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World's Small Food Producers Face Up to Challenges

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The World Forum on Food Sovereignty was held recently in Mali, and food producers from across the globe banded together to form stronger alliances. Food sovereignty is defined as the rights of people everywhere to feed themselves from their own natural resources. It places emphasis on local, rather than international, food trade and argues for a better deal for the world’s poor food producers and agricultural workers. In Mali, food sovereignty activists urged governments to give farmers and fisher folk a voice in determining the policies that affect their livelihoods. In the second part of a five-part series, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on some of the challenges facing small-scale food producers. 

Although he’s from a place very far removed from Africa, Carlos Morentes insists that he and the masses he represents have a lot in common with the majority of people on the continent.

“Most Africans are subsistence farmers or farm workers, and they fight the same struggles as peasants in Latin America; they also are forced to sell their produce at prices that do not allow them to make the profit; they also are migrant workers who are suffering the exploitation at the hands of large agricultural companies,” says Morentes, who works for the Border Agricultural Workers Project based in El Paso, Texas.

He’s dedicated to preventing the abuse of Latin American migrant workers on farms in the southern states of the USA, but says his work is also pertinent to Africans.

“Many people think there are no migrant farm workers in Africa, but this is not the case,” Morentes says. “In southern Africa, for example, many people cross the border from Zimbabwe to South Africa to work on the farms. They have no job security, and in many cases are paid very poorly.”       

Morentes attended the forum in Mali, where he was a keynote speaker on the issue of migrant farm workers.

“I had a message of solidarity for the food producers of Africa, to let them know that they are not alone in their struggles,” he says. “I told them that just as they suffer, so too do the poor peasants of Latin America suffer. They received my message with open arms. They were reassured that they have brothers and sisters in other parts of the world.” 

According to Morentes, the fight for food sovereignty is a global struggle, and Africa should not be “frozen out” of it.

“We need to fight against a system of commercial, big scale, industrial agriculture and food production. Because that’s exactly what has cost many agricultural communities (in the world); the destruction of their livelihoods, their local food systems, to benefit a few corporations. In the world right now, 200 corporations control the food system…That’s the main cause of our problem.”

The multinational food firms argue that it's their right, in terms of the way world trade is structured and free market principles, to have as large a stake in global food production as possible, and that they cannot be blamed for their success in dominating the sale of food.  

Food sovereignty activists argue for food production to be returned largely to the hands of the globe’s small-scale food producers, who are threatened by the rise of so-called “factory farms,” large industrial agricultural complexes operated by big food companies dedicated to mass-producing food. 

Much of the food is also exported – or “dumped,” in the language of food sovereignty advocates – to poor countries, where it is sold at cheaper prices. In so doing, many farmers in the developing world are forced to sell below their costs of production, and so can no longer make a profit.   

One of the coordinators of the Mali forum was Margaret Curole, of the World Forum of Fish-Harvesters and Fish-Workers. She says it was also part of her job to inform African food producers that some of the problems they experience are not unique to Africa.

“The same dumping of cheap agricultural produce that’s happening in Africa is also happening in the developed world. We are not immune. Sometimes, cheap produce from other countries is also dumped on the US,” she complains.

Curole says small-scale African food producers in Mali were surprised by what she had to say, because they had been under the “mistaken impression that they were the only ones suffering as a result of dumping.” 

“As a developed country, we’re on the losing end of imports because they come in very, very cheap to American marketplaces, and what they do is they displace traditional domestic producers. And in the space of about six years, the Louisiana-Gulf of Mexico shrimp industry went from being a two-billion dollar industry to being in the most severe declines, so that now, the prices are actually 40 years old. And the price of diesel of course has risen, but the price of the shrimp and the fish has gone further and further down, back to 1960-something prices, and so you can no longer compete in the marketplace.”

Curole says African farmers and fisher folk attending the Mali conference had many similar stories to tell, about how cheaper foodstuffs mass-produced in the developed world are streaming into their countries and threatening their livelihoods.     

Curole says she used American examples in Mali to enlighten African food producers that the struggle for food sovereignty “should not be owned by the developing world; it’s a battle to be fought across the whole world.”    

Larry Matlack, a farmer from America’s Midwest and the President of the American Agriculture Movement, did not attend the event in Mali, but says he heard from delegates that many African farmers complained that American-produced cheap goods were flooding their markets, and putting them out of business. 

Matlack, whose organization fights for the rights of American farmers to stay on the land to be the US’s primary food producers ahead of the large corporations, admits: “We (Americans) do flood their (African) markets with cheap food. But that is the policy of the giant agribusiness, and unfortunately some of our government policymakers support that wholeheartedly. But those of us who are involved in trying to support family farm agriculture, we’re totally against that kind of a model and system. Because that kind of a model and system really in the end does not benefit anyone.”

Matlack says his message to African farmers is similar to that which he regularly conveys to his American audience: that the globe’s farmers, and not the multinational food firms, should have control of the international food system. This, he says, will in the future ensure that people have access to safe food that is grown in an ethical way, and that is produced by farmers who respect workers’ rights.

“Having a food policy that floods the world with cheap food actually displaces more people, causes more poverty, and creates more problems than it solves,” he insists. 

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