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Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

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For whom do the FAO and its director-general work?

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A farmer accompanies his cattle through the fields of Uttara Kannada district, in the state of Karnataka, south India.

A farmer accompanies his cattle through the fields of Uttara Kannada district, in the state of Karnataka, south India.

For farmers small and large?  For the tens of millions of food-consuming households, poor or just getting by?  For the governments and bureaucracies of small countries who want to import less and grow more?  For the organic cultivators on their small densely bio-diverse plots?  Or for the world’s large food production, trading, and retail corporations, whose influence is wide and whose power is vast? [This is an extract from the full article at Monthly Review’s MRZine.]

FAO director-general Jose Graziano da Silva

There is the continuing if travel-stained hope — held by so many of us, those who work at humble stations in the food and agriculture sector — that, of all those whom the director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO of the United Nations) does work for, it is not that last.  But, since 2011 June, when José Graziano da Silva became the head of the FAO, the signs have been otherwise, and they are growing stronger with each passing month.

What effect does this have on the way the 190-odd member states of the UN deal with agriculture and food, with nutrition and food security, with making food affordable?  A great deal.  These are questions the member states of the FAO (and of the UN) have faced since 1945, with the end of World War Two.  If you read this passage, it helps illustrate how little has changed from one point of view, and how much has, from another, far more insidious and destabilizing point of view:

. . . [S]ome of the basic problems that have afflicted humanity since the beginning of society remain unsolved.  Large parts of the world still suffer from hunger, and the threat of famine is ever present.  Today we are confronted by a new challenge in human history which, if not faced, could sweep away the little progress we have so far achieved — this is the upward surge of world population at a rate never experienced before.

That was the fourth director-general of the FAO, B. R. Sen of India, and he said these words during his inaugural address at the First African Regional Conference held in Lagos, Nigeria, on 3 November 1960.

Sen appealed “… to our Member Governments not only to discuss their problems, but also to avail themselves of the knowledge and skills FAO has acquired over many years in the fields of agricultural development and food production and distribution.”  He said: “While the increase of agricultural productivity must remain the sine qua non of economic development of the less developed regions, the importance of education, public health and institutional factors must be recognised in any plan of balanced economic development.”

The FAO 'real' food price index. What will a private sector 'political commitment' do to these trends?

The FAO ‘real’ food price index. What will a private sector ‘political commitment’ do to these trends?

As you see, it has been over 50 years and few of the deficits recorded then have been banished.  How could they have been?  In the years — the decades — since 1960, many a development theory has been advanced only to be discarded . . . but not before the worst of them were thrust upon poor folk and choiceless urban dwellers, as they are now.

Only the armory of the food giants today is far more potent than it ever has been.  And still more powerful will they become, if championed by the FAO as they currently are.  Graziano da Silva at the end of 2012 November said that the private sector can make an important contribution to the fight against poverty and hunger and promote sustainable food production and consumption.  Where did he say this?  At the FAO Headquarters, to participants whose associations represent more than five thousand companies, during the first in a series of planned dialogues on what the FAO is calling “private sector involvement in poverty- and hunger-reduction initiatives.”

This is deeply worrying.  Food companies, global grain traders, commodities exchanges, multi-national food retail chains, and large processed-food corporations have been using all the means they could muster to influence the FAO during the 2001-10 decade.  Now, under Graziano da Silva, the gates have opened wide in a manner that was still resisted during the tenure of his immediate predecessor, Jacques Diouf (1994-2011), and could hardly be countenanced during the tenure of Edouard Saouma (1976-1993).  What would those who came before — A. H. Boerma (1968-1975), B. R. Sen (1956-1967), P. V. Cardon (1954-1956), N. E. Dodd (1948-21), and J. B. Orr (1945-1948) — have thought of such a swerve marketward?

Indigenous and organic cereals displayed in Bangalore, Karnataka

Indigenous and organic cereals displayed in Bangalore, Karnataka

The signs came early.  In 2011 October, for the World Food Day of that year, Graziano da Silva in an article wrote of “boosting investments in agriculture and food security” but didn’t say whether he meant public investment or private.  What he did do was extol what he believes are the benefits of “boosting cash flows into economically stagnant rural communities,” as the FAO release of that day explained.  The director-general’s words were: “Cash transfers and cash-for-work programmes work in the same way as rain on dry soil, allowing these communities to bloom once again.”

It was a turn of metaphor that, when similarly used by him in an article about eleven months later, infuriated 109 farmers’ and peasants’ movements and associations.  Graziano da Silva and Suma Chakrabarti, the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), wrote an article published in the Wall Street Journal on 6 September 2012.  In the article, they called on governments and social organizations to embrace the private sector as the main engine for global food production.

mrzine_logo“The language used by Graziano da Silva and Chakrabarti is offensive,” said the signatories to the common statement issued by the 109 organizations.  “Phrases like ‘fertilize this land with money’ or ‘make life easier for the world’s hungry’ call into question the FAO’s ability to do its job with the necessary rigor and independence from large agribusiness companies and fulfill the UN mandate to eradicate hunger and improve the living conditions of rural people.”[You can read the rest on MRZine.]

Written by makanaka

December 5, 2012 at 16:35

All over India, thousands march for seed sovereignty

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On 9 August 2011, a date marked every year as ‘Quit India Day’ for its association with a landmark in India’s freedom movement, thousands of Indians marched to support food and seed sovereignty. From remote tribal hamlets in Orissa to cities like Mumbai and New Delhi, more than a hundred events were organised by civil society groups and concerned individuals to highlight the issues of food, farmers and agricultural freedom.

[See earlier post, ‘Monsanto, get out of India!’]

The ‘Monsanto, Quit India!’ day call was given by the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), a national network of more than 400 organisations working to promote sustainable farm livelihoods, seed and food sovereignty, food safety, farmers’ and consumers’ rights etc.

Across the country, the demands made to central and state governments were four-fold: no collaborative research partnerships with companies like Monsanto in the state agriculture universities and other institutions in the NARS; no commissioned projects especially for GM crop trials, by these institutions and no GM crop trials in general; no public-private-partnerships (PPP) in the name of improving productivity especially of crops like maize and rice which in effect pose serious questions on food/nutrition security as well as seed sovereignty; setting up grassroots systems of seed-self reliance, recognising farmers’ skills and knowledge related to seed and supporting institution-building and infrastructure around such self-reliant systems, so that timely availability of appropriate, diverse, affordable seed for all farmers is possible.

The Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture, India (ASHA) has summarised the Quit India day events and actions ahead:

In Mumbai, farmers from the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra state joined hands with Mumbai citizens to narrate stories about GM seeds like Bt cotton and how suicides by farmers continue to take place because of debt related to high inputs and crop failures. In Mumbai, youth joined freedom fighters in a silent march from the Lokmanya Tilak Statue in Chowpatty to the historic August Kranti Maidan.

In Orissa, padayatras and palli sabhas marked the day with dialogues with farmers in the tribal regions where the government is promoting hybrid maize along with chosen corporations, activists and farmers leaders urged farmers not to fall prey to the false promises and short-term yield claims of these corporations.

In Andhra Pradesh, all major farmers’ unions along with dozens of civil society groups came together to urge the state government not to allow any GM crop trials in the state. They reminded the state government that corporations like Monsanto (and its associates) have not hesitated to defy the government on various issues including redressal for loss-incurring farmers and price reduction on cotton seeds. A delegation met with senior bureaucrats in the Department of Agriculture after a protest sit-in at the Agri-Commissioner’s office.

Bangalore in the state of Karnataka witnessed a gathering of 300 farmers and consumers under the leadership of Kodihalli Chandrasekhar, President, Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS) who held a demonstration at the Directorate of Agriculture. One of the main points raised here was related to state agencies like the University of Agricultural Sciences-Dharwad facilitating biopiracy in the name of collaborative research. Protesters demanded the scrapping of the ABSP II project through which Bt brinjal varieties were created posing serious questions on the IPRs over farmers’ seed resources; they also demanded that agencies which have violated the legal provisions of the Biological Diversity Act be penalised for such violations. The protestors dispersed only after receiving an assurance from top bureaucrats sent by the Agriculture Minister, that all partnerships and collaborative projects with Monsanto and other such companies will be reviewed.

In Patna, in the state of Bihar, freedom fighters and social activists along with farmers’ leaders joined hands to take up a one day symbolic fast against the government’s partnerships with Monsanto and research on GM crops like Golden Rice. The activists were met by the Minister for Agriculture and Minister for Food and Civil Supplies and an assurance provided that Bihar government would look into all the issues raised with regard to hybrid rice, hybrid maize, Golden Rice etc.

More than 15 events marked the day in Tamil Nadu state. In Coimbatore farmers and acitivists urged the state government not to allow the State Agriculture University to take up GM crop trials. They reminded the ruling party in Tamil Nadu about its election manifesto in 2009, where AIADMK had expressly recognised the threat from GM seeds and their unsuitability for Indian conditions, wherein the party had promised ‘no more promotion of GM seeds’. Memoranda submitted to the Chief Minister from various locations across the state urged her to follow the footsteps of other progressive states, which have taken a firm stand in favor of farmers and environmental sustainability and have said NO to GM crops. Data was shared from official records on the occasion to show that Bt cotton had not made any dent to the insecticides use in cotton in the state and that yields have been fluctuating greatly over the years that Bt cotton expanded in the state.

In Madhya Pradesh, hundreds of protesters gathered in Neelam Park in Bhopal from all over the state and took out a funeral procession of Monsanto and cremated Monsanto symbolically. They pointed out that the promotion of hybrid maize seed would nullify the efforts of the state government in promoting organic farming in the state, with an organic farming policy being officially adopted recently here. Protesters said that hybrid maize PPPs with corporations like Monsanto will take away diversity from our farms, will jeopardize food and nutrition security of poor tribals, will bring in agri-chemicals and indebtedness and will push the farmers of the state towards more suicides.

Punjab saw the launch of a week-long unique ‘Kheti Khuraak Azaadi Jatha’ from Jallianwala Bagh on the occasion. This Jatha will travel through the villages and towns of Punjab in the coming days and highlight the dangers of the recent secret deal that the Punjab government entered into with Monsanto. Farmers unions and activists here cautioned the government against giving a No Objection Certificate to GM crop trials in the state and said that all political parties have to take cognizance of the opposition amongst citizens against GMOs in our food and farming, as Punjab moves towards Assembly elections next year.

In Gujarat, a Beej [seed] Yatra in the tribal pockets of the state preceded the August 9th events; in Baroda, many Gandhians, along with housewives, youth and activists, took out a rally across the city today, despite heavy rains. In Uttar Pradesh, led by Bhartiya Kisan Union’s Rakesh Tikait, a fiveday long mobilization effort began with a farmers’ meeting held in Muzaffarnagar. The UP government was urged not to allow any GM crop trials in the state and to revise its plans for hybrid maize and hybrid rice promotion.

Global governance, food security? What do these mean?

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Vendors in Mapusa, Goa

Vendors in Mapusa, Goa. The middle basket contains 'nachne', local millet

Are the current arrangements fit for the job? This is the question posed in a current discussion on FAO’s The Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum). The Forum is set up and managed by by FAO’s Agricultural Development Economics Division and, in their words, “is a community of practitioners currently reaching more than 2800 members” around the world.

The short intro to this discussion is: one of the consequences of the 2007-08 food price crisis was the emergence of a number of new institutions and initiatives that were intended to strengthen global capacities to respond to such situations. “You are invited to share views on how an effective global food governance system should work and on what major issues are to be addressed in order to ensure an adequate and safe food supply for all humans at all times.”

Here is my contribution to the discussion on ‘Global Governance for Food Security: are the current arrangements fit for the Job?’.

‘Global governance’ and ‘food security’ are not compatible ideas in present circumstances. If we look at the idea of ‘food security’, which development agencies and social scientists tend to agree is achieved by every family/household having enough to eat – and able to find and purchase that food easily – then this is only part of a way of living. That way of living, where the production and consumption of food is concerned, has for some years now been more aptly called ‘food sovereignty’. The difference between ‘security’ and ‘sovereignty’ is a major one, and governance – as it is commonly understood by UN agencies and development professionals – may apply to ‘security’ but hardly can to ‘sovereignty’.

So there is a difficulty with how this has been framed. Global governance is I’m sorry to say neither feasible under current economic conditions nor desirable from a cultural diversity point of view. It may have been a guiding principle in the mid-1930s when the League of Nations was created, and has been re-articulated in many forms – sometimes grandly, at other times in attempts to find peace and end conflict. The idea lies at the heart of many of the multidisciplinary efforts led by UN agencies, especially concerning human development, environment, healthcare, the right to education. It is at the core of the Millennium Development Goals programme. It remains, as it was more than 70 years ago, a fuzzy notion that does more to distract than to build. FAO needs to have nothing to do with such an idea.

Rice is still planted and harvested in the coastal talukas, but fields such as these are threatened by urbanisation

Rice is still planted and harvested in the coastal talukas, but fields such as these are threatened by urbanisation

The food crisis of 2007-08 is a point of extreme stress in the steady progress of the consolidation of the factors of food production and the organisation of the consumers of food products. In many ways, the ‘crisis’ began when the first fields were harvested with Green Revolution hybrids, and that was a long time ago. It is the growing concentration of capital in the post-harvest sequence – rather than in the people and households and villages who cultivate – that has led to the extreme food impoverishment which we first recognised in 2007-08 and promptly called a ‘crisis’.

This systemic difficulty continues simply because the same forces that, in public fora, in UN agencies, in corporate-industrial circles and within national policy, call for governance are also the forces that create legislation, treaties, trade agreements and multilateral institutions designed to sabotage all expressions of food sovereignty.

I have no doubt that within the ‘number of new institutions and initiatives’ there are also a number of people with the will and intention to help solve a problem that is found in many countries, many provinces and states. However, that does not make it a ‘global problem’. Some of the forces at work are international in scope and scale, such as the reach of the giant fertilisers corporations, the impact of the world’s major agricultural commodities exchanges, the dense links between grain trading cartels and the financial markets. These operate internationally, and the effects of deprivation and food price inflation are also seen in many countries. There are common elements, no doubt, but it is useful to distinguish elements that are common from the idea of ‘global’, for there will not be an inter-agency solution.

Identification of these problems, the reform of economic systems which permit such deprivation, and the creation and maintenance of social institutions (council of village elders for example) can only form locally and work locally. At best, there may be an exchange for methods and practice, available to all to participate in. That I think is what FAO should aim for on this subject.