Justice, democracy and diversity in our food systems

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

70% of the world's food is produced by small scale farmers. [CIAT/Flickr]

Nora McKeon argues that the big business agricultural model promoted by the EU undermines food security and small businesses in the Global South. 

Nora McKeon, is a representative of CONCORD Italia, Terra Nuova and a member of the European Food Security Group of CONCORD Europe. She is a former UN Food & Agriculture Organization civil society director, an expert on food issues, and the author of Food Security Governance: Empowering Communities, Regulating Corporations.

The issue of food security has climbed to the top of the international development agenda since the riots in capital cities around the world that accompanied the food price crisis of 2007-2008 sounded a wake-up call for the international community. The European Union and its member states have significant influence on global food policy. They could play an important role in defending the right to food of the world’s population….if they do not drift with the tide of the corporate capture of the global food system.

The past two decades have witnessed the systematic introduction of international trade and investment regimes, which have reinforced the structural and discursive power of agri-food corporations and aggravated the impact of corporate food chains on small-scale producers and local food systems. A small number of multinational corporations have attained a level of concentration in production, processing and retailing stages that is unacceptable even in terms of orthodox economics.

The five largest traders in grains are estimated to control 75% of international grain trade, while the top three seed companies claim almost 50% of the global proprietary seed market. Unjust trade rules force markets in food insecure countries to open up to unfair competition from abroad. The global corporate food regime promotes unsustainable consumption patterns and production methods and a race to the bottom in food provision.

The financial speculation and the commodification of land, water and seeds that have accompanied the corporations’ triumphal march is dispossessing small-scale producers and herding many into the flow of migrants-without-choice who are assailing the borders of Europe today.

The corporate sector’s investment in agriculture in the global South has been marginal up to now. Their fuel-hungry agricultural production and food distribution regime is in crisis as we run up against the ecological limits of the planet. Yet over the past few years the agri-food corporations have been able to normalise themselves as aid actors under a development paradigm that focuses on “modernisation”, productivism and narrowly-defined “effectiveness”.

How to combat this trend? What public policies can lead us in the right direction? What approaches to food production and provision should we be promoting? Concord credits the EU with having adopted in 2010, in reaction to the food price crisis, an intelligent and progressive policy framework aimed at supporting the attainment of food security and the right to food in developing countries. This text, which remains the reference point for the EU’s food security strategies, accents the need to support small-scale producers – responsible for some 70% of the food consumed in the world – defend their access to land, water and biodiversity, and ensure that more of the value added in food provision is retained in family farms and rural economies.

But this orientation risks being undercut by EU policy incoherencies, of which the Economic Partnership Agreements are only the most flagrant. The CAP continues to subsidise unsustainable large-scale commodity production while governments of the global South are forbidden from supporting and protecting their own agriculture. DGAGRI pushes the notion that profits for European agribusiness can dovetail nicely with “promoting” African family farmers to becoming “modern entrepreneurs” despite eloquent evidence to the contrary from the objects of their attention.

Concord notes with concern the current tendency for the EU to shift from a rights-based, smallholder-oriented food security strategy towards a private sector-led approach to development, with the risk of joining the corporate-engaged chorus that extolls agribusiness as the paladin of food and nutrition security.

The 2014 Communication advocating A Stronger Role for the Private Sector in achieving Inclusive and Sustainable Growth in Developing Countries advocates regulatory environments in developing countries that are business-friendly rather than smallholder-friendly and the multiplication of public-private partnerships, despite a lack of evidence for their effectiveness in attaining development objectives. The EU participates in the G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, which is distinguishing itself by pushing African governments to redesign land, seed, and investment policies to suit corporation interests, without the participation of national actors – an attack against the kind of democratic governance of which the EU portrays itself as a staunch defender.

What do European civil society organisations ask of the EU? That it withdraw from the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. That it promote the establishment of robust regulatory frameworks to protect the rights and food security of the vulnerable, within which private sector actors must operate. That it implement the Maastricht Principles on Extraterritorial Obligations of States to protect people in third countries from human rights abuses by European investors. That it apply to its own operations the recommendations of the UN Committee on World Food Security, the only global food policy forum in which small-scale food producers are in the room on the same footing as governments. In a word, that it honour its commitments to human rights and to Policy Coherence for Development, to the values that make us proud to be Europeans.

Food and nutrition security will be a key topic under discussion at the event organised by civil society at the Milan EXPO on 28-29 October in the context of the European Year for Development 2015. The objective of the discussion in Milan is to inform European citizens about the current situation of global food provision, the actors and the interests involved, and identify the messages that should be at the heart of advocacy addressed to the European authorities.


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