Feb 7, 2013 - Issue 503

Food Sovereignty or Industrial Agriculture?

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As national economies around the world are each facing “fiscal cliffs” of their own, and as climate change and environmental degradation threaten all nations, the crisis in agriculture may be a greater threat and the solutions that are being proposed might make things even worse.

The power of transnational corporations, headquartered mostly in the economically powerful nations, is moving the world’s people toward industrial agriculture and away from small farm agriculture, the only system that will provide the people with what is now commonly called “food sovereignty.”

Food sovereignty is a term used by La Via Campesina since the mid-1990s to describe the rights of peoples to produce their own food by using a system of agriculture of their own choosing. Food sovereignty puts the people and their communities, as well as their nations, at the center of food systems, without regard to the demands or profits of a corporatized global food system.

La Via Campesina is an international movement, which brings together millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers in about 150 local and national organizations in 70 countries from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

In describing itself, Via Campesina declares: “It defends small-scale sustainable agriculture as a way to promote social justice and dignity. It strongly opposes corporate driven agriculture and transnational companies that are destroying people and nature.” The movement began just 20 years ago in Mons, Belgium, started by men and women whose concerns were not given recognition by the private and governmental powers that had begun to change the way the peoples of the world provide food for themselves and their families. 

Now, however, the movement’s spokespersons point out, “La Via Campesina is now recognized as a main actor in the food and agricultural debates. It is heard by institutions such as the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) and the U.N. Human Rights Council, and is broadly recognized among other social movements from local to global level.”

If it is difficult for small groups that try to offer alternatives to the way the dominant culture is doing things in the U.S., where we have instant communications, educational institutions and the remnants of a free press, to get a hearing, imagine what it is like for a movement like Via Campesina to be heard on a global level.

The sheer numbers of people in the movement should give them great credibility (of which they have earned a great measure), but they are functioning on a global scale and they have few rich and powerful friends to carry their message into the parliaments, congresses, and corporate headquarters around the world. The world has many issues that are more important to them than peasants and indigenous and fisher people and their cry for food sovereignty.

But food sovereignty should be of concern to those in the richer countries, as well, because they are, indeed, subject to the same corporate food that peoples of poorer nations are having slammed into their dinner pans and onto their plates. That is, if they are being given a share of the spoils of land grabbing, at all.

Everyone should be learning about land grabbing on all of the continents, but especially Africa, Asia, and the Americas. For a decade or two, governments, transnational corporations, and individuals have been buying up land in countries where people still live close to the land and, for the most part, still grow their own food, usually on small parcels of land that they might not own with a clear title. In countries where there is such a tradition, the land is held in a kind of communal ownership and the people who have farmed on the land for generations believe that the land still belongs to them, even though the governing structure has become a nation and the officials (even when there is a loose structure of democracy) can be corrupted or convinced that the “modern” methods of agriculture are better than traditional and modern crops are better than those of the old ways.

A most recent example of land grabbing is the project, ProSavana, an enterprise of the Brazilian government and the private sector, in collaboration with Japan, for a large-scale agribusiness project in Northern Mozambique, where the rainfall is good and, according to Via Campesina, “millions of small farmers work these lands to produce food for their families and for local and regional markets.” It is these lands that would be made available to Brazilian and Japanese companies to establish large, industrial farms, to produce what they would consider low-cost commodity crops for export.

It is not clear whether the export crops would be destined for Brazil or Japan, or whether they would simply be for the world market, with the profits ending in the coffers of Japanese or Brazilian companies. Mozambican authorities are not specific about how the people who now farm that land would benefit, or if they would benefit at all.

What is clear is that, if the land grab there runs true to form, as in other countries, the people who have been farming the land for a very long time might be able to work on the vast plantations at wages that are so low they might not be able to feed themselves, their families and their extended families. They would be refugees in their own land, without the means to send their children to school or to seek medical care when it is needed…the most basic amenities of life.

Ostensibly, the project is concentrating on “abandoned area,” where no farming is being practiced in the region and they will be able to obtain long-term leases (in some countries as long as 99 years), at fire sale prices: $1 per, hectare per year (a hectare is 2.47 acres).

Via Campesina stated, “But land surveys by Mozambique's national research institute clearly show that nearly all the agricultural land in the area is being used by local communities.” The millions who depend on small farms for their way of life do not want the large-scale monocropping of “commodities,” such as corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat, and other plantings that are not for food, but for the world market. The people in that part of the country do not want to be employees of Brazilian or Japanese companies or rural laborers who work at whatever they can at a (low) wage-paying job.

Commodity production in other countries has produced disasters of large proportions and it has resulted in the depletion of the soil and damage to the soil in ways that small farm agriculture would not be able to accomplish, even if they intended to do so. Peasant farmers around the world know this, because they have seen commodity cropping in other parts of the world. The result of raising commodities, year after year, is soil that is without much life after a while and crops can be grown only by industrial and chemical intervention: Chemical fertilizer is necessary, as are pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. And, new pests are encountered regularly, largely because crops that spring from chemical intervention are weaker than crops that are grown without such aids, and in conditions closer to their natural state.

Those who live in countries like the U.S. are fed diets that are produced on an industrial scale, and many of them are manufactured from corn or soybeans, which can be made to taste like many other products. Even livestock is produced on an industrial scale, in feedlots and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

Small farmers in many countries (think France, Italy, and Mexico) do not want any part of this kind of agriculture, but they face the relentless assault of money and power from the transnational corporations, which seem to get their way, eventually. It is this power that Via Campesina and the Slow Food movement that started in Italy several years ago are fighting against. It is that power that is ravaging the environments of many poor countries, especially when the monoculture makes full use of genetically modified (GMOs) seeds and crops. These GMOs are patented and cost more than small farmers can afford, especially since they must buy the chemicals, without which the crops would not grow as would their own, more robust traditional crops. Besides, traditional farmers save their own seeds from year to year, so they do not have to pay for seeds at all.

Corporations like St. Louis-based Monsanto, a worldwide chemical and seed company want to force the replacement of saved seeds wherever they are able. Land grabbing companies and governments are the likeliest places for Monsanto to do their work. It has happened in the U.S. About 85 percent of corn grown here is GMO and estimates are that more than 90 percent of soybeans are GMO.

This is all pure profit for Monsanto and other seed and chemical companies of the world. They don’t have so much as a shovel invested in farming around the world and yet, they reap the profits, while peasant farmers and indigenous peoples go hungry. That’s why land grabbing is so important to worldwide corporations. They have seen that it works in places like the U.S. and they know it should be much easier to do the same in developing countries. They send their agents (often, from their government) to cut the deal, and then they move in. That’s what is happening in Mozambique and what has happened in many other countries. 

A year ago, the news outlets in the U.S. were full of stories of the “Occupy” movement and the most important result of its creation: The nationwide discussion of the reality of the working of the economy, in that 1 percent owns or controls the vast majority of the wealth and income of the country, while the 99 percent of the rest of us are left with little.

People who work the land in other countries, like Mozambique, know that something is wrong and they do not want any part of the industrial agriculture that has wiped out small farm agriculture in countries like the U.S. Rather, they want food sovereignty and they want self-determination in other spheres of their lives.

Land grabbing and industrial agriculture threaten the very existence of their lives, their culture, their unique economies, their land, and their environment, in general. Often, the deals are made in secret by their government leaders and the people find out too late that they are being displaced and usurped. They are being made aware in a more timely way by people’s organizations across the globe, and they’re fighting back.

BlackCommentator.com Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.