Who Controls Our Food?

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New Internationalist Blog

Who Controls Our Food?

(Photo: CIAT/flickr/cc)

Sympathy with organic food production is at an all-time high. Perhaps ‘It’s a nice idea, when you can afford it’ sums up the approach of many people. But extending these principles of production to the whole food system? It just doesn’t seem practical. There are an awful lot of people to feed in the world and, if you’re hungry, you don’t care much about the niceties of how the food was produced.  

A new report from Global Justice Now, From The Roots Up, shows that not only can small-scale organically produced food feed the world, but it can do so better than intensive, corporate-controlled agriculture. As a matter of fact, it already is feeding millions of people.

In Tigray, Ethiopia, farmers have seen grain yields double, with increased biodiversity and fertility, not to mention less debt. In Senegal, agroecological pest management techniques have allowed farmers to produce 25 per cent more rice than conventional farmers. In southern Africa, more than 50,000 farmers practising agroecology have increased maize yields by 3-4 metric tons per hectare. 

But what we’re talking about isn’t a set of farming techniques. We’re talking about who controls our food supply and how that power is used.

How we produce food is a deeply political issue that affects the lives and livelihoods of billions of people. For in our global economy, it is not the amount of food produced which dictates whether people eat or starve. If it was, we would not see the inhumane but common spectacle of people malnourished while surrounded by food. Rather, it is the increasing grip which big business exerts over our food system, in accordance with a near religious faith in the power of the market.  

So agroecology does not simply say ‘we can grow more’. It says, we can give people control over their food. It goes beyond a simple notion of ‘food security’ because, as writer Raj Patel points out, ‘it’s possible to be food secure in prison’. By shifting the way food systems are controlled, agroecology can play a part in challenging the patriarchal forms of organization that exist in farming.

Agroecology poses a challenge to the dogma of the free market, in whose name so many millions have starved over two centuries. It posits a system of production and distribution which treats people as deserving of control over their lives, and nature as deserving of our respect. It says that if we want a just and sustainable food system, we need a paradigm shift in how food is produced and distributed.  

In Africa, an all-out offensive is taking place against smallholder farming. Under the guise of a ‘new green revolution’, food is being removed from the control of those who farm it, and land from those who till it. There’s a good reason: while 75 per cent of all seeds planted across the world are owned by 1 of 10 companies, in Africa 80 per cent of all seeds still come from systems managed by farmers. That’s a lot to play for.

Look at Malawi, where under the British-supported New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition the government is being told to eliminate export bans, make life easier for corporate ‘investors’, implement new intellectual property laws over seeds, and sell land for large-scale commercial agriculture. This is nothing to do with helping Africa feed itself; it is about further empowering an already very powerful and bloated agribusiness sector.

This needs to be challenged – to bring an end to the latest crusade for Africa’s resources. But we can go further and, by supporting agroecology in Africa, begin to glimpse what a more democratic food system would look like for the whole world. This also means supporting women farmers, who have least control over the food system, in claiming their rights to land and food.  

The Global Justice Now report provides a policy framework for foreign governments that really want to help African farmers and compensate for some of the terrible resource theft which has been committed over the centuries. This means a radical reform of the aid system, which is currently doing more to entrench, than to break, corporate control. It means standing up against a number of trade agreements currently being negotiated, which will give corporations new powers to grab land, monopolize seed distribution and benefit from an export-to-the-West model of growth.  

The British government must stop imposing our own broken food model on Africa, see that Africa’s first priority must be justice for Africa’s people, and commit to promoting the principles of agroecology and food sovereignty.

Nick Dearden

Nick Dearden is the director of Global Justice Now (formerly World Development Movement) and former director of Jubilee Debt Campaign.

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