Via Campesina started in 1993 as a political reaction to the incorporating of agriculture in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).  Now, 8 years later,  VC plays an active role in the international debate on food security and the necessity of food sovereignty. Aina Edelman explains one key component of its view of a just and sustainable world.


Despite the fact that  we produce more food than  needed to feed ourselves, 800 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition. What is even more unacceptable is that international organisations, such as the WTO, are creating structures and systems that further undermine our ability to solve the hunger problems in the future.


It is possible to eradicate hunger, but that requires fundamental changes in political and economic structures and in patterns of consumption. Today, the cause of hunger is unjust distribution, but in the future it will also be a huge challenge to produce enough food even if  fairly distributed. The Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Watch Institute now agree that there will be approximately 3 thousand million more people within the next 50 years.


Food shortage will be a problem in the future despite indications to the contrary in the form of surpluses of milk,  meat,  vegetables and almost all other agricultural products. Surpluses  in developed countries are caused by over-intensive production. This system can only be maintained by exhausting our own farmland, by massive import of protein from other continents, by an increased use of fossil fuels and by ignoring the most basic requirements of animal welfare.


We already see that exploitation of nature leads to stagnation and decline  in production. world grain production per person, while it is still increasing worldwide, has not, since 1984, compensated for the increase in world population. We have reached a ceiling in grain production per person. The reasons, apart from increased world population, are loss of farmland to non-farming uses and the deterioration of farmland  its quality due to erosion, irrigation and pollution. Grain production is a biological process and the harvest varies from year to year. But if we view the problem in the decades to come, grain production per person will decrease further.


The problem of reduced harvest is not only a problem related to grain. If we look at the total amount of fish caught per year, we see the same long-term  trend.  The ceiling was reached in 1988. The capacity of the world fishing fleet far exceeds the resources. This problem, combined with fishery policies that do not take proper care of fish stocks, leads to unsustainable fishing methods.


Both in agriculture and fisheries capital has replaced labour. In many countries there has been over-investment, which, in turn, has increased pressure for higher  returns to pay for the investments.


In a more globalised economy those investing in farming and fisheries can more easily escape without taking responsibility for their own actions.  When there is no more fish  or productive land, they move on to other parts of the world and they need not worry either about the environment or the consequences for local societies.


It is urgent to find new models where we combine new technology and science with  knowledge based on local experience and a ‘back to basics’ approach to sustainable production involving the replacement of monocultures by diversity and crop rotation, an increase in the use of local, renewable resources and a decrease in the use of fertilisers, fossil fuels, pesticides and imported animal feedstuffs.


Sustainable consumption – which is what our slogan is designed to promote – demands a reduction in the long distance food transport to lessen the use of fossil fuels and to minimise the risk of biological pollution. Staple food should be based on local, renewable resources. And we must stop feeding animals with products that can be consumed by human beings.


Today,  30% of the fish caught and almost 40%  of the grain produced globally is used to feed animals.. When  feeding  animals,  between 60% and 90% of the energy  in the feed vanishes.

This use of food resources can only happen because  food ”follows the money”. And the cruel  fact is that feeding Norwegian pigs and salmon is much more profitable than feeding hungry children in developing countries.


That is why Norway could buy top grade wheat from Sudan during the famine in 1995,  with the sole purpose of  reducing the cost of meat production. And that is why we continue to buy high quality  rice from Bangladesh and fish from Chile to feed our animals. And, after we have used Chilean fish in Norwegian fish farms, we export our salmon to India, an export which undermines the markets for local fishermen there.


What the local diet is, will vary, but the principle of eating locally will everywhere favour sustainable production and consumption. Even if we eat locally, we can have a wide variety of dishes. In Norway for instance, we can still cook dishes from India using imported spices, but raise our own lamb. Solidarity is to use every country’s ability to produce sustainable food.


Issues concerning sustainable production and consumption, are political issues that should be solved through political changes. On many of these issues there are joint interests between farmer and consumer, and it is necessary to use collective action.


The World Forum on Food Sovereignty held in Cuba in September 2001 made a number of proposals in this direction. The essence of these proposals, from Via Campesina and other NGOs, is that there can be no food security on the global level without food sovereignty on national and local level. Entitled Guidelines for an Alternative Framework, the proposals are as follows:


Food Security through Food Sovereignty


1         The right and obligation of every nation to secure enough and adequate  food to the entire population


2         The right of all nations to protect and support their domestic production and market


3         Priority to domestic food production , sustainable farming practices and equitable access to all resources


4         Ban on all forms of export subsidies and dumping


5         Moratorium on GMO until there is independent, conclusive  knowledge of their nature and impact, strictly applying the precautionary principle


6         Prohibition of biopiracy and patents on living matter


7         Replace agreements on agriculture in the WTO with agreements securing food sovereignty and fair trade within the framework of the UN


8         All international rules protecting public health, the environment or animal welfare must precede trade agreements


1 The right and obligation of every nation to secure enough and adequate food to the entire population


The World Food Summit in Rome in 1996 reaffirmed the right of everyone to have access to food. The High Commissioner for Human Rights was given the mandate to define and implement this right.(General Comment No 12).


This work is now close to completion and will hopefully be adopted at the Food Summit in June 2002. But it is important to stress that access to food should not be viewed as a form of assistance from governments or charity from aid organisations. The right to food must be a right to food sovereignty.



2 The right of all nations to protect and support domestic production and   market.


Food sovereignty is the right of every nation to define its own agricultural and food policies, to protect and regulate domestic production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives. Food sovereignty does not negate trade, but rather promotes fairer trade policies. Food trade can play a positive role, for example in times of regional food insecurity and for the exchange of quality products and products from certain climate-areas.


3 Priority to domestic food production, sustainable farming practices and equitable access to all resources.


In 1999 the FAO said for the first time that it will begin promoting organic farming and explore the feasibility of organic farming in developing countries. It is important to regard organic farming as relevant for all  farming , not  as a “niche-production” to satisfy the needs of wealthy people.  (Scialabba, Nadia (1999) Rome )


The same year another important report was published.  Food First / The Institute for Food and Development Policy  in USA showed  that small farms almost always produce far more agricultural output per unit area than larger farms. This holds true whether we are talking about  an industrial country, such as the United States , or any country in the Third World.  (Rosset, Peter M. Ph.D.(1999):  “The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture ” Policy brief no 4 – Food First, Oakland


The reason is  biodiversity. Though the yield per unit area of one crop – rice for example - may be lower on a small farm than from large-scale monoculture, the total output per unit, often composed of more than a dozen crops and various animal products, can be far, far higher.


This report is not alone in speaking about the efficiency of small farms. The FAO concluded the same about the MST (Landless Movement) settlements in Brazil, and economists at the World Bank  now accept that redistribution of land will lead to greater overall productivity.


4 Ban on all forms of export subsidies and dumping


There are several examples of this undermining system. On one hand the import of maize to  Mexico from USA at low prices ruins the Mexican producers. On the other hand vegetables at low prices from Mexico to Canada ruin producers there. Another example is that  subsidised milk exported from the European Union to India ruins the market for small dairy farms . The WTO has tried to restrict the use of export subsidies.  Via Campesina therefore agrees with the WTO on this issue.


5 Moratorium on GMOs until there is independent , conclusive  knowledge of their nature and impact, strictly applying the precautionary principle.


Today, no one knows for sure how GMOs will affect the environment and public health. Moratorium is therefore the only solution if the precautionary principle is applied. Using GMOs also favours monocultures, and therefore threatens biological diversity and  undermines food security in the future.


There is no doubt that public concern has influenced both  the stockmarkets and  the private companies’ plans for increasing their production of GMOs.  Last year farmers in USA, Canada and Argentina, which are the only countries using GMO on a large scale, increased their plantings of GMO crops by 11 percent.  That is a big increase, yet a dramatic slowdown from the 40 percent annual growth between 1996 and 1999.  I believe  we  are seeing the beginning of the end of the first generation of GMO’s.


If something more useful comes out of  the second generation of GMOs is yet to be seen.

Internationally we are now much more prepared to handle pressure from private interests. The Biosafety Protocol, negotiated under the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD-UN)  regulates trade in transgenic products. The Biosafety Protocol is crucial because it allows nations to bar imports of GMOs based on environmental, human health and social risks , even in the face of scientific uncertainty .


6 Prohibition of biopiracy and patents on living matter


 After 7 years of negotiating, the FAO succeeded in October this year in establishing ”The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.”

 Signatory states have an obligation to regard food and seeds as the heritage of all humanity. This obligation will hopefully be a bulwark against patenting and  prevent seed from the majority of food and feed plants’ being patented by private interests.


7 Replace agreements on agriculture in the WTO with agreements securing food sovereignty and fair trade within the framework of the UN


The only chance for the WTO to survive would be to keep its functions strictly to tariffs and trade, and for it fully to accept that other international agreements have to take precedence if it comes to conflicts between trade interests and other interests. The WTO either has to shrink - or it will sink!


And this leads me to the last guideline:


8         All international rules protecting public health , the environment or animal welfare must take precedence over trade agreements.


The Biosafety Protocol was a great step forward,  but we are still some way from making the above guideline a general principle in international agreements.


To conclude I will say: We need more farmers than today, if we are to feed ourselves in a sustainable way.

That is why farmers in rich countries should also be regarded as important contributors , and not only as people in conflict with farmers in the South.


We also need more technology , and more investments in food production , but we should never accept  technology’s being  used as an excuse not to do what has to be done.

For instance,  the genetically modified rice (enhanced with beta-carotene) the so called ”Golden Rice”, was announced last year as the ”solution” to blindness caused by malnutrition. We know that there is plenty of healthy food containing enough vitamin A in the areas with malnutrition.  And we know that  children go blind because of an extreme monotonous diet.

Instead of proposing  what is obvious  - a just distribution of  food - some scientists and many politicians from western countries  use ”Golden Rice” as the main evidence for saying that GMOs are the answer to  hunger and malnutrition.


And this solution is presented  at the same time that we in western countries discuss health risk and demand strict labelling on every product containing  more than one percent of GMOs. Poor people in Asia  often get more than 80% of nutrition from rice. Imagine if  Golden Rice has a negative effect on human health.


But, fortunately, we have enough food today, and therefore  enough time to learn more about  new technologies before we might want to use them. We do not have to rely on,  or be “Guinea pigs” for, agribusiness.  We can eradicate hunger by methods that are safe for ourselves, for the environment and for future generations.




-Vital Signs 2000 and 2001- World Watch Institute

-Via Camepsina:

-FAO :


Aina Edelmann is a former farmer and is now an official of the Norwegian Farmers and Smallholders' Union, Norsk Bonde- og Småbrukarlag (NBS), which is affiliated to Via Campesina. This article is based on a presentation she gave to a conference organised by the United Left Group (GUE-NGL) in the European Parliament in Brussels, 6th December, 2001.