Of thuggery and utopia

16th October – World Food Sovereignty Day

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 15.10.11

16 October is World Food Day. It commemorates the day in 1945 on which the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations was established. The FAO is the pre-eminent global institution charged with working towards universal food security: its mandate is to ‘raise levels of nutrition, improve agricultural productivity, better the lives of rural populations and contribute to the growth of the world economy’.

This year, the theme of World Food Day is ‘food prices – from crisis to stability’. Food price volatility in recent years has seen the numbers of malnourished increase significantly. Commemorative events will be held around the world, such as the ‘World Food Day Sunday Dinners’ being held across the US.

Some social movements believe that such actions are no longer sufficient, and that a rather more dramatic change in direction is needed. So they are now commemorating 16 October in a different way, by renaming it, ‘World Food Sovereignty Day’.

Two months ago, 400 (mostly young) people from 34 European countries, met for a week in Krems, Austria, to talk about what was happening to Europe, their futures, and their food systems, in the context of the increasing application of austerity programs being dictated by financial markets.

Food Sovereignty Forum in Krems, Austria, 2011
Food Sovereignty Forum in Krems, Austria, 2011

Prefiguring the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement a month later and its focus on the unfairness and inequalities of what Dick Smith calls ‘extreme capitalism’, they denounced the ‘model of industrialised agriculture controlled by a few transnational food corporations together with a small group of huge retailers’. This model, they said, had little interest in producing ‘food which is healthy, affordable and benefits people’, but was rather focused ‘on the production of raw materials such as agrofuels, animal feeds [and] commodity plantations’.

In Australia, Dick Smith has recently been talking about the ‘thuggery’ practiced by major supermarket chains, and how this silences and intimidates processors and farmers. In other countries, such as Honduras, there is thuggery of a rather more extreme version. There, following a military coup in June 2009, dozens of farmer leaders have been assassinated by private and state security forces, as they have tried to resist being evicted from their lands by companies in charge of a rapidly expanding palm oil monoculture.

Such examples suggest that the dominant global agri-food model almost seems to have zombie-like characteristics. Unsustainable from every perspective other than corporate balance sheets, it still manages to spread its talons around the world, draining life from ecosystems, forests and rural communities. Its ‘export vocation’, as scholar and food sovereignty activist Peter Rosset puts it, is effectively a ‘model of death’, and contrasts sharply with the ‘food producing vocation’ of smaller-scale farmers.

So what do the young people who attended the European Forum for Food Sovereignty at Krems propose in its stead? In the first place, they demand the democratisation of food and agricultural systems, according to the principles of fundamental human rights, cooperation and solidarity.  Secondly, they want ‘resilient food production systems’, which utilise ecological production methods, and are based on ‘a multitude of smallholder farmers, gardeners and small-scale fishers who produce local food as the backbone of the food system’.

Thirdly, they are calling for decentralised food distribution networks and ‘diversified markets based on solidarity and fair prices’, with ‘intensified relations between producers and consumers in local food webs to counter the expansion and power of supermarkets’. They want dignified and decent working conditions and wages for all food sector workers.

Next, they oppose ‘the commodification, financialisation and patenting of our commons’, including land, seeds, livestock breeds, trees, water and the atmosphere. And finally, they are calling for public policies to support such food systems and food cultures, based firmly on the universal right to food and the satisfaction of basic human needs.

Is all this hopeless utopia, or grounded realism? Increasingly, the growing global food movements are providing the answer to that question.