Terra Madre Keynote Speech – Food Sovereignty and Food Movements: Time for Transformation

Eric Holt-Giménez | 11.05.2014

The following is the Keynote speech delivered by Eric Holt-Giménez at the Terra Madre conference in Turin, Italy, on October 26, 2014.

This year’s Terra Madre/Salone del Gusto is being held during the United Nation’s “Year of Family Farming.” This is a wonderful way to celebrate good, clean, fair food produced by family farmers, peasant farmers, smallholders, fishers and pastoralists from around the world.

This event is more than a celebration of food and family farmers. It’s a celebration of the millennial culture of peasant and smallholder farming and of their importance—not just in the world’s food systems—but in our societies, our economies, our politics and, we hope, in our shared future.

We are here to celebrate all the incredible things that smallholder, family farmers do: They,

  • Produce 70% of the world’s food on 25% of the agricultural land;
  • Still maintain the largest in situ reservoir of GMO-free agrobiodiversity on the planet;
  • Are the practical knowledge base for agroecology—the people’s science of sustainable agriculture;
  • Provide the food for an infinitely diverse, nutritious and delicious cuisine;
  • Provide livelihoods for nearly a third of humanity;
  • Help cool the planet by capturing carbon in naturally-fertilized soils;
  • and they do many other things both material and intangible that are too vast and diverse to list.

But we should also celebrate what small, sustainable producers don’t do: They,

  • Don’t make record profits while people go hungry (I’ve never seen a farmer let anyone go hungry);
  • Don’t spread superweeds and resistant pest populations by using GMOs (though their farms do get contaminated by GMOs and they get sued by Monsanto);
  • Don’t contribute 20% of the planet’s GHG or use up 80% of its fresh water;
  • Don’t invent or traffic in deadly agricultural poisons (though farmers and farm workers are systematically poisoned by pesticides and herbicides);
  • Don’t produce antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria (though, like you and I, they are vulnerable to resistant bacterial infections);
  • Don’t speculate with our food in global financial markets (though they suffer both when prices rise and when they drop);
  • Don’t speculate with land in global financial markets, either (though they are the largest private investors in agriculture in the global economy);
  • Don’t grab large tracts of land from others (though they have been massively displaced by the 86 million hectares of land grabbed in last 7 years by corporations and sovereign wealth funds—that’s an area five times the size of Italy).

No, peasant and smallholder farmers don’t do any of those things (but I suspect you can guess who does).

Ever since the food crises of 2008 and 2011 that sent over a billion people into the ranks of the hungry—even at a time of record global harvests and record corporate profits—and ever since the global financial crash—suddenly, peasant and family farmers have captured the interest of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, USAID, Bill Gates, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, John Deere, Cargill, ADM, Bunge, Monsanto, Syngenta, WalMart, Tesco, Carrefour and other agrifoods giants. Even Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street financiers are paying special attention to family farmers—or at least to their land.

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This event is more than a celebration of food and family farmers. It’s a celebration of the millennial culture of peasant  farming and of their importance in our societies, our economies, our politics and, we hope, in our shared future.

These are the big planetary players of what some of us call “the corporate food regime” those international institutions and oligopolies that dominate the global market in inputs, seeds, agricultural commodities and food. Why? Why all of a sudden after a half century of virtual neglect, are peasant farmers, family farmers and smallholders suddenly important?

Well, one explanation is that, even though smallholders produce 70% of our food, they also make up 70% of the world’s hungry. Most of these hungry farmers are women and girls. How is it that women (who invented agriculture, after all), women, who produce most of the world’s food, are the ones going hungry?

The planetary players of the corporate food regime will tell you that farming families go hungry because they lack the technologies that corporate agriculture can provide them; that they need to connect to international markets to reap the benefits of globalization. In this view, farmers go hungry because they have been left out, left behind, somehow forgotten in the steady march of agricultural development that lifts all boats to the cornucopian shores of modern, industrial food systems–that Green Revolution promised land where everyone can eat as much feedlot-raised, hormone-saturated, antibiotic-drenched, grain-fed meat as North Americans do (even if they can’t afford the subsidies…), where, the poor at least, will eat industrial chicken.

To reach this state of food security, we are informed that “We” need to increase production by 70% by 2050 to feed 9 billion people. Some say we have to double production. But, who is this “we”?

Is it the starving women farmers producing most of the world’s food? Who must feed their families on less than a hectare of land and come harvest time must sell their crop at low prices because they are poor and desperately need the money? (Six months later they are buying that food back at prices they can’t afford). Is it the family farmers who come to Terra Madre with their good clean and fair products? Is it the organic farmers of the Campesino a Campesino Movement, like the ones in Cuba who saved the island from starving after the fall of the Soviet Union. Is it the Thousand Gardens that Slow Food is promoting in Africa or the women farmers of the “We Are the Solution” Campaign who insist on using agroecological methods to feed their families in defiance of Africa’s New Green Revolution? Or is it the “disappearing middle” of mid-sized family farms who, squeezed by rising input costs and falling farm-gate prices receive an ever shrinking share of the food dollar, whose average farmers age is approaching 60 years old and who in retirement can’t afford to give their land to their children? Is it the young farmers in Europe and North America who are desperately trying to break in to farming but simply can’t because the price of land has skyrocketed beyond the reach?

I don’t think this is the “we” the corporate food regime is talking about.

This call to double production comes from the corporate agribusiness sector that presently—despite its global market dominance—only provides around 15% of the world’s food. And, who calculated the 2050 figure that dominates the food security discourse? What are the assumptions behind this remarkable statement?

This factoid has two primary sources; one is an Earthscan book published in 2003, the other is a 2006 interim report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations—FAO. It is based on general economic equilibrium modeling that took assumptions about global economic growth and combined them with projected global population growth to determine projected food production by 2050.

In this view, farmers go hungry because they have been left out, left behind, somehow forgotten in the steady march of agricultural development that lifts all boats to the cornucopian shores of modern, industrial food systems–that promised land where everyone can eat as much feedlot-raised, hormone-saturated, antibiotic-drenched, grain-fed meat as North Americans do.

But the equilibrium modeling scenarios are based on prices, not yields; they don’t include fruits and vegetables and don’t consider unequal distribution. But the biggest caveat of all is that these were not prescriptions but scenarios of a likely future. The original reports never argued that we needed to increase food production by 70 or 100 percent by 2050. This is simply what the models predicted probably would happen.

Sometime after the 2008 food crisis, the predicted global outcome of food production was flipped around to become a prescription for ending hunger.

This prediction cum prescription flies in the face of everything we have learned about hunger over the last fifty years. For the past two decades, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. Every year we produce 12% more food per capita—that means each of us theoretically gets 12% more food, regardless of the increase in population. But the rate of poverty and malnutrition stays constant.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations the world produces more than 1 1/2 times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That’s already enough to feed 10 billion people, more than the world’s 2050 projected population peak. But the people making less than $2 a day—most of whom are resource-poor farmers cultivating unviably small plots of land—can’t afford to buy this food. In reality, the bulk of industrially over-produced grain crops goes to biofuels and feedlots rather than food for the one billion hungry.

The call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritize the growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people and we continue to force Green Revolution technologies and global markets on farmers who really need more land, more water and fair markets.

Hunger is caused by exploitation and injustice, not scarcity.

But the Orwellian double-speak of the corporate food regime masks this simple truth with catchwords words like: Food security; Crop protection products; Sustainable intensification; Climate smart agriculture; Public Private Partnerships and Global Value Chains. And with majestic project names like “Feed the Future”, “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition”, “Global Harvest Initiative” and the “Alliance for a New Green Revolution in Africa.”

This should make us wonder if the motivation to feed the world might have more to do with cornering a bigger market share in the $6-trillion dollar a year food system than in helping farmers feed themselves and their communities.

No, the call to end hunger is not about supporting farmers like those here at Terra Madre. This is about driving nearly a third of humanity off the land to make way for industrial agriculture. The World Bank’s 2008 World Development Report on Agriculture makes it clear that the 3 stages of agricultural development envisioned by the corporate food regime entail moving the world’s smallholders off the land and into the cities or turns farmers into agricultural laborers, out-growers and contract farmers for plantation-style, industrial agriculture. This vision of food security puts our food in the hands of agrifoods oligopolies and is designed to reduce the world’s rural population from 50% to less than 15%.

We are talking about a corporate expansion plan that will displace nearly a third of humanity—ostensibly for their own good. The question arises: where is everyone going to go?

There is no new Industrial Revolution to provide jobs. (They can’t all work for Microsoft). The global economy would have to grow at 15% a year for fifty years to absorb all of this rural labor—a far cry from present global economic growth that hovers under 2%. No. For our shared future, we can’t allow that to happen. The problem is less about producing enough food—we already do that. Nor do the solutions lie in handing over our land, our seeds and our food systems to those who currently produce only 15% of our food—and do it quite badly, ruining the environment, destroying livelihoods and making us all sick. The solution to hunger is to ensure sustainable, dignified livelihoods for the people who already produce 70% our food.

The world needs peasant and family farms to provide employment in the countryside. This means farming families—especially new and underserved farmers—need adequate and secure land and water access, fair and stable prices for their products. They need to be protected from the market abuse and corporate crimes of oligopolies. They need support to develop ecosystem-specific agroecology instead of the commodified technologies of the so-called “new Green Revolution.” Family farms—both rural and urban—need to be deeply embedded in our economies in ways that keep the food dollars in local communities where they can recycle three, four and five times, building community wealth, providing good jobs and viable livelihoods. It means the countryside needs to be a good place to live, with a social wage that ensures the health, education and welfare of those that produce our food. This also means that we need public policies—indeed we need to reclaim the public sphere—to make sure that the market, our institutions, innovations and entrepreneurialism all work to the benefit all and not just those with the most market power.

We need to transform our food systems by democratizing them it in favor of the poor because as one campesino told me, when the poor are better off, we are all better off. We don’t need food security. We can be food secure in jail. We need the freedom to choose our own food and agricultural systems. We need food sovereignty.

We don’t need food security. We can be food secure in jail. We need the freedom to choose our own food and agricultural systems. We need food sovereignty.

If we want to share a future with smallholders—I would say, if we want a future at all—we need to address the major threats that are actively destroying peasant farming today. Farmers are busy. Millions of them are recovering ancient practices and innovating new, productive agroecological methods. Yes we need to continue to build our local markets, our community supported agriculture, our farm to school programs; we need to continue to hold events where we can get to know each other like Terra Madre. But we have to build a powerful movement to change the rules and the institutions that are taking us in the wrong direction.

Our farmers can’t do it alone. As consumers, or eaters, or co-farmers, we need to support farmers, not just individually and not just by “voting with our fork” or eating by our values—we need to support and build alliances with farmer organizations like the 200 million-strong Via Campesina. Organized farmers are not just producers of food, they are the agents of the social change we need to end poverty and hunger, to cool the planet and to stop the destructive concentration of the world’s land, resources and wealth into the hands of the .01 per cent.

Family farmers are still the majority in this world. With them, as allies in a movement, we can transform our food system and save our place on the planet.

Thank you.