To end the dilemma of hunger: Food sovereignty and peasants' rights

Food sovereignty demands a structural, economic, social and political transformation that prioritizes the universal right to food over private ownership of land and the means of production and trade.

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Twenty-five years ago, in April 1996, in the framework of the second International Conference of La Via Campesina (organized in Tlaxcala, Mexico), the term Food Sovereignty was adopted as part of the battle of ideas in which the reasons for global hunger and the strategies to overcome it were being debated. Months later, Via Campesina introduced the discussion at the Global Food Summit organized by the United Nations in Rome.


In the midst of the neoliberal offensive, corporations mounted their strategy of subordinating food to markets, under the excuse that only their technological package was capable of resolving a dilemma that, in reality, seen from another perspective, had as one of its causes the advance of financial capital over local food systems and the dismantling of the regulatory and protectionist instruments of states.


Food sovereignty is a political proposal to confront hunger and its consequences. It is an ethic of life linked to the right of peoples to healthy, nutritious and culturally adequate food, produced in an ecological and sustainable way. It includes the right of peoples to produce their own food and decide their own agri-food system, prioritizing the participation and needs of the people involved (producers, distributors and consumers) over the interests of businesses and markets.


Global discussions on hunger have a long history. The Right to Food was recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It was later included in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1976.


In 1952, the Brazilian Josué de Castro was elected president of the FAO Council, mainly for his work "Geography of Hunger", where he argues that hunger is a social problem, resulting from the form of social organization of the production and distribution of food.


Since its launch, food sovereignty has had far-reaching implications for public policy, which have been taken up by many organizations and institutions, such as the United Nations agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Human Rights Council, etc. Some governments, such as those of Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Mali, Bolivia, Nepal, Senegal and others, have included it in their constitutions. The adoption of the Declaration of Peasant Rights by the UN General Assembly in 2018 and the recognition of agroecology by the FAO in 2015 are testimony to the interest conferred to it by multilateral institutions.


In Latin America, although it has never been possible to structurally dismantle the advances of financial capital in agriculture, the "tide" of progressive governments managed to significantly reduce hunger.


Currently, after a conservative counter-offensive, the food situation has worsened, and the pandemic has given visibility to the serious and deepening food insecurity.


In May 2021, food prices recorded the highest increase in the last decade, as registered by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. According to the agricultural commodity price index prepared monthly by the entity, food prices rose 39.7% in May compared to the same month last year.


This is the result of twelve consecutive months of increases in the average index, which in May also had the highest monthly increase in the entire ten-year period: 4.8% over April.


Considering all the people in the world who are affected by moderate levels of food insecurity and those who suffer from hunger, it is estimated that more than 2 billion people lack access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food, including 8% of the population of North America and Europe, according to the latest report on the state of food security and nutrition in the world presented by FAO.


On the other hand, overweight and obesity continue to increase in all regions, especially among school-age children and adults. In 2018, approximately 40 million children under the age of five were overweight and adults with this condition exceed 2 billion.  In Latin America there are 187.8 million hungry people and in South America 131.2 million people are food insecure, according to the same report.


Faced with this tragic panorama, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, prepared a report with recommendations and a strong call for attention in view of the next summit on food systems of the United Nations, in harmony with La Via Campesina, which warned of the possible corporate capture of the summit.


Fakhri proposes a human rights-based approach to food systems that puts people before profit, ensuring that markets meet social needs and obliging states to provide people with adequate social protection. In addition, he defends the role of agroecology, secure access to land and the right to seeds for peasants.


The rapporteur also emphasizes the "vital role" of seeds and the dangers of mergers and acquisitions in the seed industry; recently the six big agrochemical or seed companies have combined into just four big ones: Dow and DuPont merged in a deal valued at 130. billion, and then split into three partnerships, including an agriculture-focused company called Corteva; Chemchina acquired Syngenta for US $43 billion; Bayer acquired Monsanto for $63 billion; and Bayer's seed divisions (namely the Stoneville, Nunhems, FiberMax, Credenz and InVigor brands) were sold to BASF for $7 billion to satisfy antitrust regulators.


Faced with this scenario, Fakhri himself proposes to follow the path set by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2018, when it adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas.


Peasant rights as a basis for ending hunger


The International Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas was adopted by the United Nations within the framework of the emphasis placed on food sovereignty, associated with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.


The Declaration sets out the rights of peasants and the "obligations" of States as a condition for their realization: the text is a fundamental compendium of public policies that the United Nations establishes for the planning and renewal of world agricultural policy and food systems in view of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.


Some elements of this text to highlight include:


Article 15 highlights: " Peasants have the right to determine their own food and agriculture systems, recognized by many States and regions as the right to food sovereignty."


Article 16 incorporates: "States shall take appropriate measures to strengthen and support local, national and regional markets in ways that facilitate and ensure that peasants and other people working in rural areas have full and equitable access and participation in these markets to sell their products at prices that allow them and their families to attain an adequate standard of living”, also highlighting the importance of state intervention to ensure fair prices and adequate incomes.


Article 17 incorporates: " Peasants and other people living in rural areas have the right to land, individually and/or collectively, (…) including the right to have access to, sustainably use and manage land and the water bodies, coastal seas, fisheries, pastures and forests therein, to achieve an adequate standard of living, to have a place to live in security, peace and dignity and to develop their cultures”, and recommends that States carry out agrarian Reforms, to facilitate equitable access to land and its social function by avoiding concentration.


This article is vital in the current context of land concentration and land grabbing. In Latin America, 1% of landowners concentrate more than half of the agricultural land, and the region has the most unequal land distribution in the entire planet: the Gini coefficient -which measures inequality, 0 for equality and 1 for extreme inequality- applied to land distribution in the continent reaches 0.79, well above Europe (0.57), Africa (0.56) and Asia (0.55).


Land concentration is a structural barrier to the development of a nation and to the full enjoyment of the rights of peasants.


Article 19 states: "Peasants (,,,) have the right to seeds (…) The right to the protection of traditional knowledge relevant to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture; (…) The right to participate in the making of decisions on matters relating to the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.”  Faced with the permanent advance of transnational corporations in the appropriation of genetic material and strong pressures for seed laws that endorse them in this barbarity, this article takes on special relevance.


Faced with a global food system that deepens its concentration at all levels with a tendency to transform food into commodities oriented to financial accumulation, the fight against hunger is fundamentally political.


In this direction we can summarize some challenges of the people’s movement in the struggle for food sovereignty:


- The protection and development of the local market, promoting local markets and guaranteeing a pricing policy in line with production costs, to ensure the adequate standard of living of producers and access to food for consumers.


- The participation of peasants, cooperatives, small and medium producers in the construction and implementation of agrarian policies, as well as of consumers and the population in general in the elaboration of policies for food access and trade.


- Limiting the maximum size of land ownership and possession; and guaranteeing the principle of the benefit of all society with respect to the goods of nature, water and biodiversity.


- The reformulation of the role of the State so that it orders the process of food sovereignty, guaranteeing its production and distribution in all regions of the country. Direct government control over foreign trade (import/export) of food and over interest and exchange rates. Implement a broad program of small and medium agro-industries installed in all municipalities of the country, in the form of cooperatives.


- The guarantee of regulatory stocks of healthy food, by the state, to ensure access to the entire population.


- The guarantee of the free use, knowledge and improvement of seeds by the entire population and especially peasant families, as well as biodiversity and diversity of species and varieties.


- A process of formalization of family farming and its local industries, establishing differentiated regulations for the authorization of slaughterhouses, adding value and processing of meat, fruit and vegetables, depending on the scale, and guaranteeing safety and traceability.


- Public policies segmented and differentiated according to subjects, scales and particular situations. As established in the UN declaration, states must respect, protect and enforce peasants' rights.


Food sovereignty is absolutely incompatible with any strategy that attempts to place private interests of profit and accumulation above the interests of the population.  It is not feasible to consolidate it without a radical change in agrifood systems, including a popular agrarian reform that democratizes land and places local markets at the center, and where the primary objective is healthy food at fair prices for all. This would require a great social and political urban-rural alliance, able to confront concentrated and corporate interests. Food sovereignty necessarily demands a structural, economic, social and political transformation that prioritizes the universal right to food over private ownership of land and the means of production and trade.


(Translation; ALAI)


- Diego Montón is an Argentinean farmer leader.
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