Small farmers, you are the future

This variety of products and resources contains natural solutions to the food problems caused by industrial approaches to agriculture: it is the best demonstration that the earth has the resources to feed itself. It shows that we do not need to lock ourselves into large-scale production which is unsustainable and low-quality or, even worse, rely on GMOs to solve the problems of world hunger.

“GMOs and chemical products are all the result of errors in the past and an overcentralized global system. Genetic engineering is not a solution to world hunger, simply because it does not look at local contexts. It ignores biodiversity and it doesn’t ask the right questions. And I’m sure this way of looking at things will create even bigger problems in the future. Agricultural chemicals are the true weapons of mass destruction, given that they have their origins in military research. I think that the food sector in rich countries follows an obese model. Not just because people eating industrial food produced on a global scale run greater risks of becoming obese. The model is obese from beginning to end, it reflects unbalanced giantism. It is undesirable for it to be so huge and, for example, have a single company controlling supplies of seeds to small farmers around the world. Monsanto produces 93% of genetically-modified seeds growing in the world. I think there is something wrong in five companies marketing all our food. These few enormous companies write the rules of economic activity according to their interests. These interests are destroying the planet, our health and the lives of small farmers.”

And here we should again stress that the central role of small farming cannot be ignored. For too long small farmers have counted for nothing: there needs to be a revival of pride, a strong sense of belonging to communities which in a way represent ‘human providence’. Small farmers today feel undervalued and disheartened, in many parts of the world they are desperate enough to commit suicide.

“Yes, that’s right. In Cancun, on September 10 last year, the first thing that happened at ten in the morning, was the tragedy of the Korean small farmer who committed suicide in front of the world. The WTO is literally killing small farmers, not just metaphorically: in India about 25,000 people working the land have committed suicide in recent years. They do not have the resources to buy seeds from multinational companies: they cost too much and wipe out their already meager financial resources. The pesticides and fertilizers needed to grow these seeds are prohibitively expensive. These facts should be enough to make people realize that biodiversity provides the security for small farmers to grow their own seeds which they themselves have selected at zero cost, without spending money on ‘weapons of mass destruction’. ”

The World Social Forum recently closed in Mumbai, India. It is a movement which originated in the protests and needs of small farmers around the world at the time of the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999. I now find that the Forum has become much more ‘urbanized’. How do you view it at present and in terms of the meeting we are organizing?

“I have stayed in the movement because it has got to a critical stage. I feel that its internal tensions are currently distracting from its common goal: there is always someone wanting to show they are more radical than the others and the movement is tending to crumble. This is beginning to give external observers a negative perception and could have adverse consequences: we have to stand firm on what has been achieved so we can move forward more decisively. The way the Terra Madre meeting is being organized with a strong focus on cultural issues—both at a basic level where traditional knowledge connected to food products is presented and at a ‘higher’ level where the valuable cultural diversity of different food-producing communities is evident—is something new. It is something created from the bottom up rather than being imposed from the top down: that too is fighting the current trend and lack of worldwide awareness. It will stimulate people close to the movement to reflect on issues. A cultural approach is a way of bringing people together, while a political approach unfortunately always generates divisions.”

First printed in La Stampa on January 6 2004

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