La Vía Campesina and the Global Food Crisis: Adequate Food is Simple Justice

Newspaper headlines around the world proclaim the current global food crisis. Prices for basic grains are skyrocketing making it impossible for millions of people to purchase sufficient food for sustenance; food riots are erupting in various parts of the world and governments are scrambling to find quick fixes. Meanwhile, as hunger and the fear of hunger spreads, transnational agri-business, speculators and investors reap huge profits.

What are the solutions to this crisis? The proponents of neoliberal globalization would have us believe that the sudden crisis is the result of ‘shortages’ and ‘market failures.’ They assure us that the best way forward is to prevent national governments from intervening in the market, increase production with the adoption of genetically-modified seeds, and further liberalization of agriculture and food. Apparently, we just didn’t liberalize enough! However, the world’s peasants, small-scale farmers, farm workers and indigenous communities organized in La Via Campesina argue that the crisis is the result of decades of destructive policies, that the globalization of a neoliberal industrial and capital-intensive model of agriculture is the very cause of the current food crisis, and that “the time for food sovereignty has come.”

For over 30 years policy makers, national governments and international institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization pushed the fundamental restructuring of national economies while chanting the mantra of liberalization, privatization and deregulation. In agriculture this led to dramatic shifts from production for domestic consumption to production for export. In the process, fields normally planted to food for the national population were replaced by hectares of broccoli, snow peas, mangos, shrimp and flowers for northern markets. Consequently, many developing countries that used to be self-sufficient in basic grains are now net importers of food.

The restructuring of agriculture also facilitiated the corporatization of agriculture. While peasants and small-scale farmers have been systematically driven from the land in the North and the South, corporations increased their control over the food chain. In doing so, agri-business has successfully ensured that they are in a better position to extract profits along every link of the food chain.

It is this neoliberal, industrial and corporate-driven model of agriculture that has been globalized over the past 30 years. This is a model that treats food like any other commodity, presents agriculture exclusively as a profit-making venture, concentrates productive resources into the hands of agro-industry, and places food in commodities futures markets. Here, profit-hungry speculators, investors and hedge funds scoop up millions of dollars through frenzied bidding and betting on price changes and predictions of scarcities. Agriculture has moved away from its primary function – that of feeding humans. Today, less than half of the world’s grains are eaten by humans. Instead, grains are used primarily to feed animals, and more recently, these grains are now being converted into agro-fuels to feed cars. This is manufactured scarcity par excellence.

The structural adjustment programs — imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – combined with the World Trade Organization’s trade agreements meant that agriculture and food policies are now controlled only by a faceless international market. National polices, such as price controls, tariffs, and marketing boards, designed to ensure the viability of small-scale farmers and an adequate supply of culturally appropriate food through support for domestic agriculture have been replaced by the voracious demands of the ‘market’.

Markets no nothing about morality, justice, or the basic right of people to adequate and nutritious food. Markets determine only that goods are sold for the highest bidder; now people are outbid by the demands of agro-fuels, by commodity speculators, and by cattle. If we went by price alone, it would seem that agriculture has nothing to do with producing food for people.

La Vía Campesina, an international farm movement representing 149 organizations from 56 countries, argues that the global food crisis demonstrates the desperate need to build a fundamentally new model of agriculture – one based on food sovereignty. Food sovereignty focuses on producing food for people, closes the gap between food producers and consumers, puts those who produce and consume food at the centre of decision-making on agricultural and food policies, and builds on the knowledge of food providers. La Vía Campesina argues that this crisis can be resolved only if governments support peasant and small-scale production, rebuild their national food economies, regulate international markets, and the international community respects, protects, and fulfills human rights – especially the right to food.

Not starving is, after all, a simple justice.

* Annette Aurélie Desmarais is Associate Professor in the Department of Justice Studies at the University of Regina, Canada, and Jim Handy is a Professor of History, University of Saskatchewan, Canada. The article was published in Spanish by La Jornada on May 8th, 2008 and in English by the Western Producer on May 22, 2008.