Sewing the Seeds of a New World Agriculture

Article excerpt

ON THE PHONE with my sister Madeleine recently, I told her I was doing some background research on the global food crisis. "Hunger's never a crisis," she said. And she was right. The more we learn about the roots of the latest spike in food prices, the more obvious it becomes that hunger is really a predictable feature of our agricultural system. At root, the question "How do we feed everyone?" is really the question "How should we grow our food?"

As it happens, two sharp and accessible Canadian books released in the last couple of years skilfully explain how we got into this mess, and how we can get out. Though it may be trendy for urban lefties to focus on urban agriculture and other small-scale projects that could change our relationship to food, these authors take a vital step back to consider the big, rural systems that actually produce most of the food we eat--and will keep doing so for the forseeable future.

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Tony Weis is an assistant professor of geography at the University of Western Ontario, and he's really stepped back to look at the big picture. His book, The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of farming is a lively, detailed, very readable survey of the global food economy. Ranging from the rich world to the majority world, his book is a scathing indictment of the "problems and iniquities of the world food system."

And he shows it's not an accident. For years, the TNCs have successfully lobbied rich-world governments to use food aid as way to protect their profit--essentially dumping of surplus product abroad to keep domestic prices up.

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There were political benefits, too. In 1957, the prescient American politician Hubert H. Humphrey told a Senate committee, "If you are Looking for a way to get people to lean on you and to be dependent on you, in terms of their cooperation with you, it seems to me that food dependence would be terrific." Maneuvres at the World Trade Organization are more subtle, of course, and the chapter describing these is the one part of Weis' book that's harder to follow.

Yet, if Weiss renders the big guys' actions in painful detail--with much more nuance than my glib summary suggests--they're ultimately the backdrop to Weis' real protagonists, the world's small farmers. Weis takes special care to argue that, while he's depicting a complex and weighty system of powerful interests, there are no iron historical laws. In La Via Campesina, a vast federation of the world's peasant organizations, Weis sees an example of the potential strength of bottom-up organizing with the potential to make transformative change.

And he makes a strong case that those places where organic practices and small-scale farming can make dramatic gains--both in producing good food and restoring ecological balance--are the very areas where hunger is especially severe: the marginal lands of the majority world, where impoverished farmers currently live.

This is not, Weis insists, a backwards, Luddite maneuvre. "On the contrary," he writes, "to significantly increase the scale of organic and near-organic practices will require much more scientific research and training geared towards better understanding how agro-ecosystems operate and how key dynamics can be selectively enhanced." This will take a process of learning that's collectively financed, turning the farm into a public laboratory--a far cry from the private factory model that's currently in vogue.

Where Weis' analysis spans the entire globe and the myriad features of its agricultural systems, Devlin Kuyek, a researcher with GRAIN, a progressive agriculture ngo, offers a much narrower focus in his charmingly titled Good Crop/Bad Crop: The Privatization of the Seed System and the Future of Canadian Agriculture.

Kuyek's short history (just 125 pages) covers one hundred years of Canadian agriculture centred on seeds. …