Food/agriculture as a Fertile Terrain for Social Movement Engagement with the UN System

Engagement with the global food and agriculture agenda centred in Rome, however, was something of an exception to the general picture. The triumph of neo-liberalism, from structural adjustment policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to the liberalization of agricultural trade with the advent of the WTO, had particularly devastating impacts on rural people. The period from the beginning of the 1990s witnessed an astounding concentration of agrifood corporations in global food chains thanks to the rules that were put in place, such that the five largest traders in grains came to control 75% of international trade. Supermarket chains moved into the Global South aided by global policies that opened up these economies to unregulated foreign investment. The number of Walmarts in Mexico rose from 14 in 1994 in pre-NAFTSA to 1,724 in 2012 (Rojo and Perez-Roche 2013). In the multinational input industry the top three companies alone claim almost 50% of the global proprietary seed market that they have been allowed to patent under Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) that reward corporations for the resources they invest in laboratory research but ignore the far more substantial efforts of millions of anonymous farmers in their fields and the need to guarantee their rights to use and exchange their own seeds.

The corporate-led food regime benefits from a global market organized in a way that favours its operations. Only approximately 15% of all food produced in the world transits through international supply chains, yet the impacts of the way the global market is organized and the speculation it permits are visited on the local food systems of countries whose exports are minimal. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries have actually increased their subsidies to their farmers in absolute terms since the WTO Agreement on Agriculture went into effect (Clapp 2012, 72-73), allowing products to be put onto the market at prices that do not need to cover production costs, while governments in the Global South are forbidden to protect their markets in order to defend their local producers against the resulting unfair competition.

Global food chains are intimately connected to an industrialized model of agricultural production because of their logic and scale and the economic interests that drive them. One result is that of expelling peasants from their land to make room for extensive monoculture plantations. Contract farming linked to corporate value chains is cited as a win-win alternative, but most often it isn’t. Farmers are subjected to corporate control over what they plant, when and how and hence loose the autonomy which is the basis of their resilience. Corporate value chains reward everyone else more than the primary producer. Ninety per cent of the world’s cocoa is grown by some 5.5 million small-scale farmers, who receive less than 5% of the total value of the average chocolate bar (OXFAM 2013). Yet the corporate narrative assumes that the future for small-scale family farmers lies in linking up with the industrial food chains—for the best-resourced men who can manage to do so—and becoming ‘advanced farmers’ while the rest will be obliged to move out of agriculture in the name of progress.

Those directly concerned by this narrative are by no means an insignificant minority. They represent some 3 billion family farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, agricultural workers, and others, producing most of the world’s food. They have been organizing around the world, starting at local level and building up, in reaction to the impacts of neoliberal policies on their livelihoods and access to resources. The need to reach global level became increasingly evident the more national policy space shrank. The largest and best-known global peasant network, La Via Campesina, was born in 1993, just two years before the advent of the WTO (Desmarais 2007). The World Food Summits called by FAO in 1996 and 2002 and the civil society forums held in parallel provided a strong impetus for global networking by these movements. This was due in good part to a deliberate political choice on the part of the organizers to put rural social movements in the majority and in the decision-making role in formulating civil society positions, in contrast to other UN processes in which NGOs—particularly from the Global North—have dominated (McKeon 2009).

These social movements have progressively developed an alternative paradigm to green revolution technology and free trade. In 1996 the concept of food sovereignty was introduced to the civil society forum by La Via Campesina; by 2002 it was adopted as the assembly’s platform. The social movements also established an autonomous network to carry forward their engagement with global institutions: the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC). Since 2003 the IPC has opened up political space for rural movements in global FAO forums to which they previously had no access and has coached them in how to occupy it effectively.

Food sovereignty turns upside-down the logic of the corporate-led global food supply system and the neo-liberal policies on which it rests. It invokes the right of peoples to define their own healthy and sustainable food and agriculture systems. It prioritizes food production for domestic and local markets based on small-scale agro-ecological production systems supported by public policies and investments. It defends peoples’ access to and control over productive resources, including seeds. It aims at ensuring remunerative prices for farmers by regulating and protecting markets. It values diversity, overcomes distancing between producers and consumers, and builds from the bottom up (Nyeleni 2007; Wittman et al. 2010).

This vision is not abstract; it is rooted in practice. In the Global North initiatives to reconnect consumers to sources of healthy food are proliferating. In the Global South the dominance of small-scale family farming and local food webs is overwhelming. African family farms represent 80% of all farms in the continent and meet up to 80% of the food needs of the population. World-wide the ‘peasant food web’ produces some 70% of the total food eaten by people, although the support they receive from the public sector support is minimal (ETC 2013). People in all regions are fighting to defend their access to and control over water, land, biodiversity, not just through protest but with concrete action, for example to save and multiply threatened native seed (La Via Campesina 2013). Agro-ecological models of production are gaining recognition to the point where the Director-General of FAO closed a major symposium on agroecology in September 2014 with the statement that ‘Today a window was opened in what for 50 years has been the Cathedral of the Green Revolution’ (La Via Campesina 2014). The domination of a single idea of The Market is being challenged. Instead, the world is full of markets that decentralize the encounter between food supply and demand and respond to criteria other than profit alone. Approaches to research and generation of knowledge that build on and enhance local knowledge are being developed. Alliances with local authorities are being built, for example in the form of local food policy councils in which citizens take decision-making on food provision back into their hands.

If one contrasts how the two contrasting food systems impact on major global challenges—such as maintaining dwindling biodiversity, protecting human health, combatting food waste, addressing climate change—there is no doubt as to which approach to food provisioning scores best. If the prices of the corporate food regime products were obliged to reflect the cost of their negative environmental, social, and political externalities they would be decisively higher than those of the products of small-scale agroecological producers selling on local markets.

The fallback argument for supporters of the global corporate food system is that, whether we like it or not, only industrial agriculture can double food production by 2050 to feed the world’s growing population. This thesis rests on several questionable assumptions. The first, that the world’s population will inevitably soar beyond 9 billion by 2050, ignores the fact that the average family size worldwide has dropped by about half over the last four decades and will drop more the more women are empowered. The second assumption, that we do need to double food production, is contradicted by overwhelming evidence that the present food supply is more than adequate today and will be tomorrow. The problem is one of unequal and iniquitous access to food and its solution requires political will and not technical attention to productivity. Finally, the corporate narrative assumes that industrial, high tech agriculture is, indeed, significantly more productive than agro-ecological family farming, a false thesis of which a recent study published by a team of UC Berkeley researchers is just the latest rebuttal (Berkeley News 2014).

This rapid review is intended as a reminder that concrete action is under way around the world to build more equitable and sustainable territorially rooted food systems, so supportive changes in paradigms, regulations, and resource allocation at the global level could make a difference. An authoritative report published by the Committee on World Food Security’s High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition in 2013 made the important point that the transformations in agriculture that are taking place around the world—generally adverse to smallholders and food security—are not inevitable. They are the result of explicit or implicit political choices, and appropriate policies cannot be expected without transparent political processes that involve smallholder organizations. (High Level Panel of Experts 2013, 14). So there’s an issue of who decides.

And on what basis. Decision-makers like to consider that they can count on scientific information to provide them with ‘objective’ grounds for what is termed ‘evidence-based policy’. But evidence is framed by the paradigms we adopt, which condition the assumptions we make. Like the productivist paradigm that leaps out at us in in this excerpt from President Truman’s famous Point 4 Inaugural Address: ‘Greater production is the key to prosperity and peace. And the key to greater production is a wider and more vigorous application of modern scientific and technical knowledge’ (Truman 1949). Seven decades later the productivist paradigm is still dominant, and underpins the discourse that supports the corporate food system. Productivism privileges Western science and technology, for example by adopting measures that glorify external inputs (yield per single plant) rather than ones that also emphasize a whole range of environmental and social benefits (total yield per diversified field in an agro-ecological optic). And it most often conveniently ignores the structural causes of hunger and malnutrition, as in Bill Gates recipe for vanquishing rural poverty. ‘The great thing about agriculture is that once you get a bootstrap— once you get the right seeds and information—a lot of it can be left to the marketplace’ (Gates 2013).

Evidence is framed also by the questions asked and the data available. A recent study on sustainable food systems in Africa undertaken by regional small-scale food producers’ networks found that statistics only exist about the so-called ‘modern’ commercial commodity and export markets. No information is available about the informal markets which provide food for most people in the region (EAFF et al. 2013). The result of this gap in information collection is that these food markets are ‘invisible’ and are not taken into account in policy decision-making despite their importance for food security. This is one aspect of the significance of the reform of Committee on World Food Security that turned it into the first ever global food policy forum in which small-scale producers are at the table and their evidence has to be listened to.

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