Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy recently partnered with Raj Patel and Annie Shattuck to bring us Food Rebellions: Crisis and the Hunger for Justice. Recently, Holt-Giménez spent a weekend in New York to introduce his new book and open a conversation about these rebellions.
Perhaps you've heard the stats: between 2007 and 2008 approximately 40 food riots occurred around the world. In Mexico, corn prices made tortilla, a staple of the country's diet, prohibitively expensive for the nation's poor. In Haiti, soaring food prices led people to the streets, and eventually to overthrow the Prime Minister.
Yet were these riots or rebellions? For some, the distinction may seem small. These were not spontaneous anger outbursts fueled by mob mentality. They were not riots. Rather, they were conscious, political acts. They were rebellions. The objectives of a rebellion-agency and intention-are the essential implications of the word itself. They are not just a reaction to food prices-they are a protest.
But a protest against what, exactly? The simple answer: against the causes of the food crisis. But Holt-Giménez draws an important distinction between what he calls the "proximate" and "root" causes of the global food crisis. It is the difference between symptoms and sickness.
Proximate causes are the commonly-cited reasons for hikes in food prices. These include grain speculation, increased use of land for agro-fuel production (as opposed to edible crops), increased meat consumption and a particularly poor harvest season in the US, Australia and Turkey. While in 2007-2008 these forces were certainly at work, a deeper look reveals that the food crisis was actually a long time in the making.
A more discerning analysis of the upheaval of 2007-2008 points to what Holt-Giménez calls the root causes of our food crisis. We have a vulnerable food system, one in which 91% of our crops are maize, cotton, wheat, rice and soy. A lack of diversity in our agricultural repertoire leaves our crops open to environmental (not to mention economic) shock.
Think Irish potato famine.
Holt-Giménez sees our vulnerable food system as part of the "agri-foods industrial complex." The agri-foods industrial complex actually refers to any and all corporate business involved in the production, processing, storing and transporting of food. It is a powerful force to reckon with. Follow its track record, Holt-Giménez urges, and one will see that the Green Revolution combined with the destruction of tariff barriers in the ensuing decades, and the free-trade trends of the 90s, were all results of a corporation-driven food system. These phases increased developing nations' dependency on imported grain and seed, in countries that had been largely self-sufficient before. Production went down, diversity shrunk dramatically, local producers lost their market and were forced migrate-often emigrate. One million bankrupt Mexican growers, for example, headed for the United States.
There is a danger in conflating the proximate and root causes of the food crisis in searching for solutions, warns Holt-Giménez. When we focus only on the symptoms of the problem (grain speculation, increased agri-fuel production, lower crop yields) we easily reach the conclusion that genetically modified food and industrial agriculture present a "solution," or an immediate fix to world hunger. Not so fast. Looking at the root causes, we see that loss of crop diversity, market flooding and farmer bankruptcy are actually all part of the quick fix that fuels the agri-foods industrial complex. It is the consolidation of land and power.
We need our seeds and we need our small farmers. We need them not just for biodiversity, not just for distribution of power, but for the pure know-how they possess. There can be a place for small farmers and an alternative food system. As long as our planet has a smallholder population, we have a chance, Holt-Giménez argues, citing La Via Campesina as a hopeful example. Low-input, small operations can indeed be high-yielding. They needn't be reinvented, just supported. We can't use a corporate food system to fix symptoms of the corporate food system itself.
At the end of Holt-Giménez's talk, he reminded his audience that we are political beings, even in the toughest circumstances. Our challenge now is to recognize sickness, not symptoms-and revolution, not riot.