- Organic Sovereignties: Struggles over Farming in an Age of Free Trade by Guntra A. Aistara
What is organic agriculture? Many of us are familiar with the idea that organic agriculture is a social movement that seeks to transform conventional, chemically dependent farming practices, and society along with them, and have come across debates over certification and labelling, as well as over whether the procurement of organic goods by large corporations like Walmart actually contributes to any positive transformation of farming practices or the food system. But what do these debates and practices look like outside of North America and Europe, and perhaps also Mexico, where most of the research has thus far been focused? Luckily, Guntra Aistara's comparative ethnography provides us with an insightful addition to existing studies on organic agriculture by delving into the meanings, struggles and practices of organic agriculture for farmers in Latvia and Costa Rica, two countries that are situated in between the east/west and north/south geopolitical axes, respectively. Understanding the practices and struggles of "organics in between" challenges assumptions about organic farming that universalise the North American and European experiences, including the assumption that the transformative potential of organic is always watered down by state regulation and markets. [End Page 167]
Organic agriculture, as a range of practices and principles around soil health and non-chemically dependent farming, emerged in various places in the early twentieth century, but it became a global movement in 1972 when groups from France, Britain, South Africa, the United States and Sweden established the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. Aistara's book outlines the emergence of organic farming in Latvia and Costa Rica and argues that we need to understand the particular histories of place and the process of policy harmonisation that accompanied Latvia's joining the EU in 2004 and Costa Rica's free trade agreement with the United States in 2007.
In 2004, organic production was on the rise in both countries, but the number of organic farmers in Costa Rica (3,900) was ten times that in Latvia, where there were extensive pastures and grasslands. By 2014, the number of organic farmers in Latvia had gone from 350 farmers to 4,000 as a result of the country's entry into the EU, and farmers gained access to support payments for environment services (PES), while Costa Rica's organic production declined in the absence of subsidies, among other factors.
In Latvia, organic agriculture was taken up due to questions of scale and lack of resources, only later becoming a social and political movement. In the 1990s, small family farms were reclaimed during de-collectivisation of the Soviet agricultural system. "Back to the landers," who may not have been farmers, claimed family land as a way to connect to their past. Due to the small scale of their farms and lack of resources, they became organic farmers by default. However, these farmers were politicised during the process of EU policy harmonisation.
By contrast, organic farming in Costa Rica was a political and social movement from the beginning. In the late 1980s, organic farming emerged as a reaction against foreign-owned monoculture plantations and agrochemicals. Costa Rican agriculture for domestic consumption involves the most intensive use of pesticides in the world, while close to 70 percent of organic produce is now for export.
In both countries, farmers understand organic farming in relation to landscapes as living reminders of past events and people, as well as idealised images of their national landscapes. However, the key sites of struggle for farmers differ in the two countries: Latvian farmers see their political and economic sovereignty as based on having the autonomy to manage their own land, whereas in Costa Rica, organic farmers view their sovereignty as linked to their ability to save, reproduce and exchange native and creolised seeds. The seeds used by organic farmers evoke memories of family and are seen as living creatures with whom the farmers collaborate. Seed exchanges are part of the reciprocal obligations of kin. Aistara...