Our food system has always been in transition, developing as we introduce new knowledge and policies into our food production practices. This growth has accelerated at a pace that challenges our survival and that of other species with which we share our one and only home, planet Earth.
For human beings, food is at the centre of our societies, economic structures, cultural structures and our health. This is reflected in our global targets, which aim to meet the present human needs without compromising those of future generations.
Thanks to science, we have come to better understand the interlinked, necessary and sometimes invisible processes as well as actions that make it possible to have nutritious food on our plates. However, access to this nutritious food only happens if we are fortunate enough to source and adequately use available and sustainably produced food, which translates into food security.
My journey from professional cooking to nutrition and global challenges in food and health enhanced my curiosity about agriculture, where our food system begins. The time has finally come for me to study food systems within an organic farm where I got the chance to experience farm work first hand. My experience has allowed me to identify two important actions that are often invisible to many of us but are an important part of preserving biodiversity and impact the achievement of the SDGs.
Organic farming systems are often burdened with unwanted weeds growing within and amongst them. By virtue of these systems being organic, it is necessary for the weeds to be managed manually. Removing weeds is needed in order to protect the growth of crops from other plants that compete for resources such as sunlight, soil nutrients and water. Not controlling weeds can result in decreased yields. Herbicide use, on the other hand, degrades the integrity of the organic system .
My experience with weeding at the organic farm that I went to gave me a good perspective into the practicalities of controlling for weeds manually. In a group of 27 people, I was allocated a row of green beans (250 m long) and a row of leeks (500 m) with four hours to complete both. The working conditions afforded us a 30-minute hydration break and the convenience of interacting and assisting my colleagues. It was rather quite a privilege to work there as sustainability and fair work are at the core of the farm.
Although I enjoyed my experience as a farmworker, manually removing weeds along a 750 m length of beans and leeks was not easy. The reality of trying to complete this task within a four hour time frame was not as I had imagined, needless to say, that I was not efficient in it. Should that whole process have been my job interview, I probably wouldn't get hired. The aftermath stayed with me days after work. I had to tend to my lower back that evening, and my legs reminded me of the work I had done two days before with every step that I took. My experience was only a small proportion of what farmworkers go through. This experience has really sensitised me to the labour intensiveness that comes with working on a farm.
Farmworkers are very important actors in the food system, especially those who hold traditional knowledge. They take care of the soil, plant growth and crop harvest, however, in most cases they not only get little revenue but are also food insecure. Their work has become harder than it actually is and as invisible as the many living organisms present in healthy soil. There are farmworkers who spend ten hours a day in harsh weather conditions making sure our food makes it from the soil to the trucks and are paid, if so, from 25 to 25 EUR a day - basically what you’d pay for a moderate priced dinner out.
Organic farming enables a path towards a more sustainable food system transition, where every single live being has room to live and contribute in a positive way.
Along with the hard work, I also had an amazing sensorial and therapeutical experience. I almost became one with the soil, the wind, the warm weather, the various tones of greens and the pure smell of earthy beans and leeks enjoying being in the now and appreciating other beings. The biodiversity within the farm was intriguing to me. I was able to identify multiple types of insects and ladybird nests, which I had never seen in such quantities before. While my hands dug in the soil, I visited that invisible world and closely wandered around insects, which in conventional farming would not be there.
Since my experience on the organic farm, I have been feeling grateful for the Earth that feeds me and for the farmers that facilitate that process. I am also saddened by our behaviour as human beings, as such, I feel the pressure of the limited time to achieve the SDGs. If we make these important roles visible and respect their contributions towards healthier food systems, the transition will be more sustainable, and as such, preserving the ability of future generations to live food secure. Until we as human beings recognise that we only benefit from ecological services brought to us through the efforts of farmworkers whom we are currently leaving behind, we will not be able to keep in line with the SDGs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karolina Rodriguez is a former professional chef and Global Public Health Nutritionist MSc from the University of Westminster in the UK. She has a scientific interest in politics and ethics of food systems, nutrition and sustainable development. Karolina is passionate about data analysis and loves to explore complex systems. She has a wide international experience and cross-cultural awareness. Karolina is currently looking to pursue a career within a team that delivers sustainable change.
Karolina Rodriguez is one of the 24 participants of the World Food System Summer School Food Systems in Transition taking place from 17 August to 1 September 2019 in Rheinau, Switzerland. The course applies a variety of different teaching formats to help participants develop both new knowledge and skills to address the challenges of how to feed the world, while considering human health, the environment and social wellbeing is one of the defining challenges of our time.