Environmentalist opens 2017 Lozano Long Conference on Latin American food system

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Photo Credit: Jordyn Caruso | Daily Texan Staff

This year’s Lozano Long Conference focused on the relationship between consumerism, environmentalism and sustainability in Latin America’s food system.

The conference, now in its 10th year, began Wednesday with a keynote by Humberto Rios Labrada, 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize winner and regional coordinator of the International Center for Development-Oriented Research in Agriculture. The conference, which is hosted by UT’s Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, is dedicated to raising awareness about Latin American issues and culture. 

“We have speakers from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba (and other Latin American countries) this year,” said Paloma Diaz-Lobos, director of Latin American studies and official coordinator of the conference. “The work they’re doing is great on behalf of the environment.”

According to the Lozano Long Conference website, this year’s theme focused on the contemporary food system in Latin America, and the opportunities and obstacles that have arisen in trying to change its outdated nature. This food system includes farmers, consumers, industry and scientists who are all working to improve access to food. Past themes have included Latin American racism, natural disasters and refugee crises.

“There is an enormous change in the food system in the Americas,” Diaz-Lobos said. “We want to raise awareness of how people, like consumers and producers, are organizing around this issue.”

Raj Patel, LBJ School of Public Affairs research professor, introduced Rios Labrada as the keynote speaker. Patel said transforming the food system through focusing on moving away from a consumeristic mindset is necessary because of the ecological burden of current agriculture techniques. 

“In order to understand the magic of agroecology, we need to understand how bad things are in the global food system today,” Patel said. 

Agroecology describes the transdisciplinary nature of integrating environmentalism into agricultural practices to increase yields without straining the environment.

According to Patel, by 2048, the last commercial fish catch will be hauled out of the ocean, and by 2050, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.

In his keynote, Rios Labrada said farmers have power to overcome industry and solve their own problems. To illustrate this, Rios Labrada used the story of his friend, Myko, a Cuban who was charged with revitalizing the agricultural industry after the collapse of the European socialist bloc in the 1980s.

“Myko realized that some small farmers were facing the crisis differently,” Rios Labrada said. “All the small farmers were happy and eating well while the government was in a criss. Myko decided to learn from the farmers.”

He added that Myko promoted an open source model of distributing seeds and farmer experimentation, in which farmers promote seed diversity through their farming practices instead of scientists conducting lab experiments to promote this diversity. Rios Labrada said that before the socialist collapse, most seed diversity experiments were led inside research labs, but after, most were led outside by farmers.  

“Most of the public research centers have seed banks that scientists conserve seeds in,” Rios Labrada said. “Myko took out all the seeds from the experimental station and planted it in a huge plot land of land and got hundreds of farmers to plant it. They took the seeds back to their communities.”

Rios Labrada trained farmers, called agrobiodiversity pollinators, to promote diverse crops and carry the best elements of farming-community businesses to others, spreading hundreds of crop varieties and promoting farmer trials across the country. Rios Labrada said this practice encouraged grassroots-led crop rotation and seed diversity, decreasing dependence on chemical fertilizers, and increasing Cuban agricultural productivity.

“The big surprise was that behind every champion farmer, we discovered one or more business models,” Rios Labrada said. “It’s very important that the owner of the problem should become the owner of the solution… People like us, with Ph.D.s, can’t solve the problems of the poor.”

Sustainability studies junior Thalia Bachmann-Padilla said she found the ideas of grassroots science fascinating.

“It’s actually something I seem to hear a lot from people involved in the university field—you can’t just focus on educated people,” Bachmann-Padilla said. “The focus is on the farmers.”

Rios Labrada said he will continue to champion farmer independence and biodiversity, hoping for a more personal and decentralized food system in the future. He added that he believes farmers, not government or companies, should be in control of the future of food systems.

“Innovation doesn’t come from just scientists, Illiterate persons can be geniuses,” Rios Labrada said. “When plant breeders like me are leading plant breeding business, bureaucracy increases and business opportunities decrease. When farmers are leading, crop diversity increases and business opportunities come alive.”