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From Food Crisis to Food Sovereignty: The Challenge of Social Movements

Agroecologist Eric Holt-Gimenez warns of the capitalist drive behind the resurgence of a Green Revolution in the fight to overcome the food crisis.

The following is an excerpt from Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance, and Renewal,edited by Fred Magdoff and Brian Tokar (Monthly Review Press)

From Food Crisis to Food Sovereignty: The Challenge of Social Movements

The current global food crisis—decades in the making—is a crushing indictment against capitalist agriculture and the corporate monopolies that dominate the world’s food systems. The role of the industrial agrifood complex in creating the crisis (through the monopolization of input industries, industrial farming, processing, and retailing) and the self-serving neoliberal solutions proposed by the world’s multilateral institutions and leading industrial countries are being met with skepticism, disillusion, and indifference by a general public more concerned with the global economic downturn than with the food crisis. Neoliberal retrenchment has met growing resistance by those most affected by the crisis—the world’s smallholder farmers.

Solutions to the food crisis advanced by the World Bank, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and mega-philanthropy, propose accelerating the spread of biotechnology, reviving the Green Revolution, reintroducing the conditional lending of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and recentralizing the now fragmented power of the World Trade Organization (WTO) by concluding the Doha “Development Round” of trade negotiations. These institutions have a mandate from capital to mitigate hunger, defuse social unrest, and reduce the overall numbers of peasant producers worldwide—without introducing any substantive changes to the structure of the world’s food systems. Their neoliberal strategies are in stark contrast to the proposals for ecological approaches to agriculture (agroecology) and food sovereignty advanced by farmer federations and civil society organizations worldwide that instead seek to transform food systems. Clashes and declarations of protest at recent summits in Rome, Hokkaido, and Madrid, the growing public resistance to the industrial agrifood complex, and the rise, spread, and political convergence of movements for agroecology, land reform, food justice, and food sovereignty, all indicate that the food crisis has become the focal point in a class struggle over the future of our food systems.

In 2008, record numbers of the world’s poor experienced hunger, this at a time of record harvests and record profits for the world’s major agrifood corporations. The contradiction of increasing hunger in the midst of wealth and abundance sparked food riots, not seen for many decades. Protests in Mexico, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Indonesia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Yemen, Egypt, Haiti, and twenty other countries were sparked by skyrocketing food prices. In June 2008, the World Bank reported that global food prices had risen 83 percent over the last three years and the FAO cited a 45 percent increase in their world food price index in just nine months. While commodity prices have since fallen due to the world economic downturn and speculators lessening their bets on commodities, food prices remain high and are not expected to return to pre-crisis levels.

The widespread food protests were not simply crazed “riots” by hungry masses. Rather, they were angry demonstrations against high food prices in countries that formerly had food surpluses, and where government and industry were unresponsive to people’s plight. In some cases, starving people were just trying to access food from trucks or stores. Alarmed by the specter of growing social unrest, the World Bank announced that without massive, immediate injections of food aid, 100 million people in the South would join the swelling ranks of the world’s hungry.

These shrill warnings immediately revived Malthusian mantras within the agrifood industry and unleashed a flurry of heroic industrial promises for new genetically engineered high-yielding, “climate-ready,” and “bio-fortified” seeds. The World Bank called for a “New Deal” for Agriculture and trotted out a portfolio of $1.2 billion in emergency loans. The FAO appealed (unsuccessfully) to OECD governments to finance a $30 billion a year revival of developing country agriculture. Über-philanthropist Bill Gates invited multinational corporations to follow him into a new era of “creative capitalism,” promising that his new Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) would provide four million poor farmers with new seeds and fertilizers.

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