News

World's Small Farmers Band Together for 'Food Justice'

Multimedia

Audio

Activists trying to secure a better deal for the world’s poor food producers have pledged to form closer ties following the World Forum on Food Sovereignty held recently in Mali. There, organizations representing farmers, fisher folk and other food producers from all over the globe expressed the need for urgent change in the world food system. They’re convinced there shouldn’t be famine anywhere, because the world produces enough food for everyone. They’ve also urged international governments to allow small-scale farmers, especially in the developing world, to help to determine the policies that affect their livelihoods. In the first of a five-part series, VOA’s Darren Taylor examines the meaning of food sovereignty, and its relevance to Africa.        

Margaret Curole says she enjoys living in a dream world.

“Our critics often accuse us of being dreamers, of living in a primitive past, where we want to naively share the earth’s resources. They say we should just accept the world as it is, where society is defined by greed, where everything belongs to those with a lot of money and there’s little left for anyone else,” says the shrimp boat captain from Louisiana in the United States.

“But we’re convinced that life doesn’t have to be this way, that humans do not have to be selfish in order to thrive.”  

Faced with bankruptcy a few years ago, when cheap shrimp imports into the US almost forced her to stop operating her boats, she awoke to the plight of the world’s small food producers, who face myriad threats.

“They’re threatened by governments who don’t care to involve them in the formulation of agricultural policies; they’re forced from the land and sea because they can’t compete with the large corporations who mass-produce cheap food on factory farms and plunder the oceans; their markets are flooded with cheap imports so they can’t sell their goods at competitive prices,” Curole explains.

She says “personal trauma” inspired her to become a “food activist.” Curole is now the North American coordinator of the World Forum of Fish-Harvesters, and a leading international advocate for the food sovereignty movement.

But what is “food sovereignty?”

Curole laughs. “Most Americans don’t know what it is!” 

It’s a question that she found herself having to answer repeatedly at the forum in the Malian town of Selingue, where farmers and others involved in small-scale food production gathered to debate their future. 

“What food sovereignty means to me is the right of every human being on this earth to feed themselves from their own natural resources, or to be given the chance, to feed themselves from their own natural resources, before its ever put on the market for export, or for commercial consumption,” she says.

But according to Curole and other food justice activists, the opposite is happening: Exports of fresh produce from poor countries in Africa and other developing regions, with sections of populations who are starving, to lucrative markets in America and Europe, are rising rapidly.

“To the governments and big food companies, this makes sense,” Curole says. “After all, the people in the impoverished countries can’t afford to buy their own food. The authorities say this kind of trade earns their countries foreign exchange, which is necessary for the development of their populations. But our experience is that this money isn’t filtering down to the people who need it most.”

Critics often brand the food sovereignty movement as a “bunch of Utopian anti-capitalist firebrands,” says Curole. 

But the international peasant movement, La Via Campesina, which coined the phrase “food sovereignty” at the World Food Summit in 1996, in its mission statement says: “Food sovereignty does not negate trade, but, rather, it promotes the formulation of trade policies and practices that serve the rights of peoples to safe, healthy and ecologically sustainable production.” 

Political scientists and international food policy experts, Michael Windfuhr and Jennie Jonsen, write in a recent paper, “food sovereignty is not an anti-trade policy, but implies rather a demand for a trade system based on fundamentally different principles, such as those that promote local trade and a careful and controlled opening of markets.”

But these explanations indicate that the food sovereignty movement is running counter to policies formulated by the World Trade Organization and other groups that are fostering globalization. The WTO says it's promoting trade liberalization by encouraging countries to lower trade barriers. According to the Organization, its policies have resulted in global tariffs on manufactured goods falling dramatically, and global trade volumes growing remarkably - resulting in better lives for millions of people.

Food sovereignty activists argue that the WTO's policies have in reality opened the markets of developing countries up to unfair competition, resulting in cheap food from wealthy nations being "dumped" on poor countries, harming local agriculture and resulting in widespread suffering. 

In their paper, Windfuhr and Jonsen ask: “Is the use of the term (food sovereignty) still possible in times of globalization? Is it not an outmoded, quasi-romantic point of view that does not recognize the need to open up economies and the need for international exchange of goods…?”              

Food sovereignty activism is also running contrary to some international trends, according to Windfuhr and Jonsen: “While the opening up of markets in developed countries is a key demand of many development NGO’s, the food sovereignty framework is asking for the right of nations and peoples to restrict trade, if this is needed to protect (small food producers) against dumping and unfair competition.”

What particularly irks food activists is the constant characterization of Africa as a continent of famine – yet, maintains Patty Kupfer, of the Rural Coalition, an international alliance of farmers and other organizations working to build a just and sustainable food system, the irony is that most African countries produce enough food to feed themselves.

“It’s just that their people can’t afford to buy the food, and so a lot of the food their small farmers produce is exported,” says Kupfer. 

“I want to make it clear that we’re not saying that food must be given away for free. What we’re saying is that everyone has the right to work the land for, firstly, their own benefit, and that trade and exports should be subservient to this.”    

According to Kupfer’s definition, food sovereignty is the “rights of farmers to be able to sell to their local markets, to produce healthy food, and the rights of consumers to be able to have access to that food – healthy and at an affordable price.”

Her alliance’s goals are similar to those decided upon at the Mali forum: to bring fair returns to small farmers and rural communities, to ensure just working conditions for farm workers, to protect the environment, and to deliver safe and healthy food to consumers. 

“Food sovereignty takes the concept of food security – that everyone has enough to eat - a step further, by placing emphasis on where the food comes from and how it’s produced,” explains Anna Lappe, the author of a number of books advocating healthy eating, who also facilitated workshops at Selingue.      

Lappe argues that large-scale commercial agriculture and mass-produced food has led Americans, and others in the developed world, to poor eating habits. At the same time, mass production of unhealthy food has undermined the local economies of farming communities.

“Factory farms, created by big companies in their drive to produce more and more food to boost their profits, exploit workers and abuse the environment,” says Lappe.

“The factory farms produce genetically modified foodstuffs, and animals injected with antibiotics and hormones so that they can grow faster.”      

Food activists argue that there’s no need for genetic modification of seeds to allow farmers to produce more food: a surplus of food on world markets already exists, they say … but, again, the problem is that many of the world’s people can’t afford the food. And also that land in many countries, both in the developed and the developing world, is being bought by large corporations who mass-produce food for quick sale in large supermarkets.

“Governments are also selling fishing rights to multinational corporations, taking food production out of the hands of the people. Young people are leaving the rural areas, abandoning the land to factory farms,” Curole laments. 

In the battle for food sovereignty, Curole says activists have clearly defined allies – especially amongst health-conscious consumers in developed countries - and opponents.

“Friends are anybody who cares about where their food comes from…It can mean friendly government; it can mean just the consumer next door that wants to pay a fair price. It just goes on down the line of having a relationship with your food. That’s what makes your allies. Your enemies are the transnational corporations, and the governments who only see the profit margins, and don’t care that there’s a human factor in the equation in the economy.”

But the food corporations argue that they, too, fill an important niche in the global free market economy: the provision of cheaper food for sale in the supermarkets of, primarily, the developed world. They say there's no evidence that genetic modification of food is harmful, and that state controls ensure that all food produced is safe for human consumption.

“What I say is that cheaper is not always better,” Curole responds. “I say do your homework. Just start developing a dialogue about, where does your food come from? That’s the biggest thing, and educating the consumer as to what is out there, and the fact that their cheap milk is full of hormones, that their cheap shrimp is full of bacteria. I firmly believe that if the housewife in Nebraska knew that the shrimp she was bringing her kids were full of antibiotics and pesticides and bacteria, she may think twice about feeding it to her family.”

Kupfer says the recent “explosion” of farmer’s markets in the US and other developed nations, where organic produce from small-scale farmers is sold direct to the public, is evidence that the food sovereignty movement is gaining ground.   

“Consumer attitudes are changing. More people are moving away from eating junk, and are eating healthy foods. This can only be good for African farmers, because their produce is amongst the finest in the world. And as more people begin to buy and eat organic food, so the prices of such food will become more affordable to people. This, in turn, will allow African farmers to sell more of their food in overseas markets - should these markets be opened up to them, of course. But first policies must change to allow them to feed their own people,” says Lappe. 

Kupfer believes that activists like her can learn a lot from African food producers, and that it’s only from “one on one interaction with people in the developing world” that they’ll carry their struggle forward.

“I feel the gravity of the situation when you’re talking about food sovereignty where you’re in a country where many people go hungry. That has definitely opened up my interest level and my capacity to understand,” she says of her time spent in Africa.   

“The movement for food sovereignty may have been started by the white, educated elite in America, and to some extent in Europe, but, after the conference in Mali, I’ve seen that it can be so much more than that. Many of our hopes and aspirations are the same as those of the people of Africa, who also want to eat good food, and for those who grow or catch that food to be paid a decent price for their produce.”  

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Interneti
X
Mike O'Sullivan
June 30, 2015 8:20 PM
Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.

VOA Blogs