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Food Sovereignty: A New Farm Economy to Challenge Economic Globalization

Thursday, July 1, 2004


Globalization: Risks & Resistance, XI World Congress on Rural Sociology, Trondheim, Norway, July 26, 2004


Plenary Paper by Anuradha Mittal, Director, The Oakland Institute

XI World Congress on Rural Sociology is opportune gathering to share knowledge on globalization, risks and resistance. As we meet here in Trondheim, we need to be concerned about the negotiations taking place in Geneva among the World Trade Organization (WTO) members.

The ongoing trade talks in Geneva around the July draft package, aimed at reviving the so called Doha ‘Development’ Round, which have floundered since the collapse of the 5th Ministerial in Cancun, are a reminder of the crisis of inequity and hypocrisy within the WTO. The callous disregard of the concerns of the developing countries in the field of agriculture in the text put before the 147 members, endorses the reprehensible treatment of development issues in the WTO. Agriculture being an area where developing countries might compete head-on with the industrialized nations – the draft asymmetrically panders to the interests of the politically influential corporate agriculture in the U.S. at the expense of millions of poor farmers across the Third World. It further enables rich countries to protect their markets in ‘sensitive’ products from import competition from developing countries while encouraging export dumping at artificially low prices by proposing a framework for new blue box subsidies to accommodate its richest member, the U.S. In addition, the draft openly discriminates by adopting a non-committal approach to the Special and Differential treatment needs, sensitive products and special safe guard mechanisms and leaves them for a “post framework stage.” At the same time, the draft overlooks the demand of African countries for the Cotton Initiative to be treated on a stand-alone and fast-track basis, and instead, adopts the U.S. demand to consider this issue under the broader agriculture negotiations.

Worse still, in the WTO agriculture talks this week, where 3 billion lives are at stake, negotiations are once again shrouded in secrecy, and are taking place between only five Members - the U.S., EC, Australia, Brazil and India. According to Tim Groser (New Zealand’s Ambassador chairing the talks), these are the ‘interested’ parties and they are providing him with ‘political guidance.’ Many countries, including even developed countries such as Canada, Switzerland and Japan are incensed that most probably the new draft will be a package which the five members have agreed amongst themselves and will be presented to the other 142 members of the WTO as a take-it-or-leave-it text. Intense pressures are being put on capitals to tow the line. If the talks ‘succeed,’ billions in the South will loose their livelihoods, especially, in the agriculture sector.

For thousands of years, small farmers have grown food for their local communities – planting diverse crops in healthy soil, recycling organic matter, following nature’s rainfall patterns, and maintaining our rich biodiversity. This agricultural system was built on the farmers’ accumulated knowledge of the local environment, passed on from one generation to another. Today, it is confronted by both an environmental and a moral crisis.

What’s called ‘modern industrial agriculture,’ driven by the engine of economic globalization, is replacing family farms with corporate farms, farmers with machines, mixed crops with monocultures, and has traded local food security for global commerce. This phenomenon is best described by Wendell Berry in Fatal Harvest: “One of the primary results – and one of the primary needs- of industrialism is the separation of people, places and products from their histories. To the extent that we participate in the industrial economy, we do not know the histories of our families or habitats or of our meals. This is an economy, and in fact a culture, of the one-night stand. ‘I had a good time,’ says the industrial lover, ‘but don’t ask me my last name.’ The industrial eater says to the svelte industrial hog, ‘We’ll be together at breakfast. I don’t want to see you before then, and I won’t care to remember you afterwards.’ ”

The agricultural system in the United States is no different. The family farm system and farmers have been sold out to corporate agribusiness with ever-increasing numbers of farm bankruptcies and foreclosures reaping a grim harvest of suicides, alcoholism, and a loss of community. In the 1930s, 25 percent of the U.S. population lived on the nation’s 6 million farms. Today America’s 2 million farms are home to less than 2 percent of the population. There are more people behind bars than behind the wheel of a tractor! Small family farms have been replaced by large commercial farms, with 8 percent of U.S. farms accounting for 72 percent of sales. Between 1994-1996, about 25 percent of all US hog farmers, 10 percent of all grain farmers, and 10 percent of dairy farmers went out of business. The U.S. Dept of Labor projects that the largest job loss among all occupations between 1998-2008 will be in agriculture. This is not surprising given an average farm-operator household earns only 14 percent of its income from the farm and rest from off-farm employment. However, these figures pale in comparison to one fact. The number one cause of death for farmers in the U.S. is suicide!

Federal policies have contributed greatly to the decline of the American countryside. The farm bills crop subsidies don’t go to farmers who resemble John Steinbeck’s Joad family, but to wealthy American corporations and wealthy individuals. Most family farms get nothing but a tax bill. Subsidizing well-heeled agribusiness interests has ensured the continued exodus of independent family farmers from the land. Taxpayer money helps bankroll the nation’s largest farmers, helping them to buy up struggling neighboring family farms and creating a “plantation effect” that turns independent farmers into sharecroppers.

Farmers are losing control of the food as it's going through the chain. The share of four largest pork packer corporations went up from 44 to 62 percent between 1992 and 2001. In 2001 four poultry firms controlled 53 percent of the market, the top four firms in beef controlled 81 percent of the market, the top 10 agrochemical corporations controlled over 84 percent of the $30 billion agrochemical market. Grain distribution was even more concentrated. Two companies, Cargill and Continental, controlled about two-thirds of the grain in the world.

This agricultural system robs not just the U.S. family farmers, but the world’s poor. Wielding the World Bank, the I.M.F., and international trade agreements like the WTO, the U.S. is opening up foreign markets for its agribusiness corporations, by forcing poor countries to remove subsidies and lower tariffs. Today one out of every four acres in America is grown for export. And it has accomplished this by dumping cheap subsidized surpluses into the Third World countries. It exports corn at prices 20 percent below the cost of production, and wheat at 46 percent below cost. The result is a reverse Robin Hood effect – robbing the world’s poor to enrich American agribusiness.

In 1997, over 2,000 farmers committed suicide in the Anantpur district of Andhra Pradesh in India. Another 600 farmers committed suicide in Punjab, known as the granary of India, during the same period. An Indian journalist, P. Sainath, who visited all the police stations in Ananthpur reported that 1600 of the 2000 suicides were committed by drinking pesticides and that most of the farmers had defaulted on their loan payments to the bank. The New York Times (June 6, 2004) reported that debts had driven 50 to 100 farmers to take their own lives in Andhra Pradesh since a new –state government took office in mid-May, 2004. It is estimated that between 1997-2003, over 20,000 farmers have taken their lives in India. When faced with a dead end, they have opted for death.

But any system built upon structural inequities is ultimately unsustainable. It fuels conflict and struggle along the lines of class, gender, and ethnicity, till it consumes itself. Today’s corporate-controlled food system is just such a system.

Mexico was once self-sufficient in basic grains but now, largely as result of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), it imports 95% of soy, 58% of rice, 49% of wheat, and 40% of its meat. NAFTA is killing the Mexican countryside, with an estimated 600 peasant farmers forced off their land each day. In January 2003 Mexican farm leaders, under a united front “Countryside Can’t Take it Any More,” started a hunger strike to protest the agriculture chapters of NAFTA. The hunger strike was accompanied by demonstrations along the U.S. Mexican border, on highways, at airports, and at the offices of transnational agri-business corporations. Farmers in Mexico saw an outpouring of support for their struggle, both nationally and internationally. And this cross border organizing is the response that is challenging the liberalization of rural livelihoods.

It was present in Cancun in September 2004 at the Fifth Ministerial of the World Trade Organization. On September 10, Lee Kyung Hae, leader of the Korean Federation of Advanced Farmers Association, climbed the barricades that were built to keep away over 15,000 protesting farmers, indigenous people, and youth in Cancun, from the trade talks aimed at bringing trade barriers down. Wearing a sandwich board that read “The WTO Kills Farmers,” Lee Kyung Hae took his life with a knife to the heart. Lee had watched over the years, hundreds of his comrades displaced from their lands. His own farm foreclosed four years ago. His dedicated his life to not only the Korean countryside, but to rural struggles around the world.

Don’t let this resistance seem without hope. The farmers around the world, the stewards of our land and keepers of nature’s inheritance to humanity, have been walking this path, without thinking about hopelessness. They have not quit. Even in Cancun, the barricades and the creation of the police state could not save the talks. Trade negotiators representing the Third World countries walked out of the talks saying that “no deal is better then what is being offered.”

I personally have made the decision to fight this fight by looking for reasons to keep on. And I am glad to share my reasons with you with the hope that they will inspire you to continue this struggle. I cannot over emphasize that: Today the rural communities are responding to corporate take over of our food system with their anti-corporate farming laws. In Pennsylvania inspired by the anti-corporate farming law in South Dakota, community activists have worked to get local governments adopt this law, preventing factory farms from being sited in their rural communities.

In an open challenge to the corporate take over of our food system, a vibrant food system is growing all over America. Hundreds of family farm groups, farm workers, community gardeners, and environmentalists are working to ensure community food security: where everyone has a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritional diet through a sustainable food system that ensures community self-reliance and social justice. Farmers’ markets have doubled in the past decade while the burgeoning Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) is helping communities form a direct relationship with local farms.

On March 4, 2004, Mendocino county in California set the standard for the rest of the U.S. by becoming the first county to ban the cultivation of GM crops and animals. Biotechnology is another tool to convert our food into commodities. Soon after, three other countries, Butte, Marin and Humboldt, submitted enough signatures to put similar measures on the November ballot. Several other counties including Alameda, Napa, Sonoma have started similar citizen-led campaigns while the GE Free Boulder County Campaign has been launched in Colorado. Vermont has become the first state to require manufacturers of genetically modified seeds to label and register their products. In the meanwhile, Angola has joined other nations like Zambia and India in rejecting GM food aid.

International protests against the GM foods have become a regular feature. In May, the main entrance leading to Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, was turned into a cereal when protesters campaigning against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) emptied bags of yellow maize and substitute milk to highlight their concerns. The protest was organized in support of Biowatch, an NGO, which is currently involved in litigation in the Pretoria High Court on the lack of information from the government on the licensing and production of GMOs in South Africa. In another highly visual event, campaigners delivered a petition telling the WTO not to undermine the sovereign right of any country to protect its citizens and the environment from Genetically Modified (GM) foods and crops in May 2004. The delivery of the ‘citizen's objection’ to the WTO was a part of a global ‘bite-back’ campaign against a complaint filed at the WTO by the US, Argentina and Canada of blocking trade in GM crops and foods.

And while the Canadian Supreme court placed corporate rights over farmers rights, Percy Schmeiser and his wife Louise in their courageous 7–year battle against Monsanto have ignited an international resistance to the corporate intellectual property regimes. Just this month, about 1,500 activists, lead by Jose Bove, tore out rows of GM maize in Southern France.

In June thousands marched saying “No to Free Trade and to the Exploitation of Transnational Companies” in Sao Paulo, Brazil on the eve of UNCTAD meetings. And thousands representing trade unions, peasants, small farmers, women, consumers, students, migrant workers, urban poor, anti-war and anti-neoliberal globalization activists gathered in Seoul, Korea in June to demonstrate against the World Economic Forum, globalization and the war. Thousands of students, activists and farmers took to the streets in downtown Panama City in July to protest U.S.-Panama free trade talks taking place in another part of the city, demanding that the talks be halted given trade openings would devastate Panama's farm sector.

Each of these examples - anti-corporate farming laws, farmers’ markets, international protests against free trade, county level measures - are not isolated examples of an alternative or dissent. These are about change that is taking place on the ground - slowly, organically, and steadily. Its best crop is a new consciousness where it recognizes these struggles as the new civil rights movement of the day, which will transform the industrial food-system to a more sustainable and life-affirming system. The rallying cry of this movement is: Food Sovereignty is a fundamental human right.

So what is Food Sovereignty?

Food Sovereignty requires that governments:

• Prioritize local, regional, and national needs, based on agriculture that consists of small farmers, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk, and other local communities;

• Protect local and national markets of basic food stuffs to give priority to the products of local farmers;

• Promote and enforce farmer's rights including access to land, water and seed;

• Promote sustainable peasant agriculture which is more productive and protects our biodiversity;

• Promote a direct, shared and decentralized relationship between food producers and the rest of the community;

• Enforce genuine land reform to ensure redistribution of land.

• And lastly design a new farm economy which should be the centerpiece of the country’s economic development model.

It is true that whenever Third World governments have balked at U.S. and EU dictated trade proposals, they have been shown into a darkened room where they are bludgeoned with threats to cut off preferential market access, suspend aid, or otherwise have their arms twisted. However, I believe that the movement to create and sustain a just and healthy farm economy will prevail. This movement might be barricaded miles away by riot cops and military from the convention centers where trade negotiators meet. Despite this repression, right now capitals are buzzing with action as the civil society, citizens and others lobby against an unfair proposal that is being forced upon the developing countries in Geneva. Despite police harassment, groups and individuals continue to hold press conferences and take action in Geneva itself. After all, as the Sufi poet Hafez said:

"The small man builds cages for everyone

He knows.

While the sage,

Who has to duck her head

When the moon is low

Keeps dropping keys all night long

For the




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