Neoliberal globalization's mission to privatize all areas of life, including agriculture and natural resources, threatens to condemn a vast part of the world's population to hunger and poverty. The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that, worldwide, there are 925 million hungry people today, at a time when we produce more food than ever before. According to the international organization GRAIN, food production has tripled since the 1960s while the world population has only doubled. However, mechanisms of the production, distribution, and consumption of food serve private interests, preventing the poorest from obtaining essential sustenance. The increasing concentration of each stage of the agribusiness food chain in the hands of enormous agro-industrial concerns has led to a loss of autonomy for both farmers and consumers.
Opposed to this dominant model of agribusiness is food sovereignty, which affirms the right of local peoples to define their own agricultural and food policies, control their own domestic food markets, and promote local agriculture by preventing the dumping of surplus products. It encourages diverse and sustainable farming methods that respect the land and sees international trade as only a complement to local production. Food sovereignty means returning control of natural assets to local communities and fighting against privatizing life.
Achieving this goal demands breaking with neoliberal agricultural policies imposed by the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Their imposition of free trade agreements, structural adjustment, external debt, etc., serves to erode people's sovereignty.
However, the demand for food sovereignty does not imply a romantic return to the past, but rather regaining an awareness of traditional practices in order to combine them with new technologies and new knowledge. Neither should it consist of a parochial approach or an idealization of small producers, but rather an entire rethinking of the global food system in order to encourage democratic forms of food production and distribution.
A Feminist Perspective
Promoting the construction of alternatives to the current agricultural and food model also involves an awareness of the role of gender, a recognition of the role women play in the cultivation and marketing of what we eat. Between 60 and 80 percent of the burden of food production in the South, according to FAO data, falls on women. They are the main producers of staple crops like rice, wheat, and maize, which feed the poorest populations in the global South. Despite their key role, they are, along with children, those most affected by hunger.
Women in many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America face enormous difficulties in accessing land, getting credit, etc. These problems aren't confined to the South only. In Europe, many farmers have little or no legal status since most of them work on family farms where administrative rights are the exclusive property of the owner of the farm. Women, despite working the land, are often not entitled to aid, land for cultivation, milk quotas, etc.
Food sovereignty has to break not only with a capitalist model of agriculture, but also with a patriarchal system rooted in a society that oppresses and subordinates women. Any notion of food sovereignty that does not include a feminist perspective is doomed to failure.
Via Campesina was formed in 1993 and gradually became one of the key organizations to critique neoliberal globalization. Its rise is an expression of peasant resistance to the collapse of the rural economy caused by neoliberal policies.
Via Campesina's membership is very heterogeneous in terms of the ideological origin of the landless, small farmers, but all are among those hardest hit by the neoliberal globalization. Since its inception, Via has created a politicized "peasant" identity linked to land and food production and building opposition to the current model of agribusiness and in defense of food sovereignty. It embodies a new kind of "internationalism"—the peasant component of the new global justice movement.
The concept of food sovereignty was first proposed in 1996 by the international movement La Via Campesina, which represents about 150 farmers' organizations from 56 countries. Their proposal coincided with the World Food Summit of the FAO in Rome.
A Viable Option
One of the arguments used by opponents of food sovereignty is that organic farming is unable to feed the world. However, this claim has been proved false by the results of an extensive consultation. Organized by the World Bank in partnership with the FAO, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), UNESCO, representatives of governments, private institutions, social interest groups, etc., this project involved over 400 scientists and experts in food and rural development over four years.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology (IAASTD) report, published in early 2009, argued for local peasant and family production of food and the redistribution of land to rural communities. It concluded that agro-ecological production provided food and income to the poorest, while also generating surpluses for the market, and was a better guarantor of food security than transgenic production. The report was rejected by agribusiness and filed away by the World Bank, while 61 governments approved it quietly, except for the U.S., Canada, and Australia, among others.
In the same vein, a study by the University of Michigan, published in June 2007 by the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, compared conventional to organic food production. The report concluded that agro-ecological farms were more productive and more capable of ensuring food security throughout the world than systems of industrialized farming and "free trade." It estimated that, even according to the most conservative estimates, organic agriculture could provide at least as much food as is produced today, although the researchers considered a more realistic estimate that organic farming could increase global production food up to 50 percent.
A number of other studies have demonstrated how small-scale peasant production can have a high performance while using less fossil fuel, especially if food is traded locally or regionally. Consequently, investment in family farms and ensuring their access to natural resources is the best option in terms of combating climate change and ending poverty and hunger, especially given that three-quarters of the world's poorest people are peasants. It is also crucial to break the monopoly of large retailers and to avoid large-scale distribution circuits through the use of local markets, direct sales, consumer groups, and community-supported agriculture—thereby establishing closer relationships between producer and consumer.
Alternatives exist to the dominant agricultural model. They necessitate a break with the capitalist logic imposed on the agricultural system and insist on the right of the people of the world to food sovereignty.
Esther Vivas is a member of the Center for Studies on Social Movements (CEMS) at Universitat Pompeu Fabra. She is the author of the book (in Spanish) Stand Up Against External Debt and co-coordinator of (also in Spanish) Supermarkets, No Thanks and Where is Fair Trade Headed? A version of this article was first published at Socialist Resistance.