Regaining control of food systems – CIDSE

Regaining control of food systems

CIDSE held a workshop exploring synergies with food producers, social movements, civil society organisations and its member organizations

The workshop was dedicated to food sovereignty strategies for the democratization of food systems and was held by CIDSE last March (17-18 March). People from different backgrounds came together to discuss three pillars which sustain food sovereignty: the right to land, access to markets, and the right to seeds.

Thanks to a process of sharing and debating, concrete opportunities for collaboration were identified. The experience brought to the workshop by participants; both CIDSE members and partners, was extremely valuable and helped tackle the issues from different points of view. Since the experience shared on each topic was presented from local/national and also from regional/international perspectives, this led to insights and opportunities at local, national and international levels for processes on the ground and for advocacy.

For each thematic area, after a group discussion some points for potential common actions were identified; you can read them at the end of the article.

The participants:
Among the participants, CIDSE was happy to welcome to Brussels representatives from the following member organisations’: Boederlijk Delen (Belgium), Entraide et Fraternite’ (Belgium), CCFD Terre Solidaire (France), Misereor (Germany), FOCSIV (Italy), Cordaid (Netherlands), FEC (Portugal), Manos Unidas (Spain), Fastenopfer (Switzerland), and CAFOD (United Kingdom). Also essential to the success of the exchange was the presence of several partners and allies at national and international levels. Among the regional and international organisations present were: Urgenci, Via Campesina, FIMARC, Peoples Coalition’s on Food Sovereignty, INADES (Africa) and GRAIN. Country partners included Grupo semillas (Colombia), RESDAG (Guatemala), Masipag and Sumpay (Philippines), Papda (Haiti), Centro Humboldt (Nicaragua) and Jinukun-Copagen (Benin).

Right to land
Land and territories form the backbone of the identities of rural communities and indigenous people, and are a source of well-being. Yet land is being taken away from communities and concentrated in fewer and fewer hands at an alarming pace. We are currently experiencing a new wave of land grabs and land concentration globally, not just in the South. Fertile farmland is often converted to non-agricultural uses and export-oriented commercial plantations that grow agro-fuels instead of food. Control over land is being usurped from small producers and their families, with elites and corporate powers squeezing people onto smaller and smaller land holdings. These processes are facilitated by legislative changes concerning agricultural land and are often accompanied by growing militarization, violence against peasants and criminalization of social movements and land rights defenders.

A presentation by our member Fastenopfer (FO) describes the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (RDC), where local communities are being deprived of their land for mining projects without adequate compensation, and where many land conflicts take place between local communities and companies; land conflicts make up 70% of all cases in courts in DRC. One fundamental issue is that the legal conception of land as property is in conflict with local communities’ concepts. The legal status of local community land is not clearly defined and land use rights have not been considered since 1973. Borders of local community lands are not defined. Land issues have therefore been set by Fastenopfer as a country focus, and actions have been carried out to accelerate land reform. FO also mobilizes itself in support of farmers’ solidarity networks, and aims through its activities to provide information and awareness-raising amongst partner organisations and their project stakeholders on land issues in relation to food security, food sovereignty and land grabbing.

In addition to this presentation we had the chance to listen to Francis Ngang (from Inades) who highlighted the challenges related to land that are being faced at a national level (Ivory Coast), while Hanny van Geel and Andrea Ferrante (from Via Campesina) put emphasis on the European and international context. In addition, Gisele Henriques (CAFOD) and Maureen Jorand (CCFD) shared their experience related to the development of the Voluntary guidelines on the Governance Tenure within the Committee on World Food Security.

Access to markets
Food corporations have continually been taking over larger proportions of the food system, with major implications for the entire food chain. Food prices are established in relation to global markets prices. Due to the commodification of food, the high dependence of industrial agriculture on fossil fuels and the recent boom in agro fuel production, international food markets are facing increasing speculation and price volatility. Developing markets have been largely ignored in favour of larger enterprises, while the smallholder sector, which mainly produces for the domestic market, has been neglected.

During the workshop a representative from GRAIN illustrated some of the problems related to the increase of big distribution surfaces in Asia, the continent which has been the biggest target for multinational food retailers. Corporate supermarkets in Asia are growing faster than anywhere else in the world, and this poses a direct threat to the livelihoods of people. Big retailers capture an increasing share of the national expenditure on food, leaving the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on selling their produce at fresh markets and small retail shops, with less overall revenue. Supermarkets also play a big role in changing food consumption patterns toward more meats or fats, dairy products, and sugary foods mostly from packaged foods. Supermarkets or corporate retailers are gaining more and more control of the food chain, from production to distribution to consumption, with huge cultural and health impacts. The current global food distribution system is unsustainable and threatens small farmers, home food artisans, local food markets, and consumers. There is still relatively little concern about food distribution chains, and it is not yet seen as a priority in the agenda of civil society. GRAIN is pushing for people’s control over food and farming in Asia, an issue that is still not considered seriously or widely and therefore the first step undertaken is to raise awareness through publications and workshops.
We also had the chance to attend a presentation by Chito Medina (Masipag) on building markets for food sovereignty. Margarida Alvim (FEC) presented FEC’s experience in developing projects to improve access to markets for local producers in Portugal.

Right to seeds
Control of seeds leads to control of farmers and their production systems, the land and ultimately the entire food system. Through modern breeding methods along with privatisation of seeds and restrictive seed laws that criminalise seed saving, agro transnational companies have rapidly gained monopolistic control of agriculture in the name of addressing global food insecurity. We have reached an alarming situation where 75% of our food now comes from just 12 plant and five animal species. Without the seed diversity developed by traditional farming systems over generations, agriculture across the planet will struggle to adapt to climate change.

A representative from the Grupo Semillas NGO presented their work on Colombia. Grupo Semillas operates in an environment that has seen a progressive loss of seeds, a lower and lower recognition of the value of traditional agricultural practices, and a degradation of the quality of life in rural communities. They oppose the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants that is putting property right on plants, and that stops local farmers from using other non patented seeds and therefore limits their independence.  Among their activities, Grupo Semillas carried out awareness actions around the topic of seed privatisation, the preservation of indigenous seeds, and more about biodiversity. Grupo Semillas mainly works with Indigenous communities and small farmers and aims at providing them with theoretical and practical knowledge and skills to live independently. Prior to that presentation Peter Ton (Cordaid) presented the issue of seeds in fragile areas and René Segbenou (Copagen) talked about seed sovereignty.

Thanks to the sharing environment created in the two days of workshop, we had some fruitful discussions and at the same time have learned a lot of lessons for the future. Moreover, we’ve acknowledge one more time the important role CIDSE can play in creating a space where different stakeholders can meet, understand each other’s differences and constraints, develop a shared understanding of opportunities and challenges and explore areas for complementary work forging common campaigns beyond traditional financial relationships. Certainly, by listening to the first hand experiences of partners who are at the forefront of resistance and are working in the field to build alternatives, this workshop has enabled us to move forward in the process of shifting our work methods in CIDSE and in its member organizations. This will be for example pursued by more closely linking our advocacy work with the programs carried out in the South, by building stronger ties and collaborations with partners and allies, and by establishing strong relationships with social movements.
The workshop has built solid bonds between our members, us in the CIDSE secretariat, and our partners and allies. We have left the workshop with a better appreciation for each other’s work. We have also realised the great potential that exists for us to contribute in building a movement for change. We are looking forward to stronger and more concrete partnerships in the near future.

Pictures from the workshop are available on Flickr here.


Action points- Right to land:
• Criminalization: establish a mechanism for quick action needed to protect the land rights activists who are under threat
• Invest in movement building to build social power in order to confront powerful interest groups (making available flexible funds to support this process)
• Note the need to link what’s happening on the ground with international processes and to develop common advocacy strategies at local, national and international levels
• Link Business and Human rights to Foreign Direct Investment as one way to synergize lobbying work both in the North and in the South
• Pursue a mandatory international agreement/treaty regulating multinational companies
• Look at the bigger issue of the commons and indigenous concept of Pachamama to challenge anthropocentric views of the earth
• Disseminating the results of international negotiations to local CSOs (e.g. democratic space gained at CFS for better participation of CSOs in international policy discussion, VGGT)
• Link people who are not organized and are unaware on land issues to those who are aware in order to expand the movement of land rights activists

Action points- Access to markets:
• Seize opportunities to integrate millions of street and fresh market vendors into the Food Sovereignty movement and investing in movement building in this sector
• Utilize the significant negative health impacts (diabetis and obesity) of corporate controlled food distribution system for sensitizing the general public
• Continue to scale up the building of alternative markets (community supported agriculture, food belts, urban agriculture), facilitating direct links between producers and consumers, and shortening the food chain
• Emphasise the importance of engaging in/promoting diversification in order to strengthen the resilience of farmer’s incomes and increase the participation of women
• Emphasise the importance of having organized groups of farmers in order to enable group marketing
• Emphasise the importance of linking with local governments to strengthen local markets as part of building critical mass against corporate controlled market systems
• Emphasise the importance of a participatory guarantee system (if truly controlled by farmers)
• Develop a global campaign connecting northern and southern struggles of resistance and building alternatives considering the shared experience of corporate market monopoly (linking local to national and international processes)
• Involve the youth
• Challenge bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements which strengthen big companies market monopoly
• Adopt an integrated approach: by regaining control of seeds and farming technology which reduces dependence on external inputs and frees farmers from indebtedness that in turn strengthen farmers ability to engage in cooperative marketing

Action points- Right to seeds:
• Link campaigns both in the north and south that are challenging seed patents and laws that criminalize seed saving and seed exchanges, and building on successful and growing resistance at national level
• Provide legal and lobbying assistance to farmers who are criminalized for asserting their rights to save and freely exchange seeds
• Engage in a coordinated campaign challenging free trade agreements that pressures southern governments into adopting corporate seed laws (UPOV 91)
• Promote agro-ecology
• Scale up and link on-going efforts by farmers organizations to conserve land races (seed guardians, libraries, seed fairs and exchanges)
• Scale up GM-free zones established by local communities together with their local governments
• Exchange farmers experiences and scale up undertakings in seeds selection, improvement and breeding that are meeting diverse needs of farmers
• Expose and challenge the use of emergency/crisis situations to release/promote GM seeds
• Facilitate exchange of experience between Asian and Latin American farmers with African farmers, on the ill-effects of the Green Revolution
• Conduct sound analysis of what remains after a disaster – in order to not damage local initiatives – with the aim of limiting seed aid for real emergencies and to couple it with efforts to immediately regenerate diverse local seeds after a disaster or crisis situation
• Invest in seed system security assessments and build its resilience against shocks


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