We live in an exciting time for food. Globalisation, the green revolution and technological advancements in storage and transportation have turned the average supermarket in the UK into a melting pot of cuisines and cultures from all around the world. For the average UK consumer national, cultural and geographical barriers have ceased to separate ingredients deriving from all corners of the globe from their saucepans. Unfortunately, we live in a much less exciting time for the people who grow it. In globalising, the food industry has become increasingly corporate, industrialised and has been accused of exploiting many of its farmers and badly damaging the environment. This blog will concentrate on one of the most outspoken critics of the global food regime; Via Campesina, their criticisms of ‘big food’ and the plausibility of the food sovereignty they advocate.
La Via Campesina or ‘The Peasants Way’ is an international peasant movement founded in 1993 which defends small scale agriculture as a way to promote social justice and dignity. Representing 200 million small-scale farmers across 4 continents, the movement opposes the increasing dominance of the food industry by an multinational corporations and a prioritisation of profit over the well being of the worlds people (1). The movement fights for climate and environmental justice, land water & territory rights, women’s rights, the rights of indigenous peoples & migrant workers and, as will be the key focus of this blog, food sovereignty. In simple terms while the concept is hard to define, the key idea behind food sovereignty is to hold industrial corporate agriculture accountable for the social and environmental damage it has caused and to propose an alternative sustainable and socially just food system rooted in small-scale farmers (2). See (3) for an official definition.
What is so wrong with ‘big food’?
Some of the most damaging effects of the global food system has been on small-scale farmers in developing countries. Throughout the 1970/80’s organisations like the IMF & the World bank implemented known as ‘structural adjustment policies’ which initiated the latest era of in global agriculture. The policies required the governments of developing nations to reduce interference in the economic market through relaxing trade regulations and reducing subsidies on food and other essential products in return for loan payments (4). The key impact of these policies on small-scale farmers in developing nations was that their livelihoods were suddenly placed at the mercy of volatile international markets. As a result, small-scale farmers across the world have borne the brunt of increased price uncertainty and being undercut by highly subsidised competition for the US and Europe (5)(6). The effect this has had on the livelihoods of small-scale farmers in India has been named as the predominant cause of an eight-fold increase in the suicide rates amongst male farmers in rural Indian provinces between 2001-2004 (6).
These reforms have also meant that market crashes like the one in 2008 have hit small-scale farmers the hardest, causing food riots amongst farmers across the globe are unable to feed themselves or their families (5). In response to the vulnerability of small-scale farmers to the volatility of a market stacked in favour of subsidised northern imports, La Via Campesina advocate controls to be placed of the market. They propose prioritising access to local markets to ensure farmers are not displaced from their own markets by agribusiness and that restrictions of monopolies to be put in place. Further they propose that subsidies should be regulated, prohibiting richer nations from dumping cheap food exports into regions, destabilising local agroeconomies (7).
As well as insurmountable competition small-scale farmers face from abroad, the relaxation of regulations moderating foreign investment also initiated a wave of industrialised agriculture into developing countries. As well as subsidised food, the US began exporting the industrial model of agriculture ‘including new high-yielding seeds, fossil fuel–based pesticides, fertilisers, machinery, irrigation, and monocropping’ (8) this became known as the green revolution. Many small-scale farmers aren’t able to afford such expensive inputs and are unable to compete with the increased productivity of bigger farmers have been ‘rendered destitute and landless’ (8). As well as undermining the livelihoods of small-scale local farmers these industrial farming methods also have damaging environmental effects. These include the loss of ‘crop genetic diversity, dependence on fossil-fuel based inputs, massive soil erosion, depletion of aquifers, and rising greenhouse gas emissions’ (8). La Via Campesina advocate a shift towards more traditional, sustainable farming methods which supporters argue ‘can play an important role in climate change mitigation by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions by minimising the use of fossil fuel-based pesticides’ (8)(7).
Food Sovereignty – Is it viable?
While the La Via Campesina in the food sovereignty have received support from many academics and researchers, the idea that a collectivised union of small-scale farmers can feed the world has come under much scrutiny. The world bank estimated that in order to feed the world population by 2050, 50 percent more food will have to be produced (10). Henry Bernstein, a professor of development studies at SOAS University of London, asserts producing enough food to feed the world through small-scale farming at a price affordable by the poorest in society will require subsidisation at the level of production and the level of sale (11). He argues that the level of subsidisation required poses a serious problem to food sovereignty advocates, particularly considering nations with weak agricultural systems, in the most need of subsidisation, may not have the financial reserves to facilitate such a policy.
Ultimately however, while it could be argued economically unsustainable to enact subsidisation of food at this level, it is no less so than the prospect of letting the industrial food regime continue unhampered to further degrade the quality of life for millions of farmers across the world and wreak environmental devastation. Further, the reforms advocated food sovereignty movements and La Via Campesina do not have to be implemented either in their entirety or not at all. It could well be that an incremental institution of the reforms advocated by the food sovereignty up to and not beyond that extent a government can sustain could have profound and very realbenefit for and beyond beyond the lives of small-scale farmers.