May 23, 2003: Everything
in a supermarket has a story to tell, if only we could find it out.
The produce defies seasons, geography, wars, distance, nature. It
is winter outside, but inside the supermarket golden-shell pineapples
from Côte d'Ivoire, still small and green, bathe in humming
halogen light. There is civil unrest in the Côte d'Ivoire,
but it does not seem to have disrupted the flow of tropical fruit
to the cold North. Next to them are strange, knobbly bits of ginger
dug from Chinese soil. Gala apples from France, bagged up and reduced
to half price. Avocados from Israel and Chile. Pale tomatoes from
the Canary Islands, where it is always warm, but the fruit must
be picked green. 'Ready-to-go' meals fill the chiller cabinets.
Here, wrapped in plastic, are small clusters of perfect baby corn
and mange tout from plantations in Kenya. Here is cod, pulled up
by trawler from the over-fished, churning cold sea of the northeast
||"...what we choose to put in our supermarket
baskets writes its own language upon our bodies and our moods,
our families, our economies, our landscapes. It can mean life
or death in some distant country..."
Though we can't hear their stories, what we choose to put in our
supermarket baskets writes its own language upon our bodies and
our moods, our families, our economies, our landscapes. It can mean
life or death in some distant country whose name we can only vaguely
discern printed on the packaging. We are, all of us, affected by
trends in the global economy, in the most intimate and fundamental
way possible - through our food.
Only rarely do these connections become visible, when the people
who produce the food remind us of them. Those who work the countryside
are a potent source of cultural identity, whether it's the campesinos
of Mexico, the gauchos of Argentina, the paysannes of France, Australian
conkies, or the flat-capped Yorkshire farmer. Their images are used
to market food to us, because we associate them with rural life,
nature and rude good health. But the real people who produce our
food are losing their livelihoods and leaving the land.
Over the past two years British dairy farmers, in their grief and
anger over plummeting prices, have blockaded supermarkets up and
down the country, spilled their milk, boycotted suppliers.
Why blockade the supermarkets? The average price British farmers
receive for their milk is the lowest for 30 years. The bargaining
power of the supermarkets is so great that prices for farmers are
going ever downwards. In 2000, supermarket giant Tesco introduced
international 'reverse' auctions for its suppliers all over the
world. They were asked to bid against each other until Tesco got
the lowest price.
Supermarkets blame the consumer for wanting 'cheap food' - yet
50 years ago farmers in Europe and North America received between
45 and 60 per cent of the money that consumers spent on food. Today
that proportion has dropped to just 7 per cent in Britain and 3.5
per cent in the US.(1)
Even that ultimate symbol of rugged individualism, the cowboy,
is an endangered species. Most of the ranchers of the Great Plains
of Nebraska are permanently broke, mortgaging or selling off their
land and cattle to survive. The cowboy is riding into the final
sunset as the Great Plains become steadily depopulated.
A global crisis
The details are specific to each country but the broad trends are
international: the crisis in farming is global.
|"The six founding countries of Europe's
Common Agricultural Policy had 22 million farmers in 1957; today
that number has fallen to 7 million...Everywhere small-scale
farmers are being 'disappeared'. "
The six founding countries of Europe's Common Agricultural Policy
had 22 million farmers in 1957; today that number has fallen to
7 million. Just 20 per cent of the European Union's wealthiest and
largest farmers get 80 per cent of EU subsidies. Canada lost three-quarters
of its farmers between 1941 and 1996 and the decline continues.
In 1935 there were 6.8 million working farmers in the US; today
the number is under 1.9 million--less than the total US prison population.
Suicide is now the leading cause of death among US farmers, occurring
at a rate three times higher than in the general population. In
Britain farmers are taking their own lives at a rate of one a week.(2)
In poorer countries the situation is even worse. Half of the world's
people still make their living from the land--and it is they who
feed the majority of the world's poorest people. In South Asia and
sub-Saharan Africa more than 70 per cent of the population makes
a living from the land. Agriculture counts, on average, for half
of total economic activity.
In the Philippines the number of farm households in the corn-producing
region of Mindanao is set to fall by half. Between 1985 and 1995
the number of people employed in agriculture in Brazil fell from
23 million to 18 million. In China an estimated 400 million farmers
are in danger of losing their livelihoods entirely. Everywhere small-scale
farmers are being 'disappeared'.
All eaten up
Why is this happening? Somebody, somewhere, must be benefiting.
The answer is not hard to discover. It lies not in the soil, but
inside the corporations which have become known collectively as
'agribusiness'. They traverse the planet buying at the lowest possible
price, putting every farmer in direct competition with every other
farmer. While the price of crops has been pushed down--often even
below the cost of production--the prices of inputs such as seed,
fertilizers and pesticides have gone up.
Control of the 'food-chain' is being concentrated in ever-fewer
hands. According to Bill Hefferman, rural sociologist at the University
of Missouri, in some cases there is 'seamless and fully integrated
control of the food system from gene to supermarket shelf'.(3)
When the two giant corporations Monsanto and Cargill went into partnership
they controlled seed, fertilizer, pesticides, farm finance, grain
collection, grain processing, livestock-feed processing, livestock
production and slaughtering, as well as several processed-food brands.
This system, developed in the US, is being exported to other countries
in the name of globalization.
This level of control is one of the reasons why genetically modified
(GM) seeds are of such concern. They give agribusiness yet more
weapons with which to enforce total dependency on their patented
seeds. Some of them require own-brand herbicides and even own-brand
'trigger' chemicals (known as 'traitor' technology) that the farmer
has to apply for before the seed will germinate.
This is the secret of the disappearance of the family farmer in
the North--and the peasantry in the South. To disappear them, aside
from killing them, you must turn them into vulnerable workers on
an assembly line, without control over their own operations, and
obliged to corporations.
||"Free-trade theory is based on the
idea that countries should specialize, produce the things that
they make best and buy in everything else. But, as Kevan Bundell
from Christian Aid says: 'It makes little sense for poor countries
or poor farmers to put themselves at more risk if they have
to rely on the efficient functioning of markets which all too
often fail or don't exist.'"
Agribusiness writes the rules of international trade. Cargill was
largely responsible for the Agreement on Agriculture at the World
Trade Organization (WTO), which liberalizes the global market in
agricultural goods. Farmers, particularly in poor countries, find
it impossible to compete with cheap imports. One James Enyart of
Monsanto said of the WTO's 'intellectual property' agreement (known
as 'TRIPs') which makes its ownership of seeds and genetic material
possible worldwide: "Industry has identified a major problem
in international trade. It crafted a solution, reduced it to a concrete
proposal and sold it to our own and other governments."
Why does it matter that small, 'inefficient' producers are being
eradicated by globalized, corporate agriculture? Free-trade theory
is based on the idea that countries should specialize, produce the
things that they make best and buy in everything else. But, as Kevan
Bundell from Christian Aid says: "It makes little sense for
poor countries or poor farmers to put themselves at more risk if
they have to rely on the efficient functioning of markets which
all too often fail or don't exist."(4)
How 'efficient' is a system of agriculture that ignores ('externalizes')
the huge costs of removing chemical contamination from water or
losing genetic diversity? How 'wholesome' is it to create new diseases
in animals and antibiotic resistance in people? How 'cheap' is the
expense of public subsidies to private agribusiness, of global transport
or social breakdown in rural areas?
Prevailing free-market thinking asks why we should provide support
just to keep people in a state of 'backwardness' and rural poverty.
But experience shows us that when these people lose their rural
livelihoods, only a few will find better jobs in the city. Many
will end up in enormous and growing urban slums.
"The future for peasant incomes and employment is grim,"
says Chen Xiwen, deputy director of the Chinese State Council's
research centre. According to Chen, in 2001 over 88 million workers
migrated from rural to urban areas in China, most of them employed
in "dirty, hard, dangerous and unsafe conditions."(5)
The question is not whether we have any right to condemn people
to the difficult life of a poor farmer--an accusation often thrown
at those who oppose the global-trade regime and the food cartel
that runs it. The real question is whether vulnerable farmers themselves
have meaningful choices. They need an international voice for their
Let them eat trade Nettie Webb, a Canadian farmer explains: "The
difficulty for us, as farming people, is that we are rooted in the
places where we live and grow our food. The other side, the corporate
world, is globally mobile."
To put it another way, global- trade rules might be fundamentally
transforming agriculture, but as one sceptic asked: "can one
envision a coalition of Belgian, Dutch, French, Italian, Uruguayan,
Brazilian and New Zealand farmers marching on a GATT (WTO) meeting
in Punta del Este? And what could they demand to benefit them all,
since they are all in competition with one another?"(6)
|"Via Campesina has been marching on
every WTO meeting from 1994 onwards... This global alliance
of small and family farmers, peasants, landless and indigenous
people, women and rural labourers, has a membership of millions...They
believe food is a human right, not a commodity, and that their
job--the production of food--is fundamental to all human existence."
In fact Via Campesina has been marching on every WTO meeting from
1994 onwards. "We will not be intimidated. We will not be 'disappeared',"
they have declared. This global alliance of small and family farmers,
peasants, landless and indigenous people, women and rural labourers,
has a membership of millions--the vast majority from poor countries--and
they're putting an alternative agricultural paradigm on the map.
It's based on the idea of 'food sovereignty'. It is, they say,
"the RIGHT of peoples, communities and countries to define
their own agricultural, labour, fishing, food and land policies
which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate
to their unique circumstances."
They believe food is a human right, not a commodity, and that their
job-- the production of food--is fundamental to all human existence.
This attitude is summed up by a food co-op member's retort to Brazilian
President Cardoso when he said that agriculture had to submit to
the law of the market: "Very well, Mr President. When Brazil
no longer needs food, then you can let agriculture go bankrupt."(7)
The farmers of Via Campesina argue that nothing as important as
food should be ruled by the WTO. They've been leading the campaign
to take agriculture out of its remit entirely. This does not mean
that they are 'anti-trade'. They believe in trading goods which
a country cannot produce itself. Once a country has supported its
own food needs and production it should be free to trade the surplus.
Via Campesina vision
I spent time with Via Campesina at the 2002 World Social Forum
in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where they explained their vision in more
depth. I'm in the courtyard of the Convent del Capuchino. There
are mango and papaya trees hung with unripe green fruit. Via Campesina
delegates--people of few words--sit on benches, sip sweet coffee
José Bocquisso Jr explains the views of the National Peasants'
Union in Mozambique. "Mozambique was one of the largest cashew-nut
processors in the world," he says. "But because of the
IMF the industry was privatized and the processing plants were closed...
People should concentrate on producing food for themselves, not
products for export... If we produce a lot of cotton the price ends
up being below the cost of production, and people are stranded with
piles of cotton, but with no food and no money. In our organization
we concentrate on producing food, we encourage our members first
to provide for their daily needs. Then it doesn't matter so much
if they don't have money, because they are secure in food and have
guaranteed the ability to feed their families." His group is
part of the expanding African contingent in Via Campesina. "It
is very strengthening to feel part of a global movement. World powers
have to be fought globally."
Via Campesina is not anti-technology. Its vision is, however, based
on a model of agriculture built from the ground up, in which farmers'
knowledge has a significant place. Indeed, all Via Campesina's arguments
about food and farming--whether GMOs, access to land or markets--come
down to one central issue: control.
||"But we are independent when we develop
our own agriculture. We use our own productive system, with
no chemical fertilizer or herbicides. We use local seeds and
Indra Lubis, part of a coalition of 13 Indonesian peasant unions
with 900,000 members, explains that rejection of genetically modified
seed and pesticides is about self-determination: "With Monsanto,
who have planted GM cotton in south Sulawesi, we'll have to depend
on them for seed. They want to control cotton and food production.
As peasants, we'll be made dependent on multinational corporations.
But we are independent when we develop our own agriculture. We use
our own productive system, with no chemical fertilizer or herbicides.
We use local seeds and local fertilizer. In Indonesia we have so
many varieties of seed. It is a deep part of our culture."
Seventy per cent of the world's farmers are women--most of the
people in this courtyard are men. Rosalva Gutierrez, from the Belize
Association of Producer Organizations, tells me: "It is always
the women who take the hardest part as farmers, mothers, wives.
We have many strong women but they have been abused for so many
years, women's self-esteem is very low. So we give workshops and
training... I'm co-ordinator of the women's project and on the international
co-ordination of Via Campesina--I try to ensure that what Via Campesina
says on paper about gender equality becomes reality!" And she
tells me: "We don't see farmers as being from different countries.
Farmers everywhere understand the same point.'
Via Campesina argues that food production has a unique role to
play in rural livelihoods, health, ecology and culture. Kanya Pankiti,
a peasant from the south of Thailand--on her first trip out of the
country--says the way her people grow food preserves the forest,
the watershed and the soil. She thinks the Brazilians aren't growing
enough trees. "The way Brazilians do agriculture now will cause
soil erosion," she worries, picking and nibbling leaves she
recognizes from home--it has never occurred to Brazilians to cook
Kanya knows a lot about trees. She says: "The Thai forest
department doesn't believe that people can live in the forest and
preserve it. The reality is, we have lived in the forest for a hundred
years. It is not the villagers who are destroying the forest, but
the loggers clear-cutting. When the forest is clear-cut the land
becomes less fertile." Her house is outside a new National
Park zone, her land inside it, and they want to clear her out. "When
they declare a National Park," she says, "they sit in
an air-conditioned office and look at a map."
What does she think of the World Social Forum? She's going back
to tell her village "that they are not alone in the world,
struggling for land, and we can link up with those in other countries."
It's about control
|"The big companies are buying up all
the land...With contract farming, they tell us: 'We'll buy your
food only if you buy the chemicals you need from us'" They
give us chemicals that are forbidden in the US. Then we have
to give them a section of our crop. If we can't, then they take
For anyone who eats, the question of who controls the food chain--farmers,
or an ever-more powerful cartel of food corporations--is no less
pertinent than it is for Indra, Kanya or José. At the very
same time as consumers in the rich world are objecting more than
ever to factory farming, to the use of antibiotics in livestock,
to pesticide residues in food, to the loss of biodiversity and to
food scares such as BSE, this very same model is being set up for
replication around the world, often disguised as 'development'.
Mario Pizano, a member of the Confederación Campesino del
Suerto in Chile, joins the conversation. "The big companies
are buying up all the land," he complains. "With contract
farming, they tell us: 'We'll buy your food only if you buy the
chemicals you need from us'" They give us chemicals that are
forbidden in the US. Then we have to give them a section of our
crop. If we can't, then they take our land."
But he, and millions like him, refuse to become serfs on their
own land. As we part, he takes off his green cap, emblazoned with
the name of his organization, and gives it to me. "This organization
is part of me," he says.