Is agriculture simply a commodity? Are food aid and free trade ensuring the rights of farmers and fishers around the world? Read on for an analysis of policy efforts to defend food sovereignty.
A central struggle and rally of food sovereignty is born out of the fundamental ‘right to have rights.’ Efforts to shape and change policy are often directly related to the particular ways these rights are diluted, ignored and silenced. Political efforts to advance food sovereignty are rooted in the inherent rights that all peasants, farmers, men and women possess, as defined in the Declaration of the Rights of Peasants:
- Right to life and to an adequate standard of living
- Right to land and territory
- Right to seeds and traditional agricultural knowledge and practice
- Right to means of agricultural production
- Right to information and agriculture technology
- Freedom to determine price and market for agricultural production
- Right to the protection of agriculture values
- Right to biological diversity
- Right to preserve the environment
- Freedoms of association, opinion and expression
- Right to have access to justice
In our globalized world, and especially in the Global South, threats to these rights are mounting with each new trade deal negotiated, increasing land concentration and large-scale land grabs, each new development project in the great ‘march toward modernization.’ As these forces – transnational corporations, national elites, military forces – threaten to strip peasants of land, water, seeds and livelihoods, farmers are organizing, gathering knowledge, building strategies and power.
In terms of policy efforts, there are parallel targets in both local policy landscape and global shift of policy that directly impacts food systems, land rights and fisherfolk. As is the case in many global struggles, mobilizing for policy change to advance food sovereignty looks different in each region, city, and indigenous territory fighting to protect those rights – yet, all these efforts draw from the same underlying current. Among these broader goals, particular emphasis is placed on agrarian reform, biodiversity, seeds and genetic resources, neoliberal policies and trade, gender and women’s rights, migration and the rights of agricultural workers – all within the task of defending human rights and peasant-based sustainable agriculture.
The domestic food and agriculture landscape is shifting as consumer and farmer networks negotiate the Food and Farm Bill and try to build common ground around the food needs of local communities and the survival of family farmers. Internationally, social movements for immigrants’ rights and justice for farmworkers, for food sovereignty and fair trade, are having a powerful impact on our national politics.
Photo: National Family Farm Coalition
Creating Alternatives to Free Trade
Free trade agreements and structural adjustment programs are a long-held tactic of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization – all institutions that have historically implemented neoliberal policies to open markets and further globalize trade. In the case of agriculture, this is devastating to the fabric of agricultural traditions, biodiversity and long-term sovereignty. Many countries in this scenario adopt export-oriented agricultural models under the guise of economic development and free trade. In practice, the effects of neoliberal policies on agriculture are well documented in devastation and debt associated with of chemical inputs, technological packages and monoculture strategies of the Green Revolution, which resulted in increased hunger and dependency.
Agriculture is not a Commodity
The rejection of agriculture as a commodity provides a strong basis of opposition to the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Agriculture (AoA). The AoA sets parameters for agricultural goods as commodities on the global market, defining subsidies and markets – often benefitting the large growers of the Global North and agribusiness at the detriment of small farmers and fishers around the world. Food sovereignty argues that agriculture, fishing – and the livelihoods and ecosystems sustained by these practices – are not mere commodities, but in fact ensure the critical stability of a network of rural people and places.
“Countries should be allowed and encouraged to develop their own sovereign long-term rural development strategies and policies, and to prohibit the influx of under-priced food that threatens the local food production capacity. The principle of food sovereignty implies the ability of nation states to protect their farmers and fishers from predatory trade regimes and economic exploitation, while ensuring food security and a decent rural life and livelihoods.”
–Towards Food Sovereignty: Constructing an Alternative to the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Agriculture
Further distorting local markets is the practice of exporting excess production on other markets through food aid, also known as dumping. This practice often, but not exclusively, moves commodity crops from the Global North to the Global South as an engineered form of overproduction propped up on subsidies that incentivize growers to produce beyond local demand. An influx of food aid can completely devastate local markets and cause prices to drop far below production costs, leaving local producers without a market from one day to the next.
For further analysis of the implications of free trade and food aid, see the Trade, Aid and Development topic.
Local Control, Local Power
To defend the rights of peasants, farmers, fisherfolk – and all who rely upon a safe and resilient food system – we must look toward policies that shift the focus toward local control and local decision-making. Practical frameworks to support communities in building power includefood policy councils,alternative trade alliances, policies that bring gender equity to the forefront, traditional seed saving practices and exchanges , banning dumping in all its forms, providing support for small farmers and producers to access and own means of production, among other strategies. Investment for infrastructure for local markets and regional capacity building will further add momentum to this shift, enabling communities to plan and organize with greater autonomy on the local level.