A Tale of Two Food Prizes

Food First | 11.20.2015

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By Eric Holt-Giménez.

On October 14th in Des Moines, Iowa, the Food Sovereignty Prize was awarded to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, run by African-American farmers of the southern United States and to OFRANEH—the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña).

The next day, hundreds of distinguished international guests gathered in Des Moines, Iowa as Sir Fazle Hasan Abed accepted the World Food Prize in the name of BRAC—the world’s largest non-governmental rural development agency.

Both prizes were awarded in recognition of their fight against hunger. That’s where the similarity ends and the lesson begins.

The World Food Prize typically celebrates technological innovations that increase agricultural yields. This is because the award committee assumes there isn’t enough food to go around.

Actually, at the height of the global food crises of 2008 and 2011, the world saw record-breaking grain harvests (and record profits) at the same time a record 1.2 billion people went hungry because they were too poor to buy food.

Awarding the World Food Prize to BRAC—an anti-poverty organization—should be a reminder that poverty, not scarcity, is the main cause of world hunger.

The growing wealth gap—not scarcity—is causing hunger.

The destitute farmers producing over half the world’s food—primarily peasant women—make up most of the world’s hungry. They need more land, more water and a larger share of the food dollar. But despite the BRAC award, the World Food Prize understands hunger and poverty in terms of scarcity, not resource distribution. The Prize is always awarded for the same thing: growth. Growth in production, growth in commercial inputs, growth in credit, growth of global markets…

This obsession ignores the problems of inequitable distribution, exploitation and the growing disparity of wealth. Eighty-four individuals now own as much wealth as half of the world’s population. The growing wealth gap—not scarcity—is causing hunger. It is easy to talk about baking an ever bigger pie. It’s much harder to talk about who gets the biggest piece, or who gets to cut the pie.

The Food Sovereignty Prize is, in many ways, the antithesis of the World Food Prize. It has a shorter history (and infinitely smaller budget). This year’s laureates were chosen for their steadfast commitment to human rights and their historical resistance of oppression.

The Food Sovereignty Prize is, in many ways, the antithesis of the World Food Prize.

One of the awardees, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, has worked for four decades across 16 southern states promoting Black and family owned farms, co-ops, training in sustainable agriculture, forestry, management and marketing, and has advocated for the rights of Black farmers and defended them against the trend in Black land ownership that has gone from a peak of 14% to less than 1% of agricultural land in the United States.

Honduran co-prize winner OFRANEH came together in 1978 to protect the territories and human rights of the Garifuna people of Honduras’ Atlantic coast. Their traditional lands are being grabbed by oil palm plantations and tourism developments.

The World Food Prize provides optimistic tales of grassroots capitalism. The Food Sovereignty Prize is a David vs Goliath resistance story about hope against all odds. One prizes entrepreneurial “empowerment” within the existing system, the other is about political power and changing how resources are allocated.

For the vast majority of the world’s farmers, BRAC’s successes are the exception rather than the rule. The default is land grabs, racism, hunger, institutionalized violence and climate disasters—the daily reality of the farmer and fisher families of OFRANEH and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.

BRAC’s successes should be celebrated. But this shouldn’t blind us to the harsh realities of a food system that prevents most farmers from accessing the co-ops, micro-credit, training and services promoted by BRAC. Unless “empowerment” protects farmers from the waves of dispossession and climate chaos resulting from the spread of industrial agriculture in the name of ending hunger, even these gains will be lost.

Economic growth without redistribution of power and wealth ultimately reinforces the existing systems of exploitation.

Economic growth without redistribution of power and wealth ultimately reinforces the existing systems of exploitation. Without political control over land, water and markets—without food sovereignty—rural people will be a tourist development or an oil palm plantation away from hunger.

What’s in a prize? A tale of two paradigms and the difference between optimism and hope, between food security and food sovereignty —between the status quo and the end of hunger.

Also in this issue of News & Views:

  • How to Work Together: Food Justice in Our Community. By Katie Mott, Food First Intern.
  • Food First 40th Anniversary Gala. By Brian Perlmutter, Food First Volunteer.

Click here to download this issue of News & Views