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Innovation is a necessity for food sovereignty


Reflecting on the first ever international gathering of the Grassroots Innovations Assembly

This is a consensually edited conversation between me (Maya, of NADAWG) and Aurélien Pochard. Aurélien is the supply coordinator at La CAPÉ, a cooperative of 141 farms and 28,000 CSA families in Quebec, which has an autoconstruction (Do-it-yourself) group for co-creating farm tools. Both of us attended the first international gathering of the Grassroots Innovations Assembly October 18-21 close to Rome, Aurélien as a participant representing La CAPÉ and me to support with documentation (unaffiliated with NADAWG).

The gathering brought together 13 grassroots innovations groups from around the world in order to share knowledge about our successes and struggles and build a collective voice for technological sovereignty. After three days of internal discussion and organizing ourselves for the future, we spent our last day sharing our findings at the annual forum of the Civil Society and Indigenous People’s Mechanism at the FAO.

After we got back home, Aurélien and I met to reflect on the Grassroots Innovations Assembly, and discuss the connections between the work of the assembly and the work of organizations resisting corporate-led digital agriculture. You can find out more about the CAPE’s work through this short film produced by the University of Ottawa Science and Society Collective.

[we chit chat]

Maya: I want to start at the beginning before the Innovations Assembly - how did you get involved and why were you interested in doing this international collaboration?

Aurélien: So I accepted a position at the CAPÉ back in April 2023. I picked up the ongoing conversation on the Innovations Assembly but assumed at first I didn't have any legitimacy to go. I thought it should be one of the farmer-innovators instead. But all of the farmers involved said they were too busy, so I ended up going. The main objective for me was for the CAPÉ to be part of this conversation because I thought we had a lot to learn from other groups. Especially because we would have never started the Autoconstruction project without Farm Hack and L’Atelier Paysan [two other groups at the Innovations Assembly]. It was because those two groups existed that we figured out we could organize and build our own tools.

Maya: So then what did you think of the gathering, it sounds like you weren't coming with many expectations

Aurélien: I went there in a pretty humble state of mind, thinking I’d be happy if we could share what we knew,  and whatever successes we had, but thinking we had much more to learn from other groups. But during the Zoom meetings ahead of the actual gathering I realized that we did have things to bring to the conversation.

A benefit of international collaboration is giving each collaborator a chance to realize their own strengths, that they may not be able to recognize in a context where those strengths are “normal” and taken for granted. At the Grassroots Innovations Assembly we discussed that the definition of innovation should include this knowledge sharing across contexts. What is common knowledge in one place is an innovation in another place, making international collaboration and innovations intrinsically intertwined.

Maya:  What were those things you learned La CAPÉ was doing really well?

Aurélien: I think our main strength is that the CAPÉ’s backbone is the sales of  weekly vegetable baskets, and the coop takes a little share from each basket subscription, which means we generate significant income. So we end up being self-funded and very few organizations manage to do that.

Maya: And you also automatically get a large influence on the whole province’s food system because you have a direct community of farmers and consumers.

Aurélien:  Exactly. The co-op feeds about 50,000 people.

Maya: That's insane. And what did you say is the price per year that CSA customers give to the CAPÉ?

Aurélien: around $24 Canadian.

Maya: So it's very low also. Were there other things at the Assembly where you felt the opposite, things that you learned from other people that maybe surprised you?

Aurélien: Well, L’Atelier Paysan has 20 employees dedicated to auto-construction. They have their welding and repair trucks on the road to go to farms and do workshops. I mean… These people rock, they're amazing. And the Honey Bee Network and their innovation walks. The way they explained it, they send 50 people walking for a week going from village to village sleeping in the school classrooms and picking up innovations, and making sure that every time they pick up innovations they make it an opportunity to value the innovators in front of the elders and the kids. Also, they make sure the walk takes place at the most uncomfortable time of the year, weather-wise. Just so that local people take them seriously. I was so impressed.

Maya: So what do you see for the future? I know that at the end we organized into working groups to continue forward. Do you think that you would continue showing up to meetings of this Innovations Assembly?

Aurélien: Definitely!

Maya: How would you want to see it grow in the future?

Aurélien: I joined the “next year's meeting” working group. One of the things I brought up is if we keep flying 25 people from  all around the world so as to meet in person, it will be a really hard thing to justify from an energy and carbon foodprint standpoint. So we'd better achieve something to compensate for that.

Maya: Yeah, it feels similar to what we discussed about the environmental impact of digital technologies - it's not that you should never use them but if you're gonna do it, you better get something out of it.

Aurélien:  Exactly, if you have diesel and gasoline, that’s great. Put it in a tractor and grow some food, it will serve a purpose. But if you put it in a race car for entertainment it’s a complete waste.

Maya: Okay, so what important things will we accomplish to justify the flights?

Aurélien: One thing that really struck me during the entire week, and L’Atelier Paysan were instrumental in always bringing this message home, is how political the work we do is, and that fired me up so much. And I'm thinking, we have no choice but to gather because industrial agriculture doesn't have any scruples about becoming larger and larger and spending gigantic amounts of energy. It's a bulldozer just moving forward.

Maya: So it made you feel like the international assembly work is essential.

Aurélien: I think so. Especially ending the week going to the FAO, and our points were being heard in an relevant international institution.

Maya: What was it that L’atelier Paysan said that inspired you, because I also found the way that they phrase things really inspiring.

Aurélien: You did too?

Maya: Yeah, for example how they defined innovation as a necessity for anyone who wants to live outside of a corporate-controlled system because you have to create something that isn't being handed to you. It’s that simple.

Aurélien: Yeah, absolutely. My mind is not wired towards machines, I'm more of a plant and horticulture person, so my motivation doesn't come from the love of tinkering, it comes from the ideological aspect of it. And now I understand better how technological autonomy is in fact a tool for food autonomy and it shares a common philosophy. So as a part of that puzzle, I better understand what I'm doing at the CAPÉ. I'm not sure I understood that aspect before the meeting. What struck me is that L’Atelier Paysan is really working more politically now. For example, they are promoting what they call Food Social Security. They want to set up a system in which every French citizen (regardless of age or income) receives 150 Euros per month to be spent on particular “tagged” food, and what is tagged is selected at a local level based on local production and principles of agroecology. And I thought it was so powerful, and France has this background of Social Security and Free Health Care, which didn't originate from the state itself, it was an idea that was pushed by the National Council of the Resistance after World War Two. I was amazed because before the meeting  I saw L’Atelier Paysan as great farm tool builders and now I understand that they're building equipment as a means to achieve a better food system.

Maya: Okay, so this stronger political fire that you came back with, how do you think it will influence what you do at the CAP?

Aurélien: I'm gonna be unrelenting. The image I have in mind is that when the CAPÉ gave the green light for me to go, it was like they were sending a pocket knife to the meeting. And the knife came back really sharpened. I was really tired when I left, I had burnt out previously while farming vegetables within the CAPÉ network, and running a hemp farm as well, but this trip to Italy and the time I spent with the Assembly kind of solved and healed a lot of things. I'm not quite sure I'm that burnt out anymore.

Maya: Oh, that's very powerful. That feels like it's worth a transatlantic plane trip

Aurélien: Yes, I feel like that too. You know what Cidi [representing the Kenyan Peasant League] was saying - the fire is burning… So how do you feel after the whole thing?

Aurélien shared after we talked: “As the CAPÉ matures, it is becoming increasingly political. Its presence and influence is acknowledged by the public and local farming networks, as well as the Quebec Ministry of Agriculture. The CAPÉ recently published its Resilience Manifesto, and the media impact was surprisingly strong”

Maya: I also felt quite inspired. For the last couple of years I’ve been in situations where I am barely keeping up, so innovation feels very far off. But the gathering made innovation feel more accessible and exciting. SPI [Serikat Petani Indonesia] I found very inspiring because all of the innovation projects they are working on felt like things I could Implement immediately. And I was really happy with the balance of discussing mechanical innovation and other types of innovations - social, biological, innovative practices.

Maya: I think we've already talked a bit about the connections between work that's critical of corporate-led tech and work that's directly building technological sovereignty, but what are your thoughts on how those two worlds should collaborate? What kind of support would you want from people who are doing the critical analysis work?

Aurélien:  I do imagine collaborating because a lot of farming organizations are missing important pieces ofinformation. It came out during the meeting that we don't always have a clear understanding of how - let's say - patents work or Creative Commons or how to choose digital tools that are independent from larger corporations. So mapping the digital solutions and understanding what are the main actors, and finding our way through the maze of digital solutions out there. And we need to always make sure we favor open source solutions and don't lean towards more detrimental effects.

At the gathering, we discussed each participating group’s thoughts on open-source, intellectual property rights, and third options. One group mentioned that Creative Commons licenses as an alternative are not strong enough. One group used intellectual property rights as a legal tool to protect themselves from corporate capture without ever commercializing their innovations. Many felt the need for alternative governance that protects from corporate capture more than open source, but allows sharing. La CAPÉ is exploring the idea of Data Trusts. Some felt that if only a tiny percent of innovations we make are co-opted, then maybe protecting the innovations is not worth a lot of our energy.

Maya: So a way to know what not to do.

Aurélien: Yes. Like the conversation we were having about using Whatsapp or Signal or other solutions. I have very little knowledge of that, and I know there are people who already have a map of that landscape in their head and really know what to avoid. That would be useful for us.

Maya: Yeah, because basically every single person engages with corporate- controlled technologies to some extent, whether it's that we're meeting on Google Meet right now or having a Signal group or whatever. So understanding how to do that in the least harmful way possible.

Aurélien: Absolutely.

Maya: NADAWG exists in response to powerful food system actors saying that the future of agriculture is in automation and digital technologies. Is that trend affecting your community of farmers at all?

Aurélien:  We think of ourselves as being isolated from it because we're small-scale vegetable farmers selling directly to our consumers and we feel a certain level of autonomy. It certainly got me thinking because a lot of us are using a crop planning app called Tend. I think it comes from California and it's really amazing because we grow 40 or 50 different vegetables with very fast turnovers and complex crop rotations and having an Excel sheet was proving to be limiting. But until this meeting I had never considered the fact that we were actually feeding Tend with tons of information about how we grow. I'm not sure any of the farmers I know and that are using Tend are considering it. We assume it's not an issue, it’s just crop planning tool. But they have more and more functionalities, all the way from seed orders to distribution, consumer information and sales data. So they're accumulating huge amounts of data about how producers grow their crops and feed their customers, and it never crossed my mind that it could be an issue.

Maya: I wonder if it could be a project of the CAPÉ to look into how they're using the data, if it actually is something concerning, and it sounds like you guys have a lot of power as a big chunk of customers to) advocate for your data rights as farmers.

Aurélien: Absolutely, so I may reach out to Tend and open up the conversation. And I see how there may be a benefit to having a farmer-owned crop planning software.

Similar farmer-owned apps exist for distribution, such as GrownBy, made by the Farm Generations Coop

Maya: Of course, that would be pretty cool. Okay, this is a lot of speculation, but I feel like the market garden model would never have existed without the Green Revolution, because in a world that’s dominated by industrial agriculture, anything outside of that is shaped by whatever cracks industrial agriculture leaves us. So I wonder, if the industrial food system is having this digital revolution, what will the response have to look like for farmers outside that system?

Aurélien: Well, I think one of the things that shelters market gardens, and makes it so you’re more susceptible to find a local vegetable farm than a local grain farm, is that you’re selling fresh food and it’s perishable, so based on that, growing on a local level makes more sense.

Maya: And within Ag 4.0 there's the idea of industrial agriculture in the form of urban greenhouses and vertical farms that are able to provide local fresh food in a way that is not particularly ethical or sustainable despite being local and fresh. Ag 4.0 also has this narrative that it will help address consumers' concerns about food safety, basically responding to the consumer movement for more local organic farming, and this is the industry’s alternative. So I have no idea how those things will affect market gardeners like the CAPÉ.

Aurélien: Absolutely. In Montreal, our network is in competition with super-automated urban greenhouses, with their online stores and flexible deliveries, and we always have to remind people that we’re the real thing in terms of sustainability etc.. And iIt's really hard to predict the future for us because for a while we thought that everything we were doing was bearing fruit, but we lost a lot of [CSA] subscribers after COVID. The pandemic brought us many subscribers, but it turns out a lot of them weren't that committed to local organic food because they only ever subscribed for one season. In 2020 everybody rushed towards us and we had this feeling that people had finally seen the light. But the year after when everybody was able to travel again they were no longer willing to commit to vegetable baskets, or prepaid public market cards, and that hit hard. It was also amplified because the Quebec government got worried about food supply chains and they decided to promote autonomy by subsidizing greenhouses. So they announced they would pay for 60% of any new greenhouse projects and we all went for it. But we still had to get into debt for the remaining 40% and local vegetable sales collapsed in 2021. They’re still on the way down as we speak. So we feel more fragile than ever, even though we've built up this network of over 50,000 customers and 140 Farms. We're losing farmers every year, to burn out, bankruptcy, suicides occasionally. That hurts. Many of our farmers are saying that people are going to need us in a world with increased energy constraints, so we want to make sure we'll still be there when it happens. That's a bit of a grim statement to make but it’s also a strong one. We have to stay afloat during these difficult years because when shit hits the fan we’ll be greatly needed.

Maya: So, it sounds like on the most basic level one of the effects of digital agriculture for you might be taking customers from CSAs, and one of the roles of political organizing work could be making sure that consumers understand why digital agriculture doesn't actually make industrial food more safe, ethical or sustainable.

Aurélien: Yes. Yet I feel that many farmers from the developed world don't really see digital agriculture as a threat. It’s a completely different situation than what is at play in Africa or Southeast Asia, where local farmers are colliding head on with foreign-led industrial and digital agriculture. Rather we in North America see it as part of the tool portfolio that helps us with management.

Maya: Which is also true.

Aurélien: We look at the increased efficiency because we’re under a lot of financial pressure, and we need efficiency in order to stay alive. So if we don’t realize that our data may be used for another purpose we don’t really think of digital agriculture as an issue.

Maya: Right, the the issues with digital technologies are very abstract, even the environmental footprint of your digital technologies is very difficult to conceptualize

Aurélien: That's a message we can bring home more efficiently. If I decide to do a workshop on “where does our data go?” I'm not sure I'm gonna get a lot of traction. But if I start talking about energy use from servers and hardware, then maybe I’ll get people a little more interested.

Maya: Okay, is there anything else you want to share or brag about the CAPÉ before we go?

Aurélien: I don't know if there's anything to brag about. Well, one of our farmers built this computer that we can automate our greenhouses with. We sold, I think, 120 of them within the network so far. It allows us to open and close the greenhouse, stop and start the heaters, the fans etc..  You can also connect to a weather station we build as well. We just applied for subsidies from the government because the Ministry of Economy wants to subsidize agricultural technologies, and so we asked for $40,000 in order to build a Wi-Fi module and an app that farmers would have on their cell phone to control the greenhouse. All the companies that actually sell greenhouse automation have the app on the cell phone and we don't and we want to be able to compete. But now, having been a part of those conversations on data use, I understand we have to make sure we don’t lose control of the data. And that is something I was completely oblivious to before, I think we would have gone for the simpler cheaper solutions in terms of hosting the data. And maybe that computer update and improvement is going to be an opportunity to have this conversation and say okay we hadn't thought about it, but this is how we're going to do it because we understand that the worldwide push towards digitalization can work against us in the long-term.