Agricultural research must change radically to realise people's right to food

Farmers and other citizens involved in a major effort to radically change the way the world thinks about food and agriculture will gather this month at an international conference in Mali.

News, 16 February 2007

The progress of this growing movement could have profound implications for scientific research, politics, trade and the fight against the twin curses of poverty and environmental degradation. At its centre is a fledgling concept in international policy debates: 'food sovereignty'.

But according to a report written for the meeting, food sovereignty will not be achieved unless there is a fundamental change in the way that knowledge is produced and used in policymaking.

"'Food sovereignty' is all about ensuring that farmers are in control of what they farm and how they farm it," says the report's author, Dr Michel Pimbert of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

"It is about supporting domestic markets and small-scale agricultural production, and it is about conserving agricultural biodiversity and resilient farming systems. At the heart of 'food sovereignty' is the idea that communities have the right to define their own agricultural, pastoral, labour, fishing, food and land policies to suit their own ecological, social, economic and cultural circumstances."

"We need a radical shift away from the existing top-down and increasingly corporate controlled research systems to an approach which devolves more responsibility and decision-making power to farmers, indigenous peoples, food workers, consumers and citizens."

Pimbert says the "liberating potential" of science and technology can enhance agricultural production, reduce the environmental impacts of farming, ensure public health and improve livelihoods for the poor.

But he says local people and citizens should be the ones who decide which new policies and technologies are needed when, where and under what conditions. He also stresses the need to transform knowledge — using ecology as the basis for sustainable agriculture and de-colonialising economics from narrow definitions of wealth.

"This will require more direct citizen participation in decisions about new technologies, research priorities and policies for food and farming," he says.

"Conventional agricultural research must be reorganised for greater democratic oversight and priority setting to combine the strengths of farmers and scientists in the search for fair, sustainable and locally adapted food systems. Transforming agricultural research is also increasingly necessary to ensure that the food we eat keeps us healthy."

Representatives of farmers' groups will be among the 500 delegates who gather in Sélingué in Mali, for the International Forum on Food Sovereignty on 23-27 February. The meeting, organised by an alliance that includes Friends of the Earth International, the World Forum of Fisher Peoples and Via Campesina, is intended to advance work on a global strategy to ensure that food sovereignty is considered and applied at international and local policy levels.

On 17-21 February, in advance of the Sélingué meeting, Pimbert and IIED partners from India, Indonesia, Iran and Peru will be facilitating an international workshop in Bamako for farmers' groups from across West Africa with the francophone organisation BEDE and the CNOP. The CNOP is an umbrella organisation representing Malian farmers, and the organiser of the Bamako workshop and a co-organiser the meeting in Sélingué.

"The workshop will bring farmers together from around the world for mutual learning," says Pimbert. "It will focus on the privatisation of farmers' knowledge and genetic resources, and on alternative ways of democratising research and the governance of food systems. West African farmers want to learn more about these issues so that they can better claim and realise their rights to food sovereignty."

"Both the Bamako workshop and the Sélingué meeting will be discussing food and farming very differently to the way that mainstream organisations such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization do," says Malamine Coulibaly of the CNOP.

"Agricultural policies imposed by the World Trade Organisation, World Bank and International Monetary Fund have failed to sustain biodiversity important for food and agriculture. Their policies have also marginalised peoples’ knowledge and their customary institutions, thereby undermining rural livelihoods and food security," says Coulibaly. "Neoliberal policies have sidelined the needs and concerns of the world’s farmers, many of whom live in stark and deepening poverty. Their voices must be heard to realize every person’s right to food."