Food, Land & Agriculture



No matter what small farmer cooperatives or movements can attain locally or even nationally, agriculture remains part of the global capital market. Peasant, indigenous, and family farmers cannot compete with the rules of free trade, which are biased toward multinational corporations. Small producers suffer not only from failed domestic policies but also from the consequences of economic globalization, whose logic and processes serve a few at the expense of the rest.

This is starkly displayed through rich countries’ dumping of surplus food while pressuring low-income countries to lower agricultural tariffs, thereby undermining local production even while maintaining large agricultural subsidies back in the wealthy nations. For example, U.S. agribusiness sells massive amounts of corn to Mexico at an artificially low price (a price that is made possible by government subsidies and does not reflect the actual cost of growing and shipping food thousands of miles away); small local Mexican producers cannot compete with this unfair undercutting of price, leading to the ruin of their farms. The dire nature of this situation around the world is evidenced in the 100,000 suicides of indebted farmers in India between 1993 and 2003 alone.

A vital redress of this global crisis is food sovereignty, a development model in which local farmers grow food for local consumption under local control. Food sovereignty promotes de-industrialized agriculture, tariffs on food imports, protection of native seeds, and land reform. It calls for the democratic participation of the populace in shaping policies and programs. The political and economic paradigm poses a mighty alternative to the agribusiness and free trade that are destroying local production.

Via Campesina - a coalition of organizations of peasants, small farmers, and landless people - posits that agriculture and the rural world are currently experiencing a clash between two development models. In one corner of the ring is food sovereignty. In the other is neoliberalism, where wrestlers include the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the WTO, the governments of industrialized countries, large landholders, and corporations.

Of course the teams are unequally paired. In one corner we have the welterweights representing food sovereignty, while the neoliberal corner contains powerful heavyweights. But the size and strength of the former is increasing.

One indicator of this growing power is that Via Campesina, which mobilizes farmers and peasants into a global political force, is perhaps the largest popular network in the world, with national affiliates in more than 100 countries.

The strategies used by Via Campesina and other groups are numerous and inventive. They include direct action, public education, local mobilizations, international demonstrations at prominent venues, advocacy, and global campaigns. And then there is the basic strategy of putting the vision into motion, through the hard work performed by those who grow the food.

Some efforts to build food sovereignty are as follows:

  • In India, the Bija (seed) Satyagraha (the Gandhian term for non-violent resistance) movement is protecting farmers’ traditional seed rights against GMO seeds and private patents on seeds. Leaders in this movement have organized seed fairs, seed exchange programs, community seed banks, and seed tribunals to share information and strategies. The Bija Satyagraha movement draws on the rich history of the 1930 Salt Satyagraha, or salt march, when thousands of Indians walked 240 miles to the sea to collect salt and thus defy the British salt tax. Seed Satyagraha calls on farmers to boldly declare non-cooperation with Indian seed patent laws; five million peasants have done so.
  • The Movimiento Campesino a Campesino (Farmer to Farmer Movement) has spread throughout Latin America over the past thirty years. Through it, small farmers who have pulled themselves out of the GMO orbit have developed sustainable agriculture through their own innovation, and shared them farmer-to-farmer. The transfer is not just of agroecological knowledge; it incorporates the sharing of seeds, tools, products, and relationships. The exchanges are also commercial, as people sell to each other in fair trade networks.
  • The Teikei concept, created by a group of women in Japan during the 1960s, is a model that emphasizes a direct and mutually supportive relationship between farmers and those who eat the food they grow. Literally translated as “partnership,” the philosophy is sometimes translated as "food with the farmer's face on it." Closely related to the Teikei concept is the community- supported agriculture (CSA) model. Growing rapidly in the U.S. and Europe, it guarantees a market for small farms while giving them direct relationship with consumers of their products. At the beginning of the growing season members contract with a local farm and each week receive a share of the farm’s harvest, whatever is growing at the time. Many CSAs encourage their members to spend time at the farm and in some cases to volunteer.
  • Farmers of rice, a staple food for nearly half the people of the world, are building networks to regain control over their livelihoods from the encroachment of agribusiness. The Korean Peasant League (KPL), a coalition of many farmers’ associations in South Korea, and the People’s Assembly of the Poor in Thailand are just two examples of groups of farmers and peasants that have become leaders in this work, educating their people about the effects of global trade policies and pressuring their governments to respect the role of farmers. Since its founding in 1990, the KPL has organized numerous nationwide farmers’ demonstrations against the import of rice, against harmful WTO policies and free trade agreements, and for the cancellation of farmers’ debt. In 2006, the Asia Pacific People’s Conference on Rice and Food brought together farmers organizations to discuss their struggles and strategies.

In millions of fields, pastures, and villages, producers are defying the tremendous odds and offering up a clear challenge: a non-industrialized nation’s only option is not one of serving the food and bio-fuel needs of rich countries, at the cost of intensive exploitation of labor, land, and natural resources. Individually and together, the world citizenry of herders, cultivators, fisherpeople, and others are crossing borders to challenge global policies and institutions which undermine local food. As farmer advocate Shalmali Guttal said, “This is not ultimately a battle about food and farming. It is about the survival of all of us.”