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Transcript for

Episode 7: Elena Lazos Chavero on Scale and Sovereignty

[intro music] 

Matthew

Welcome to the Feed, a food system podcast presented by TABLE, a collaboration between the University of Oxford, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University. I’m Matthew Kessler -

Samara

And I’m Samara Brock. And today we’re lucky to be joined by Elena Lazos Chavero

Elena

Thank you very much for the invitation. I am Elena Lazos Chavero, and I am from Mexico. I am researcher and professor at the Institute of Social Sciences, in Spanish it’s Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, and it’s part of the National University of Mexico, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico.

Matthew

Elena is also a member Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and has co-authored more than 100 papers on subjects including the political ecology of agrobiodiversity conservation and food sovereignty, perceptions and impacts on transgenic corn, and socio-environmental vulnerabilities to climate change.

Samara

We speak with Elena about how her research interests formed around rainforest conservation, food systems and indigenous rights, how the local and global food system, and urban and rural communities are highly dependent on each other, and also the diverse realities of the food sovereignty movement in Mexico.

Matthew

What I really like about this conversation with Elena is she offers a nuanced person-centered approach to her work and research and that comes out in all of her answers. And before we get into this rich conversation, we first asked Elena what she had for breakfast today.

Elena

Well, I had muesli with a lot of fruits, I like very much papaya and I mix it with some berries and also with banana.

Matthew

That sounds really nice right now, especially coming from Swedish winter.

Elena

And the papayas I grow them in my backyard. It's a small tree, and they produce a lot, a lot. It's incredible. And also the strawberries, I have them from my garden.

Samara

We start our conversation diving right into a complex issue. It’s in the 1970s, in Veracruz in Southern Mexico, and the rainforests were being converted into pasture for cattle grazing.

Elena

Since I was very young, I was very worried about the deforestation of rainforests. And I was working in that time, in small, small juvenile project about the importance of keeping our rainforest in Mexico and why they were so peculiar because we are on the northern border of the rainforest. So we are a mix between the northern biodiversity and the southern biodiversity. But when we realized that mostly, all the protected areas are inhabited places, then we realized what's happening with the fruit production and what is happening with all the rural inhabitants in those areas. And we realized that they weren't even informed that they were living in a protected area.

Matthew

Mexico is 3,200 km from North to South and the ecosystems vary widely and this particular area is the most northern rainforest in North America. Elena explains her research interests weren’t only around the conservation of these unique and highly diverse rainforests, but also protecting the rights of Mexico’s rich cultural and ethnic diversity. The team of researchers that Elena was a part of wanted to better understand how environmental transformation and degradation were perceived by the local community.

Elena

And then our first idea was to see the perceptions of young indigenous people - in this case that they were Nahuas and Popoulcas in the south of Veracruz in the reserve of Los Tuxtlas. And how do they perceive what will be the changes in their lives? So that is why we were very interested to really go and see how they relate to the rain forest, deforestation, food production, and then afterwards climate change. What does that mean for the people? And how do they perceive the climate change?

Samara

Elena shared how the Indigenous peoples she was researching were working with the rain forests to actively manage the landscape - different patches of land were cultivated for three or four years and then left fallow to regenerate in a cyclical manner. She shared how these practices were directly connected to diets.
Elena
And that is why food was so important for them. Because also, they are making cycles between the rain forests and the food productions. And well, there are at least 300 species that they are edible. So they are always depending on the rainforests for food. But also they have a cultivated part. So the big question was, when the rupture started to make these processes of deforestation, the rupture in the edible plants from the rain forest, and the farming production. And the ruptures were coming from the introduction of livestock production now and the cattle raising that were plans from the International Bank of development and the World Bank since the 70s. And they started to say we have to produce for the United States meat production. So then that is why there was a big, big rupture in the sense - the introduction of the cattle raising, and of course, then the shifting from the rain forest, to pasturelands, into very unproductive systems. And then there were this rupture between the milpa system, the rain forest, the cycles, and the deforestation rates started to go up and up.
Matthew
Can you explain what a milpa system is?
Elena

It is the cornfields in Mexico, but it's there like the traditional corn fields that you will say there is always another crops inside the maize production (or the main rows) that they are mainly chilies or beans, pumpkins. So, it is an intercrops system that you have the principal that will be the maize, but then in the inside or in the small parts, you will have a very rich crop system, a very highly diversified crop system. Or it can be in small parts, it depends on the parts of Mexico where you are.

Samara

We then asked Elena to unpack how technological changes and land-use changes in Veracruz were perceived by different groups. She first explained how it was presented by the national government and by local powerful actors that were catalyzing these changes.

Elena

They thought that they were like the new technologies that will be changing, that livestock will bring a better future for the families if they will be exporting meat, or they will be even consuming mea . So I think that it was with this idea of modernization, that technology will bring the solution for indigenous people. And of course, there was poverty. There were a lot of other social issues there that it was not that all the cycles will be fulfilling all the requirements for the families. They were having a lot of also problems and poverty and food issues. So then for the ones that were trying to have this modernization, of course, there were like two sides. The sides of the industries and of the interests of the production for the exportation. And on the other side, well, that would be a better future for all these indigenous populations.

Matthew

Elena explains that this period of modernization is not at all straightforward even though it’s often portrayed as a simple division between on one hand, export-oriented livestock production, and on the other, traditional forest-based cultivation.

Elena

There were a lot of research made and accusing all the cattle raisers that they were destroying the rainforest. But when I came to this area afterwards, many years when I made my studies, and then I returned there. I consider that also there were small cattle raisers. And it was not only a question about big land owners owning a lot of land, but also there were small land owners that were trying to shift to cattle raising. And why? Because it was more sure. It was not with not so uncertainty as in agriculture issues. That they are always dealing with climatic risks. And of course, cattle raising was assuring them a better future.

Samara

She observed that although cattle-raisers were all painted as large-scale and big business, this wasn’t the case. In reality, there were both small-scale cattle producers and large-scale operations.

Elena

In the other side, there were also small cattle raisers that were trying to make their living out of the livestock. So, then it was much more complex and it was not the bads up against the good ones. No, it was also well, but so many small land owners that are trying to have 4, perhaps 10 cattle that with a very low productivity of course with a lot of issues, but then what we were trying to do with is to find some alternatives in these cattle raising and we were trying to make these like agroforestry system that will be much more having the cattle inside and how to combine these agricultural forest and livestock and it will be reducing the area for livestock but then making a more intensified system.

Matthew

In this conversation, we use intensive systems to refer to the amount of labor involved or the different agricultural products coming from a piece of land. So in this high intensity agroforestry systems, crops and livestock and trees are all produced on the same piece of land. These intensive systems demand more management, both labour and more expertise is required to maintain both the productive and protective functions of the farm.

Elena

It was a difficult time to change, not only the cultural part but also the ecological system, the way of distributing your land and your use. So we have to work quite a lot, in this sense to make it work.

Samara

So it sounds like you’ve the opportunity to work with this community for quite some time and see various changes take place. Were the different efforts to support smallholders successful? 

Elena 

Always when they ask if it was a success or a failure? I said, it's difficult to say that. Because sometimes we say it was a big failure, because very few people stay on that, on the systems that it is, of course it is labor intensive.

So then there was like a patchwork of failures and of successes. I think that it was not only one line of success, or one line of failures. But what it was interesting it is that I went back to this area 20 years after, and to see how it was, the region. And it was incredible how young people had really grabbed the idea to try to make a change. But in the other side, there has been quite a lot of land grabbing by people that are coming from the cities nearby, and that they are not interested in keeping the rain forests. So then, yeah, poverty or health issues meant that this small cattle raiser had to sell their lands. And there were people coming from the outside from the city that are grabbing these lands. And they are not interested really in keeping the rainforest. So now, again, we have all this patchwork of people that it's from inside of the communities, still being Nahaus indigenous peoples, but also with a big mixture with all the Mestizos coming from the cities, and that they have another style of cultivating their land.

Matthew

There’s a complicated and important history here including Mexican revolution, the Green revolution and NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement that we won’t be able to get into. However, each of these have impacted trends of land consolidation and urbanization. Mexico is one of the fastest urbanizing OECD nations. Mexico City for example grew from 3 million people in 1950 to 18.5 million in the year 2000.

Samara

We’re going to transition now into talking about urbanization and the relationship between urban and  rural communities, and how migration relates to agrobiodiversity in Mexico. These are all areas that Elena has investigated.

Matthew

Maybe one way we can dive into this topic is to talk about the quote unquote, rediscovery of traditional superfoods. Can you first share how diets and consumption patterns have changed in Mexico in the last 50 years, maybe both looking at Urban diets and rural diets?

Elena

Many of the food that was in the traditional diets, they were displaced by the agro-food systems, in that sense, and the modernization, that they considered that the industrial food was better, was cleaner. That all what we have with the problems of in developing countries in the 50s, 60s, the big health issue was about gastrointestinal diseases.  And it was a focus really of deaths of a high rate produced by these gastrointestinal diseases.

Matthew

GI diseases such as Salmonella mainly came from transmission via contaminated food and water sources.

Elena

So that was really captured by the Agri-food systems and to say, okay, our food is cleaner, you will never will be with all these problems. And then of course urban Mexican people started to, “Yes, we have to consume all these agri-food. Because it is cleaner, it's safer, it's healthier.” Because they started to say it's more healthy than traditional food because they are coming from the North. They are not clean. And also this in a parallel process - all the supermarkets that they started to develop in the 60s, I think that the first one came in Mexico, like in ‘65 ‘69, something like that. They made big parties because of the introduction of the supermarket. But what they were meaning is also not to go to the market not to go to the market is for poor people. It's for indigenous people. So these modernization came with the agro-food industry, but also with the development of the supermarkets and not to go anymore to the markets and not anymore to be consuming the natural production or the natural food that were coming from the agricultural areas.

Matthew 

You were saying it was advertised as healthier. But was it also more economically affordable option? Or was it more expensive than?

Elena 

No, I think it was more expensive in those times. Now, it is cheaper. But I think that in those times, still there were, it was much more expensive not to be going to the supermarket. So that is why it was also for the elites. Or for the medium and high class. So that it had a connotation of prestige and of modernization. In the communicative system, of course, and in the symbolic system, then it was we have to go to the supermarkets, because then we will be considered prestigious or we will be considered from the elite. And if you continue to go to really buy to the markets, it was very much in this cultural issue, about symbols and processes that will be transforming the consumption patterns.

Matthew  

And you mentioned the industrial agrifood. Could you maybe say who you're referring to with that? Is that international actors? Is it Mexican actors?

Elena

Well, mainly, it was international agroindustrial, as the big companies as we know, Nestle, and Coca Cola. But of course they make afterwards links with the National agro food industry. So now you have a mix of about the national capitals and international capitals. But I think mainly they are transnational agri-food industries.

Samara

And how have these changes in food production and consumption patterns impacted rural communities?

Elena

And of course, these started to be introduced also to the rural parts. So then afterwards when you were there, and you were trying to consume, for example, a good coffee, even in coffee production areas. In Chiapas, for example, in the south of Mexico, and you were there in the 70s. And you couldn't get a cup of natural coffee. You had the cup of Nestle coffee. Until then, it was like big contradictions. Like there's no, we want a cup of coffee, you are producing coffee. “Yeah, but that's the production and we are the exportation and we don't have coffee.” “How come? We are in a highly productive coffee area?” So these big contradictions was controlled by the agro food industry, in the sense that it was healthier to consume Nestle, than the coffee natural production, and then everything was like that.

Matthew

Yeah, and I guess now if you fast forward to the present, or I don't know when the trend actually started to change, but the elites are almost fetishizing these superfoods, these traditional foods, that they felt very differently about in the last few decades. Can you say maybe more about how that transition occurred? Or when exactly this idea of superfoods connected to traditional diets became more mainstreamed?

Elena

I think that there was a displacement of these foods. And then afterwards a replacement of these same foods were bought by the agro industry. So now the super foods are controlled by all these organic brands, and that they are certified organic brands. But they are much more expensive and now they came to be in organic corners in the supermarkets. And also of course it will again it will be for the elite, and as the gourmet food.

Matthew

Elena here is describing the process of traditional foods being packaged, processed and labeled as organic and healthy and then sold in high-end markets. She uses the example of Pulque to discuss the political and economic importance of these foods. Pulque is an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the agave plant. It looks a little like milk and it has a sour-yeasty taste. Elena explains its evolution in history starting in the 1800s on haciendas, spanish colonial plantation estates.

Elena

At the end of the 19th century, there were big haciendas producing agave for the pulque production. And politically, they were so strong, that a central government wanted to destroy that power of all these big haciendas. And when the Germans started to introduce the beer industry, then they started to talk very bad for the pulque production. They started to say, “It's unhealthy. It's really provoking a lot of diseases. They are not clean. They are not in sanitary good conditions.” So what they were trying to do was to shift it to the beer production and that was of course an economic issue but also a political issue on the background. And then the agave production started to be reduced reduced reduced until it’s almost done. it disappeared for the pulque. It continued to be for the pulquerias, but it was very bad scene. Now these are for the very low class people and for the drunkards. They will be associating pulque with drunkards. Why beer is not associated with drunkard people and pulque yes? So it was these cultural issues or symbolic issues that are manipulated. But finally there are political and economic issues behind that. And now pulque has, by the hipsters that they are bringing it in and saying, “Oh, no, that's the natural that's really what gave us our identity and not the beer.” So now it has been going up the pulque and they are very fashionable pulquerias. When before the pulquerias were considered for only poor people and now the pulquerias are highly fashionable for young people.

Samara

And so when these foods become fashionable, the people who traditionally produce them are benefiting from this..?

Elena

Yes and no. Yes, because there is now this production, but it is again now it is the food industry that is controlling that. So they are paying for the farmers more or less the same, only a little bit more. But not so they're the farmers are not receiving the benefit of it still. Now the farmers what they are trying to do, and they are being helped by many NGOs. To produce themselves and to really make different type of consumption products, and not only the grain. So they are what we call it value aggregated products. And they are trying to do these new products but they are little by little. So now you have at annual festivities that they are producing all the amaranthus, for example, that now you can consume it as soup not only as a grain. And to be put in your cereal as muesli, but also to be consumed as soup. And now even there are farmers that they are - even the leaves of the amaranthus, they are producing also different types of food products now. Now they are, yeah, a little bit successful.

Samara

One of the things we're trying to unpack in this podcast is sort of the division between what a local food system is and what a globalized food system is. Can you talk a little bit about how you would define a local food system?

Elena

You cannot separate and we cannot explain the local system without also understanding the global pressures, or we cannot understand the global without local. And it is more a little bit like in this issue, rural-urban issues that they are complimentary, but also controversial. Of course, for example, the Milpa system that we could say, Oh, it's very local, because they are cultivating the varieties of the long tradition and that we have 59 land races of maize in Mexico. And we could say, “Oh, it's a very local system.” But when we see this, how it's the labor, how are the agrochemicals, how are the prices and then all are connected with the global issues. And when we see, oh yes, they are cultivating these traditional land races or they have quit cultivating these land races. Well, it has to do with the labor. In the sense of they need much more labor to produce high agrobiodiversity biodiversity, because need it needs much more labor. So if they don't have this labor enough, and they have to migrate to the north, then this global process is affecting that there are no anymore so many land races or not such a big or high agrobiodiversity in their own farms.

Matthew

And just to clarify, landraces are a local, traditional plant or animal variety, that has adapted to its ecological and cultural environment over time, through its isolation from other populations of the same species.

Samara

Elena highlights the importance of labour in maintaining these diverse and intensive systems, but this necessary labour is largely absent due to trends of rural to urban migration. She told us that the difficulty in making a living in rural communities isn’t the only cause of these migration dynamics. She also spoke to the role of rural violence, narco trafficking, and climate change as well.

Matthew

Elena observes that the biodiversity of a landscape can also reveal how well a community is functioning.

Elena

Milpa system has been studied by many, many, many researchers. And some of them they say, well, they're up to 50 species inside these intercropping system, or the ones they say 20 are the ones they tend. So it depends on the region. And really, I think on the social tissue of where you are in the sense of when you have very, very poor Milpas with only maize, you are saying there is a poor region where they are having a lot of problems.  The milpa system is a social indicator of what is happening in that community.

I thought that the rich milpa will be very near the roads because you will have access to the road and to the markets, but “Oh no, no, no, but they are robbed.” “Robbed?” “Yes. The robbery of the crops it’s very high.” “Ah so you cannot grow your crops because of the robberies.” “Yes,” and “who is robbing that?” “Oh yeah, the locals that are coming from the other side or from the other community or from the same community, but we cannot grow anymore more crops.” So, that is why for me the milpa system, how rich it is. It is a social indicator of how the community is functioning. Or if they have economic resources or if they have labor resources. And if you have labor resources, then you think okay, who is doing the young people. Then they say okay, young people are not migrating, okay? So then you can make this connection between how it's the Milpa and how it's really like the social problems in the young communities.

Samara

Elena next points to the difficulty of separating the local from the global when she discusses the use of Genetically modified seeds. We talked about this dynamic too in Episode 3 with Lauren Baker. Here, Elena mentions Asgrow seeds, a company formerly owned by Monsanto and now Bayer. They produce high yielding crop varieties that are resistant to herbicides such as glyphosate. The farmers who she works with on this issue approach it differently than many other pro- or anti-GM advocates.

Elena

Now, it is a big question about the seeds. And when we were fighting, and when we are fighting against GMO maize, it is well of course, the ecological and genetical processes that will be involved. But also what for me, it is very important. It is the social and political issues that are around: the loss of control of their seeds. And then we have, again, these global issues with the local issues now. And of course, sometimes I was working in Tlaxcala, and there were some farmers there and they were like combining Asgrow seeds, maize Asgrow seats with local land races. I said, “How can you do that?” “Oh, yeah. Because you know, we're playing with risks, how climatic results, then you are putting in one row Asgrow and in the other row traditional land races? “Oh, no, we mix them everything and the seeds will be easier.” I said, “Okay.” So then afterwards, what you see is a mixture of seeds. No, because combining seats will give like a more a bigger opportunity that if there is a drought. Of course they play with all these varieties in the sense to have a little bit more of certainty. I think also that the farmers are very practical in the sense that they are trying to always lower the risk and what the seeds are, but they combine it. And we could say, oh, why Asgrow? If it is a transnational, and the seeds, and yeah, we can be criticizing that. But for the farmers, it's playing a lower risk. So then, again, for the seeds, we have a combination of global and local issues. Sometimes they are really devastated by all these agrochemicals used because of the loss of fertility of their lands. And the highly dependent of these agrochemicals that are a big issue, not only for the soil health and for the fertility, but also for the human health of the farmers.

Matthew  39:14

I think that's a really interesting answer, because there are many people around the world who say support local, buy local, for various reasons, because there's the assumption that it's better for the environment or that it's helping local farmers. But here you're saying that a local food system is highly complex, and it's hard to even call it a local food system because of all the other influences that are at play there. A related idea here is the food sovereignty movement. The food sovereignty movement has quite a strong stance about the things that they are for and that they are against. And I guess it could seem like they strongly support a local food system with short supply chains and less international trade. How do you see the food sovereignty movement happening in Mexico around the local food movement?

Elena 

There's a strong movement for food sovereignty and for short, local circuits. And I think that, in principle, they are right, because they are based on the farmers rights. But you need really that there will be policies that they will be supporting and these policies that they have to be not in parallels, but they have to be in many crossing points. This is the environmental policies, how do they deal with the agricultural policies for small landowners for medium landowners for big landowners, and the climatic policies how they should be. And so in this sense, I think if you don't have like this big transformation of policies, the food sovereignty movement will stay only in small areas. In the sense of there can be farmers that can be supported by urban elite, buying their food, their organic food. But really, to make a big change, and to say, “well, but to poor people also, they have the right to consume organic products, why do they have to consume all the products that are so cheap, that they are much more industrialized in one part or that they are full of agrochemicals and they are non organic?” So then, really, to make these big change, then you have to really have all these transversal coordinated policies.

Matthew

Quick aside here on terms - Elena uses the term circuits, some people might be more familiar with the concept of supply-chains, which is meant in the same way here. She also mentions Via Campesina in her next answer which is an international peasant movement that brings together 200 million members, consisting of small and medium farmers, migrants and agriculture workers, that span across 80 nations all under the banner of food sovereignty. She then goes on to describe who is part of the food sovereignty movement in Mexico. And also what is their relationship to markets.

Elena

Well, of course, Via Campesina has been collaborated with some rural organizations, and these rural organizations they are being based in some communities. And from these communities you have some farmers that will be really jumping into that process. So then you have like domestic groups that they will be or for small farmers that will be willing to produce high agro biodiversity with a lot of labor input, but that they know that they will have a market for their organic products nearby, or in the Mexico City, or in the cities that are near from their homes. But what you see here in this farmer movement of food sovereignty, it is they always this market component and also for them. But it's not that they are only worried because of the food system for themselves. But that they have to produce for the market in order to have their own consumption production.

You cannot have like only producers or farmers or peasants that will be producing only for their family. No it is not possible because of the prices. Because of the labor, so then, of course, the rights of controlling their land, controlling what they want to eat, it is depending also on what the other ones want to eat in the sense of in the city. So they cannot be independent of this.

There has been in anthropology, as you know, the speaker discussion about really self-sufficient or not self-sufficient. And of course, it has never been like that, farmers are always producing a part for the market, a part for themselves. And they are in these commercial circuits. But now, it is very important that they have these secure commercial circuits in order to be having a highly labor input to really produce a big agrobiodiversity, organic, and that they know that that will be sold in the city, and that they will be really having enough for their own consumption.

Samara

Yeah, that's really interesting. Food sovereignty often gets interpreted as sort of a preservation of traditional lifestyles, and the way you're framing it is that it's not necessarily conforming to a traditional peasant life way, but more about having control over whatever production system is in place. So having rights to land and access to markets, etc, etc. A question we wanted to ask you is something that often comes up in, in discussions around food sovereignty, is that notion that it idealizes peasant lifestyles. And what is your take on that?

Elena

That's a nice question. Because when we are speaking with the students, or when I'm teaching, I say, it's a big romanticization. You have to be aware of all the difficulties about all the trade-offs that the farmers are making continually in order to produce for themselves and for the market. But when you go there, and you see no the difficult conditions and all the vulnerabilities, then of course, you are for the farmers right now you have to be like thinking that it's very important that they will have the seed sovereignty that they will continue to have and fight for their food sovereignty in order to have their control. Or at least a little bit more of control of their lives. We know that they are dependent on many other circuits.

Matthew

Elena here is argues for food sovereignty based on the right to change and the right to self-determine how they consume and produce food rather than on the idea that all food must be produced locally. She mentions another area where local is sometimes conflated with the food sovereignty movment - maize land races. There is an assumption that this agrobiodiversity of different crop varieties is very important to farmers, but Elena explains that some farmers might be thinking about this differently.

Elena

Also farmers have the right to change. And of course, they have the right to say we are not more in these land races of maize. There is a place here in Tlaxcala, that it's a very famous, very, very famous because of their own land races and many, many varieties. I could show you all my collection of maizes that are amazing. But when you see these, and you consume it, no, it's for the market. Okay, these red ones, no, these the yellow ones, were little bit, but no. Okay, so what are you consuming now? The white one, and why the white one. Because it's the nicest one. Okay, because the tortillas are very white and I like them. Okay. So then all these varieties for whom are they? And they, “Oh, well, people as you.” Oh, okay, the anthropologist, the agronomists, the students or people that they are much more sensible for saying okay, we like them very much. Okay, okay. So it’s contradictions about it. So then when you say food sovereignty and all these, the struggle for other varieties. It is also though, they are market-oriented in the sense that well, you know, you're paying a cup of a cup of Maize no real  for 50 pesos it's quite a lot of money here in Mexico. Of course for the states, it wouldn't be like that, but you wouldn't pay that for a normal white cup of maize. So then it is like, okay, yeah, then you start to understand all these conservation ideas of all the land races. It is maintained if they are for the market also. When it is about food sovereignty, they are really not consuming all the land races, they are not consuming all the agrobiodiversity for themselves, but they are relying upon all these market connections and market links with the cities. But what I think it is important, it is the principle of maintaining the rights to decide. And I think that for me it will be the issue about food sovereignty.

Matthew

I was really interested. I read your study, that you co-authored “Peasant micropower and agrifoods supply system of Sierra Madre of Chiapas.” And there you reflect on how a single family monopolized the sale of beef in a region. And that could still kind of be looked at as food sovereignty, so I wonder if you could say a little bit more about this example and its implications.

Elena

Yes, I think it will be coming with this question about romanticizing or not romanticizing peasant livelihoods and we don't have to forget about the power issues. And of course, the power issues are inside the local communities. The power issues are in the families, we feel the gender inequities in in the peasants or indigenous populations with a lot of gender and generational inequities. And how some families control the beef market, or they can be controlling the maize market, or they can be controlling the organic production. And to talk about food sovereignty without talking with micro powers or with power relations with external people. You have to consider all these power relations, to understand how peasant communities or indigenous populations are living with and coping with the food systems.

Samara

Going back to her early involvement with smallholders and livestock farmers in Veracruz, Elena observed these power dynamics at play in whether farmers would participate or not in different development programs.

Elena

Before you could say that all the development agricultural programs that arrive to a community they were controlled by certain families. And then you will see, okay, I was analyzing once the cattle owners and how their cattle were fluctuating. And why they were going in sometimes very high, and that from five cows, they will be having 55 cows, and you say, huh? How can he acquire 55 cows in 2 years? Ah, because a program arrived? Okay, a livestock, a high-cattle raising program from who and how?  From these government institution? Okay, and why he? “Yeah, because he was the one that was distributing the cows for everybody.” So in every distribution, he had like, three more, and four more. So then all of a sudden, you have, okay, so then you are, you know, you have to be very conscious about who is controlling these programs, and why they are controlling it and which are the impacts in on the people? And that is why many times the other farmers don't participate, because when I asked, and why you were not participating in this agricultural project of development that they were trying new seeds. “Because they are always the same ones”. And when you find this question to this answer, then you say, okay, who are they? They are always the same ones that are controlling, and then you go and you say, okay, it's family A, B, and C, that they are always controlling the programs.

Samara

So we’d like to wrap up with just a few concluding questions, first, What do you think the role of researchers is in trying to transform the food system?

Elena

I think it's an important role. But also we have to be very careful of not imposing. In this book about traditional food, there is a French guy that he is saying, oh really that traditional food is more healthy Well, not in France! [laughs] In the sense of also not romanticizing everything. But of course, the role of researchers is very important in the sense of bringing to discussion the different alternatives. I think that you don't have to impose or you don't have to bring your ideas that they will be the perfect ideas for the farmers and for the peasants or for the indigenous populations, but to really discuss with them, why to understand the whys to understand the futures or how do they envision their future? And how to really start to make some reflections about their food systems of today?

Matthew

What food futures inspire you? And what visions of the food system in the future alarm you?

Elena

Yeah, I think that the ones that inspire me. The farmers will be having the control of their own food system, the lands, the seeds, and all the process up to the harvest now, but these of course, it's romanticizing this food future.

And what will be the worst of the future? Yeah, I think that there will be more land grabbing, that farmers will be losing the control of their lands and more and more it will be or bought by city persons or by persons that are from the outside of their own communities.

Matthew

And what would you say is the best argument that someone makes who would argue that a globalized system of trade or an increasingly globalized system of international trade is the best way to achieve food security, equity and sustainable livelihoods?

Elena

No, it is when I say that there is the manipulation of the words know what it means sustainability, what it is to have equitable food system or now No, they are talking about resilient food systems that I say, well, it is always now trying to manipulate these buzzwords, and to say that will be more sustainable. As what when we hear Monsanto saying that the introduction of GMOs will bring food security and sustainability is a well, I cannot use any more of these words. No, because what does it mean sustainability, this big thing? No, and, and also food security.  I think in that sense, I coincide with this food sovereignty movement in the center of the right to control your food. I think we have to be fighting for that. And if we say okay, local short circuits, and we say well, these local is not so local, and this short is not so short. But even, we are trying to connect direct consumers with producers. And I think that more sensibility are from the consumers much more we can advance on that. Sometimes I say, Yeah, but there are a lot of very poor urban people. So they cannot afford not to be buying this organic food. And you say, yes, but all of a sudden you seem them buying a shirt, that it's so expensive, because it's Gap. But of course, we have to understand it, how, culturally are the significations of the symbols of prestige and things like that? It's so difficult to really change.  But I think that, we have to continue with this local system, even if they are not so local.

Matthew

Thank you so much. It was really really nice chatting with you.

Samara

That was great.

Elena 

Thank you very much. Thank you.

Matthew

And that wraps another episode of the Feed podcast. Thank you for listening, and if you enjoyed the conversation, please leave us a review on Apple podcast. We’d love to hear what you think of the show. There are many links and articles connected to the different topics we discussed in this episode on our website: Tabledebates.org/podcast.

TABLE will be hosting an upcoming event on Regenerative agriculture – why is taking it the world by storm and what are the broader implications for farmers and food system? Dr Tara Garnett will moderate a conversation between Dr. Yichao Rui of the Rodale Institute and Ken Giller, professor in plant production systems at Wageningen University, our first guest on Feed for episode 1. You can register for the May 11th event, or depending when you’re listening, check out the recording on our website.

Today's episode was edited and mixed by me, Matthew Kessler, with thanks, as always, to podcast co-host Samara Brock and the extended Table community. Music in this episode by Blue dot sessions. We'll be back in your Feed soon with Brent Loken, global food lead scientist at the WWF. We continue to explore how biodiveristy loss is driven by the food system, and how shifting towards a planet-based diet can reduce these impacts. And this time, we look at the global scale.

Brent Loken

Food is by far the leading driver of biodiversity loss globally. There is estimates of between 70-80% of species that are threatened made comes from food, and how we actually produce it may come from that tropical deforestation which is happening. I mean, we're losing 5 million hectares per year. Most of this is currently taking place in places like Brazil, Indonesia. Three quarters of that tropical deforestation is currently driven by agriculture. And beef production is responsible for about 41% of that.