Everything in a supermarket has a story to tell, if only we could find it out. The produce defies seasons, geography, wars, distance, nature. It is winter outside, but inside the supermarket golden-shell pineapples from Côte d’Ivoire, still small and green, bathe in humming halogen light. There is civil unrest in the Côte d’Ivoire, but it does not seem to have disrupted the flow of tropical fruit to the cold North. Next to them are strange, knobbly bits of ginger dug from Chinese soil. Gala apples from France, bagged up and reduced to half price. Avocados from Israel and Chile. Pale tomatoes from the Canary Islands, where it is always warm, but the fruit must be picked green. ‘Ready-to-go’ meals fill the chiller cabinets. Here, wrapped in plastic, are small clusters of perfect baby corn and mange tout from plantations in Kenya. Here is cod, pulled up by trawler from the over-fished, churning cold sea of the northeast Atlantic.
Though we can’t hear their stories, what we choose to put in our supermarket baskets writes its own language upon our bodies and our moods, our families, our economies, our landscapes. It can mean life or death in some distant country whose name we can only vaguely discern printed on the packaging. We are, all of us, affected by trends in the global economy, in the most intimate and fundamental way possible – through our food.
Only rarely do these connections become visible, when the people who produce the food remind us of them. Those who work the countryside are a potent source of cultural identity, whether it’s the campesinos of Mexico, the gauchos of Argentina, the paysannes of France, Australian conkies, or the flat-capped Yorkshire farmer. Their images are used to market food to us, because we associate them with rural life, nature and rude good health. But the real people who produce our food are losing their livelihoods and leaving the land.
Over the past two years British dairy farmers, in their grief and anger over plummeting prices, have blockaded supermarkets up and down the country, spilled their milk, boycotted suppliers.
Why blockade the supermarkets? The average price British farmers receive for their milk is the lowest for 30 years. The bargaining power of the supermarkets is so great that prices for farmers are going ever downwards. In 2000, supermarket giant Tesco introduced international ‘reverse’ auctions for its suppliers all over the world. They were asked to bid against each other until Tesco got the lowest price.
Supermarkets blame the consumer for wanting ‘cheap food’ – yet 50 years ago farmers in Europe and North America received between 45 and 60 per cent of the money that consumers spent on food. Today that proportion has dropped to just 7 per cent in Britain and 3.5 per cent in the US.1
Even that ultimate symbol of rugged individualism, the cowboy, is an endangered species. Most of the ranchers of the Great Plains of Nebraska are permanently broke, mortgaging or selling off their land and cattle to survive. The cowboy is riding into the final sunset as the Great Plains become steadily depopulated.
The details are specific to each country but the broad trends are international: the crisis in farming is global.
The six founding countries of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy had 22 million farmers in 1957; today that number has fallen to 7 million. Just 20 per cent of the European Union’s wealthiest and largest farmers get 80 per cent of EU subsidies. Canada lost three-quarters of its farmers between 1941 and 1996 and the decline continues. In 1935 there were 6.8 million working farmers in the US; today the number is under 1.9 million – less than the total US prison population.
Suicide is now the leading cause of death among US farmers, occurring at a rate three times higher than in the general population. In Britain farmers are taking their own lives at a rate of one a week.2
In poorer countries the situation is even worse. Half of the world’s people still make their living from the land – and it is they who feed the majority of the world’s poorest people. In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa more than 70 per cent of the population makes a living from the land. Agriculture counts, on average, for half of total economic activity.
In the Philippines the number of farm households in the corn-producing region of Mindanao is set to fall by half. Between 1985 and 1995 the number of people employed in agriculture in Brazil fell from 23 million to 18 million. In China an estimated 400 million farmers are in danger of losing their livelihoods entirely. Everywhere small-scale farmers are being ‘disappeared’.
All eaten up Why is this happening? Somebody, somewhere, must be benefiting. The answer is not hard to discover. It lies not in the soil, but inside the corporations which have become known collectively as ‘agribusiness’. They traverse the planet buying at the lowest possible price, putting every farmer in direct competition with every other farmer. While the price of crops has been pushed down – often even below the cost of production – the prices of inputs such as seed, fertilizers and pesticides have gone up.
Control of the ‘food-chain’ is being concentrated in ever-fewer hands. According to Bill Hefferman, rural sociologist at the University of Missouri, in some cases there is ‘seamless and fully integrated control of the food system from gene to supermarket shelf’.3 When the two giant corporations Monsanto and Cargill went into partnership they controlled seed, fertilizer, pesticides, farm finance, grain collection, grain processing, livestock-feed processing, livestock production and slaughtering, as well as several processed-food brands. This system, developed in the US, is being exported to other countries in the name of globalization.
This level of control is one of the reasons why genetically modified (GM) seeds are of such concern. They give agribusiness yet more weapons with which to enforce total dependency on their patented seeds. Some of them require own-brand herbicides and even own-brand ‘trigger’ chemicals (known as ‘traitor’ technology) that the farmer has to apply for before the seed will germinate.
This is the secret of the disappearance of the family farmer in the North – and the peasantry in the South. To disappear them, aside from killing them, you must turn them into vulnerable workers on an assembly line, without control over their own operations, and obliged to corporations.
Agribusiness writes the rules of international trade. Cargill was largely responsible for the Agreement on Agriculture at the World Trade Organization (WTO), which liberalizes the global market in agricultural goods. Farmers, particularly in poor countries, find it impossible to compete with cheap imports. One James Enyart of Monsanto said of the WTO’s ‘intellectual property’ agreement (known as ‘TRIPs’) which makes its ownership of seeds and genetic material possible worldwide: ‘Industry has identified a major problem in international trade. It crafted a solution, reduced it to a concrete proposal and sold it to our own and other governments.’
Why does it matter that small, ‘inefficient’ producers are being eradicated by globalized, corporate agriculture? Free-trade theory is based on the idea that countries should specialize, produce the things that they make best and buy in everything else. But, as Kevan Bundell from Christian Aid says: ‘It makes little sense for poor countries or poor farmers to put themselves at more risk if they have to rely on the efficient functioning of markets which all too often fail or don’t exist.’4
How ‘efficient’ is a system of agriculture that ignores (‘externalizes’) the huge costs of removing chemical contamination from water or losing genetic diversity? How ‘wholesome’ is it to create new diseases in animals and antibiotic resistance in people? How ‘cheap’ is the expense of public subsidies to private agribusiness, of global transport or social breakdown in rural areas?
Prevailing free-market thinking asks why we should provide support just to keep people in a state of ‘backwardness’ and rural poverty. But experience shows us that when these people lose their rural livelihoods, only a few will find better jobs in the city. Many will end up in enormous and growing urban slums.
‘The future for peasant incomes and employment is grim,’ says Chen Xiwen, deputy director of the Chinese State Council’s research centre. According to Chen, in 2001 over 88 million workers migrated from rural to urban areas in China, most of them employed in ‘dirty, hard, dangerous and unsafe conditions’.5
The question is not whether we have any right to condemn people to the difficult life of a poor farmer – an accusation often thrown at those who oppose the global-trade regime and the food cartel that runs it. The real question is whether vulnerable farmers themselves have meaningful choices. They need an international voice for their own priorities.
Let them eat trade Nettie Webb, a Canadian farmer explains: ‘The difficulty for us, as farming people, is that we are rooted in the places where we live and grow our food. The other side, the corporate world, is globally mobile.’
To put it another way, global- trade rules might be fundamentally transforming agriculture, but as one sceptic asked: ‘can one envision a coalition of Belgian, Dutch, French, Italian, Uruguayan, Brazilian and New Zealand farmers marching on a GATT (WTO) meeting in Punta del Este? And what could they demand to benefit them all, since they are all in competition with one another?’ 6
In fact Via Campesina has been marching on every WTO meeting from 1994 onwards. ‘We will not be intimidated. We will not be "disappeared",’ they have declared. This global alliance of small and family farmers, peasants, landless and indigenous people, women and rural labourers, has a membership of millions – the vast majority from poor countries – and they’re putting an alternative agricultural paradigm on the map.
It’s based on the idea of ‘food sovereignty’. It is, they say, ‘the RIGHT of peoples, communities and countries to define their own agricultural, labour, fishing, food and land policies which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances.’
They believe food is a human right, not a commodity, and that their job – the production of food – is fundamental to all human existence. This attitude is summed up by a food co-op member’s retort to Brazilian President Cardoso when he said that agriculture had to submit to the law of the market: ‘Very well, Mr President. When Brazil no longer needs food, then you can let agriculture go bankrupt.’ 7
The farmers of Via Campesina argue that nothing as important as food should be ruled by the WTO. They’ve been leading the campaign to take agriculture out of its remit entirely. This does not mean that they are ‘anti-trade’. They believe in trading goods which a country cannot produce itself. Once a country has supported its own food needs and production it should be free to trade the surplus.
I spent time with Via Campesina at the 2002 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where they explained their vision in more depth. I’m in the courtyard of the Convent del Capuchino. There are mango and papaya trees hung with unripe green fruit. Via Campesina delegates – people of few words – sit on benches, sip sweet coffee and contemplate.
José Bocquisso Jr explains the views of the National Peasants’ Union in Mozambique. ‘Mozambique was one of the largest cashew-nut processors in the world,’ he says. ‘But because of the IMF the industry was privatized and the processing plants were closed… People should concentrate on producing food for themselves, not products for export… If we produce a lot of cotton the price ends up being below the cost of production, and people are stranded with piles of cotton, but with no food and no money. In our organization we concentrate on producing food, we encourage our members first to provide for their daily needs. Then it doesn’t matter so much if they don’t have money, because they are secure in food and have guaranteed the ability to feed their families.’ His group is part of the expanding African contingent in Via Campesina. ‘It is very strengthening to feel part of a global movement. World powers have to be fought globally.’
Via Campesina is not anti-technology. Its vision is, however, based on a model of agriculture built from the ground up, in which farmers’ knowledge has a significant place. Indeed, all Via Campesina’s arguments about food and farming – whether GMOs, access to land or markets – come down to one central issue: control.
Indra Lubis, part of a coalition of 13 Indonesian peasant unions with 900,000 members, explains that rejection of genetically modified seed and pesticides is about self-determination: ‘With Monsanto, who have planted GM cotton in south Sulawesi, we’ll have to depend on them for seed. They want to control cotton and food production. As peasants, we’ll be made dependent on multinational corporations. But we are independent when we develop our own agriculture. We use our own productive system, with no chemical fertilizer or herbicides. We use local seeds and local fertilizer. In Indonesia we have so many varieties of seed. It is a deep part of our culture.’
Seventy per cent of the world’s farmers are women – most of the people in this courtyard are men. Rosalva Gutierrez, from the Belize Association of Producer Organizations, tells me: ‘It is always the women who take the hardest part as farmers, mothers, wives. We have many strong women but they have been abused for so many years, women’s self-esteem is very low. So we give workshops and training… I’m co-ordinator of the women’s project and on the international co-ordination of Via Campesina – I try to ensure that what Via Campesina says on paper about gender equality becomes reality!’
And she tells me: ‘We don’t see farmers as being from different countries. Farmers everywhere understand the same point.’
Via Campesina argues that food production has a unique role to play in rural livelihoods, health, ecology and culture.
Kanya Pankiti, a peasant from the south of Thailand – on her first trip out of the country – says the way her people grow food preserves the forest, the watershed and the soil. She thinks the Brazilians aren’t growing enough trees. ‘The way Brazilians do agriculture now will cause soil erosion,’ she worries, picking and nibbling leaves she recognizes from home – it has never occurred to Brazilians to cook with them.
Kanya knows a lot about trees. She says: ‘The Thai forest department doesn’t believe that people can live in the forest and preserve it. The reality is, we have lived in the forest for a hundred years. It is not the villagers who are destroying the forest, but the loggers clear-cutting. When the forest is clear-cut the land becomes less fertile.’ Her house is outside a new National Park zone, her land inside it, and they want to clear her out. ‘When they declare a National Park,’ she says, ‘they sit in an air-conditioned office and look at a map.’
What does she think of the World Social Forum? She’s going back to tell her village ‘that they are not alone in the world, struggling for land, and we can link up with those in other countries’.
For anyone who eats, the question of who controls the food chain – farmers, or an ever-more powerful cartel of food corporations – is no less pertinent than it is for Indra, Kanya or José. At the very same time as consumers in the rich world are objecting more than ever to factory farming, to the use of antibiotics in livestock, to pesticide residues in food, to the loss of biodiversity and to food scares such as BSE, this very same model is being set up for replication around the world, often disguised as ‘development’.
Mario Pizano, a member of the Confederación Campesino del Suerto in Chile, joins the conversation. ‘The big companies are buying up all the land,’ he complains. ‘With contract farming, they tell us: "We’ll buy your food only if you buy the chemicals you need from us." They give us chemicals that are forbidden in the US. Then we have to give them a section of our crop. If we can’t, then they take our land.’
But he, and millions like him, refuse to become serfs on their own land. As we part, he takes off his green cap, emblazoned with the name of his organization, and gives it to me. ‘This organization is part of me,’ he says.
1 ‘What’s Wrong with Supermarkets’, Corporate Watch, 2002.
2 Bringing the Food Economy Home, Norberg-Hodge, Merrifield, Gorelick, Zed Books 2002.
3 ‘Where have all the farmers gone?’, Brian Halweil, WorldWatch 2000.
4 ‘Forgotten Farmers: Small farmers, trade, and sustainable agriculture’, Kevan Bundell, Christian Aid 2002.
5 ‘The Forgotten 800 Million: How Rural Life is Dying in the New China’, Guardian Newspapers, 18/10/2002.
6 ‘The Via Campesina: Consolidating an International Peasant and Farm Movement’, Annette Aurelie Desmarais, Journal of Peasant Studies, January 2002.
7 Cutting the Wire, Branford, Rocha, Latin America Bureau 2002.