To address the global food crisis, we have to address the power of big agribusiness

There is plenty of evidence that the livelihoods of farmers and communities can be improved, and that agroecology can deliver a huge range of other benefits.

Ian Fitzpatrick
8 March 2015
Barley cultivation in Kapchorwa, north-eastern Uganda.

Barley cultivation in Kapchorwa, north-eastern Uganda. Demotix/Samson Opus. All rights reserved.At the beginning of March, the Guardian ran a chilling editorial warning of a looming global food crisis, saying that an ‘enduring lesson of history is that drought and famine feed conflict, and conflict breeds more privation, and despair.’ The good news is that there’s a whole host of ways going forward to address the challenge of sustainable food production. The bad news is that donors, development agencies and multilateral financial initiatives seem to want to move in the opposite direction.

There is now extremely good evidence that small-scale sustainable farming, or agroecology, can deliver as much if not more food than large-scale corporate-controlled agriculture. For example, research by the UN showed that switching to agroecological farming methods has increased yields across Africa by 116% and by 128% in East Africa compared to conventional farming.

There is also plenty of evidence that the livelihoods of farmers and communities can be improved, and that agroecology can deliver a huge range of other benefits, including reducing the gender gap, creating jobs, improving people’s health, increasing biodiversity, and increasing the resilience of food systems to cope with climate change.

So why are governments, development agencies, policy makers and funders so focused on large-scale, high-input solutions which marginalise poor and small-scale farmers, have a negative impact on our environment, and do little to increase the resilience of our food system as a whole?

The short answer is corporate power. A longer answer is that there is a significant economic and political bias in favour of large-scale industrial agriculture. This bias is created through an economic system which privileges industrial farming, large-scale land owners and monopolistic corporations, leading to political support for these vested interests. A change in the ideological support for industrial agriculture towards agroecology and sustainable small-scale agriculture will require the political establishment and development agencies to design policies based on scientific evidence and the long-term viability of our global food system.

As the eminent agroecologist Professor Miguel Altieri has put it:

The issue seems to be political or ideological rather than evidence or science based. No matter what data is presented, governments and donors influenced by big interests marginalize agroecological approaches focusing on quick-fix, external input intensive ‘solutions’ and proprietary technologies such as transgenic crops and chemical fertilisers. It is time for the international community to recognize that there is no other more viable path to food production in the twenty-first century than agroecology.

There are many other barriers in place which prevent agroecology from being scaled up and helping to create a more robust and equitable food system.

Unfair trade rules and skewed research

For starters, there is the question of unfair trade rules and policies which force governments to sacrifice democratic decisions and priorities such as the ‘right to food’ in the name of free trade. Many southern countries have had their agricultural sectors decimated as they have been forced to remove agricultural protections like quotas and tariffs, food stockpiles and price controls, and subsidised seeds and other inputs. These are all seen as barriers to trade. This problem is compounded by the fact that many western countries are still allowed to subsidise agriculture, meaning small African farmers are being forced to compete with highly subsidised North American and European agribusiness.  

But there’s no reason why trade has to work in this way. Trade could easily prioritise and promote the ability of small farmers to sell goods, just as certain fair trade schemes currently do.

What’s more, trade should primarily encourage local, national and regional trading relationships, ensuring countries feed themselves before throwing them into competitive relationships with established companies in the west where customers are able to spend more on food than in domestic markets.

Then there’s the question of research and investment. At the moment, most of the money for both is spent on high-tech conventional farming which relies on expensive inputs, such as chemical pesticides and fertilisers, and proprietary high-yielding seeds. Instead, investments and research should be realigned towards sustainable farming and agroecology – particularly given the increasingly strong evidence of the benefits of these low-input practices on a wide range of environmental, social and economic indicators. Investments should not be tied to policy reforms which promote corporate-controlled economic growth at the expense of small-scale and poor farmers.

Land ownership

Finally there is the complex question of land ownership. An estimated 90% of rural land in Africa is unregistered, making it particularly susceptible to land grabs and unfair expropriation by governments on behalf of multinational corporations. Behind the problem of insecure land tenure is a deeper rooted problem of land ownership inequality, which goes back to the colonial era and before and looms large to this day. Across the continent, households in the highest income per capita quartile control up to fifteen times more land than people in the lowest quartile.

Land tenure is a complex issue and improving tenure rights and the growth of private property rights can, in some cases, facilitate corporate land grabbing and strengthen private land ownership by already rich investors and farmers. Corporations and other powerful actors can increase their control of land either directly, with medium and long-term leases, or through direct land purchases, but they can also control land and labour through contract farming arrangements. Improving land tenure arrangements should go hand in hand with land reform and land redistribution which prioritises the needs of small-scale farmers and farming communities and reduces land ownership inequality.

All of these barriers can be overcome through policies which take power away from corporations currently pushing for a one-size-fits-all industrial model of agriculture, and give it back to the small-scale farmers who currently grow 70% of Africa’s food.

Democratic alternatives

At Global Justice Now, we campaign for a world where resources are in the hands of the many, not the few. We champion social movements and propose democratic alternatives to corporate power.

We need a complete shift in who controls our food system. Power must be taken away from corporations and put back into the hands of the people and communities that produce and consume food. Only a movement of people calling for food sovereignty and agroecology will create this sort of change. 

This is an excerpt of From the roots up a report about how agroecology can feed Africa.


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