RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

The New Food Sovereignty Prize Emerges

Back in July, at about the time that illegal GMO wheat was discovered in Oregon, destroying US wheat markets and jittering consumers, the World Food Prize committee announced their three winners. If anyone’s ever suspected that rich prizes like this consist of corporate flaks patting the backs of other corporate flaks, the announcement was confirmation. The winners, Drs. Marc Van Montagu, Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T. Fraley, will be back slapped for “breakthrough achievements in founding, developing and applying modern agricultural biotechnology.”

In the rather breathless announcement (revolutionary! Achievements! Discoveries! Innovation!), biotechnology was credited with “improved yields, resistance to insects and disease, and the ability to tolerate extreme variations in climate.” Putting aside criticisms of these claims, and there are plenty of challenges, we can remark that a close search of the document did NOT credit biotechnology with weeds that cannot be killed with ordinary doses of herbicide, crops that are being proven dangerous to mammal health and farmers that can’t pay their seed bills and sometimes resort to suicide.

The corporates also rolled out their usual mantras that biotechnology will feed nine billion hungry mouths in an increasingly volatile world climate. Then they drove stakes through the hearts of the words “sustainability” and “food security,” reminding us that “a wide variety of useful genes have been transformed into a large number of economically important plants, including most of the food crops, scores of varieties of fruits and vegetables, and many tree species ...”

This chilling information, flying in the face of many studies that prove food security is best achieved by producers in their own communities, working with familiar crops in their native ecosystems, has been repeated in ads and press releases until consumers begin to think it’s normal. “Oh, yes,” the loving mom is supposed to believe, “this apple won’t turn brown, so it will always be fresh.” For industry, a non-browning apple means indefinitely long, nutrition-sapping storage, but for Mom, generations from the farm, it’s supposed to make sense.

But there are alternatives. There are farmers working in their own communities to save old foodways and familiar traditions. And, for them, an alternative to the World Food Prize has emerged.

A few weeks after the World Food Prize was ballyhooed, a poorly-funded but honorable contender emerged, the Food Sovereignty Prize. For this prize, five groups were chosen from a field of 40. The nominees come from 21 nations, working at home to feed their own peoples. The prizes go to grassroots organizations in Haiti, Brazil, Basque Country, Mali and India. This is the fifth year for the awards.

The Food Sovereignty Alliance gave top honors to the Haitian Group of 4 (G4) and the South American Dessalines Brigade. These groups of peasants are working to rebuild Haiti’s traditional food system, which has been dismantled mostly by the importation of cheap rice into the island nation. Rebuilding seed banks, soil and water systems, not to mention the farm culture itself, is a daunting task, but studies from several organizations including IAASTD, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, sponsored by the UN and the World Bank, agree that local peasant agriculture is the best way to feed people.

The definition of food sovereignty, developed by IAASTD, is straightforward and reasonable: “the right of peoples and sovereign states to democratically determine their own agricultural and food policies.”

One of the Honorable Mentions for the prize goes to Basque Country Peasants’ Solidarity in Europe’s contested Basque country. With 6,000 members, the group helps youngsters return to the farms and helps cities reclaim their right to local foods. Interestingly, the area has survived Europe’s financial crisis more easily than much of Europe proving that when people can raise their own food, they eat better for less money.

Other winners are the National Coordination of Peasant Organizations in Mali and the Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective in India. Tamil Nadu is particularly interesting for its focus on women, the traditional farmers in indigenous groups. This collective works with the lowest casts, the most marginalized producers, emphasizing their right to land and opposing GMO seeds. They encourage cultivation of millet, a familiar, traditional grain that is drought-resistant and easy to grow in their ecosystem.

The Alliance has arranged for representatives of all the winners to come to New York City on Oct. 15, and awards will be presented at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. The ceremony will be hosted by WhyHunger and feature Shirley Sherrod, a former USDA regional director and advocate for family farmers. After the ceremony, winners will tour farmland in Iowa and visit Detroit, on a tour Oct. 16-21. Progressive Populist columnist Jim Hightower will be the speaker at events in Iowa on Oct. 16. And, if you are so inclined, you can follow the buildup on Twitter at #foodsovprize.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at Email:

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2013

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