Last March, I had the opportunity to travel to Nepal as part of my ongoing collaboration with The Food Network Academy (FNA), an initiative that aims to carry out action-oriented research on alternative ways to shape the food-value chain as a way to achieve a truly equitable and sustainable food-system, with healthy and nutritious food for everyone. The FNA is born out of the practical experience and academic research developed by two entrepreneurial initiatives currently operating in Switzerland (Bachsermärt) and Nepal (THE BAZAAR), which are following the Sustainable Regional Food Network model (SRFN) as an alternative framework to design and implement food-value chains under the “collaborative commons” philosophy.
One of my tasks was to interview several small-scale organic farmers working on isolated villages and communities in Pokhara, the second largest village in Nepal. These farmers and producers work in an agricultural cooperative (THE BAZAAR) that provides them with market access (retail shop and a farmer´s market), logistic services, as well as technical expertise (training in organic farming practices) and financial services (loans and credit).
This was meant to verify if the FNA values and principles were actually being applied by all the members of the cooperative. My partners and I (with the invaluable support of Bastian Flury, former member of the WSFC team, as well as other partners) have been conceptualizing these values and principles out of the practical experience of THE BAZAAR and a similar project in Switzerland (Bachsermärt). Bachsermärt, a chain that operates as a model and training company with two food stores, a restaurant, a dairy and a bakery in the countryside and three shops in the city of Zurich, connected through a small logistics center to 32 regional farmers and small scale food manufacturers.
This objective allowed me to go on a three-day tour of the Pokhara valley, walking high-up in the hills and visiting different villages and homesteads to get a better glimpse of the farmer´s lives. Since before the trip even began, it was clear for me that this would be the highlight of my one-month stay in Nepal, for I was really interested in experiencing, even if just briefly and as an “observer”, what it really means to work the land for a living, to produce food from one´s own efforts, and to truly engage in a sustainable lifestyle.
The farmers and their families were, as I expected, really kind and welcoming, always making sure you as a guest would feel at ease in their houses and very open to talk about their life and their activities. I mention that it was expected because I have had the opportunity to meet people from rural backgrounds in Mexico who behave exactly the same. This realization makes me hopeful that there are many common things that all people who work the land for a living share, believe and hope for, and that it is the job of those of us in both academia and the entrepreneurial fields to honor these connections and make sure they are used for the betterment of the food system, and for society in general.
Speaking of the food system, it is abundantly clear for me – even more so than before this trip – that the current system in place is unsustainable, unfair, and highly destructive, not only on ecosystem terms but also in societal. There is a dilemma of how to feed healthy and nutritious food to an ever increasing population without falling into the traps of industrial agriculture. Being high up in the beautiful hillsides of Pokhara and seeing the amount of effort and passion small-scale farmers put into their activities (this type of farmers produce over 70% of the world’s food needs, according to FAO), I got convinced that all the stakeholders in the food-system need to find alternative approaches to shape the food system under a framework of mutual collaboration, fairness, respect for nature and financial sustainability that allows individuals, families and whole communities to see agricultural activities as a viable way to earn a living. The farmers and the agricultural cooperative I had the opportunity to visit are doing this, now, and it is working. But greater support is needed to turn this “alternative” way of producing and selling food into a mainstream practice.
The general public, as consumers, have a big impact in how the food system is shaped. This is why projects such as THE BAZAAR and Bachsermärt are important and relevant, for they are allowing consumers to become more aware of the imbalances of the current food system and of the fact that alternatives exist. If you are interested in this topic, please visit http://foodnetworkacademy.org/ for more information on how alternative food system models can be designed and implemented.
About the innovative idea of Bachsermärt (in German only): http://www.bachsermaert.ch/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fernando Casillas Bernal comes from Mexico and is a graduate from the M.Sc. Environmental Governance programme (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg) with knowledge on social entrepreneurship, innovation and climate-change adaptation (Climate-KIC Summer School), food systems (WFSC Summer School from ETH Zurich) and the agro-energy nexus (Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge for Development, from GIZ). Fernando is passionate about human empathy, reconciling our current lifestyle with a respectful relationship with nature and the environment. He is always interested in learning from motivated people from all around the world.
“Being part of the Ambassador Grant, as an alumnus of the WFSC summer school of 2016, provided me with the opportunity to travel to Nepal and carry out this short research project. Thanks to the financial support of this grant, I was able to visit Asia for the first time in my life and to have my first taste of work in the field. I met wonderful people, had enriching and meaningful conversations with my partners from the FNA and the staff of THE BAZAAR and, most importantly for me, was able to talk directly to the farmers at the heart of this innovative initiative. I am extremely grateful to everyone at the WFSC from ETH Zurich for their support and guidance through this incredible experience and I strongly recommend students, researchers and private individuals to approach the staff at the WFSC and get to know their projects.”