Posts Tagged ‘Food Sovereignty’


Year in Review: 10 Things You Should Know about Food and Agriculture in 2012

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By Sophie Wenzlau and Laura Reynolds

Although Aunt Mabel’s Christmas trifle might top your list of current food concerns, there are a few other things about U.S. food and agriculture worth considering as you look back on 2012, and forward to 2013:

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1. Farm Bill Deadlock. The 2008 Farm Bill, which established the most recent round of policies and support programs for the U.S. food system, expired in September. Although the Senate has passed a new version of the bill, the House has not; congressional leaders are deadlocked on the issues of cutbacks in crop subsidies and reductions in food stamps. If the House does not reach an agreement, U.S. farm policy will revert to the last “permanent” Farm Bill, passed in 1949. With 1949 policy, many innovative programs that invest in sustainable agriculture (like low-interest loans for newfemale, or minority farmers) could be forced to shut down; the price for dairy products could double in January; and antiquated farm subsidies could increase by billions of dollars, likely leading to greater overproduction of commodity crops like corn and soybeans (to the benefit of agribusiness and the detriment of small and medium-sized farms).

2. Enduring Drought. Although media attention has faded, nearly 80 percent of U.S. agricultural land continues to experience drought conditions, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), making this year’s drought more extensive than any experienced since the 1950s. The drought is expected to make food more expensive in 2013 (the USDA predicts a 3 to 4 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index), particularly meat and dairy products. To boost agriculture’s resilience to drought and other forms of climate variability, farmers can increase crop diversity, irrigate more efficiently, adopt agroecological practices, and plant trees in and around farms. Consumers can support small-scale farmers, eat less meat, and pressure the government to enact food policies that support sustainable agriculture.

3. Acceleration of Both the Food Sovereignty Movement and Agribusiness Lobbying. Achieving food sovereignty, or a food system in which producers and consumers are locally connected and food is produced sustainably by small farms, is increasingly a priority for communities in the United States and worldwide. According to the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory, the total number of farmers markets in the United States increased by 9.6 percent between 2011 and 2012, while winter markets increased by 52 percent. But also accelerating is agribusiness lobbying: campaign contributions from large food production and processing groups—including American Crystal Sugar Company, the Altria GroupAmerican Farm Bureau, the National Cattlemen’s Beef AssociationCalifornia DairiesMonsantoSafeway Inc., and Cargill—increased from $68.3 million in the 2008 election cycle to $78.4 million in 2012, a 12.8 percent change.

4. Failed GM Labeling Bill in California. Although 47 percent of Californians voted in favor of Prop 37, a measure that would have required food companies and retailers to label food containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients, the initiative failed to pass in November. According to California Watch, food and agribusiness companies including The Hershey Co., Nestlé USA, Mars Inc., and Monsanto contributed $44 million in opposition of the initiative, while those in favor of GM labeling contributed $7.3 million. Also notable: the first independent, peer-reviewed study of GM food safety, published in the August issue of the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology, found that rats fed low-levels of Monsanto’s maize NK603for a period of two years (a rat’s average lifespan) suffered from mammary tumors and severe kidney and liver damage. Although the science is not yet conclusive, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should urge consumers to familiarize themselves with the potential health risks of GM food consumption, and should conduct additional studies.

5. Corn Ethanol Found to Be Environmentally Unfriendly. study released by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology in September found that the increased production of corn for ethanol creates environmental problems like soil acidification and the pollution of lakes and rivers. Although corn has long ruled the biofuels industry (ethanol accounted for 98 percent of domestic biofuel production in 2011), its relative energy-conversion inefficiency and sensitivity to high temperatures—in addition to its environmental footprint—make it an unsustainable long-term energy option. Perennial bioenergy crops like willow, sycamore, sweetgum, jatropha, and cottonwood, however, grow quickly; require considerably less fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide application than annual crops; can thrive on marginal land (i.e., steep slopes); and are often hardier than annual alternatives like corn and soy.

6. Red Meat Production Increases. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, while domestic beef production isprojected to decline in 2012, overall monthly red meat production is up from 2011 levels (due to an increase in pork, lamb, and mutton production). Americans eat a lot of meat: per capita, more than almost anyone else in the world. In 2009, the most recent year for which U.S. Census consumption data is available, the United States consumed nearly 5 million tons more beef than China, although the Chinese population was four times larger. U.S. consumers could significantly reduce per capita greenhouse gas emissions by eating less red meat (the production of which is input intensive). A study published in theJournal of Environmental Science and Technology suggests that switching from a diet based on red meat and dairy to one based on chicken, fish, and eggs could reduce the average household’s yearly emissions by an amount equivalent to driving a 25 mile per gallon automobile 5,340 miles (approximately the distance from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. and back).

7. Stanford Study on Organics Leads to Emotional Debate. A Stanford study titled “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier than Conventional Alternatives?” provoked emotional debate in September. The study found that the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods, although it also found that consumption of organic foods can reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The study’s results were misinterpreted by many, including members of the media, to imply that organic food is not “healthier” than conventional food. In reality, the study calls into question whether organic food is more nutritious than conventional food, and affirms that organics are indeed less pesticide-ridden than conventional alternatives (the primary reason many consumers buy organic).

8. World Food Prize Recognizes Water-Saving Potential of Drip Irrigation. In October, the World Food Prize was awarded to Israeli scientist Daniel Hillel in honor of his contributions to modern drip irrigation technology. Drip irrigation is the precise application of water to plant roots via tiny holes in pipes, allowing a controlled amount of water to drip into the ground. This precision avoids water loss due to evaporation, enables plants to absorb water at their roots (where they need it most), and allows farmers to water only those rows or crops they want to, in lieu of an entire field. Drip irrigation can enhance plant growth, boost crop yields, and improve plant nutritional quality, while minimizing water waste, according to multiple sources (Cornell University ecologists, and a study conducted by the government of Zimbabwe, among others). Agriculture account for 70 percent of water use worldwide; numerous organizations, including the Pacific Institute, have argued that the efficient and conservative use of water in agriculture is a top priority, especially as overuse and climate change threaten to exacerbate situations of water scarcity.

9. Rio+20 Affirms Commitment to Sustainable Development in AgricultureThe Future We Wantthe non-binding agreement produced at the United Nations’ Rio+20 conference in June, acknowledges that food security and nutrition have become pressing global challenges, and affirms international commitment to enhancing food security and access to adequate, safe, and nutritious food for present and future generations. In the document, the international community urges the development of multilateral strategies to promote the participation of farmers, especially smallholder farmers (including women) in agricultural markets; stresses the need to enhance sustainable livestock production; and recognizes the need to manage the risks associated with high and volatile food prices and their consequences for smallholder farmers and poor urban dwellers around the world. But overall, the agreement was heralded as a failure by many groups, including Greenpeace, Oxfam, and the World Wildlife Fund. According to Kumi Naidoo, the head of Greenpeace, “We were promised the ‘future we want’ but are now being presented with a ‘common vision’ of a polluter’s charter that will cook the planet, empty the oceans, and wreck the rain forests…This is not a foundation on which to grow economies or pull people out of poverty, it’s the last will and testament of a destructive twentieth century development model.”

10. White House Calls for More Investment in Agricultural Research and Innovation. A new report, released by an independent, presidentially appointed advisory group earlier this month, argues that the federal government should launch a coordinated effort to boost American agricultural science by increasing public investment and rebalancing the USDA’s research portfolio. The report cautions that U.S. agriculture faces a number of challenges that are poised to become much more serious in years to come: the need to manage new pests, pathogens, and invasive plants; increase the efficiency of water use; reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture; adapt to a changing climate; and accommodate demands for bioenergy—all while continuing to produce safe and nutritious food at home and for those in need abroad. Overall, the report calls for an increase in U.S. investment in agricultural research by a total of $700 million per year, to nurture a new “innovation ecosystem” capable of leveraging the best of America’s diverse science and technology enterprise for advancements in agriculture.

Although they might not be sexy, agricultural issues are worth caring about. The way we choose to grow, process, distribute, consume, and legislate on behalf of food can affect everything from public health, to greenhouse gas emissions, to global food availability, to water quality, to the ability of our food system to withstand shocks like floods and droughts. By familiarizing ourselves with these and other food issues, we as consumers can make informed decisions in both the grocery store and the voting booth, and can generate the action needed to move our food system in a healthy, equitable, and sustainable direction in 2013.

Sophie Wenzlau and Laura Reynolds are Food and Agriculture Staff Researchers at the Worldwatch Institute.


New Rice for Africa: Shades of Both a Green Revolution and Food Sovereignty

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Daniel Bornstein is a junior at Dartmouth College majoring in Anthropology and Environmental Studies. A contributor to Nourishing the Planet and, he is currently studying in the Gambia with St. Mary’s College of Maryland’s Promoting Educational and Cultural Exchange program.

The New Rice for Africa variety has become part of the debate over whether a Green Revolution is the best approach to ensure food security in Africa (Photo Credit: Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research)

JAMBUR, The Gambia—The dissemination of the high-yielding New Rice for Africa (NERICA) seeds has sparked contention that is a microcosm for a central debate in global agricultural development: does Africa need its own Green Revolution, an effort that 50 years ago saw dramatic productivity increases through the use of new crop technologies in Asia and Latin America?

NERICA, developed by 2004 World Food Prize winner Dr. Monty Jones, is being promoted by the Africa Rice Center mainly in West African countries where rice is a staple food. It is a cross between an Asian variety, responsible for the high yield, and an African variety, which ensures its local adaptability.

West African governments have touted NERICA as a hallmark of a new Green Revolution and as a path to boosting rice self-sufficiency, especially after the 2008 food price spike exposed the dangers of import dependence. On the other side, advocates of “food sovereignty”—centered on farmers’ control over food systems—have voiced strong opposition. The advocacy organization GRAIN has labeled NERICA a “trap for small farmers” who will become vulnerable to expensive chemical fertilizers and seeds, a situation widely cited by critics of the 1960s Green Revolution.

What I’ve found in Jambur, which in 2002 became the first Gambian village to access the new crop, is a much more nuanced picture, one that in fact incorporates elements of each side of the debate. This suggests what a tactical misstep it would be for food sovereignty loyalists to completely remove themselves from engaging with a new variety just because it has become embedded in the discourse of a new Green Revolution.

I have observed, in one respect, an outcome that reveals the dangers of making small-scale farmers dependent on high-input seeds: the expensive price of chemical fertilizer. Farmers here say that in most years they have applied fertilizer at the rate of 4 bags of NPK and 2 of urea per hectare, the amount recommended to them by the National Agricultural Research Institute. But this year fertilizer’s price has jumped and they are cutting back usage by more than half, and seeing yields shrink as a result.

Here lies the problem with the notion that higher yields alone will end hunger in developing countries. A standard mantra talks about addressing the “yield gap” whereby resource-poor farmers are achieving lower yields than farmers of the same crop in the world’s most productive regions. But the yield difference is due in large part to the inability of African farmers to access the very inputs that enable such high production in wealthy countries. So boosting yields simply to close a “yield gap” may involve jeopardizing farmers’ own livelihoods, which is not the right path for agricultural development, especially since it is small farmers themselves who are the most vulnerable population.

Despite that downside, alternative food movements can find in NERICA a characteristic that is a pillar of their agenda: ‘seed sovereignty,’ or farmers’ right to save their own seeds, as opposed to having to purchase seeds. Unlike the hybrid seeds of the Green Revolution, farmers can harvest and re-plant NERICA every season. In Jambur, they are trained on how to harvest the highest quality seeds by the village’s resident farmer expert on NERICA, Omar Bojang, who claims that “nobody in The Gambia knows more about NERICA” than himself—a sign of the farmer-to-farmer knowledge dissemination that, it turns out, is also a top priority of food sovereignty folks. So as outspoken critical voices invoke Vandana Shiva’s notions of “biopiracy” to warn about the African Green Revolution’s erosion of farmers’ control over seeds, we would do well to remember that this simply doesn’t apply to NERICA.

If the movement for a new model for global agriculture becomes intent on attacking anything that has ever been praised by proponents of an African Green Revolution, then it risks missing opportunities to influence the implementation of new varieties in ways that benefit small-scale farmers. Nowhere is this idea better encapsulated than in anthropologist Glenn Stone’s concept of a “science of the gray.”

“This is an odd corner for researchers ethically committed to the welfare of Third World farmers to have painted themselves into—opposing potentially beneficial agricultural strategies or technologies because they might impede a complete transformation of the agricultural system,” Stone writes in a 2005 article. “If the complete transformation never comes, one has relinquished the ability to mitigate the excesses of the extant system.”

Applying this wisdom to NERICA, we must realize that the thrust toward another Green Revolution, associated as it is with some of the most powerful institutions in the world, isn’t going away any time soon. But there are ways to “mitigate the excesses”—pushing for more research on agro-ecological production, and training farmers in seed production and in farmer-to-farmer dissemination.

I’ve heard the argument from activists that playing by the rules of the pro-Green Revolution institution risks co-optation and ultimately dissolution of reform movements. But I’d say that contributing to the prevailing system—no matter how strongly you disagree with its underlying ideals—can actually raise the profile of alternative models, if only because you’re given the space to demonstrate their success.

So as the debate over an African Green Revolution continues to rage, it’s important to keep in mind that the reality will almost certainly lay in the “gray” area, rather than exactly matching one side’s ideological perspective.

In your own work, where have you encountered examples of the “gray” area that may characterize new agricultural technologies? Share them with us in the comment section below.



What Works: Saving Seeds

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By Carolyn Smalkowski

This post is part of a series where Nourishing the Planet asks its readers: What works? Every week we’ll ask the question and every week you can join the conversation!

Community seed saving can help farmers achieve greater independence, adapt to climate change, and rise out of poverty (Photo Credit: Navdanya)

In the last several years, many developing country governments around the world have cut federal agricultural investments within the seed sector. As a result, private seed companies promoting hybrid seeds are filling in the gaps. Farmers’ groups, however, are doing their own community seed saving so they can achieve greater independence, adapt to climate change, and rise out of poverty.

More than half of the world’s commercialized seeds are in the hands of just three companies – Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta. The hybrid seeds these companies promote are bred in a way that future generations of seed are unable to maintain the same qualities of the hybrid seed. As a result, farmers develop a dependency on the seeds and must re-purchase them after each growing cycle if they want production to remain stable. Hybrid crops can require more chemical inputs and water than traditional varieties.

Fortunately, organizations such as Navdanya, La Via Campesina, and ETC Group are advocating on behalf of farmers to promote farmer sovereignty through the development of local seed-saving and sustainable agricultural initiatives. Saving seeds helps contribute to food security by securing the accessibility of safe, nutritious food through community seed banks. These seed banks facilitate greater sharing among farmers and promote greater economic stability.

Community seed saving also supports local adaptive capacity by helping to conserve indigenous knowledge and culture. Farmers are more easily able to adjust to changing weather conditions due to centuries of careful seed selection and breeding.  Traditional seeds are thus more genetically diverse and environmentally resilient, which can better prepare communities for an unpredictable and changing climate.

Most importantly, “Seed saving gives farmers life,” according to activist Vandana Shiva. According to Shiva, the increased poverty and indebtedness that results from dependency on seed corporations like Monsanto led to the farmer suicide tragedies in India.  Seed saving can empower small farmers to regain sovereignty and independence so they can take control over their own futures and the futures of their families.

Do you know of any community seed saving initiatives? Have you experienced first-hand the consequences of seed commercialization? We welcome your comments below.

To read more about savings seeds, see FAO Seed Distribution and the Biopiracy Controversy, Traditional Food Crops Provide Community Resilience in Face of Climate Change, Kibera’s Vertical Farms, and From Seeds of Suicide to Seeds of Hope: Why Are Indian Farmers Committing Suicide and How Can We Stop This Tragedy?.

Carolyn Smalkowski is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.



The 2012 Food Sovereignty Tours Hit the Road!

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By Angela Kim

Food First will launch its worldwide Food Sovereignty Tours in September to teach participants about local food and agriculture (Photo Credit: Cari-Vicarious)

Food First, also known as the Institute for Food and Development Policy, is a non-profit organization dedicated to engaging people in the global movement for food sovereignty. In partnership with the Global Exchange Reality Tours, which offers experiential educational tours focused on human rights issues, Food First launched their worldwide Food Sovereignty Tours in 2010. The tours allow participants to learn about and experience local food systems, agriculture, and the social movements of destination countries. The nonprofit tours include meetings with individuals and organizations engaged in changing the global food system, including producers, movement leaders, researchers, activists, and policymakers. Through these interactions and exchanges, Food First hopes to facilitate meaningful relationships between communities and travelers, to deepen the participant’s awareness of food struggles through common interest in food issues. Take a look at the upcoming international tours scheduled for this year, currently open to all for registration.



In Anticipation of the Brooklyn Food Conference: An Interview with Nancy Romer

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By Laura Reynolds

Name: Nancy Romer

Affiliation: Brooklyn Food Coalition

Bio: Nancy Romer is the General Coordinator at the Brooklyn Food Coalition and a psychology professor at City University of New York’s Brooklyn College. She was instrumental in organizing the first Brooklyn Food Conference in 2009, and established the Brooklyn Food Coalition in the same year after becoming inspired to transform the way people produce, distribute, and consume food.

Nancy Romer is the General Coordinator of the Brooklyn Food Coalition. (Photo credit:

The Brooklyn Food Coalition is hosting its annual Brooklyn Food Conference this Saturday, May 12, at the Brooklyn Technical High School. Over 5,000 people are expected to attend the conference, including the prominent speakers Vandana Shiva, world-renowned environmental activist; Lucas Benitez, Co-Director of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers; and several others. Events and workshops such as “The Future of New York City Food Policy” and “Faith and Feeding the Hungry” will run from 8:30am until 6pm. The conference will also feature cooking demonstrations, film screenings, kids’ activities, and an expo of non-profit and for-profit organizations.

With community gardens and farmers markets sprouting up all over the place lately, why do we still need events like the Brooklyn Food Conference?

We need the Brooklyn Food Conference, and other events that draw together all the actors working to reform the food system, because we need to change policy. We now have a range of activities, like farmers markets in certain neighborhoods, that can improve the lives of individuals or communities—but we still need far-reaching, major changes in policy that will spread these improvements across New York and the country. It is clear that the will to change policy is not going to come from the top; we need a heavy lift from the bottom to tell policymakers what we need and demand from our food systems, and the Brooklyn Food Conference is a major step in sending that message.



ILWU Wins Fight for Union Dock Work in Longview, Washington

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By Kevin Robbins

In 1996 La Via Compesina introduced the concept of “Food Sovereignty” at the World Food Summit. The idea behind food sovereignty is that sustainable, healthy and culturally suitable food is a human right, and that the food system needs to prioritize the rights and needs of those who produce, distribute, and consume food over market demands and corporate interests.

Food sovereignty unites farmers, consumers, migrants, landless peasants, and food system workers in common cause. (Photo credit: ILWU)

Food sovereignty unites farmers, consumers, migrants, landless peasants, and food system workers in common cause. It is not just about how our food is grown, but about how it is picked, processed, sold, transported, and eaten.

Last week the organization Family Farm Defenders declared its solidarity with a worker rights fight in Longview, Washington, reminding us of the link food sovereignty creates between food rights and worker’s rights: “One of the underlying principles of food sovereignty is that ALL workers deserve a living wage, dignified working conditions, and the right to organize. This guarantee extends to everyone working in the food/farm system—not just farmers and farmworkers, but also meatpackers, retail clerks, restaurant servers, truck drivers, and dockworkers.



Global Governance for Food Security: new report shows optimism for progress

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Nora McKeon, an expert on food systems, recently wrote a report on the current state of global food governance. The report, “Global Governance for World Food Security: A Scorecard Four Years After the Eruption of the ‘Food Crisis,’” was released by the political non-profit organization Heinrich Böll Stiftung and highlights some of the global problems and potential in the aftermath of recent food price volatility.

A new report highlights how we can shape our global food system governance. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

According to the report, “the eruption of the food crisis in late 2007-2008 unveiled a vacuum in global governance,” which has been dominated by international corporations and free-trade focused countries. One response to the crisis was a restructuring of the FAO Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in an attempt to shape it into a potent international forum for food security. In October, 2010, the CFS sided with civil society organizations and governments of developing countries, agreeing to investigate food price volatility, financial speculation, and “land grabbing” by foreign corporations. The CFS seems to have loosened the control that free-trade advocates, the World Bank, and multinational corporations have long enjoyed over these issues.

The CFS may be “at the centre of a better global governance system,” says the report, based on the principles surrounding food sovereignty and the right to food. The task of overcoming the immense power of agri-business and developed nations is a daunting one, and in order to shift the focus of food issues from trade to human rights, the report calls for “civil society participation [to] be sustained and strengthened.”

The issue of global food system governance is incredibly complicated. What are some ways that you see everyday people in “civil society” getting involved? Let us know in the comments!

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.


What works: Increasing Food Sovereignty

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By Supriya Kumar

In 1996, members of La Via Campesina, an organization that defends the values and basic interests of agricultural workers, coined the term “food sovereignty” to bring attention to the growing distance between farmers and the food they grow. Small farmers often suffer from unfair agricultural policies and the idea behind food sovereignty is to provide them with more opportunities to participate in the decision making process.

Fast forward almost fifteen years later, and small farmers still have limited bargaining power, even though they represent 80 percent of farmers in the developing world.


FANRPAN has helped women farmers access markets through its WARM project. (Photo credit: Julie Carney)

One organization that helps connect farmers with policy makers is the Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) which currently operates in thirteen African countries. FANRPAN enables discussions between farmers, researchers and policy makers throughout Africa and has also helped women farmers access markets through its Women Accessing Realigned Markets (WARM) project

In some cases, farmers themselves get organized to regain sovereignty over the food they grow. In Senegal, farmers groups from around the country formed an association in the 1970s to oppose state owned cooperatives. The group, the Senegalese Federation of NGOs (FONGs) now represents thousands of farmers, fishermen and pastoralists. FONG advocates for improved access and better rights to land, better market infrastructure, and other policies that directly help small farmers. (more…)


Empowering Women to Take Back the Land

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By Elena Davert

In celebration of International Day of Rural Women last week, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) partnered with the World Bank and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to host a seminar on gender and land acquisition in rural agricultural communities.  The seminar featured a study led by Cheryl Doss at Yale University that investigated property rights for women in Eastern and Central Uganda.

Overall, the results of suggest that additional research needs to look beyond declared “household ownership” of land and investigate the different rights that men and women actually exercise. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

During the seminar, Allan Bomuhangi, a visiting research assistant with Yale, and Ruth Meinzen-Dick, an IFPRI Senior Research fellow, discussed the importance of research on poverty, productivity and equity in rural communities.  They emphasized the importance of agricultural empowerment of women, which is often dependent on secure access to land.

The researchers used the study to achieve three main goals:

  • Identify the mechanisms – both formal and informal – through which women can obtain land;
  • Assess the various models of ownership and their associated rights;
  • and identify how property rights vary from district to district.

Through a combination of surveys, household interviews, and focus groups, the researchers connected with households from 7 villages in the districts of Luwero and Kapchorwa. Interviews with people from these two very distinct districts shed light on the many different types of land ownership that have developed over the years.  In addition to inheritance, individual ownership, and joint ownership, other land-use trends include renting agreements, land leases, and a variety of informal methods of land access, such as community land use and squatting.  It took a series of cross-checking questions to determine which of these agreements were used in each household because many individuals were unclear about the type of land-use agreement they actually had. (more…)


Interview with Phil Bereano: Part III

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By Matt Styslinger

This is the final part in a three-part interview with Phil Bereano. For parts one and two of this interview see: Interview with Phil Bereano: Part I and Interview with Phil Bereano: Part II.

What does the ethical use of GMOs in agriculture look like?

"The only way to reduce hunger is to improve the income of the world’s poorest people and return control of food production to local communities and farmers," says Phil Bereano. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

No one knows. The closest thing to any real evaluation of GMOs versus alternatives was the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). This was a multi-year study funded by the World Bank and a number of UN agencies that concluded that there’s no obvious or particular advantage to GM foods. But I would contend that GE is inherently unethical because it is not a democratic technology—its development, ownership, and decision-making apparatus are all concentrated in the hands of a tiny techno-corporate elite.

Do you think there is a legitimate role for GMOs in providing food security and developing agricultural policy?

I’m skeptical because GMOs haven’t been developed to provide food security. Roundup Ready GE, for example, was developed to extend Monsanto’s monopoly over Roundup weed killer because the patent was expiring. It turned out to be a great money maker for them. Second, food security has to do with the control the consumers, as well as the farmers and producers, have over the production of food. But GMOs remove that control. Food security is not just a quantitative concept. Many of the industry’s proponents use the term food security as if producing more is all that matters.

GMOs don’t produce more—in the long run, anyway. Weeds and insects develop resistance, as Darwinian evolution teaches. Although the first Green Revolution did produce more food, it did not reduce hunger. Hunger is a function of poverty, not a function of the amount of food that’s around. The only way to reduce hunger is to improve the income of the world’s poorest people and return control of food production to local communities and farmers. This is “food sovereignty.” The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter [Editor's Note: Professor De Schutter is a member of the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group], recently presented a report to the UN General Assembly highlighting all of this.

The question of whether GE has a legitimate role to play in food security is stimulated by the hype that the industry has been putting out for a decade and a half. But, in fact, most of the unbiased analyses have come to the conclusion that there’s not much of a role for GMOs at all, and their effect on real food security is quite negative. Because there are no adequate risk assessments going on, we have no idea what the long-term consequences of the growing and consuming of these foods are to the environment or human health. Those should be giant question marks, and you can’t be secure in the face of giant question marks.

That is why both the Protocol and the Codex have embodied the “Precautionary Principle”—which used to be so common in U.S. regulatory rules until the rise of conservative power 30 years ago under Reagan—to “look before you leap” or, in other words, when confronted by great uncertainties, do research and evaluation before deciding whether to adopt a new technology. In recent years, the U.S. has experienced huge increases in all sorts of health problems that appear to be linked to food intake—for example, diabetes, obesity, food poisoning, maybe even autism. No one can say whether or not GMOs are responsible, because no assessments have been done with any scientific rigor.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.