While peasants maintain their struggle, corporations’ mouths water over the ‘dining boom’
A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 20th April 2013
Two events this week mark sharply diverging paths for national and global food systems.
Wednesday (17 April) marked the 17th anniversary of the murder of 19 peasant family farmers in the Brazilian town of Dorado dos Carajas. Members of the million-strong Landless Workers Movement (MST), they were targeted as part of a campaign of intimidation and harassment by big landowners and agribusiness interests, for whom the MST’s demands for more equitable access to land and other resources could not be tolerated.
The global small farmers movement La Via Campesina now commemorates 17 April as the ‘International Day of Peasants’ Struggle’. Each year hundreds of peasant farmers in many different countries lose their lives attempting to resist what appears to be a relentless push for greater corporate ownership and control over land, seeds, water and markets. Thousands more lose their livelihoods and their land as they are forced off their own ancestral lands, often violently, to make way for biofuel plantations and the GM soy mega monocultures that provide feed for the factory farming of pigs and chickens.
All of this is supposedly done in the name of ‘development’, ‘progress’ and ‘efficiency’.
Meanwhile, in Melbourne on Thursday (18 April), the Australian and the Wall Street Journal launched the inaugural Global Food Forum. As reported in the Australian, ‘billionaire packaging and recycling magnate Anthony Pratt’ called for a ‘coalition of the willing’ so that Australia can ‘quadruple our exports to feed 200 million people’.
The ‘dining boom’ will replace the mining boom as the next driver of our economy, apparently. Eyes lit up with estimates of an ‘additional $1.7 trillion in agriculture revenues between now and 2050 if [Australia] seized the opportunity of the Asia food boom.’
Amongst other measures, this ‘dining boom’ is said to depend on the so-called Northern food bowl: clearing large swathes of Northern Australia and irrigating it with dozens of new dams.
But, as Professor Andrew Campbell of Charles Darwin University has pointed out, water is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for successful food production. Good soils are essential, and in our north the ‘soils are low in nutrients and organic matter, they can’t hold much water, they erode easily and they have low infiltration rates’. Other obstacles to the rosy future of being ‘Asia’s food bowl’ include extreme monsoonal weather events, high input costs and higher labour costs due to remote locations.
In short, the so-called Northern food bowl is likely to prove a mirage. And when you add to the picture the parlous state of many wheat farmers in south-west WA, not to mention the Murray-Darling itself, the idea that massively expanding food exports to Asia is going to be this country’s economic saviour looks decidedly like wishful thinking.
And even if it were true, who would be the main beneficiaries? A handful of very large exporting farms, and the grain traders and agri-business that dominate the global food system.
Which brings us back to Via Campesina. They’re campaigning for a food system that’s fair and sustainable, one that works for people and the land, not simply for shareholders and CEOs.
In June this year, Via Campesina will be holding its sixth international conference, in Jakarta. For the first time, a delegation of four Australian farmers are hoping to join the other delegates from dozens of countries around the world, to discuss the future of family farming and food systems worldwide. They’re asking for support from the Australian public to get there, to make sure the vo
ices of Australian family farmers are heard in these important discussions.
You can find out who they are, and help them get to Jakarta, by going to http://www.pozible.com/project/20941.