Industrial agriculture vs. food sovereignty | by Stephen Greenberg

by Apr 17, 2013Magazine

foodsovereigntyLarge-scale commercial agriculture produces an estimated 90% or more of marketed food in South Africa. Two-thirds to three-quarters of food is purchased from supermarkets, even by the poor, and corporate agribusinesses dominate supply chains from inputs to retailing.

In response to the same kind of corporate domination of the food chain around the world, an international food sovereignty movement has arisen globally in the past decade or so. It was introduced in 1996 by the international peasants’ movement, La Via Campesina (LVC), which is arguably the strongest global network of grassroots farmer and peasant organisations, with 148 affiliated organisations on five continents. The concept of food sovereignty originated as an alternative to the mainstream definition of food security, which focused on food consumption but not on the dynamics of production or issues of control and power in food systems.

Corporate-industrial agriculture and the ‘peasant web’

At its base, food sovereignty is about control over defining food and agricultural systems. Corporatisation of agro-food systems removes control from local producers and subordinates both producers and consumers to the imperatives of profit and capital accumulation. According to the ETC Group (a progressive research institute focusing on environment, technology and concentration especially in food and natural resources), up to 85% of food globally is still produced by a ‘peasant web’ of small-scale producers, and is consumed within the same national borders or agro-ecological zones as it is produced. Food sovereignty aims to defend and build this broad base as the most socially and ecologically sustainable way of producing food.

In contrast, corporate-industrial agriculture is a recent development, having only grown in the past 70 years on the back of 10,000 years of agricultural development. The so-called Green Revolution technologies, such as synthetic agrochemicals and hybrid seed, were introduced in the 1940s partly as a by-product of war. These technologies spread rapidly and resulted in massive increases in agricultural production. But this came at the cost of large-scale social displacement and ecological destruction, rapid concentration of ownership, centralisation of control and the marginalisation of knowledge about production that is less reliant on manufactured inputs and oil.

Even though small-scale farmers still produce most of the world’s food using the repository of knowledge handed down over thousands of years, they are under increasing pressure to compete against the dense core of large-scale agribusinesses. The largest agribusinesses globally are the major beneficiaries of state subsidies, particularly in the US and Europe. Although subsidies can make sense to protect essential industries like food production, their uneven distribution forces producers who do not receive subsidies (mostly in nations that cannot afford them) to compete with those who do. Global trade rules facilitate this by compelling countries to open their borders to minimum amounts of food, whether they need it or not. This, in turn, affects consumers, who end up buying the cheap surpluses of other countries. Consequently, local production declines and, in the long run, food loses its cultural specificity as standardised products, designed to maximise profit, flood the markets.

Food sovereignty stands for the retention of cultural specificity, control over production technologies and over decisions about what to produce and how to produce it. It is therefore inherently political in its overt conflict with corporate interests.

The ‘peasant web’ of producers is LVC’s primary constituency, and the concept of food sovereignty is built on this social base. Since this constituency is under threat from processes of corporatisation in agrofood systems, food sovereignty extends to a consideration of the agrarian structure. Where this structure is characterised by large commercial farms, it translates into demands for agrarian transformation and the breaking up of large landholdings and the provision of support for small-scale farming. Where small-scale farmers form the base of the agrarian structure, food sovereignty translates into defence against dispossession of land and other natural resources. These issues are nowhere to be found in traditional conceptions of food security.

Food sovereignty therefore incorporates both production and consumption, with an explicit emphasis on who controls decisions about the production and distribution of food. It goes a step further by asserting the necessity of ecologically sustainable production and distribution of agricultural products and food. Agro-ecology lies at the core of the technical solutions to realising food sovereignty in practice. Essentially, agro-ecological practices take into account the ecological context of production and seek to mimic natural processes rather than impose artificial ones. Agro-ecology incorporates many tried and tested techniques, ranging from using legumes for soil fertility to rainwater harvesting. The base of these techniques is the deep experiential common pool of knowledge about production that has developed over millennia. In contrast, corporate-industrial agriculture converts producers into passive consumers of technologies developed by specialists whose outputs are controlled by corporations.

Translating food sovereignty in the South African context

Food sovereignty is best understood as a vision to strive towards rather than a clearly-defined destination. Improvements can always be made. The way each country or group or individual producer moves towards this vision is shaped by their specific context.

In South Africa the context includes a dominant corporate-industrial structure in the agrofood system, with, as mentioned earlier, large-scale commercial agriculture producing at least 90% of marketed food in the country, two-thirds to three-quarters of food being purchased from supermarkets, and corporate agribusinesses dominating supply chains. Peasants or small-scale surplus producing farmers were more or less obliterated in the processes of colonialism and apartheid. Although South Africa has an estimated 4.5 million small-scale black food producers, the vast majority are on land that is insufficient to produce enough food even to feed their own households. They are therefore compelled to look elsewhere for survival, and food production is only a minor supplementary activity in most cases. Consequently, agriculture is not a major nucleus for mobilisation. Despite recent farmworker activism in some parts of the Western Cape, the broader issue of ‘de-agrarianisation’ and the focus of the rural population on jobs and services rather than on agriculture as the impetus for organised activity remains absolutely dominant.

The combination of a highly concentrated economic structure and limited small-scale farmer organisation poses challenges for translating food sovereignty into a practically useable concept. The concept and practice of food sovereignty has taken strongest root in societies in which small-scale producers play a significant or major role in agriculture. Food sovereignty comes to life only when a constituency acts to realise it.

Nevertheless, the necessity of developing democratic food production and distribution systems, of widening the base of producers so everyone has an opportunity to participate actively in economic life, and of shifting to more ecologically sustainable ways of producing and distributing food, are as pertinent in South Africa as they are elsewhere.

Translating the concept of food sovereignty into the South African context can start with identifying interstices in the agrofood structure, and looking around to see what practices are already being carried out that might advance the concept materially. Although the agrofood system is highly corporatised, there is a thriving ‘informal’ and subsistence sector that makes a vital, though comparatively small, contribution to securing the food needs of many millions of people. ‘Short chains’ that connect producers to consumers in localised spaces and are rooted in culturally-specific values can potentially bypass the imperatives of accumulation and profit by incorporating the gift economy, mutual support, and sharing and exchange of knowledge and materials for production.

Technically, a range of ecologically and socially sustainable forms of production can be found in many of the crevices or niches of the agrofood system. These vary from surplus-producing permaculture and organic farms through to local saving and sharing of indigenous seed varieties. These components together constitute the practical basis for the introduction of food sovereignty into our food system.

There is no need to force an argument that food sovereignty is a complete and total alternative to corporate-industrial agriculture in South Africa in order to take the first steps. When a farmer wants to introduce a new seed, she does not replace all her existing seed at once. Rather, she will set aside a portion of the land to experiment and test before adopting more widely, if it is appropriate. So it should be with food sovereignty. There is plenty of space for experimentation. The task is to work systematically to learn about how feasible the variety of practices are, how they can be adapted to local contexts and how they can be expanded over time so we eventually reach a place where producers and consumers together have direct control over how food is produced and distributed, using techniques that ensure a socially and ecologically secure future.

Stephen Greenberg is a freelance researcher with an interest in food systems, land, agriculture and rural development.

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