Advocate, Teacher, Researcher and Author Eric Holt-Giménez Discusses the Global Food System, Economics & Peasant Farmers
Since 2006 scholar and activist Eric Holt-Giménez has been executive director of Food First(Institute for Food and Development Policy), a people’s think tank founded by Frances Moore Lappé in 1975. As a leading critic of the global food system his work is grounded in a quarter-century of experience working in Latin America with peasant farmers in the agroecology movement. His latest book, and the central focus of this interview, is A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat. Holt-Giménez, who is of Basque and Puerto Rican heritage and the son of farmworkers, grew up milking cows and pitching hay on Marin County, California, dairy farms. He studied rural education and biology at the University of Oregon and Evergreen State College and later earned his M.Sc. in international development (UC Davis, 1981) and Ph.D. in environmental studies (UC Santa Cruz, 2002).
On his first project in Mexico after college, Holt-Giménez was charged with teaching sustainable agriculture to impoverished subsistence farmers, but quickly realized that he could learn a lot more from them. There he witnessed the impact of larger social and political forces on small farmers through the Green Revolution, which was getting them hooked on a treadmill of purchased inputs and imposing a farming system that was destructive to their land and well-being. A visit by several Mayan farmers from Guatemala to hold a field course on restoring degraded land marked a critical turning point for both Holt-Giménez and the peasant farmers. That encounter helped launch the Campesino a Campesino (farmer to farmer) movement through which untold numbers of small farmers around Latin America created more productive and ecologically sound, innovative farming systems, increased their livelihoods and amplified their voice.
Holt-Giménez’s Ph.D. dissertation on that movement formed the basis for his book Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America’s Farmer to Farmer Movement for Sustainable Agriculture. He also co-authored, with Raj Patel and Annie Shattuck, Food Rebellions! Crisis and the Hunger for Justice and is the editor of Food Movements Unite! Strategies to Transform Our Food System. His writing has appeared in prominent newspapers, and he has a blog on Huffington Post. He also teaches internationally at the graduate level.
Interviewed by Tracy Frisch
Learning From Farmers
ACRES U.S.A. After you graduated from college, what motivated you to immerse yourself in peasant communities in Latin America?
ERIC HOLT-GIMENÉZ. I was already in the highlands of Guatemala doing a study for my college thesis. I saw that schoolteachers there didn’t just teach kids; they also acted as a liaison between the indigenous community and the outside world. They were tasked to bring in seeds and fertilizers, and they worked together with everybody. That got me interested in rural development, and I turned away from education, which was where I was heading. I found a volunteer position with the Mexican Friends Service Committee, and my partner and I went to a village in Tlaxcala in central Mexico. Tlaxcala is the smallest state in Mexico. It’s also the most eroded, one of the poorest and the most densely populated state. It has the longest history of colonization and exploitation. We were supposed to teach the farmers sustainable agriculture, but not very long after I got there, I realized that was an absurd proposition. These people have been farming for 6,000 years. Much of their agriculture was for subsistence. They were depending on it to survive so they couldn’t take chances on experimenting with new things. The problem was that they had entered into the Green Revolution and were getting credit to buy fertilizers, pesticides and hybrid seed. They had done quite well with that for five or six years. But then, as the soil became degraded, they had to apply more and more fertilizer. They were forced into a monoculture of corn in order to get credit. With everybody growing corn, the price of corn went down and they were having trouble paying off their loans. The price of beans, which they used to grow with the corn, went up since no one was growing beans, so their very basic diet was costing them more. And they had stopped growing squash, which had helped to shade the soil and provided large pumpkins for their animals. They had to buy feed for the animals, and the soil was drying out so the crops were less resilient to drought. The corn didn’t keep very long so they had to sell it right away, when everybody else was selling it.
ACRES U.S.A. They had gotten on the pesticide and fertilizer treadmill and were now looking for a way out.
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The organic agriculture I was practicing on my own experimental plot was doing quite well, but they weren’t adopting any of those techniques. I was very frustrated. Then, at almost the end of our two-year stint, some peasant farmers from Guatemala came to the village and gave a workshop. They belonged to a very large co-op and had gone into temporary exile because it was safer for them to be out of the country during elections. Only one man in the village attended their workshop. They showed a lot of the things that I had been doing. It was their style of communication, and the fact that they were farmers, that convinced the farmers in the village where I lived of the benefits of rebuilding the soil, diversifying crops, implementing conservation techniques and whatnot. They had a fantastic course. That one person who took the course implemented those things on his own land where other people could see them. Since it worked for him, other people became interested. With a group from the village we took a trip down to Guatemala to visit the Guatemalans, and they became even more convinced of these sustainable practices, which we now call agroecology. I extended my stay another year as we implemented those practices, and the farmers began to give workshops. They used demonstrations and little models that they built in the dirt and poems and songs for sharing the agroecological knowledge that they had learned from the Guatemalans. Very little was written down. It was very accessible, and they were able to learn basic concepts in agroecology and how to do efficient experimentation that allowed them to quantify their results. They could run five or six small-scale experiments on their plot without risking the harvest. With a group of about 10 men, if they each had five experiments, that’s 50 experiments.
ACRES U.S.A. That is so exciting!
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. It changed my life. I could have come home like any Peace Corps veteran and gone into business or to grad school. But with this experience, I became convinced that it wasn’t my role to teach farmers to farm. What I could do was help bring farmers to meet with other farmers, so they could figure out the best ways to farm. That was the beginning of the Campesino a Campesino, or the farmer to farmer, movement.
ACRES U.S.A. Tell me more about the highly eroded state you worked in.
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Tlaxcala was one of the first areas to be colonized by the Spanish. They deforested it, put sheep on the land and degraded the soils. Much of Tlaxcala looks like a moonscape, and this is where poor farmers have been shoved to farm. Pushing the peasants onto the most fragile lands and then expecting them to produce is quite typical in most parts of the world. And actually, they do produce. But accepting the inputs from Green Revolution technologies is a doubled-edge sword. At first, yields increase. Then very quickly their whole system degrades and collapses, and they’re ruined. This has repeated itself over and over the last half-century. These farmers were able to get off that treadmill.
ACRES U.S.A. How did the Guatemalan farmers start using agroecological practices?
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The Guatemalan farmers are indigenous Mayan farmers who worked under supremely oppressive conditions for 500 years. They had been shoved up onto the steep hillsides growing corn, beans and squash. They, too, were offered fertilizers. Their situation was much worse than the Mexicans, who have land tenure through the ejido system. The Guatemalans didn’t have that. For six months out of the year they had to go down to coastal areas and work on banana plantations. They would come back sick and exhausted. The large landowners would loan them money to buy the inputs, which they would sell to them. When they couldn’t pay back the loan after the harvest, the landowners would load them onto big cattle trucks and send them on a 20-hour ride down to the coast where they were being worked to death. What happened was that a Guatemalan soil specialist, who had been educated in part in the United States and worked all his life in soil conservation in Guatemala, retired to a small indigenous village that his wife was from. He was bored so he bought a little piece of steep, highly eroded land. He put in small terraces and added organic matter to conserve soil and water, the factors that limited production in most peasant agriculture, and he got tremendous yields. It was rain-fed agriculture. Some indigenous farmers asked him what special seed or fertilizer he was using. He was using the local heirloom seeds — they’re called landraces. The indigenous farmers were amazed by his yields and asked him to teach them. He agreed. He didn’t speak the indigenous language, so there was a lot of pantomime and teaching by example. Nothing was shared by the written word. In the Mayan culture, if somebody advances, everybody advances so they wanted to share these techniques within the rest of their villages. They asked him to go out with them. He said no because he didn’t speak Kaqchikel, the Mayan language. He would teach them to teach the others, but first they had to show results on their own land. And this worked.
ACRES U.S.A. When was this?
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. In the early 1970s, during a time of extreme repression in Guatemala for indigenous people. This was incredibly important to them. As the knowledge spread in their villages, they began to produce enough to live on and to sell, so they formed a cooperative. They weren’t completely organic; they did use a little fertilizer along with a lot of organic material that they added to their soil. When the cooperative began making money, they started other activities in the co-op like sewing, and the women were involved. They had worked on coffee farms so they began to produce coffee. Then, they pooled their money to buy eroded coffee farms at very low prices and restore their fertility with agroecological practices. They were so wildly successful that they stopped working for the large landowners and stopped using them as middlemen to sell their corn and beans. Actually, they started outcompeting the large landowners in the coffee market. On top of that, through the co-op — which was called Kato-ki, which means welcome, they were doing their own land reform, buying land and distributing it among themselves. I got to know them when they were at their zenith. They were recovering a lot of old indigenous practices that we call traditional and also innovating as well. They received some help from Oxfam and World Neighbors. They had developed a very sophisticated methodology for teaching and sharing agroecological knowledge, and they would put on workshops all around the Guatemalan Highlands. They would have fairs and give demonstrations. It was a tremendous effervescence of agriculture within Mayan culture.
ACRES U.S.A. How did the landowners react to their success?
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The landowners saw them as a threat, denounced them as communists and called in the army to burn them out. Some were killed, others fled. Some joined the guerillas. Others went into exile, taking with them the knowledge that they had gained.
ACRES U.S.A. How did this movement evolve?
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The Campesino a Campesino movement continued in Honduras, Salvador, Mexico and Nicaragua. When Campesino a Campesino hit Nicaragua, where there was a revolution and massive land reform, it spread across the country through the National Farmers and Ranchers Union and became wildly successful. The peasants were on the land, armed and empowered, but it was very difficult for the government to give them anything else. They were importing Soviet tractors for another Green Revolution, though it failed because of inept central planning and poor logistics. It wasn’t a well-greased machine. Campesino a Campesino provides tremendous levels of autonomy for the peasantry, ensures their food security and links them in very dense cultural networks across the country. During the revolutionary period a lot of farmers’ organizations and NGOs from around the world were descending on Nicaragua to learn about what was happening and provide support. Many people came in contact with the Campesino a Campesino movement. The Nicaraguans and the Mexicans went back and forth visiting each other. It was more difficult for the Guatemalans, though they visited with the Hondurans and others. The movement exploded. Within 20 years, about a quarter of a million families were participating. And then, Campesino a Campesino was taken over to Cuba during “the special period.” In five years, a quarter of a million farmers became involved. With the end to the huge subsidy for fertilizers, pesticides and other input from the Soviet Union, the Cuban government had the political will to advance sustainable agriculture and agroecology. This showed us that if there is political will these practices will spread very quickly because of their success. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch hit Central America and 10,000 people died. They estimated losses at about 13 percent of the region’s gross national product. It was called the Hurricane of the Poor because of the deaths of so many peasants living in precarious conditions. Almost all of the crops were lost except those of the farmers in the Campesino a Campesino movement. We thought isn’t this interesting? Everybody was talking about reconstruction, but it didn’t make sense to reconstruct with conventional Green Revolution farming practices because they make the land too vulnerable. That’s why the losses were so high. We said we should reconstruct agroecologically to give more resilience. That would give us protections against hurricanes and droughts at the same time.
ACRES U.S.A. How did you advance your concerns about reconstruction?
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. We carried out a three-country study in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua with 2,000 farmers that compared conventional to agroecological methods. The agroecological methods won hands-down. The farmers did all this research. I was there, finishing up my Ph.D., and I helped them design the field methods for the study. They already were experts at observing and measuring, having carried out small-scale experiments on their farms, and they knew what indicators to use to compare resiliency. We worked with over 100 teams in the three countries. Our massive database allowed us to make comparisons and reach conclusions with a high degree of certainty and precision. When we published in scientific journals, I think it was the first time 2,000 farmers, semi-literate and illiterate farmers, have ever published in a scientific journal. The farmers held huge events in the national capitals and presented their findings to the Ministries of Agriculture, the Ministries of Foreign Cooperation and everybody who was involved in the negotiations for the reconstruction of Central America. They were wildly applauded, which was quite a turnaround. For 30 years, the scientists and technicians from the Green Revolution and the Ministries of Agriculture had made fun of them. They’d told them, you say you’re sustainable. Now prove it. Well, they proved it. Then the ministries went off to Spain to negotiate the terms of reconstruction. When they came back several months later, we found out that they had decided to simply abandon agriculture, conventional and sustainable. They wanted the peasantry to leave the countryside and move to the urban centers to work in a vast network of sweatshops that were going to ground the economic reconstruction of Central America. We learned a terrible lesson: It’s not enough to be right. They didn’t care. Capitalism had another idea. I don’t know which idiot in the World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank thought that Central America could ever compete with China and their sweatshops. Of course, the plan failed miserably. On the heels of that came the free trade agreements, which devalued all of the crops the farmers grew. That’s when you begin to see farmers going out of business, bankrupt, and the beginning of the farmer exodus from Mexico and Central America to the United States, looking for work. The basis of the migration crisis really started over 30 years ago, and the fate of these farmers was sealed when capitalism refused to rebuild after natural disasters.
ACRES U.S.A. What should we know about the ejido system in Mexico?
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The ejido system consists of state-owned lands, which were distributed to farmers. The ejido was given to the peasantry in return for their having been the cannon fodder during the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. And with all of the problems that the ejido had — and there were plenty — it maintained the peasantry for 70 years. Every ejido in Mexico would have a certain amount of land, anywhere from 300 to 1,000 hectares, which would be distributed to between 50 and 200 families. In each village the ejido assembly managed the ejido. They gave out different parcels, set aside land for conservation and reforested. Most often land was worked individually. Farmers could pass down their plots to their progeny, but they couldn’t sell them. But then, in anticipation of the free-trade agreements, the Mexican government constitutionally abolished the ejido land with Article 27, so it could be bought and sold. Everybody likes to blame the United States for this, but the Mexican elites were quite complicit. The intention was to move the peasants out of the countryside. There’s always a war on the peasantry. But the peasants kept their ejido land. When the women learned that in order to sell, the wife had to sign along with the husband, they refused to sign. Very often, the husband wanted to sign to get the money, go to the United States or buy a pickup truck. But the wives were not convinced, in part because if your husband goes to the United States with all the money, he may never come back. He may find another woman and start another family. Very little ejido land was sold until the free trade agreements ground the rural economy to a halt. The U.S. dumping of grains into Mexico undercut production. With no market for their goods, farmers were going bankrupt. Then came sales of ejido land. This also affected the farmers in the Campesino a Campesino movement. I visited a lot of the original farmers. Many of their sons and daughters are in the United States. They are probably only producing at 15 to 25 percent of capacity because there’s no market for their farm products. Mexico could be farming ecologically and be self-sufficient in grains, but political decisions favoring international capital have driven the country in another direction.
ACRES U.S.A. To what extent are peasant farmers around the world using agroecological practices and farming systems? Do we have any idea?
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. It’s impossible to know. People have tried again and again to quantify it, and have asked me to, but I couldn’t even quantify things when I was in the middle of it. It’s so horizontal. We called it reticular because it’s thoroughly embedded within peasant culture and peasant extended family networks — it moves like water finding different pathways. We would have a gathering and expect maybe 100 people to come, and suddenly there were 500 or 600 people there. Where did they come from? And then we would plan for 500 and 800 would show up. Around the world, agroecology is pushing back against conventional agriculture and, I would say, becoming the bastion of peasant production. Agroecology is a science, a practice and a movement. The science of agroecology is now being taken much more seriously, and it’s converging with researchers and scientists from other disciplines who have been studying it for quite some time.
ACRES U.S.A. Since we don’t use that term very much here, could you give a quick definition of agroecology?
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Agroecology involves managing the ecological function and processes on a farm in order to create an agricultural surplus. A lot of ecology and biology and atmospheric science come into it. There’s agroforestry and animal husbandry and relay cropping, and very complex combinations of diverse cropping systems and timing. While it’s certainly grounded in what we call traditional practices, traditional is an inaccurate term because it confers the sense of being static. Traditional agriculture wasn’t and isn’t ever static; it’s always changing. Agroecology as a science came out of biologists and ecologists observing traditional farming systems to find out what farmers were actually doing. They found that these farmers were managing the ecosystem functions of their farms. Some of their systems are ancient, millennial systems. Others are reworked, like the movement that I was associated with. And agroecology is really anathema to capitalist agriculture because it encourages farmers to spend less on inputs. That helps to explain why farmers who practice these techniques were ridiculed for as long as they were. But it worked so well and was so resilient in the face of natural disasters, worsening droughts and storms, that it couldn’t be ignored anymore. Now agencies like the UN and even the World Bank are trying to co-op the term and selectively incorporate different agroecological techniques into the existing structures of industrial capitalist agriculture. This is really a big split because industrial agriculture dispossesses peasant agriculture over time, and the political content of agroecology is to defend peasant agriculture. Agroecology is not just about the techniques; it’s about the whole system.
ACRES U.S.A. This sounds very different than organic farming, where the assumption has often been that scale doesn’t matter and that it doesn’t matter who owns the land; it’s just about production systems.
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Well, they’re sorry about that now, aren’t they, because smaller organic farmers have prepared the market for big industrial agriculture to come in and take over. And now they’re changing the rules to favor large industrial agriculture and driving the small farmers out of production. So, at your own peril, you ignore the agrarian politics of agroecology, organic agriculture and permaculture.
ACRES U.S.A. Why must we pay attention to the role of race in the food and agriculture system?
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Our food and farming system has been racialized from the very beginning and continues to be so even today. Capitalist agriculture, particularly in the United States, is founded on slavery, the dispossession of indigenous people and the exploitation of Asian and Latin American farmers. If we weren’t exploiting undocumented immigrant labor from the Global South, primarily from the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America, the fruit and vegetable sector would crash tomorrow. We have to pay attention to race in our food system because it is founded on racism, and to ignore it is absurd. Racism allows this type of exploitation to take place by invisibilizing workers of color, or criminalizing them, as we do today. That’s on the production side. On the consumption side, all you have to do is look at health statistics in this country to see that the highest indices of diet-related disease and food insecurity are amongst people of color. Most of the food sector runs on the labor of people of color, and those are the people who suffer the most from our current food system.
ACRES U.S.A. You argue that we need to overcome racism, sexism and other forms of oppression and exploitation within the food movement, saying, “This is the work, not the after work.” How we can accomplish this?
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. None of these things are going to change without powerful social movements that create the political will to change the rules, the regulations and the institutions that hold this exploitive system in place. Within the food movement the people with the most at stake for these transformations are the ones that are most exploited. And they happen to be people of color. The rest of the people identified with the food movement need to recognize that leadership because that’s the leadership that will see us through. For many people, this is difficult because they’ve been conditioned to dismiss that type of leadership. And some people are afraid of that type of leadership. These attitudes are just forms of racism. So that’s what I mean when I say we have to dismantle racism. Most of the voices that one hears speaking for the food movement are white males. Next come white females. There’s another movement for food justice and food sovereignty led by people of color. They are the ones we really have to be listening to. The structural racism that conditions our participation in anything in this society has to be recognized and then dismantled, if we are going to build a movement that reflects the type of world we want to live in.
ACRES U.S.A. Is it worthwhile for people to vote with their fork, by changing what they buy as consumers? Is that a good first step to changing the food system?
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Voting with your fork is really a baby step. Those people who can afford to vote in accordance with their values should do so, but it’s not enough. We are not going to change these structures on the basis of the market because the market is what these structures are built to reinforce. In a market economy whoever has the most market power gets to do what they want. You’re not going to change the monopoly structure simply by buying fair trade or organic. People have to act as citizens as well as consumers.
ACRES U.S.A. Do we need land reform in the United States, and if so, what should be its goal and what might it look like?
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. We definitely need land reform. The only land reform this country has ever known has been genocide and dispossession. The concentration of land in our country is worse than in most countries in the Third World. Land today is so expensive that it’s a barrier to entry for all of the young people who want to start farming. But just splitting up land and giving it away condemns the new farmers to farming within a structure that favors large industrial plantations. We also need a thorough agrarian reform where we value farmers and crops and communities much differently, based on parity and sustainability. With its hollowed out towns and the opioid, crack and meth crisis across the heartland, the U.S. countryside is a disaster. We need to reinvest in the countryside and to repopulate it in a way that is both equitable and sustainable.
ACRES U.S.A. Can working on the farm bill lead to substantial reform?
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The farm bill is the institution that sets the rules for production, and right now it encourages overproduction. But it’s very difficult to change the farm bill. The U.S. has the farm bill for the world, and no one gets to vote on it. It’s a pillar of late capitalism, and they’ve got it insulated by layers of committees so that citizens can’t touch it. In other words, they’ve made it exempt from democracy so corporations can control it. As we organize and advance alternatives to reach the point where we will be able to actually transform or eliminate the farm bill, there’s a lot of exciting work being done on the ground. Since it’s so difficult to change the farm bill — the institution that governs the country and a lot of the world, too — people are starting local food policy councils and doing many other things to establish different economies, alternative food chains and food sheds with their own rules and institutions. While the movement is very diverse and a bit fragmented, it is gaining steam. Now the challenge is to converge in the diversity of these experiences and bring a strong political direction to what we’ve been doing.
ACRES U.S.A. What can the family farm and food justice movements learn from the experience of the Global South? Demographically the situations are really different, so how do you translate the lessons that you’ve seen to this country?
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. Even though less than 2 percent of our population is on the land — we have more people in prison than we have on the land — we are still an agrarian country. From agrarian societies in the Global South, we can learn how important it is to carry out agrarian reform. Such reform has to take into consideration the land loss of indigenous peoples and African-American farmers, and set it right with reparations. We have a tremendous amount to learn from the movements for food sovereignty in the Global South, which is basically about the democratization of the food system in favor of the poor. And we have a lot to learn from them in terms of scale and environmental sustainability, and other ways of knowing and organizing world society.
ACRES U.S.A. What keeps you going in your life’s work?
HOLT-GIMENÉZ. The people that I work with. When I used to work in the field, it was very energizing to be working alongside the men and women who were transforming their own system of agriculture. Any time I would get discouraged, they would snap me out of it because they didn’t have the luxury of losing hope. Today, when I mostly do research, analysis, writing, about the terrible statistics on world hunger, I maintain hope by aligning myself with those for whom giving up hope is not an option.