Farming from Below? How Grassroots Initiatives are Cultivating Food Sovereignty in Serbia

Food sovereignty might help non-Western states become more independent without destroying the environment along the way. Sounds too good to be true? In his contribution to the text series “Black Box East,” the environmental journalist Mihajlo Vujasin looks at the case of Serbia and the tender beginnings of a more sustainable agriculture.


It is quiet, early autumn, and the harvest is almost complete. The agricultural workers are still picking quinces for brandy and jam. In the fields near Novi Sad in Serbia, the yellow quince fruits look like stars. The fields are in the hills beside the dirt road passing by the plot of land, which my friend got for the price of a laptop and a used car.

The place overlooks the southwest, on the sunny side of the hill. There are shrubs and bushes where a vineyard used to be; it’s now overgrown. He intervenes very little in this plot of land, and plants oak trees. Those trees grow more slowly than history, he says. Given the climate issue here – it was a dry summer, once again the hottest on record – the parallel question is about cultivation. Should he cut back the shrubs, burn them and cultivate the place?

One step deeper into the woods

Since cultivation means to adapt something to itself, we could instead somehow adopt the approach. Even if the shrubs have thorns, it brings comfort beyond necessity and economic measures. Can this be a place of sovereignty? It looks more like a step deeper into the woods, but people also call it agroforestry.

It is considered the most sustainable food production concept. We don’t do much and we don’t fight against nature. Efficiency only intrudes. Another idea emerges – this could be the place for a more sustainable and natural concept of agriculture. It combines food production with biodiversity and environmental benefits. Trees are perfect for carbon sequestration, and so on. Quite simple, no demands. But how can we connect this with our image of freedom?

Food sovereignty consists of elements and fragments, and it is in between to connect it all. Some would say, forward to the past. Forward to the self-sufficient integral approach in land management and stewardship. The question is about independence in the first place – together at the frontlines of the Global South struggles! Or it is just a theoretical model? Let’s take it from there. In the age of climate change, acceleration of commodity markets, and devastation of natural resources, everything is at stake.

Food sovereignty in contemporary Serbia

We can only isolate the term food sovereignty in the contemporary context in Serbia. According to the Landworkers’Alliance, there are six principles that manifest their Food Sovereignty concept:

1) Focus on food for people: focusing on feeding people rather than generating profits on the global commodity market. Everyone has a right to food.

2) Value food providers: ensuring a living wage, secure contracts, and fair representation for the food producers and processors, including seasonal and migrant workers.

3) Localize food systems: prioritizing genuinely local production and short supply chains. International trade should ensure human rights are respected, especially the right to local, healthy, and culturally appropriate food.

4) Center local control: placing control over the resources to produce, distribute and access food in the hands of producers, communities, and workers across the food system.

5) Build knowledge and skills: valuing the cultures of food producers and their communities, and enabling them to develop and pass on knowledge and skills to future generations.

6) Work with nature: grounding food production in agroecology, and producing food within the finite limits of our planet’s resources to protect and respect our environment without compromising the ability of future generations to provide for themselves.

The blind spots of the environmental movements

But nowadays the idea behind food sovereignty might be questionable in Serbia. Who to address, who might it concern? There is no movement per se. Specific initiatives are calling for agroecological food production: to preserve the soil as a living organism, collect seeds for the future, and preserve biodiversity. There are very few of these initiatives, seldom calls from the fringes of the social sphere and very rare in practice. Agroecology is not yet recognized in its potential, neither here nor elsewhere.

It is also an environmental issue, given that agriculture is the most intensive relationship between man and nature, and there’s a chance it will remain so. Most of the environmental movements still have this issue as a blind spot, insufficiently addressed. The farmers and rural population are left to their own devices and are finding solutions on different sides. They are not united in their demands in this context. They are neglecting ecological potential. The farmer still thinks only of the crop, while others might think of beauty. The enlightened consider the quality of products, and only rarely is the issue of agroecology and Food Sovereignty considered in the context of social and economic potential in calling for cooperatives. Agroecology seems to be in last place, although it could be a precursor and avant-garde.

In practice, food sovereignty is obscured and possibly degraded. We can rarely meet the defined position. It does not mean that it does not exist, nor does it diminish the problem. Agricultural policy is in such a state of affairs and has no observable notion of defending agroecology practice as a subject. It was the farmers who bore responsibility for food security and a kind of sovereignty, and mostly in times of crisis. Now it is the era of monopolies and economic calculations and speculations.

Serbia as an agricultural country

One can definitely speak of Serbia as an agricultural country. We can point out some facts: that the climate is still good, there is water, there are four seasons, and the land is relatively affordable. Ideal prerequisites to grow for your own needs.

Corporate agriculture makes a profit and degrades land by overexploiting it with inadequate consideration of environmental protection. At the same time, it is moving towards a future policy of meeting the target of zero carbon emissions. Small-scale farmers and peasants cannot keep pace with agroecological practice. They are not competitive on the market, and there is no indication that help and support will come from either side, nor through market deregulation and lacking subsidies. Sovereignty is tied this time to the sickle and hoe. The hammers are pounding on some other drum at the moment.

Even if the producers were to recognize that they should form cooperatives to become competitive to survive in the market, corporations and importers speculate as usual, and many cannot accept such rules. There were attempts with community-supported agriculture groups, small producers’ “let’s buy domestic” market platforms. Many initiatives are short-lived, however. It’s a slow process. When we go further into details, we need to acknowledge that the rural population is sophisticated and specialized in their crafts, so they produce either raspberries or honey, brandy, or jam. But, in the villages, too, it is hard to find cheese or milk, eggs, or basic groceries except in supermarkets. And so, the cycle continues.

Confusing for many but easier for most

Let’s look at three cases to illustrate my point. Case one happened earlier this year. My friend and I walked into a local grocery store on the town boulevard, a five-kilogram bag of carrots cost 50 cents. Who can be independent in his production, and speculate in this calculation? Next, bags of ten kilos of onions and ten kilos of potatoes cost less than two Euro each. Altogether, four Euros, with the carrots. That is how much you would pay for one cappuccino in the capital. Confusing for many, but easier for most.

Case two comes with the beauty in simplicity. There is a variety of homemade soup recipes with onions, potatoes, and carrots; simple dishes, modest but delicious. But how modest are they really? If you have to grow everything, dig, water it, save seeds, if you have to hope for rain, and stay around after frost and before drought. It is a full-time occupation for a poor man’s soup. Is this a hobby or a need? What else is there? It is a step into hard labor and might be sovereignty. Just hold on.

Case three: focusing on vertical landscapes. As a friend reminded me recently – it’s not about yields and abundance, but suspense and independence. That idea of exchanging your used car and a laptop for a neglected vineyard and a wooden shack next to the dirt road. It is a place to become. Not to escape, but to dive into. But why? Why, when it is not cheap, why when it’s so hard? I don’t have an answer, only an impression. The wagon in the field and the property with the garden will levitate in the verticals of his efforts, right before they decompose. And, in the end, the oak trees will outlast and overgrow everything.

Not literally, but just as a coincidence, the Black Box Wagon is on a nearby hill, overlooking sunsets and old borders and new railroads, beside the off-road bike and skate track, where the European championship was once held. Now all that is a sheep grazing meadow and a Labor Day barbecue gathering place. In my little town, there is a peace chapel. The Danube flows, and to be truthful – it forgets. It melts down the landscapes.

Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Black Box East” text series. The German version is available here. You can find more texts, artworks, and video talks on the English-language “Black Box East” website. Have a look here:

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