Food Sovereignty: Land, Water, Seeds and Food by the World March of Women

Food Sovereignty is the right for peoples, countries or States to define their agricultural and food policies and protect their production and food culture so that they are unharmed by others. This is a topic that touches us, feminists, not only as citizens but also because we fight for the autonomy of women. The autonomy to decide on how to work, how to guarantee our livelihood, how to enjoy life, love, how to have children or not, how to live without violence and build our future. Personal autonomy takes for granted societies without inequalities where peoples get to decide their destiny.

The principle of Food Sovereignty has been coined by Via Campesina in 1996, to confront neo-liberal policies that protect the interests of big companies. Free Trade policies consider food as just one more commodity and not a right. For rural movements, the idea of Food Sovereignty is that it is also a tool for struggles and proposals, presented from local governments to international institutions.

Before movements claimed this idea, the social and international problem regarding food used to be discussed just as an emergency, during wars, catastrophes or when talking about poverty: only then was Food Security mentioned, that is, individual access to food (production and purchase) when it is scarce. However, the focus was always on purchasing and the so-called international food aid, which always imposed certain food habits, like in the case of wheat flour and powdered milk in the 60s, or using the poor as guinea pigs, as with the distribution of genetic modified corn in the past few years.

The right to food has a social and an individual dimension as well. Often food is not well shared even within families. The preconception that girls and women are more fragile or do not do what is considered as heavy work is used as an excuse to give them less food or meal leftovers.

The first step to assure the right to food is favoring local production to feed people and ensure peasant and landless women access to land, water, seeds and credit. Then, to start taking notice of the invisible work done by women when they cook and distribute food. But not in the sense that organizations such as the World Bank take it, that is, by overloading women and making them the sole ones responsible for families’ health and well-being in a context where State and companies reduce workers’ wages and rights. Our path in recognizing the sustainability of human life, of which food is a fundamental part, must be in the center of the economy and organization of society.

To have Food Sovereignty we need:

Agrarian Reform

Land is too concentrated all over the world. Women have even less access to land. Despite the fact that in many countries daughters have as many rights to inherit land as sons do, and wives are meeiras (when they own half a share of the goods acquired during marriage or stable relationships) as well as the husband or partner’s heirs, the custom excludes them from this right. Even if they are legally co-owners of a land holding, many times they cannot decide on how to use this land, what and how to plant or breed.

In the Agrarian Reform processes in Latin America, until the 90s the most common rates of ownership by women were between 11% and 12%. Countries with higher percentages such as Mexico, Bolivia and Cuba are those that had revolutionary Agrarian Reforms. In the 90s there were changes in the legislation in many countries that made it mandatory to grant the title deed in the name of the couple or wife, in the case of consensual marriages. Women’s participation rose by 45% in Colombia and 34% in El Salvador, countries which went through armed conflicts where women often took care of the family’s production on their own.

Women have even less access to the programs of land sales boasted by the World Bank – the so-called market-oriented agrarian reform – since they generally have less access to money and cannot provide guarantees to purchase land.

In order to assure women’s access to land we need to increase awareness about this right, as well as put again on the political agenda massive Agrarian Reforms that favor major land redistribution and establish limits for the size of land holdings.

We need to ensure indigenous and traditional peoples the right to possess their whole territory. Besides, we need to empower these peoples’ women as well as their contribution to their peoples’ decisions on how to live and relate to their territory.

– Agroecology

We need to ensure peasant and consumer women the right to produce food and decide what they want to consume, aware of how food is produced.

An agrarian counter-reformation takes place every day. Many peasants quit working the land because they are in debt and cannot compete with the major agribusiness players. For years now, governments have been encouraging a model of industrial agricultural production based on supply purchase (seeds, fertilizers, poisons) with subsidized credit and monoculture-oriented (cultivating only one crop throughout a whole area).

This model is opposed to the methods which small farmers usually use, which involves combining various kinds of cultivating and breeding methods, using their own seeds selected according to resistance or taste, and which does not separate self-consumption from sales. Companies and government oppose these methods considering them as backward.

However, many peasants do resist. Nowadays these production methods, which bring agriculture together with nature, known as agro-ecology, are recognized by universities and public bodies, and are also the basis of the work of many NGOs. Women identify themselves with these production methods, because what they accomplish in production and care is considered important for the life of the family and the community, and they have more possibilities of trying new things and being creative and autonomous.

Women who live in the city are still in charge of feeding the family and represent most workers in this area. They work all day long at a formal or informal job, besides taking care of the house, the family and the community. Tired, without having someone to share the chore of buying food and cooking, they end up buying processed food although they do not want to. The current food standard is harmful for health. But in order to revise it, we have to change the way society is organized: reducing workday schedules, improving public transportation and sharing housework among people who live together.

– No GM seeds!

We need to prevent companies from imposing intellectual property rights on production methods and commercializing genetically modified food. We also need to assure the right to use, choose, store and exchange seeds and species freely.

The radicalization of this model of industrial agriculture is the genetic manipulation of seeds so that they resist herbicides produced by the same companies, or function as insecticides. These are the genetically modified seeds. GM corn, soybean and cotton seeds are already commercialized in many countries. Soy lecithin, which derives from soy, is widely used as a stabilizer in processed food. That’s why we find so much food containing GM substances, even if they do not indicate it on the label. Nobody knows exactly what GM food may cause. Cases of allergies or resistance to antibiotics have already been detected. What we already know is that GM seeds contaminate other varieties of plants of the same species, thus contaminating nature.

Companies that sell seeds want to be sure they profit from the sale and that farmers will keep buying seeds every year, which is why they impose laws and rules that limit the exchange of peasants’ seeds only to exceptional cases.

In peasant agriculture, women are the ones who usually choose, store, and exchange seeds with other peasants. They are the ones that at any moment want to take a seed, a seedling, try it at home to see if it grows. In the new order, this simple gesture is an act of civil disobedience.

– Right to water

We need to keep water as a public good and a right, distributed and used equally and on a sustainable basis.

Water is essential to people’s well-being and production. Access to water is very badly distributed throughout the world. It is not unusual in rural areas to have springs or dams in big private properties, but women who live nearby have to walk for miles in order to get water. As in most societies women are the only ones in charge of cooking and washing clothes, their workload would be considerably reduced if they had proper water springs nearby.

Initiatives like building cisterns to collect rain water have started to increase. However, the idea that big constructions like huge dams and altering the course of rivers are needed still prevails. Moreover, big projects first cater to the needs of the agro-business or private companies, and cater only to the needs of consumption and well-being of people as an afterthought ( if there is any water left).

In the wake of the privatization and commodification of nature, the idea of saving water to sell it is spread. There are two big transnational companies that control the market of water worldwide, Suez and Vivendi. They are involved with many businesses: water sanitation and distribution, exploitation of mines of water as if they were mineral deposits. Wherever they go their contracts are always harmful to people and national governments. Huge demonstrations against the privatization of water and these companies have already taken place like those in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Uruguay and Argentina.

They used to say that nobody is denied a glass of water. Now, however, one must buy even drinking water. The market of bottled water is very profitable, and controlled by few companies such as Nestlé and Danone.

– Agriculture is not a commodity

We need to ensure countries the capacity to implement policies to protect producers and consumers against agricultural imports and dumping, and in favor of a sustainable peasant production.

The World Trade Organization and the Free Trade Agreements that the United States have been imposing to countries in the Americas treat agriculture as a commodity. Moreover, the Agreement on Agriculture favors the industrial and subsidized agriculture of the United States and the European Union, which sell their products to countries in the South at prices below production costs. They consolidate an international division of labor in which countries in the South export products that come from the exploitation of intensive labor and natural resources. This is also a sexist division of labor. Women are the majority of wage-earners in the production of exotic flowers, fruits and vegetables, processing cashews and fish, all of which are almost wholly exported to countries in the North.

These models destroy peasant and indigenous agriculture. It is not without reason that the most important movements of resistance to these agreements have been staged by peasants and indigenous peoples.

Institutions such as the World Bank present women as the winners of these models because they have begun earning their own wage. However, work conditions are awful, and most of them find jobs only when they are young and as seasonal workers only. Since their wage is based on productivity they work intensively, because it is on this income that they will live all year long.

Free Trade Agreements and multilateral financial institutions work to defend the interests of big transnational companies that control everything from seed production to the commercialization of processed food.

In 2005 the 10 biggest seed production companies controlled almost 50% of the market, with Monsanto as a leader. Companies that produce “improved” or GM seeds and toxic substances used in plantations are well-known among women. Many of these companies, like Novartis and Syngenta also produce synthetic hormones and contraceptives you can inject or implant, colonizing women’s bodies like they have colonized our land.

Life in the middle of the retail food trade is being increasingly overtaken by big supermarkets. The 10 biggest ones control 24% of the world market. The leader, the North-American company Wall Mart, controls 8% of the market. Wall Mart buys its products anywhere in the world wherever it’s more profitable, wherever they are made cheaper by the exploitation of the environment and the labor of women. It is known for imposing a standard in labor relations: no rights, no holidays, no regulation of the workday schedule. In 2003, 110 saleswomen from 184 different Wall Mart outlets in 30 different states sued the company denouncing its wage and sales discrimination.

We fight for Food Sovereignty and Agrarian Reform against the power of transnational companies and for peoples’ right to eat, cultivate, distribute food and cook with autonomy however they wish, since nobody has the right to interfere in their business. Free Trade policies consider food as just one more commodity and not a right. Women produce between 60% and 80% of food in poor countries and half of the world’s food production. Fighting against women’s oppression and exploitation is fundamental in peasant struggles for Food Sovereignty. Fighting for Food Sovereignty is fundamental in the struggles of women for autonomy, for shared responsibility and tasks and for the sustainability of human life.