Most of us would agree that there is a serious problem vis-a-vis access to food in the developing world. According to the UN food agency, there are now more than one billion undernourished people worldwide. The need to do something about the broken food system is especially apparent in Haiti, where I have been on a working assignment with Grassroots International for the past few weeks.
Last year, before the financial crisis spun out of control, the global food crisis was front and center in the media in Haiti and around the world. Hungry rioters took to the streets of Port-au-Prince demanding fair prices for rice and grain. Some Haitians even built a micro-industry selling patties made from mud, oil, and sugar -- an ancient remedy to help alleviate hunger pangs.
Just because the financial crisis is getting all the attention these days doesn't mean that the food crisis is any less severe. Actually, the two have much in common, arising from 30 years of failed economic and agricultural policy.
Like many other countries, Haiti was subjected to trade liberalization and privatization in the mid 1980s by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and donor countries like the U.S. During this time, U.S. agribusinesses flooded the local market with massive quantities of cheap subsidized staple foods with which Haitian peasants couldn't compete. After the large-scale imports had succeeded in paralyzing local production, prices skyrocketed. A kilo of imported rice is now worth an average day's salary in the Artibonite, a region once known as Haiti's "rice bowl."
Dumping is not unique to the Artibonite, let alone Haiti. Mexican farmers import corn from the Midwest, Indian producers often depend on Texan basmati rice, and mass-produced U.S. beef fills the shelves of Korean supermarkets. Of course, many of these countries are also exporting their own agricultural products -- but from a place of comparative, rather than competitive advantage, leaving them vulnerable to shock and speculation on the marketplace.
Unfortunately, many aid and relief programs perpetuate these trade and agriculture policies in an attempt to achieve "food security." Traditional food security, on the most basic level, is access to enough food for survival. To that end, public and private aid has invested heavily in shipments of food aid to the most vulnerable parts of the world. These policies fail to stipulate that people have a right to define their own food sources and sustainable future access -- which would amount to real food security. What happens when these cartels inevitably dry up? Food insecurity returns with vengeance.
Take the U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) "Food for Work" program in Haiti as an example. USAID and international NGOs have continually implemented "Food for Work" in Haiti's most rural areas, especially during times of crises. Instead of spending their money revitalizing the agricultural sector, these programs round up small-scale farmers to build roads and clean out sewage systems. In return, they receive vouchers for imported rice, flour, and cooking oil. Since these programs usually work on a project-to-project basis, when the work runs out so does the food (not to mention that their farms were left inactive the entire time). "Charity" with the goal of "food security" is often redefining dependency in these cases, deepening the fissures between the "periphery" and "core" of wealth in the world.
But there's an alternative to this pseudo-food security -- and it is growing fast. "Food Sovereignty" is the new progressive version of "food security." Via Campesina, the more than 150 million-member strong global network of farmers and small-scale producers first coined the term in 1996. Food sovereignty rejects the proposition that food is just another commodity for international agribusiness. Instead, it puts providers and consumers at the center of decision-making. This people-centered approach is deeply rooted in local production, based on the principal rights of farmers to produce the quantity and quality of food that they need to secure their livelihoods and those of future generations.
Haiti's hopes for achieving food sovereignty are creating a buzz across the island, with local organizers seeing themselves as part of an international movement. A couple of days ago, I attended a youth forum in one of the areas that was most damaged by last year's hurricanes. The young farmers had planted a community vegetable garden and were being trained in animal husbandry. Well aware of the concept of food sovereignty, they were proud to be growing healthy food for their families and community. Globally, those most affected by the food crisis are determined to end it once and for all.