Transforming the food system: key to addressing humanity's big challenges

Barn-raising in BramptonFood is intimately connected to each of the apex challenges of our time: climate, energy, water, poverty, hunger, population displacement, ecosystem degradation, health, the economy.

Because food is so central, transforming the sustainability of the food system can contribute profoundly to addressing each of these challenges.

Earth Open Source applies networked, open source, collaborative approaches to achieve break-through advances in the sustainability of the food system.

Open Source: the roots of our food system

Open source sharing of seeds and knowledge: central to the evolution of farming: From the beginning, food production has been a cooperative, collective, "open source" endeavour identical in its open source character to the volunteer collaboration that has generated some of the most powerful – and free – operating systems and information technologies available today, like Linux and Wikipedia.

The crops that feed humanity today are all the product of open source cooperation: Over millennia, hundreds of generations of farmers have spontaneously shared seeds, knowledge and know-how with their neighbours. Farmer to farmer collaboration has generated every one of the crops that feed humanity today. Rice, wheat, maize, potatoes are just a few examples. These crops are humanity's collective heritage and legacy. The genetic "commons" of our seeds and the knowledge commons of our farming methods are the fountainhead of our food supply. These are an exact parallel to the technical and intellectual commons of the free software movement.

Community-wide cooperation: an essential ingredient in farming: From production, through processing, through delivery to the eater, traditionally, farmers – or more accurately whole agrarian communities – cooperate to plant, harvest and market their crops. Community cooperation extends beyond food production, itself, to raising barns, digging wells and canals, building roads and creating other essential infrastructure. Whether the work is volunteer cooperation to improve the commons (building a bridge) or cooperative work exchange (helping a neighbour to bring in their crop, knowing that they will do the same for you next week), the open source model has contributed to the vitality and resilience of agrarian communities for millennia.

Transparency in the food system: open sourcing: Traditionally, the food system has been "open source" in another way, as well: It has been transparent. People knew where their food came from and who produced it, and based on this transparency they had confidence in its integrity and authenticity.

Closed source trend

Beginning in the early 20th century, certain parts of the global food system began to shift to a "closed source" model. The commoditization of seeds and agricultural knowledge and the replacement of renewable approaches to managing soil fertility and pests with petro-chemical fertilizers and pesticides has resulted in an industrial approach to agriculture, based on closed source agricultural technologies – patented chemicals, patented seeds, and proprietary machinery.

As outlined in more detail, below, this closed source approach has eroded the self-sufficiency of the farmer, compromised the economic and cultural vitality and integrity of rural communities, and weakened food security. In addition, the technologies deployed through this closed source approach have been a major contributor to the environmental degradation and resource depletion that threaten the future of humanity today, and these technologies have also contributed to the well documented rise in chronic disease and general decline in consumer health that society is witnessing today.

The closed source model and the globalization of the food system has also created opaque supply chains in which there is little or no traceability or accountability regarding quality and authenticity, and in which privileged control of certain kinds of information creates opportunities for privileged players to profit at the expense of others in the supply chain. These developments have also created the situation where we have the illusion of abundant food choices, but, as Raj Patel says in his book, "Stuffed and Starved," "Our choices are not entirely our own because, even in a supermarket, the menu is crafted not by our choices, nor by the seasons, nor where we find ourselves, nor by the full range of apples available, nor by the full spectrum of available nutrition and tastes, but by the power of food corporations…. Unless you are a food executive, the food industry is not working for you."

Open source collaboration: the motor driving advances in food production

A multi-millennial, informal research and development project – The evolution of agricultural seeds and knowledge can be viewed as a multi-millennial, informal research effort conducted through volunteer collaboration by hundreds of generations of farmers. The sharing of seeds and knowledge inherent in the open source agricultural system have been the motor that has driven continual evolution and development of crops and farming practices. Each step in the evolution of our staple crops was the result of a sharp-eyed farmer noticing a plant in their field with new and interesting properties and sharing the seed from that plant with her or his neighbours. Each step in advancement of agricultural methods was the result of one farmer sharing their insight with their neighbours who, in turn, passed that knowledge on with additional refinements of their own.

Institutionalization of open source farming research – Although this informal farmer-to-farmer, open source research effort continues to operate in the shrinking number of traditional agrarian societies around the world, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, this process was formalized through the creation of agricultural centres of learning in many countries around the world. In these centres, systematic research was carried out to improve seed varieties and farming practices. This contributed to rapid development of agriculture during this period.

Although the methodology for evolving agricultural knowledge and genetics was modified and formalized in these centres, initially this process remained essentially open source. It was a publicly funded process, whose fruits were held in common by all. These institutions and the research that they conducted were explicitly intended to improve access of all citizens to abundant, high quality food.

Appropriation of public open source farming research by corporate agro-industry – Although vestiges of this public system remain today, its open source character has largely been lost. In most industrial societies, corporate agriculture now provides the vast proportion of research funding, thereby gaining private ownership of the results of most agricultural research. This is the case, even for research that is done by faculty members at public institutions, whose salaries are paid by taxes levied upon the public. By becoming the predominant funders for research done at these institutions, agro-industry has, in effect, appropriated our public agricultural research institutions.

Through this and other mechanisms, the open source, self-evolving knowledge and genetic commons of agriculture has been significantly eroded, as the closed source system has gained strength and reach, enclosing and privatizing progressively larger segments of the food system. This leaves us with a food system that is increasingly dominated by patented, privately owned knowledge, technology and seeds that are owned by corporations whose primary loyalty is not to the public good, but to the financial welfare of their shareholders.

Self-regenerative agriculture displaced by dissipative agriculture

The most significant impact of the transition from open source to closed source agriculture is that agriculture has been transformed from a living, self-regenerating, self-sufficient biological system into a dissipative industrial machine.

Traditionally farmers have relied on the self-regenerative resources inherent in the farm – the soil and water – along with the sun, seasons, and the seeds received from their ancestors. The result is a perpetually self-regenerating cycle propelled by the sun, seed and seasons. The closed source approach has transformed this cyclic, regenerative model of agriculture into a linear, dissipative model. It has become an extractive industry driven by, and totally dependent on, non-renewable resources, primarily fossil carbon-derived pesticides, fertilizers, and fuel.

Instead of a regenerative system that harvests the energy of the sun to create our food, these industrialized agricultural systems convert fossil carbon, extracted irreplaceably from the Earth, into food. For every calorie of food produced using this system, 10 calories of petroleum and natural gas are dissipated.

This closed source agricultural system lacks the resilience of self-regenerative, open source agriculture. Closed source agriculture is, not only much more vulnerable to challenges from weather, pests, and other contingencies, but also has a net-negative impact on both the environment and on human health. It depletes non-renewable natural resources, exploits, pollutes and degrades our water, soil and air, and has turned our food into a health hazard.

From self-sustaining and self-evolving agro-economies to extractive agro-economies

The move to closed source agriculture has also profoundly altered the economic model of farming. For millennia, agriculture has been a self-sufficient, knowledge-based endeavour that has been the engine driving growth and evolution of the local economy and more broadly the local culture.

Farmers used the seeds and knowledge passed down from earlier generations to transform energy from the sun into sustenance for their families and community. This system created value in situ from the renewable resources immediately available to the farmer, based on the farmer's own intelligence and resourcefulness. This benefitted them personally and was the source of wealth that benefitted the community.

In contrast, the introduction of "closed source" agriculture, supplanted the commons of agricultural knowledge and seeds with patented chemicals, patented seeds, and proprietary machinery, which farmers were required to purchase and bring onto the farm from outside.

One key result of this is that the exchange of agriculturally generated wealth for chemical inputs used in the agricultural process has created a rushing channel through which much of the value that the farmer creates is extracted from the farm and from the local economy by large, often multinational, agro-industrial operations. As a result, the wealth created through farming does not stay on the farm or in the local community to benefit the local, rural economy, but instead is extracted from the community. This transforms the agricultural economic system from one that builds and regenerates the local community into one that extracts value from that local economy leaving it less vital and less affluent.

Self sufficiency, food security and national sovereignty

The closed source approach also destroys the self-sufficiency inherent in traditional agricultural systems. It is dependent on non-renewable resources, resources that are already running out. It also makes farmers serfs on their own land by making their livelihoods dependent on the inputs that they must buy to farm their land. Not only does a large portion of the value of their products go into paying for those inputs, thereby extracting from the local community a significant portion of the wealth produced through their agricultural endeavours, but in addition this same process drains away from the local community a huge portion of the wealth produced therein through agriculture.

The self sufficiency inherent in the open source system of agriculture has, not only been the basis of food security around the world, but because it has been the key mechanism of wealth generation, it has also been the foundation of national security since the beginning of human civilization. With closed source agriculture, self-sufficiency has been supplanted with resource depletion, along with economic dependency of both individual farmers and previously sovereign nations. Any country that does not have control over the means to feed its people has lost its sovereignty, and this is the case for virtually every nation on earth today; the means to feed its people are controlled by large corporations who answer directly, not to the citizens of the world, but to the investors that own them.

Earth Open Source – restoring agriculture to its open source roots

Despite the good intentions of its developers, when one considers the ecological, health, economic and social costs, closed source agriculture has lessened the wellbeing of farmers and rural communities, it has compromised food security and national security, and has delivered less rather than greater efficiency, and in many cases survives only on the basis of immense public subsidies.

Earth Open Source advocates restoring farmers' traditional open source rights to seed, and the use of renewable fertility and pest management based on local resources and open source methods accessible to all farmers.

Earth Open Source advocates restoration of the community wide cooperative ethic that has been the foundation of rural communities around the world, and Earth Open Source will explore strategies for using new media – internet, mobile telephone technology, etc. – to enrich cooperation between neighbours, within rural communities, and among communities world-wide. We believe that new media can harness the power of cooperation on a never-before-possible global scale to catalyze the changes needed to restore the sustainability of the food system, the vitality of agriculture as a profession, and the resilience and vigour of rural agricultural communities.

Earth Open Source also advocates "open sourcing," which can be achieved through making knowledge of our food chain open to all. Creating transparency in this way will, all by itself and without need for any new regulations, trigger breakthrough improvements in the sustainability and ethics of the food chain, as was witnessed recently when UK documentaries created transparency to the public regarding practices in chicken production, resulting in spontaneous pressure from UK citizens that lead to significant improvements in UK chicken production practices.

Open source, community-wide cooperation built humanity's food system and is the key to restoring its sustainability. Through this approach, we can build on the millennia of open-sourced "research & development" that farmers have already completed, recreating a self-regenerative food system that will not only feed us all abundantly and sustainably, but will bring us within reach of solving the apex problems of our times.

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