to create zero-waste models, cyclical models of growing food that promote things like soil fertility. What we learned through that experience is that agriculture is more about the culture than the environment. What we’ve come to believe is that to change the environment, we first have to change the culture. Our environmental footprint is a reflection of our social system first. So, we started organizing farmers to work together to innovate and create solutions that are not just about how to grow crops without chemical fertilizers or controlling pests, but also about how to get their kids to school so they can farm, how to get involved in politics, how to promote gender equality, change local legislation, and shape the community. All of these things are at the intersection of agriculture and they’re just as important as the innovations around pest management. We really believe that working with these communities to shape the dynamic of an inclusive democratic process to problem-solving and decision-making is going to ultimately lead to more environmental change.
This idea is why we’re so excited to work with Navitas Organics! Not only does Navitas work with an amazing group of organic farmers around the world, but it’s also excited about the empowering mentality and models that we use to work with farmers to make the most vibrant and dynamic organic systems out there.
MD: It sounds like the idea of a foreign organization entering a community and imposing their ways of thinking is something you fight against. Can you speak to how AGC does this work with farmers?
LC: A lot of organizations create a model or a one-size-fits-all solution for things. That formulaic approach is a reflection of the industrial model. When you create a formula for agriculture, you get 100,000 chickens in a vacuum. We need to break that thinking, because one farmer’s model is different from their neighbor’s model. But, by working together, we can improve and adapt on existing knowledge to create what we consider an open source revolution in our food system. This is ultimately what we are all about. We start by working with communities to create pedagogies or methodologies that bring farmers together to ignite their own innovation and research on the farm and in their community. Then, we work with these individuals to identify the most promising solutions that we document using different techniques, such as audio recordings, video recordings or written documents. We take that documentation – the successes and failures and stories –share that around the world digitally, and analogue with our member organizations and member farmers so there can be shared knowledge from one another outside of academic institutions. This creates solidarity and horizontal knowledge sharing that’s not dependent on institutionalized thinking. The last thing we do is come in to showcase and amplify these techniques to a greater audience – to communities like Navitas consumers, policymakers, advocates, development officials, academia, etc. – so that we can leverage and support the scaling out of this indigenous and grassroots thinking.
MD: Given that this hasn’t been the “norm” historically, what do you see as your biggest challenges to continue spreading this type of knowledge and getting this type of thinking out into the world?
LC: It’s definitely not the norm. It’s rare that we see the community being put first. You look at organizations all over the world that have gotten incredible awards for their work, but they’re bringing in outside knowledge and creating a mentality, so that’s taking away the agency and capacity of these communities, and stripping away their autonomy – a process that we believe is dehumanizing and not advantageous for everyone, because we’re not accelerating the innovation and potential of these communities or their resiliency. So what AGC really hopes to achieve is to change that mentality – to create pride, support and recognition of the peasant food web around the world. We want Navitas consumers, foodies and activists around the world to demand farmer input, and to say: “when we come to a presentation about agriculture, why is there not a farmer?” or “when we shape policy on agriculture, why are farmers’ input left out?”
This especially applies to smallholder farmers and farmers of color, which are usually completely void of the equation. Smallholder farmers produce 70% of the world’s food, using 30% of agricultural resources. That’s an amazing statistic! That means on less land and with fewer resources, they’re out-producing industrial agriculture. So, we have to change the narrative and that’s a challenge. This will only come from collective organizing and support that stems not just from the field, but from the table as well. As people that are not part of the peasant food web, it’s our responsibility to demand that these peasants, farmers and indigenous peoples have a seat at the table. We have to look beyond the shelves of Whole Foods and beyond our local Farmers’ Markets to give space to these communities.
With so much more to share on this subject, Max and Loren’s conversation continues in part two of this captivating interview. Check back next week to read on!