Organic farm tour on Salt Spring helps forge political united front

Gulf Islands Driftwood | 2002 | Circulation: 4,200

Organic farmers from South Asia and Salt Spring shared a harvest of ideas and inspiration on an August 18 farm tour to kick off the world’s largest organics congress in Victoria.

Delegates to the Organic World Congress from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka visited three organic farms on Salt Spring, and came away resolved to form a united political front against genetic engineering and corporate agri-business.

“Our demand is we should be able to produce our own food,” said Farida Akhter, executive director of the Bangladeshi group Police Research for Development Alternatives (UBINIG).

“Hungry people in the Third World need food, but they need food which is produced by themselves. [Corporations] want to feed us genetically engineered food because they’re hungry for profit.

“It is not we who are hungry,” she said. “It is they who are hungry.”

One of the host farmers on Salt Spring was Michael Ableman, who owns the Madrona Valley Farm as well as a larger organic farm in California. Ableman will be speaking next Saturday at the 14th annual meeting of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).

Ableman said he was inspired by the stories told by Third World delegates on the Salt Spring tour.

“I was really inspired by the leadership that women have taken in many of those countries, and the incredible creativity and resourcefulness that people have applied under the most difficult conditions,” Ableman said.

“We are at a really critical crossroads right now. The problems of the food system, they’re not just problems of farmers. They’re problems of everyone who eats.”

Although the farming conditions are more challenging in Third World countries, many of the problems and concerns of the farmers were shared.

Farmers from both South Asia and Canada expressed anger at the imposition of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on poor countries, as well as the patenting of traditional seeds by multinational corporations, almost entirely from northern countries like Canada and the U.S.A.

In the Third World, the farmers said, corporations have already obtained patents on their cultural heritage – everything from basmati rice to millenniums-old remedies from trees.

The fear of “corporate colonialism” has prompted farmers around the world to protect traditional crops by preserving seeds in seed banks.

The first tour stop of the day brought the delegates to the Salt Spring Centre to watch a seed saving demonstration by Dan Jason, owner of Salt Spring Seeds, who showed how the island is protecting its heritage seeds for future generations.

“I was very inspired and excited and impressed,” Jason said. “They’re motivated to save seeds and preserve our heritage… the same way I am.

“The fact that they came here and we’re starting to network with them and share information, that is the start of a movement.”

Jason explained to the visitors that he wants to create a “seed and plant sanctuary” on Salt Spring, which he described as “a holy place, where seeds are honoured and respected.”

One delegate from India was especially impressed by Jason speaking about seeds as sacred.

Despite being a non-literate woman in the Dalit (formerly “untouchable”) caste, Begari Laxmi was elected to be the official “seed keeper” of her community.

This traditional role, she said, carries the responsibility to protect her village’s more than 80 varieties of seeds in her home, and to provide them to farmers for each year’s harvest.

“It’s a symbol of self-reliance,” she told the Driftwood through a translator. “It’s a very important responsibility, and something that’s very important to me.

“I was impressed with the way [Salt Springers] showed the commitment to saving seeds and maintaining their rights to them.”

The farm tour also visited Duck Creek Farm, hosted by island organic farm activist John Wilcox, who said there was an interesting irony to the visit. Wilcox journeyed to India 41 years ago as Canada’s first international farm volunteer with Canadian Overseas Volunteers (now renamed Canadian University Students Overseas, or CUSO).

Now, he said, it was South Asian farmers’ turn to come here and share their knowledge with us.

The IFOAM Organic World Congress was chaired this year by Anne Macey, an organic farm inspector who lives on Salt Spring. More than 1,000 delegates from at least 100 countries attended the week-long conference.

According to organizers, the delegates represented two million people in the organic food industry world-wide – but for many of them, organic farming is as much a social movement as it is a technique.

“Our farmers understand that,” Akhter said. “For them it’s a very direct resistance, it’s what we do. We don’t want to have to depend on corporations.”

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