RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

We All Should Be Concerned About Food Sovereignty

Here in the US, with an estimated 40,000 items in the  grocery store, we are awash in foods from other places. The world is, you might say, our oyster. In fact, folks that insist we need our own food systems—from seed to plate — are marginalized. Look in any grocery store, we’re told, there’s food. Ditto for every restaurant, big box store,  gas station, office supply store, hey! Just look around! Everyone’s obese!

Not to argue the point, we can easily talk about other nations, where people are hungry and food security is an impossibility. Sad but true, this is often because US. policy has undermined food systems that nourished local people for generations.

Take Haiti, for example, where people have lived with food insecurity a good many years. Now, they’re working to re-learn the old traditions that kept them alive. In September, a Haitian group was honored with the Food Sovereignty Prize for their efforts to return their agricultural traditions to their island.

The Group of 4, as they are known, invited South American peasant leaders and agroecology experts to Haiti to rescue Creole seeds. Along with the Dessalines Brigade, they’ve refused thousands of pounds of Monsanto seeds, burning them when Monsanto dumped them back in 2010. That’s right. The folks that say they’re feeding billions of hungry mouths were rejected by the peasants they’re trying to trick.

The Haitian Food Sovereignty Prize winners, supported by peasant group La Via Campesina and too many US groups to name, sent representatives to the United States to accept their award and tour New York and Iowa, getting a sense of both the urban and rural cultures here. I was able to meet them in Des Moines, at a conference sponsored by the Des Moines chapter of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. What a great trip!

Until the 1980s, Haitians had their own thriving rice culture, an example of food sovereignty. They also grew their own vegetables, chickens and pork. Today, the Haitian government estimates that 52% of their food supply comes from abroad, compared to 20% back then.

We sold them only about 7,000 metric tons of rice in 1985. Then came a “free trade” agreement, under Ronald Reagan, requiring Haiti to lower trade restrictions for US rice. In 1986, US imports rose to 24,683 tons and in 1987, to 100,177 tons. Haitian farmers were out of business. Not coincidentally, 1986 ended with the expulsion of “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and the Haitian government sought loans from the International Monetary Fund.

Five years later, Haitians booted out the president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had promoted a populist agenda to empower the poor. When he returned (accompanied by 20,000 US Army troops), he was playing ball, big time, with the IMF. Go figure. Soon, Haiti’s tariffs were lowered on rice imports from 35% to 3%. In contrast, most Caribbean countries had a tariff of 25%. Haiti’s new tariff made it the Caribbean’s least trade-restrictive country. Here in Missouri, by the way, the swampy bootheel became a thriving center for rice culture.

As appalling as the story of Haiti’s rice culture is the story of the creole pig, described as “black” and “boisterous.” This pig’s grandparents had arrived in Haiti with the first slaves and become acclimated to the heat and vegetation of the island. A culture grew up around them, including not only festivals but traditions of marriage, health and even voodoo.

Just as American farmers called their productive swine “the mortgage lifter,” the Haitian hogs were sold to pay school tuition and medical expenses. But, again in the 1980s, US policy undermined the local culture. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Haitian government exterminated Haiti’s pigs, explaining that a disease in nearby Dominican Republic might spread to Haiti and then to the US.

To compensate farmers for the loss of their hardy swine, USAID sent Midwestern American hogs, which, of course, had no defenses against the unfamiliar climate and available foods from the island. Gone was the culture, the status, the festivals ... and the money to pay for schooling. Peasant kids that would have been learning to read and write were without the means to pay.

Scientists are today trying to re-invent the Creole pig, and groups like the G4 and Dessalines Brigade, along with their partners in other tropical nations, are trying to re-invent the rice culture. Having such traditions back will protect the food sovereignty — independence — of Haiti.

Here in the US, we are blissfully unaware of where our food comes from. Even FDA has lost count. They estimate that 20% of the total, including 35% of produce and 70% of seafood, are imported. At the same time, they admit their inspectors are swamped and only a small percentage is inspected on its way to markets.

Further confusion comes when you look at figures from the USDA, which is supposed to manage agricultural imports that also may become food. Beef, for example, may come into the US as cattle. Here, it may be processed into hamburger, tacos, canned stew, or any other beefy thing in the supermarket. Tomatoes come into this country as, well, tomatoes. Some are sold on the grocery store shelves and others are processed by factories.

We are heading into the holiday season, which may be for many folks the season of the most plenty and for others the most difficult, food security-wise. It’s hard for Americans to understand food sovereignty. After all, some of our favorites come from other places — coconuts, bananas, coffee, chocolate. Bananas are America’s favorite fruit and not one of the states (except maybe a little dab of Hawaii) has a banana plantation.

The holidays of abundance will be quickly followed by the holidays of renewal. This year, let’s resolve to rebuild our personal  food systems with local options.

The world will thank us.

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

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2013

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