Introduction: Food Crisis in the Americas

April 27, 2009

In early March, Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, said there had been a “severe mistake in the diagnosis of last year’s food crisis.” Referring to the explosion of prices for basic grains in the global market that began in 2007, Schutter explained that development aid and reform proposals were misdirected at boosting exports. The real problem, he emphasized, was not low supplies but the vulnerability of the world’s near 1 billion hungry people to price volatility. In place of stimulating exports, he recommended strengthening the production of domestic small farmers through access to land and resources, labor rights enforcement for landless farmers, and government programs to insulate peasants from price swings.

These recommendations, though unspecific, resonate with many of those discussed in this Report, which aims to step back and reconsider the 2007–08 food crisis within its long-term context. As Peter Rosset makes clear in his contribution, there are, on the one hand, crises that may grab our attention as seemingly new—such was the urgent problem in the spring of 2008, when the media parachuted in to cover the latest disaster: “food riots” in several poor countries triggered by escalating prices. On the other hand, there is the slow-burning crisis that rarely gets media play—the normalized, routine violence of everyday hunger that we may think of as existing ever “out there.” Rosset emphasizes that the “new” crisis is just a new face of “the same old rural crisis,” which ultimately stems from the near total control wielded by transnational capital in the food systems of the world.

The corporate monopoly on food production, practically institutionalized over decades of neoliberal policies at every level, is a recurring theme in this Report. Contributors Annette Aurélie Desmarais and Luis Hernández Navarro, reporting from La Via Campesina’s October conference in Maputo, Mozambique, describe the 16-year-old transnational peasant movement’s articulation and consolidation of a powerful anti-neoliberal alternative: food sovereignty, which the movement views as “a prerequisite to realizing the human right to food.” At the conference, food sovereignty was described not only as a just goal but as “the only [solution] that responds effectively to all of the dimensions of the crisis.”

Protecting and renationalizing food markets, promoting local circuits of production and consumption, defending indigenous peoples’ territories, comprehensive agrarian reform—these demands, which form the basis of food sovereignty, could not contrast more sharply with the solutions to the crisis endorsed by Big Food. As Gerardo Otero and Gabriela Pechlaner note, the dramatic food price hikes last year inspired the quasi-utopian language of an imagined Green Revolution 2.0: We can feed the world with high-yield genetically modified crops, industry boosters told us. Using evidence from the NAFTA countries, Otero and Pechlaner deconstruct this argument, which is really about expanding agricultural exports—part of what UN rapporteur Schutter described as a “severe mistake.” Mexico, the birthplace of corn, now imports almost a quarter of its supply of the crop, much of it transgenic.

Finally, photojournalist Evan Abramson offers a window onto land conflict in Paraguay, where transgenic soy plantations have displaced thousands of small-scale farming families that once cultivated a plurality of food crops. Visiting former villages turned soy fields in the conflictive departments of Alto Paraná and San Pedro, Abramson photographed all the players in the drama—militant landless activists who have established encampments on private farmlands, the classic tactic of Latin America’s rural activism; landowners’ armed guards; the police, arresting landless activists; children poisoned by the liberal use of pesticides and herbicides, a hallmark of many transgenic crops; and the landscape itself, all but overtaken by transgenic soy.

While the media have moved on to the next spectacle, the food crisis hasn’t gone away. Unless, among other things, financial speculation in basic grains is regulated, if not abolished, the high volatility of food prices seems to be a fact of life now. In the face of the market’s vicissitudes, the organized peasants of La Vía Campesina declare: “Humanity depends on us, and we refuse to disappear.”


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