Appropriation (?) of the Month: Agrobiodiversity and Small-Scale Farmers in the Age of Drought

By National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (National Oceanic and Atmosph

By Priya Chandrasekaran

If you’ve listened to or watched the news of late, the photo (at left) might be a familiar apocalyptic vision. In California and throughout the world, the future of agriculture is emerging at the forefront of environmental debates. 

While international discourse around “climate smart agriculture” and the “second Green Revolution” appears uncontroversial, in fact these unfolding movements obscure the marginalization of small-scale subsistence food producers and the ways in which their knowledge, practices, and even lands are appropriated.

Drought is an apparition of humanity’s future, and water—a resource that is both finite and perpetually consumed—is a need we cannot innovate or improvise away. Even the much-discussed solution of seawater desalination through reverse osmosis is expensive, bears consequences on underwater and coastal ecosystems, and even then does not provide an infinite supply.

In September 2014, the People’s Climate March in New York City, in solidarity with rallies throughout the world, was the largest-ever protest related to anthropogenic climate change. The march brought attention to the Climate Summit of world leaders at the United Nations to discuss national initiatives to reduce the carbon emissions and global temperature increases. Agriculture was listed as one of the eight “action areas.” In both drought and carbon emissions, agriculture is now understood to be “a key driver and major victim of global warming” (UNCTAD Trade and Environment Review of 2013: 2). 

However, a less discussed factor related to agriculture and climate change has been the distress of small-scale rural farmers throughout the world as they contend with global trade in agricultural commodities, land grabs, national seed certification, and patent laws designed to comply with transnational mandates, as well as with the incredible volatility of food prices. In many countries, subsistence food producers, traditional crops, and “unproductive” rain- fed regions were marginalized in industrial agricultural trends of the past fifty years. Now these same farmers, crops, and regions are emerging into the global spotlight as a potential solution for our climate woes.

One way this is transpiring is through the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture (GACSA), which was launched at the UN Climate Summit. The concept was officially named five years ago as a way to “mobilize the scientific and stakeholder communities to tackle simultaneously the climate change adaptation and mitigation, the food security challenges and to address future trade-offs.” As of January of this year, there were 75 signatories, a combination of nation-states (including the United States and France), organizations, and universities.

While “climate smart agriculture” might sound like an uncontroversial and noble pursuit, it is actually a contentious process that is being aggressively promoted and resisted. In their recent publications, La Via Campesina and Action Aid elaborate some of the key critiques: at present “climate-smart agriculture” does not have clear goals or criteria; the project is being used to promote new “drought resilient” transgenic seed varieties; and the Alliance could be a venue to facilitate carbon trading, which means that certain countries and farmers might be pressured to compensate for the excess emission of others.

The solutions being offered up right now are technical (such as a new tool for greenhouse gas accounting by the Food and Agriculture Organization [of the United Nations] and the World Bank). But they do not attempt to reorganize how decisions about our future are made and who gets to make them. In other words, new strategies to the problem of climate change and agriculture involve appropriating the “agrobiodiversity” practices of small-scale farmers, yet the precariousness of the farmer’s situation or the power of industry in the global market of agricultural and labor commodities is overlooked. These “solutions” very well might further dispossess farmers of seeds and land. 

At present the US-based Gates Foundation and Monsanto Corporation—in collaboration with transnational research institutes and some national leaders—are implementing a controversial “climate smart” “second Green Revolution” on the African continent. A debate about the hybrid and transgenic crops they are promoting would certainly be significant, but I, along with many others, feel the most critical conversation we should be having is about why this small group, whose leadership is comprised largely of non-farmers, is making decisions that fundamentally shape the course of food production, land, development, and livelihood for the world’s second most populous continent?

Various forms of cultural appropriation are taking place here. For example:

  1. The appropriation of farmer-saved seeds (local, unpatented seed varieties)—or  “embodied labor”—for industrial and patented hybrid or transgenic innovations;
  2. The appropriation of “agrobiodiversity” practices—or  “living labor” — into corporate accumulation strategies;
  3. The appropriation of land and resources through public-private partnerships; and
  4. The appropriation of representations of farmers and crops of the Global South as the new bright face of the future. 

For example, a fierce battle is currently being waged in India. The newly elected BJP government with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the helm is trying to implement an ordinance to undo a 2013 land acquisitions law, which came out of a civil society movement to protect small land holders from being displaced by development schemes. The new ordinance would enable corporations to dispossess farmers of irrigated land in order to incorporate it into agricultural development projects euphemistically named “food parks.”  Some of these parks might purport to grow “climate resilient” crops in the name of food security, but in fact they would threaten local forms of food production, farmer livelihoods, agricutural biodiversity, and existing cultural relationships to the land.

Things are happening fast. In mid-March 2015, there was a third Global Science Conference on Climate Smart Agriculture in Montpellier, France, which had informal meetings related to GACSA.  This coming December, Paris will host the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is billed as “the largest diplomatic event ever hosted by France and one of the largest climate conferences ever organized.” One of its goals will be to “to bolster business innovation in the climate change arena.” 

At the heart of this complex situation are concerns about traditional practices, power, and appropriation. However, this political moment, a time when national governments and organizational bodies are deciding whether and how to be involved, offers a crucial opportunity for civil society to actively engage with these key issues, bringing them front and center into the conversation about climate and agriculture.

Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons). 


References Cited

CIRAD Agricultural Research for Development. 2015. “Tackling Climate Change through Climate-Smart Agriculture.” March 9. 

Clever Name, Losing Game? - How Climate Smart Agriculture Is Sowing Confusion in the Food Movement  Action Aid International Monday, September 22, 2014.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2013. Climate-Smart Agriculture Sourcebook.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2015. “EX-Ante Carbon balance Tool (EX-ACT).”

Gillis, Justin. 2015.  “For Drinking Water in Drought, California Looks Warily to SeaNew York Times. April 11.

Grain.  2015. “Asia's Agrarian Reform in Reverse: Laws Taking Land Out of Small Farmers' Hands.” Against the Grain. April 30.

La Via Campesina. 2014. “UN-masking Climate Smart Agriculture” September 23 Press Release.

La Vía Campesina, GRAIN, ETC Group. 2013.  “Climate Summit: Don't Turn Farmers into 'Climate Smart' Carbon Traders!” La Via Campesina. November 7. 

Potter, Daniel. 2015. “Why Isn’t Desalination the Answer to All California’s Water Problems?” KQED Science. March 30.

SciDev.Net. 2015. “France Plans to Lobby for Agricultural Tech at COP 21.” March 25.

Talbot, David. 2014. “Desalination out of Desperation.” MIT Technological Review, December 16.

United Nations. 2014. “Climate Summit 2014 Catalyzing Action.”

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. 2013. “Trade and Environment Review 2013 Wake Up Before It Is Too Late.”

Vidal, John. 2010. “Why Is the Gates Foundation Investing in GM Giant Monsanto?The Guardian: September.

Further Reading

People’s Climate March Blog

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Climate Smart Agriculture Website

Conference of Parties Sustainable Innovation Forum 2015 Website

La Via Campesina Blog

Stop Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture Twitter Roll

The Guardian Environmental Sustainability Blog


Priya Chandrasekaran is a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center, and an IPinCH Associate.

Our Appropriation (?) of the Month features, written by IPinCH team members, explore the fine line between 'cultural appreciation' and 'cultural appropriation.’