Production and consumption of Baladi crops is a health, environmental and national necessity

Conscious Choices: A Guide to Ethical Shopping in Palestine

   There is a war raging behind the scenes, a war that is only known to a few in the world who are directly concerned with this matter. It is not exactly about energy and control over oil resources, but rather about control over food and food production. Currently, a number of corporations hold a monopoly over food through their control of seed production. These seeds are engineered to prevent farmers from reproducing them. This monopoly keeps farmers in a state of complete dependency on these corporations and deprives them from the freedom they used to enjoy when they were able to produce food for themselves and others, from the local seeds they produce and store from one agricultural season to the other.

   To demonstrate this hidden war, we recall what happened in Iraq immediately following the American aggression in 2003, when decisions where issued by the American occupation’s representative in Iraq, Paul Bremer, who was known as the “civil ruler”. One of the most serious decisions made by this colonial ruler was the intellectual property law, which aimed to prevent Iraqi farmers from using their local Iraqi seeds, seeds that have been produced and developed by their ancestors over hundreds of years. This law intended to impose the American genetically modified seeds on Iraq and control Iraqi food production. After the Iraqi farmer would lose their original seeds, they would depend on purchasing these American seeds and the pesticides and fertilizers that complement them. Thus, Iraq, like other countries, would become prey to American seed and agrochemical corporations. 

   This decision has been adopted as a law and is still in effect, under which Iraqi farmers were forced to sign their consent over applying it to guarantee ownership of seed varieties to the entities that developed and produced them (i.e. American corporations). This all happened after the invading American forces took control over the Iraqi Seed Bank, stole the seeds they wanted and destroyed the rest. Controlling food means controlling people, it is the ability to keep governments and politicians in check and become followers of whoever is in control of food production. With their seeds controlled, countries lose their true independence.

   Globally, local heirloom (baladi) seeds have lost a large part of this presence as a result of the systematic invasion and continuous promotion of imported hybrid and genetically modified seeds. As farmers cannot reproduce these seeds, they remain dependent on them and all the other imported agricultural chemical inputs that are needed to grow these seeds. Currently, a whole range of digital technologies is also being marketed to further hold farmers captive to these products. All these efforts contribute to consolidate the control and domination of these corporations and the capitalist states that stand behind them. It is effectively a new form of colonialism where people and governments are controlled through food rather than military force. Although, in many cases, governments and leaders in some countries tried to challenge this domination and change the existing equation, but the colonial states interfered on behalf of the international corporations and assassinated those leaders who have dedicated their lives towards regaining food sovereignty in their countries. Food sovereignty simply means the right to produce food locally and to obtain it in the way and quantity people see fit, at the appropriate time and place. The concept of food sovereignty opposes the chemical monoculture cultivation patterns promoted by neo-liberal policies that perpetuate the "dictatorship" of monopolizing corporations and the imperialist regimes behind them. These policies focus on increasing farmers' dependence on genetically modified seeds and environmentally damaging chemicals. They also focus on only a few crops; mainly corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat, rather than a diversity of crops.

   In Palestine, the agricultural sector is experiencing a continuous decline as a result of the distortion it is being subjugated to, causing its role as one of the essential economic sectors in Palestinian people’s life, to shrink. Rain-fed and baladi agriculture is suffering from clear neglect, despite it making up about 90% of all Palestinian agriculture and the fact that farmers have mainly relied on it for their livelihood and food production. Baladi varieties had the leading role in agriculture and their cultivation depended on the inherited knowledge transmitted through word of mouth between generations. This knowledge was acquired over the years through practice, observation, and trial and error. The changes that occurred in the agricultural sector have affected baladi varieties, and resulted in the loss of their original characteristics and distinctiveness.

   The damage resulting from the deformation and in some cases extinction of baladi varieties is not limited to losing them as plants or crops, but rather extends to the loss of a genetic stockpile and an inherited knowledge associated with this type of cultivation and agricultural practices. Furthermore, it has negatively impacted the environment through the shrinking of biodiversity as well as some social and economic impacts on rural communities with the change in food patterns and diets.

   Despite this, the most common baladi varieties remained intact in specific environments and locations thanks to a limited number of farmers who continued to preserve, reproduce and store their seeds for the following seasons. These farmers specifically appreciate these seeds because they are highly adapted to the natural environment and are resistant to pests and droughts, in addition to the few and local production inputs needed to produce them. Furthermore, the baladi varieties have remained a preference for consumers, who are in a constant pursuit to find them, due to their unique characteristics and distinctive taste that the Palestinian people are accustomed to.

   The farmers who still maintain the production of baladi crops need more attention from us than is currently the case. Most of these producers are rural women who have preserved baladi seeds and have been working hard to make ends meet. They usually own small plots of land and are small-scale farmers who need us to stand by their side, given the marginalization they are facing. They are the real producers of healthy foods at a time where the agricultural sector is systematically being deformed. They often adopt environmental and natural agricultural techniques and practices and sell their produce either in local markets or directly to consumers, thereby providing us with healthy food, that is free of chemical toxins, rich in nutritional elements and has a unique taste. Small-scale farmers are the real producers of food who working their lands as a family unit, keep alive the inherited  agricultural knowledge, preserve baladi seeds and exchange them with other farmers, thus creating community seed banks, building social relationships based on cooperation and contributing to the local circulation of capital, which benefits various segments of society.

   Buying baladi products supports the steadfastness of farmers in their struggle to live in pride and dignity. This dignity is violated by colonialism on the one hand and greedy merchants, who ignore their suffering, on the other. Furthermore, buying baladi products is a contribution to preserving the baladi seeds that were developed and preserved by our ancestors over centuries. It also contributes to the efforts to maintain agricultural biodiversity and the agricultural knowledge inherited through generations.

   Movements and activist groups around the world are now active in encouraging the use and cultivation of original local seeds and preserving and reproducing them locally, as these seeds are vital to achieving people's food sovereignty and preventing corporations' monopoly. Palestinians are also active on this front with the rise of initiatives that are working to recover and spread baladi seeds -original local (heirloom) seeds- among farmers and even revive their status in Palestinian agricultural heritage. These initiatives also aim to reinvigorate the presence of these baladi seeds in people's awareness and consciousness. With the increasing interest in reviving the baladi product and the awareness regarding its importance to health, environmental, social, economic and national aspects, an increasing number of Palestinians have begun to adopt the agroecological cultivation approach in the last ten years. Agroecology is considered the backbone of food sovereignty. Real food sovereignty cannot be achieved if agriculture remains dependent on imported seeds and polluting chemicals, manufactured by transcontinental corporations whose primary goal is to maintain capital in the hands of a few people, through controlling the inputs and materials used for food production. The use of pure baladi seeds is one of the pillars of agroecology, which absolutely rejects the use of imported genetically modified seeds.

   Let us think which production is more ethical: production from seeds of corporations’ that are supported by countries intending to monopolize and control food to subjugate people or the production of a female farmer from the valleys and mountains of our Palestinian villages, who is reproducing her seeds to provide us with clean food and contributing to real food sovereignty?

  It is for this reason and much more that we adopt agroecology and choose to consume baladi products.