Towards food sovereignty

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

For three years now, a programme called the Green Economics and Globalization Initiative launched by an NGO, Shirkat Gah, has been working to create “economic literacy” among the people. The goal is to promote the concept of urban farming which can make a large number of people self-sufficient in food.

It is stated that a quarter acre of land can grow enough food to feed a family, while half an acre will give a surplus. And one acre of cultivated land can make a family affluent.

One may well ask why then are 50 per cent of the under-five children in Pakistan under-nourished? (Figure from Unicef’s State of the World’s Children 2005) That too when the government claims that 22 million hectares of land is under cultivation.

The simple reason is that not every family has a quarter acre of land and not everyone is growing food. Worse still, given the government’s World Bank driven policies, not everyone can afford adequate food and there are many people who still go to bed hungry at night.

The NGO has demonstrated that this dismal situation can be changed if there is more emphasis on food security and self-sufficiency. Its staff has used the little garden space in its office to grow vegetables using organic farming methods on an experimental basis.

The need for self-sufficiency in food should acquire an urgency now for another reason. This was explained lucidly by Devinder Sharma, chairperson of the Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security, who visited Pakistan last week as the keynote speaker at the fourth food sovereignty engagement of Shirkat Gah.

He shed light on some of the grim scenarios that the Third World can expect to see in the coming years as the World Trade Organization’s regime comes into force on January 1, 2005. He elucidated the deadly implications of the WTO agreement – especially the framework agreement on agriculture signed in July 2004 – for Third World farmers.

According to him, agriculture in the developing countries will be wiped out as the giant agri businesses of America, Europe and the Pacific will become the major food suppliers to all countries.

How will this happen? Under the new regime all countries are required to liberalize their trade by removing tariff barriers and other protective measures. This will expose the Third World farmers to “ruinous competition, driving down prices, undermining rural wages and exacerbating unemployment”.

If western farmers can produce food at prices that can compete in the international market, the logical question would be that why can’t Third World farmers do the same.

The simple reason is that an American or European farmer is much more heavily subsidized than a farmer in any Third World country. With landowners being paid direct subsidies, many farmers in the West are millionaires.

Sharma identified some of the recipients of the hefty subsidies doled out by the western governments in the name of agriculture. In 2001, Ted Turner, the chief of the CNN, David Rocke feller and the Duke of Westminster were some of the distinguished beneficiaries.

Corn growers in the US receive as much as $20,000 a year while cotton farmers notch up $3.9 billion a year in that country. In Europe, dairy farmers earn as much as five million euros for the export of milk.

With not enough resources in their kitty, Third World governments cannot pay direct subsidies to their farmers. Hence they have traditionally been helping agriculturists by subsidizing inputs such as water, fertilizers, seeds and pesticides.

It is no coincidence, that through a complicated set of rules drawn up in the Framework Agreement, these very subsidies paid by the developing countries have been placed in the “amber box” which signifies payments that are “trade distorting” and must, therefore, be eliminated. The direct payments the western governments make to their farmers have been put in the “green box” and the “blue box” that will not be touched.

As a result of this semantic sophistry, the Third World, which has traditionally depended on agriculture to feed its people and provide employment to a huge chunk of its population, will become the dumping ground for agricultural products with prices pushed down artificially by western governments.

This process has already begun as food production is falling in many countries which are losing revenues from food and cotton exports, rural unemployment is on the rise and urbanization is increasing at an unmanageable pace.

Devinder Sharma, who has done his homework well, gives examples from the developing world. In the Philippines since 1995 traditional exports such as coconut, abaca and sugar have lost markets, corn production has suffered and the agricultural sector has lost 710,000 jobs.

In Central America, a major coffee exporter, prices have fallen causing a loss of $713 million in coffee revenues in 2001 and the axing of 170,000 jobs. Indonesia, one of the top 10 exporters of rice in 1995, is today the largest importer of rice. India, the biggest producer of vegetables, has had to double its vegetable imports.

Sharma was shocked at the lack of awareness in the official circles in Islamabad. He strongly pleads for the Third World countries to take a collective stand to protect their agriculture.

There are two basic principles, he spells out, which the developing states should recognize. First, national food sovereignty is the right of every state which should be allowed to protect its agriculture and thereby job security, of its farming community.

Secondly, quantitative restrictions should be allowed to enable Third World countries to protect their agriculture from the dumping of cheap subsidized imports from the West.

To pave the way for a sensible and humanist globalization, Sharma suggests that production systems based on environmentally devastating, ecologically unsound and economically unviable factors (as is the case with agriculture in Europe and America) should be phased out.

Similarly, the removal of subsidies, that include the direct income subsidies given in the West to its farmers, should be linked with the removal of quantitative restrictions to ensure a level playing field for all.

It is time the gravity of the impending crisis were understood here. The multilateral agreement against hunger that Sharma so passionately pleads for should have the highest place on the agenda of our negotiators who attend the WTO meetings.

We need to explicitly recognize that every human being has the right to food. Given the surplus of food in the world today, famine and starvation cannot be justified on any ground. The 840 million who go to bed hungry every night world wide should not be doing so only if the governments were a bit more caring.

Food security also has a strategic dimension which is hardly spoken about. Once our farmers are wiped out – as they inevitably will be if the WTO regime in its present form comes into effect – and we become wholly dependent on the West for food supplies, we will have to meet all its demands howsoever unreasonable and destructive they are for us. No nuclear weapons or armies of millions will be able to save us.

Food is the most potent weapon any country can ever possess. The West understands this very well. That is why it mollycoddles its farmers (as well as their cows) and is prepared to pay subsidies worth more than the world market price of the crop they produce. (In the US cotton growers received $3.9 billion in subsidy payments for cotton which was sold for $3 billion in 2001.)

The Delhi Forum and Shirkat Gah are working towards a common goal of saving our farmers and our agriculture. Of course we have to grow cash crops and other crops for our industries. But there has to be a balance. There is need to improve our food sector by making it self-sufficient and sustainable, which the government’s World Bank driven policies are failing to do.

It is not the pesticides, the chemical fertilizers, the high yield seeds or the genetically modified plants that we need. It is a return to the traditional farming methods of our ancestors that is the need of the day. In the West the health-conscious consumers are now turning to food produced by organic farming methods.

A project is on the cards to take organic farming at a minimal cost to the kachchi abadis of Karachi. There is an appeal for donors to come forward to help in this project – which should ultimately lead to the establishment of an agricultural school to teach organic farming methods to our cultivators. One hopes this appeal will not fall on deaf ears.