In a recent NY Times article, Andrew Rice digs in to a meaty issue: agro-imperialism. He tells us about American Botanist Robert Zeigler who flies to Saudi Arabia to lend his expertise regarding food security to come face to face with the intense reality that the problem is being confronted by some countries with aggressive "land grabs", or "purchases", or "investments", depending on how you see the issue. The fact that countries like Saudi Arabia are increasing their holdings in other countries for food production highlights the deep fear food insecurity poses and perhaps the beginning of a land rush.
The buying or leasing of land at crazy low prices on the one hand seems unfair. It doesn’t belong to them! Its exploitative of a poor country! But its also creating jobs, that pay a whole 75 cents a day. And it wasn’t being used before (if you close your eyes tight enough, you might not see all the people that live there). In Ethiopia every farmer leases land from the government, including, quite legally, the Saudis. Given this, and the fact that despite action to the contrary, development organizations and local governments have been saying for years that Africa needs agricultural investment, is it really a "land grab"? Rice asks us "Is there such a thing as agro-imperialism?"
Well, in Ethiopia, 10 percent of the population suffer from food shortages, so to me, it does seem a bit disgusting to be leasing land to foreign governments. Rice makes an excellent point when he says "it looks bad politically for countries like Kenya and Ethiopia to be letting foreign investors use their land at a time when their people face the specter of mass starvation". The countries leasing the land justify their argument, claiming they are doing it legally, creating jobs, exploiting the land more efficiently. These arguments are all too familiar. Remember the last time foreign countries came to Africa to use the land better? Heck- they managed to find rubber, oil and diamonds! And think of all the "jobs" that were produced!
Rice doesn’t go so far, but for me despite my inability to really pick apart the problem with the whole thing, just feel that its wrong. I’d love to be more specific but I can’t even figure out if food security is a production problem or a distribution problem. I’m hoping to learn more at IPSA’s upcoming Spring Conference on food security.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is there such a thing as agro-imperialism?
The other night i attended “Exposing the Green Revolution,” presented by NYU Wagner Health Program, World Hunger Year, Food & Water Watch, US Working Group on the Food Crisis, and IPSA.
The conversation was moderated by Brother David Andrews, recent Senior Advisor to the President of the UN General Assembly, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, and a senior representative for Food and Water Watch.
Josphat Ngonyo of the Kenyan Biodiversity Network spoke in broad but convincing terms of the need to challenge the aid community’s emphasis on GMOs in Africa. He condemned the practice of instituting GMO programs that end up forcing low income farmers to buy seeds and fertilizers from multinational companies, fostering helpless dependency. GMOs, he said, clash with farmers’ lifestyles by forcing them towards monocropping, destroy the environment through overuse of land, runoff, and chemical pollution, and affect neighborhing crops through cross pollination. He also condemned food aid for making people lazy and dependent.
In order to avoid a second “green revolution,” like the one that enhanced productivity but led to destitution in India, he called for more on the ground involvement of communities, especially from AGRA, the organization in charge of bringing biotech to Africa. Furthermore, he recommended investments in commercial infrastructure; roads, warehouses, and stores, as well as increased access to credit for small farmers. Finally, he advocated work on land tenure and gender rights, as 80% of african farmers are women.
Bronx community gardener and food justice leader Karen Washington then spoke dynamically and convincingly about the disconnect between american urban food consumers and their food. she heralded the 11 community run farmers markets in New York City, and spoke of the need to educate children about where their food comes from. She also spoke of the importance of improving access and food security in low income areas of the city, changing the variety of products offered in neighborhood bodegas. Health, she said, was only one of the many reasons to create a more “enlightened” food policy. “We are sick and tired,” she said, “of being sick and tired.”
Various proposals and potential solutions were then discussed. One of the most salient was when someone asked about farmers who were comfortable, and had been for multiple generations, with enhanced crops and fertilizers and other unsustainable agricultural practices. Reprimanding farmer doesn’t make any sense, everyone agreed: Education is the key. Showing farmers how bad the products they use really are, for their health and the environment and their land, is really the key to creating change.
Though I’ve been working in the food world for the past three years, in various capacities, my experiences are almost all domestic, and since I’m at Wagner in part to throw myself into the international food world, this event was perfect for me.
In addition to learning a few new things, I ran into people I knew from the US food movement: a man who I had met at a kellogg Foundation food conference in Arizona two years ago, now an organizer for Slow Food, and a woman who I had known in New Orleans who runs community gardens.
By: Mischa Byruck
Last Thursday I sat with other IPSA members, NYU students, and food-loving, granola-crunching community activists (no judgment here, I unabashedly ate home-made granola in lecture while wearing
Birkenstocks last week) and listened to three panelists discuss the Green Revolution and its myths. All three panelists landed hard on the conclusion that genetically modified food and seeds are bad. That community involvement is good. That sustainability is key. And that the Green Revolution isn’t as much revolution as it is a mis-guided prescription by the developing world.
Useful lessons to be sure. And listening to Karen Washington, a NY City activist working on community gardens, is like adding a spoon-full of sugar- it really goes down. I almost raised my fist, “Yes! I am with you! Bring me back to my roots!”
Seems clear to me now that the Green Revolution may have increased overall food produced (did it really?) but it did not address the real problems of food in the developing world – namely access to markets, stability and distribution. While sold on the problem, I was left wondering about solutions.
Besides, what Josphat Ngonyo calls “education” and what Karen Washington called “enlightenment”, I’d love to hear other suggestions about how to get farmers to adopt more sustainable practices when they are either a) already stuck in a cycle necessitating GMO seeds or b) tempted by the amount of money they can earn by pulling away from sustainable practices that may increase biodiversity, sustainability but not necessarily the income of that farmer.
And most importantly, how could a world-wide, organized civil society movement of the magnitude the panelists suggested we need, be started? Easy.
I’ll give you this image. Me, granola in hand, sitting with a bunch of Kenyan farming women and telling them that the way they used to farm since the beginning of time, and maybe even forgot, is actually right, and how about we join hands across the ocean and push our governments for change? Aren’t I a clever development practitioner?
By: Sierra Visher