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Food sovereignty: putting the culture back into agriculture

How often do you hear the statement it is our duty to feed the world. What does this mean, why does it feel like such a burden and why, in fact, should we be feeding the world? Fifty to 100 years ago we didn’t feel this need to act as the surrogate mother to the world at large to make sure it got fed, so what changed? I ask myself questions such as these almost daily.

Two of the largest influences over when this so-called burden began were the industrialization of agriculture 100 years ago and our neoliberal economic system (a system that prioritizes international trade, open markets and privatization as the answer to many of the social and economic problems of our globalized world). Inevitably, because of globalization, the way the world produces and consumes food increasingly mirrors our own food production system.

As our nose increasingly buds into everyone else’s business (backed by five hundred some odd years of colonialism), citizens of most countries of the world (including ours) are, along with many other things, losing their say over how their food is produced. As a result, they are forced to join a food production system that might seem beneficial in the short term, but in the long run is deeply detrimental.

Why is this a problem? Some might say that letting the market system define and control how food is produced and distributed worldwide is positive. Various arguments exist. For one, if, say a crop failure occurs in one corner of the world, we can easily use another crop source somewhere across the world to ensure people get fed. Others argue that because producing food is no longer just about feeding people, we need a worldwide food production system to help us do things like produce ethanol.

If you’re at all interested or engaged in the “food world”, you might have heard the term food security. Food security is simply the state of all people knowing they have enough to eat on a daily basis. Food sovereignty takes the concept a few steps further. It is the idea that those who are at all involved in the production, distribution or consumption of food are the ones who are in control of these elements. These people include farmers, fisher-people, indigenous peoples, women, youth and grassroots organizations to name a few.

Take for example a cotton farmer in India. In order to grow his or her crop, he or she relies on an outside source to supply all the inputs. These include seeds, fertilizer, insecticide, tools, loans and labor, all simply to grow his crop and keep up with the demands of a worldwide market. Due to many factors including the market setting cotton prices and a switch to Bt in the early 2000s (a genetically modified seed manufactured by Monsanto), a trend in huge debt and growing suicide rates (199,132 suicides between 1997 and 2008) has swept across the cotton growing area in northern India. Realities such as these help to illustrate some of the flip sides of our current food system.

As issues of such as the plight of Indian cotton growers, land grabbing and the search for oil became more and more widespread, people started to realize they were losing the struggle to maintain control over their own food systems. The food sovereignty movement grew out of a need to reevaluate all elements of our current food system including these.

The movement is new- no more than 15 years old- but it has been gaining momentum in recent years. What will it take to bring back people’s power over our food systems and begin to grow a world network of localized food systems that value people over financial gain and good food over growing markets?

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