By Sonali Kolhatkar
A new report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council on the “Right to Food” took aim at the entire basis on which food is produced and distributed on a global scale. Reflecting the type of progressive analysis of our food system from experts like Vandana Shiva and Michael Pollan, report author Olivier De Schutter called for an undermining of large agribusinesses and an infusion of democratic control.
Although the report’s recommendations are revolutionary, news of its release went largely unreported in the major U.S. media.
De Schutter, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, spent six years visiting more than a dozen countries and concluded that the world’s entire food system should be rebuilt, starting with the promotion of local, sustainable farming so that ordinary people have control over what they can grow and eat. This certainly does not sound radical to those of us in U.S. cities where there has been a rapid expansion of farmers markets and an explosion in backyard farming. But in poor American communities and in poor countries as a whole, it is a radical notion for food to be grown locally, sustainably and democratically.
The world’s food system is controlled by a handful of giant corporations, the majority of which are based in the U.S., such as ConAgra, Cargill and PepsiCo. These companies are a bottleneck through which most of the world’s food is forced, in order to feed most of the world’s people. Not only is this method environmentally unsustainable given its overreliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fossil fuels, but it is also inefficient at actually feeding people. The World Food Programme estimates that there are 842 million hungry people worldwide.
How did it get this way? The “Green Revolution” starting in the 1940s was a promise that a technological fix of high-yielding grains cultivated for mass planting, used in combination with newly developed chemical fertilizers and pesticides, would eliminate world hunger. By some measures the Green Revolution was indeed successful in producing vast amounts of cereal grains that feed a large chunk of the earth’s population. But how did so few companies end up at the top? And why are so many people still hungry today?
In an interview on Uprising, I asked food justice activist Raj Patel to explain what went wrong with the Green Revolution and why De Schutter’s report may provide a panacea. Patel is a writer, activist and academic, and he wrote the book “Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System” as well as the New York Times best-seller “The Value of Nothing.” He teaches a class at UC Berkeley with Pollan called Edible Education and is an adviser to De Schutter. According to him, “the food system is carved out of a history of colonialism, of slavery, of empire.”
Today, Patel told me, the Green Revolution has resulted in “substituting chemicals for workers and that means you have displaced people who end up moving to cities. And these are the people who are most likely to be going hungry.” Patel conceded that, “yes, there is more food produced if you measure just the big commodity crops.” But, he noted, “you sacrifice the other kinds of more nutritious crops that were growing alongside the cereals.” Pointing to Latin America as an example, Patel told me that during the peak of the Green Revolution, “food production went up by 9 percent, but so did hunger.”
Patel maintained that “there is enough food,” but “the way in which we distribute the food is unjust.” In other words, corporate control of these vast monocultured farms grew even as more people were pushed off land slated for cultivation, until all that is left are a handful of wealthy businesses producing more food than ever and a hungry population of landless poor that cannot afford to feed itself.
It is not just food corporations that control our food system, but also large chemical and seed companies such as Monsanto and Dow Chemical. For decades, Monsanto has benefited from a monopoly it created through its genetically engineered corn and soy seeds that are impervious to its own brand of pesticide called Roundup. The Roundup Ready seed-pesticide system was easy and efficient for farmers to use—except that the seeds are also engineered to be sterile so farmers cannot save seeds for next year’s harvest and are thus dependent on Monsanto year after year. Not only has this method resulted in crops that rely on heavy use of poisonous chemicals, it has also given rise to dangerous “super weeds” that are resistant to pesticides.
Eager to jump into the game, Dow Chemical is awaiting approval of a similar genetically engineered seed and pesticide duo called Enlist. The Enlist pesticide contains a chemical that was part of the cocktail of toxins used in the Vietnam War called Agent Orange. Patel lamented how “the power over fertilizers and seeds is concentrated in the hands of very few companies,” and that “they are able to bend the market to their will.”
In his report for the United Nations, De Schutter suggested as a solution the idea of “agroecology,” which he described as “a way to improve the resilience and sustainability of food systems.” Agroecology, according to Patel, is “a system where instead of supplanting nature, you work with it. So instead of relying on pesticides, for example, you would [rely on] plants that attract beneficial predatory insects that will take care of the pests, so that the management of pests is integrated into a diverse and complex ecosystem.” Patel said this method of food production would replace monocultures of corn, soy and wheat with polycultures of lots of different plants that have a variety of benefits such as soil improvement, pest control and shade. Most importantly, an agroecological food system would be, Patel said, one that is the most “climate-change ready” and “much more robust in terms of external climate shocks.”
Agroecology is also consistent with the idea of “food sovereignty,” a term embraced by food justice activists and groups like the 200-million-strong peasant farmer movement La Via Campesina to demand local and democratic control of food. So it is no surprise that the corporate-dominated industry is extremely wary when the words “food sovereignty” are bandied about. Yet, in his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, De Schutter boldly wrote, “Food sovereignty is a condition for the full realization of the right to food.” He explicitly took aim at big corporations, warning that “the current food systems are efficient only from the point of view of maximizing agribusiness profits,” and added that “[a]t the local, national and international levels, the policy environment must urgently accommodate alternative, democratically-mandated visions.”
Patel concurred that this notion of democracy “is the real heart of what’s radical in this report.” He told me that rather than “food sovereignty,” corporations and governments like the term “food security.” But “technically,” Patel said, “you can be food secure in prison and be given sufficient food to survive. But you have no say in that process, in how that food is grown or how society has decided how to end hunger.” In other words, democratic control of our food system is the only thing that can break corporate control of what we eat and how and where we grow our food, and that is exactly what De Schutter has reported to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Like other basic human needs such as water, shelter and health care, our food shouldn’t be subject to the drive for profit. In calling for democratic control of our food, De Schutter and Patel are threatening the business interests of some of the world’s largest and wealthiest corporations. Given that De Schutter’s report has been submitted to the highest international representatives of civil society, it has the potential to effect change, but only if there is enough pressure from below.
Patel told me the report is “only as good as the mobilization that is able to use it.” Although it provides “ammunition to groups like La Via Campesina in their ongoing fight to be able to democratize the food system,” he warned that there is much work to be done, saying, “we do need to keep organizing and to keep the pressure up and in fact to be dreaming much bigger than we’re allowed to be dreaming by the governments that purport to represent us.”