Today marks World Food Day, a UN initiative to raise global awareness of issues of food security for the world’s poorest. Yet any effort to solve the problem of hunger is set to fail unless we adopt a new approach to how the world makes, distributes and sells food.
The issue of global hunger has never been more urgent. For the first time in history, more than one billion people live in hunger. Each day 25,000 people starve to death or die from an illness caused by hunger. Shockingly, many of those who actually produce the food have been hit the hardest. Three quarters of the world’s hungry live in rural areas, of whom the overwhelming majority are farmers in poor countries.
While environmental catastrophes such as drought exacerbate the plight of the rural poor, the main causes of poverty and hunger in the developing world are man-made. In particular, the economic hardship facing many farmers can be attributed to the free trade policy prescriptions championed by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Even though they are unaccountable to the broader international community, these institutions wield enormous influence over the agricultural policies of developing nations.
To drive forward their strategy of ‘trade-based food security’, the IMF and WTO have forced developing nations to open up their markets to food imports and reorient their economies towards an export-based system. Exposed to direct competition from giant agribusiness, small farmers in the global South have struggled to stay afloat. Moreover, under the trade terms established by the WTO, agribusiness firms are increasingly able to sell their products to consumers in developing nations at a low price, undercutting small-scale farmers who rely on income from domestic markets.
As well as being thrust into competition with large farming firms, poor farmers are being squeezed by corporate sales practices. When farmers in the global South purchase seeds developed by corporations, they are often forced to sign a contract obliging them to buy fertiliser from the same firm, often at an inflated price.
Farmers have little choice but to buy crop products offered by Western firms. Under intellectual property rules written by the WTO, corporate firms now own 98% of the patents covering vital inputs used for farming. Armed with patents for a vast array of seeds, livestock breeds and other essential organisms, agribusiness can dictate the terms under which local communities grow their food.
The most harmful range of farming products currently on the market are genetically modified (GM) crops. Promoted by agribusiness as a silver bullet in the fight against global hunger, GM crops are in fact more expensive to grow and produce poorer yields. Despite the harm these crops can cause, the GM revolution has gained momentum in recent years, leading to a massive boom for firms like Monsanto and Syngenta.
Although the export-based system of food production has kept millions of small farmers in poverty, world leaders have refused to try a different model. Instead, governments have invested heavily in projects that seek to train small farmers in poor countries as entrepreneurs to compete in the global marketplace.
Yet an alternative to the current approach to food production is taking root. Across the developing world, grassroots organisations are challenging corporate farming practices and the model of production for export. Based on the principle of local control over resources, the ‘food sovereignty’ movement prioritises the needs of small-scale farmers over the profits of big business. This new paradigm recognises that the key to fighting global poverty lies in community ownership, sustainable agricultural policies and workers’ rights.
From Sri Lanka to South Africa, Brazil to Mozambique, these local organisations – many of them partners of War on Want – are successfully building communities of self-sufficient farmers. A leading voice in the food sovereignty movement is La Via Campesina. With members across 56 countries on five continents, La Via Campesina represents millions of small farmers, giving them a political platform to challenge the corporate model of agricultural development.
By promoting local alternatives such as community markets and farming collectives, these groups of small farmers are able to protect their livelihoods from the impossible demands of a world market whose rules are stacked against them. Movements such as La Via Campesina are also promoting organic methods as an alternative to destructive corporate farming products like GM crops. Taken together, these measures will help define food as a resource to be owned and shared locally – and not as a commodity to be traded and profited from on the global market.
JESSE LERNER-KINGLAKE is Communications Officer for War on Want.