“Those without money eat poorly or don’t eat at all”
Interview with Chilean agronomist Camila Montecinos
The destruction of small-scale agriculture and deteriorating nutrition in Chile has sparked campesino movements around the world. Grain, a non-profit organization based in Barcelona, that for years has fought for more just and sustainable food systems for the peasant farmers, won the Right Livelihood Award 2011 — often called the Alternative Nobel Prize — for its working protecting campesino rights.
Latinamerica Press correspondent Rocío Alorda spoke with Chilean agronomist Camila Montecinos, a member of Grain who coordinates with the organization’s Latin American counterparts to help implement its programs in the region.
How does Grain view the food situation in Latin America?
What stands out in Latin America today is the adoption of this nearly unrestricted adoption of the agro-export system in which we’re exporting a very significant part of our agricultural products that are not even for consumption. There are signs that the nutrition of the Latin American people has been deteriorating as a result of this agro-export model. For example, the fact that the legume production, such as beans, lentils, chick peas, has been steady declining. Chile has seen one of the most abrupt declines. Today, it produces one-third of the beans it did 30 years ago.
There are clear signs that the quality of people’s diets has deteriorated. Social differences reflect more clearly than ever in people’s diets. What rich people eat is probably nothing like what the majority of the people eat.
So there is a food model based on exports that endangers the diets of people living in food-producing nations?
Indeed, and Chile is an extreme case. Chile exports around 80 percent of the value of its farm products and has to import more and more. In fact, if we compare Chile’s balance sheet compared with the rest of the Southern Cone, it is an absolute deficit because from Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, [Chile] is importing meat, wheat, corn, soy and many vegetables. We stopped producing fresh meat. We’re eating a much less balanced diet than we used to. Since our production is down, we are eating worse food, and that is what the big food processors and supermarket chains can control.
Is it fair to say that the right to food is under threat in Latin America?
I think that nowhere in Latin America, except for Cuba, is the right to food respected. Today, food is managed strictly by the market and the person who doesn’t have any money eats poorly or doesn’t eat at all. That’s a general rule. Now what’s happening is that we are increasingly dependent on companies. For example, 30 or 40 years ago, the open-air markets were much more powerful. What is known today as informal commerce was more prevalent and all of the processes of modernization of the supposed rights of the consumer such as the meat classification, prohibition of selling raw milk in markets, the only thing that does is to push the food business into the hands of big markets. Before, if you didn’t have access to something, you could find people who sold food in baskets along the road. Those sources of fresh food almost don’t exist anymore. So to find alternative food sources is more difficult because the control of the big food industry is enormous. Supermarkets sell an estimated 65 to 75 percent of the world’s food, so if you want an alternative it is very difficult because they’re trying to make it illegal [to sell food outside of traditional retail outlets].
Where do the concepts of food sovereignty and security fit in here?
The concept of food security is what rules from an official policy standpoint, which is what the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] put forth in 1996. The concept existed in the FAO from the 1970s, but at that moment they defined it as “the right to food.” The problem with that concept is that it considered there was optimal food for the whole world and it didn’t matter how it was accessed. In 1996, under the influence of neoliberal policies, the FAO defined it as the right to obtain food through markets. That was when the CLOC [Latin American Rural Organizations’ Coordinating Group] and the international organization Vía Campesina said that there couldn’t be that a right to food can be guaranteed by the market, so they introduced the concept of “food sovereignty,” and they say that the issue is not only the right to food, but that it is about the process: the farming methods, the way it is distributed and sold, regulated, eaten, prepared.
Additionally, each people define what is the proper food from their experience and perspective. One of the most significant things about food sovereignty is that the CLOC and Vía Campesina say that ‘this is the concept of the people.’ The development of the concept of food sovereignty was one of the first steps in breaking away from the single line of thought that there was at that time, and allowed many people to start fresh outside of neoliberal ideology.
What are the principal changes that are necessary to achieve more just and sustainable food models?
There are certain things that have to be present no matter what, but how they will rank in importance depends on each people and each community. One thing is that how food is produced, sold and distributed needs to be decentralized. When you have one party controlling an important and crucial part of the food system, sovereignty is lost and it weakens the system. When people talk about food sovereignty, that it is in the hands of the people — not the government, not the market — is a point of emphasis.
The second element is that it has to be diverse because we need a diverse diet. If you produce that way, the chances of production failure are much less and it allows for greater health control, making agrotoxins unnecessary.
But food is a not a biological issue. It’s more cultural. Now, you can’t speak about food without thinking about seeds. So today, defending seeds is a fundamental part of food sovereignty. I think … there should be a food justice system.
There is some resistance against the current system from the campesino movements. How would you describe this?
It’s important to say that this resistance is important and not to underestimate it. If looked at it globally, campesinos hold 20 percent to 25 percent of the land and everything has shown that it is poor land. But, there are many forms of resistance. Vía Campesina launched a seed preservation program, which has become a generalized issue. There are many people working now to preserve seeds. The second element is that peasant farmers keep planting, above all vegetables. Then there are some small-scale farmers who continue to maintain production of wheat, potatoes. The situation in Chile is more precarious because of our history, compared with other countries.
For example, in Ecuador the actions are much more articulated. There, the government’s food policy gives preference to peasant farmer production to supply all of the social services, which was the result of strong, grassroots pressure. Many campesino organizations know they have to get the word out quickly because if not, there will be little advancement in [food] sovereignty and people will end up continuing to go to the supermarket.
Is it possible that we could have another food crisis like we had in 2007 and 2008, globally?
We have enough figures to say that crisis was caused by speculation. These companies had speculated on the prices causing the rise. It’s no coincidence that the big grain companies had record profits in 2007 and 2008. That business is in so few hands that what you see is a permanent increase in grains prices and the reason they do is again speculation. There is no real reason for prices to be going up. It’s a way of increasing profits and in doing so you leave 200 million people hungry.
The principle of food sovereignty is fundamental in fighting this. What you can’t forget is that these food companies are not producers. Even though they control part of the crops, they are basically purchasing and commercialization powers and essentially speculative.
The most unjust issue of the system is that even though there is still plenty of food, prices keep going up.
It’s because [the companies] say that we have to have genetically-modified food, and fertilizers and agrotoxins to produce more. We have plenty of food today, but the control of the market is in the hands of very few and those are speculators. Someone who produces effectively, if they produce a lot and for some reason save on costs, can lower prices because he or she is still making a significant amount. But if you are speculating, you can’t. Those processes don’t allow prices to go down because it would be a loss of profits. What we see, according to the data we have, is that we are going to have bigger and more intense food crises.
Making the food crisis worse is that the competition for farmland will become more pronounced because of the push for biofuels. One third of the arable land is part of large-scale farms and it looks like they’re expanding. Another issue is that the food industry is a very good business. That’s why you see this interest in buying large quantities of land to produce large quantities of grains like rice, wheat and corn.
You have companies with government support, trying to take over hundreds of thousands of hectares to produce, above all, rice at the moment, but also sugarcane. Some 10 companies control the international food trade, so we are seeing more control of the land, with the most dramatic result being the displacement of peasant farmers, many of whom are directly and even violently evicted from their lands.
These injustices will only come undone through resistance and sovereignty.