The Independent View: Feeding cars or people? The case for food sovereignty

Zero-carbon energy from plants might sound like a good idea. But that’s not the view of Luis Muchanga, a peasant leader from Mozambique, who spoke at a seminar on the global food crisis in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

Mozambique, Luis pointed out, ought to be well placed to feed its people, with 70% of the population living in rural areas and practising subsistence agriculture. In reality though, around 35% of families go hungry, as the government prioritises export agriculture. And an increasing proportion of this export production is devoted to feeding the appetite of the rich world’s cars and trucks, rather than meeting the needs of Mozambicans.

“Huge tracts of land are being granted to overseas companies to cultivate biofuels,” Luis told the meeting. “The people who lived and farmed there are forced out. Previously they could feed themselves but now they are left hungry.”

Luis leads an organisation, União Nacional de Camponeses (UNAC: the National Union of Peasant Farmers), which is part of a growing worldwide movement demanding a new model of food production known as “food sovereignty”, defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems”. People should have control over their food systems, whereas an emphasis on export projects such as Mozambique’s biofuels is only fuelling hunger.

War on Want published last week a report laying out the basic principles of food sovereignty. The report shows how the British government in particular has driven a free trade agenda at the international level, while pressing countries to remove social protections that would reduce suffering. Far from relieving hunger, the Department for International Development funds development of new crop technologies that deepen farmers’ reliance on companies’ seed and agrochemicals at ever greater prices, leading to hunger on an unprecedented scale.

The report was published as the UK and other nations held talks on the global food crisis at the recent UN food security committee in Rome. Unfortunately, while the world’s hungry number almost one billion, the committee failed to agree international guidelines on land governance. This leaves multinational companies free to buy up swathes of land inAfrica andAsia, often at local people’s expense.

The British government’s approach to world hunger is based on a model known as “food security”. It relegates the issue of hunger to a social welfare problem that can be resolved by simply handing out more food, while leaving world food systems at the mercy of free markets. As a result it fails to address any of the structural problems behind hunger. Indeed, by relying on inherently unstable commodity markets and filling the gaps with charity, the approach fosters extreme insecurity.

War on Want supports the call of campaigners like Luis for food sovereignty, which offers a real solution to the problem of hunger. It requires agrarian reform in favour of small producers and the landless, and the reorganisation of global food trade to prioritise local markets and self-sufficiency. This model also demands tougher curbs on global food chain firms, like supermarkets, and the democratisation of international financial institutions. Sadly, the government’s infatuation with big business is taking precedence over the rights of undernourished people.

* Greg Muttitt is Campaigns & Policy Director, War on Want.

War on Want’s report, Food Sovereignty: Reclaiming the Food System, can be downloaded at

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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  • Adam Corlett 24th Oct '11 - 11:11am

    Doesn’t subsistence agriculture sound fun?!

    While some biofuels are certainly a bad idea, and there are indeed plenty of problems with the global food market, I hope Greg agrees that – in addition to tackling those issues – Mozambique, and everyone else, needs to get more food out of less land using fewer people.

  • I’ve never understood the enthusiasm for bio-fuels (unless they are created only by using waste that would otherwise be discarded).

    It was surely obvious to anyone with an ounce of common sense that growing crops specifically for fuel would lead to deforestation and to land that had been used for food being given over to fuel crops instead.

  • Excellent article.

    Since Bretton Woods multinational corporations have used the IMF, World Bank, WTO etc as a Trojan horse for their globalisation agenda, often to the social and economic detriment of indigenous populations.

    When even figures such as Joseph Stiglitz have openly criticised the systems of the international financial institutions, then we must consider it time for a change in approach.

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