Food for people not for profit – International peasant struggle day

Tomorrow, 17 April, is international peasant struggle day. This day is for celebrating peasant and small farmer movements across the world, each one fighting for a food system that respects human rights rather than making them subservient to private profit. This day has been heralded by the international food sovereignty movement as a day to take action and raise awareness about the problems with, and alternatives to, a corporate-run and over-industrialised food system.

Currently, however, it is still food security that holds the main stage when it comes to national and international research and policy-making. The food security banner remains as the undertone to the IF campaign , the latest major joint NGO action on food, and has made its place onto most social science syllabuses and the agendas of countless policy centres.

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Harmful chemical fertilisers are key to food security – Photo credit: soil science

At the World Food Summit in 1996, food security was defined as “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. At a glance this definition sounds like a positive thing to fight for. However the mainstay of grassroots food movements in the global south have rejected food security.  Their belief is that not all ways of achieving food security are equal. Instead, many of the methods of trying to make sure everyone has access to nutritious food are counterproductive to solving world hunger.

This is because the driving force chosen by many of the governments and international institutions to create food security is not the small farmer, but the already vastly powerful corporate actors.  The mission for food security then becomes the greenwash with which to disguise market expansion of huge agribusiness companies like Monsanto, Unilever and Cargill. These companies are all pursuing expansion strategies which will see them taking more and more control over the lives of small farmers across the world.

Current efforts to improve food security tend to take power and control away from small farmers and place it in the hand of agribusiness. As genetically modification is rolled out, and hybrid seed markets extended, farmers are no longer able to control the most basic and vital genetic information of their crops.  After millennia of crop husbandry and local seed knowledge they hand their control over to a western technology that is riddled with side effects and unknowns.

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GM rice has been pushed on many small farmers across India usurping traditional varieties -Photo credit: IRRI image

As agrochemicals are introduced to supposedly increase yields, farmers lose control of their own soil.  As each season of industrial petrochemicals is spread on the soil, it loses its own ecological resilience and with that the farmer loses their agricultural independence. Instead they are hooked in to an addictive downward spiral of having to apply more and more fertiliser to plug the ever depleting soil fertility. This downward spiral of soil fertility is an upward spiral of profits for companies that make their billions from selling manufactured inputs.

This has been the food security agenda since the first green revolution that was forced on Latin America and Asia in between the 1940s and 1970s. Now, the G8 is joining the push for another ‘green revolution’.  Like before, market forces are the main driver of change, but this time Africa is the focus.  This $3 billion initiative, called, the New Alliance on Food Security and Nutrition, is an alliance of the world’s most powerful governments and biggest corporations.  Its formation sets in motion a new front on the battle for food sovereignty where small farmers struggle against agricultural giants.  It is unsurprising then that the small farmers across Africa have not been consulted.  This is because, as Eric Holtz Gimenez reminds us, they would point out that ” Africa is actually a rich continent and it is the continued extraction of wealth by foreign corporations that causes poverty and hunger”.  The last green revolution resulted in millions of indebted, landless and impoverished farmers – and currently there is no sign that a second one would be any different.

Consequently food security and the belief in policy circles that hunger can be solved through market mechanisms needs to be challenged. Food sovereignty and the movements behind it have already come a long way in doing this in the global south, but the battle still needs to be won in the global north. Last year, the UK food sovereignty movement was born but this year we need to continue to strengthen it so it can carry on growing into a political force.

The fantastic thing about food sovereignty is that it not only offers a destabilising critique of food security but that its activists are enthusiastically constructing alternatives. Tomorrow is a time to bring these alternatives to the forefront. From the MST (landless peasant movement) reclaiming land to use for agricultural cooperatives in Brazil to the farmers setting up activist training camps in India to the community gardens in developing rural skills in London, each project is reclaiming control lost from people to the market and actively inspiring others to do the same.

As spring finally arrives everyone can begin to achieve a bit of their own food sovereignty. Why not grow your own vegetables this year, set up a food coop where you work or study, support a local food initiative, hold a seed swap, visit a community garden, organise a culinary skill share or join an anti-supermarket campaign.  The fantastic thing about food sovereignty is that the strong culture that surrounds food is on our side. If actions speak louder than words then the taste of food is deafening.  By using food as a tool to create community and build resilience the movement is already off to a winning start.

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Producers, growers and activists gather for the UK food sovereignty gathering in 2012 -photo credit: war on want

By Dan Iles, 16 April 2013


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