Facing the food crisis: what alternatives?

Monday 29 September 2008, by Esther Vivas

The food crisis has left thousands of people worldwide without food. With
statistics showing 850 million hungry, the World Bank estimates that the
current crisis increases that number by a hundred more. This ’tsunami’ of
hunger is no natural process, but stems from the neoliberal policies of
international institutions, imposed over decades.

As we face this situation, what alternatives are being proposed? Is it
possible to adopt different models of food production, distribution and
consumption? Before covering these questions, let’s address some of the
principal structural problems which have generated the situation.

In the first place, hunger can be traced to the pillage of community’s
natural resources. Earth, water, seeds – all have been privatized, no
longer public goods. Food production has been displaced from family
farming to agricultural industry, and has been transformed into a means of
capital enrichment. The fundamental value of food, to nourish us, has been
diminished to its market value. For this reason, although there is
presently more food than ever before, people are denied access to the
abundance, unable to pay ever-increasing prices.

If farmers have no lands with which to feed themselves, nor excess crops
to sell, then in whose hands is the world’s food? It lies in the power of
agricultural multinationals, who control all the links of the
commercialized chain. Of course, this is not simply a problem of natural
resources, but of production models. At present, agriculture can be
described as intensive, as ’drug’ or ’oil’ -dependent, kilometric,
de-localized, industrial – in short, the antithesis of an agriculture
that respects environment and people.

Secondly, in addition to usurped resources, we face neoliberal policies,
applied over decades to favor greater commercial liberalization, the
privatization of public services, monetary transfer from South to North
(with external debts incurred), etc. The World Trade Organization (WTO),
World Bank (WB), International Monetary Found (IMF), among others, have
been some of the principal architects of the policies.

These policies have allowed Southern markets to open up by favoring
subsidized products, which are sold at prices lower than their costs, and
further, by permitting prices even lower than those of the autoctonous
products, local farming has been effectively finished off. These policies
have reduced diversified growing to a small-scale industry beside that of
mono-cultivation aimed at exportation.

In third place, we should note the monopoly of food distribution chains.
Megasupermarkets like Wal-Mart, Tesco or Carrefour dictate the prices of
food products, both what is paid to the farmers, and what is paid by the
consumers. In Spain, for example, the average disparity between original
and purchase price is 400%, with distributors reaping the greatest
benefit. On the other hand, the farmer is receiving less and less pay for
his goods, and the consumer is paying more and more for his purchases.

Proposals

However, there are alternatives. As natural resources are reappropriated,
agricultural sovereignty must be reclaimed – farming communities must
regain control of their agricultural policies. Earth, seeds, water – all
must be returned to the hands of the farmers, that they might feed
themselves and sell their products to their local communities. This
requires an integral agrarian reform of both property and production, and
the nationalization of natural resources.

Governments must support small-scale production, thereby allowing soils to
naturally enrich and renew; saving non-renewable resources; reducing global
warming; and allowing independence with respect to human nourishment.

At present, we all remain dependent on an international market and on the
interests of the agricultural industry.

Returning agriculture into the hands of the family farm is the only route
to guaranteeing universal access to foodstuffs. Public policies must
promote agriculture that is autoctonous, sustainable, organic, and free of
genetically modified organisms (GMOs). For products which are not
cultivated locally, the instruments of fair trade must be implemented at
an international level. We must protect agro-ecosystems and biodiversity,
seriously threatened by the present agricultural model.

In response to neo-liberal policies, we must generate mechanisms and
regulations of intervention, which stabilize market prices, control
imports, stabilize quotas, prohibit dumping, and in moments of
over-production, create specialized reserves for food shortages. At the
national level, countries must be independent in deciding how
self-sufficient their production will be, and must prioritize the food
production for domestic use.

Along the same lines, we must reject those policies imposed by WB, IMF and
WTO, the treaties of free bilateral and regional trade, as well as
prohibiting financial speculation, the trading of food futures, and the
large-scale production of agrofuels. It’s necessary to end with the
North-South domination mechanisms such as the external debt and to fight
agro-corporate power.

In front of large-scale distribution monopolies, we must demand regulation
and transparency throughout the chain of production and commercialization.
Large-scale distribution has highly negative effects on farmers, suppliers,
and workers, on environment, and on consumption. For this reason, we must
seek alternatives at the stage of purchase: going to local markets,
forming part of organic agricultural cooperatives, supporting
short-circuit commercialization – with a positive effect on the land and a
direct relationship with those who work it.

We are obliged to make advances, too, toward responsible consumption. For
example, were the whole world to consume as does a United States citizen,
we would require five land-locked planets just to satisfy the needs of our
world population. And yet, personal change is not sufficient if it goes
unaccompanied by collective political action grounded in a solidarity
between country and city. If lands are left without resources or
populations, eventually there will be no one remaining to work them, and
no one to feed us all. The building of a flourishing rural world directly
concerns the city-dweller.

And finally, we must establish alliances between the various sectors
affected by capitalist globalization, and we must take action politically.
Healthy food will not be possible without legislation to prohibit
transgenics, or indiscriminate logging practices. Neither will stop if
those multinationals who exploit the environment are not stopped – and for
all of this to happen, we need legislation which addresses and prioritizes
the needs of people and of ecosystems, instead of economic incentive.

A paradigm shift in food production, distribution and consumption will
only be possible with broader political, economic and social
transformation. We must create alliances among the world’s oppressed:
farmers, workers, women, immigrants, and youths – if we are to achieve the
“other possible world” to which all social movements aspire.


*Esther Vivas is author of the book in Spanish “Stand Up against external
debt” and co-coordinator of the books also in Spanish “Supermarkets, No
Thanks” and “Where is Fair Trade headed?”. She is a member of the
editorial board of Viento Sur (www.vientosur.info).

**Article published at América Latina en Movimiento (ALAI), nº433.
Translated into English by Danielle Hill.

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