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.”