Michael Sligh's “Road to Damascus Moment”
Michael Sligh is a Policy Director for Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA). He manages policy, research and education regarding agricultural best practices, agro-biodiversity, agro-biotechnology, organic, identity preserved and a range of food justice and other value-added food labeling and marketing issues. He has more than 30 years’ experience in agricultural practices and policy analysis, including both domestic and international work.
Michael Sligh: Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA) comes out of a tradition of working on rural issues in the South. Our focus has always been to look at environment, economics and social justice issues as they play out in rural economies. Our goal is to work with farmers and find solutions at the local, national and international level.
Douglas Gayeton: Do you practice a “system-based approach” to agricultural solutions?
Michael Sligh: We try to. We go awry when we don't take the big picture into account, both at the farm level as well as the policy level. We're never comfortable promoting a policy unless we have established it with the farmers and have a sense that it will work on the ground. At the same time, we have to ask bigger questions in order to find the right solutions.
Douglas Gayeton: You also are involved in many other projects. Can you explain what the "Just Foods Program" is?
Michael Sligh: The "Just Foods Program" promotes the direction towards the North Star of sustainability and agriculture. We look at the economics, the need for biodiversity , the challenges and also look at how we work within the market place and the policy arenas.
Douglas Gayeton: What is your vision of what a fair food system looks like?
Michael Sligh: A fair food system doesn't look like what we have now. A fair food system is a food system that is empowering. It's a food system that meets the triple bottom line in terms of environment, economics and social justice . It is also one that does not pit farmers against workers , farmers against buyers and customers against retailers. We need to recognize that farmers must have rights in order to conversely protect the rights of workers. It is an integrated whole that we must address. We must shift from a predatory system to a cooperative system, which is not a small challenge.
The growing discussion is about fairness in the food system: what it looks like, who’s included and what the standards should be. We look at the fair trade movement and the experience they had trying to create a marketplace-only approach without government intervention. Both are challenging models. The sweet spot is where the marketplace, government support and consumer demand intersects. We wanted to certify food justice2 and enter into the marketplace to better facilitate this conversation about what fairness is and what it looks like.
Douglas Gayeton: I want to ask you a question, which comes out of the New Testament. Paul has an epiphany on his road to Damascus , and as a result he alters his course and his entire life changes. Did you have a “road to Damascus” moment in your own life that changed your course and put you on the path you are on now?
Michael Sligh: It's been a series of moments opposed to one singular moment. I come from a long line of family farmers, and I was a young farmer myself when Earl Butz urged farmers to grow their crops from fencerow to fencerow. Many of us thought it was our mandate to get “big” and feed the world, but it became clear to us that that was a really dangerous and problematic policy.
I got involved in the farm crisis in the early 80's, helping stop farm foreclosures. We set up hotlines to help deal with farmers who were contemplating suicide. I witnessed farm workers being sprayed with aerial pesticides in their camps when their children were outside playing. I witnessed farm workers in Central America carrying home empty paraquat containers for water. It was an accumulative chipping away at the veneer of what we thought the food system was, and realizing that the veneer was really thin and a very harmful approach. We realized we needed change and that we had to be the change if we wanted to make a difference.
Douglas Gayeton: Are you hopeful about the direction we’re headed in order to make a more responsible and more local food system?
Michael Sligh: Absolutely. As long as we're here, we must remain hopeful. Are the odds against us? Sure. Is the grass roots, the informed public and the desire of people around the planet for this? Absolutely. Do we need to get better organized? Of course. Everyday we can make a difference. It's become a much bigger conversation than it was years ago, and these conversations are echoing and taking place everywhere in the world. I take that as a very good sign.