Asia and Europe CSOs call for food sovereignty to end hunger

Representatives of civil society organizations, people’s movements, and parliamentarians from different countries in Asia and Europe converged in a webinar on May 23, 2021, to tackle food sovereignty and its underlying challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The webinar entitled “Tech to Fork: Resisting the Neoliberal Domination in Agriculture amid COVID 19 and beyond” was part of the 13th biennial Asia Europe People’s Forum, which is a venue for people’s movements in both continents to discuss local and global responses to social issues relating to peace and justice, human rights, and climate change, among others.

It was organised by the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS), IBON International Europe, the Council for People’s Development and Governance, Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN), Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG) / Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development, and SOLIDAGRO.

In preparing the Forum, it had been noted that the pandemic had amplified the issue of food security, especially in underdeveloped countries and among the poor populations of the world and that the number of hungry people had increased by millions, as countries imposed lockdowns and quarantine measures while unemployment rates accelerated. Current estimates by the World Food Program state that 296 million people in 35 countries where they operate are facing food insufficiency, which is more than a hundred million compared to April 2020’s data. There is therefore an urgency to talk about what kind of food systems we need and for whom they are developed as a response to the challenges posed by COVID-19 and beyond.

Sylvia Mallari, co-chairperson of PCFS opened the program and noted the importance of similar webinars in forging solidarity with people’s organizations from different countries across the globe in advancing people-centered policies for food and agriculture.

“There’s a battle today between those who want business-as-usual in food and agriculture and the movements fighting for just, equitable, healthy, and sustainable food systems. We should agree on policies that put rights over profits, people over corporations, and our planet over greed,” Mallari challengingly announced.

Azra Sayeed, Chairperson of APRN presented the first input relating to the key trends and implications of the neoliberal domination in agriculture in Asia. She discussed how agricultural TNCs control the entire food process from the amount of production, distribution, and consumption at the expense of poor populations and local food producers

“Food crisis and food insecurity have been ongoing for the past many years and COVID only exacerbated the situation. 688 million people are undernourished globally, and at least half of them are in Asia. It is quite critical to think about food security, but more so of the problematic economic system. We are living in an era of imperialist agriculture where we have no security.” Sayeed stated.

Faced with the European Commission’s proposal to adopt and implement the European Green Deal program, which aims to make food systems “fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly”, agribusiness corporations are exploring ways to maintain their dominance. Nina Holland of Corporate Europe Observatory discussed the attempts being made by the corporate giants to hijack the European “farm to fork” strategy, which is a central element of the European Green Deal.

“The Green Deal is aiming for a 50 % reduction in the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers by 2030. That really means a major transition, and it requires support to farmers to enable them to implement the changes. However, the mainstream industrial farming unions are trying to derail this process and used the discussions on the reform of the EU Common Agricultural Policy to prevent the program from being greener and fairer”, said Holland on the numerous attempts of the corporate giants to use the European Green Deal for their own purposes.

In the face of global hunger and climate change, people-centered initiatives and solutions are being put forward by progressive CSOs, grassroots organizations, and farmers themselves. Farmer-led food and agriculture systems such as agroecology go hand-in-hand with the people’s call for food sovereignty and are key to preserving the environment and agrobiodiversity. They integrate science and ecological principles with the knowledge and practice of farmers and indigenous peoples, give priority to enabling local economies to respond to local needs, and put farmers first on the agenda. Agroecology places farmers and the people’s right to food at the center of policies, and the people as active participants in the attainment of their right to food. These initiatives are being pushed, along with the farmers’ call for genuine land reform and control of resources to seeds, technologies, and knowledge to be able to develop rural communities and empower them to respond to the prevailing food crisis.

Cris Panerio, MASIPAG National Coordinatorexplained how farmer-led initiatives on agrobiodiversity conservation and improvement, organic agriculture production, and local processing and marketing are contributing to local food security and farmers’ empowerment.

“The negative impact of the Green Revolution that paved the way for corporate control of agriculture resulted in the social movement in the country to organize Masipag. Masipag farmers were able to undo the negative impact of the Green Revolution, which leads to farmers’ indebtedness, loss of diversity in rice and even loss of their land and livelihood and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. One important objective of Masipag is the empowerment of farmers. This would mean that farmers through their organizations are able to have a decisive role in the value chain of food that they produce,” Panerio shared. He also stressed the importance of genuine land reform in attaining food sovereignty.

Jan Knook, an organic farmer from the Netherlands and a member of several organic farmer organizations such as Biohuis and BIO-NH, shared his experience with chemical-free, organic farming in comparison to the dominant industrial agriculture model in Europe.

“In the ’90s there were groups of critical farmers who tried to use fewer pesticides. There were also study groups subsidized by the government that looked for ways to reduce pesticide use. They came into contact with organic farmers and decided to change traditional farms into organic farms,” Knook narrated, pointing to the importance of organizational and collective efforts and the need for government subsidies in exploring these kinds of agricultural models.

Parliamentarians from Europe and Asia were also invited to discuss prospects in supporting people’s campaigns and initiatives for agricultural sustainability.

Hon. Eufemia Cullamat, an indigenous Manobo from the Philippines, who represents Bayan Muna Partylist in the House of Representatives and is a member of the House Committee on Food and Agriculture, shared the current challenges they face in the Philippine Congress in exacting government and corporate responsibility relating to current agricultural policies. She and her Partylist are known for actively supporting the farmers’ and indigenous peoples’ fight for genuine agrarian reform and rice industry development. They also sponsored a House Resolution calling to stop Golden Rice.

“There is a need for the State to define how it should go about protecting and advancing the right of the people to a safe, poison-free agriculture, secure livelihoods, and a balanced healthy ecology in accordance with the rhythm and harmony of nature,” Hon. Eufemia said, highlighting the responsibility of the State in prioritizing the people’s rights and welfare with regards to food systems and agriculture.

Ms. Tilly Metz, a Luxembourg MEP for The Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament, discussed the perspectives of cooperation and support in the people’s movements in Europe and Asia. Metz is among the MEPs who voted in favor of the waiver on COVID-19 vaccine patents for poorer countries to enable them to produce their own doses. She and her party recently called on the European Commission to ensure that the current strict EU regulations on GMOs are also applied to new genetically engineered techniques and not to be influenced by the seed industry’s attempts to have them exempted.

“Innovation does not only mean technology. There is this neoliberal tech narrative and this image of “researchers” delivering solutions to the agricultural sector and the public from the top-down. But innovation does not only come from laboratories. Innovation does not only mean fancy machines, digitalization, and software. Innovations can be social, organizational, and based on participatory models,” MEP Metz explained, citing community farming and other initiatives as a highly inclusive form of agricultural innovation vis-a-vis the mainstream corporate model involving agrochemical giants.

The webinar was concluded by PCFS Executive Council member Julie Smit. She gave a synthesis of the program and highlighted the importance of building solidarity across Asia and Europe towards food sovereignty and ending global hunger. She also called on the participants to join the Global People’s Summit on Food Systems to be spearheaded by PCFS, as a counter-event to the UN Food Systems Summit later this year.

“Our food systems are at a crossroads. As Sylvia Mallari said earlier, there’s a battle going on today between those who want business-as-usual in food and agriculture and movements calling for just, equitable, healthy, and sustainable food systems. It is a fight between David and Goliath and it will demand a global effort on the part of farmers, civil society, parliamentarians, and many others to achieve food sovereignty and end hunger. But we should remember that David won the fight in the end,” Smit ended, calling for unity across countries and movements in the fight for just food systems.

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