NOTE: This is a guest post from Saulo Araujo, Program Coordinator for Latin America at Grassroots International.
In rural areas like Seu Lazaro’s community in the state of Goiás, Brazil, vendors of genetically modified seeds used to drop by with wide smiles and black suitcases full of samples and colorful catalogues. Their dusty cars, parked in the middle of the road, are a map of their sales route across miles of unpaved, bumpy roads. According to Seu Lazaro, these vendors (often trained agronomists) go from house to house trying to convince peasant farmers to buy seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides by promising lush crops and a good return in the investment.
Those promises convinced Seu Lazaro’s father to use GM seeds, who then convinced him.
Seu Lazaro is 51 years old. He lives in a small house with his wife and daughter. He inherited the land that sustains them from his father. Seu Lazaro confesses. “I remember my father telling me about a corn variety that could hold up well in rain or wind. After that, like other families, we stopped planting our seeds to plant the new seeds.” And, like other famers, he paid year after year for GM seeds and expensive fertilizers to help them grow.
That was before Seu Lozaro participated with other farmers in an experiment with Creole seeds organized by the Popular Peasant Movement (MCP), a Grassroots International partner. Through participatory research, the experiment utilized a small area of farmland to evaluate which local seeds performed best for the type of soil and climate of his local community. Seu Lazaro and other farmers in his group were impressed by what they saw, particularly when they, collectively, harvested the area and weighed how much each variety yielded.
Seu Lazaro says that the GM seed vendors’ sweet talk doesn’t convince him anymore.
In reality, the production costs required by the farming techniques sold by the vendors are exceptionally high and outweigh the promised productivity levels. Peasant farmers know that farming is survival, not just a business. With the prices of corn, beans and rice in the local market controlled mostly by corporations and the commodities stock market in Chicago, farmers like Seu Lazaro are happy to learn about alternatives that are economically viable and environmentally sustainable. They understand very well that the high cost of production also increases the chances of losing the land where they grew up and currently raise their families.
Further, the industrial agriculture model pushed by corporate giants and their door-to-door salesforce is based on the use pesticides to which insects, microorganisms and weeds become resistant, demanding ever higher doses of the same inputs or the use of more expensive ones. In other words, industrial farming is addicted to agrochemicals. This dependence on poisonous compounds creates an unprecedented and costly public and environmental health problem. Since 2010, for instance, Brazil has surpassed the United States as the world’s leading consumer of agrochemicals. Currently, each person in Brazil consumes over five liters of pesticides and contaminated food per year.
Agroecology is the solution
The Peasant Popular Movement (MCP) is working with peasant farmers like Seu Lazaro to identify and restore local practices and seeds that were replaced by GM seeds and pesticides. Through popular education like the small demonstration plots using Creole seeds, MCP also promotes the use of agroecological practices such as the diversification and rotation of crops and the use of natural fertilizers. One such practice, Agroecological Corridors, combines crops with natural fertilizer species that recuperate soil fertility.
After many years of monocrops and heavy machines, soils lose fertility and cannot even grow grass. In the Agroecological Corridor, farmers cultivate plants with strong root systems to break through the compacted ground created by the use of tractors. These plants also produce a good amount of leaves and branches that will feed the microorganisms in the soil, thus increasing its fertility. In this system, farmers are able to continue producing food while improving the soil.
Seu Lazaro is using the technique on his farm for the first time. He planted his Agroecological Corridor in an area with depleted soils and he is confident that after some adjustments his area will reclaim the vitality it once had.
Agroecology employs a set of practices that are environment friendly, socially just and economic viable. Unlike industrial organic farming, agroecology is not limited to producing food without pesticides. It also protects local agro-biodiversity, and relies mainly on the work of peasant farmers to end hunger. MCP’s grassroots work to build more resilient agroecological systems that value local knowledge is critical in these times when entire peasant communities are vanishing under pressure from agro-fuels plantations to produce for export.
In fact, MCP’s agroecological work has three positive effects. By creating the conditions for peasant farmers to stay on the land, MCP helps to reduce hunger in rural areas (where the level of malnourishment is the highest), values peasants’ contribution to supply the local market (peasant communities in Brazil produces over 50 percent of everything is consumed) and creates a more sustainable food system that cools the planet.
Photo by Grassroots International.