Creating Food Sovereignty for Small-Scale Farmers

This interview with Raj Patel, award-winning writer, activist and academic, was originally featured as a two part series on Nourishing the Planet.

Location: San Francisco

Can you please explain the concept of food sovereignty, and what policies and programs will help encourage it?

Food sovereignty is about communities’, states’ and unions’ rights to shape their own food and agricultural policy. Now that may sound like a whole lot of nothing, because you’re actually not making a policy demand, you’re just saying that people need to be able to make their own decisions. But, actually, that’s a huge thing. Because in general, particularly for smaller farmers in developing countries, and particularly for women, decisions about food and agricultural policy have never been made by them. They’ve always been imposed.

That’s why La Via Campesina, the organization that really invented the term, says that one of the visions behind food sovereignty is that food sovereignty is about an end to all forms of violence against women. That may sound something not at all to do with food, but of course, if we’re serious about people being able to make choices about how their food comes to them and what the food system looks like, then the physical and the structural violence to which women are exposed in the home, in the economy and in society, all need to be tackled. Otherwise we will continue with a situation in which 60 percent of the people going hungry today are women or girls. So food sovereignty, to boil it down, is really about power – who has it in the food system, and how to redistribute it so that those who have concentrated it, have it taken away from them.

In terms of specific policies, what Via Campesina are calling for is for agriculture to be removed from the World Trade Organization, which is a way again in which local countries’ sovereignty is already been given away. They also call for large corporations to be booted out of agriculture. There’s strong opposition to Monsanto for example, and the way that they’ve been behaving in many developing countries, and many Via Campesina members are campaigning against Monsanto in their home countries.

Will another Green Revolution or more food subsidies help reduce hunger?

To answer the question, let’s look at Malawi. It’s the poster child for what a new green revolution in Africa might look like, with widespread subsidies of inorganic fertilizer for farmers. When I went there, late last year, what you found was long lines at the gasoline pump, because all Malawi’s foreign exchange had been spent on importing this fossil fuel-based fertilizer. The country had bankrupted itself in order that it might be a showcase for the new green revolution in Africa. And of course, there are alternatives right there in Malawi, driven by farmers – invariably by women who are innovating around sustainable systems like poly-culture – growing lots of crops simultaneously together, building soil fertility for the long run.

What this shows is that there are some basic incompatibilities between varieties of ways of addressing agrarian problems in Africa. Some organizations, Worldwatch included, adopt a ‘big tent’ approach, in which solutions that keep the status quo but improve it marginally sit alongside far more radical approaches. Ultimately, you can’t promote genetically modified monoculture or techniques that make large-scale commercial farming less destructive at the same time as wanting something like food sovereignty, which calls for much more of a deeper structural rethink of the way the food system operates. Food sovereignty is about democracy in our food system so that everyone gets to eat – industrial agriculture involves a food system run by technocrats for profit. At the end of the day, you can have one or the other -not both.

How does global agricultural policy affect small-scale farmers across the world?

In general the policies foisted on developing countries through organizations like the World Bank is that large scale agriculture is the way to go: that small farmers are a relic of the past. They are of purely cultural significance but economically, socially, and agriculturally, they stand in the way of development. So the policies that are essentially designed to increase farm size and kick off rural populations to the cities are ones that you see in pretty much every country around the world. And yet of course, it is the poor in rural communities that are being forced to bear the brunt of these policies and these are the communities that are least able to afford it. And again – you can never say it too often – it is on women’s shoulders that the bulk of the pain of moving from agrarian society to a so-called modern industrial society one, falls.

Why should American food consumers care about the fate of agricultural producers halfway across the world?

Not out of any sense of pity or charity, but because the struggle that farmers in developing countries face are very similar to the struggles that farmers in the United States face. Industrial agriculture wreaks havoc. We’ve seen the deaths from E. coli, we’ve seen industrial agriculture and the rise of BSE, we’ve seen the massive dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico because of the run-off from animal feeding operations flowing down the Mississippi. If you’re in America and you’re concerned about the quality or safety of your food, or about the consequences of the way your food is produced, then you’re not alone. Those are all things that farmers elsewhere in the world are worried about, and that consumers elsewhere in the world are worried about too.

There’s a proven way in which those concerns can be addressed. It is to wrench power away from the corporations that profit from low standards, from the ability to off-shore pollution, and the ability to evade the costs of defective products. So I think in the US, if you’re at all concerned about food safety, health, obesity – any of these things, then you would want to have more control of your food system. And wanting more control over your food system is exactly what food sovereignty is about. In a globalised world, you can’t have control over your food system in this country while people elsewhere don’t, and this is what makes it a common struggle.

Funding for agricultural research has declined in recent decades. Where should funding for agricultural innovation and research come from?

Funding for agriculture ought to come from the places where research used to come from: the government. I don’t have any stars in my eyes when I think about governments in developing countries having a ton of cash in their coffers for research into this. But governments that are net food importing developing countries, found themselves after the last food crisis in very dark times. They’re keen to develop new ways of doing things. A lot of these countries haven’t had the money to be able to invest in agricultural extension and research, and so what we need are two things: One is a cancellation of the illegitimate debt that these countries have racked up with organizations like the World Bank. There’s a huge debt that rich countries owe poor ones – for colonialism, for the ecological damage we have caused and continue to cause by the way we consume. Yet through the World Bank, the debt has been flipped over, and has become an agent for controlling these economies.

So we definitely need a change in the way international development and finance work, but we also need to support change within developing countries so that agricultural extension becomes something that once again is funded and is geared towards the kinds of research that is about low-carbon, that is about democratic control over resources, rather than about pushing a particular kind of product and particular kind of vision of agriculture that is ultimately unsustainable for the majority of countries in Africa. began in October 2009 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — when Bernard Pollack and Danielle Nierenberg began a journey to visit nearly every country in Africa. At every stop they are meeting with farmers, community organizers, labor activists/leaders, non-governmental organization (NGOs), the funding and donor communities, and local, regional, and international press.