American food producers who attended the recent World Forum on Food Sovereignty held recently in Mali found themselves in an unexpected position at the event: African food producers asked them to explain the problems experienced by food producers in the United States. Food sovereignty activists are fighting for the rights of people to feed themselves from their own natural resources, and to put local food trade ahead of exports. Prior to the Mali conference, the American delegates had assumed that the Africans wouldn’t be interested in their problems, and would only look to them for solutions. But they were wrong, reports VOA’s Darren Taylor, in the fourth of a five-part series focusing on food sovereignty.
“I was really grateful to the African delegates for showing such an interest in our struggles,” says Margaret Curole, the North American coordinator of the World Forum of Fish-Harvesters and Fish-Workers, who helped coordinate the Mali forum.
“I was touched: there we were, on the poorest continent on earth, amongst farmers and fisher folk who were much worse off than we were - and yet we often found ourselves talking about our problems in America! It taught us a lot about the African way of thinking.”
Patty Kupfer, of the United States-based Rural Coalition, says she, too, was “deeply affected” by African interest in the struggles of small-scale food producers in the US.
“Before the conference, I’d heard that Africans think American farmers are all super-rich, that they all have giant ranches,” Kupfer explains.
“But at the forum, they were shocked to hear that many food producers in America are going out of business, that many are being forced to sell their farms because they can no longer sell their produce at a profit. Many American food producers are being bankrupted because they can’t compete with the low prices charged for produce by the massive, government-sponsored industrial farms that have basically taken over food production in the US.”
Curole says she spent a lot of time in Mali telling Africans about the “truth about food production in the United States” where “there’s no room anymore for the little guy.”
There are parallels with Africa, she insists, where the livelihoods of farmers and fisher folk are being “taken away from them, because cheap produce from America, amongst other countries, is being dumped upon their markets.”
In the context of the fight for food sovereignty, says Curole, “Americans are both sinned against, and are the sinners themselves.”
She says African delegates listened to her personal story with great interest. She told them of her husband, a sixth-generation commercial fisherman in Louisiana, whose family had for decades operated a shrimp enterprise.
“In the year 2000, we were sitting on top of the world; we were living the American dream. So what did we do? We did what all good Americans are taught to do; we reinvested all of our profits back into our business.”
Then, she says, a “flood” of cheap shrimp imports hit the US. In a matter of months, prices plummeted and their business could no longer make money. Curole and her husband were facing bankruptcy.
“We came within a day of losing our home, because of a downturn in the market – not because the shrimp were not there, not because all of a sudden my husband didn’t know how to catch them anymore, but just because it became a losing proposition: no matter how much shrimp you caught, with the price of doing business and buying diesel and the expenses, you could never make a profit.”
Having survived this, Curole dedicated herself towards improving the lives of the world’s small food producers.
Larry Matlack, the President of the American Agriculture Movement, which protects the rights of small farmers in the US, has heard many stories similar to that of Curole. While Matlack admits that food producers in the developing world face far graver challenges than those in the US, he believes it’s also essential for poorer farmers to realize that the livelihoods of American farmers are also “under siege.”
“American farmers are often cast as the big bad wolves, flooding markets with our cheap produce, as a result of massive subsidies they receive from the government,” says Matlack. “But this isn’t always the case. The truth is far more complex than that perception.”
Matlack’s message to African farmers is that not all American food producers benefit from state assistance – and that this impression is a “mirage.”
“Here in the United States, family farm agriculture has been under attack for probably 40 or 50 years now… Factory farms are pushing out small family farms. So our organization fights to try and keep family farms on the land, and prevent big factory farms, or big agribusiness, from simply using government subsidies to prop up farmers to keep them on the land, producing below the cost of production,” Matlack explains.
“We’re trying to get it to where actually, the cost of production comes from the marketplace, so we quit exporting product below the cost of production around the world, which hurts African farmers just like it does farmers here, because anytime you’re producing a product below your cost, and you’re shipping it somewhere else, you’re destroying someone else’s livelihood as well.”
Matlack is “glad” that African farmers at the Mali conference received “some sort of context” regarding American agriculture. He says while food producers in the developing world need help to secure food sovereignty, so too does the “much maligned” American farmer.