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From Food Crisis to Food Sovereignty: The Challenge of Social Movements

Subsistence farmers have limited access to land and water and they cannot compete in global markets, but have a large proportion of the world's poorest people. This article examines the divide between food and producers and policymakers. The authors argue that institutions such as the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization have a mandate from capital to mitigate hunger, defuse social unrest, and reduce peasant producers worldwide. They act to avoid change in the basic structure of the world's food systems.


By Eric Holt-Gimenez

February 22, 2011



From Food Crisis to Food Sovereignty: The Challenge of Social Movements

The current global food crisis-decades in the making-is a crushing indictment against capitalist agriculture and the corporate monopolies that dominate the world's food systems. The role of the industrial agrifood complex in creating the crisis (through the monopolization of input industries, industrial farming, processing, and retailing) and the self-serving neoliberal solutions proposed by the world's multilateral institutions and leading industrial countries are being met with skepticism, disillusion, and indifference by a general public more concerned with the global economic downturn than with the food crisis. Neoliberal retrenchment has met growing resistance by those most affected by the crisis-the world's smallholder farmers.

Solutions to the food crisis advanced by the World Bank, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and mega-philanthropy, propose accelerating the spread of biotechnology, reviving the Green Revolution, reintroducing the conditional lending of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and recentralizing the now fragmented power of the World Trade Organization (WTO) by concluding the Doha "Development Round" of trade negotiations. These institutions have a mandate from capital to mitigate hunger, defuse social unrest, and reduce the overall numbers of peasant producers worldwide-without introducing any substantive changes to the structure of the world's food systems. Their neoliberal strategies are in stark contrast to the proposals for ecological approaches to agriculture (agroecology) and food sovereignty advanced by farmer federations and civil society organizations worldwide that instead seek to transform food systems. Clashes and declarations of protest at recent summits in Rome, Hokkaido, and Madrid, the growing public resistance to the industrial agrifood complex, and the rise, spread, and political convergence of movements for agroecology, land reform, food justice, and food sovereignty, all indicate that the food crisis has become the focal point in a class struggle over the future of our food systems.

In 2008, record numbers of the world's poor experienced hunger, this at a time of record harvests and record profits for the world's major agrifood corporations. The contradiction of increasing hunger in the midst of wealth and abundance sparked food riots, not seen for many decades. Protests in Mexico, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Indonesia, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Yemen, Egypt, Haiti, and twenty other countries were sparked by skyrocketing food prices. In June 2008, the World Bank reported that global food prices had risen 83 percent over the last three years and the FAO cited a 45 percent increase in their world food price index in just nine months. While commodity prices have since fallen due to the world economic downturn and speculators lessening their bets on commodities, food prices remain high and are not expected to return to pre-crisis levels.

The widespread food protests were not simply crazed "riots" by hungry masses. Rather, they were angry demonstrations against high food prices in countries that formerly had food surpluses, and where government and industry were unresponsive to people's plight. In some cases, starving people were just trying to access food from trucks or stores. Alarmed by the specter of growing social unrest, the World Bank announced that without massive, immediate injections of food aid, 100 million people in the South would join the swelling ranks of the world's hungry.

These shrill warnings immediately revived Malthusian mantras within the agrifood industry and unleashed a flurry of heroic industrial promises for new genetically engineered high-yielding, "climate-ready," and "bio-fortified" seeds. The World Bank called for a "New Deal" for Agriculture and trotted out a portfolio of $1.2 billion in emergency loans. The FAO appealed (unsuccessfully) to OECD governments to finance a $30 billion a year revival of developing country agriculture. Über-philanthropist Bill Gates invited multinational corporations to follow him into a new era of "creative capitalism," promising that his new Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) would provide four million poor farmers with new seeds and fertilizers.

But with record grain harvests in 2007, according to the FAO, there was more than enough food in the world to feed everyone in 2008-at least 1.5 times current demand. In fact, over the last 20 years, food production has risen steadily at over 2 percent a year, while the rate of population growth has dropped to 1.14 percent a year. Globally, population is not outstripping food supply. Over 90 percent of the world's hungry are simply too poor to buy enough food. High food prices are a problem because nearly 3 billion people-half of the world's population-are poor and near-poor.

Around half of the people in the developing world earn less than two dollars a day. Nearly 20 percent are "extremely poor," earning less than one dollar a day. Many of those officially classified as poor are subsistence farmers who have limited access to land and water and cannot compete in global markets. In addition, the diversion of large quantities of grains and oil crops for the growing industrial feedlots in the emerging economies, as well as the diversion of land and water for "green" agrofuels, has put significant pressure on markets for many basic foods.

Unsurprisingly, the food crisis has provided the world's major agrifood monopolies with windfall profits. In the last quarter of 2007 as the world food crisis was breaking, Archer Daniels Midland's earnings jumped 42 percent, Monsanto's by 45 percent, and Cargill's by 86 percent. Cargill's subsidiary, Mosaic Fertilizer, saw profits rise by 1,200 percent. The steady concentration of profits and market power in the industrial North mirrors the loss of food producing capacity and the growth of hunger in the Global South. Despite the oft-cited productivity gains of the Green Revolution, and despite decades of development campaigns-most recently, the elusive Millennium Development Goals-per capita hunger is rising and the number of desperately hungry people on the planet has grown steadily from 700 million in 1986 to 800 million in 1998. Today, the number stands at over 1 billion. Fifty years ago, the developing countries had yearly agricultural trade surpluses of $1 billion. After decades of capitalist development and the global expansion of the industrial agrifood complex, the southern food deficit has ballooned to $11 billion a year. The cereal import bill for low-income food-deficit countries is now over $38 billion and the FAO predicts it will grow to $50 billion by 2030. This shift from food self-sufficiency to food dependency has been accomplished by colonizing national food systems and destroying peasant agriculture.


I think we should not fall in the trap of seeing the development of agroecology by just looking at the physical aspects of the farm or just at the economics. We as NGOs have a problem with our social position in which we are serving as a dike and often an obstacle to processes of agency within the people and greater local organization. . . . Agroecology is not just a collection of practices. Agroecology is a way of life. . . . We can't have an agroecological change without a campesino movement. We NGOs can accompany them, but we can't do it. We promote projects, and projects have a short life. They are unsustainable.

-NELDA SÁNCHEZ, Mesoamerican Information System for Sustainable Agriculture

Though the farmer-to-farmer-NGO partnership has been highly effective in supporting local projects and developing sustainable practices on the ground, unlike Vía Campesina, it has done little to address the need for an enabling policy context for sustainable agriculture. Given the unfavorable structural conditions, agroecological practices have not scaled up nationally to become the rule rather than the exception. Despite far-flung farmer-to-farmer networks linked by hundreds of NGOs, farmers in these movements have generally not lobbied, pressured, taken direct action, or otherwise organized in favor of sustainable agriculture in a significant way. The farmers of PELUM in west Africa excel in agroecological farming but until recently were largely uninvolved in policy work to halt the spread of the new inter- nationally funded Green Revolution. The renowned Farmer Field Schools of Asia have revolutionized integrated pest management and pioneered participatory plant breeding, but have not been a political force in preserving agrobiodiversity or defending farmers' rights.

Ironically, the strength of these farmer-to-farmer networks-i.e., their capacity to generate farmers' agroecological knowledge in a horizontal, widespread, and decentralized fashion-is also a political weakness. On one hand, there are no coordinating bodies within these networks capable of mobilizing farmers for social pressure, advocacy, or political action. On the other, their effectiveness at developing sustainable agriculture at the local level has kept its promoters focused on improving agroecological practices rather than addressing the political and economic conditions for sustainable agriculture.

While the potential synergies between a global peasant federation advocating food sovereignty and far-flung smallholder movements practicing agroecology may seem obvious, efforts to bring agrarian advocacy to farmer-to-farmer networks have run up against the historical distrust between development NGOs implementing sustain- able agriculture projects and the peasant organizations that make up the new agrarian movements. Aside from having assumed many of the tasks previously expected of the state, NGOs have become an institutional means to advance social and political agendas within the disputed political terrain of civil society.

Within the institutional landscape of agricultural development some NGOs are enrolled either directly or indirectly in the neoliberal project. Others are simply doing what they do best and tend to look out for their own programs. But others are deeply concerned that advancing the practices of sustainable agriculture without addressing the conditions for sustainability will ultimately end in failure. These NGOs are potential links to vast informal networks of smallholders who are committed to transforming agriculture.

Over the last 30 years the farmers in these networks have demonstrated their capacity to share information and knowledge. Their commitment to agroecological practices has resulted in a body of agrarian demands specific to sustainable peasant agriculture. It is now common among these farmers to hear the term "food sovereignty." However, because most of these farmers do not belong to the farmer organizations that make up Vía Campesina, there are few, if any, avenues for them to exercise this commitment politically.


One example of the potential transformational power of integrating peasant advocacy with agroecological practice comes from a peasant movement that is actively integrating these two aspects into its own organization. Brazil's Landless Workers' Movement (MST), one of Vía Campesina's founding members, is the largest rural social movement in the Americas. The MST has had a significant influence within Vía Campesina and a profound effect on agrarian politics worldwide. The MST has settled more than a million landless peasants and forced the redistribution of 35 million acres of land (an area the size of Uruguay).

The MST has its roots in peasant land occupations dating back to the late 1970s. In December 1979 a group of landless rural workers set up a camp at a crossroads now known as Encruzihalda Natalino. Following a clause in the Brazilian constitution mandating that land serve a social function, the peasants demanded that the government redistribute idle land in the area. Three and a half years and many mass mobilizations later, the group was granted around 4,600 acres. Building on the success of Encruzihalda Natalino and several others like it, land occupations have been the primary tactic of the MST.

Delegates from land occupations throughout Brazil met in 1984 in the state of Paraná and laid out four basic goals for the future of the movement: "a) to maintain a broadly inclusive movement of the rural poor in order b) to achieve agrarian reform; c) to promote the principle that land belongs to the people who work on it and live from it; and d) to make it possible to have a just, fraternal society and put an end to capitalism." Since then the movement has established some 400 production associations, 1,800 elementary schools, adult literacy programs, credit co-ops, health clinics, and its own organic seed supplier for MST farmers.

Though the MST initially promoted industrial agriculture among its members, this strategy proved unsustainable and economically disastrous on many of its settlements. In 1990 the movement reached out to other peasant movements practicing agroecology, and at its fourth national congress in 2000, the MST adopted agroecology as national policy to orient production on its settlements.

Today, the seven organizations that participate in La Vía Campesina-Brasil have all adopted agroecology as an official policy, as have many organizations in Vía Campesina-International. The MST and La Vía Campesina-Brasil have established 11 secondary schools and introduced university courses in agroecology to train the movements' youth to provide technical assistance to campesino families in rural areas. The integration of agroecology into the new agrarian movements is a welcome development because it helps advance forms of production that are consistent with the political and social goals of food sovereignty, and the MST schools in and of themselves are a testament to the movements' capacity to advance agroecological policies at state and federal levels.


The global food crisis had reinforced neoliberal retrenchment in agricultural development and breathed new life into the sagging Green Revolution, now resurgent in Africa and parts of Asia. Like its predecessor, the new Green Revolution is essentially a campaign designed to mobilize resources for the expansion of capitalist agriculture. Similar to the role once played by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations (albeit on a much smaller scale), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the new philanthropic flagship for the Green Revolution tasked with resurrecting the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research and obtaining broad social and government agreement for the expansion of agro-industrial capital into peasant communities. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa serves up shallow definitions of terms like agroecology, sustainability, and even food sovereignty in an effort to strip them of their deeper, agrarian content and enroll NGOs and their stakeholders into the Green Revolution.

The food crisis is bad, but another Green Revolution will make things much worse. The alternative, smallholder-driven agroecological agriculture, was recognized by the IAASTD as the best strategy for rebuilding agriculture, ending rural poverty and hunger, and establishing food security in the Global South. To be given a chance, however, this strategy requires a combination of strong political will and extensive on-the-ground agroecological practice to overcome opposition from the well-financed Green Revolution.

In the face of a renewed, neoliberal assault in the form of a Green Revolution, peasant movements and farmer-to-farmer networks do appear to be moving closer together. When PELUM brought over three hundred farmer leaders together in Johannesburg to speak on their own behalf at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the Eastern and Southern Africa Farmers Forum was founded. African farm organizations and their allies have met in Mali, Bonn, and Senegal to advance African Agroecological Alternatives to the Green Revolution (2007, 2008). Following the Rome food crisis meeting, Vía Campesina met in Mozambique where they signed a declaration for a smallholder solution to the food crisis (2008). These developments and others suggest that the international call for food sovereignty is beginning to take root in specific smallholder initiatives to confront the food and farm crisis. New mixes of advocacy and practice across borders and sectors and between institutions are being forged on a daily basis.

These hopeful developments have the potential for bringing together the extensive local networks for agroecological practice with the transnational advocacy organizations. If the two currents merge into a broad-based movement capable of generating massive social pressure, they could tip the scales of political will in favor of food sovereignty.

Ultimately, to end world hunger, the monopolistic industrial agrifood complex will have to be replaced with agroecological and redistributive food systems. It is too early to tell whether or not the fledgling trend of convergence signals a new stage of integration between the main currents of peasant advocacy and smallholder agroecological practice. Nonetheless, the seeds of convergence have been sown. Successfully cultivating this trend may well determine the outcome of both the global food crisis and the international showdown over the world's food systems.



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