Although the question that immediately concerns us is that of the possible future of the peasantry (“The End of the Peasant?”), my focus here is on retrieving elements of the cultural legacy of peasants to aid in our current objective to attain food sustainability and develop sustainability education. This approach toward the problem suggests from inception that regardless of what the demographic future of the peasants will look like, there are elements of their cultural heritage that may transcend them into the future.
In this regard, the discussion should be read as a new chapter in the rich tradition of popular adult education in Latin America as initiated by Paulo Freire, who constructed his Pedagogy of the Oppressed through his observations of the learning experiences of Latin American peasants and of their strategies to attain food security, often under conditions of severe resource scarcity and minimal land bases. Freire is internationally recognized as the founder of a dynamic movement in adult education, which has branched out all over the world to become a well-established and respected scholarly tradition.6
Food is the ultimate and most recognizable mediator in the relationship between humans and the natural environment and, therefore, an essential field to explore in our efforts to increase environmental awareness through sustainability education. However, the connection between humans and our food sources has become strained and fractured by the industrial food system. The consequence of this disconnect is the physical and psychological distancing of people from the sources of the food we eat and therefore from the environment in which we thrive.
Thus, food comes from “everywhere and nowhere,”7 travels thousands of miles before reaching the consumer’s plate, and impacts ecosystems throughout the entire production cycle to the disposal of end products. Most consumers do not know (and in many instances do not care) who produces their food or under what conditions it is produced. However, this situation is beginning to change, with the global prominence of a broad array of food-related movements, the growing convergence of the goals of food security and ecological sustainability, and the increasing international presence of the peasant movements. The question of public education and public debate as it concerns the ecological, social and economic, and health impacts of food have moved to the front and center of world attention.
The peasant farmer, the historical provider of food agriculture, has come to represent a form of direct connection between humans and the land, only comparable to the profound belonging of the gatherers and hunters to the ecosystem that sustains them. I propose that, in the midst of the multitude of debates concerning the definition and conceptualization of the peasant, it is safe to stress that compared to urban dwellers, peasants live closer to the “natural” (non-human-built) environment, although it is a given that agriculture is a distinctly human creation. It is the direct connection with the sources of our food in nature that allows us to identify the peasant as an “other” from which we can learn a great deal. Thus, our interest is to learn from peasant communities and the variety of ways in which they have—by necessity—been addressing environmental insecurities and the vulnerability of food systems and what learning processes have led them to be the earliest practitioners of sustainable agriculture.
Food security is best defined as the condition made possible by a food system that delivers food that is affordable, available, accessible, appropriate, safe, and sustainable for all. The general goal of our studies has been to develop a better understanding of the impact of large forces (e.g., climate change; loss of biodiversity; depletion of natural resources; changes in forms of production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of end products; and environmental and social impacts of food) on the global food system. This globalized food system is characterized by a continued growth in food production and by a trend toward specialization by comparative advantages for liberalized trade. These trends, however, have not alleviated widespread malnutrition, nor have they reduced severe and environmental impacts on the food system. In fact, these trends (supported by a particular mentality and approach toward the environment) have increased the adverse impacts of the food production system, placing agriculture among the most environmentally disruptive of industries.
The global food system has failed to provide sufficient food for everyone. Approximately 4 billion out of the 6 billion human beings on the planet suffer from malnutrition, with roughly 2 billion underfed, of which some 800 million suffer from chronic hunger. Yet, at the same time, 2 billion are overfed.8 Nutrition and food experts are alarmed by the continued contradictory growth of both chronic hunger and obesity, with both forms of malnutrition affecting all age groups.9 At the same time, the impact and demands of our globalized food system on energy, water, and the environment in general, and on traditional food systems and labor, are increasingly unsustainable, raising serious concerns about its viability.
Global climate change is affecting every single factor in the production of food from water and soil to biodiversity and will dictate many key food production decisions of the future.10 Increased temperatures and severe fluctuations (drought, flooding, storms, etc.) bring stress on essential ecosystems and affect entire regional food systems. Even the most self-reliant food systems can become vulnerable if its links with others become weak, thus making emergency and crisis intervention more difficult. As is now becoming increasingly recognized, agriculture is the most thirsty industry on the planet, consuming 72 percent of all global freshwater at a time when the United Nations says 80 percent of our water supplies are being overexploited.11 The science of agroecology and working with peasant farmers offer some answers, responding to the diagnosis of the situation eloquently summarized by M. Altieri, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and the president of the Latin American Society of Agroecology:
This crisis which threatens the livelihoods of millions more than the already 800 million hungry people throughout the world, is the direct result of the dominating industrial farming model, that not only is dangerously dependent on fossil fuels but that has also become the largest source of human impact on the biosphere. In fact, there are now so many pressures on dwindling arable ecosystems that farming is overwhelming nature’s capacity to meet humankind’s food, fiber and energy needs. The tragedy is that agriculture depends on the very ecological services (water cycles, pollinators, fertile soil formation, benevolent local weather, etc.) that intensive farming continually degrades or pushes beyond their limits.12
In the face of these threats, it is ironic that the practice of peasant agriculture that represents the application of the key principles and processes advocated by the climate change scientific community to adopt are under threat by the expansion of the system of production that is behind anthropogenic environmental and climate change.