Issue 245: March 2007


Thinking About Food Sovereignty

by Cathleen Kneen

I was honoured to be one of 500 people (and only 8 Canadians) to be invited to the global Forum For Food Sovereignty, held in Sélingué, Mali, West Africa, at the end of February. Most of the participants were people who earn their living by the work of their hands on the lands, waters, and forests of 86 different countries, and for them the language of food sovereignty seemed to come easily. For me it was a bit more of a stretch, as we have spent the last ten years in Canada working with the language of ‘food security’, which we consider to have both short-term (everyone has access to the food they need) and long-term aspects (the food system is both ecologically and economically sustainable).

I was therefore particularly interested to see how this incredibly diverse collection of people thought about food security and food sovereignty. In a nutshell, it appears to be this:

Food security is essential for people to live a healthy life. However, as readers of The Ram’s Horn are well aware, the food system globally is controlled by a handful of corporations which provide agricultural and food production inputs on an industrial scale, control processing from cattle slaughter to cotton gins, and brand and sell food at retail. They are not all the same corporations, of course, but there are strong links (and a common perspective) between them. And while food may be the focus of their businesses, their responsibility is to provide a return to their shareholders on a quarterly basis; feeding the hungry is purely incidental.

Given this situation, we can claim the right to food  and we should continue to do so  but recognize that governments are not in a position to implement it and corporations are not interested. What we must therefore do is assert food sovereignty: the authority of the people (community, nation, region, even state) to maintain, nurture, and protect their food producing capacity, whether it’s seeds, livestock breeds, water sources, shoreline, forests, soil micro-organisms, or traditional knowledge and practices. It is not, for example, that farmers have the right to save seed – saving seed is what farmers do. Nor is it necessarily an assertion that traditional varieties or practices are better, but rather that we recognize that diversity is the best strategy for survival.

I had a lot of conversations about this at the Forum, and afterwards had the opportunity to visit some farm co-operatives in Benin as a guest of the GRAIN staff for francophone Africa. There we saw food sovereignty being built from the ground up, with women growing and processing a variety of foods to eat and also to market – everything from cassava to oyster mushrooms – while at the same time organizing for farmer and regional autonomy, for example opposing the use of genetically modified seeds under the slogan“OGM = Organization Génératrice de la Mort  – Organization pour Mort des Campagnes” (in English, it would be GMO = Death-dealing Organization, Organization for the Death of the Countryside).

traditional maize varieties
traditional maize varieties

The conference was named after Nyéléni, “first daughter” in the Mandé language, and the name of an iconic Malian woman who through her hard work produced food, preserved and developed food crops, and supported the whole family. She stands for women as proud in themselves and their social role.  The meeting place was dominated by a very tall, slender statue of Nyéléni in the traditional West African style. In her shadow (literally) our efforts to develop an action agenda for food sovereignty started with the concrete: We began with the question: What are we fighting for? with special emphasis on what food sovereignty means at the local level; we then moved on to an analysis of the forces and tensions which are preventing food sovereignty under the question, What are we fighting against? Finally, we talked about what we can do about it: how to strengthen our movements, locally and globally. In some ways it was like the World Social Forum but with a strong commitment to come out with an action plan.

A range of actions were proposed: to promote a ban on the ‘Terminator’ technology; to stop dumping of low-price foodstuffs under the guise of food aid; to identify and publicize local knowledge so it cannot be privatized; to share information from research conducted at the very local level so as to counter corporate propaganda (eg. on the health effects of GMOs); to work on direct markets and sharing with urban and consumer groups; to oppose privatization of water and of coastal areas; to protect land access for indigenous communities.

        In Africa, as elsewhere, women are central to this effort, and the Forum began with a Women’s Day to ensure women’s perspectives were included in the later discussions. I had been asked to facilitate the theme on local knowledge and technology for the Forum, so I attended the women’s meeting on that theme as well. This small but diverse group had surprisingly little trouble agreeing to some basic questions to ask of any new technology:

  • do people have a real choice as to how to use it, and whether to use it or not?
  • who controls or owns it?
  • who benefits from it? does it benefit society at large?
  • does it leave space for the practice and teaching of traditional knowledge and methods?
  • does it encourage operation at a human scale?

The women’s group also emphasized the integrated and spiritual aspects of traditional ‘technology’. A woman from Brazil commented “traditional knowledge is in the seed itself” so the loss of plant species through and the imposition of ‘modern’ practices has led to huge losses in terms of both food and medicine. There are illnesses we used to be able to treat, she said, but we have lost both the plants and the knowledge of how to use them, including the appropriate ceremonies. The theft and the destruction of traditional knowledge has to be addressed internationally and we need public access research into traditional medicine and practices.

It is the poor and indigenous communities who suffer most from the imposition of monoculture and the consequent loss of their biodiversity and opportunity for appropriate and balanced diets. This monoculture is imposed in many ways. One technique is food aid, which dumps foodstuffs at prices below what the local producers need for their products, while the population learns to eat foreign foods (eg. wheat instead of millet). Local producers are thus forced into producing crops for the export markets. “Africa’s hunger,” declared one of the women, “is a result of colonialism.” Another example: in Chile there is a traditional breed of chickens which lay blue eggs. Now they have used those genetics to develop ‘industrial’ hens which require special food etc. but produce blue eggs, so people buy them thinking they are supporting the local small farmers.

Nyeleni cooks
Nyeleni cooks

Later discussions continued these themes. As an Indian village woman put it, food sovereignty begins at home. “Food sovereignty for us means that the women have cows,” she said, “and they can sell the milk and get money, or they can barter for other food with their neighbours.”  A Sri Lankan added: “When we visit friends, they can say, ‘Do you want red or white rice?’ and we can eat what we prefer – and the curries that go with it.

“When we have food sovereignty,” a traditional herder from India told me, “we are not dependent on the outside for our food, and we can use our traditional breeds and varieties without threat of contamination.” A young woman from Lebanon noted that this is particularly important in situations of conflict and occupation, while a delegate from Indonesia added that it is also critical to the resilience of communities struck by disaster (such as tsunami) as well as conflict.

“When we go to talk to the government,” said a woman from the Philippines, “they tell us that people in the US have been eating GMOs for 10 years with no ill effect; but our research shows that when GM corn was introduced on one of the island provinces of our country, we documented several health problems.” A delegate from Sri Lanka agreed. The problem, he said, is that there is no money for this kind of research, only for research which shows positive results. His team of academics and peasants found that after the imposition of a GM rice, there was a significant increase in a number of diseases which are also on the rise in North America, including diabetes, cancer, and infertility.

Although the majority of the participants were peasants and farmers associated with the global peasant organization, La Via Campesina, others from consumer groups and urban movements shared the same perspective. “We have to build alliances between consumers and producers,” said a woman from the Netherlands. “We have to insist on the value of food which is grown or harvested in our own regions, to protect the livelihoods of the people who produce and process our food.”

At Nyéléni, this understanding of food sovereignty as being built ‘brick by brick’ was reflected in the daily reality of our conference. The conference centre was a specially-constructed traditional African village of round whitewashed mud-brick huts with conical thatched roofs where we slept, and open-air meeting places protected from the blazing sun with roofs and walls of woven grass mats. A bank of cement cubicles held pit toilets with water taps and cold-water showers (which frequently worked) and after the first day there was even electricity. All this was constructed specially for  Nyéléni and remains as a facility for future conferences. Our food was also traditional, vats of millet, rice, and stews cooked on open fires by a team of local women. Like the interpreters, the administrators, and the medics, they were all volunteers. The result was that even though we often did not share a language (the conference operated in French, English, Spanish, and the local language, Bambara) there was a real sense of community. It is a strong foundation upon which to build our world-wide movement for food sovereignty.

Nyeleni village
Nyeleni village

#245: March 2007 TOC
Thinking About Food Sovereignty - Cathleen attends the world forum in West Africa
On Subsistence - Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, that contempt for women is central to the modern economy
Bird Flu: A Bonanza for 'Big Chicken' - GRAIN reports how the
industry is using the flu scare to consolidate its hold
Organic vs. Air Miles - arguments about efficiency lead to local and organic
Kenya: Coming Up Roses? - will buying local hurt people in the
developing countries?
Oil News - biggest consumers? ethanol and the Pentagon
Where does the farmers' money go? - a goodly chunk to the CEO of Agricore
Cargill Mill Occupied by Brazil Women - the Landless Rural Workers Movement took over a Cargill facility to protest the distortion of their economy by ethanol; their action is supported around the world on International Women's Day
Chiquita's drug habit - evidence of payoffs to Colombia paramilitary organization
One banana at a time - a new marketing strategy for Chiquita
Monsanto Anti-Farmers Patents - Public Patent Foundation has
succeeded in overturning one of Monsanto's Roundup Ready patents
The confused ideology of neoliberalism - The American Corn Growers Association comes out against Monsanto
Alfalfa : contaminate first - Monsanto seeks approval to spread its
GE alfalfa while it waits for USDA approval
What's a grocery store for? - there's a lot more in a big box than
food (or easy profits)