Organic Sovereignties. Struggles over Farming in an Age of Free Trade. Guntra A. Aistara. University of Washington Press. 2018. ISBN: 9780295743110.
Laura Kihlstrom (University of South Florida)
Guntra A. Aistara has written what the foreword of the book describes as the ‘first sustained ethnographic study of organic farmers outside the U.S.’. Organic Sovereignties is a multi-sited ethnography placed in Latvia and Costa Rica, countries described as regional peripheries in the European Union (EU) and Central America, respectively. I approached this book with great interest, given the lack of multi-sited ethnographies in food studies, as well as the frequent focus of books on organic farming exclusively on North America.
One of the fastest growing sectors of the global food industry, organic agriculture is now an 82 billion industry. While 90 % of all sales are made in the Global North, 89 % of all organic products are produced by farmers in the Global South, the industry reflecting longstanding inequalities in the food system. How are these contradictions solved among organic farmers in two countries? How do Latvian and Costa Rican actors in the organic agriculture movement negotiate, create, and maintain sovereignties while their countries promote free trade?
The backdrop to the book is Latvia joining the EU in 2004 and Costa Rica joining the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2007. Through utilizing a multi-sited approach, Aistara demonstrates how seemingly different localities are in fact part of a broader global neoliberal system, and heavily influenced by their powerful neighboring countries, whilst having their own unique agrarian and political histories in how organic agriculture has developed. Similar to the approach of Alyshia Galvéz in her book Eating NAFTA (2018), Aistara follows free trade agreements at the micro-level to deepen our understanding of food sovereignty. The result is a rigorously researched ‘ethnography of frustration and resurgence’.
Chapter 1 follows the personal stories of organic farmers and those involved in the organic agriculture industry in the two countries. While the practices of Latvian organic farmers mimic the country’s agrarian past through so called quiet sustainabilities on subsistence farms, Costa Rican organic farmers associate their actions with democratic ideals and principles of agroecology. Despite these differences, organic actors in both countries have asserted their sovereignty not independent from the state but in relation to it. And in both cases, small-scale farmers frequently share an experience of being perceived as impediments to progress and modernity by political elites in power.
Chapter 2 is an exploration into the events leading the countries to EU and CAFTA. In Latvia, reactions to a potential EU membership were built around a general narrative of correcting a Soviet history of collectivization and confirmed in a referendum in 2003. In Costa Rica, membership in CAFTA was resisted loudly and openly, and ultimately decided upon in a referendum. Eventually, both countries have had to deal with the built-in inequalities in the trade deals. In EU, eastern member states still receive fewer subsidies than member countries in the west. In CAFTA, Costa Rican small-scale organic farmers were up against an unfair advantage against farmers in the Global North, as well as wealthier farmers in the middle parts of the country.
Chapter 3 focuses on the symbolic importance of landscapes for organic farmers as sites of memory, pain, loss, but also resistance. For Latvian farmers, organic landscapes have been designed by drawing from the past to which they share a deep connection. In Costa Rica, organic landscapes can be seen as a means to protect biodiversity and as a response to the history of colonization in the region, which has resulted in deforestation and chemical-heavy farming of export crops. In both places, organic farmers develop new models for farming and assert their sovereignty through maintaining and altering landscapes.
Chapter 4 weaves together organic farming and biodiversity. Aistara challenges the notion of biodiversity as a list of species and re-conceptualizes it as something that can be both created and maintained by organic farmers. She uses the concept of networked diversities to describe new forms of diversity that emerge from interactions between organic farmers and nonhuman actors in lived landscapes. For example, organic farmers in Latvia use their informal social networks to diversify their livelihood options, such as by inviting tourist groups to the farm to see grazing wild horses in the adjacent meadows. The positive feedback they gained from this experience further encouraged them to protect the biodiversity on the meadows. In other words, networked diversities demonstrate that new forms of diversities do not always emerge from conscious action but from a combination of informal social connections and multispecies interactions In Latvia, diversifying has been a way to expand livelihood options, while in Costa Rica informal seed exchange networks have been a way to conserve agrobiodiversity as a means of political resistance.
Chapter 5 is an overview of the challenges that organic farmers have dealt with since becoming part of transnational trade deals. In both countries, the process of ‘harmonization of legislation’ in EU and CAFTA has challenged the sovereignty of farmers. In Latvia, organic farmers have been discouraged by a surge in surveillance and inspections on their farms, while in Costa Rica seeds that had historically been managed by farmers have risked becoming the property of a privileged group of breeders.
Chapter 6 focuses on the failed promises of trade deals for small-scale organic farmers and businesses. Rather than becoming managers of supply chains, both Latvia and Costa Rica have remained in the margins and continue to mainly produce raw materials for European and North American processors. Aistara explains this as the result of a process of conventionalization in which small businesses are taken over or grow into the organic industrial complex (Guthman, 2014). Farmers in both countries have had challenges in being able to afford the expensive certification process, in not being able to meet strict hygiene standards for export products, or not having the resources to increase the value of one’s products.
Chapter 7 focuses on the tensions within the organic movement itself. This chapter demonstrates that organic farmers are indeed not a homogenous group of people. In both Costa Rica and Latvia, within the movement, amateur and small-scale farmers have often been marginalized. At the same time, as the movement aims to achieve recognition as well as to produce enough food to meet the demands of the industrial food systems, organic farmers in both locations have shifted their focus from values and principles to giving primacy to funds and resources available for them.
Is it possible for organic farmers to maintain their sovereignties while being shaped by free trade agreements and globalization? The book Organic Sovereignties is an ethnographic exploration of the frustrations and agency of organic farmers in two countries that are considered regional peripheries. By following two countries, Aistara demonstrates that there are similarities in how organic farmers and actors become disadvantaged by free trade policies, while their acts of resistance and resurgence build upon each country’s individual agrarian histories, as well as forms of political or colonial oppression.
The book makes several noteworthy theoretical contributions. It challenges the concept of sovereignty and describes it as something that is not necessarily free of the state but exists in a dialectical relationship with it. Aistara also conceptualizes biodiversity not as something in juxtaposition with farming activities, but as something that may be maintained and created by organic farmers. She concludes that conservation efforts geared towards protecting biodiversity may be unsuccessful if they discount farmers’ knowledge on the topic. Third, this book highlights that organic farmers are not a uniform group of people but have different subjectivities which are affected by histories of colonization, oppression, class, race, and geographies.
My one critique for the book is that the multi-sited approach makes it difficult at times for the reader to remain connected to both localities. Focusing on a couple of characters in each chapter throughout the book might have made some of the book’s themes more digestible. I recommend this book to graduate students in the field of food studies, agronomy, anthropology, sociology, and political sciences.
Gálvez, A. (2018). Eating NAFTA : trade, food policies, and the destruction of Mexico. University of California Press.
Guthman, J. (2014). Agrarian Dreams : the Paradox of Organic Farming in California. University of California Press.