In conversation with Jan Douwe van der Ploeg #2: Peasant agriculture and a message to students and social movements

Jan Douwe van der Ploeg has a message to the students and to the social movements:

They talk here [at Wageningen University],, what do they talk about? About ‘topsectoren’. All research here, even the one financed by the NWO, the Netherlands Scientific Research Institute, is to be co-financed by big business.

[Elske]: that has to be connected right?

– Ja, so what do you want?! I mean, that channels, of course, research in a very specific direction. It’s as simple as that.

[Elske]: Like Friesland Campina being on the campus and now Unilever is coming next to it, and..

-Yes. I mean, if they would also offer, eh, how you call it, facilities to Via Campesina. And ‘you tell us what we should do for you’, at least there should be a balance. Ja, but it’s absolutely not like that. And it’s ludicrous ofcourse, we neither create our teaching rooms on the industry part, so why are they to come to the campus? It’s a brutal,, it’s not neutral, it’s a brutal symbolic intervention. Ja, ‘we are here to dominate’.

[Hanny]: And what could be done to bridge this? Because it seems to be two different worlds without bridges. Either you’re here or you’re there. And when you are there, you are with your back to that side, and the other way around. Because we all are,, we have our own solutions which we think it’s very important for many people. But how to bridge the gap between the people organisations that are in power, because the ones you mentioned, they are in power: the state, science, agribusiness and the banks.

How can social movements support peasant agriculture?

Here you have to take into account, I think, a few elements. Eh,, eh, at least I think it’s important. First element is that, eh, we are in the midst of a crisis, a deep economically, ecologically, financial and also social and political crisis – and that will continue to deepen. And in this crisis, dominant agriculture, industrialized agriculture, will – is already showing its vulnerability, and will enter into deep, deep trouble. The high degree of debts is one aspect of this. Why do you think that Rabobank is developing so called plans to ‘help’ intensive husbandry, dairy farming, the horticultural sector? They are scared to death! I mean, they will lose their capital, they will lose, so they intervene in order to protect themselves. There is.. the sector is shaking on,, agriculture is shaking very much, and will enter into a lot of troubles. Well, this is the background that makes that – I would say on the political agenda – are the following elements.

First of all: defend and strengthen alternative forms of agricultural production, of food production, of food processing, of food marketing. Show that alternatives are possible, and very well able to proceed, to progress in an autonomous way.

Second, it’s very important to make these alternatives highly visible. Avoid that they are not known by the big public. Not allow that, lets say, the dominant parties have a monopoly on the news, on communication, on the debate. But time and again shout out, show,, and this is also, you can involve a lot of students in this and also staff members of here, who are also many of them are fed up with the dominant tendencies.

Then the third point: try to connect as much these different initiatives. Not in the old fashioned way of parties, as in the past, but people should interconnect through new markets, through new distributional systems, by exchange in communication, by,, when there are aggressive plans, as this phosphate plan, a little bit time ago, develop alternatives and have it supported by as many people as possible.

And fourthly: see all this against the background of a highly vulnerable, dominant system, knowing there might be abruptly emerging, the moment that it  cracks down, and then people will ask us “what can we do, what can you do?”

If alternative forms of agricultural production, distribution, markets etc. are a strength we hold in the moment of a rupture in the dominant system in the near future, how do we then tackle the challenge of low income for peasants and competition with cheap supermarket food, in the present, now?

Important here, if you go to the Noordermarkt in Amsterdam, or to this new market in Rotterdam, indeed the prices are often outrageous. It’s very expensive, the food prices. But not necessarily peasant markets are to be that way. In Rome for instance, you have the Mercati Contadini, well throughout Italy, and they are connected to the central computer of the ministry of agriculture, which has all food prices in all supermarkets throughout Italy at real time. And then, it’s very beautiful, all these peasant markets, they are connected with it, and they simply ask the information, the nearby supermarkets, and they automatically set their own price 30% lower, or 25% lower. They call it the ‘prezzo di amigo’, a friendly price. But they are systematically lower than supermarket prices. But still they get farm more than the farmers who sell directly to big traders, our directly to big retail. Yes, they get a better price, and the consumer pays less. Given the huge difference between the producer price and the consumer price, there is a considerable space to play this game.

And what is also very telling, in Italy, it are usually the mayors, the municipalities, the local authorities, that very much support these kind of markets. By giving, for instance, old industrial buildings, or other nice architecture which is not used at the moment, and people can organize the market inside of it. This functions very well. And at the same time of course there are products, there are markets with higher prices than supermarket prices, but then this is justified by a far higher quality. And then, but is not for record, or just take it away later on: For instance, another very important point is, you have to develop I think, eh, far more this, eh, these micro-processing units, ehh, because that helps you to operate in a cheap way in these peasant markets. But there’s another thing, and this is very political, but (….)

Ja, you see? So it’s all there. Eh. And what you especially see that local and regional authorities often are very favorable to peasant movements, not because they are identified with peasant movements, but they favor very much the practical solutions that are offered. Ja, for them it’s, having a peasant market, helps the poor strata in their city, in their municipality. Having a nice market makes for more people getting together, communicate, makes for more social cohesion.

Socio-political struggle is never chemically pure. If you want chemically pure politics, you deem to inactivity. Ja, you have to make coalitions, you have to move on. And then you have to take into account, eh, that it is impossible to solve all problems at the same time. Ja? Students like to do so [laughs], but it’s not always possible..

In the Netherlands, we lose 7 farms every single day.

Farmers cannot invest in the environment, animal welfare, biodiversity, a healthy soil, or creating jobs for young people, when the supermarkets keep on giving very low prices to the producers.

The future of food lies in the hands of us all: you stimulate that where you spend your money on – every – single – day. Find local farmers, and support them by buying their products. In solidarity for biodiversity, the soil, the environment, job creation, our future..

More info: 

* Jan Douwe van der Ploeg #1 Video: Peasant agriculture in Europe. 
Voedselsoevereiniteit zet diepere wortels in Europa. Boerengroep, 2016 (NLD). Lees hier
* ‘Onderzoek van de WUR is gestuurd‘, Boerengroep, 2016. (NLD) Lees hier
* See how millions of peasants are working towards food sovereignty
* Food sovereignty though agroecology
* Peasants organisation Via Campesina