EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution


Soils, seeds and capitalism: political agronomy and the intimacies of farming

Location S-116
Date and Start Time 03 August, 2014 at 09:00


Birgit Müller (CNRS) email
Daniel Münster (Heidelberg University) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This panel looks at the intimacies of farming practices across the world in relation to global political economy, contested (agronomical) expertise, and environmental governance. How do farmers maintain autonomy, defend land use and seed saving, and experiment with fertilization and exchange?

Long Abstract

Agricultural practices focus the attention of policy makers nationally and internationally, mobilize environmentalists and fuel ideological battles on websites of chemical corporations and international organisations. The cultivation of GMOs, bio-fuels, and processes of standardization are the object of protracted 'science wars' within agronomy and the social sciences. In debates about possible human futures we observe a shift from questions of agricultural expansion and land rights, to what and how to cultivate, manage soil fertility and retain autonomy over seeds. Agronomy becomes political: At a historical conjuncture in which small-scale farmers across the world face multiple vectors of dispossession, strategies of coping and contestation include experimentation with alternative practices of farming, fertilization and exchange.

In this panel we look at the intimacies of farming practices and analyse them in the wider economic and political context of international trade and investment treaties, UN sponsored guidelines and recommendations, and imperatives of environmental governance. Discourses and practices of farmers confront different eco-systems, government policies and corporate market penetrations, as they attempt to make their crops grow and sell it. We are interested in mechanisms of governance and appropriation, in government and corporate regulations as well as in farming skills and in attempts at maintaining autonomy, defending land use and seed saving. How do farmers navigate contested agronomies, incorporate and translate competing knowledge claims about agriculture into their practices of cultivation.? We invite contributions that can draw on solid work in the field.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Granules of consent: owning and controlling the fertility of the land in Saskatchewan

Author: Birgit Müller (CNRS)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the attraction of agrochemicals and synthetic fertilizers, their promotion by State and corporations and the intense relationship of passion and frustration that Saskatchewan farmers experience when they strive for maximum yield.

Long Abstract

In spring time Saskatchewan it is common to see a computer geared tractor with GPS pull a series of twenty meter wide farm implements. Many farmers who run these implements have delegated the decision of how much nitrogen they put on the field to a laboratory that does soil tests and provides them with a computer simulation of how much fertilizer maximises their result. In this paper I want to explore the intense relationship of passion and frustration that farmers experience when they attempt to get the maximum yield out of the field while battling with production contracts, the unpredictability of the weather and high financial risks.

The chemical revolution since the 19 century reversed the energy balance of agriculture from capturing solar energy through agricultural crops to the production of food through fossil fuels, thereby substituting human labour in the field with capital. How does the relationship to the soil and the sensorial perception of its fertility change? Why do farmers develop an addiction to chemicals that conflicts with a careful balancing of financial benefits? This paper looks at the representations of Prairie farming and the governance mechanisms of corporations and the State that make farmers consent to their gradual replacement by machines and chemicals. It also inquires to what extent different agricultural practices, that insulate farmers from market dependency on the input side, can free them from pure economic calculation allowing them to develop a more caring attitude to the land.

Landscapes and seedscapes: struggles for organic sovereignty in Latvia and Costa Rica

Author: Guntra Aistara (Central European University)  email

Short Abstract

Organic farmers' movements on the margins of global powers are torn between contradictory pressures to simultaneously diversify and “conventionalize” their farms and landscapes. In response, they engage in struggles for "organic sovereignty," complementing a range of global movements for food sovereignty.

Long Abstract

The Latvian organic agriculture movement emerged in the 1980s as resistance to Soviet industrialized and collectivized agriculture, but must now comply with European Union (EU) rules, while the Costa Rican movement that began around the same time defines itself as an alternative to US-dominated monoculture plantations, whose power they see as reinforced through the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). This paper shows how local interpretations and enactments of diversity were integral to the creation of culturally meaningful landscapes of organic agriculture in both countries. In Latvia, land regained after de-collectivization has taken on a nearly mythical quality as a symbol of independence at the national and individual levels, while in Costa Rica, seeds are one of the few farming "inputs" over which many small farmers have maintained control despite various socioeconomic shifts and migrations. The paper traces land management practices in Latvia and seed saving and exchange in Costa Rica. It argues that in both countries, organic farmers create vibrant networks of biological and cultural diversity that are under pressure to conform to regulatory standardization associated with Latvia's entry into the EU and Costa Rica's entry into CAFTA. The paper analyzes how organic farmers and their movements located on the margins of global powers are torn between contradictory pressures to simultaneously diversify and "conventionalize" their farms and landscapes. In response, they defend their farmscapes and movements in struggles for "organic sovereignty," complementing a range of global movements for food sovereignty.

Capitalist efforts and shifting cultivators' intimate practices in vanilla cultivation in Northeast Madagascar

Author: Jenni Mölkänen (University of Helsinki)  email

Short Abstract

The paper explores demands in the vanilla industry and shifting cultivators' intensive engagement in their environment and cultivation practices. What is cultivated and how is a multilayered and constantly negotiated topic and understanding power structures does not explain it thoroughly.

Long Abstract

Madagascar, one of the world's conservation hot spots, is the world's biggest vanilla producer providing 70-80% of world's vanilla. The most of the Madagascar's vanilla is produced in northeast of the island where cultivation is done by shifting cultivators living in villages near to Marojejy National Park. Colonial government and later Malagasy state together with environmental and developmental organizations have encouraged and regulated cultivation of vanilla to get tax revenues, to be able to act in global economy and to change their ways of natural resource use, especially quitting burning hillside rice fields and to protect the park. Still, today vanilla is cultivated in dual cultivation system: rice providing subsistence and vanilla money, both circulating in villagers' debt systems. Recently arguments of sustainability and vanilla's organic nature have become important in vanilla producing industry. Organic is used as an argument when price is negotiated by cultivators and sustainability adds value for industry's marketing strategies.

Cultivation and producing of vanilla is labour intensive. All work is done manually by the cultivators. Due to and intensive engagement in their environment, shifting cultivators have developed knowledge about landscape, plant's ecology and techniques how to produce vanilla that seeks to correspond quality standards defined by vanilla using industry and their consumers. This paper argues that what is cultivated and how is multilayered and constantly negotiated topic related to intimacies of human life and understanding of power structures do not explain it thoroughly.

Microbes against the market: alternative agronomy, intimate human-soil relationships and the cultivation of food sovereignty among Kerala's zero budget natural farmers

Author: Daniel Münster (Heidelberg University)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on Polanyi and Marx, I critically analyze an emerging food sovereignty movement that, in the context of agro-ecological crisis, promises hope to small-scale farmers by minimizing market dependence, challenging state agronomy, and new methods of building soil fertility with microbial ferments.

Long Abstract

This paper focusses on the Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) Movement among small-scale farmers in Wayanad, Kerala (India). This system of farming, invented and propagated by charismatic leader Subhash Palekar, breaks with conventional methods (chemical and organic farming) of soil management through the application of ferments brewed with the products of native cows. Drawing on theories of the metabolic rift (Marx, Foster) and the work of Polanyi, this papers focuses on the possibility of repairing the rift between human and non-human nature in agriculture under capitalist conditions. It will argue that in the context of a severe agro-ecological crisis in the region this food-sovereignty movement restores hope and a sense of an agrarian future for Wayanad's petty commodity producers. It does so by propagating a low input farming with innovative methodologies of restoring soil fertility with microbes activated by fermenting the products of the native cow. ZBNF is a protective double movement (Polanyi) by insulating farmers from the reliance on credit and commercial inputs. With its methods of restoring fertility and productivity the movement challenges mainstream agronomy, conventional chemical farming and organic farming. The paper will also highlight some contradictory dynamics of its recent adaptation in Kerala and its proximity to right-wing (Hindutva) ideology in its re-evaluation of the Indian (desi) cow, its insistence on "spiritual" relations to "nature" and in formulating its critique of globalization, state agronomy and organic farming in terms of "conspiracy".

Farming in high mountains for high-end markets: certified organic agriculture and agrarian change in Baltistan, Pakistan

Author: Julia Poerting (University of Bonn)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the implications of the recent introduction of certified organic agriculture in the high mountain valleys of Baltistan. Based on ethnographic field work in two districts, I illustrate how farmers translate disciplinary organic standards and evaluate changes in agrarian relations.

Long Abstract

Agricultural production in the North Pakistani region of Baltistan is determined by its geographical features. Due to its isolated location in the high mountains of the Himalaya and Karakorum ranges, the agricultural season is short and transportation issues make domestic markets inaccessible for agricultural products. Only recently, certified organic agriculture has incorporated Balti farmers into a global organic agri-food system (Friedmann 2005). Certified organic agriculture was introduced to the farmers by export firms that bear the costs for certification and transportation and export the high-end products such as dried apricots, almonds and sea buckthorn to Chinese, European and US markets. To meet international demand, exporters, in cooperation with district agricultural departments, have to experiment with different cultivars, set up processing units and get access to assured land resources for long-term planning.

By analyzing examples from my field work in two Balti districts, I analyze how the recent expansion of certified organic agriculture into the area has changed land management, cultivars and farming practices of the producers. Farmers, who rely on the export firms' market knowledge, shift from subsistence farming to cash cropping and have to negotiate changes in land management and land tenure. I illustrate how they translate organic standards and manage the introduction of new seed varieties and planting techniques that replace tried and tested land use systems. I discuss how farmers, in the context of disciplinary organic standards (Vandergeest 2009) and new possibilities attached to COA, evaluate their autonomy over their fields.

Soft worms going wild, sericulture in interconnected socio-technical Asian worlds

Author: Annabel Vallard (Université Libre de Bruxelles / Laboratoire d'anthropologie des mondes contemporains)  email

Short Abstract

Drawing on ethnographic data collected in the Thai silk industry, this paper aims to highlight how farmers and also researchers, governmental officers or policy makers seize various species of ‘domesticated’ and ‘wild’ silkworms in relation with biotechnological skills, regulations and appropriation

Long Abstract

Throughout history, sericulture crystallized economic and political stakes that are nowadays catalysed in biotechnologies, especially genetic engineering. This "technological revolution" bound together interconnected, but often contrasted, socio-technical worlds. Being fabricated in laboratories in order to be hardier to climate and animals that cause damage to them and / or to produce longer, more regular or whiter fibres in accordance with hypothetical market's expectations, varieties of Bombyx mori are grown and raised in farms, and gradually spread around the world. Like the silk they are producing, these varieties are considered as totally moulded by humans and are supposed to enter the agro-based industry as crops characterized by their passivity and their softness. Beside these so-called "domesticated" Bombyx mori, other species also produces silk that is collected by humans from abandoned cocoons. Entrepreneurs, researchers, policy makers and farmers develop a strong interest on these biological organisms and the silk they produce, both being qualified as "wild".

In Thailand, which is renowned throughout the world for its silk threads and fabrics, these two kinds of species are nowadays competing. On a comparative basis drawing on ethnographic data collected in farms, laboratories and governmental offices along commodity chains that link Japan, India and Southeast Asia, this paper proposes to highlight ways by which worms are seized by farmers with regard to their mobilization by other practitioners such as researchers, governmental officers or policy makers and to question their discourses and practices that navigate between collaboration and confrontation, intimacy and regulation, softness and wildness.

Food as a political practice: alternative farming in Spain

Author: Cristina de Benito Moran (Autónoma University of Madrid)  email

Short Abstract

Alternative farming initiatives are growing in Madrid. These farmers are trying to build an autonomous food system, contesting the hegemonic farming practices and the social relationships that support them. We will approach their practices, motivations, strategies and the problems that they face

Long Abstract

Based on a fieldwork of three years in the realm of food social movements in Spain, in this paper we will look at the practices of different small young farmers of Madrid and its surroundings who, from the perspective that food (in a wide sense) is a political matter, try to build an alternative food system through agro-ecological farming and direct links between consumers and producers.

These farmers try not only to maintain their autonomy from the hegemonic agro-food system by implementing another relationship with soil and seeds, but also from the official system of organic agriculture in the country, and, in a broader sense, from what they understand as the capitalist society.

In this way the strategies of creating links for exchange and support between different farmers and consumers has become an essential step in order to keep their autonomy from the market system. However, given that the meaning of autonomy is continually being negotiated through their practices and debates, we will approach this concept in a relational way. What they understand about autonomy and how they try to keep that autonomy depends on different situations and on different social agents involved in them.

Finally we will also analyze their motivations and strategies and the problems and contradictions that they face when trying to build a non capitalist "way of doing things" in the heart of a capitalist society.

Activists and producers: between market, morality and politics

Author: Valeria Siniscalchi (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Marseille)  email

Short Abstract

Over the last years Slow Food has invested in the field of production extending its action from consumers to producers. This integration of small farmers and breeders interacts with the interests of producers. The paper reflects on economic models that emerge from these interactions and negotiations.

Long Abstract

Over the last fifteen years, Slow Food movement has increasingly invested in the field of production, extending its action from consumers to producers. Its new battles include the fight against intensive agro-industrial production, against standardization of taste and food, against GMOs. With projects around "food communities", small producers and local economies and the Terra Madre meeting, Slow Food's gaze and actions "encompass" producers and their living and working conditions. This shift to and integration of small farmers and small breeders in the movement interacts with the various interests of producers. What kinds of negotiations between activists and producers happen in these interactions? And what kinds of economic models emerge ? This paper aims to reflect on these interactions from the points of view of producers and from the points of view of activists. Beyond the variety of perspectives, the links with Slow Food is used by producers to legitimize their political actions and in different arenas, as well as to increase their visibility and to have or consolidate a place in the market. For its part, the leaders of SF are able to exert pressure in national and transnational conflictual arenas of food production; at the same time, they exercise the role of experts (re)defining the quality of production and 'good' and 'fair' producing practices. But this role generates frictions and conflicts.

Food quality standards and struggles over the control of the labour process on mushroom farms in Ireland

Author: Francisco Arqueros (University of Almeria, Spain)  email

Short Abstract

Quality standards represent the way in which retail capital controls the labour process on labour-intensive mushroom farms in Ireland without directly entering production. James C. Scott's theory of domination and resistance will be used to assess growers’ resistance to quality standards.

Long Abstract

In this paper, I explore the link between quality standards and the labour process on mushroom farms in Ireland: how quality standards represent the way in which retail capital control the labour process on farms without directly managing them.

We can think about food quality standards as: (1) a system of governance of food chains; (2) a device for the subjection of labour under capital and the introduction of large-scale production methods in small scale, labour-intensive agricultural production.

Through quality demands, retailers implement a range of regulations and management techniques to ensure that farmers and their employees work in an exacting and systematic way. In this way, retail capital tries to break the limits that the type of subjection of labour to capital, particularly in contract farming, set to the control of the work process.

Farmers see compliance with quality standards as "the way to go" because otherwise their produce would not reach the supermarkets' shelves. It constitutes an advantage in a very tight market. I will consider whether James C. Scott's theory of domination and resistance is useful to assess growers' resistance to quality standards.

This paper presents the outcome of extensive fieldwork carried out on mushroom farms in County Monaghan, Ireland, between 2005 and 2006. The Irish mushroom, based on contract growing, was set up in the 1980s. Due to increasing competition, growers expanded production in the 1990s and adopted more "efficient" growing systems and quality standards demanded by large supermarkets chains, where their produce was distributed.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.