October 16th: “The struggle against hunger is an enduring challenge; Food Sovereignty is essential”

First published by Poder 360

Hunger is once more on the rise, across the world and in Brazil, warns João Pedro Stedile of the Landless Workers Movement – La Vía Campesina.

Up until the Second World War the dominant viewpoint was that hunger was caused by natural phenomena – droughts, windstorms, frosts, low soil fertility – or by constant population growth.

In the 1950s, the Brazilian physician, geographer and thinker Josué de Castro championed the theory that hunger was caused by a distortion in the social relations of production; that is to say that it was caused by human beings themselves. In his book “The Geography of Hunger” he showed that there was more hunger in the fertile forested region where he lived than in the arid hinterland of Pernambuco. He became a worldwide authority and he was elected as the first president of the FAO (the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation).

In the East, China carried out the largest revolution of all time: it conducted a radical agrarian reform programme, and, by driving out colonisers and imperialists, succeeded in ending the hunger of its people.

In the 1960s, the capitalist response was that the only possible way to fight hunger was by increasing the physical productivity of the land and of plants. And this would be accomplished only with the use of hybrid seeds and agro-chemical inputs. It was the “Green Revolution”, in opposition to the red revolution. The main proponent of this theory, the agronomist Norman Borlaug, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1970).

Hunger, at that time, affected a hundred million people throughout the world. Decades went by and the Green Revolution did not end hunger. It only caused it to increase.

In the 1990s, the FAO called upon its member governments and specialists to put the theory of Food Security into practice. All the governments were asked to adopt policies to guarantee access to food for their entire population. Among suggested ways for doing so were the enactment of programmes similar to the Bolsa família (family allowance) in Brazil or the universal child benefit (AUH) in Argentina, and the distribution of basic food baskets, food stamps, or vouchers for supermarkets.

Policies of this kind were adopted in many countries. In Brazil, Food Security was first adopted as a political policy by the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and it became a universal programme during the government of Lula. There was a reduction in hunger.

Meanwhile, the FAO bought foodstuffs from companies in rich countries and distributed them, in the form of basic food baskets, to hungry people in poor countries.

In this manner, capitalism, now in its neoliberal stage, presented the agribusiness model as a way of increasing agricultural production. It prescribed the privatisation of property – not only the continuation of the land privatisation process that had its beginnings in the 18th century, but also the privatisation of seeds, plants, and new species. In all parts of the world, the United States government and the WTO, responding to the interests of transnational corporations, imposed patent laws that established norms for the privatisation of living beings. This paved the way for genetically-modified seeds: the combination of private property with the obligatory use of agro-toxics capable of killing every living thing except the patented seeds themselves. And both the seeds and the chemicals were produced by the same corporation.

Within a few years, there was a tenfold increase in the use of poisons. And a scant five large producers, like Bayer, Monsanto (which is now part of Bayer), Basf, Syngenta, Dow Chemical and Du Pont made incredible profits. But there was an increase in hunger, which now affects nearly a billion people.

Towards the end of the 1990s, we of La Via Campesina, together with several researchers, formulated the concept of Food Sovereignty. Hunger will only be ended if governments and nation-states espouse public policies for access to land and the promotion of local food production by family farmers and peasants. The development, growth, and progress of humanity have always been associated with food that is produced in the territory where it is consumed.

That is to say that all peoples can and should produce their own food in their own respective territories or countries; this is the only way that they will be able to survive and to progress. Any people that depend on food from outside its borders is one that is dependent, subordinate to the interests of corporations and foreign governments.

Today there is a permanent ideological struggle against the interests of the transnational corporations that control the world’s food trade. Less than fifty corporations control 58% of the gross value of global agriculture – its inputs, production, and trade. They thereby impose world prices. 

At the present time, 80% of the food that is consumed by humans and animals is limited to only six grains: soy, corn, rice, wheat, beans, rye. This figure indicates a nutritional distortion, a total dependence. It implies the destruction of age-old culinary cultures, which will understandably affect the health of everyone. And that is not all; in many countries, as in Brazil, hunger is once more on the rise.

Thus, committed researchers and peasants’ and family farmers’ movements continue to insist upon the necessity of adopting Food Sovereignty: policies supporting peasants and family farmers in the production of the food that is needed for domestic consumption. They also stress the need to put into practice agroecological techniques which increase soil and labour productivity without harming nature and without using harmful chemicals that, it is clear, destroy biodiversity.

This is what the present struggle is about: deciding between a future marked by hunger or one where there is food for all; between respect for nature or a worsening of the environmental crisis and ever more catastrophes. October 16th, the International Day for the Defence of Healthy Food, is a moment for reflection on the future of our planet. The decision is yours! It is you who decides!

By João Pedro Stedile