Last updated: May 2013
What is behind our food?
Graciela Romero from War on Want introduces the food sovereignty movement, which puts the people who produce, distribute and consume food at the centre of decisions on food systems and policies, rather than the demands of markets and corporations.
The type of food we eat, how it is produced and who has access to it is mainly decided by big agri-businesses and retailers, whose last concern is the wellbeing of people or the planet we live on. Many people know very little or nothing about where our food comes from, what is in the processed food that we eat daily or at what expense we have seasonal fruits all year around, putting aside how workers and animals are exploited and condemned to horrendous conditions. But turning a blind eye is convenient particularly for companies whose aim is to make profits throughout the entire food chain.
How did food become a trade commodity and an instrument to control, economically and politically, other people and countries? How is it possible that countries with plenty of natural resources, where agriculture has been their main economic sector, became dependant on imported food and food aid? Or indeed, how it is possible that in the UK people have to queue for canned food in so-called ‘food banks’?
Over decades governments and international financial institutions have paved the way for the disappearance of peasant agriculture and the rise of industrialised and corporate-led food production. Without government regulations to protect the public interest, a lack of policies to guarantee the rights of small-scale producers to access land, water and seeds, and with the enforcement of trade liberalisation at the expense of national food self-sufficiency, corporations have become the most powerful players in town.
One of the most dramatic examples in history of how governments colluded with corporations was the implementation of the so-called Green Revolution. “Though credited with saving the world from hunger and increasing yields, the Green Revolution led to the monopolisation of seed and chemical inputs by Northern companies, the loss of 90% of the South’s agricultural biodiversity, the global shift to an oil-based agricultural economy, and the displacement of millions of peasants to fragile hillsides, shrinking forests and urban slums. The Green Revolution produced as many hungry people as it saved”.(1)
Food overproduction was used as an engine to open up markets in the Global South for the benefit of agro-industries. Food surpluses are a bonanza for agri-businesses and Northern governments, and a death sentence for millions of small farmers all over the world. As the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food has expressed: “increasing food production to meet future needs, while necessary, is not sufficient. It will not allow significant progress in combating hunger and malnutrition if it is not combined with higher incomes and improved livelihoods for the poorest”.(2)
Time and again expert studies have shown that the amount of food wasted in the world is a scandal that deconstructs any myth about the need for more food production to stop hunger. “The industrial food system discards... between a third and a half of all food that it produces. This is enough to feed the world’s hungry six times over”.(3) A recent study presented once again the shocking fact that “two billion tonnes of food produced around the world is never consumed by humans”.(4) Whilst millions of people go to bed without a meal a day, “in the UK 30% of vegetables are not harvested due to their physical appearance”.(5)
If this is the state of affairs, why do advocates of high-input monocultural agricultural systems and genetically modified crops continue to peddle the idea that the solution is to produce more food in the same industrialised way? And who produces and distributes this food? To get an insight into the reality, let’s look at some key facts about the ownership of agricultural inputs, food distribution and consumption.
The real winners of the food trade
Worldwide the trade of seeds and agrochemicals is controlled by ten companies, including Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta. The profits from this trade have grown to billions: “in 2010 the world’s four largest agrochemical companies and three largest grain traders chalked up profits of around US $20 billion”.(6)
The concentration of capital increases dramatically in the food chain from seed trade to harvest trade. Since “financial analysts transformed food into a mathematical formula which became known as the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index…. the prices of cattle, coffee, cocoa, corn and wheat began to rise slowly first then rapidly. Holdings in commodity index funds ballooned from US$13 billion in 2003 to US$ 317 billion by 2008”.(7) Unregulated food speculators, banks, hedge funds and pension funds were one of the main drivers of “the price boom which contributed to food crises sparking riots in more than thirty countries and drove the number of world’s “food insecure” to more than a billion”.(8)
Large supermarkets have consistently destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of small retailers and traditional small-growers markets. In the UK, the Big Four – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda – control more than three quarters of the grocery market. Supermarkets’ sales of cheap food has meant misery and poverty for workers in the UK and in developing countries. A trade union organiser in the UK stated that “the big four supermarkets are the largest private sector employers in the UK and among the biggest profiteers from [workers’] precarity. Exploitative agencies are hired by exploitative food processing, packaging, manufacturing and logistics companies, supplying major supermarket chains that know about the exploitation but refuse to take responsibility”.(9)
There are insidious contradictions and clear conflicts of interest within the global food system that need to be tackled. Around a billion people live in hunger and millions of small-scale farmers, pastoralists, and landless workers have found themselves squeezed by multinational corporations and governments conveniently enthused with neo-liberal policies promoted by international financial institutions.
Government responses to the failure of the food system have been focused on food consumption. In 1996 the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) stated that “food security exists when all people, at all times have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. This response fails to recognise that hunger is essentially a political problem that can be resolved only by changes in the balance of power. By focusing exclusively on the consumption rather than the distribution and production of food, the food security approach fails to address any of the structural problems that threaten the long-term sustainability of the global food system.
Food sovereignty: the solution
La Via Campesina, the international peasant movement, presented a positive and comprehensive alternative at the World Food Summit organised by the FAO the same year – the Food Sovereignty Framework. The initiative was born out of the struggle of millions of landless people and small-scale farmers in developing countries to maintain their traditional way of producing food, building communities and looking after nature. Food sovereignty was a political alternative to the failed and unsustainable corporate and industrialised global food system.
Food Sovereignty addresses issues of production, distribution and consumption in a holistic manner. It goes beyond hand-outs of food promoted by governments and other champions of the food security approach. Food Sovereignty stems from a perspective of power balance, a deep understanding of the dynamics of gender power imbalance, and advocates for democratisation of international financial institutions, reorganising food trade, ending the globalisation of hunger, ending the privatisation of natural resources and for agroecology as the sustainable way to produce food.
La Via Campesina has grown into a global movement that brings together 150 organisations from 70 countries across the world. It continues to struggle for the realisation and globalisation of food sovereignty. Over the last sixteen years, the food sovereignty framework has expanded its frontiers and attracted people on all fronts. In 2007, at the Nyeleni Food Sovereignty Forum in Mali, a final statement was issued presenting food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems”.(10)
In 2011, 400 people from 34 European countries gathered at the Nyeleni-European Food Sovereignty Forum in Austria to join the call for food sovereignty.(11) The food sovereignty movement continues to grow in strength and in numbers. In the UK, people from all over Britain gathered at the food sovereignty forum in July 2012 to share ideas and talk about food. Building on the numerous food projects and campaigns already happening from Scotland to Brighton, Wales to Hastings, participants of the forum set the foundations for the food sovereignty movement in the UK.(12)