Research hot topics
Listening to the voice of food growers
By Dr Maria Touri, Associate Professor, School of Media, Communication and Sociology
As the world grapples with the catastrophic consequences of the war in Ukraine and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, both crises have brought to the forefront the fragility of the global food supply chain, intensifying calls for self-sufficient and resilient local food systems, and fuelling predictions for the collapse of global food trade. But as the Chief Economist of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Maximo Torero Cullen, said recently, global food trade needs to keep going, not only because of the reliance of most of the Western world on imported food, but because it provides a significant source of income and welfare to low and middle-income producer countries.
Sustainable development debates, and the UN’s agenda for the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, are heavily focused on the economic, environmental, and social resilience of Southern farming communities. Yet, they consistently neglect subjective dimensions of social well-being that are indirectly linked to food production and sustainability. Among these is the harm caused by the stereotypical representations, especially of Southern food growers, in public communication i.e., advertising, and promotional material. Food brands and organizations such as the Fairtrade foundation typically rely on close-up smiling photographic portraits of humble and hard-working farmers narrating the positive changes brought to their lives through purchases from the ‘generous’ Northern consumer. These portrayals have been widely critiqued by academic studies for turning producers’ lives into a ‘spectacle’ and undermining their confidence.
What is less explored and understood though is the extent to which farmers’ capacity for self- representation can be conducive to their sustainability, and this was demonstrated in a study I conducted with funding from the British Academy and University of Leicester Impact Development Fund. In this, a group of farmers from an organic cooperative in Kerala, South India took matters in their hands and created their own short videos to showcase their work to their wholesale buyers and retail consumers in India as well as France, Germany, and England. The videos were filmed with the farmers’ own mobile phone cameras and screened during events that were organised in Kerala to raise awareness about organic farming methods among non-organic farmers, agricultural students, and local consumers. It turns out that self-representation through videos could elicit a combination of subjective and material benefits for the farmers.
In places like Kerala, organic farmers often face social marginalisation for prioritising biodiversity protection over higher yields and better financial returns. But as several of the farmers who took part in the project stated, making those videos, and sharing them with their local community brought more recognition and appreciation for their work, while also boosting their morale. Recognition is inextricably linked to the farmers’ sustainability. It is when their voices are heard, and their work becomes valued and appreciated more widely that younger generations will also feel incentivised to become involved in organic farming, preserve the farming techniques that will support biodiversity conservation and prevent local varieties from becoming extinct. In fact, the subjective and material benefits from the creation and screening of the videos became immediately obvious. The farmers felt inspired to create more videos, focusing on specific farming practices, and sharing these through their social media accounts. In turn, 30 new farmers were also inspired to join the cooperative and convert to organic farming.
In the Sustainable Development Goals, among the targets of SDG 10 is the need for enhanced representation and voice for developing countries in decision-making in global international economic and financial institutions. This is measured through the proportion of members and voting rights of developing countries in international organizations. Without negating the significance of this target, the value of representation should be expanded and the impact of self-representation on the farmers’ well-being and sustainability should be formally recognised. For farming communities in places like India, constructing their own public images would ultimately require an organised effort through the support of international trading and development organisations that are willing to invest in farmers’ capacity and right to tell their own stories. It is through such efforts that ideas and discourses of sustainable development can also be re-defined to elevate the relational, multidimensional, and alternative visions of sustainability and well-being.