At the World Forum on Food Sovereignty in Mali recently, small food producers agreed to cooperate across borders to fight for their rights. They want to be allowed to feed the people of the world, ahead of the large corporations they say have gained control of the international food system and have put profits ahead of ethics. Food sovereignty activists want international governments to prioritize local trade rather than exports, and to be able to produce good, healthy food. But the advocates for a better deal for small food producers agree that the solutions are likely to be different in developed and developing countries. VOA’s Darren Taylor reports.
“In developed countries, I think consumers are also responsible for food sovereignty, because they have far more power than in the poorer countries,” says Margaret Curole, of the World Forum of Fish-Harvesters and Fish-Workers, and one of the coordinators at the Mali forum.
“In the West, consumers are wealthier and so many have the choice of buying organic produce instead of the cheap, mass-produced meat and produce that’s full of antibiotics and hormones,” says Patty Kupfer, of the Rural Coalition, an American-based international organization that fights for the rights of small-scale food producers.
“If there’s a great groundswell of support amongst consumers for organic produce, this’ll solve many of the problems that richer countries are currently experiencing, where factory farms operated by large corporations are bankrupting farmers and producing food that is really very unhealthy,” states Kupfer.
“In a developed country what it (food sovereignty) means is teaching people how to eat again, bringing them back to the grassroots level, eating what’s local, what’s fresh, what’s in season. And putting a premium on that, instead of just cheap, fast food. And what it means for developing countries is giving them the technology and the education that can lead them to providing for themselves and their own communities,” Curole explains.
But she agrees with African farmers who at the forum stated that most African countries aren’t investing in their own food production systems. The message from African farmers who attended the Mali conference is that their governments seem quite content to export most of their produce; in so doing, earning foreign exchange for their impoverished nations - but at the same time neglecting local trade.
“We need to change that system into a system where people is (sic) able to survive in their homeland, where people is (sic) able to develop their own food policies, where farmers, small farmers – campesinos (peasants) – are able to continue to be small farmers and campesinos - but in a way that brings dignity to them, in a way that respects the environment (and) also, the right of consumers to have access to nutritious food, to healthy food, and food according to the culture of every consumer,” says Carlos Morentes, a food sovereignty activist from the Border Agricultural Workers Project based in El Paso, Texas.
But, amongst the heated conflict between the large food corporations and the organizations representing small food producers, Larry Matlack, the President of the American Agriculture Movement, sees a silver lining for small-scale farmers in the developing world – in the form of the growing market for biofuel.
“The solution probably lies in that, here in America, we’re about to face a serious energy crisis, because of the dwindling fossil fuels supplies…And all of a sudden an opportunity is arising in agriculture to create a whole new market. And that whole new market can all of a sudden demand more from America’s farmers than we’re able to give,” explains Matlack, whose organization is fighting for the rights of American farmers to be the US’s primary food producers, ahead of the big food firms.
Increasing demand for biofuel – such as ethanol – is going to “bring a whole group of new buyers to the marketplace, and Africans are going to have to enter the picture and start producing biofuel in order to meet world demand,” Matlack predicts.
Biofuel is energy produced from living matter, such as sugar and corn, and it burns cleaner than traditional oil. It’s gaining popularity around the world as an alternative to oil, which is increasingly expensive and harms the environment.
“The (biofuel) market is actually then going to drive what farmers plant or harvest or produce, and many of them are going to get into the energy business, as opposed to exporting food below the cost of production to other countries,” Matlack enthuses.
“And I think that’s good for farmers all over the world, and it’ll help us here (in the US) of course to gain energy independence which is extremely important to our country, because we are so dependent on so many places around the world, that don’t look very favorably on us.”
But first, says Curole, the emphasis must be on food. She advocates a return to more primitive times for consumers and food producers in the developed world.
Curole urges people to buy seasonal, local products and for food producers to make deals with one another so as to lessen peoples’ reliance on large food corporations for their nutrition.
“Sometimes you go back to the old-fashioned barter system. You say, ‘you’ve got chickens; you’ve got a cow; I need milk; I need eggs; so I’ll give you shrimp, for your chickens and your eggs. That (barter system) went out of the wayside so long ago and it’s the most natural part of living, just to share what you have. It takes a little more effort…But it’s really about forming relationships with where your food comes from, and with the people who produce it.”
Curole says, in the long run, the most important ally of the world’s small farmers may be the growing organic movement, which is gaining strength amongst privileged consumers who want and can afford fresh produce that is “chemical free” and meat free of antibiotics and hormones.
For Matlack, though, farmers who want economic security should waste no time in joining the biofuel bandwagon.