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Towards the UN World Summit
on Sustainable Development

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples
to define their own agriculture and food policies

Bill Christison
United Nations
New York, New York

Bill Christison talks with Robert Sanders
While meeting with farmers around New Zealand, in 2001, to discuss GMO's, trade, and other issues, Bill Christison talks with Robert Sanders, a farmer near Invercargill, on the southern end of New Zealand's South Island. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke

Bill Christison is president of the National Family Farm Coalition and the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, and a representative of Via Campesina. He delivered this speech at the United Nations (UN) on January 29, 2002.

I want to take this opportunity to welcome the people of the world to the United States. I am a U.S. family farmer. I serve as the president of the National Family Farm Coalition. This Coalition is the U.S. representative of the international organization, Via Campesina.

It is clearly in the best interest of the people of the world that we have a strong, vibrant United Nations process that promotes peace, stability and equality along with social and economic justice for all people of the world.

I believe the United Nations could be more effective working with the governments of the world to bring about the fulfillment of Agenda 21.

The industrialization of agriculture is increasing the degradation of our environment. The family farmers of the world themselves are mining the soil in an attempt at survival. There is no doubt a fair farm rate price would elevate most of the farmer's problems. If corporate producers of food were required to do no harm to the environment and to pay a fair price for inputs they would cease to exist.

It is a certainty that production of food and fiber in many Third World countries is the best hope to bring peace and prosperity. But to achieve that end those doing the producing must truly receive social and economic justice without the threat of multinational corporations or bad trade policy. Neither can these countries tolerate dumping or the lack of food sovereignty.

The United Nation's attempt at poverty eradication is falling short. There is a strong need in this area to increase education and that requires access to resources.

Globalization is a two-edge sword. It is great to have the increased technology in communication, as well as many other technologies that are benefiting the people of the world. But the UN should never stand for terminator technology or the sale of the gene pool of the people of the earth. Neither should farmers lose seed diversity and the right of ownership.

Globalization and standardization of food flies in the face of cultural diversity. There has always been a strong bond between producers and consumers. Consumers are interested in country of origin labeling and allow their food is produced. Since 9-11-01 there is more interest in food security. Farmers around the world are talking about food sovereignty.

People's food sovereignty is a right. In order to guarantee the independence and food sovereignty of all the world's peoples, it is essential that food be produced through diversified, farmer-based production systems. Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to define their own agriculture and food policies, to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives, to determine the extent to which they want to be self reliant, and to restrict the dumping of products in their markets. Food sovereignty does not negate trade, but rather, it promotes the formulation of trade policies and practices that serve the rights of peoples to safe, healthy and ecologically sustainable production.

Governments must uphold the rights of all peoples to food sovereignty and security, and adopt policies that promote sustainable, family-farm based production rather than industry-led, high-input and export oriented production. This in turn demands that they put in place the following measures.

Market Policies:

  • Ensure adequate remunerative prices for all farmers;
  • Exercise the rights to protect domestic markets from imports at low prices;
  • Regulate production on the internal market in order to avoid the creation of surplus;
  • Abolish all direct and indirect export supports;
  • Provide clear and accurate labeling of food and feed stuff products based on consumers' and farmers' rights to access to information about content and origins;
  • Establish binding regulations on all companies to ensure transparency, accountability and respect for human rights and environmental standards;
  • Establish anti-trust laws to prevent the development of industrial monopolies in the food and agricultural sectors.
  • Hold corporate entities and their directors legally liable for corporate breaches of environmental and social laws, and of national and international laws and agreements.

Trade rules must guarantee food sovereignty. Global trade must not be afforded primacy over local and national developmental, social, environmental and cultural goals. Priority should be given to affordable, safe, healthy and good quality food, and to culturally appropriate subsistence production for domestic, sub-regional and regional markets. Current modes of trade liberalization, which allow market forces and powerful Trans-National Corporations (TNC's) to determine what and how is produced, and how food is traded and marketed, cannot fulfill these crucial goals.

Dumping occurs when goods are sold at less than their cost of production. This can be the result of subsidies, structural distortions such as monopoly control over markets and distribution, and also the inability of current economic policy to factor in externalities such as the depletion of water and soil nutrients and pollution resulting from industrial agricultural methods. Dumping under the current neo-liberal policies is conducted in North-South, South-North and South-South and North-North trade. Whatever the form, dumping ruins small-scale local producers in both the countries of origin and sale.

A role for trade rules in agricultural and food policies can play a positive role, for example, in times of regional food insecurity, or in the case of products that can only be grown in certain parts of the world, or for the exchange of quality products. However, trade rules must respect the precautionary principle to policies at all levels, recognize democratic and participatory decision-making, and place peoples' food sovereignty before the imperatives of international trade.

To compliment the role of local and national governments, there is a clear need for a new and alternative international framework for multilateral regulation on the sustainable production and trade of food and other agricultural goods. Within this framework, the following principles must be respected:

1. The right of all countries to protect their domestic markets by regulating; all imports which undermine their food sovereignty;
2. Genuine international democratic participation mechanisms;
3. An effective ban on all forms of dumping in order to protect domestic food production; this would include supply management by exporting countries to avoid surpluses and the rights of importing countries to protect internal markets against imports at low prices;
4. The precautionary principle;
5. The right to information about the origin and content of food items;
6. Prohibition of bio-piracy and patents on living matter;
7. An independent dispute settlement mechanism integrated within the international Court of Justice, especially to prevent dumping;
8. A national, legally binding treaty that defines the rights of peasants and small producers to the assets, resources and legal protections they need to be able to exercise their right to produce, such a treaty could be framed within the UN Human Rights framework, and linked to already existing relevant UN conventions.

The policies of the World Bank and the IMF reduce the capacity of governments in developing nations to provide basic services. Instead of finding a lasting solution to the debt crisis those policies have only worsened the situation. Many of these debts are unpayable. These debts should be written off and the destructive structural adjustment program be discontinued in favor of extension and credit programs.

There are potential commitments and partnerships through the Food and Agricultural Organization that offer access to resources for sustainable agriculture and rural development. Major groups, many governmental organizations and other stakeholders are prepared to move ahead dumping the WSSD preparatory process to provide greater access to resources to eradicate rural poverty, increase food security and enhance rural livelihoods.

We need development of a new platform for action on access to resources for acceptance by multiple stakeholders at the Johannesburg Summit, including both governments and major groups and featuring practical partnerships in support of the participatory design of country programs supported by case studies. These national and regional strategic interventions or partnership would be based on multi-stakeholder participation and analysis of opportunities and constraints to implement programs for increasing access to resources.

The platform for action must include elements reflecting the global citizens movement for resource rights, including:

a. The need to strengthen multi-stakeholder coalitions and systems to collect, analyze and share knowledge of the new and innovative approaches found in every region to land reform and improvement of access to resources, in order to demonstrate their capacity to overcome the constraints experienced in earlier experiences.
b. The need to test the viability of scaling up the experiences of civil society into national initiatives.
c. The need to test emerging benefit sharing models and land tenure markets (negotiated/market assisted, sharecropping, leasing) to understand the features of these forms of benefit sharing and land use that can provide the opportunity for the rural poor to gain and maintain access to land and related resources.

I am a Midwest farmer from the U.S. and our organizations and coalitions are mindful of the relationship we have with peasants, farmers, rural and indigenous people both from the North and the South.

Some examples of how we work are reflected by our present Farm Bill proposal before our Congress. This proposal is the result of work by National Family Farm Coalition, National Farmers Union, American Corn Growers, National Campaign for Sustainable Ag and the Community Food Security Coalition. We, also, have a broad coalition from the North American region working on trade policy.

In closing, I want to say we should all work together in a fair and democratic process to make tomorrow's world fair and just for all people.

Also see:

Published in In Motion Magazine, March 3, 2002.

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