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.

Name: Raj Patel

Affiliation: Visiting scholar at UC Berkeley's Center for African Studies, Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First.

Location: San Francisco

Bio: Raj Patel has degrees from the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cornell University, has worked for the World Bank and WTO, and protested against them around the world. He has testified about the causes of the global food crisis to the US House Financial Services Committee and is an Advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. In addition to numerous scholarly publications, he regularly writes for The Guardian, and has contributed to the LA Times, NYTimes.com, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Mail on Sunday, and The Observer. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and most recently, The Value of Nothing.

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.

To learn more about food sovereignty and fair trade, see Depending on A Global Workforce,  In a Global Food System: Breaking Down Barriers and Improving Livelihoods for Food Workers and Making Sure the Food Industry Works for its Employees.

Editor's Note: Many thanks to Raj Patel for allowing us to profile him on the Nourishing the Planet blog. We're a big fan of his work with Food First and promoting food sovereignty. While we're grateful to Raj for highlighting the importance of protecting the livelihoods of millions of farmers all over the world, we would like to respectfully disagree with his suggestion above that Worldwatch has promoted "genetically modified monoculture" systems. Worldwatch has a long history of writing about sustainable agriculture systems that encourage crop diversity and support the livelihoods of small-scale farmers, including our early writing on the local food movement in Brian Halweil's book, Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Solutions in a Global Supermarket; our first-hand reporting in 2001 on why genetically modified crops are not necessarily the best, or most appropriate, or only available solution to agricultural challenges; and Danielle Nierenberg's writing on the spread of factory farming into the developing world and how it could be stopped in Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry.

This blog has taken a "big tent" approach, so to speak, in that we've featured many voices as we scour Africa for examples of farmers, scientists, politicians and others doing great work. This doesn't mean we think all solutions are equally worthy of attention or support. In fact, we have tried to make clear in our posts that we think current investments in agricultural development are irrationally skewed towards crop breeding and big infrastructure projects, like dams for irrigation. Many of the innovations we have profiled-from low-cost ways to cut waste in the food system, to mixed-cropping systems with livestock, to farmer-organized marketing and research cooperatives-aren't making "large-scale commercial farming less destructive," as Raj writes. But, used widely, they could change the very structure of the food economies throughout the world. And that's what will successfully eliminate hunger and poverty.

Thank you for reading! As you may already know, Danielle Nierenberg is traveling across sub-Saharan Africa visiting organizations and projects that provide environmentally sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty.  She has already traveled to over 18 countries and visited 130 projects highlighting stories of hope and success in the region. She will be in Burkina Faso next, so stay tuned for more writing, photos and video from her travels.  

If you enjoy reading this diary, we blog daily on  Nourishing the Planet, where you can also sign up for our newsletter to receive weekly blog and travel updates.  Also, please don't hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you.

 

 

Acting It Out for Advocacy

This is the final blog in a three-part series about FANRPAN's work. It was co-written by Sithembile Ndema, FANRPAN's Natural Resources and Environment Programme Manager and Danielle Nierenberg. Crossposted from Nourishing the Planet.

The Food and Natural Resource Policy Analysis Network's (FANRPAN) Women Accessing Realigned Markets (WARM) project aims at strengthening the capacity of women farmers influence in agriculture policy development and programmes in Southern Africa. It doesn't sound especially entertaining-but it has some innovative strategies for bridging the divide between women farmers, researchers, and policy makers.

FANRPAN is using Theatre for Policy Advocacy to engage leaders, service providers, and policymakers; encourage community participation; and research the needs of women farmers. Essentially, theatre is being used to explain agricultural policy to people in rural areas, and to carry voices from the countryside back to government. Popular theatre personalities travel to communities in Mozambique and Malawi and stage performances using scripts based on FANRPAN's research, to engage members of the community. After each performance, community members, women, men, youth, local leaders are engaged in facilitated dialogues.  The dialogues give all community member-especially women-a chance to openly talk about the challenges they are facing without upsetting the status quo. More importantly, it allows women to tell development organizations what they really need, not the other way around.

Ultimately, FANRPAN hopes to train women community leaders to use the theatre advocacy platform to discuss other issues and problems in their villages, including HIV/AIDS.  And because this project involves all members of the community, it doesn't alienate men, but includes them in developing solutions.

For more information on FANRPAN and its work in Africa see the following www.fanrpan.org

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Zambia Leads Way in Empowering Farmers with Markets

Check out Danielle Nierenberg's Op-Ed, based on research for the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet project, featured on the front page of the Zambia Daily Mail. Cross posted from Border Jumpers, Danielle Nierenberg and Bernard Pollack.

In the United States, it seems like we only hear about what's going wrong in Africa. We see and read stories about famine, HIV/AIDS, disease, or conflict.

In fact, few Americans will ever step foot in countries like Malawi or Zambia, largely because our media often scares people away.

As I travel across Africa, working as a senior researcher for the Worldwatch Institute as co-project director of Nourishing the Planet, I am hoping to show a different side of the continent.

Instead of stories of despair, we are looking at and sharing stories of success and hope, highlighting African-led innovations that are helping to alleviate hunger and poverty in an environmentally sustainable way.

After spending time in Lusaka meeting with non-governmental organisations, non-profits and projects on the ground, I discovered that this country is filled with incredible individuals and organisations - making my job very easy, and in many ways serving as a model for the rest of the continent.

Here are some examples:

COMACO, an organisation founded over 30 years ago to conserve local wildlife, helps farmers improve their agricultural practices in ways that can protect the environment - such as through conservation farming - while also creating a reliable market for farm products.

It organises the farmers into producer groups, encouraging them to diversify their skills by raising livestock and bees, growing organic rice, using improved irrigation and fisheries management and other practices so that they don't have to resort to poaching elephants or other wildlife.

The United Nations World Food Programme's Purchase for Progress (P4P) programme, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and the Belgian government, is working with the private sector, governments and NGOs to provide an incentive for farmers to improve their crop management skills and produce high-quality food, create a market for surplus crops from small and low-income farmers and promote local processing and packaging of products.

Mobile Transactions, a financial services company for the 'unbanked' in Zambia, allows customers to use their phones like an ATM card. Over the last decade, cell-phone use in Africa has increased fivefold and farmers are using their phones to gain information about everything from markets to weather.

By using Mobile Transactions, farmers are not only able to make purchases and receive payment electronically; they are also building a credit history which can make getting loans easier.

And Mobile Transactions also works with USAID's PROFIT programme to help agribusiness agents make orders for inputs, manage stock flows and communicate more easily with agribusiness companies and farmers.

Perhaps most importantly, the partnership helps agents better understand the farmers they are working with so that they can provide the tools, inputs and education each farmer and community needs.

Care International's work in Zambia has two main goals: increase the production of staple crops and improve farmers' access to agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilisers. But instead of giving away bags of seed and fertilisers to farmers, Care is "creating input access through a business approach", not a subsidy approach, according to Steve Power, assistant country director for Zambia.

One way they're doing this is by creating a network of agro-dealers who can sell inputs to their neighbours as well as educate them about how to use hybrid seeds, fertilisers and other inputs. At the same time, "we are mindful" of the benefits of local varieties of seeds.

Jan Nijhoff of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and Michigan State University, who is also an advisor on Worldwatch's Nourishing the Planet project, says COMESA's mission is to promote regional economic integration through increased co-operation and integration of trade, customs, transport, communication, technology, energy, and gender, as well as agriculture, environment and natural resources.

Throughout most of my meetings, a theme I hadn't heard as much in other African countries continued to surface - linking farmers to markets.

While at times I was sceptical about this focus on the private sector, the more I talked to farmers, NGOs, development workers and policy-makers, the more convinced I became that farmers need not just inputs to grow their crops, but a profitable - and sustainable - market to sell those crops.

In developing this model, it's clear that Zambia is leading the way and creating examples that could work and be scaled up in other countries across the continent. - www.nourishingtheplanet.org

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Wausau Daily Herald: Husband and his wife are helping an African nation farm its was out of poverty

Edgar native one of Malawi's miracle workers
Husband and his wife are helping an African nation farm its was out of poverty
By Danielle Nierenberg
For the Wausau Daily Herald

There's more...

Wausau Daily Herald: Husband and his wife are helping an African nation farm its was out of poverty

Edgar native one of Malawi's miracle workers
Husband and his wife are helping an African nation farm its was out of poverty
By Danielle Nierenberg
For the Wausau Daily Herald

There's more...

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