Family Farmers Can Feed the World and Cool the Planet!
The Food Sovereignty Struggle in the Climate Justice Movement
By: John E. Peck, executive director, Family Farm Defenders
(version appears as Chapter 25 in the 2016 book, Emergent Possibilities for Global Sustainability: Intersections of Race, Class, and Gender – edited by Phoebe Godfrey and Denise Torres – Routledge Univ. Press)
Having grown up in the Midwest amidst family farmers, it is hard to escape the topic of weather. Those who live close to the land realize everyday just how much their livelihood depends upon nature. Whether or not there is enough moisture in the topsoil for seeds to germinate, whether an early warm up will stall the maple syrup season or a late spring cold snap will frustrate fruit pollination, whether a tornado takes out a barn or a hail storm flattens a crop, whether a flash flood or heat wave snatches away prize vegetables or animals, whether rising average temperature means a longer growing season or worse pest outbreaks – these are serious factors that all farmers – and small family farmers in particular – can’t ignore. And with climate change comes impacts around the world that threaten people’s survival even further.
Family Farm Defenders (FFD), the grassroots organization I have worked with for close to two decades, has long seen climate change as the worst threat to our global food/farm system. Originally founded by dairy farmers opposed to mandatory commodity check-off programs and federal approval of the first ever patented biotech food product, Monsanto’s recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), FFD has since grown to include anyone who cares about restoring health, justice, safety, integrity, and democracy to agri-culture. Our work is increasingly inspired by the seven principles of food sovereignty first elaborated back in 1996 by La Via Campesina (LVC), the largest umbrella organization for family farmers, farm workers, fishers, foresters, herders, hunters, gatherers, and indigenous peoples in the world (Wittman, Desmarais & Nettie 2010). FFD is also a founding member of the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance (USFSA), which is working hard to popularize and implement these principles closer to home so as to bridge the north – south divide that often exists between global food/farm activists.
Natural Disaster or State Terrorism?
The signs of a sick planet and the threats to our food supply are now almost an incessant drumbeat in headlines. Yet, even my own awareness about how closely intertwined the survival of family farming is with the struggle for climate justice took decades to develop. At first I found myself stuck in a reactive mode, responding to one natural disaster after another, dealing with calls from bankrupt suicidal farmers pushed to the brink by another “Act of God.” Eventually, though, it became apparent that these disasters were not so “natural” and certainly not “divine” in origin. Rather, they were often predictable and avoidable consequences of misguided public policies, distorted economic incentives, and – to be honest – institutionalized discrimination and neocolonial exploitation.
When it comes to climate change many people forget that agriculture is itself responsible for an estimated 15-20% percent of overall green house gas (GHG) emissions – not just in primary production but also food transport, processing, packaging, refrigeration, and retail distribution (Grain 2012). A farm rich state like Wisconsin still has the lion’s share of its food trucked in from far flung parts of the U.S. or even overseas. On average, food in the U.S. now travels 1500 miles from field to plate, and takes 7-10 times more energy to produce as it contains (Heller et al. 2000). And increasing industrialization and consolidation has created new pollution on a scale one will never see on an Amish farm. For example, methane emissions in the U.S. increased 34-49% between 1990 and 2006 as more livestock were confined in factory farms and their manure placed in anaerobic lagoons (EPA 2006).
In the U.S. who raises ‘what’ ‘where’ – and thus has access to taxpayer subsidies, school lunches, and disaster bailouts – is largely a function of pork barrel politics under the Farm Bill. It is not just ‘free trade’ that destroyed Native American agriculture and created modern forms of malnutrition on reservations (LaDuke 1999). It is not just ‘productive efficiency’ that drove 98% of all black farmers in the U.S. off their land over the last century (Cowan & Feder 2013). And much of this corporate driven agenda is replicated and even amplified in U.S. foreign policy. It is not just ‘humanitarian assistance’ that allowed U.S. grain giants to hijack relief efforts after a tsunami or earthquake in order to dump commodities, penetrate markets, and bankrupt farmers in Indonesia (Kripke 2005) or Haiti (Bell 2010). It is not just ‘national security’ that spawns death squads to murder peasants who stand in the way of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funded palm oil biodiesel plantations in Colombia (Bacon 2007).
Such decisions reflect deep-seated systems of oppression going back centuries. As Eric Holt-Gimenez notes, reflecting on the legacy of Ferguson, “all the organic carrots and farmers markets in the world are not going to end hunger unless we also end racism.” We will still end up eating bitter fruit unless we tackle the roots of historic injustice and restore dignity and fairness across our entire food/farm system (Holt-Gimenez 2014).
Hurricane Katrina – A Wake Up Call for Climate Justice
Back in Feb. 2007 I was one of over 500 delegates from about 80 countries invited to the remote village of Selengue in southern Mali for the Nyeleni Food Sovereignty Forum – named after a legendary African folk farm heroine. As part of a miniscule U.S. delegation, it was humbling to be a white male minority amongst women of color who do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to worldwide agriculture. Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. is not feeding the world, and the typical farmer is not an old white guy on a John Deere tractor in the Dakotas.
One of the most difficult Nyeleni workshops I attended examined how food sovereignty is often the first victim of catastrophe, war, or occupation. A Sami herder told of having to slaughter thousands of beloved reindeer after Chernobyl fallout contaminated the lichen upon which they grazed. A Palestinian farmer lamented the bulldozing of ancient olive trees as part of Israel’s violent land grabbing. A Sri Lanka fisherman shared how his village was evicted by World Bank post-tsunami ‘redevelopment’ to make way for foreign tourists.
Being the only U.S. citizen in the crowded tent, I was called out to explain just how Katrina became such a racist nightmare for the earth’s superpower (Squires & Hartman 2006). FFD was among the first grassroots groups in the U.S. to respond to Katrina’s landfall on Aug. 29th, 2005. I will never forget watching the horror unfold across the television screen and thinking that if there was ever a time for mutual aid this was it. By Sept. 15th FFD had dispatched a veggie oil powered bus with eight Wisconsin volunteers and 15,000 pounds of food, medicine, and other emergency supplies to the Gulf Coast. Some of the communities in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana that the relief bus first reached had seen no other help since the disaster two weeks earlier. Ironically enough, when the FFD volunteers arrived in New Orleans and set up a free Food Not Bombs style kitchen Blackwater mercenaries, hired by the White House to maintain ‘law and order,’ were among the first to enjoy the good home made food. Meanwhile, other desperate residents were being attacked by white vigilantes and arrested by racist police as ‘looters’ simply for salvaging what they could to survive.
In April 2007 FFD delivered nine tractors and other equipment donated by Midwest farmers to the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives as part of our annual meeting held amidst the wreckage of Katrina. Most of the recovery efforts we saw underway had been organized by local people themselves. Six months after the disaster New Orleans’ Ninth Ward was still a devastated landscape – fishing boats perched on rooftops, children’s toys rotting in what was left of living rooms, abandoned dogs roaming the streets, corpses being discovered as condemned homes were being torn down, drive-by speculators sizing up what was left of the once vibrant African American neighborhood for “clean-up” gentrification. Adding insult to injury, toxic trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were now ‘conveniently’ parked atop once thriving community gardens. Those victimized by systemic discrimination and climate injustice had been reduced to the status of throw-away second class citizens in their own country. When FFD was invited to come back to New Orleans in Oct. 2010, this time to receive the Food Sovereignty Prize from the Community Food Security Coalition, many local people came up after the ceremony to thank us for our rapid response in the true spirit of solidarity – not charity. In light of state neglect after Katrina, we had put out faith in the do it yourself (DIY) power of food sovereignty.
Climate Chaos Strikes America’s Heartland
And, soon enough, the Midwest faced its own climate change induced disasters. In both 2007 and 2008 torrential rains ravaged the region. A sad joke was that corn planted at one end of the Mississippi River found itself at the other. Many small farms were especially hard hit, losing entire fields of transplants; greenhouses, tractors, and packing sheds were swept away in mere minutes. One Wisconsin sheep farmer had thirty animals drown in their paddock before they could be pulled from the rising water. Sand bags lined the main street of Reedsburg to hold back the swollen Baraboo River. Near Spring Green cropland that had been compacted by too much heavy machinery turned into a stagnant ‘lake’ for months on end. Some organic farmers even lost their contracts as faraway corporate executives claimed their cropland was now ‘contaminated’ by floodwater and would have to be ‘recertified.’ As with Katrina, solidarity sprang into action, and FFD quickly raised close to $25,000 in donations from across the country to assist 40 family farmers and farm workers.
Climate change cuts both ways, and by 2011 and 2012 the Central Plains were suffocating from one of the worst droughts in a century. At the Farm Aid Concert held in August 2011 in Kansas City we heard firsthand from ranchers about desperation sales of starving livestock. Predictions of depressed crop harvests were already wreaking havoc in global markets and lining the pockets of commodity speculators. With support from Farm Aid and the Teamsters, FFD organized an emergency hay lift of 17 semi-loads from Wisconsin to Oklahoma and Texas. When the drought crept north the next year, FFD raised another $6,000 to assist nine Wisconsin farm families in their recovery. Scientists soon issued a disturbing report outlining potential adverse impacts of climate change on Wisconsin and urging prompt adaptive strategies (WICCI 2011). Still there were powerful voices in the mass media and elected office, including Wisconsin’s own Republican governor, Scott Walker, who self-servingly denied that climate change even existed, while others waited in the wings to feed off the human misery that came with such ignorant paralysis.
Family Farmers – Unwitting Pawns in the Game of Disaster Capitalism
Family farmers are not just victims of climate injustice, they are also being used – and abused – to justify ‘false solutions’ to the global crisis. In her earlier 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes the rise of disaster capitalism – predatory behavior by multinational corporations eager to take advantage of any crisis for their own gain. Appropriately enough, I was in the midst of reading Klein’s book on my way to the Fifth International LVC Conference being held in Maputo, Mozambique in October 2008. Like the Nyeleni Forum a year before, this event drew hundreds of delegates from all across the globe, including activists that would not even be allowed into the U.S. for various post-9/11 geopolitical reasons. Yet, even at this convergence, the snake oil peddlers were present.
In his welcome address to the conference, Mozambican President, Armando Emilio Guebuza, lauded the crop jatropha as a wonderful opportunity for African farmers. Jatropha is but the latest ‘green fix’ for climate change being promoted by the global agrofuel industrial complex. Such crops, increasingly genetically engineered and grown in vast monocultures destined for overseas markets, hardly deserve to be called ‘biofuels’ since they have no life affirming qualities about them and undermine all the basic principles of food sovereignty (Peck 2009a). In a subsequent report, LVC warned, “Leaving aside the insanity of producing food to feed cars while so many people are starving, industrial agrofuel production will actually increase global warming instead of reducing it. Agrofuel production will revive colonial plantation systems, bring back slave work and seriously increase the use of agrochemicals, as well as contribute to deforestation and biodiversity destruction”(LVC 2009).
To put it mildly, Guebuza’s remarks were not well received by the crowd, and people wondered: who had bent his ear? The forces of corporate agribusiness never sleep, and chief among these is the Nairobi-based Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Launched in 2006 with a $150 million grant from the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations, AGRA’s mission is to create a beachhead for biotech crops and their kindred agrochemicals on the continent. Left conveniently unsaid is why Africa needs or wants another ‘Green Revolution’ given that the last one failed so miserably (Shiva, 1989). The heavy handed imposition of expensive high input industrial agriculture for export is now known to have simply displaced more sustainable subsistence oriented agroecological farming, increasing hunger and poverty in the process (Holt-Gimenez, Altieri & Rosset 2006). As one African critic of AGRA, Mukoma Wa Ngugi, noted “Once the mask of philanthropy is removed, we find profit hungry corporations.” (Mittal & Moore 2009) For many food sovereignty activists this was again old wine served up in a new bottle.
While some powerful figures – such as U.S. Pres. George H.W. Bush at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit – have argued that the U.S. life style is not negotiable (Deen 2012), the ongoing food versus fuel debate has forced many to think otherwise. Staple food prices skyrocketed 88% between March 2007 and March 2008 (FAO 2010), triggering deadly riots in dozens of countries. Behind the food shortage was a perfect storm – runaway speculation in commodity markets (Kaufman 2010), crop failures induced by climate change, and – as even the World Bank had to admit (Mitchell, 2008) – the agrofuel boom. Some U.S. farmers had even plowed up highly erodible marginal land, forsaking soil conservation and wildlife habitat, in order to get on the ethanol bandwagon. Since 1990 it is estimated that acreage worldwide devoted to soy, sugar, oil palm, corn, and canola – much of it for agrofuels – increased by 38%, while the land area devoted to human staples like wheat and rice declined (GRAIN 2012).
U.S. farmers who invested their life savings to pioneer ethanol co-ops back in the early 1990s soon lost their shirts, muscled out by agribusiness. Back then half of U.S. ethanol output was farmer controlled, but today over 90% is in corporate hands (Smith 2010). The same energy giants with rather sordid track records from their fossil fuel extraction activities, such as British Petroleum, Chevron, and Royal Dutch Shell, now dominate the agrofuel sector, along with other familiar grain, timber, biotech, and finance giants: Cargill, Weyerhauser, Syngenta, and JP Morgan Chase. And this corporate takeover would not have been possible without legislated agrofuel requirements and massive taxpayer handouts. Even the distillers waste, a byproduct of ethanol once touted as a “valuable” livestock feed supplement, is now being found to be unhealthy for animals that are designed by nature to eat grass – not grain – especially when it is chock-full of illegal antibiotic residues (USDA 2010). By the time the ethanol subsidy program was mercifully euthanized in 2012, it had cost taxpayers over $20 billion and siphoned off 40% of the U.S. corn crop into gas tanks (Pear 2012).
Where will all this agrofuel come from if not from subsidized U.S. suppliers? Well, Brazil already has six million hectares devoted to agrofuels and is poised to increase sugarcane acreage fivefold to meet global demand. Indonesia wants to establish the largest oil palm plantation in the world – 1.8 million hectares in Borneo. Dubbed “deforestation diesel,” this palm oil bonanza has already destroyed vast tracts of pristine rainforest, jeopardizing biodiversity and indigenous peoples alike. And, then there is the aforementioned jatropha. India has earmarked 14 million hectares of “wasteland” for jatropha plantations (once the residents are evicted), while a German consortium is negotiating to purchase 13,000 hectares in Ethiopia, including portions of an elephant sanctuary, for the same purpose (Rice 2009).
Corporate Agribusiness Helps Scuttle Climate Justice in Copenhagen
Climate justice advocates were out in force in Copenhagen for the 2009 U.N. Climate Change Conference (commonly referred to as COP 15). Over 100,000 people participated in a march on the eve of the official meeting – the largest protest in Danish history. I was part of the LVC contingent, highly visible with our green “Food Sovereignty Now!” flags. Sadly, the phony accord which President Obama hatched through secret side negotiations at COP15 proved to be a disastrous step backward from the Kyoto Protocol which the U.S. under President George W. Bush had refused to ratify anyway. “We have nowhere to run,” warned Apisai Ielemia, prime minister of Tuvalu, one of the Pacific island nations doomed to disappear with rising sea levels, but his plea fell on deaf ears. The fact that reducing energy demand remains the best cure for climate change was lost in the official rhetoric of Copenhagen – and that is because such a simple solution does not make money for the capitalist elite. In fact, the largest accredited non-governmental organization (NGO) at COP15 was the International Emissions Trading Association, a thinly veiled front group representing 170 companies that hosted 66 of their own side events (Peck 2009b).
One Ponzi scheme that continues to dupe many is known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation). Under REDD wealthy polluters will be able to buy ‘clean air’ credits from less developed countries and indigenous communities with intact forests, mostly in the global south – and, in exchange, these areas are supposed to be preserved to offset emissions elsewhere. The trouble with this commodity variant of green capitalism is that it once again elevates profit over people. As Gustavo Castro Soto, an activist with the group, Otros Mundos in Chiapas Mexico notes “When a natural function like forest respiration becomes a product with a price, it’s easy to see who is going to end up with control of the forests (Field & Bell. 2013). REDD has even been described as a ‘you pay or I cut’ modern day protection racket, whereby pristine forests and indigenous peoples will end up being held hostage by foreign investors demanding carbon credits (Guttal & Monsalve 2011).
As already mentioned, U.S. style industrial agriculture is among the least efficient in the world when it comes to energy. For instance, it takes 33 times more energy to grow corn in the U.S. compared to Mexico and 80 times more energy to grow rice in the U.S. compared to the Philippines (FAO 2000). In the era of peak oil, yield per acre is no longer the proper goal. The myth of ‘productivity’ was being still being peddled in Copenhagen, though, as USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack reaffirmed Pres. Obama’s support for biotech crops and agrofuels as a ‘green fix’ for the climate crisis. To make matters worse, he also announced a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the USDA and Dairy Management Inc. to push methane digesters. As the USDA’s own COP15 press release noted, just two percent of all U.S. dairy farmers would be “candidates for a profitable digester” (USDA 2009). Small-scale grass-based livestock operations, which don’t have a manure ‘problem’ worth digesting and account for a third of all operations in a dairy rich state like Wisconsin, stand to gain nothing from their responsible environmental stewardship as filthy industrial operations get even more taxpayer handouts.
Of course, agribusiness giants who are partly responsible for the pollution problem are ready to offer their own market solution to stricken farmers for a steep price. Monsanto is now moving to privatize drought resistant genes for their next generation of patented ‘climate ready’ crops. In 2007 Monsanto and BASF unveiled a $1.5 billion collaboration to develop crops more tolerant to adverse environmental conditions and promptly filed patents for over two dozen ‘climate ready’ genes (Smith 2010). The Union of Concerned Scientists, though, warned farmers to not believe the hype about “more crop per drop” since Monsanto’s DroughtGard corn underperformed many other non-biotech drought resistant corn varieties (Gurian-Sherman 2012). Indian activist, Vandana Shiva’s critique went even further, “Say there are 1,500 climate resistant genes and we go to the gene bank to map drought resistant genes and make a bet on 100 varieties that have the highest potential. We still don’t really know what’s contributing to drought resistance. It is not a reliable way of finding drought resistant varieties….Diversity has to be our partner in adaptation and resilience” (Tran 2013).
Climate Justice Activists Confront Global Carbon Traders in Chicago
On December 5, 2011 Family Farm Defenders joined the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Occupy Chicago, and other climate justice activists outside the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) for a rally and speak-out against carbon trading. This event was but one of dozens of actions across the globe, coordinated by La Via Campesina and the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, in solidarity with protesters demanding transparency and accountability from government negotiators at the latest U.N. climate change round (COP17) being held in Durban, South Africa. Those passing by the swank CME edifice in Chicago’s financial district were offered lumps of coal along with information exposing the dirty secrets behind carbon trading. The notion in economics that a negative externality – like pollution – can somehow be transformed into a valuable commodity and then traded in a secondary marketplace has always been controversial, and critics of carbon trading claim it aggravates environmental racism by enabling those responsible for greenhouse gas emissions to evade clean-up responsibility, and shift the burden onto poorer communities, public taxpayers, and future generations.
The Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) served as North America’s largest carbon offset trading venue, until it went belly up in 2009. At its height, the CCX had over 450 traders including the likes of the Farm Bureau, Amtrak, and the University of California (Weitzman 2010). But like subprime mortgages, global pollution trading eventually succumbed to runaway speculation and illegal racketeering. Over 100 people were arrested in Europe for bilking investors and taxpayers through ‘recycling’ already claimed carbon credits and stealing others (Mason 2011). In some of the worst cases, polluters in India and China intentionally created hydroflourocarbons in order to cash in on offset credits from their later destruction, a ploy that cost European consumers an estimated $6 billion (Rosenthal & Lerner 2012). In April 2013 the European Parliament rejected proposals to continue taxpayer support of the troubled emission trading system (ETS), prompting carbon prices to plummet 40% and leading some analysts to rate carbon credits as a worse investment than junk bonds (Economist 2013). Swamped by dubious ‘hot air’ credits that drove down the U.S. price of carbon from a high of $7.50 per metric ton to less than 5 cents at its demise, a market that was once estimated to be worth $500 billion in 2000 was sold off barely a decade later for just $600 million. With the impending collapse of the CCX, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) gave the ‘greenlight’ in 2008 to GreenX as a new designated contract market for carbon trading. Besides the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), major GreenX traders include Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, and Citigroup. But in an April 2012, CME announced it had bought out all of its former partners and now had 100% equity stake in GreenX (CME 2012). According to CME spokespeople, this would better enable carbon traders to offset margins in all the other global commodity energy markets that CME also largely controls, such as coal and crude.
Land Grabbing – the Final Frontier for Climate Change Green Washing
The latest insidious twist to the climate change crisis is the speculative trend of turning land itself into a market derivative through land grabbing. It is estimated that 50 million hectares have been sold off in the last decade in the Global South – an area equal to the size of a football field each second (New Internationalist 2013). Those familiar with European history will recall the Enclosure Movement which transferred the commons to feudal landlords and basically paved the road for the Industrial Revolution by forcing small farmers off their homesteads and into factories as wage labor (Polanyi 1944). Others who have heard about the Diggers, Black Hawk or the Zapatistas will also know there has been a proud history of grassroots resistance to such land expropriation and resource privatization which continues to the present day. Access to land is one of the founding principles of food sovereignty and – as Thomas Jefferson argued – insures the economic autonomy that underlies modern democracy. The flipside is that a state will offer food security to its loyal citizens, while it denies enemies their land and uses hunger as a weapon. The experience of my own ancestors who fled as undocumented immigrants from Ireland into indentured servitude in the U.S. thanks to a famine triggered by genetic monoculture and colonial subjugation a century and a half ago has been replicated countless times since.
Yet, even in the U.S. – a supposed bastion of private property and personal freedom – less than half of farmers now own the land they cultivate, and this concentration of ownership is only aggravated as land becomes another ‘hot’ commodity for speculation (Tett 2011). For example, UBS AgriVest, a unit of the Swiss banking giant, recently paid $67.5 million – or nearly $7,000 per acre – for 9,800 acres in southwest Wisconsin, well above the going market price that existing farmers can barely afford (Ivey 2013). Current Wisconsin law limits foreign ownership to 640 acres, with some exceptions – such as when a foreign hedge fund has a pliant U.S. subsidiary – but Governor Walker wants to eliminate this cap altogether to grease the skids for footloose capital. It is assumed that the mutual fund pension giant TIAA-CREF is behind many of these modern day land rush schemes. In 2011 TIAA-CREF launched its own $2 billion Global Agricultural unit and recently received another $1.4 billion to expand its landholdings, making it one of the largest private landowners in the U.S. Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) which used to focus on apartment complexes, shopping malls, and commercial buildings are now also expanding to allow even more absentee investors to make money off renting farmland, too. And in many cases, the goal behind these holdings may not be to grow any food, but to extract other benefits – such as carbon credits or export markets. In Cameroun U.S. based Heracles Capital recently claimed a 99 year lease on 73,000 hectares of rainforest for conversion to palm oil for biodiesel production, while Chinese, Saudi, and Indian investors have gobbled up thousands of hectares in Ethiopia to grow cash crops, forcibly evicting the current residents (New Internationalist. 2013).
When it Comes to Climate Justice All Lives Really Do Matter
Ten years after Katrina many in the Black Lives Matter movement are now drawing the parallels linking systemic racism and environmental injustice (Zaitchik 2015). Those most victimized by unmitigated climate change cut across other lines of identity, as well – class, gender, and even species. While wealthy elites (the 1%) can often ‘escape’ the consequences of the climate chaos they create – at least temporarily – the rest of the 99% can not. Naomi Klein’s latest 2014 book, This Changes Everything, exposes just how lucrative climate change denial can be and goes on to argue that it will take direct action – not polite lobbying – to stop this greed driven capitalist juggernaut in its tracks. A recent blogpost also reveals the potential for solidarity: “Social inequities are a key form of ecological erosion. Ferguson & St. Louis…Palestine…Detroit…Chiapas…The Gulf Coast. These communities are all at the frontlines of the ecological crisis. And they are also at the forefront of change” (Movement Generation 2014).
That is why it is so critical at this historic tipping point to bring together the food sovereignty and climate justice movements. When the Cowboy and Indian Alliance (C.I.A.) rode their horses into Washington DC on Earth Day 2014 to express their opposition to the Keystone Pipeline their action was not just a media cliché, but a grassroots harbinger of what is already underway. The Enbridge 61 Pipeline, which will have double the capacity of the Keystone if allowed to proceed, has been repeatedly blocked by native activists at Red Lake, MN (Ball 2013). Idle No More is forging solidarity between indigenous peoples and their allies against corporate resource grabs on both sides of the U.S. – Canada border (Jarvis 2013). Defending the integrity of wild rice or manoomin, from genetic biopiracy, toxic mine runoff, and global warming, has become a rallying point for not only the indigenous but many other food sovereignty activists across the Midwest. Anishinabe activist, Winona LaDuke, argues that one of the most powerful strategies in fighting climate change is for people to grow and enjoy their own local foods. A similar perspective is held by Malik Yakini, director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which has been reclaiming abandoned urban land to grow traditional African American food. Yakini asserts that farming is not only honorable work, but also a powerful form of community self-determination (Jackman 2013). Other projects such as the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) are working to expand community seed libraries and reaffirm that seeds are not ‘private property’ but the common heritage of all (Shemkus 2014).
On June 6, 2015 I was able to join the 5,000+ strong Tar Sands Resistance March in St. Paul, MN. Labor activists walked hand in hand with family farmers, while native elders shared the stage with church leaders – all to oppose more fossil fuel pollution and demand more earth friendly alternatives. If the majority of those hurt by climate change are poor, people of color, and indigenous, and if those best situated to solve the climate crisis are those who are already living sustainably, close to the land and nature, then it is time we recognized and empowered this frontline collaboration for social transformation. To paraphrase one popular La Via Campesina slogan, small farmers are not only feeding the world, but they are also cooling down the planet! And they are ready to do both, while also kicking agri-business out of our agri-culture.
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The Food Sovereignty Struggle within the Global Justice Movement
By: John E. Peck
executive director, Family Farm Defenders
(Chapter 15 in the 2010 book, Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States – edited by the Team Colors Collective and published by AK Press)
I have a button on my backpack that says: “If You Are What You Eat, Then I’m Fast, Cheap, and Easy.” Thankfully, this quip is sarcastic in my case, but for many people, including many of those working for global justice, it is all too true. Whether due to marketing hype or sheer convenience, usually smart folks can fall down when it comes to what they put in their mouths. The personal is political, and this is reflected each time someone votes for “business as usual” by giving their money to a fast-food chain or big box retailer. The result is a broken food/farm system that is systematically abusing animals, exploiting workers, perverting biodiversity, undermining democracy, jeopardizing health, and destroying the planet. If we believe that another world is possible, then we need to radically transform how we eat, and this means incorporating food sovereignty into our thinking and organizing.
I grew up in central Minnesota, on a small farm straight out of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone, surrounded by grazing dairy cows and century old farms homesteaded by immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia. Sadly, I’m no longer looking forward to my high school reunions since so many of my classmates have seen their family farm sold on the auction block to the highest bidder. The “unsettling of America,” described by Wendell Berry decades ago, has actually been the order of the day for centuries. Whether it was the conquistadors outlawing quinoa cultivation by the Inca, pioneers wiping out bison as a form of bio-warfare against the tribes of the Great Plains, or the death squads in Colombia now liquidating peasants who stand in the way of agrofuel plantations, these policies end up benefiting global agribusiness cartels and the current empire they sustain.
Since so few people are now physically connected with the land, it might be worth sharing some rude rural realities. The United States now has more prisoners than farmers. In fact, some of the prisoners are farmers! I know of at least one farm family that is behind bars for writing bad checks simply to keep the electricity on so they could milk their cows. Close to half of U.S. farmers do not even own the land they now cultivate. When I’m asked which nation needs land reform the most, the U.S. is always at the top of my list. Despite their best efforts to be productive and efficient, the majority of farmers in the U.S. do not even get parity (i.e. a fair price to cover their costs, plus a living wage). Consequently, rural people usually have to send someone off-farm to earn enough to make ends meet, and – if they are lucky – also get some healthcare benefits. This sorry scenario is not just limited to family farmers. It goes all the way up the food chain from the undocumented farmworker, to the non-unionized meatpacker, to the part-time minimum wage fast-food cook or grocery clerk. For every dollar spent on an apple at Walmart, only four-cents goes to the apple picker and seven-cents to the apple farmer, compared to sixty- eight cents for the mega retailer. Walmart alone now sells 20% of all U.S. conventional groceries and is the largest organic retailer, as well.
It was not always like this. Many of the European settlers who first came to the U.S. were landless peasants themselves, fleeing persecution by wealthy abusive landlords. In their hope for a better life in the New World, they often found solidarity with indigenous communities of hunters, gatherers, fishers, and farmers who were already here. This is why the democratic egalitarian principles of the Iroquois Confederacy resonated so well amongst the authors of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, though they hardly went far enough in actual practice. Like the Diggers defending the Commons from Enclosure, in 1776 colonial America the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness also meant access to land, and the capacity to grow food. If the state violated this agreement, then it was the right of the people to abolish it and create another government that would promote the general welfare.
Thus, one finds numerous episodes of popular rural resistance throughout U.S. history: the Whiskey Rebellion of the late 18th century in New England; the post Civil War Grange Movement followed by the Populists who took on the robber barons and railroad monopolies in the latter half of the 19th century; the Industrial Workers of the World members who agitated amongst harvest stiffs across the Great Plains in the early 20th century through the Agricultural Workers Organization; the founding of the United Farm Workers under the leadership of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to fight slavery in the farm fields in California; and the creation of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to defend African American farmers in the South. Both of these later struggles were critical facets of the broader 1960s Civil Rights movement. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Florida is still waging this fight today to win fair wages and human rights for tomato pickers.
Growing up in the Midwest during the 1970s farm crisis, I watched many ‘tractorcades’ of family farmers departing for St. Paul to Washington, DC in the vague hope of influencing politicians. I also had farmer friends who chose suicide rather than face foreclosure – a situation that is repeating itself across the U.S. with the latest corporate induced financial meltdown.
Far more inspirational as a child was to hear tales of the “Bolt Weevils,” chronicled in a folksong by Dana Lyons as well as the book, Powerline, co-authored by the late Senator Paul Wellstone. This homegrown resistance movement turned out thousands of farmers and their allies across west central Minnesota against the energy giants, who were seizing prize farm land and threatening public health for the sake of a high voltage line. When petitions and lawsuits proved useless, the midnight toppling of towers and other sabotage ensued. Despite dozens of attempted arrests and a massive FBI operation, no Bolt Weevil ever went to jail. On one occasion when a few farmers were singled out as lead conspirators, the judge still had to release them as hundreds of agitated supporters surrounded the courthouse. There are valuable lessons to be learned from this example of solidarity, direct action, and non-cooperation today, particularly in relation to the ongoing Green Scare that has targeted radical environmentalists. In the early 1990s I went off to study agricultural economics at one of the many land grant colleges established under the 1862 Morrill Act “in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.” Of course, this noble mission was forgotten long ago as corporate agribusiness corrupted university curriculum and hijacked the public research agenda. I recall one patenting seminar for graduate students and researchers where an administrator from the Office of University and Industry Relations bluntly told us that the University of Wisconsin was no longer interested in the scientific value of our work, merely its commercial value. It was while struggling to get through my Ph.D dissertation that I first met John Kinsman, an organic dairy farmer, who had been protesting the selling of experimental dairy products from University of Wisconsin at Madison’s test herds to unsuspecting students, staff, and visitors since the mid 1980s.
Kinsman, who was hospitalized after toxic pesticide exposure, is one of the U.S. pioneers of the sustainable agriculture movement and current president of Family Farm Defenders (FFD). In 1993 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had finally ruled that recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) was “safe” for humans, but this was only after President Clinton had installed former Monsanto employee, Michael Taylor, at the FDA to rubberstamp its approval. Taylor is now back at the FDA under President Obama, serving as a go between for Monsanto, the Gates Foundation, and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to push through biotech as part of the new “Gene Revolution” for Africa.
Farmer Resistance: National and International
Unlike many other “farmer” organizations that are just a front for agribusiness giants and commodity groups, Family Farm Defenders welcomes anyone who cares about sustainable agriculture, farm worker rights, animal welfare, consumer safety, fair trade, and food sovereignty. This inclusive perception of who is part of the global food/farm system aligns well with that of La Via Campesina, the largest umbrella organization for farmers, farmworkers, gatherers, hunters, fishers, herders, and foresters in the world. Thanks to this affiliation, FFD is often invited to send food/farm activists to international conferences, such as the February 2007 Nyeleni Food Sovereignty Forum held in Selingue, Mali, which drew over 600 participants from ninety countries, as well as the Fifth International Conference of La Via Campesina held in October 2008 in Matola, Mozambique.
At the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP15) held in Copenhagen, Denmark in December 2009, La Via Campesina had by far the strongest contingent of rural activists from across the globe, hosting several panels exposing the “false solutions” to climate change — such as agrofuels and biotech crops — as well as coordinating protests targeting those responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, such as the export factory farm industry. Joining others in a unified call for climate justice, La Via Campesina was instrumental in reminding official delegates that “one can’t eat carbon,” and that “cap and trade” proposals pushed by corporate agribusiness and the Obama Administration are only going to make climate change worse by marginalizing those family farmers and indigenous communities that are now doing the lion’s share of mitigating emissions.
La Via Campesina’s stance had been confirmed in 2008 by a 2,500 page report authored by 400 scientists for the United Nations International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The report concluded that smallscale organic agriculture is not only the best means to feed the world, but also the best response to climate change. Ultimately, the COP15 negotiations collapsed under the hypocritical weight of a few in the Global North who refused to take responsibility for their own pollution and tried to shift their clean up obligations onto the Global South. If Miami was already drowning due to rising sea levels rather than the Maldives, the ‘what, me worry?’ attitude of the U.S. in Copenhagen would have been much less tenable.
Grassroots solidarity delegations are another great organizing tool that bypasses powerful elites and breaks down artificial barriers. At the invitation of our Via Campesina allies, FFD took eighteen members to Oaxaca, Mexico in January, 2008, to strategize with pro-democracy activists, strengthen ties with fair trade coffee co-ops, and to condemn the Mexican regime for its political repression. Thanks to such cross border pressure, one prominent Oaxacan prisoner, Flavio Sosa, was released a few months later. In return, FFD often hosts visits to the U.S. by farmers from elsewhere: Brazil, Venezuela, Timor-Leste, Uganda, and Kenya. Our experience is that when U.S. farmers see and hear for themselves the horrible economic conditions that force other farmers off their lands and across borders, they are much less likely to believe xenophobic rhetoric that scapegoats immigrants and, instead, focus their energy on the common enemy: corporate globalization.
Here in the U.S. we bear particular responsibility for this “race to the bottom” situation, since we provide the legal ‘casino’ for much of the runaway commodity speculation that manipulates world food prices to the detriment of farmers and consumers alike. This is why for several years now FFD and others have been staging protests to expose the corruption and demand federal anti-trust action on the steps of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, now subsumed within the Chicago Board of Trade. It is in Chicago that prices are set worldwide for everything from corn to wheat, from pork bellies to fertilizer. Unless you buy directly from a farmer, the free market is a myth today in agriculture, since most producers have been reduced to taking whatever they are told by the middlemen working for the food giants. For example, just three biotech outfits, Sygenta, Monsanto, and Dupont, now control over half of the seeds on earth.
The current global dairy crisis is a particularly poignant illustration of all that is wrong in our food farm system. Just one firm, Dean Foods, now controls a third of the fluid milk market in the U.S., including 80% of the organic milk market via its Horizon subsidiary. On the other hand, we have less than 75,000 dairy farmers left in the entire U.S. — 90% of them having gone extinct since I was a child. Some states have lost so many dairy farmers they are now importing a third to half of their milk from thousands of miles away. Each morning I bike by semi-loads of milk that have arrived overnight to Wisconsin courtesy of a “cheap” oil policy from taxpayer subsidized factory farms in New Mexico destined to become “Wisconsin” butter. Worse yet, those U.S. dairy farmers still clinging onto life are now receiving just half the price for milk that they got a year ago, while consumers are still paying about the same per gallon at the store and the dairy giants laugh all the way to the bank in the midst of a worldwide recession.
Some misguided economic pundits would counter that these low prices are due to over supply, conveniently forgetting the shenanigans happening in the “block cheddar market” at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange or that under global free trade, it is much cheaper to import low grade milk protein concentrate than to bother using fresh domestic milk to manufacture the likes of Velveeta, Singles, or Mac’n Cheese. With FDA once again asleep at the wheel, there is also no worry about pesky food safety enforcement, even though milk protein concentrate is classified as an industrial ingredient to make adhesives and is not approved for human consumption (hence Kraft’s label makeover from “cheese food” to “cheese product.”)
Contrary to popular stereotypes, the U.S. is not feeding the world, and the typical farmer is not some old white guy on a tractor in the Dakotas. Over 85% of the world’s harvest never crosses a border and, in fact, most food is consumed within the bioregion where it was grown. The U.S. has been a ‘food deficit nation’ for years now — we currently import 13% of our total diet, including 22% of our fresh fruit, 25% of our fresh vegetables, 50% of our fruit juice, and 80% of our honey. Half of U.S. cropland is now devoted to just two crops — corn and soybeans — and much of that does not even go to feeding people directly, but instead becomes feedstock for factory farms, junk food makers, and agrofuel refineries. Even in a farm rich state like Wisconsin, over 90% of our food is imported from other states or abroad. In order to keep such globetrotting food “fresh,” corporate agribusiness must resort to all sorts of dubious technological fixes – from ethyln dioxide to nitrates to irradiation to carbon monoxide. Nonetheless, food contamination and food poisoning are skyrocketing, which not surprising given that imported produce has three times as much Salmonella as produce grown in the United States.
When South Korean farmer Lee Kyung-Hae stabbed himself to death on September 10th, 2003 on the barricade outside the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Cancun — in protest of U.S. taxpayer susbsidized rice dumping — he was hardly the first victim of corporate globalization. Indeed, many other names come to mind: Chico Mendes, Judi Bari, Ken Saro-Wiwa, among others. On October 21, 2007 Valmir Mota de Oliveira was shot to death by security guards hired by Syngenta in the western Brazilian state of Paraná state. Hundreds of activists with the Movimiento de los Trabajadores Rurales Sin Tierra (MST) had been occupying Sygenta’s research facility for over a year in order to block illegal cultivation of biotech crops. In India, as a result of Monsanto’s promises of prosperity through biotech cotton that later failed miserably, thousands of farmers have committed suicide. Other farmers, from France to the Philippines, have burned and uprooted these noxious biotech weeds instead. Here in the U.S. such an action would be deemed a federal felony — as well as an act of ‘eco-terrorism’ post 9/11) — and Monsanto has a vast war chest and army of patent lawyers devoted to suing contaminated farmers for “theft” of their biotechnologies.
“Food Security” versus Food Sovereignty
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are no longer any hungry people in the U.S., just an estimated thirty-six million people who are “food insecure.” The term “food security” was first invoked by Henry Kissinger before the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) at the height of the Cold War, and basically considers hunger a technical problem of how to get food to those who need it. It thus evades the deeper global justice debate about why hunger exists at all in a world that has plenty of food. Following Naomi Klein’s analysis of “disaster capitalism,” “food security” also functions as a Trojan Horse for market penetration and commodity dumping. For instance, in the context of Hurricane Katrina and the government’s response, there was little debate about whether displaced people would be eating “donated” irradiated foods or whether toxic FEMA trailers would be parked atop former community gardens.
In contrast to “food security,” most people in the world are more likely to talk about, and act upon, their local vision for food sovereignty. First elaborated back in 1996 by La Via Campesina, food sovereignty valorizes common sense principles of community autonomy, cultural integrity, and environmental stewardship — in other words, local people determining for themselves just what seeds they plant, what animals they raise, what type of farming occurs, and what they will ultimately eat for dinner. Food sovereignty is a term used by those who see food as a basic human right, not just another weapon or commodity, and who treat farmers with respect and dignity, rather than dismissing them as backward and anachronistic. In fact, one could argue that the Boston Tea Party which helped spark the American Revolution was a classic struggle, pitting food sovereignty against corporate profit.
Since the 1999 protests against the WTO in Seattle, FFD has been planting the seeds of food sovereignty across the U.S. as a grassroots alternative to corporate globalization. Through this popular education campaign, we hope to bring U.S. global justice activists into a deeper solidarity relationship with their counterparts abroad, and bridge the divide that often exists between farmers and eaters, and between rural and urban communities here at home. The National Family Farm Coalition, Grassroots International, Rural Coalition, Community Food Security Coalition and Food First!, amongst others, have since joined FFD in this effort. One of our major challenges has been trying to bring the often-disparate struggles for fair trade, buy local, slow food, sustainable agriculture, and farm worker rights together under a broader food sovereignty umbrella. Another has been resisting efforts by the state to “criminalize” local agriculture, whether it is by outlawing the sale of raw milk, branding Food not Bombs a “terrorist” organization, hunting down “unlicensed” backyard chickens, or mandating the registration, RFID chipping, and tracking of all U.S. livestock through the National Animal Identification System.
Adopting internationally recognized principles of food sovereignty would have sweeping implications in a setting such as the U.S., which is most likely the reason corporate agribusiness and their political supporters have so fiercely resisted them. For instance, preemption legislation that takes away local control over the regulation of factory farms grossly undermines food sovereignty, as does lack of comprehensive country of origin labeling that would allow consumers to actually know where their food comes from. This even applies to organic foods, as corporate agribusiness scours the planet for the cheapest suppliers with bottom of the barrel standards. How a consumer could trust the integrity of Whole Foods “organics” imported from China is quite beyond me. Similarly, the corporate patenting of life-forms, expropriation of indigenous knowledge, and subsidized dumping of commodity crops are all flagrant violations of food sovereignty.
The food sovereignty struggle is particularly relevant today, as a global food shortage spawned by agrofuel expansion and commodity speculation triggered food rioting in the Global South and food rationing in the Global North. Close to half of the U.S. corn harvest in 2008 was diverted into making fuel — it takes as much grain to fill a twenty-five gallon SUV tank once as it does to feed a person all year. Given the taxpayer subsidies and federal mandates behind the boom, many farmers jumped on the agrofuel bandwagon, shifting land out of conservation programs and even away from other staple food crops. The result was cascading price hikes: eggs increased 36% in the U.S., cornmeal up 60% in Mexico, flour up 100% in Pakistan, and rice up 130% in Haiti. Meanwhile, the food giants posted record earnings: Cargill alone saw its profits climb by 50% to $4 billion in 2007 thanks to the global food crisis.
Adding insult to injury, the corporate response to the global food crisis has been to outsource even more commodity production under contract, create new agricultural hedge funds for wannabe speculators, and to try to corner the global market in farmland. Since 2008 over 180 such land grab schemes across the Global South have been exposed. Former AIG trader and current CEO of NY-based Jarch Capital, Philippe Heilberg, recently signed a deal with a Sudanese warlord to establish four thousand square kilometers worth of plantations. Another brazen attempt by the South Korean company, Daewoo, to purchase 1.3 million hectares in Madagascar – half of the country’s cropland – mostly to grow corn for export only fell apart after massive public outrage. Other land grabs are proceeding forward more quietly, often with the support of the World Bank, Gates Foundation, International Fund for Agricultural Development, and others eager to push biotech crops and agrofuel plantations for carbon offset credits.
Organizing for Food Sovereignty
Thankfully, there are positive examples of food sovereignty in action all around us to counter such “agribusiness as usual.” Though these grassroots initiatives often don’t make splashy headlines, they do capture some of the best aspects of intentional community, mutual aid, reciprocity, and cross border solidarity that global justice activists would espouse. To give but a few examples: there are now more than 3,700 farmers’ markets in the U.S., having doubled in number since 1994; over nine million acres of land are now protected from development through 1,500 community landtrusts; there are over 1000 community supported agriculture (CSA) operations in the U.S. directly providing fresh food from farmers to eaters each week throughout the growing season; there are over 400 farm to school projects getting healthy local food back into cafeterias, as well as over 30 local and state food policy councils that are reclaiming democratic control over agriculture. From community gardens and local currencies to permaculture and seedsaving, there are countless opportunities to reclaim our local food/farm systems.
The Great Lakes bioregion has become a hotbed of such activity. For instance, the Oneida Tsyunhekwa Project near Green Bay, Wisconsin is reasserting indigenous food sovereignty through “Three Sisters,” squash, corn, and bean gardens, and a community-processing kitchen open to everyone. Similarly, the White Earth Land Recovery Project in northern Minnesota is defending the cultural integrity of “manoomin” — wild rice — from corporate bio-piracy, and promoting other traditional foods as a form of preventative medicine. Dane County boasts the largest farmers’ market in the U.S. , with over 15,000 people converging each Saturday during the growing season around the State Capitol in Madison, WI , to support hundreds of vendors and keep millions of dollars in the local economy. Over a third of U.S. organic dairy products now come from Wisconsin, where the fastest growing farm sector is small-scale and grass-based. In Milwaukee and Chicago, Growing Power has seen incredible success in bringing the joy of urban agriculture and delicious food to those who have been marginalized by the forces of gentrification.
Food Sovereignty – Not Just For Breakfast Anymore
While some global justice activists find building coalitions with U.S. family farmers and farmworkers to be daunting, the creative synergy that results makes the effort more than worthwhile. Just like in the Global South, the “digital divide” is very real in rural America — case in point, mass emails often garner few responses. Many FFD members don’t have computers and then there are thousands of Amish farmers who don’t even have phones! When we try to reach folks it is often better to send an action alert around with the milk truck or to post fliers in small town cafes, feed mills, and public libraries.
Talk radio is another venue that is often underestimated by activists. One half hour radio interview on a consumer’s right to know and a farmer’s right to label can generate hundreds of phone calls to a governor who previously thought it would be easy to just make everyone drink rBGH induced milk. Depending upon the issue and publicity, one should also be ready for a diverse audience! We have hosted rural townhall style meetings with farmers and immigrant farmworkers from a dozen countries and speaking half a dozen languages, and this requires not only multilingual literature and volunteer translators, but also culturally respectful food and a family friendly format. Progressive faith-based communities are another important outreach mechanism, whether it is a Catholic parish rural justice committee or the eco-halal buying club for an urban Moslem center.
Food sovereignty work should be part of the standard tool kit for any global justice activist. If we truly wish to build a new world from the ashes of the old, as the slogan of the IWW suggests, then we cannot be trapped in purely reactive mode. No one needs to suffer from chronic hunger in a food desert. We have the right and the capacity to reclaim the land, the seeds, our health, and our food as a common treasury for all. To paraphrase Anishinabe activist, Winona LaDuke, we don’t want a bigger slice, we want a whole new pie! Creating this reality is easier than most people realize, and – better yet – the process itself can be fun. Next time you have a meeting, why not invite everyone to a local food potluck? You will quickly see just how much an alternative community can flourish and grow once you rediscover the power behind putting culture back into agri-culture.
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