During his detailed and dynamic presentation on the challenges presented by the current “food regime,” De Schutter described three general approaches to innovating/intervening: Through the market, through the state, and through citizen-led initiatives. He suggested that we should forget the first two, as they lead to cooptation and rarely to transformative change, and that the Institute would be better served focusing on the third approach, a refreshing take to hear from the United Nations.
The tone throughout the event followed from De Schutter’s sentiment, with panelists and participants alike focusing on the value of citizen-led initiatives, community-based leadership and decision-making, democratic participation, cultivating social equity, and connecting research to social movements.
During the first panel discussion on “opportunities” for action, celebrated economist Raj Patel called out capitalism from the stage—further pushing the symposium into radical, atypical territory. Patel argued convincingly (and with his trademark humor) that the BFI should be careful not to reproduce capitalist agriculture as it exists, and instead to agitate for new models and local experiments based on food sovereignty. In relation to the challenge of how big a tent to make the BFI (Will it include conventional farmers and their needs? Will it include food corporations? Will it encompass reformist agendas alongside radical ones?) Patel posited that the BFI could bring together people who aren’t necessarily “on the same page” but are at least “in the same book” by agreeing on some basic principles.
Patel and others suggested La Via Campesina (an international coalition of peasant-based organizations) as a model for defining such principles, and I for one would be very happy to see such principles guide the BFI. Panelists Marcia Ishii-Eiteman (Senior Scientist, Pesticide Action Network), Jun Borras (Editor, Journal of Peasant Studies), V. Ernesto Mendez (Participatory Researcher, UVM), Steve Gliessman (Agroecology pioneer, UCSC), Raj Patel, Ben Burkett (President, National Family Farm Coalition), Maricela Morales (ED, CAUSE), and Karen Washington (NYCCGC) all mentioned the importance of supporting the grassroots, of doing participatory research, of working for and with marginalized communities, and of deep systems change, not surface level tweaking.
Even some of those involved in bringing the BFI to life, including BFI Interim Executive Director Carolyn Federman, philanthropist Bob Epstein, and Maria Echaveste, a policy director at the Boalt School of Law who used to work for Bill Clinton, told me directly that they appreciated the ideas and tone of our open letter.
Of course, there is still the idea that all this talk could just be “window dressing”. There’s nothing to disprove this notion until it is clear what research gets funded, what agenda is prioritized, and how “community-based research” is supported. Only then can local food sovereignty and food justice communities of interest really pass judgment on the BFI. Judging from the tone of the symposium, I would imagine that it would be hard for the funders to argue against using some of the funds for community-based projects, since that was almost the key theme. But it was never really discussed exactly how, by what process, or when.
The symposium wasn’t the end of development of the BFI. There were no official decisions made by it, just an elaboration of interests, themes, and foci which will inform the work of the future BFI Executive Director, staff, and programs. From what I understand, there is no set plan for how the funding will be released or used, as that is something the new ED will determine when they are hired some time this summer.
Funding for the BFI currently comes from individuals and family foundations. Claire Kremen and Alastair Iles, the faculty co-directors of BFI, have stated that they will not accept any corporate donations, whether directly or through corporate foundations, with the intent of receiving funding only from entities whose values match the Institute’s. The two lead funders are the 11th Hour Project of the Schmidt Family Foundation and Bob Epstein of Environmental Entrepreneurs. I had a chance to talk to Epstein, and found his candor and openness surprising and refreshing. Further, I found that his philosophy of funding seemed to jibe well with the themes being discussed in the symposium.