Reconnecting Food, Nature and Community
To move beyond the simplicity of measuring agricultural production and short-term economic evaluation of agricultural success, and even beyond the narrow albeit important impacts on the environment of current farming systems, it is essential to examine the social and political dimensions of today’s dominant global food systems. It comes as no surprise to read about large inequities in the current system, and serious challenges of overconsumption and related obesity alongside a centuries-old problem of widespread undernutrition in many parts of the world. In the book Food Sovereignty: Reconnecting Food, Nature & Community, Hanna Wittman, co-editors, and chapter authors lead us on a journey through the issues that contribute to current complexity of global production and trade in food. They make the compelling argument that ”food sufficiency,” or production of enough food to nourish everyone on the planet, does not reduce inequities nor assure that people have control over their local food systems and supplies. This control is called ”food sovereignty,” further defined as the ”right of nations and peoples to control their own food systems–markets, production modes, food cultures and environments.”
A dominant theme that recurs in several chapters is the overwhelming impact of globalization and commercialization of the food system on diets and nutrition, since corporations move the focus from people and their well-being to profits for large, industrial-scale farms, input suppliers, and multinational marketers. In this largely homogenized system that depends on high levels of purchased inputs and monocultural production of commodities, most of the complex and intricate connections of people to their food supply are lost. Also ignored are the diversified diets and traditional food systems that define many unique cultures. In the interest of perceived efficiency of production and comparative advantage for each ecoregion, our global food system methods become more the same from one place to another, and in the process resilience and sustainability of the food system are lost along with culture of each place.
In contrast to this dominant direction of the current food system, a number of viable alternatives are emerging that challenge the global industrial model. For example, the Via Campesina, made up of nearly 150 organizations in 69 countries, is focused on who produces food and where it is grown, on democracy and justice with land, water and seeds under control of those who produce food. Although the focus is on food, the broader agenda includes fostering social connections, stopping violence against women, and considering the true nutritional value of foods rather than only the price received and the value of food as a commodity.
The Via Campesina movement has its roots in the struggle to overcome some lasting structural impacts of the colonial systems that dominated the economies of much of the rural South for more than a century. The human right to food was formally established in 1948 in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was articulated and accepted at the founding of the United Nations, a principle that has been confirmed in subsequent declarations on food and equity. Yet the intent of these agreements has yet to be implemented by national governments nor recognized as a priority by most in the global community. It is this principle that guides many of the movements emerging today that relate poor nutrition to poverty and seek to establish local food systems that will alleviate this problem.
One of the most serious challenges to nutrition in many developing countries has arisen in the last several years due to scarcity of major commodity crops and massive increases in food prices in the international arena. The spike in food prices in the world market reached to a three times increase between 2000 and 2008, and one obvious result was a series of food riots in many countries. High prices due to scarcity were a result of a plateau in production of major commodities, an increase in consumption of animal protein as a result of higher incomes in several countries such as China, and the emergence of ethanol as an important and growing consumer of basic feed grains over the past two decades. With essentially no strategic grain reserve in any countries, prices now fluctuate with each environmental disaster or short stretch of good rainfall in major production areas. Those who suffer most in times of uncertainty and high prices are the poor.
One of the clear solutions to improving diets and nutrition of those who are poor and rural is to encourage the preservation and improvement of indigenous crops and farming systems. Contrary to the popular wisdom and continuing propaganda coming from industrial agriculture proponents and from much of the conventional development organizations they support, Miguel Altieri points out that small-farm agriculture has incredible potential to feed people and increase rural incomes. Well designed and appropriately-managed multiple-species systems that integrate several food crops and animals are not only productive but often depend on current solar energy and internal resources on the farm to supply nutrients and control pests.
Research on the biology of these systems often reveals at least 50% higher productivity in terms of total system yields, and studies of income and nutrition indicate that the value to family well-being may be far greater than a monoculture system that produces a single crop for sale or export. Such traditional systems have received little interest from the research and development community because they do not fit the pattern of industrial agriculture in US or EU countries and do not contribute to globalization of the food industry.
Finally, the political dimensions of food systems must be considered in any serious effort to achieve food sovereignty. International organizations and trade agreements have strongly promoted free trade and increased emphasis on production of key crops for export, often at the expense of food crops that are needed for family nutrition and for preserving cultural identity. The demise of local maize production in Mexico due to massive import of this commodity from the US, and the deterioration of the rice industry in the Philippines that converted an exporting nation to one dependent on imports are two contemporary examples of this phenomenon.
Food Sovereignty: Reconnecting Food, Nature & Community provides an upto- date and well-documented review of the current global food system, with contributions by authors who have direct experience with agriculture and food in a number of developing countries. They not only chronicle the current food challenges and the impacts they have on people, but explore a number of viable alternatives that have been tested with success. The concept of food sovereignty, or control over the means and locations of vital food production and marketing by people in all countries, informs an emerging priority for those seriously concerned about equity and future society. As opposed to the conventional current model of globalization and the myth that growing economies raise all ships, and that all we need is more production, better accords to encourage free trade, and greater competition among countries for market share, a move toward food sovereignty puts people and their well-being as the logical outcome of the equation. The proposed alternative future model requires a high degree of self-determination, a recognition of the uniqueness of place and culture, and a need to develop an economic structure that serves people and not only multinational corporations or the favored elite in each country. Food Sovereignty presents a serious set of options that could be pursued to achieve an equitable, sustainable, and resilient food system. The book would be highly valuable as a key resource for courses in economic development, rural sociology, political science, and agroecology, and a useful reference for anyone concerned about the future.
Published Jan. 13. 2012