Lavish subsidies for commodity agriculture products like cotton, corn, and soy beans in the world's wealthiest nations continue to put small-scale farmers and consumers in less-developed nations on the short-end of the stick in the global food economy, said policy experts and top ministers from African nations at a United Nations food summit in Rome on Monday.
Calling for changes to how the international food and commodity markets are managed, attendees at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) meeting on the topic said that the hundreds of billions spent annually by the United States, Canada, and other rich nations create skewed markets conditions that benefit those who need it least while squeezing the world's poorest and most vulnerable.
Director-General of the FAO José Graziano da Silva told those gathered it was time for world governments "to review the way international agricultural commodity markets are governed" and noted the importance of recognizing how global market functions—such as large shifts in the price of staple commodities—can create dramatic upheavals and negative impacts, especially on "the incomes and food security of smallholders."
Critics point to the high levels of government subsidies, with the US being the most obvious culprit when it comes to things like corn and cotton, that result in these wild market swings.
According to Chris Arsenault, reporting for the Thomas Reuters Foundation:
The United States, the world's largest cotton producer, paid its cotton farmers $32.9 billion to grow their crops between 1995 and 2012, the Environmental Working Group, a research organization, reported.
"U.S. farmers are subsidized so they produce more cotton than they would otherwise, lowering the global price and hurting farmers in Burkina Faso," Gawain Kripke, Oxfam America's director of research, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "This creates unfair global competition."
European cotton producers, based mostly in Greece and Spain, receive smaller subsidies, but the EU accounts for only one percent of world production.
For other crops, the European Union spends around $58 billion annually on farm subsidies. Farmers from poorer countries say they cannot compete, given these levels of government support for their rivals.
As quoted by Arsenault, the minister of agriculture for Burkina Faso, Mahama Zoungrana, rose at the meeting and told delegates: "Our cotton producers are constantly targeted by unfair subsidies from the North." He went on to argue that "the rules and standards" that govern international trade are written in favor of large producers but continue to make life unbearable for small and medium sized farmers in Africa and across the world.
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A global food "paradigm shift": From industrial monocultures to agroecology
What's often lost in surface discussions surrounding food subsidies is the outsized role played by the industrialized nature of the corporate-controlled food system itself. The commodity crops in developed countries which receive the vast majority of government support are grown at industrial scale, which skews not only the markets on which those commodities are traded but also skews the very soil and water systems that make up the areas where those farms exist.
Last month, da Silva and the FAO made news by calling for an international "paradigm shift" on global agriculture — one that would initiate new focus on sustainable and family farming, including taking guidance from the principles of agroecology the other food systems that take food sovereignty and organic practices as central tenets. However, to the dismay of small-holder farmers and supporters of organic farming, da Silva also pushed GMO farming as part of the global solution and offered no strong or binding proposals that would see the dominance of monocultures and industrial agriculture end any time soon.
Despite the lack of firm action, Monique Mikhail, a senior political advisor at Greenpeace International, was among the welcoming the new dialogue that has at least found a place at the FAO and other international forums. In a recent blog post, she wrote:
the tide appears to be changing with more and more international heavy-weights recognizing the need for an overhaul of our food system by focusing on ecological farming. At the onset of the symposium, about 70 prominent scientists addressed a letter to the FAO, calling for it to support ecological farming as the central strategy for building resilience to climate change.
Ecological farming is far more resilient to disruption because it is rooted in the idea that an alternative farming system, based on biodiversity, can protect both nature and human livelihoods now and into the future.
And La Via Campesina, the international group of peasant farmers, is on the record as expressing cautious applause for the introduction of agroecology to the UN policy debate:
Governments and institutions, the majority of which respond to the interests of national and transnational agribusiness, have resisted agroecology. In fact, to speak of the alternatives embodied in agroecology, has until now been taboo in institutions like the FAO. Still, this situation has been changing of late, though only partially.
The rapid degradation of soils and other productive resources brought about industrial farming practices, and climate change, have now created growing uncertainty about the future of industrial agriculture. And the number of scientists with studies and data that show agroecology to be a superior approach, in terms of both productivity and sustainability, is growing. The result has been more institutional opening to agroecology.
But the opening is relative. While social movements like La Via Campesina see agroecology as the alternative to industrial agriculture, and highlight it's potential help in transforming grim rural realities, the new institutional opening is geared more toward a scaled-back version of agroecology. This version is limited to seeing agroecology as nothing more than the source of a few new tools for the toolbox of industrial agriculture; in other words, of methods to reduce the negative impacts of industrial farming practices on future productivity. Those who promote this shrunken approach use names like 'sustainable' or 'ecological intensification,' or 'climate smart agriculture,' to refer the erroneous idea that agroecology is compatible with large extensions of industrial monoculture, pesticides and GMOs. For La Via Campesina, this is not agroecology, but rather is a blatant attempt at cooptation, which should be denounced and resisted.