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Radical U.N. Report Promotes Democratic Control of Food and an End to Corporate Domination

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Posted on Mar 20, 2014

By Sonali Kolhatkar

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A new report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council on the “Right to Food” took aim at the entire basis on which food is produced and distributed on a global scale. Reflecting the type of progressive analysis of our food system from experts like Vandana Shiva and Michael Pollan, report author Olivier De Schutter called for an undermining of large agribusinesses and an infusion of democratic control.

Although the report’s recommendations are revolutionary, news of its release went largely unreported in the major U.S. media.

De Schutter, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, spent six years visiting more than a dozen countries and concluded that the world’s entire food system should be rebuilt, starting with the promotion of local, sustainable farming so that ordinary people have control over what they can grow and eat. This certainly does not sound radical to those of us in U.S. cities where there has been a rapid expansion of farmers markets and an explosion in backyard farming. But in poor American communities and in poor countries as a whole, it is a radical notion for food to be grown locally, sustainably and democratically. 

The world’s food system is controlled by a handful of giant corporations, the majority of which are based in the U.S., such as ConAgra, Cargill and PepsiCo. These companies are a bottleneck through which most of the world’s food is forced, in order to feed most of the world’s people. Not only is this method environmentally unsustainable given its overreliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fossil fuels, but it is also inefficient at actually feeding people. The World Food Programme estimates that there are 842 million hungry people worldwide.

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How did it get this way? The “Green Revolution” starting in the 1940s was a promise that a technological fix of high-yielding grains cultivated for mass planting, used in combination with newly developed chemical fertilizers and pesticides, would eliminate world hunger. By some measures the Green Revolution was indeed successful in producing vast amounts of cereal grains that feed a large chunk of the earth’s population. But how did so few companies end up at the top? And why are so many people still hungry today?

In an interview on Uprising, I asked food justice activist Raj Patel to explain what went wrong with the Green Revolution and why De Schutter’s report may provide a panacea. Patel is a writer, activist and academic, and he wrote the book “Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System” as well as the New York Times best-seller “The Value of Nothing.” He teaches a class at UC Berkeley with Pollan called Edible Education and is an adviser to De Schutter. According to him, “the food system is carved out of a history of colonialism, of slavery, of empire.”

Today, Patel told me, the Green Revolution has resulted in “substituting chemicals for workers and that means you have displaced people who end up moving to cities. And these are the people who are most likely to be going hungry.” Patel conceded that, “yes, there is more food produced if you measure just the big commodity crops.” But, he noted, “you sacrifice the other kinds of more nutritious crops that were growing alongside the cereals.” Pointing to Latin America as an example, Patel told me that during the peak of the Green Revolution, “food production went up by 9 percent, but so did hunger.”

Patel maintained that “there is enough food,” but “the way in which we distribute the food is unjust.” In other words, corporate control of these vast monocultured farms grew even as more people were pushed off land slated for cultivation, until all that is left are a handful of wealthy businesses producing more food than ever and a hungry population of landless poor that cannot afford to feed itself.

It is not just food corporations that control our food system, but also large chemical and seed companies such as Monsanto and Dow Chemical. For decades, Monsanto has benefited from a monopoly it created through its genetically engineered corn and soy seeds that are impervious to its own brand of pesticide called Roundup. The Roundup Ready seed-pesticide system was easy and efficient for farmers to use—except that the seeds are also engineered to be sterile so farmers cannot save seeds for next year’s harvest and are thus dependent on Monsanto year after year. Not only has this method resulted in crops that rely on heavy use of poisonous chemicals, it has also given rise to dangerous “super weeds” that are resistant to pesticides.

 


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