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Share The World's Resources attend the ‘World Food Summit’ in Rome, November 2009

01 December 2009

Between 13-17 November 2009, representatives of Share The World’s Resources attended a Civil Society Organisation’s Forum parallel to the World Food Summit in Rome.


Convened by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and a select group of non-governmental organisations, the Civil Society Forum – under the banner ‘People’s Food Sovereignty Now!’ - brought together a colourful array of farmers from the Global North and South, fisher folk, indigenous people, youth representatives, environmental bodies, and international and national civil society groups. The forum, held in a disused abattoir and cultural space in the Testacchio region of Rome, aimed to facilitate the creation of a set of policies from an ‘on-the ground’ perspective that national governments should take to alleviate world hunger.

At both the governmental World Food Summit and the parallel Civil Society Forum, STWR worked with the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy to raise awareness and mobilise support on the issue of global food reserves, and to communicate letters, press releases and briefing papers to delegations, UN staff members, media outlets and the participants of other NGOs. STWR’s envoys built networks and alliances with a number of organisations, including the Asian Farmers Association – representing ten million farmers in Asian countries; ROPPA from West Africa; Collectif Stratégies Alimentaires; and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter.

One of the central aims of the Forum was to develop the ‘Food Sovereignty’ concept by agreeing a set of cohesive policies amongst the diverse participants, and to build alliances between farmers’ groups, indigenous people and civil society.

According to its proponents, food sovereignty articulates a positive alternative to a food system that has removed control of agricultural production from local farmers and into the hands of powerful nation states and agribusiness corporations. The notion posits that agro-ecological farming methods, rather than industrial production, remain the most environmentally sustainable way to feed the world. Small-scale farming led by the concepts of food sovereignty has the ability to decrease hunger in both rural and urban areas, reduce poverty and sustainably manage agricultural resources, claim its advocates.

In an interview with STWR, Nettie Wiebe from the National Farmers Union of Canada stated that: “We brought in the new language of food sovereignty because we understood the problem to be political, not about production. This is about control and who gets to decide how water, land and markets are allocated and organised. If we can’t wrest control of these food-producing resources from the corporate sector we will not resolve the hunger problem.”

In four working groups during the conference, representatives explored key themes under the headings ‘who controls decisions about food?’, ‘who controls food producing resources?’, ‘how is food produced?’ and ‘who has/or needs access to food?’. Many of the participants articulated experiencing similar problems on the ground. A major issue for farmers from developing countries was the loss of critical access to land and water, either by over-zealous national governments or via foreign investors through ‘land grabbing’ deals. Other participants agreed that decades of government underinvestment in agriculture coupled with market liberalisation policies have resulted in low productivity and poverty in rural areas.   

Critics argue that at intergovernmental events such as the World Food Summit, many delegations - often lobbied heavily by business representatives - take undemocratic policy decisions that can affect millions of small-scale farmers and food insecure people. Smaller producers, landless labourers and marginalised fisherfolk representing the majority of the world’s food producers as well as around 80 percent of the world’s hungry people, state that governments and the UN largely exclude them from decision-making in food and agriculture policies. In objection to this lack of inclusion and forced land removals, the international food sovereignty movement La Via Campesina held a demonstration outside the fortified headquarters of the FAO, drawing international media attention.

Alongside disappointment at the multilateral process, many forum participants displayed frustration at the outcome of the Summit. Marco Contiero, head of EU policy at Greenpeace, told STWR that the final declaration was “another lost opportunity by world leaders,” and claimed that “instead of finally showing that they wanted to invest in solutions that address the real causes of the problem, they continued with business as usual; promoting industrial production, trade liberalisation, and technologies like chemicals and genetic engineering."

“If you have a system where over 1 billion are hungry and around 1.6 billion people are obese, we can see clearly that the system doesn’t work,” Contiero added.

Attempting to synthesise the diverse views of the representatives at the forum, the final civil society declaration represented a comprehensive ‘catch-all’ document. Some of the positive positions put forward include support for a renewed Committee on World Food Security under the FAO, which would incorporate a voice from developing countries as well as civil society participants in decision-making. Further to its position on global governance, the document strongly supports ecological food provision as a method to feed people in urban and rural areas and to mitigate global warming. To promote these aims, the declaration calls on governments to implement the findings of the seminal UN-led and peer reviewed IAASTD report.

Other positions include a demand to end ‘land grabbing’ by representatives of transnational capital, and an insistence that governments allow greater community control of natural resources. The participants also called upon governments to promote equity in decision-making and food production for women, and a demand to incorporate indigenous rights into national policy and legal systems.

Proponents of food sovereignty will continue to mobilise support for the concept and to develop common policy and campaign positions through La Via Campesina and the Food Sovereignty International Planning Committee (IPC). The next international meeting of governments that could affect food and agriculture policies for many of the world’s poor and hungry will be the Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Geneva from 30th November–2nd December 2009.



Annex - Interviews with STWR

Interview with Marco Contiero, EU Policy Director, Greenpeace.

What are your thoughts on the outcome of the World Summit on Food Security?

“This was another lost opportunity by world leaders, because instead of showing a serious commitment to invest in solutions that address the real causes of the problem, they continued with business as usual; promoting industrial production, trade liberalisation, and technologies like chemicals and genetic engineering. If you have a system where 1 billion people are hungry and 1.6 billion people are obese, we can see clearly that the system does not work.

“Olivier de Schutter [UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food] in the report released prior to the Summit said that in all aspects of the system there are flaws, economically, socially and environmentally. To address this, governments should have called for an entire paradigm shift in the food system.

“One key issue is sustainability, and the framing of sustainability. The right question  is not how to feed the world in 2050, but how can we feed people and protect our natural resources forever. This requires a complete reassessment of the way that we produce food; such as using much less fertilisers, not using herbicides or pesticides, and not using monoculture or genetically engineered plants that have been designed for industrial production systems and require them to be profitable. None of this is referenced at all in the text.  We found the outcome document is purely rhetorical in terms of sustainability.

“The only slightly positive aspect is that governments did stress or recognise that the right to food should be part of any reform or policy assessment moving forward.

Did you have high expectations before coming to the World Summit on Food Security?

“No. I didn’t expect more. Especially after all the recent conferences, meetings and initiatives that have been created, for example the High Level Task Force, the high level conference in Madrid and the FAO high level panel on how to feed the world in 2050. In these conferences and meetings many issues have been raised and raised again with little follow-up action.

“The other thing that is lacking from all of the main players involved is the lack of real monetary commitment. The Pope even stressed that there are no firm commitments; Jacques Diouf stressed the same thing.

Why do you think the outcome document of the Summit was so weak?

“I recognise that a number of specific governments are driven by the huge commercial interests of international companies. Many governments will not risk these established businesses, so they prefer to simply draw up nice quotations about smallholders and hungry people without any real political or financial commitments.

What are your thoughts on the civil society forum?

“It is great to have the chance to hear groups with different views, structures, and ideas because all of these organisations and individuals ultimately have the same objectives; to promote the right to food and protect production and poor peoples’ livelihoods. Despite this fact, it has been difficult to work together and coordinate our actions. The power of NGOs remains limited, which is why the final declaration at the Summit does not reflect our arguments and objectives. We know our power is limited, but by enhancing our cooperation, and understanding the other groups’ strengths and weaknesses, we can make sure our impact is strong and gets progressively more powerful.

What do you see as the way forward for the food sovereignty movement?

“One practical way forward is through the reform of the Committee on Food Security, since participation of civil society movements can be a central part of its function. The more we can work together the more our voice will be heard in this Committee. That is one way to align the work of all these different groups.

“Another way of moving forward is to have small scale, regional or joint work between groups. I hope this will happen. Such networking was developed in the ‘Alliances’ caucus of this forum. Even if there was no concrete statement put forward, each one of us recognised that there were a number of interesting proposals, which might come to fruition as a practical project. We need to wait a few weeks after the meeting to follow up on these, and to get in contact with other groups as well as to raise awareness.

“We are less strong in showing good examples - for instance, at illustrating the impact on people of unsustainable agricultural practice. We also need to give positive examples, such as communicating about the different sections that form La Via Campesina. Their work in Latin America is brilliant for us [at Greenpeace] because we can show the impact of sustainable agriculture on people.

Do you think food sovereignty is growing in influence?

“I think that the concept is becoming more and more accepted as well as understood in different fora. Until two years ago, many considered it a very political concept but I think it is now a basic principle upon which food and agriculture policy should be based. I am not saying it is already mainstream thinking but it is definitely becoming more established.

Do you think there are any limitations to the concept of food sovereignty?

“The main limitation is that it fundamentally challenges the WTO set of principles, and whether it will be possible to abandon that thinking at the international level seems extremely difficult. It doesn’t mean we need to question the concept wholesale or suggest that there is no future for food sovereignty. There are other important aspects. Take the Right to Food, this framework still needs to be implemented and to become one of the cornerstones of policy-making, which it is not at the moment. It needs to be reiterated even in this summit declaration.

What is your personal hope for the future of the civil society movement in food and agriculture?

“What I really hope for in the next two or three years is to debunk some of the myths about the impossibility to feed the world through sustainable agriculture practices, myths currently put forward by the US, as well as by the World Bank, the WTO and by many UN bodies and agencies. Our message needs to back up that sustainable agriculture is not just something that food activists think is possible, and I think that we can do it.

“To back our message, we need to show practical examples of successful research and development projects focusing on agroecological principles and other on-the-ground successes. We have already witnessed several success stories in terms of rising productivity to incredible levels. If we manage to communicate it widely in the next two or three years, then it will be a huge victory.

“Perceptions of sustainable agriculture are key. For the time being, if you speak to any government or financial institution their initial thought is to increase productivity through public and private partnerships. We believe that increasing productivity is a must, but the challenge is how to do it sustainibly. In any case the other huge part of the challenge is managing and distributing food equitably and eliminating poverty.

“To increase productivity, we are not against the use of technology. In fact we support technology, but production methods should be truly sustainable and protect local resources.”

Interview with Nettie Wiebe, National Farmers Union of Canada / La Via Campesina

Nettie Wiebe is a farmer in the Delisle, Sask., region of Canada and a professor of church and society at St. Andrews College in Saskatoon. She is also ex-President of the US National Farmers Union, and a representative/spokesperson for La Via Campesina since its inception in the early 1990s. Professor Wiebe was part of the drafting committee for the final declaration from social movements/NGOs/CSOs Parallel Forum to the World Food Summit on Food Security, Rome, November 13-17, 2009.

“In 1996 when they had the [World Food] Summit in Rome, La Via Campesina was relatively new but we were part of a big civil society forum then and we brought to the discussion this new language of food sovereignty. The main summit was talking about food security, but in terms of more intensive production. At that time the push for GMOs (genetically modified organisms) was front and centre of the negotiations. The US delegation was entirely focused on GM as a solution that would solve the world hunger problem. We brought in the new language of food sovereignty because we understood the problem to be political, not about production. This is about control and who gets to decide how access to land, water and markets is allocated and organised. If we can’t wrest control of these food producing resources from the corporate sector we will not resolve the hunger problem.

“In 2002, when we had the +5 Ministerial [World Food Summit: five years later in 2002] it was clearly going in the wrong direction, and now we’ve come here in 2009 and it’s more than a decade since governments undertook to halve the number of hungry people. So that’s the context in which we in La Via Campesina seek to reclaim the control of food resources from the clutches of large agribusiness and return it to small-scale producers and small fisher people around the world. It’s about the right of people and nations to produce their own basic foods that are culturally and ecologically appropriate for the regions, it’s about democratic and local control over food production, and it’s about much more nutritious food rather than this mass produced ‘stuff’ that people consume today.

“I wrote up the document last night, the final declaration, on behalf of 93 NGOs. Our voice from La Via Campesina is not the only one here, but what surprised me is that the language around food sovereignty has become accepted in people’s consciousness in a broad and deep way. Nobody in this conference got up and said ‘look people, the only way to feed the hungry in the world is through high-tech agriculture’.

How difficult was it to write the declaration?

“It was very difficult. It was a case of taking each of the consensus documents of the youth, the women, the indigenous people, the pastoralist people and the fisher people - each working group had to give us their resume, and then the four working groups each gave us their own working groups too so we had 10 documents that we had to make into one.

“People say this declaration doesn’t represent the richness of the discussions that have taken place because that would be a book, or maybe two. So it had to be a highlight of the key directions that we are supporting and some of the key criticisms.

Do you consider the civil society forum to have been a success?

“It’s always a success when you have people from across very diverse communities and regions and countries coming together to talk about their issues. I’ve been involved in this conversation for decades now, and there are many things you are not aware of in your own little world. The corporatisation of agriculture affects people in ways you don’t think of. The pastoralists got up in one session and said the big problem for us is the interruption of migratory routes. It wasn’t about territory for them, but the whole regional context. These insights broaden the possibility of what we do.

Do you have any frustrations with the movement for food sovereignty?

“We really notice in La Via Campesina that we are much more radical and much more forceful because we’re on the front line. It’s much harder for someone who isn’t farming themselves to feel as deeply and radically and urgently in calling a halt to the destruction of our food resources. That sense of urgency is what you feel when you talk to people after their rivers have dried up, or when they can no longer fish because their communities are flooded. I’ve been to North Africa where floods have destroyed entire regions, and the experience of seeing what this does to local food systems can be radical and profound.

Is there a difference of understanding between La Via Campesina members in the developed and the developing world?

“Within La Via Campesina, the differences of understanding are remarkably small. We have altogether different modes of production. I’ve got modern equipment for my farm in Canada, and I’m here conversing with women whose only equipment is their hoe. But when we actually talk about our social and real situation and the forces that are undermining the control over our local food resources, our understanding of the problems is remarkably similar.

Would you say that Via Campesina as a movement is growing in strength and influence?

“Yes. We continue to gather in our impact and influence. There are many countries that already have food sovereignty in their constitution [eg. Ecuador, Venezuala, Bolivia]. Yes. But are we gaining it sufficient enough to change the global situation? Clearly not.

What changes to the food system do you think will happen in the near future?

“There is a broader awareness now of what’s going on. After the financial crisis, people think... yikes, it comes from places where I have no control over price. They can hike the price up by two or three times my meal! The food crisis and then the financial crisis has put some of these global corporate mechanisms under a spotlight. We have a couple of footnotes now that that say actually in food a lot that’s global and large-scale is not such a good idea. The more people understand, the more that people will join with us and start growing food that is more local, nutritional, and good to the earth. And have done with this lunch that’s travelled 300 km in bad packaging. That’s the situation that’s going on. And climate change: I’ve talked about the financial crisis, but climate change is another one of these moments where people are asking themselves ‘why are we feeding international markets when we’re struggling in Ontario to grow the same food to feed ourselves? Why are we doing this? Why does this make sense?

What can we do as individuals?

“Individually you start to become conscious of what you eat, but this is not just about individual decisions. People demanding apples from New Zealand - that’s not shoppers that demand that. It takes collective action; it takes the strengthened and united aim of peoples’ organisations. I’m under no illusions about how big this is. I’ve been an organiser and a farmer for many decades, and I know it’s a huge change that’s needed. We won’t change the way we eat unless until we think about the way we produce our food, and our relationship to food is ultimately about our relationship to each other. People do not sit and enjoy the company of each other with food, because it’s handed through the window and into your car and away you go. But more and more people are looking for local produce now, farmers markets are growing across Canada, and that demand has come not only from farmers but also the people who eat this produce. I’m always amazed at farmers’ markets at how much conversation there is. Farmers know everyone who comes to eat at their stalls. It’s all related.

What are your thoughts on the World Summit on Food Security?

“It’s not surprising to me that a lot of governments are hostage to a powerful corporate agenda, that doesn’t surprise me. We’re in Canada where we have lots of resources and our government is entirely in league with transnational interests. They’ve led that ideology... you get bigger or you have to get out. That’s where the corporate sector’s at. But I’m always hopeful about the potential and the life force of people who work in solidarity and protect life. I’m hopeful that there’s a much more powerful force than money in the bigger scheme of things. I’m not despairing. I garden! We only have one earth, and this earth is full of life and wonder... that’s why the gardening, for me, is a source of hope and possibility. I garden in a difficult situation, dry land gardening in Wisconsin working land prairies.

Are you personally optimistic about the future of farming?

“I’m not optimistic, I’m hopeful. I make a distinction there. I work in this sector and I’ve farmed for many years, and I grew up in a farm. Optimism is based on trend lines, and when I look at these they’re all going the wrong way. The hunger trend line, the displacement of people, the destruction of rural livelihoods and the earth – we are still going the wrong way. But in the face of that there’s the imagined possibility of a reality that’s profoundly better. The gardening always reminds me of what’s possible, and that you can’t really expect or produce these changes – that it’s a life force. It’s not hard to be hopeful if you have an imagination and if you work in solidarity.

Can you give any predictions for the near future?

“This is a dire prediction but I think food will become a known danger to people...  that’s already happening. I think we’ll have more and more of these industrial food scares, and every time we have one of those it’s like a poster of the danger connected to industrial globalised production. In my mind, every time we have one of those it clarifies more clearly that fundamental change is needed, and that we are going to have to drastically re-order the food system and recapture the integration of culture and agriculture.

Interview with Magda Lanuza, Agribusiness Accountability Initiative, Nicaragua

What are your thoughts on the outcome of the World Food Summit?

“The Summit was good in some ways for an official UN gathering. Many officials travelled a long way to discuss and exchange ideas. However, when measured against people’s expectations, this was another failed UN opportunity. The official declaration appears to be just another document lacking clear commitments and without a defined process. Therefore, the efforts to eradicate hunger will continue to be disparate, underfunded and will not lead to the achievement of the Millennium Development goals. A declaration like the one that governments adopted indicates that politicians appear not to understand the challenges of the food crisis in our countries. In a few words, this Summit should have taken place in another place with another people, with the real participation of those people who are most affected by hunger and food insecurity.

Why did you attend the civil society forum on food sovereignty parallel to the World Food Summit?

“Many of the international ‘official’ events, including those at the UN, have lost their meaning. They are highly lobbied and are moved mainly by corporate interests rather than the ones of the people. Participation in the official Summits is often not possible, and even those NGOs with consultative status mainly act as observers. There is no interaction with the officials or anyone else. The UN should change this format as it does not work for anyone. I am with those from the many social organizations that have lost faith and hope in the outcomes of these summits. This is why I decided to go to the parallel event. We travelled from so far to meet people, to talk, to discuss, to exchange ideas, to plan actions and embrace hope for a better world with people having enough to eat every day.

Do you think the Forum in Rome was a success?

“It was successful in the way that people from all over the world met and exchanged experiences and information on the different efforts that all of us are doing to face the food crisis on the ground. It was also successful in the way that food sovereignty is expanding into its concept and reaching out to more people and more constituencies. The limitations are clear when there is no contact with the officials at the Summit, and when they did not even know of the parallel event.

“Ultimately, the CSO forum seemed to be so far in terms of distance but also in the agenda. There was very little media interest in the CSO forum. Another limitation was the complicated process to register and to get accurate information on what was happening. There were no clear goals set for organizations and movements to work jointly towards specific targets. For example, a demonstration was organized in front of the FAO and this event was not advertised inside the Forum, only a small group of people actually went there, and the rest we heard from the news. Its impact on the official event was probably very small.

Do you see any limitations to the concept / movement for food sovereignty?

“The food sovereignty concept has clarity in terms of its implications for a family, a community and for a nation. However, there remain many questions in terms of how to build it as a force. One of the points is that there must be a discussion of what kind of political system is needed and how to reinforce it. In terms of the food sovereignty movement, there is much to discuss and there is a lot to build in terms of political alliances. Food sovereignty is not just something related to the farmers who produce food, it is about consumers too, and many other sectors such as church people. Food sovereignty is a way forward, and we are just discussing the beginning.

What do you see as the future for food sovereignty as a concept or movement? What are your personal hopes?

“I do not have hopes, but I believe that people, communities and nations will recover the capacity to produce food, and feed their own people.  I believe that this commitment has to start from the people themselves, and one day, they will elect leaders that understand and support food sovereignty as a priority to gain the right to food.

Do you have any further thoughts / reflections about the future direction of food and agriculture following your attendance in Rome?

“The most important thing is that when we go back to our communities and to our countries, we will continue doing our work. We will continue networking with others and planning for the future of our people.”

Further Resources

STWR Press Release: Call for Leadership on Food Reserves at World Food Summit

Letter on Food Reserves to Government Delegations at the World Food Summit

STWR Briefing Paper: Global Food Reserves: Framing the Context for a New Multilateralism

Civil Society Organisations Parallel Forum Website

Final Declaration of the Parallel Civil Society Forum

Video of the Civil Society Press Conference at the World Food Summit, Iran Room, FAO

Filed under: 
Poverty and hunger