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Feeding the world

Instead of GM crops and a new 'green revolution for Africa', the answer to the food crisis and climate change lies in smaller-scale, local 'agroecology'. Reviews by James O'Nions

November 15, 2009
4 min read


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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Food Wars

Walden Bello (Verso, 2009)

Food Rebellions! Crisis and the hunger for justice

Raj Patel and Eric Holt-Giménez (Pambazuka Press, 2009)

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the number of malnourished people exceeded one billion for the first time in 2009. What’s more, it’s clear this isn’t just as a result of a growing world population – the figure represents an 11 per cent increase in just a year. It’s a direct effect of the food crisis that pushed up food prices so dramatically in early 2008 and so far has kept them relatively high.

There has been much debate about the causes of this crisis; the volatile price of oil, the agrofuels boom, impacts of climate change, increased demand for meat and financial speculation on grain all clearly played a part. But what both of these books argue is that these are just proximate causes. Determining the ultimate causes involves tracing the fate of agriculture in the global South during the past 50 years and shining a light on what amounts to a corporate takeover of the world’s food systems.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the ‘green revolution’ unleashed on the South, a system of industrialising agriculture particularly through the use of pesticides. Although this increased yields in the short term, particularly in Asia, it left a legacy of debt and environmental pollution that nevertheless benefited seed and pesticide companies enormously and also saw agriculture concentrated into fewer hands.

Although encouraged by the World Bank, the green revolution was a state-led process. As neoliberalism took hold in the 1980s, the state fell out of favour and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund used the power they had as a result of the debt crisis to force developing countries to junk state marketing boards, agricultural subsidies, grain reserves and other ‘market distortions’. Agriculture was reorientated towards cash crops for export.

More recent free-trade agreements with the North have dealt the final blow, undermining local production through a flood of subsidised food products from the US and Europe. Thus the scene was set for the current crisis.

Walden Bello explains this process very well, taking the Philippines, Africa, Mexico and China for a chapter each, as well as examining the role of

agrofuels in the current crisis. A final chapter looks at the alternatives, in particular profiling the international peasant movement, La Via Campesina, and its proposal for democratic control of the food system via ‘food sovereignty’.

Patel and Holt-Giménez, meanwhile, take a very similar approach (their book even has a foreword by Bello). Yet while The Food Wars concentrates on the economic history of the crisis, and probably beats them on clarity here, where Food Rebellions! really comes into its own is in the substantial space it devotes to solutions.

Their book is full of evidence that smallholder agriculture based on ‘agroecology’, basically organic or near-organic farming, can actually be more productive than large-scale industrial monocultures. Scientific research into improving such forms of agriculture struggles to receive funding, while patentable technologies like GM get vast sums. Nevertheless, adaptations of traditional peasant knowledge have led to the development of more efficient sustainable farming in recent years – techniques which have then been spread through initiatives such as the ‘Campesino a Campesino’ movement in Latin America.

The call for a local, sustainable approach to farming from the environmental movement has become familiar in the UK, but it isn’t just agriculture’s contribution to climate change that means this approach matters. The resilience of agriculture in the face of climate change, especially in the South, depends on the diverse cropping of agroecological farms, which can be highly adaptive in the face of climate change impacts. Yet the biotech firms and their allies, who include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are pushing GM crops as a part of a new ‘green revolution for Africa’. Both these books are useful in making the argument that we don’t need GM to ‘feed the world’ as Hilary Benn has recently suggested.

Agricultural globalisation has been a disaster for the climate, for biodiversity, and for the small producers of the global South, many of whom have been forced to abandon farming and try to scrape a living in the mega-slums around major cities. Yet peasants are now organising against this immiseration, and insisting that they, not the North’s official development experts, have the solutions to the food crisis. As in so many areas of our lives, while these solutions may have technical and cultural sides to them, in the end they come down to winning the battle of democracy against the power of capital.

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James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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