The Globalized, Corporate-Led Food System Is Failing Us

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Source: Democracy Now!

More than 500 civil society groups boycotted the United Nations Food Systems Summit in New York for giving corporations an outsized role in framing the agenda. We speak with ​​leading food advocates in Ethiopia, India and the United States, who lay out their concerns: Million Belay, general coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa; Raj Patel, journalist and research professor at the University of Texas at Austin; and Shalmali Guttal, executive director of Focus on the Global South. “There is growing hunger in the world, and there is growing inequality and growing poverty and unemployment,” Guttal says. “This industrialized, globalized, corporate-led food system is failing us.”

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

With world hunger on the rise amidst the devastating social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, we continue to look at concerns that the United Nations’ first Food Systems Summit, underway today, is giving corporations an outsized role framing its agenda. The summit is led by the former Rwandan agricultural minister, Agnes Kalibata, now president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, or AGRA, which critics say promotes industrial agriculture over more sustainable farming.

For more, we bring into this conversation Million Belay in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the general coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. Also with us in Goa, India, is Shalmali Guttal, executive director of Focus on the Global South. Still with us in Austin, Texas, professor Raj Patel, who serves on the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System. Nermeen?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Million Belay, could you begin by talking about — give us more background on Dr. Agnes Kalibata and her record, the record of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, of which she’s the head, and why you think she was appointed the U.N. special envoy for this food summit?

MILLION BELAY: Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity. Thanks for the lovely music. And I love Gigi quite a lot.

I think I would love to focus on the institution rather than on the individual. Maybe they have selected her because she’s a woman, she’s a Black woman, she’s an African woman, as a form of representing this as a global agenda. Maybe, you know, in terms of image, she fits that bill.

But the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa has 13 board members — one-three. And eight of them are from outside Africa. And it’s registered in the U.S. And the Rockefeller Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, some companies are in the board of AGRA. So this is an outside-controlled institution. And this shows that, you know, the corporate world wanted to control this event.

It’s very sad, because a discussion around the food system is very much critical, because there is a health crisis, there is a nutrition crisis, hunger crisis, environmental crisis, cultural crisis and human rights crisis. We’re in a crisis. And the majority of these crises is because of the food system that we have. So, we need transition, the right kind of transition.

Therefore, the institution that she represents, even if its name says the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa —  you know, we know what the Green Revolution has done in India. And Shalmali can tell us about that, you know? It has destroyed people’s life, people’s culture, seed, environment, and has created a huge burden of disease, and malnutrition is still there. And, as Raj said, it has failed in Africa. It has been tried for 13 years, and it has failed. Now we have seen the recommendation from Africa for the UNFSS for transition. It’s all about green ecology, Green Revolution. So, yeah, this is very sad, you know? It’s a wasted chance, I would like to say.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Shalmali Guttal, you’re in Goa, India. As you look at the Food Systems Summit from there, this segment is larger than the Food Systems Summit. It’s about the growing hunger in the world. But can you talk about that approach — you’ve been a fierce critic; you’ve been tweeting a lot about what’s happening — and how it’s determining what’s happening in the world, and what you see needs to happen?

SHALMALI GUTTAL: Thank you, Amy. Can you hear me all right?

AMY GOODMAN: We hear you perfectly.

SHALMALI GUTTAL: OK, OK. Well, yes, there is growing hunger in the world, and there is growing inequality and growing poverty and unemployment. And all this is not because there isn’t enough food being produced in the world. A majority of the world’s food is produced by, you know, small-scale food producers, who are producing this food on just about a quarter of the world’s territories. Eighty percent of the world’s territories and resources are actually captured by larger businesses and corporations. And there’s a lot of food procurement, production, provision that goes undocumented.

But when we talk about the crises in the food systems, it’s really interesting that the mainstream discourse isn’t looking at the crisis of the global food system, which is the industrialized, corporate-controlled food system, which has been responsible for many of the multiple crises that we are facing now, with, you know, the hunger, the unemployment, the malnutrition, the climate change crisis, the industrial contamination and so on. So, you know, in the last 10 to 15 years, with crisis after crisis coming out, and the food price crisis more than 10 years ago and the financial crisis, which was also there in 2009, 2010, since then, it’s become really increasingly clear to the world’s people that this industrialized, globalized, corporate-led food system is failing us. It has failed. It’s not going to do anything better. And to keep pouring money into it and resources into it is dangerous. But how, unfortunately — or, rather, maybe this has been the design, so it’s not a question of luck or fortune. More and more privatization has been happening across the South. It was already happening in the North countries. It’s been happening more and more in the South, including key aspects of food provision.

Now, food has a tremendous public purpose. The right to food is dependent on the right — realization of numerous other rights. Similarly, the violation of other rights also affects the right to food. And food, as a holistic — how we say — it’s not a thing; you know, it’s a whole dimension in and of itself. Control over the different aspects of food are extremely important for those who want to continue to make profits. And this has been one of the big tragedies of privatization and liberalization and deregulation and then reregulation for corporations that we have seen over the last 15 or 20 years.

And, you know, the COVID-19 pandemic showed who feeds the world, who looked after the world. It wasn’t the industrialized, globalized food system. It were local producers. It was food sovereignty movements. It was unions. It was mutual help groups, community kitchens, community-shared agriculture and fisheries. This is what helped. This is what fed the world during COVID.

And, you know, the way we see it, my own organization and the group that I’m very closely aligned with in the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism — and we have a larger group of social movements called the Liaison Group of the Autonomous People’s Response to the U.N. Food Systems Summit — you know, for us, it’s very clear that this Food Systems Summit has been deliberately designed and pushed forward the way it is to allow corporations to secure control, not only over food and food systems but, equally important, over the governance of food systems. And that’s a very important issue which I hope I’ll be able to speak further on in this program. Why don’t I stop here for the moment?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Shalmali, as Million mentioned, one of the examples that’s touted most in favor of industrial agriculture is, of course, the experience of the Green Revolution in India.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: This was first introduced in 1965 and, its advocates say, led substantially to a reduction in hunger, as well as malnutrition. Could you explain why you’re critical of this approach? And what’s happened in recent decades, following its initial purported success?

SHALMALI GUTTAL: Well, yes, initially, the Green Revolution did boost production. And there was — yes, there were overflowing granaries, and, yes, it did indeed address the hunger or lack-of-food problem at that time.

But what it also did was introduce and convert Indian agriculture into chemically intensive monocultures. And these chemically intensive monocultures, initially, they may have come through public subsidies and supports — I mean, the inputs for those production. But over the decades, as those supports and subsidies started to dry out, small-scale farmers, family farmers, even middle-scale — you know, a middle farmer, middle-scale farmer, in India would be like — I can’t — I think in hectares, not in acres. So, it would be — you know, three to four hectares would be a small-scale farmer. A middle-scale farmer would be, say, a maximum 10 to 15 hectares. They started finding themselves in increased debt traps, because one of the things that happened with intensive use of chemicals is your soil gets contaminated, and it will not keep producing. And in order to make your soil produce and make your farms produce, you’re going to pump more and more chemicals into it. And it’s a vicious cycle of destruction of the very territory from which you would grow your food.

And so, what we saw, that that destruction triggered the environmental and a crisis of production, but, attendant to that, a tremendous social crisis. So, farmers who were not able to meet their debt payments for the inputs that they had bought, purchased — when their seeds failed, they had to buy more seeds, so they got more into debt. They put their land into mortgage. And we saw a distressed migration of people away from the rural areas into the urban areas. And so, more and more hands that were producing the food left the land, and they left that kind of production and started moving into other types of production. Now, many of them stayed in the food world. I mean, as Raj said earlier, the hands that touch our food, most of the hands that touch our food do come from food-producing families, but they’re doing different jobs now. You know, they’re working in construction labor or delivery or food vending, you know, local vending. But a lot — and this is not a case only in India; this is a case throughout Asia. We’re going through a very severe agrarian crisis across Asia, where industrialized, monoculture-oriented, chemically intensive agriculture has created economic and social crises.

So, in India, for example, I think the — I mean, the world is very familiar with the farmer suicides that have happened in India. These suicides are the highest where farmer debt is the highest. And farmer debt is the highest, of course, where farmers have been forced to borrow, for seeds, for equipment, for chemicals. And we must also see this side by side with the other crisis that India was going through, and which is the inability and the failure of the Indian state to ensure strong social protection systems, because one may be in debt, a family may be in debt and be using all its — you know, using whatever income that it has to pay off its debt, but if you don’t have good public health systems, if you don’t have good social security and social protection system, you don’t have a decent education system, you don’t have transportation, clean water, if all these are either being disinvested by the public exchequer and are being privatized. Most rural communities in India, and in many parts of Asia, are one major illness away from complete ruin, because they will have to pay huge healthcare bills if they want to get any decent healthcare. So, you know, these are processes that are going together — Green Revolution, at one hand, and the social and economic crisis, and which were closely related to the environmental contamination and crisis it created, accompanied by an absence of sufficient public investment going to social — important, key social and even financial sectors.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have a few more minutes to go at this moment.


AMY GOODMAN: But we are going to continue this discussion, of course, on Democracy Now! But I wanted to go back to Million Belay, who is in the capital of Ethiopia, in Addis. If you could talk about why you see it’s critical to frame the hunger issue in a human rights framework, and what that would mean? What has to happen now? Use the example of your own country, Ethiopia, Million.

MILLION BELAY: Yeah. I think the responsibility of feeding the people is from government. Government are responsible to feed the people. For that, they have to have the right policy, right kind of agricultural policy. If you follow the Green Revolution agenda and put farmers in debt and contaminate the soil, and also, you know, in terms of productivity and also the diversity of the seeds — you know, there’s an increased diversity — through time, you are putting your population, the farmer population, which is over 80% in Ethiopia, into unsustainability. You know, you are trapping them into the future, which is not sustainable at all. So, they have to have the right to choose what kind of agriculture they want. They have the right to choose what kind of seeds that they want to plant.

And the kind of, you know — that’s broken the social fabric of the society somehow, the kind of agriculture that’s happening. It has even damaged the relationship between the government and the people, because the government has to force their people to accept high-yielding varieties and artificial fertilizers and pesticides and certain ways of farming and reorienting the whole agriculture into market, you know? All that puts people into a situation where they will be much more poorer than before. So they are not getting better.

And it’s a responsibility of the government to keep the country and the people in the paths of sustainability, not in the paths of dependence. And when their people have a problem because of the environment, in social, in political, in whatever, it’s the government’s responsibility to provide food, to make food accessible, to ensure that that food is healthy and nutritious, and to ensure that that food is culturally appropriate, and to protect them from the vagaries of threat.

So, that’s what we mean by the right to food and the human right at the center of food production. And we feel that agroecology takes all that. It produces more food, healthy food, nutritious food — without impacting the environment, even improving the environment — and culturally appropriate food. And the right to food is at the center of agroecology. That’s what we want to promote.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Raj Patel, we’d like to end with you. One of the striking things that you point out in your Scientific American article, “Agroecology Is the Solution to World Hunger,” which is what Million was saying, as well, is that, over the past decade, food production has outstripped demand. There is more food per person than there ever was. And the problem with food distribution is not so much its quantity but the fact that it’s distributed in an unequal way. Could you explain how the practice of agroecology, which you’ve witnessed yourself in Malawi and elsewhere — how this practice could also ensure more equitable access and distribution?

RAJ PATEL: So, thank you so much. And very briefly, agroecology is a science, it’s a set of practices, and it is a social movement to be able to transform the way that we not just grow food but regulate it and share it and make sure that everyone has it and that it exists within the broader economy that Shalmali and Million were talking about just now. So, agroecology is a way not only of identifying that there are amazing synergies between different kinds of crops that don’t rely on the industrial, chemical-intensive agriculture that Shalmali was talking about, but also that we need social synergies. We need ways of recognizing and supporting our food production around the world in ways that redirect subsidies away from chemically intensive agriculture and the health subsidies and the environmental costs of industrial agriculture, and instead aims big.

And that means, really, I mean, at the heart of agroecology is a leveling of inequalities in power. I mean, hunger today is gendered. Ten percent more women around the world are hungry than men. We see, obviously, inequalities in hunger in terms of race, globally, in terms of colonialism and its histories. But if we are to be serious about taking agroecology to scale, we have to tackle inequalities in power. And I think that that’s one of the worries about this Food Systems Summit, is that it is concentrating power in governance mechanisms that are entirely unaccountable. And what agroecology offers is a circular and solidarity economy that is absolutely about sort of leveling inequalities in power, so that we not only are able to coax more from the soil but also return more to it and make sure that everyone gets to eat healthily.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you all for being with us. And again, this is a conversation, of course, we’re going to continue to have. I want to thank Raj Patel, who’s speaking to us from the University of Texas–Austin. Among his books, Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System. His latest book is called, simply, Inflamed. We also want to thank Million Belay — Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa is his group — speaking to us from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Shalmali Guttal, who is with Focus on the Global South, executive director. She is in Goa, India.

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