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The Time has Come for La Via Campesina and Food Sovereignty

May 2008

Around the world it seems more and more that the time has come for La Via Campesina.  The global alliance of peasant and family farm organizations has spent the past decade perfecting an alternative proposal for how to structure a country’s food system, called Food Sovereignty.  It was clear at the World Forum for Food Sovereignty, held last year in Mali, that this proposal has been gaining ground with other social movements, including those of indigenous peoples, women, consumers, environmentalists, some trade unions, and others.  Though when it comes to governments and international agencies, it has until recently been met with mostly deaf ears.  But now things have changed.  The global crisis of rising food prices, which has already led to food riots in diverse parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas, is making everybody sit up and take note of this issue.

But, what are the causes of the extreme food price hikes?  There are both long term and short causes.  Among the former, the cumulative effect of three decades of neoliberal budget-cutting, privatization and free trade agreements stands out.  In most countries around the world, national food production capacity has been systematically dismantled and replaced by a growing capacity to produce agroexports, stimulated by enormous government subsidies to agribusiness, using taxpayer money.

It is peasants and famiy farmers who feed the peoples of the world, by and large.  Large agribusiness producers in most any country have an export “vocation.”  But policy decisiones have stripped the former of minimum price guarantees, parastatal marketing boards, credit, technical assistance, and above all, markets for their produce.  Local and national food markets were first inundated with cheap imports, and now, when transnational corporations (TNCs) have captured the bulk of the market share, the prices of the food imports on which countries now depend have been drastically jacked up.

Meanwhile the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have forced governments to sell off their public sector grain reserves.  The result is that we now face one of the tightest margins in recent history between food reserves and demand, which generates both rising prices and greater market volatility.  In other words, many countries no longer have either sufficient food reserves or sufficient productive capacity.  They now depend on imports, whose prices are skyrocketing.  Another long term cause of the crisis, though of lesser importance, has been changing patterns of food consumption in some parts of the world, like increased preference for meat and poultry products.

Among the short term causes of the crisis, by far the most important has been the relatively sudden entry of speculative financial capital into food markets.  Hedge, index and risk funds have invested heavily in the futures markets for commodities like grains and other food products.  With the collapse of the home mortgage market in the USA, their already desperate search for new avenues of investment led them to discover these markets for futures contracts.  Attracted by high price volatility in any market, since they take their profits on both price rises and price drops, they bet like gamblers in a casino.  Gambling, in this case, with the food of ordinary people.  These funds have already injected an additional 70 billion dollars of extra investment into commodities, inflating a price bubble that has pushed the cost of basic foodstuffs beyond the reach of of the poor in country after country.  And when the bubble inevitably bursts, it will wipe out millions of food producers throughout the world.

Another important short term factor is the agrofuel boom.  Agrofuel crops compete for planting area with food crops and cattle pasture.  In the Philippines, for example, the government has signed agreements that commit an area to be planted with agrofuels that is equivalent to fully half of the area planted with rice, the mainstay of the country’s diet.  We really ought to label feeding automobiles instead of people as a crime against humanity.

The major global price increases in the costs of chemical inputs for conventional farming, as a direct result of the high price of petroleum, is also a major short term causal factor.  Other factors of recent impact include droughts and other climate events in a number of regions, and a conspiracy involving the CIA to destabilize certain governments not well-liked by Washington.  In Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina, the private sector and the TNCs are working hard to export food items sorely needed by the local population, or otherwise prevent them from reaching market, as a way to delegitimize the leaders of those countries.

Faced with this global panorama, and all of its implications, there is really just one alternative proposal that is up to the challenge.  Under the Food Sovereignty paradigm, social movements and a growing number of progressive and semi-progressive governments propose that we re-regulate the food commodity markets that were de-regulated under neoliberalism.  And regulate them better than before they were deregulated, with genuine supply management, making it possible to set prices that are fair to both farmers and consumers alike.

That necessarily means a return to protection of the national food production of nations, both against the dumping of artificially cheap food that undercuts local farmers, and against the artificially expensive food imports that we face today.  It means rebuilding the national grain reserves and parastatal marketing boards, in new and improved versions that actively include farmer organizations as owners and administrators of public reserves.  That is a key step toward taking our food system back from the TNCs that hoard food stocks to drive prices up.

Countries urgently need to stimulate the recovery of their national food producing capacity, specifically that capacity located in the peasant and family farm sectors. That means public sector budgets, floor prices, credit and other forms of support, and genuine agrarian reform.  Land reform is urgently needed in many countries to rebuild the peasant and family farm sectors, whose vocation is growing food for people, since the largest farms and agribusinesses seem to only produce for cars and for export.  And many countries need to implement export controls, as a number of governments have done in recent days, to stop the forced exportation of food desperately needed by their own populations.

Finally, we must change dominant technological practices in farming, toward an agriculture based on agroecological principles, that is sustainable, and that is based on respect for and is in equilibrium with nature, local cultures, and traditional farming knowledge.  It has been scientifically demonstrated that ecological farming systems can be more productive, can better resist drought and other manifestations of climate change, and are more economically sustainable because they use less fossil fuel.  We can no longer afford the luxury of food whose price is linked to the price of petroleum, much less whose industrial monoculture production model — with pesticides and GMOs —  damages the future productive capacity of our soils.

The time has truly arrived for La Via Campesina and for Food Sovereignty.  There is no other real solution to feeding the world, and it is up to each and every one of us to join mobilizations to force the changes in national and international public policy that are so urgently needed.

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