Mass Hunger in the Midst of Record Harvests?
Why the World Needs Food Sovereignty!
A woman in the market of the Egyptian village of Towa. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.
Editor's Note: This article appeared in the March 2009 issue of Response, the monthly magazine of United Methodist Women.
By STEPHEN BARTLETT*
Food Sovereignty: the democratic control by communities of producers and consumers over the agricultural system and markets, from production to food processing to distribution, guaranteeing an equitable and inclusive access to healthy, culturally appropriate food while maintaining the fertility and ecological sustainability of the land and its creatures.
Given this deﬁnition of food sovereignty, we might notice that this concept is broader and deeper than the more limited idea of food security. Food security basically meaning access by all to enough food to live, whether that food is produced locally or shipped in from corporate-style mega-farms in faraway places or as commodity surpluses from transnational corporations distributed as food aid. The concept of food sovereignty was first refined and popularized by the worldwide farmers’ movement known as Via Campesina that represents hundreds of millions of small- and medium-scale farmers, farm workers, rural women and Indigenous communities across the planet.
A corollary to the concept of food sovereignty is the rural worldview on the nature of the edible abundance stewarded by cultivators of
Waginem harvests rice, the staple crop on the Indonesian island of Java, outside her village of Kranggan II. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.
the soil through the millennium, as encapsulated by this biblical verse: So neither the one that plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
(1 Corinthians 3:7)
People of the earth (soil, land) are generally and sublimely aware through hard-won knowledge that they cannot create the life that rises from the earth — fed on the death in rotting life returning to the soil — and therefore the abundance that emerges is truly the gift of God. We could call this the sovereignty of God over Creation itself. God is marking the gift and necessarily shared character that derives from the common goods of nature that are also the essential means of production for farmers and ﬁsherfolk — land (or sea), water, seeds and animal varieties, in the given ecosystem encompassing the farm (the natural biodiversity). This indeed reflects what is known as the agrarian mind, and culture of humility and mutual accountability that compels farmers to keep on farming long after that activity has proven to be a sad road to increasing debt, poverty and bankruptcy, followed by the painful loss of the inheritance of land.
This process has been and continues to be the tragic lot of farmers for decades now in the United States and increasingly across the globe. The policies, industrial practices and monopoly-like control that brought about the demise of the family farm in the United States are exported through unfair trade and intellectual property negotiations on the world stage. Land, water, seeds and democratic process as a collectively enjoyed natural “good” have all been privatized, expropriated or trumped in the new legal structures imposed by international financial institutions and trade bodies that front for global corporate and financial interests.
With the unprecedented rises and unpredictable falls in food prices in 2007-2008 causing increasing mass hunger around the world and threatening food security in the mid- and long-term, a coalition of churches, farmer organizations and other social justice allies in the United States and abroad are uniting to raise consciousness of the true causes of this tragedy. This alliance is called the U.S. Food Crisis Working Group (www.usfoodcrisisgroup.org) and has crafted and launched a Call to Action built on long experience and collaborative consensus building.
People who live in cities, towns and even marginal rural hamlets in the United States will be familiar with the worsening diets and weakened access to healthy fresh food among residents of many low-income neighborhoods. Such neighborhoods have been dubbed “food deserts” in Louisville, Ky., where I live, in Cleveland, Ohio, Minneapolis, Wis., or a city near you. Such neighborhoods are characterized by limited access to private cars for many residents, a low density of supermarkets, lower-quality produce in those supermarkets that still remain, and a high density per capita of fast food restaurants and convenience stores where people often end up going to buy food of dubious quality. It can come as no surprise that the health indicators in such communities show high rates of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases of malnutrition, even among children. The existence of food deserts may be one of the surest indicators of the economic and social marginalization of the peoples who reside there, most often people of color.
The Community Farm Alliance (CFA) of Kentucky has a Louisville/Jefferson County chapter that has launched and supported two new farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods, and in 2009 is launching a church-based program of points of sale for local food baskets modeled after the New Agrarian Center’s efforts in Cleveland. The concept of food sovereignty is known by CFA members as LIFE, a Local Integrated Food Economy. A new and promising partnership is growing between inner city residents of these food deserts and local farmers who serve the region and are in full transition from dependence on tobacco growing to a diversified farming capable of nourishing local communities with the foods they love and want.
These are win-win solutions, greatly facilitated by the emerging farmer-owned local food broker Grasshoppers, and by new urban entrepreneurs organizing local food baskets at downtown corporations. These new businesses, in tandem with buy-local procurement ordinances, and laws that allow local farmers to sell their home made jams, breads and cheeses, are all steps along the path to the end goal of food sovereignty, which is in effect the rebuilding of local food economies.
A look at the big picture shows why such local and regional efforts are vi- tal. Here are some of the facts: 2007 and 2008 were bumper years for staple grain production, setting records overall. Yet the monopoly-like concentration of this production, typically done as high-input unsustainable monoculture production, and the control by just three corporations of 80 percent of international grain trade means more than half of all basic grains produced in the world are not destined for human consumption at all. Those grains go to feed cattle, pigs and chickens, often in cruel confinement feedlots known as CAFOs. These are typically hellish places, both for the animals and for the low-paid, often immigrant, workers who toil under increasingly exploitative conditions, afraid to organize under the threat of arrest and deportation in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sweeps. The industrial supply chains that move all that grain have virtual monopoly power, controlling the movement of food around the globe. Not coincidentally, they have been making extraordinary profits as the food price crisis has deepened. (See the “Making a Killing from the Food Crisis” report at www.grain.org/front
The industrial model of agriculture together with its handmaiden, neo-liberal or corporate-led economics and so-called “free” trade, are to blame for this unconscionable suffering. Based on cheap fossil fuels, the industrialization of agriculture has put more and more land, water and seeds into fewer and fewer hands, turning farmers into virtual subcontractors for the benefit of input and machinery vendors and the transnational corporations who buy what they produce. So-called free trade agreements have exported that model of resource expropriation throughout the world, as small-scale family farmers are bankrupted and forced to migrate from the countryside in search of survival. And now speculative money ﬂows from a deﬂated housing bubble to the commodities futures markets: Investment from commodities-linked indices jumped from $13 billion in 2003 to $260 billion in 2008, reported Michael Masters, the head of Master Capital Management LLC, a hedge fund. The result has meant exaggerated market shocks on food grains, as well as on petroleum, with little or no relation- ship to the actual supply of foods capable of feeding humanity.
• Step back from deregulated speculation and profiteering from food, including governments profiting from subsidized diversion of grains to produce fuel for automobiles.
• Restore policies that support small-scale farming, including price supports through supply management programs (that avoid overproduction) and by means of the restoration of grain reserves as a market buffer and guarantor of enough in times of drought, flood or crop disease.
• Government policy must in- crease small-farmer access to affordable credit, and level the playing field to remunerate family farmers for the role they play conserving land, watersheds and biodiversity.
We need to find ways to hold agribusiness accountable for the environmental damages inflicted by industrialized agriculture including soil erosion, toxic pesticide contamination damaging human and ecological health, and the massive use of chemical fertilizers and the resulting loss of soil fertility that over time have produced oxygen dead zones with fungus blooms in the ocean that can be seen from outer space.
Only small-scale farmers and foresters can sustain humanity into the future while combating global warming through carbon sequestration and improved soil fertility. Family-scaled farming has always been more productive in growing a diversity of crops needed to nourish humans, per area of land. The expanding food crisis has shown the utter failure of the corporate agribusiness model of agriculture and the corporate-led economic policies that have made so many impoverished people far too dependent on cheap exports of low- quality food from the industrialized countries. Food sovereignty is far more than food security, and we need to build it now.
*Stephen Bartlett is the coordinator for education and advocacy for Agricultural Missions, Inc., a United Methodist Women partner organization, www.agriculturalmissions.org.