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Wojciech Mejor – a leading figure in the Polish post-growth movement – talks about food sovereignty, ...
2021-10-11 09:00:00
Mind the climate

What Comes After Growth?
An Interview about Food Sovereignty and Cooperativism

Illustration by Joanna Grochocka
What Comes After Growth?
What Comes After Growth?

Wojciech Mejor – co-founder of both the food cooperative movement and the post-growth and food sovereignty movement in Poland – talks about food sovereignty, food cooperativism and alternatives to capitalism. A member of Nyeleni Polska and the Dobrze (‘good’) Food Cooperative, among other organizations, Mejor works to support the economics of social solidarity as part of a network of cooperation and exchange between numerous grassroots organizations around the world.

Read in 12 minutes

Katarzyna Michałczak: Will food sovereignty save us?

Wojciech Mejor: I don’t know. From what?

For example, from the problems with food distribution. According to reports from international organizations, including UNICEF and the WHO, 690 million people in the world are hungry and the coronavirus pandemic may see this number rise by a further 130 million. Or from the problems of the extreme commodification of food, which leads to such absurd situations as the sale of only perfectly straight carrots, or food thrown away – this is running at about 20% in the UK and 40% in the US.

These problems arise because someone else decides about our food – not the people who produce it, nor those who consume it, but third parties, whose sole aim is to grow their capital. As a result, many aspects of the food production process make economic sense for a particular group of people in a particular context, but make no sense for us, for the environment, for the future of the planet, nor for humanity.

Yesterday I was with some friends who had bought corn on the cob. We looked at the packaging and it was from Argentina. How on earth can it be profitable for someone to import sweetcorn from Argentina, when it is growing 50 kilometres from here in Europe? Because it has been possible to reduce the costs of transport and production to such an extent that production there is cheaper. How has this become possible? The giant food producers aren’t fined for destroying local communities in Argentina, nor for destroying the local natural environment. They don’t pay fines for destroying the environment in the places where oil is extracted, which they use indirectly for farming. They also don’t pay for the environmental damage caused by transportation, for polluting the oceans and the air. The supermarkets that sell this sweetcorn get tax breaks. This means that large-scale production is an actively supported business model.

In Europe, large corporations receive significant subsidies, they receive a mass of tax breaks (in America, too, by the way). On 1st June 2018, the European Commission presented their legislative conclusions on the Common Agricultural Policy for the years 2021–2027 and, once again, the interests of the large agribusinesses, with their greater lobbying powers and influence on European politicians, were the winners. Meanwhile, a small producer of high-quality, ecological sweetcorn doesn’t have such lobbying power; it receives minimal support, disproportionate to its contribution. Because to farm agri-ecological sweetcorn locally is much harder in the current system. One has to put in more work, care more for the environment, for the local community, the quality of these products and for the way in which they are made.

The food sovereignty movement is trying to change this situation. On the one hand, via different local and regional organizations, thanks to which information about these problems cuts through to public opinion. On the other hand, to influence the politicians and lobby towards wresting control over the decisions about food production and distribution. In addition, by actively promoting and developing agri-ecology. However, because of the strong political powers pulling in the opposite direction, this is extremely difficult.

Is agri-ecology just ecological farming?

It is a socially and politically motivated philosophy. In the past, ecological farming was limited to ensuring what was in the soil and how plants were supposed to grow. Later on, it turned out that it was worth taking into account the wider ecosystem, i.e., the relationships between crops and nature. Next, the local community was included and how people think and function. In the end, we came to the conclusion that political questions, consumer behaviour and distribution networks were also important, as well as the active shaping of food policy. Agri-ecology takes a holistic approach to agriculture, one which takes into account the varying levels of activities involved in food production. It is not enough for me to use some ecological method of farming if I then send my products in plastic packaging by jumbo jet to the other side of the world. Ecological, certified products can be made on a large scale. Agri-ecology doesn’t permit this. The agri-ecology philosophy in practice is food cooperatives, which cooperate directly with producers and community-supported agriculture. This last is particularly important, as it allows one to become truly independent from the principles of the free, capitalist market.

Geoff Lawton, one of the most important designers and instructors of permaculture, said: “I wholeheartedly believe that we can solve all of the world’s problems in a garden”.

I don’t agree with him! It seems to me that in order to solve all the problems of the world, above all you need to get out of your garden. If you make a wonderful, little ecological garden, but you own a fast-food chain and drive there in a large SUV and eat masses of meat, then that ecological garden achieves nothing, because your other activities are destroying more of the world than you are fixing with your garden. We need to organize ourselves towards more decisive political actions that include areas other than crop growing. Focusing only on our narrow field, we don’t see the systemic problems that lead to a lack of political engagement. I am also a hippie at heart, but I understand that this is not enough.

This focus on our own gardens is already closer to the extreme individualism that is central to our culture. That individualism is treacherous because it is connected not only to the approach of ‘don’t look at others’, whose damage may be obvious to many people, but also with the principle that ‘if only each of us takes care of ourselves, all will be well’. Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly clear that this doesn’t work. We will not create a fulfilled society in this way.

That’s why I rate the post-growth movement. It goes further, looks wider. It brings together science, political activism and good practice, such as gardening. The concepts of post-growth highlight mutual cooperation. It is not about autonomy and self-sufficiency, but about creating a network of social interdependence. Post-growth came out of the alter-globalization movement, which was strongly politically-engaged. It is not about cutting yourself off from the world and hiding yourself away in an idyllic green commune. The ideas of post-growth stand in opposition to a system based on continual growth. This is precisely how capitalism is built – when it stops growing, it falls. We are dealing here with the need for continual growth and expansion. This is the absurd, founding fault of this system, which was already being criticized back in the 1960s. The cornerstone of the post-growth movement is the famous text Limits to Growth. Irrespective of how we imagine the volume of work or money in the future, we must accept the basic fact that our economy is not going to grow in perpetuity.

This is what we are taught and this is what we see as success: to grow perpetually. Is there any alternative?

Post-growth functions more on the concept of satisfaction. For me, the ideal is not continual achievement, but to make use of all the time that I have been given in my life in a satisfying fashion – irrespective of whether I am doing something that needs to be done or something that I really want to do. Capitalism has created a false dichotomy between work and free time. We began to sell our time. We started to agree to be the de facto property of our boss for a defined amount of time each day and our time is at their disposal. This is absurd! A nightmare! As the American anthropologist David Graeber wrote, this is disguised slavery.

Work, in and of itself, is something valuable, and can give us great satisfaction. However, under capitalism we are dealing with hired labour, labour that helps someone multiply capital. Unpaid work is treated with suspicion – it doesn’t fit the logic of the system. But why should it be like this? Why should you spend half the day doing something unnecessary, senseless and destructive to society and the environment in order to receive some money in return and do nice things during the other half of the day?

It’s worth being aware of this trap and deciding what we really want, what might be a satisfying life for us and how to achieve it, taking into account the limitations of the ecosystem and society. The post-growth philosophy has a lot of global thinking: can what we are doing now, or how we live, be multiplied across the eight billion people on planet Earth? The answer might be no. We might not all be able simply to move to countryside and apply for eco subsidies. Because there won’t be anywhere left. Because when the millions of people who are living in cities flee from them, it will completely destroy the environment.

Illustration by Joanna Grochocka
Illustration by Joanna Grochocka

So how should we live our lives?

I often wonder whether my lifestyle is sustainable. For example, the number of trips I have made in my life: would the planet cope if everyone travelled like that? No, certainly not! These are very difficult questions because, suddenly, it turns out that what we design for ourselves as wellbeing and prosperity, is built on the poverty of others. In order for me to live how I live, others must suffer. This, therefore, leads to the question of how to live and how to organize the world so that, in as far as possible, it is good for everyone.

What specific answers does the post-growth movement have to this question?

Above all, redefining what is supposed to be good and necessary, and moving the centre of gravity away from the material to the societal and spiritual. Why does one have to travel ever longer distances for a satisfying holiday? Where did this come from? What role do the airlines play and their promotion, which countries around the world support this? Why is local sightseeing not a sufficient form of relaxation? Why do our houses have to be big for us to be happy with life? Why do we need to own the house we live in? Why is it better to have more than one house? Why can’t we share space with others and have joint resources? Why do we all have to have our own washing machines? Why can’t we use communal appliances?

This is all connected to a system based on continual growth. On over-production, increase, expansion, on excessive commoditization – turning everything into a sales transaction. This approach is extraordinarily limiting. However, in post-growth, we focus on seeing the beauty and value in phenomena that, paradoxically, are ubiquitous and free, and which we can implement together with others and for which we don’t need money. Making homebrew wine with a group of neighbours can be a surprisingly bonding and therapeutic activity that takes up a lot of time and demands effort, but which brings enormous satisfaction, develops friendships along the way and evokes a multitude of positive emotions. The direct result will be a few bottles of wine, which one could of course just buy in a shop, but the experiences gained from creating this booze can’t be bought. This is the problem with capitalism – we trade the true quality of our lives and our relationships for the convenience of a buy/sell transaction.

Does this mean that we should stop buying and selling things?

No. Money has been with us for thousands of years. Likewise, credit. As David Graeber highlighted, the theory that first there was barter and then monetary exchange and only then did credit and modern capitalism appear is mistaken. No, credit has been around as long as humans have lived in communities. People tried to calculate their dues in different ways and debt was an integral part of community life. The problem which appeared in capitalism is that money became a product in and of itself. Money is a technology that is self-driving, that has its own operational rules, irrespective of the benefits to us. It works for itself. What is terrifying in this system is that even the people who pull the strings can’t stop it, because what is happening in the economy is beyond their control; it is not the sum of the wills of all those engaged in it, it is something more.

We are weighed down by the myth of Homo economicus (economic man). Even when people want to do something for themselves by, for example, exercising in the fresh air, or not consuming, they are still so used to buying things that they have to purchase special clothing and equipment. Simply going outside, without buying anything, doesn’t fit the logic of capitalism. The example and image of a person served up to us by the media is the only model present in the public sphere. Through this, we begin to believe that this is what life is like; this is the only way it can look. We devalue a mass of different brilliant things that are all around us, but that don’t fit this model.

At one time I had a shelf in my room that had belonged to my grandmother and it was too big. I took a saw and cut it in half to make two shelves. One I took down in the lift to the ground floor of my apartment block. I left it against the wall in the entrance hall and wrote on it ‘the exchange’. What happened next? People started leaving all sorts of things on it. Others took them, leaving different items. We have been exchanging things this way in our apartment block now for two years. There are plenty of initiatives like this, on a smaller or larger scale, which fit the post-growth philosophy. My favourite examples in Warsaw are the food cooperatives, community-supported agriculture, communal gardens and the whole Jazdów housing estate (wooden houses built from Finnish war reparations). This is a fantastic example of how one can single-handedly turn the system upside down, and rethink space and interpersonal relations from scratch.

But do you not get the impression that anti-capitalist ideas are often appropriated by capitalism? It seems to me that one example of this is the sharing economy, which sometimes, as with some computer apps, doesn’t promote exchange at all, only the multiplication of capital.

Anything can be appropriated on a superficial level – most obviously passwords and images – particularly since capitalist structures have access to gigantic resources and possibilities. However, this is still only trading in passwords – although, of course, some people fall for it, maybe even many people. That’s exactly what greenwashing is – a large supermarket chain boasts on its advertising billboards that it has made its meat packaging trays thinner and that, thanks to this, it has saved so many thousand tonnes of plastic. For the majority of people, this sounds convincing; an ecological move. But they don’t ask themselves the question: In which case, how many million tonnes of plastic will they still be producing?

In contrast, post-growth per se cannot be appropriated by capitalism. Capitalism without economic growth won’t be capitalism anymore – it would cease to exist. You can’t accumulate capital without economic growth.

You work in the Warsaw Dobrze Cooperative. Is it self-sufficient?

In what sense self-sufficient? It’s not about a group isolating itself from others. Certainly, the cooperative movement aims for self-sufficiency in the sense of independence from the capitalist system. The root of this idea was the creation of cooperatives in all areas, so that one could move about exclusively among cooperative businesses, hence they included finance, clothing, education and housing. In fact, the Dobrze Cooperative, for certain reasons, operates within the capitalist system. It does not undermine it completely, but creates a haven for other values and other ideas within it; ideas that are beneficial to us as people. It is important for us to ensure access to food, with the simultaneous guarantee of continuity and durability. We must sell enough products to pay the rent and staff costs, because our members have to pay their rent and the people who buy from us pay with money that they have earned working in capitalist businesses. In this sense, we are inside the system. However, we are not looking to accumulate, nor expand. In as far as we can, we are creating a business based on an alternative social and solidarity economic system. That is, we function above all to satisfy the needs of our members and employees. This is perhaps the most fair-trade business that I know of. Here, money is purely a tool, a by-product. Around 60-70% of the money from the goods sold in the shop goes to the producers. Name me a capitalist business that pays that much?

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.


Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz

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