Policy paper on sustainable agriculture

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draft version (16 April 2014)[1]


Executive Summary

This policy document examines the application of social knowledge economy principles to the primary sector (agriculture) of the economy. In the Introduction we explain the concept of the social knowledge economy with reference to the role of access to knowledge and draw a distinction between social and capitalist conceptions of the knowledge economy.

The next section, Critique of capitalist models, looks at how the capitalist transformation of agriculture has resulted in the continued destruction of the natural environment, in the exploitation of developing world countries by rich countries and multinational corporations and in the immiserisation of small farmers around the world.

In the next section, Alternatives to Capitalist Models, as its title implies, we introduce the model of sustainable agriculture, which has emerged as a powerful alternative to capitalist agriculture and describe briefly its main features: (a) the application of (agro)ecological principles, (b) the practice of free sharing of knowledge, skills and methods undergirding it and (c) the pervasive involvement of the surrounding community. Following this description, the model of sustainable agriculture is illustrated through two case studies. The first case study focuses on the adoption of the model in India, showing how it enabled the development of a system of agricultural production that is both environmentally and economically sustainable, especially for small farmers. The second case study, which discusses the manufacturing of open source farm machines by the Open Source Ecology community, illustrates a manufacturing model for farm machines that is adapted to the needs of small farmers and village communities and provides an example of how the agricultural sector could be transformed in the direction of a post-fossil fuel economy through the development of distributed manufacturing structures.

In the next section, Preliminary general principles for policy making, we sum up the conclusions drawn from the case studies in the form of general policy principles, which, as the follow-up section demonstrates, are aligned with the Ecuadorian policy framework, as reflected in the aims and policies put forward in the Constitution and in the National Plan for Good Living. The concluding section develops these policy principles into a set of policy recommendations for the scaling up of sustainable agriculture practices.

Introduction and focus

This policy document examines the application of principles of social knowledge economy to the primary (agriculture) sector of the economy. But before we proceed to an in-depth exploration of those principles and their economic application, in this section we shall clarify the concept of the knowledge economy and draw a distinction between social knowledge economies and capitalist economies.

The concept and forms of the knowledge economy

In contrast to traditional conceptions of the factors of production that are centred on land, labour and capital, the concept of the knowledge economy emphasises the role of knowledge as the key driver of economic activity (Bell 1974; Drucker 1969; for a critical analysis of the concept, see Webster 2006). This implies, of course, that the decisive means of production in a knowledge economy is access to knowledge. From this standpoint, it is precisely the question of how access to knowledge is being managed that determines the character of an economic system. Capitalist knowledge economies use the institution of intellectual property to create conditions of scarcity in knowledge: thus, knowledge is privatised and locked up in property structures which limit its diffusion across the social field. A social knowledge economy, by contrast, is characterised by open access to knowledge (Ramirez 2014) and so reconfigures the application of intellectual property rights to prevent the monopolization and private enclosure of knowledge: 'knowledge must not be seen as a means of unlimited individual accumulation, nor a treasury generating differentiation and social exclusion' but as 'a collective heritage [which] is...a catalyst of economic and productive transformation' (National Plan for Good Living, p. 61, italics ours) and 'a mechanism for emancipation and creativity' (Ibid, p. 41). In a nutshell, a social knowledge economy is an economy in which knowledge is seen as a public and common good; an economy which thrives on the ‘open commons of knowledge’ (National Plan for Good Living, spanish version, italics ours, p. 67).

A critique of capitalist agriculture

The destructive effect of capitalist agriculture on the quality of food, the environment and on the health and livelihood of agricultural producers has been well documented (e.g. Foster, Magdoff & Buttel 1998). There is ample evidence to the effect that the high application rates of chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilisers and defoliants characteristic of modern monoculture (i.e. one-crop farming) result not only in the desertification of the land (e.g. UNESCO 2003), but also in unhealthy agri-food products (e.g. Cheng 2012) and in a mushrooming of pesticide-induced diseases (e.g. GTZ Sustainet 2006; Sherwood et al. 2005; Venkateswarlu, Balloli & Ramakrishna 2008).[2] At the same time, the dependence of farmers on such agrochemicals undermines not only their autonomy, rendering them dependent on the agri-food businesses that produce and supply them, but also their livelihood, as the purchase of these industrial inputs often constitutes the greatest part of small farmers' total operating costs (Lewontin 1998; Raidu & Ramanjaneyulu 2008).

What distinguishes capitalist agriculture from previous modes of agricultural production is not the absence of petty producers and small-scale farm production, but the domination of capitalist firms over them through their control of the inputs and outputs of the farming process (Lenin 1977; Lewontin 1998; Venkateswarlu, Balloli & Ramakrishna 2008). Until the mid-20th century, it was a common practice among farmers to produce inputs such as seed and fertiliser themselves, which meant that the choice of what inputs were to be used in the process of farm production rested ultimately with them. All that changed with the introduction of GM seeds and synthetic chemical treatments, inaugurating a new era in agriculture in which inputs that were hitherto produced directly on the farm by the farmers themselves were to be purchased from agrochemical companies.

The importance of who is in control of these inputs should not be underestimated. Take seeds for example: every cycle of farm production begins with seeds, making them the central input into farming. Furthermore, seeds have a very peculiar characteristic: when planted by the farmer, seeds produce plants that themselves produce yet more seed. For that reason, they constitute an input that can be reproduced by the farmers themselves. Though this is undoubtedly a useful property of seeds for the farmers, the opposite goes for agri-food businesses, which have long looked upon the ability of farmers to reproduce this input over and over again in the farming process as a barrier to their profitability.[3] It is therefore little suprise that over the past 100 years massive investments from the private sector have been directed to R&D projects aimed at developing solutions to problems of that nature (Vanloqueren & Baret 2009). By taking into account the decisive influence of the business sector over the direction of research in agricultural science and technology (Alston et al. 1998a, 1998b; Aoki 2009, p. 2298; Kloppenburg 2010, p.372; Russell 1999; Vanloqueren & Baret 2009),[4] it is easy to understand how the development of the hybrid method of breeding, for example, emerged in the 1930s as a historical solution to the obstacles that stood in the way of the development of capitalist agriculture. What this method accomplished was to evolve hybrid seeds that produced increased crop yields but which could not be reproduced in the farming process, thereby forcing farmers to go back to the seed company every year to buy new ones (Busch et al. 2004, p. 105; Kloppenburg 1988; Lewontin 1998). So, very soon control over this crucial input passed from the hands of farmers into the commercial seed companies and the agri-food industry. In more recent years, huge investments have flown into biotechnology R&D for the purpose of extending Capital's control over the process of agricultural production, resulting in methods of genetic manipulation that allow plants to set seed and make a crop but which render those seeds unable to germinate; and in DNA fingerprinting, genome control and so-called Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs), which allow seed companies to control how their seeds are being used by farmers (Drahos & Braithwaiter 2002; Kloppenburg 2010; Lewontin 1998; Srinivasan & Thirtle 2002). The relationship of dependence of the farmers on agribusiness companies is consummated in the legal agreements they must sign to buy seeds, which force them to give away all property rights in the next generation of seed produced by the crop (Lewontin 1998).

In much the same way that in the space of the last century farmers became dependent on agribusiness companies for seeds, they also became dependent on them for several critical inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers. Like GM seeds, chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers held the promise of raising farm productivity and were aggressively promoted by the industry. As a result, they spread fast, extending the domain of manufactured inputs into farming. Most importantly, the control of agrochemical firms over all crucial inputs in farming allowed them over time to take control over farm outputs. This transformation was made possible not only through technological innovations such as GM seeds and chemical pesticides, but also through the predatory business and legal practices which the purchasers of farm outputs employed to take control of the entire production process, as epitomised in full swing in the contract farming system. An example of the nature of this system in which a company provides the inputs into the farming process and collects the products, while the farmer provides the labour and the land, is Tyson Foods, a major supplier of chickens to fast food restaurants and supermarkets in the US. The company owns no farms. Instead, Tyson Foods chickens are produced by an army of small farmers who are obliged by the legal contract they have signed to procure all inputs (the chicks, the feed, the medication, the pesticides, the rodenticides, the incesticides and so on) exclusively from the company, which then collects the mature chickens at a date and time of its own choice. Thus, although the farmers retain ownership of the land and the buildings in which the chicks are raised, it is the company, rather than the farmers, that controls the inputs and farming practices. Through the system of contract farming, therefore, the farmers cease to be independent artisans, being no longer in control of the nature and tempo of the production process in which they are engaged. And so, they are transformed into mere operatives in an assembly line production process. In short, they are proletarianised (Lewontin 1998).

What is more, the enclosure of farmers' practices and of the agricultural commons has been reinforced by the ever more restrictive IP regimes which developed in the post-WWII era.[5] The construction of these legal edifices at both national and international levels, through the expansion of patentability and of the spectrum of legal mechanisms (such as utility patents and plant variety protection [PVP] certificates) that can be used to secure IP rights, resulted in the enclosure of resources like seeds that were hitherto considered the common heritage of humankind and, by extension, of the farming practices that were predicated on open access to such common resources, thus eliminating farmers' right to save, replant and exchange seeds (Aoki 2009, pp. 2279-96; Kloppenburg 2010, pp. 370-372).[6] More alarmingly, these legislative frameworks strengthened the existing patterns of exploitation of the developing world by rich countries and capitalist firms[7]: by instituting stricter and broader IP protection for new bio-products developed from biogenetic resources, while excluding the very same biogenetic resources (that is, the raw material for the development of those products) from such protection eligibility, their effect has been to promote the commercial exploitation of those resources without any compensation to the indigenous communities and countries in whose territory they are collected from.[8] Unsurprisingly, such exploitative appropriation of the developing world's biogenetic resources and of indigenous forms of traditional knowledge by technologically advanced countries and corporations has been recognised as a form of biopiracy (Aoki 2009; Cluis 2013; Kloppenburg 2010; Russell 1999; Wikipedia 2014a).[9] Yet, though developing world countries are fully aware of how these regulatory frameworks serve to exploit them, they have been forced to comply with them under the threat of trade sanctions by rich countries: the US, in particular, has used this 'trade pressure strategy' time and again to blackmail developing countries like Ecuador, India and Pakistan into signing international IP agreements (Russell 1999, p. 249; van de Wateringen 1997).

In conclusion, the development of capitalism in agriculture has produced the following results: environmental degradation, hazardous foodstuffs, a spectrum of pesticide-induced diseases, exploitation of the developing world by capitalist firms and rich countries and impoverishment of petty enterpreneurial producers around the world. In addition to constituting a burning indictment of this mode of agricultural exploitation, the ill-effects of the transformation of agriculture by Capital reinforce the urgency of posing the question: what is the alternative?

Alternatives to capitalist models: Open, sustainable agriculture

The alternative is that form of agriculture which has come to be known as sustainable. Wherever it has been tried, the adoption of the model of sustainable agriculture has proven to be beneficial for the environment as well as for the health and livelihood of small farmers. Its main features are as follows (Altieri 1995; De Schutter 2010; Pretty 2008; Wikipedia 2014c, 2014d):

  • It is based on the application of ecological and agroecological principles. For example, it integrates ecological processes and biological controls such as nitrogen-fixing, nutrient cycling, soil regeneration and predation; and makes use of locally available resources such as low-cost, organic compost recycled from yard and kitchen waste.
  • It is knowledge-intensive: sustainable agriculture requires the development and diffusion of skills and knowledges that allow farmers to use traditional techniques in place of industrially manufactured inputs.
  • It is community-driven: one of the principles of sustainable agriculture is that the effective mitigation of common agricultural and natural resource problems, such as for pest, watershed, irrigation, forest and credit management, demands the active participation of the community. Thus, sustainable agriculture systems are designed to involve the community in their management and day-to-day operation: for instance, by organising local, organic food markets; by setting up community seed banks and seed sharing networks; by running farmer field schools; by organising farmers into co-ops for direct retailing to consumers or for the provision of shared services to farmer communities.

The character of sustainable agriculture is nicely summed up in Conway's (1985, 1986) definition of its properties as characterised by high productivity; sustainability and resilience in environmental as well as economic terms; and equitability in the sense that, relative to other modes of agricultural production, the benefits of sustainable agriculture are distributed more evenly among its human beneficiaries.

Benefits of sustainable agriculture

  1. High productivity. Contrary to what many people think, the adoption of sustainable agriculture is not less productive than intensive types of single-crop farming (monoculture). Quite the contrary, the introduction of agricultural biodiversity (the integration of trees and livestock into farming) and the shift in agricultural factors of production from use of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers to natural substitutes (e.g. Desmodium, which corn farmers in East Africa plant to 'push away' pests and Faibherbia Albida, a nitrogen-fixing tree that can be used as a natural fertiliser) has been shown to increase productivity. Characteristically, Pretty et al.'s study (2006) of the effect of the adoption of sustainable agriculture in 286 agricultural projects in 57 developing countries (covering 37 million hectares), which is the largest study of its kind, reported an incrase in crop productivity by an average of 79%. Crucially, however, this increase in productivity is not achieved at the expense of quality. On the contrary, the reduction in the use of agrochemicals has the effect of improving the quality of agricultural products and, by extension, the nutrition of the broader community.
  2. It helps reduce rural poverty. Replacing agrochemicals with natural substitutes (such as nitrogen-fixing legumes and natural enemies) makes small farmers less dependent on external, industrially manufactured inputs, which often constitute the greatest part of their total farming costs. In consequence, they become less dependent on agrochemical firms and moneylenders (De Schutter 2010, pp. 9-10; Centre for Sustainable Agriculture 2006).
  3. At the same time, it makes agricultural labour more pleasant and healthy. A number of studies, such as Sherwood et al.'s (2005) study of organic potato farmers in the Andean highlands throughout Northern Ecuador, have shown that sustainable farming is 'more attractive to farmers, because it procures pleasant features for those working the land...such as shade from trees or the absence of smell and toxicity from chemicals' (De Schutter 2010, p. 11; also, see Sosa et al. 2010).
  4. It makes agricultural systems more resilient to climate change. Indicatively, by introducing intercropping, Chinese rice farmers have improved remarkably their crops' resistance to diseases, while increasing their yields by 89% (Zhu et al. 2000). More generally, the low-carbon, resource-preserving character of ecological farming edges agriculture onto a sustainable path through the shift in the factors of production from polluting agrochemicals towards natural substitutes.
  5. It has the backing of farmer communities and movements, which it brings together. Sustainable agriculture sprung out of the bosom of NGOs and activist organisations and spread through farmer field schools and farmer movements such as the Campesino a Campesino Movement in Central America (De Schutter 2010, p. 14; Holt-Giménez 2006; Sosa et al. 2010). Thanks to its communal character as well as to the strong links with grassroots farmer movements that it has maintained to this day, sustainable agriculture is a rather effective organisational platform for community mobilisation (Pretty 2003).

The next section illustrates these benefits through two case-studies. The case study on the region of Andhra Pradesh in India demonstrates a mode of transformation of agricultural production that promotes community involvement and the sharing of knowledge, skills and methods; that develops and harnesses the agricultural commons; that is environmentally sustainable as well as economically beneficial for small farmers. The second case study discusses how the Open Source Ecology network of farmers and engineers leveraged the global design commons and the Internet to successfully engage the global community of open hardware hackers and hobbyists in the development of industrial farm machines (e.g. tractors) that are adapted to the needs of small farmers, being cheap to build and easy to repair and customise by end users.

Case-study 1: Sustainable agriculture in India

An example of a large-scale adoption of the model of sustainable agriculture comes from Andhra Pradesh, one of India's largest states with more than 70% of the population engaged in agriculture. Throughout the 2000s a wave of suicides shook the country: more and more smallholder farmers were taking their lives because they had no money to repay their debts, which were largely attributable to the cost of external inputs such as chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilisers and genetically modified (GM) seeds.[10] The crisis, which took on epidemic proportions in 2004-2005, rendered imperative the trying out of alternatives. NGOs and agricultural activists like SECURE (Socio-Economic and Cultural Upliftment in Rural Environment)[11] and the Hyberabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA)[12] sprung up to promote modes of sustainable farming that do not use industrial pesticides and GM seeds. Although most of the farmers were extremely sceptical about organic farming methods and very hesitant to try them, a few of them started with the help and huidance of the above activists to experiment with non-pesticidal management in their cotton fields.[13] The results were remarkable: their yield remained in the same levels, but the quality of the crop was higher now and so could be sold at a higher price in the market. At the same time, they saved money that they would have spent on procuring industrial pesticides, fertilizers and seeds[14] (see Fig. 1, 2 below)(Centre for Sustainable Agriculture 2006; Raidu & Ramanjaneyulu 2008).

Fig. 1 (Source: Centre for Sustainable Agriculture 2006, p. 44)
Fig. 2: Agriculture cost of production for small farmers in AP(Source: Centre for Sustainable Agriculture 2013)

So, convinced about the merits of no-pesticide farming, they spread the word to nearby villages. Soon (2004-5), an entire village in Andhra Pradesh called Punukula declared itself to be pesticide-free, stating that pesticide dealers are undesirable. By switching to sustainable farming, farmers in this village community had managed not only to pay off their debts but also to increase their profits, while restoring ecological balance in their fields. As a result, Punukula became the symbol of a nascent sustainable agriculture movement: its success influenced increasingly more neighbouring villages to switch to non-pesticidal management and ecological farming, reaching 92 villages with more than 5000 farmers by 2004. But Punukula's success attracted also the attention of the state government, which committed itself to supporting the scaling up of no-pesticide farming across 5000 villages from 2005-6 onwards as a pilot project. To this end, a collaborative initiative was set up to provide an organisational platform for concerted action by public institutions (like the state-run Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty), cadres of farmers, village representatives, NGOs and community-based organisations like the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. In the context of this initiative, over 450 farmer field schools were set up in villages to provide training in sustainable agriculture to more than 20000 farmers, while agricultural credit was mobilised from several banks, including the State Bank of India, with the aim of eliminating farmers' dependence on 'all-in-one' dealers and local moneylenders. In parallel, community seed banks and seed sharing networks were established so farmers could produce and share their own seeds, and farmer-consumer cooperatives were set up to coordinate the production and distribution of agricultural products (Centre for Sustainable Agriculture 2006; Raidu & Ramanjaneyulu 2008). The results of this intervention programme have been extremely positive: in villages that adopted organic farming, there are no more suicides or cases of pesticide-induced disease, while agricultural incomes have improved in tandem with the health and livelihood of farmers (see Fig. 3, 4 below)(Centre for Sustainable Agriculture 2013; Ratnakar and Mani 2010).

Fig. 3 (Source: Centre for Sustainable Agriculture 2013)
Fig. 4 (Source: Centre for Sustainable Agriculture 2013)

Although the community-managed, sustainable agriculture model might best be understood as a unified system for the production and distribution of agricultural products, there are two aspects of the model on which we would like to lay more emphasis: (1) the development of open source seed sharing networks and community seed banks and (2) the setting up of producer-consumer cooperatives with their own meeting grounds.

Open source seed networks and community seed banks. For many centuries, seeds were considered the common heritage of humankind and so were freely shared among farmers. The introduction of various IP limitations throughout the 20th century, however, by turning seeds into an object of intellectual property, had the effect of severely destabilising this tradition of producing seeds and sharing them, while forcing farmers into a relationship of dependency upon the companies now manufacturing and selling them (Aoki 2009; Brush 2004; Centre for Sustainable Agriculture 2012; Kloppenburg 2010). As a solution to this problem, the sustainable farming community in Andhra Pradesh set up community seed banks in several villages and established open source seed sharing networks[15] which made it once again possible for farmers to produce their seeds and share them (Centre for Sustainable Agriculture 2006; Raidu & Ramanjaneyulu 2008). Thus, these community seed banks and open source seed sharing networks served to create a knowledge commons for the conservation and revival of existing varieties as well as for practices of participatory plant breeding aimed at evolving new varieties.

Producer-consumer cooperatives. A common problem for small farmers around the world is the lack of direct access to markets and distribution channels for their products, which keeps them dependent on intermediaries. The way farmers in Andhra Pradesh addressed this problem was by setting up Sahaja Aharam,[16]a farmers-consumers cooperative federation which is active through direct retailing in ten cities (mandals).[17] The meeting grounds of the co-ops allowed them to sell their products directly to consumers and develop a relationship of collaboration with them based on mutual trust. Thus, they were able to use this form of organising the production and distribution of agricultural products through farmer-consumer cooperatives as the stepping stone towards a model of community-supported agriculture (Wikipedia 2014b; Zizania 2013) that is not only sustainable but also open and participatory, broadening the participation of consumers in the process of agricultural exploitation through locally-organised, bottom-up community structures based on trust and knowledge sharing.

To recap, the case of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh illustrates a model of transformation of the agricultural sector from a system of monoculture, chemical pesticides and GM seeds towards one based on the use of intercropping, freely shared seeds and traditional techniques, which has come to be known in India as community-managed, sustainable agriculture. But more than that, it demonstrates that sustainable farming is not only environmentally sound but also viable as a business model for small farmers on a much larger scale than is currently practiced in most parts of the world. In fact, the adoption of such a model of sustainable agriculture has a particularly beneficial and empowering effect on small farmers, as it eliminates their dependency on the 'all-in-one dealer' and limits the extent of 'debt trap' problems such as those that in the past plagued Andhra Pradesh's farmer community.

Case-study 2: Open Source Ecology

Open Source Ecology (OSE)[18] is an open source hardware[19] project focused on manufacturing a set of fifty industrial machines, called the 'Global Village Construction Set' (GVCS), which the OSE considers to be sufficient for creating a small civilisation with modern comforts from locally available resources. The development of the machines is distributed across a global network of parsimoniously linked, self-managing groups of hardware hackers and hobbyists who share design information through the Internet and build prototypes, which are then tested in a farm in Missouri, USA.

Fig 5: The 50 OSE-developed industrial farm machines

The history of the project begins with a young PhD named Marcin Jakubowski. Fresh out of his PhD in energy physics, Jakubowski decided to commit himself to an enterprise of a less theoretical nature and started a sustainable farm in rural Missouri, USA. However, he soon came to realise that the machines which are commercially available to farmers did not suit his needs. Tractors, for example, are not only expensive to buy but also difficult to modify and repair, despite their repetitive break-downs. To Jakubowski, the problem was clear: this kind of machines were not designed to empower farmers but to keep them in a relationship of dependency to the companies manufacturing them. Armed by the determination that farmers need machines that are low-cost and easy to build in a do-it-yourself (DIY) fashion, he took it upon himself to re-design these machines from scratch. So, as a start, he designed a new tractor and posted the design on the Internet under an open license so that others could modify and improve it. This attracted the attention of the Internet community and of hardware hackers and hobbyists around the world, who soon started to contribute improvements and build prototypes. And thus, the Open Source Ecology (OSE) network was born in 2003. With the help of this network of contributors, Jakubowski identified the fifty machines – from cement mixers to 3D printers and moving vehicles (see Fig. 5 above) – which are necessary to build a sustainable modern village community and embarked on a collective effort to manufacture them. To accommodate the enlarged scope of work, the OSE was officially launched as a platform for coordinating the enterprise and Jakubowski's farm was repurposed into a site for building and testing the prototypes developed by project members from all over the world, many of whom would come to the farm on 'dedicated project visits' to help with the work (Thomson & Jakubowski 2012, pp. 53-70).

Fig. 6 (Source: Thomson & Jakubowski 2012, p. 58)

To date, of the fifty machines that make up the 'Global Village Construction Set', eight have already been successfully manufactured, while development of the rest is currently underway.[20] By tapping into the contributions of a global community of hardware hackers and afficionados, the OSE project has achieved significant cost reductions. To its credit, the machines built by OSE have a much lower cost of production than their industrial counterparts, being at least eight times cheaper to manufacture. For example, the OSE tractor costs about $5K to build, whereas tractors made by commercial manufacturing firms cost ten times more. The same goes for the OSE compressed earth brick press, the soil pulverizer and the rest of the machines that have been prototyped and tested by the OSE network (see Fig. 7, 8 below)(Open Source Ecology 2014; Thomson & Jakubowski 2012).[21]

Fig. 7 (Source: Jakubowski 2011)
Fig. 8 (Source: Thomson & Jakubowski 2012, p. 54)

Although community contributions raised through crowdfunding campaigns have so far been OSE's main source of financial support (Jakubowski 2011), the aforementioned production cost savings allow the OSE project to finance its activities by selling its machines directly to farmers. Indicatively, it estimates to make about $80K a month by selling its tractors at a price of $10K (Jakubowski 2013). Also, additional revenue comes from the educational courses and workshops that OSE offers to people who are interested in learning how to build their own OSE machines.[22]

However, the sustainability of the OSE enterprise extends well beyond its business model: OSE furnishes a working example of how farming and the manufacturing of agricultural machines can be carried out in a way that is not only productive but also environmentally sustainable. For example, the electricity that Jakubowski's farm consumes, which includes a 4000 square foot fabrication facility and a 3000 square feet living unit, comes from renewable energy resources, using methods like closed-loop manufacturing (which recycle waste materials into livestock for other production processes; for a detailed discussion, see Kelly 1994, ch. 10) and technologies that the OSE project itself has built such as photovoltaic panels and wind turbines (Open Source Ecology 2013). Equally important, OSE-manufactured machines are designed with the principle of durability in mind and in such a way as to be easily repairable and modifiable by end-users. In that regard, OSE machines are paradigmatic of what is called sustainable design: they are designed to last for a lifetime, rather than throw away and replace by newer machines, 'they use less energy, fewer limited resources, do not deplete natural resources, do not directly or indirectly pollute the environment, and can be reused or recycled at the end of their useful life' (Wikipedia 2014a).

To sum up, the example of OSE demonstrates how a project can leverage the open knowledge commons (in the case of OSE, that includes everything from machine designs to user manuals) and the Internet for distributed development by a global community of volunteer contributors. Furthermore, OSE furnishes a concrete example of how open source appropriate technology (Pearce 2012) can be used to enhance the autonomy of farmers and transform agricultural production in the direction of economic and environmental sustainability alike.

Preliminary general principles for policy making

Through the above case-studies, we have come to identify a set of enabling conditions, from which we can draw several general principles to guide policy making efforts aimed at reinforcing the development of sustainable agriculture.

The commons as a key enabler. In section 3, we remarked how the development of capitalist agriculture has been identical with the enclosure of the agricultural commons and the substitution of expensive, industrial, proprietary inputs for freely shared resources (e.g. seeds) and traditional techniques. The experiences of Andhra Pradesh's small farmers reflect this line of development and show clearly that dependence on external inputs such as chemical pesticides is not only environmentally unsustainable but also economically destructive for petty agricultural producers. To solve this problem, sustainable agriculture proposes the use of freely shared resources, traditional knowledge and (agro)ecological methods in place of those external inputs. To put it differently, sustainable agriculture is based on a thriving, multifaceted commons, which it uses as a set of inputs to the production process: the commons of traditional knowledge; the commons of scientific-agroecological knowledge; and the commons of resources such as seeds. In fact, the commons constitute not only the single most important enabling condition for the model of sustainable agriculture practiced by farmers in India, but also the cornerstone of the distributed manufacturing model evolved by the OSE community to build machines for small farmers. In consequence, it is absolutely critical to develop policies that support the development and preservation of a thriving commons in the agricultural realm.

The need for investments in knowledge. The transition to the sustainable agriculture model entails significant switching costs, as it requires farmers to invest in developing the relevant skills and mastering new techniques. Without the development and diffusion of such an 'ecological literacy' across farmer communities, attempts to scale up practices of sustainable agriculture are bound to fail. That is why farmer field schools have proved to be such an effective vehicle for training farmers in sustainable agriculture methods and for disseminating those skills and knowledges. Such farmer field schools already exist in Ecuador where they have been successfully used as an organisational platform for the diffusion of ecological literacy (Sherwood et al. 2005).[23] It is obvious therefore that their operation must be supported and, ideally, expanded across rural areas in Ecuador. Yet, though the development of farmer field schools is a necessary condition for kickstarting the transition process to sustainable agriculture, it is not by itself sufficient to ensure its long-term scaling up. Ultimately, all these actions and policy interventions, should not be geared just towards farmers but towards allowing all members of society to develop a more engaged relationship with the production of food and the cultivation of land. Realistically, such a culture shift can only be accomplished by making agricultural training an integral part of the basic school curriculum.

The importance of creating new markets and farmer organisations. The experience of Indian farmers demonstrates beyond any doubt that small organic food producers cannot rely on capitalist firms (such as agrifood firms and trade intermediaries) for access to consumer markets. Instead, they need to organise their own organic food markets and set up their own organisations for direct retailing to consumers. Naturally, in order to be effective, the operation of such agricultural markets and organisations should be supported by an appropriate institutional framework.

The importance of access to credit and investment resources. Equally important, farmer organisations need access to financial resources that can be used for investment purposes. It was for that reason, as we saw, that the State Bank of India set up in 2006 a micro-credit system to help farmers switch to no-pesticide farming (Raidu & Ramanjaneyulu 2008; Centre for Sustainable Agriculture 2013, 2006; Ratnakar & Mani 2010). Setting up a community-managed credit system or a community investment fund for use by member-organisations, as has been long practiced by federations of co-ops and collectivist organisations around the world, is the logical next step.[24]

The importance of participation. Sustainable agriculture practices 'are best adopted when they are not imposed top-down but shared from farmer to farmer' (De Schutter 2010, p. 18). Consequently, it is critical to ensure their participation in the policy-making process, thus transforming it into a 'mode of social learning, rather than an exercise of political authority' (Pretty et al. 2002, p. 252). Such participation not only lends legitimacy to transition programs, as they have been co-designed with farmers, but also empowers the poor, helping ensure that policies are truly responsive to their needs. In a nutshell, small farmers should be seen as experts that must be consulted with and engaged in the policy-making process, rather than as beneficiaries of state aid.

The crucial role of policy. The successful transition of such a great number of village communities to sustainable farming within a period of no more than five years attests to the effectiveness of the pilot scaling up strategy that was used in the Andhra Pradesh region and to the importance of the policy interventions it included such as:

  • The development of community seed banks and open source seed sharing networks as a shareable infrastructure for agricultural production.
  • The provision of special economic incentives (e.g. tax benefits) for sustainable agriculture projects.

The Ecuadorian political framework

The National Plan for Good Living 2013-2017 as well as the Constitution of Ecuador itself give explicit support to the development of sustainable agriculture. Characteristically, in addition to the emphasis it lays on the transformation of the productive matrix in the direction of environmental sustainability, one of the National Plan's strategic goals is to 'construct a more diversified, productive and sustainable agricultural sector' and 'promote new non-polluting industries...based on [the development of] bio-products and ecological services' (p. 41).[25] In a similar vein, the Constitution strongly supports 'the introduction of ecological and organic technologies in farm and livestock production' (Art. 281/3).[26] The crucial role of the commons in enabling the development of sustainable agriculture is highlighted, with particular reference to the use and free exchange of seeds (Art. 281/6).

In parallel, explicit support is given to the entrepreneurial activity of small agricultural producers and organisations. The National Plan underlines the importance of achieving 'food self-sufficiency...by working with small farming families' (p. 39) and 'strengthening the popular and solidarity economy and micro-, small-, and medium enterprises within the productive structure' (Policy 10.5, p. 81). The Constitution goes even further and forbids large estate farming.[27] In the context of realising these goals, the Constitution proposes the use of 'preferential mechanisms for the financing of small producers' (Art. 281/5) and the strengthening of support for 'the development of networks of producers and consumers' (Art. 281/10), while the National Plan, in recognition of the knowledge-intensive nature of sustainable agriculture, commits itself to provide training for agricultural producers who wish to produce and market bio-products and ecological services (p. 41).

To sum up, both the National Plan for Good Living and the Constitution of Ecuador give explicit policy support to the development of sustainable agriculture and propose a string of supportive interventions towards this direction, such as the provision of (a) economic incentives for small farmers and (b) training in organic farming.

The next section puts forward several policy recommendations that are designed to support and reinforce the aforementioned aims and policies of the Ecuadorian policy framework.

Ecuadorian policy recommendations

To close this policy paper, we put forward several policy interventions that address such strategic priorities of the National Plan for Good Living (pp. 38, 39, 41, 81, 89) as:[28]

  • The support for (the adoption and use of sustainable agriculture methods by) small farmers and small and medium-sized organisations in the agricultural sector.
  • The transformation of the productive matrix in the direction of environmental sustainability.
  • The construction of the knowledge society.

As we have seen, the Commons is the single most important enabling condition for the development of sustainable agriculture. So, to support the development of the agricultural commons and protect it against the danger of private enclosure, we propose:

  • The development of community seed banks and open source seed sharing networks.
  • The implementation of a legal framework based on the GNU GPL[29] for the licensing of (a) plant genetic resources (such as germplasm and seeds) and (b) farming machinery as protection against the danger of their commercial co-optation and private enclosure.[30]
  • The release of publicly funded research and development in plant varieties under the GNU GPL.[31]

We underlined the need for organic food producers to develop their own local markets and organisations. So, to support the development of new organic food markets and farmer organisations, we propose:

  • The organisation of small organic farmers in collectivist organisations and (producer-consumer) co-ops with their own local markets and meeting grounds.
  • The development of a legal framework that provides co-ops and collectivist organisations in the agricultural sector with the organisational autonomy as well as institutional support which is required for their operation.[32]

Concomitantly, to democratise access to credit and investment resources, we propose:

  • The creation of a community-managed Community Investment Fund for farmers engaged in sustainable agriculture, such as that operated by co-op federations in Northern Italy (i.e. the so-called '3% Fund') and proposed by Raidu and Ramanjaneyulu (2008, p.183) and Kleiner (2010, pp. 23-25) for the support of organic farmers and worker-owned organisations, respectively.

Our analysis has highlighted the importance of investments in knowledge. In specific, we propose:

  • The expansion of farmer field schools across rural areas in Ecuador.
  • The introduction of agricultural training into the basic school curriculum.
  • The strengthening of (publicly funded) agricultural research, with an emphasis on agroecology.[33]

Given the criticality of community involvement, we propose:

  • That all shareable infrastructures (such as seed banks) be managed by community-based organisations.
  • That the governance and day-to-day administration of scaling up pilot projects and initiatives like the one in Andhra Pradesh be transparent, collective and founded on the participation of delegates from village communities, farmer movements and agricultural activists.

We remarked the important role that policy can play in supporting the transition to sustainable agriculture models. In addition to the above recommendations, we propose:

  • That policies be developed which provide special economic incentives for sustainable agriculture projects. This can be implemented in a variety of ways: for example, through (state-supported) micro-credit systems and tax benefits.
  • That policies be developed which prioritise public goods: public spending should be re-oriented towards social services and public goods (rather than private goods such as fertiliser subsidies) such as community seed banks, rural infrastructures (e.g. roads, electricity, Internet connectivity), education and agricultural R&D.[34]
  • That public procurement policies be developed that prioritise organic food along the lines of the public school feeding program in Brazil whereby food is purchased from family farms.[35]
  • That supportive policies be developed for the setting up of rural agricultural stations, hackerspaces and micro-factories as a territorial infrastructure for skill sharing and technology transfer. As a first step in that direction, we propose that a micro-factory for the manufacturing of open source farm machines (such as those designed and manufactured by OSE) be set up in rural areas.


I would like to thank Dr. Daniel Araya, Drs. Selçuk Balamir, Michel Bauwens, Drs. Stefano Goli, Dr. Marcin Jakubowshi, Dr. Vasilis Kostakis, Dimitris Koukoulakis, Michael Maniadakis, Richard Nelson, Dr. David Vila Viñas, Drs. Juan Fernando VillaRomero, Drs. Jose Luis Vivero Pol and the members of the FLOK Society mailing lists for their feedback on previous draft versions of this policy paper. Needless to say, any omissions or errors remain my own.


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  1. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Ecuador. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/ec/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.
  2. Indicatively, pesticide piosonings and deaths in Ecuadorian farmer communities are among the highest recorded in the world. For a study focused on potato growers in the Andean highlands throughout Northern Ecuador, see Sherwood et al. (2005).
  3. Consider, for example, the advertisements placed by Monsanto in magazines: 'When a farmer saves and replants Monsanto patented biotech seed, he understands that what he is doing is wrong. And that...he is committing an act of piracy. Furthermore, seed piracy could cost a farmer hundreds of dollars per acre in cash settlements and legal fees, plus multiple years of on-farm and business records inspection' (quoted in Lewontin 1998, italics mine).
  4. The private sector accounts for one-third of global agricultural research spending. Its share corresponds to 10-15% of total agricultural R&D in developing countries, but rises to 50% in OECD countries (Alston et al. 1998a, pp.1066-7; Pardey & Beintema 2001).
  5. A detailed analysis of the historical transformation of agriculture in the 20th century is unfortunately beyond the scope of the present policy paper. For a brief history of the application of IP rights to agriculture, see Bent (2003) and Aoki (2009). For a study of the (decisive role of both technology and IP legislation in the) capitalist capture of seeds and the enclosure of farming practices, see Kloppenburg (1988). For a critical study of the historical expansion of restrictive IP regimes, see Drahos and Braithwaiter (2002).
  6. As a result of aggressive lobbying by the seed industry, farmers' right to save, replant and exchange seed was eliminated at the 1991 meeting of the UPOV (International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants), while the 'International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources' (ITPGR) signed in 2001 by 101 countries restricted IP protection to institutional public and private plant breeders, thereby excluding individual farmers from such protection eligibility (Aoki 2009, pp. 2279-87).
  7. 'Even after former colonies gained independence, the patterns of germplasm flow ran from the former colonies into the laboratories, genebanks, and testing fields of the developed countries. Within developed countries, farmer landraces and germplasm emerged protected by intellectual property laws' (Aoki 2009, p. 2278).
  8. 'Third world nations are asked to supply plant genetic resources – the raw material of the new genetic technologies – as common heritage. In return, they are offered the opportunity to purchase the products of biotechnology' (Kloppenburg quoted in Aoki 2009, p. 2281). '[Developing countries] will have to pay fees for genetic resources, modified in the North and returned to markets of the South' (Russell 1999, p. 250).
  9. For a discussion of the problem of biopiracy centred on Ecuador, see the FLOK Society Project policy paper on biodiversity by Golinelli et al. (2014).
  10. As activists from the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture explain: 'Farmers...had to borrow money so they could buy pesticides. They would get credit from local “all-in-one” dealers who sold them seeds, fesrtilizers and pesticides. The dealers would sell these items on credit, then charge interest rates of 3-5% per month. The farmers were in no position to repay these loans, so would have to agree to sell their produce to the dealer. The dealer in turn would fix the price lower than the market value of the crop. The farmers had no choice but to accept this price, in the hope that the dealer would again support next year's investments. They were trapped in a vicious cycle of high costs, low produce prices and unpaid debts...The social stigma of indebtedness – especially when the moneylender put pressure for repayment, was unbearable for many' (Centre for Sustainable Agriculture 2006, p. 41
  11. URL: <http://www.securengo.org>
  12. URL: <http://csa-india.org>
  13. For example, by replacing chemical pesticides with biological ones such as neem seed-kernel extracts and chilli-garlic extracts.
  14. The reduction in the use of agrochemicals and their substitution by natural pesticides and fertilisers in three communities of potato growers in Carchi, Ecuador led to the same results (Sherwood et al. 2005, p. 157).
  15. Open source seeds are distributed under open source licenses like the GNU GPL. The rationale is that 'there will be no restriction on using [seeds licensed under an open source license] to develop new varieties or experiment with but it is essential that the variety derived from this should also be available without any monopolistic claims and restrictions on further development' (Centre for Sustainable Agriculture 2012).
  16. URL: <http://www.sahajaaharam.in>
  17. URL: <http://www.csa-india.org/institutions>
  18. URL: <http://opensourceecology.org>
  19. All design information related to the technologies developed by OSE (e.g. schematics, 2D fabrication drawings, circuit diagrams, 3D CAD files, machine-readable CAM files, instructional videos and user manuals) is licensed under the OSE License for Distributive Economics, which adapts the Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0 license to hardware.
  20. Those eight machines include a bulldozer, rototiller, multi-purpose tractor, backhoe, universal rotor, drill press, multi-purpose 'ironworker' (which incorporates the functionality of a punching machine, a plate shear, a section shear, a punch and shear machine and a coper-notcher), and a CNC torch table.
  21. For a detailed cost comparison of all OSE machines to industry standards, see http://opensourceecology.org/wiki/GVCS_Cost_Comparison_to_Industry_Standards and http://opensourceecology.org/wiki/Cost_Comparison_to_Industry_Standards.
  22. 'For example, we sell a brick press at $5K above materials [and] build it in one day in a 3 day workshop. The revenue from the workshop is $8.6K for 12 people, and twice that for 24 people where we build two machines in one day' (Marcin Jakubowski, private communication with the author).
  23. Attesting to the successful operation of farmer field schools in the Andean highlands throughout Northern Ecuador, the Ministry of Agriculture includes farmer field schools in its national Food Security Program. Furthermore, farmer field schools have been set up in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua (Sherwood et al. 2005, p. 158).
  24. A good example is the so-called 3% Fund run by co-op federations in Italy whereby member co-ops contribute 3% of their annual profits to a collective Fund that is used for investment purposes (see, for example, Logue 2006 or Mancino & Thomas 2005).
  25. For quotes and page citations, we used the english version of the National Plan for Good Living 2013-2017.
  26. For quotes and citations, we used the english translation of the Constitution of Ecuador (retrieved from http://pdba.georgetown.edu/Constitutions/Ecuador/english08.html).
  27. According to Article 282 of the Constitution, 'Large estate farming and land concentration is forbidden'.
  28. Page citations refer to the english version of the National Plan for Good Living (2013-2017).
  29. URL: <https://www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html>
  30. This recommendation occupies centre stage in a number of recent proposals, such as that by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (2012), Kloppenburg (2010) and Srinivas (2002). Clearly, the adoption of such a legal framework is tantamount to the de facto abolition of patents on plant genetic resources.
  31. For a discussion of the proposal to release publicly funded R&D under the GNU GPL, see Boldrin and Levine's (2013, p.19) as well as Pearson's (2012a) recent contribution in the Journal of Economic Perspectives and Nature respectively.
  32. For an elaborate discussion of what that task entails and how it can be achieved, see the FLOK policy documents by Restakis (2014a, 2014b).
  33. It has been shown that agricultural research has 'the largest impact on agricultural production and second-largest impact on poverty reduction (after rural education) in China, and the second-largest impact on povery reduction in rural India (after investment of roads)'(Fan 2009, p. 2).
  34. Research shows that policies which prioritise public goods are more effective in improving the performance of agricultural systems than those that subsidise private goods (Hunt et al. 2006, p. 24; López & Galinato 2007, p. 1085).
  35. To illustrate the scale of the public school feeding program in Brazil, in 2009 it included 137.000 family farms (De Schutter 2010, p. 20, footnote 89).