Today is World Food Day, a chance to celebrate the millions of farmers around the world who put food on our tables.
Yesterday, some of these farmers were awarded the Food Sovereignty Prize by the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, which includes EAA members the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This prize is dedicated to people who fight to retain control over how their food is produced, a striking counterpoint to the 2013 World Food Prize which this year celebrates leaders of the biotechnology industry.
These prizes bring attention to a critical problem – but highlight very different aspects of the response.
One of the winners of the 2013 Food Sovereignty Prize is the Group of 4 (G4), representing over a quarter of a million Haitians. These are the small farmers from Haiti that make up the largest alliance of Haiti peasant organizations and include Heads Together Small Farmers of Haiti (Tet Kole), the Peasant Movement of Papaye, the National Congress of Papaye Peasant Movements, and the Regional Coordination of Organizations of the South East Region. They work to rebuild their country’s seed, soil and agricultural systems and to advocate for farmers rights. Notably, the G4 rejected a substantial hybrid seed donation from Monsanto following the 2010 earthquake, in an effort to retain control over their food systems, save Creole seeds and protect peasant livelihoods.
Photo courtesy of Grassroots International
As for the 2013 World Food Prize, the award recognizes “the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world”. This year’s award will be shared between a career Monsanto executive, a Syngenta scientist and a private industrial scientist. By promoting genetically modified seeds and agri-business, the award mainly takes into account the corporate economic and technological approaches to food production but neglects the social and environmental impacts of these approaches.
This has not always been the case. Over the years, the World Food Prize has honoured a variety of food experts. In 1995, for example, Hans Rudolf Herren was recognized for preventing a major food crisis in Africa by working to halt the spread of the Cassava mealybug. Subsequently, Herren also served as co-chair of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), whose report calls for a significant shift towards smallholder-based sustainable agriculture, with a particular focus on the needs of poor women.
This approach puts people, rather than business and industry, at the centre of planning for food security. It also means supporting the 500 million small-scale food producers and related social movements in their struggles for community-controlled food systems that help to preserve biodiversity. Efforts to tackle poverty and hunger must put those most affected – and their access to and control over natural resources – at the centre of policy and practice.
Now back to the problem.
Almost 900 million people go to bed hungry.
Prior to 2007, there was slow progress in the fight against global hunger. But then several world events halted or reversed this progress, including sharp increases in food prices in 2008, food price volatility caused by stock market investments in food and energy commodities, and famine in the Horn of Africa in 2011.
Now, in 2013, almost one in seven people in the world experience chronic hunger – which doesn’t include those who face hunger due to “short-term” emergencies such as natural disasters or war. Women make up a little over half of the world’s population, but they account for over 60 percent of the world’s hungry. The vast majority of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition are living in rural areas – where food is produced – with up to 60 percent living in poverty.
The causes of hunger range from extreme weather events, predictable cycles of drought, food price volatility, ineffective or discriminatory distribution of food supplies, corporate dominance of the global food system and international trade policies, to chronic poverty and lack of social protection. Taken together, they point to national and international policies that fail to adequately address – let alone ensure – food and nutrition security.
Now the response.
We produce enough food, but our production, distribution and consumption patterns are neither just nor sustainable. Continued high rates of hunger demonstrate that most mainstream approaches to food production have failed us.
Large-scale, industrial agriculture and GMOs have not been successful in solving global food security challenges. Rather, these practices have degraded our soils, polluted our water, and reduced biodiversity through the extensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and through clear-cutting practices for monocropping. Sustainable agroecological food production methods (also called ecological farming) aim to increase productivity through enhancing natural and sustainable processes, using local knowledge and resources.
In contrast to industrial and chemical agriculture, which is a linear system that relies on costly external inputs (pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, etc.), agroecology is a closed loop system of production, which recycles organic materials into the soil to increase nutrients over time, making food systems less dependent on fossils fuel-based fertilizers.
Therefore the answer is leveraging the potential of sustainable agriculture methods with policies designed to scale up and mainstream the systems that have proven records of success in terms of sustainable productivity and resilience, and linking these systems to markets that enhance livelihoods and communities. This will not only preserve land and other natural resources for future generations but help restore depleted soils and protect the precious biodiversity that still remains to us. Such a holistic and ecological approach to food security is needed now more than ever.
Agroecology is simply a better way to fight hunger while protecting the environment and helping communities to prosper.
Christine Campeau is based in Geneva and works for Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, an international alliance of over 80 churches and Christian organizations campaigning together on food security and on HIV and AIDS.