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“To change the global food system, the subjects of change are the small-scale farmers”
José Elosegui
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Interview with Martin Drago, coordinator of the Food Sovereignty Program of the Friends of the Earth International

The Friends of the Earth International environmental federation has a presence in nearly 80 countries. Martín Drago, a member of the Network of Social Ecology (REDES)-Friends of the Earth Uruguay, has been responsible for leading the work in the area of food sovereignty since December 2008, as well as facilitating the links with the social movements working in the subject.

In an interview with José Elosegui, a Latinamerica Press collaborator, Drago talked about the food system that is controlled by agribusiness, while at the same time he raised the need for a change of system. He systematized concrete examples of a transition towards sustainable agri-food models and warned about the main challenges and obstacles for deeper progress in these transformations.

How do you describe the dominant global food system?
The prevailing global food system, dominated by large-scale industrial agriculture, is highly concentrated, integrated or chained and transnationalized. It is characterized by the use of large amounts of capital investment that goes towards inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and machinery. It is a system that responds to the interests of international trade, which has the support of public funds and also from international financial institutions, and an increasing involvement of the financial sector, which has a purely speculative interest.

With regard to the high concentration of the production of inputs, according to the ETC Group [Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration that monitors the impact of emerging technologies and corporate strategies on biodiversity, agriculture and human rights], Monsanto was in March looking at possible partnerships with [transnational agrochemicals] BASF or Bayer, following the alliances of Dupont-Dow and Syngenta-Chem China. According to ETC, if Monsanto merged with the agricultural sector of Bayer, the three groups would control more than 65 percent of the global sales of pesticides, and almost 61 percent of commercial seed sales. If instead Monsanto merged with BASF, the control would be 61 percent of the pesticides and more than 57 percent of seeds.

In addition to the fact that this agro-food system is concentrated and transnationalized, it is also integrated. The feedlots dedicated to meat production are tightly linked to the production of inputs that these animals receive, such as soybeans and corn. However, despite all the pressure, it is the peasantry and the small-scale farming that produce the vast majority of food consumed by humanity; 70 percent according to the ETC Group. In order to change the global food system, the subjects of change are the small-scale farmers.

Why do you consider it important to change this dominant system?
According to GRAIN [international organization that supports peasants, small-scale farmers and social movements], from 44 percent to 57 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the global food system. There is a huge weight in those emissions from this transnationalized system that produces quinoa in Bolivia and sells it in Thailand. It is a system that is starting to require more inputs, machinery, more fossil fuels to move the machinery, for fertilizers and pesticides.

Large-scale agriculture expands the agricultural frontier; it deforests to continue planting, as has happened in Brazil with soybeans, corn, and sugar cane. Agriculture moved to areas where there was livestock and livestock moved to where there were forests like the Amazonia through deforestation, despite the role played by forests in carbon sequestration.

Instead, agro-ecological food production has a completely different effect because it emits fewer gases, but also, in working in harmony with nature, it recovers the soil and the soil reinforces its ability to naturally sequester carbon. In addition, when the distances between those who produce the food and those who consume it are reduced, the transport sector emissions also drop.

What would be the alternative model and the major changes required to reach more just and sustainable food models in Latin America?
What we propose is basically the model of food sovereignty, and today we are talking about agro-ecology for food sovereignty. This means agro-ecological production in harmony with nature, taking care of the natural resources. It also has to do with a way to consume food, which is of a short circuit between producers and consumers. In Uruguay, for example, the Asociación Barrial de Consumo Abierta [ASOBACO-Open Consumer Neighborhood Association] stands out, as so many other initiatives in Latin America do, which assumes the risk together with the producer. The outcome is that at the end, the producer, without intermediaries, receives a much better price and the consumer pays much less.

One of the main changes that are needed is the recognition of the role that small-scale farmers have had and now have, especially women, and the need to create the social conditions so that these people live with dignity in the countryside. To accomplish this also requires services near the territories, as roads, health centers, and reasonable routes to move the production. So we must not only change the patterns of production and consumption, but also the living conditions in the field so that young people can stay there. The role of the state is paramount here. To facilitate the services, but also in generating infrastructure so that producers can move their production, spaces where they can store their food and sell it.

I think the Brazilian case of the National Plan of Agro-Ecology and Organic Production (PLANAPO) is the biggest paradigm that exists in the region, the one which everyone is trying to imitate in some way, like Uruguay, where the National Plan of Agro-Ecology seeks to replicate that Brazilian initiative with the conditions in Uruguay. The PLANAPO ensured public procurement of food for schools and hospitals from family farming, for example.

In addition to the cases of Brazil and Uruguay you just mentioned, what other concrete alternatives exist in the region?
Examples of transitions to these forms of production and marketing are present in all of Latin America, perhaps not on the scale that is required. In Uruguay there are the Red de Semillas (Seed Network) and the Ecotienda (Eco-store); the former ensures access to a basic input as are seeds, shared with other producers, generating autonomy in production with the principle of solidarity as a base, and the Ecotienda provides a direct sales channel.

In Colombia is the Asociación de Pequeños Caficultores de La Marina (ASOPECAM-Association of Small Coffee Growers of La Marina), which is part of the Movimiento Agroecológico de América Latina y el Caribe (MAELA Colombia-Agro-Ecological Movement of Latin America and the Caribbean). They made a transition to organic production, while at the same time generating markets for direct sales, such as at universities.

There are also more structural cases. For example, a concrete alternative is the taking of land of the Movimiento de Trabajadores Rurales Sin Tierra de Brasil (MST- Rural Landless Workers Movement), which creates real conditions for the construction of alternatives. Without land, without seeds, there is no food production. What the MST does is to occupy unproductive land to then dispute it with the state to be given to them and transform them into production settlements. Many of the MST settlements have also moved towards agro-ecology, and in this way they are transforming the agro-food system.

Another alternative always mentioned by the Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Organizaciones del Campo-Vía Campesina (CLOC-Latin American Coordination of Rural Organizations) is education for transformation through its Institutos Agroecológicos Latinoamericanos (IALA-Latin American Agro-Ecological Institutes); the ideological and technical education of farmers, indigenous people, and workers to sovereignly build the transformative alternatives.

What are the challenges to further make progress with these changes?
The main challenges are to understand that food production is not something that necessarily has to be in the hands of agribusiness. We need to change that popular perception. In fact, food production is mostly in the hands of small-scale food producers.

We also have to change this belief that all production methods known as “traditional” are a step back. Quite the contrary, they concentrate the evolution of food production from the very bottom of history until today. The farmer is also a scientist in a way, because is a person who through trial and error has been changing and developing his production methods, adapting them. We have to reappraise the role of these actors.

We consumers also have to understand that we need to change our consumption patterns. And another really big challenge is to change the correlation of forces that we have today, where the agronomic and veterinary academy linked to the large-scale food production imposes the idea that there is no possibility of feeding the world without agribusiness.

We also have to see how to deal with the transition to more sustainable production models. It cannot be a transition paid by those who are forever forgotten, but must be done by those that have generated the crisis, which is why it is so urgent to generate a transition. Meanwhile, small-scale producers are challenged to further improve their practices.

In short, the main obstacle is that the state must stop being at the service of national elites and transnational corporations who are owners of agribusiness and to start servicing a food production that generates national sovereignty, less environmental impact and better living conditions for those who produce the food. The challenge of social organizations and movements is to change the correlation of forces, amass the struggle to create conditions for change. —Latinamerica Press.


Martín Drago / José Elosegui
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