"Seeds of change" - fighting against global hunger

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‘Seeds of change’ – fighting against global hunger

Our global food production system is broken. Kepa Artaraz writes about the people fighting against the control by big business.


Farmers in Bangladesh testing and preserving seeds. (Melanie Ko under a Creative Commons Licence)

Karen, an international aid worker with the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), is by the broad beans she has planted in her vegetable garden near London. Her hands are muddy and it’s raining hard, but her eyes show how happy she is. ‘I got the seeds for these beans from a seed exchange event I went to last year. They have grown much better than the hybrid ones I bought. And they are free!’ she says.

In Chillavi, near Cochabamba, Bolivia, indigenous leaders working with local NGO CENDA (Communication and Andean Development Centre), are writing an open letter to their President. He agreed to the introduction of GM technologies in the country (because of pressure from big businesses), after he had promised not to.

CENDA has been working for decades with indigenous peoples in the region. They use traditional knowledge and practices to constantly improve the varieties of seed and native plant. They are trying to increase production by adapting their crops to climate change and making them resistant to pests. This helps them produce real, nutritious food for everyone in their community and around them.

Seeds are the centre of the complex system of food production and global hunger. The problem is this: the world now produces more than enough food for everyone in the planet. But the UN World Food Programme say that almost one billion people will be hungry tonight and 2.6 million children under the age of five will die this year of malnutrition. And 50 per cent of the food produced in the world does not reach a plate. In Britain we waste one third of all the food we buy – and it is the same in most rich countries.

Working with nature

We could say that one of the most important ways to stop global hunger is to share the food we produce more fairly. But if you believe the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) or Monsanto – only one of the major global biotechnology firms – the solution has to include technological improvements such as ‘improved’ seeds (GM or not). Or old-fashioned economic growth that will allow poor people to buy all the food that they do not have enough money for now. These two arguments are often linked together; when people talk about GM technologies, it is generally to plant cash crops to grow the economy.

Food campaigners around the world – indigenous people in Bolivia and activists in London – are looking for a different way to make sure we stop global hunger. They all believe that it is very important to work with nature to create local food systems that give power to small-scale producers. This is the ‘food sovereignty’ movement and the activists in it do not trust big businesses who say that what they are doing will not help stop global hunger.

If we do not accept the idea that we can do the same with food as all other commodities, this will affect the role of big businesses in food production. Many people say that big agribusinesses force farming to be more unsustainable, reduce biodiversity and make farmers produce only one crop (so it is more possible for the crop to get a disease). Also, people say that agribusinesses are the reason why many small-scale farmers have to stop farming. This creates more poverty, and the poverty causes so many people to die of hunger.

Look at the example of seeds. Big businesses like Monsanto develop and patent hybrid and GM seeds that, they say, let them grow more food by producing better (drought and pest-resistant) plants. On their own website they say, ‘Monsanto patents many of the seed varieties we develop. Patents are necessary to ensure that we are paid for our products and for all the investments we put into developing these products.’ Also, ‘most farmers understand and appreciate our research and are happy to pay for our inventions and the value they provide’.

But for the food sovereignty movement, this is not true. They say that the food system is not producing enough food for the poorest people because big global businesses have too much power. With seeds, ‘just 10 very large firms control 73 per cent of the global market share,’ says Hope Shand from Seeds Savers Exchange, (a non-profit organization which preserves and shares native and rare garden seeds).

In London, we talk to Karen about people power and the deep roots of the global hunger crisis. ‘When we show images of starving children on our TV, this might get people to give money, but it is unlikely to help with the basic reasons for continuing global hunger.’ Food sovereignty is about changing the political and economic structures that stop people feeding themselves. ‘I have learnt a lot from indigenous peoples about land management and seed improvement,’ says Karen as she takes away weeds from the potato patch.

So it seems that we need to look back at what our ancestors knew for part of the answer to the future challenges for all humans. And back in Bolivia, an article in CENDA’s newsletter explains the contradiction between growing food for profit or for eating. ‘They tell us that if we use GM seeds, we can grow soya for export and make a lot of money. When will they understand that you cannot eat money?’

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2013/08/27/food-sovereignty-seeds/