What’s in a Weed

By Sharon Perrone


Last semester, I had the fortune of attending part of a two-day symposium entitled “Exploring African Agriculture Futures” co-sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change, the Global Programs and Strategy Alliance, and the UMN Extension Global Initiatives here at the University of Minnesota.  Such sponsorship meant that I was exposed to a different conversation than I am usually privy to within the natural sciences; these are always opportunities I look forward to, as I find the difference in framing, context, and premise of inquiry a necessary but often neglected component of my graduate education.  The keynote, to which much of this blog is devoted, was Elizabeth Mpofu, General Coordinator of the international peasant movement La Via Campesina and founder and Chairperson of the Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF).  She also holds another title that I revere her for most: organic farmer.


Mpofu made a distinction early on that set the tone for the rest of the symposium, and the theme was reiterated throughout: In the smallholder and peasant farmer movements, people fight for food sovereignty, not food security.  This was nothing new to me – I have heard these semantics before.  Food security refers to sustained access to food and daily caloric needs while food sovereignty refers to an individual, community, or nation’s ability to self-determine food production and consumption systems.  For example, accepting food aid might increase a community’s food security, but accepting investments in local markets and supporting participatory research on local and culturally appropriate foods might increase food sovereignty.


Not all parts of the lecture were so digestible, however. Where Mpofu’s lecture sparked critique and debate was in her rejection of technologies such as high-throughput techniques for plant breeding, tractors and other implements for the mechanization of field work, and synthetic fertilizer, as well as her insistence on quality over quantity in food production.  She argued that local varieties are better adapted to a range of conditions experienced over hundreds if not thousands of years and maintain stronger genetic diversity than corporate or academic varieties; mechanized tools are expensive, cannot be shared via a cooperative structure due to lack of trust amongst members, and degrade the soil more than draft animals; and synthetic fertilizer is cost-prohibitive and causes long-term disruption to nutrient cycling processes that are required for stable soils.


I imagine the agronomic researchers in the room may have felt threatened by this, or perhaps indignant about the rejection of their work.  An American agronomist who has spent his life’s research in Somalia finally asked, “I don’t quite get it.  African smallholder farmers are counted among the poorest people in the world.  Are you saying that you want to keep them in this state?”  Mpofu replied, “Who says we are poor?”


The causes of poverty are many.  Perhaps so, too, are its definitions.  If a community can feed itself comfortably on little income, does it consider itself poor or wanting?  Should we, as outsiders, call them poor or wanting, according to our own standards?  If a community lacks technology that increases efficiency of production or processing, does it consider its work a tedious means to an end, or a way of life?  Who suffers most in rural Africa?  Is it smallholder farmers, and if so, is it for want of technology or from outside exploitation?  Are farmers starving?


When asked about policies that can help farmers overcome poverty, Mpofu said protection policies, not assistance policies. She touched on the exploitation of natural resources where power is concentrated in the hands of a few and disadvantages are spread among the many, reiterating the need for agroecology as a framework for natural resource stewardship.  She argued that farmers prefer to grow small grains over maize, which is pushed by global agribusiness and commodity markets, because small grains are quick-growing and put food on the table at more regular intervals than maize.  Farmers don’t need or want access to international markets – their interest is in feeding their community, not in capital gains through global business ventures.


These examples highlight the conflicting definitions of poverty and success.  I would argue that both the “Luddite” and the “technocrat” are voicing accurate and relevant concerns informed by their own experiences, deeply rooted in capitalist vs. non-capitalist worldviews and conflicting definitions of poverty.  To further add to the complexity of trying to measure progress, concepts of poverty seem to be changing within smallholder farming communities as younger generations gain increasing internet access and a narrower dichotomy of “haves” and “have-nots,” for example, that farmers should have tractors, or ultimately, that money brings ease and happiness.  How can we possibly say what, then, constitutes progress, and to whom?


Hence the conflict.  These many voices make us ask if Mpofu accurately represents the vast majority of peasant and smallholder farmers.  What are some of the larger internal conflicts among peasant farmers and their visions for self-governance?  Is providing farmers with efficient cultivators going to harm them, their culture, or their land in irreparable ways?  Are there technologies that don’t have addictive and destructive properties such that they capture farmers in a form of path-dependency where their autonomy is compromised? (Full disclosure: I presume there are.)  What do those technologies look like?  Is the “choice” of using technology a farce if it creates dependency?  And is dependency such a bad thing if it helps farmers prosper, by whatever definition of prosperity they prefer to adopt?  


I imagine these questions have plagued many who are deeply invested in the questions of hunger and the suffering of humankind.  And while I certainly can’t offer any answers, I do think this line of questioning is critical. It helps us see problems more clearly, and that leads us to more just and relevant solutions.


I will close this blog with another anecdote from the symposium that illustrates this point.  A Somali agricultural researcher gave a talk in which he suggested that farmers don’t know what they’re doing because many of them failed to cultivate weeds at the proper intervals, lowering cash crop yields.  Dr. Batamaka Somé, expert anthropologist based in Burkina Faso, pushed back, asking, “Have you asked these farmers why they do not cultivate their weeds?  They are surely not cultivating them for lack of knowledge.”  The presenter responded that he had not.  Dr. Paul Richards, accomplished anthropologist and geographer, contributed: “I have asked them, and here was their answer: they were attending funerals.”


My point being, solutions can fail if the premise is not examined. Solution-building is multifaceted.  Perhaps investing in healthcare could increase farmers’ success more than investing in agriculture itself.  Or, in Dr. Richards’s case, if Ebola cannot be contained at the same time people are growing food, perhaps developing plant varieties that have larger windows of opportunity for management is more critical than crops that respond best to higher planting densities.  Examining your premise should be an iterative process.

I’m not arguing one way or another – these examples are hypothetical.  Either way, I think it is time we stop addressing questions of development as if all of Africa were an aspiring America and take time to re-imagine (and, importantly, must ask) what prosperity looks like for African farmers.