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Food Sovereignty and the Contemporary Food Crisis

Food Sovereignty and the Contemporary Food Crisis

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Published by: peterrosset on Apr 06, 2010
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Thematic Section
Food Sovereignty and the ContemporaryFood Crisis
Peter Rosset examines the current global food price crisis,identifying both long- and short-term causes. He argues that toescape the crisis, countries must rebuild and protect domestic  peasant and family farmer food production and public inventories.The ‘food sovereignty’ paradigm put forth by the global peasant and farmer alliance, La Via Campesina, may well offer our only way out of the current conundrum.
food crisis; food sovereignty; La Via Campesina; peasant;farmers; agrofuels; hedge funds
In today’s world, we find ourselves mired in a global food price crisis that is driving in-creased hunger and even food riots in several continents. It seems odd that we are in acrisis of high food prices when the past 20^30 years have seen a
of low prices,prices solow that millions of peasantand family farmers around the world were drivenoff thelandand intonationaland international migrant streams.Toconfrontthis harshreality, La Via Campesina, the international alliance of organizations of peasant andfamily farmers, farm workers, indigenous people, landless peasants, and rural womenand youth (www.viacampesina.org), developed a comprehensive alternative proposalfor restructuring food production and consumption at the local, national and globallevel, called‘food sovereignty’ (Rosset,2006).Under food sovereignty, and in contrast to the ‘one size fits all’ proposals of theWorld Trade Organization (WTO), every country and people is deemed to have theright to establish its own policies concerning its food and agriculture system, as longas those policies do not hurt third countries, as has been the case when major agroex-port powers dump foodstuffs in the markets of other countries at prices below the costof production, thus driving local farmers out of business (Rosset, 2006). Food sover-eignty would allow countries to protect their domestic markets against such practices.But now that we have shifted from a period of artificially low prices to a period of highprices, does food sovereignty still make sense? An examination of the causes of thecurrent crisis, which turnout to be not so different from the previous crisis, shows thatit indeed does. In fact, food sovereignty may well offer our only way out of the currentconundrum.
(4), (460–463)
2008 Society for International Development 1011-6370/08www.sidint.org/development/
460–463. doi:10.1057/dev.2008.48
Causes of the contemporary food pricecrisis
But, what are the causes of the extreme food pricehikes? There are both long-term and short-termcauses. Among the former, the cumulative effectofthreedecadesofneo-liberalbudget-cutting,pri-vatization and free trade agreements stands out.In most countries around the world, national foodproduction capacity has been systematically dis-mantled and replaced by a growing capacity toproduce agroexports, stimulated by enormousgovernment subsidies to agribusiness, using tax-payer money (Rosset,2006).It is peasants and family farmers who feed thepeoples of the world, byand large. Large agribusi-ness producers in most countries have an export‘vocation’. But policy decisions have stripped theformer of minimum price guarantees, parastatalmarketing boards, credit, technical assistanceand, above all, markets for their produce. Localand national food markets were first inundatedwithcheap imports, and now, whentransnationalcorporations (TNCs) have captured the bulk of the market share, the prices of the food importsonwhich countries now depend have been drasti-cally jacked up (Rosset,2006).Meanwhile, the World Bank and the IMF haveforced governments to sell off their public sectorgrain reserves (Rosset, 2006). The result is thatwe now face one of the tightest margins in recenthistorybetweenfoodreservesanddemand,whichgenerates both rising prices and greater marketvolatility. Inother words, manycountries nolong-erhave either sufficient food reserves or sufficientproductivecapacity.Theynowdependon imports,whosepricesareskyrocketing.Anotherlong-termcause of the crisis, though of far lesser impor-tance, has been changing patterns of food con-sumption in some parts of the world, such asincreased preference for meat and poultry pro-ducts (Ray,2008).Among the short-term causes of the crisis, byfarthemostimportanthasbeentherelativelysud-den entry of speculative financial capital intofood markets. Hedge, index and risk funds haveinvested heavily in the futures markets for com-modities like grains and other food products.With the collapse of the home mortgage marketin the US, their already desperate search fornew avenues of investment led these funds todiscover these markets for futures contracts.Attracted by high price volatility in any market,since they take their profits on both price risesand price drops, they bet like gamblers ina casino^ gambling, inthis case, withthe food of ordinarypeople. These funds have already injected anadditional 70 billion dollars of extra investmentinto commodities, inflating a price bubble thathas pushed the cost of basic foodstuffs beyondthe reach of the poor in country after country.And when the bubble inevitably bursts, it willwipe out millions of food producers throughoutthe world.Another important short-term factor is theagrofuel boom. Agrofuel crops compete for plant-ingareawith food crops and cattle pasture. InthePhilippines, for example, the government hassigned agreements that designate an area to beplanted with agrofuel crops that is equivalent tofully half of the area planted with rice, the main-stay of the country’s diet.We really ought to labelfeeding automobiles instead of people a crimeagainst humanity.The major global price increase in the costs of chemical inputs forconventional farming, as a di-rect result of the high price of petroleum, is alsoa major short-term causal factor. Other factors of recent impact include droughts and other climateevents in a number of regions, and a tendencyfor TNCs and the private sector in general tohoard scarce food items in order to speculate ontheir prices, as was the case with the so-calledtortilla crisisin Mexico in 2007 (Herna Ł ndezNavarro, 2007, http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2007/01/30/index.php?section
021a1pol, accessed 29 July 2008).
Food sovereignty: The only way out ofthe crisis
Faced with this global panorama, and all of itsimplications, there is really just one alternativeproposal that is up to the challenge. Under theFood Sovereignty paradigm, social movementsand a growing number of progressive and
Rosset: Food Sovereignty 
semi-progressive governments propose that wereregulate the food commodity markets that werederegulated under neoliberalism. It is also pro-posed that they be regulated better than beforethey were deregulated, withgenuine supply man-agement, making it possible to set prices that arefair to both farmers and consumers alike, as out-lined inTable1 (Rosset,2006).That necessarily means a return to protectionof the national food production of nations,both against the dumping of artificially cheapfood that undercuts local farmers, and againstthe artificially expensive food imports thatwe encounter today. It means rebuilding the na-tional grain reserves and parastatal marketingboards, in new and improved versions that ac-tively include farmer organizations as ownersand administrators of public reserves. This is akey step toward taking our food system backfrom the TNCs that hoard food stocks to driveprices up (Rosset,2006).Countries urgently need to stimulate therecoveryoftheirnationalfoodproducingcapacity,specifically that capacity located in the peasantand family farm sectors.This means public sectorbudgets, floor prices, credit and other forms of support, and genuine agrarian reform. Landreform is urgently needed in many countriesto rebuild the peasant and family farm sectorswhose vocation is growing food for people, sincethe largest farms and agribusinesses seem toonly produce for cars and for export (Rosset
et al 
.,2006). Also, many countries need to implementexport controls, as a number of governmentshave done in recent days, to stop the forcedexportation of food desperately needed by theirownpopulations.Finally, we must change dominant technologi-cal practices in farming, toward an agriculturebasedonagroecologicalprinciples,thatissustain-able, and that is based on respect for and is inequilibrium with nature, local cultures and tradi-tional farming knowledge (Altieri, 2008, http://www.landaction.org/spip/spip.php?article315,accessed 29 July 2008). It has been scientificallydemonstrated that ecological farming systemscan be more productive, can better resist droughtand other manifestations of climate change,and are more economically sustainable becausethey use less fossil fuel. We can no longerafford the luxury of food whose price is linked tothe price of petroleum (Schill, 2008, http://www.ethanolproducer.com/issue.jsp?issue_id
84,acces-sed 29 July 2008), much less whose industrialmonoculture production model ^ with pesticidesand GMOs ^ damages the future productive capa-cityof our soils.All of these recommendations, which addresseach of the major causes of the crisis, are partof the food sovereignty proposal (Rosset, 2006;
Table 1.
Food sovereignty policies to address the global food price crisis
Protect domestic food markets against both dumping (artificially low prices) and artificiallyhigh prices driven by speculation and volatility in global markets.
A return to improved versions of supply management policies at the national level andimproved international commodity agreements at a global level.
Recovery of the productive capacity of peasant and family farm sectors, via floor prices,improved marketing boards, public sector budgets and genuine agrarian reform.
Rebuild improved versions of public sector and or farmer-owned basic food inventories,elimination of TNCs and the private sector as the principal owners of national food stocks.
Controls against hoarding and forced export of needed foodstuffs.
An immediate moratorium on agrofuels.
The technological transformation of farming systems, based on agroecology, to break thelink between food and petroleum prices, and to conserve and restore the productivecapacity of farm lands.
Development 51(4): Thematic Section

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