Grass-roots research and innovation in urban agriculture
Partners met for the third time on a frosty week between February 1-5, 2015 in Switzerland at a DARE gathering hosted by the Federation of Local Contract Farming in Western Switzerland (FRACP). The FRACP brings together close to thirty Local Contract Farming networks (in English known as Community Supported Agriculture or CSA) that are based on a partnership and mutual long-term commitment between producers and consumers for the purchase of local agricultural produce. Although the FRACP is not a research institute, it does have experience in collaborative research and innovation, mainly through local initiatives that foster active citizen participation.
Geographically Switzerland has the ideal features for developing an extensive agricultural system based on local, proximity farming. Many cities are surrounded by green spaces used for agricultural activity which can easily lead the urban population to believe that Switzerland is essentially a country of family farms. As a result of rapid urbanisation, however, one square metre of agricultural land is being lost every second. The spread of Local Contract Farming and other forms of direct marketing is not the result of a supportive policy environment. Rather, it can be attributed to citizen mobilisation against the monopoly of four supermarket chains that buy up and commercialise the entire agricultural production. This mobilisation has lead to the creation of 45 LCF initiatives that cater to the needs of 12,000 families.
In the context of rapid urbanisation combined with the rising popularity of LCF projects, however, access to land – in particular by young farmers and new entrants to agriculture – is becoming increasingly difficult. This emerging issue and the need to build alliances with citizens for a more sustainable and democratic food system constituted the common thread of discussions held with DARE partners in workshops and field visits alike.
In this respect one of the first examples of citizen-led innovation the FRACP and its local partner Uniterre presented is the Swiss Popular Initiative on Food Sovereignty. As explained in the video below the initiative is essentially a campaign aiming at collecting 100,000 signatures by March 2016 calling for the integration of Food Sovereignty – a mechanism for increased citizen control of the food system – into Swiss law by amending the country’s Constitution.
Rallying the support of citizens is also a key issue for the Local Contract Farming cooperatives visited – the Jardin de Cocagne and its little sister the Jardin de Charrotons in Geneva and Rage de Vert in Neuchâtel. Several are faced with eviction in order to accommodate housing developments and are searching for new sites, which are difficult to find. Especially undivided land with plots located in the same area and with good quality soil, appropriate for organic farming. Expanding their membership through increased subscription by families, however, is also an issue for some LCFs in order to ensure their economic viability. DARE partners were invited to engage in a participatory dialogue on these questions of relevance to local initiatives and share insights on potential strategies based on their knowledge and experience.
The gathering also offered space for further developing ideas on a Manifesto calling for the democratization of agricultural research in Europe. It has been highlighted that what underpins the Manifesto is the recognition that our agriculture and food systems need to be transformed based on the principles of agroecology and food sovereignty. This goal provides the general framework for the DARE project, which focuses on a particular strategy – the democratisation of agricultural research – to push for this social transformation. The aim of the Manifesto, therefore, is to launch a debate with different actors on current governance models for agricultural research, and propose changes both within the institutionalized public research system and in the area of farmer/citizen-led research and innovation. Ideas on the content, structure and mobilisation around the Manifesto were further discussed in a World Café format.