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Deconstructing Dinner

Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY

Nelson, B.C. Canada

 

August 13, 2009

 

Title: Stuffed and Starved / Food Sovereignty / The Canadian Wheat Board

 

Producer/Host: Jon Steinman

Transcript: Beth Friel

 

Jon Steinman: And welcome to Deconstructing Dinner - a syndicated weekly radio show produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY in Nelson, British Columbia. I'm Jon Steinman.

 

On today's broadcast we share the work of two other radio programs - something we like to do from time to time here on the show. In the first half of the episode - a June 2008 broadcast of the show Making Contact produced in Oakland, California by the National Radio Project. The segment features a lecture from author Raj Patel of the recently released book, "Stuffed and Starved." And in the second half of the episode - two segments from the weekly show Redeye - produced at Vancouver Co-op Radio in Vancouver, British Columbia. The segments explore the concept of food sovereignty with the University of Regina's Annette Desmarais and a look into the precarious state of the Canadian Wheat Board with journalist Frances Russell.

 

increase music and fade out

 

Andrew Stelzer: With food riots taking place all over the world and prices continuing to rise, more people are asking, why in a world with so many resources is our most basic need so hard to meet?

 

Raj Patel: Although we feel like our food is made for us, we go to Burger King and have it your way. In fact we are being made for our food.

 

Andrew Stelzer: On this program we'll hear Raj Patel speak about his new book, "Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System." I'm Andrew Stelzer, your host this week on Making Contact, a program connecting people, vital ideas, and important information.

 

Raj Patel use to work for the World Bank, the WTO and the United Nations. Now as an author and activist, Patel has become a harsh critic of the way those organizations set policy that leads to increasing hunger and food insecurity around the world. Patel spoke at Cody's Books in Berkeley California in May of 2008.

 

Raj Patel: The story I want to tell is a story about stuffed and starved, about why it is we live in a world where there are eight hundred and fifty million people who go hungry every year and a billion people who are overweight. And the argument I want to make more than anything will take us through a range of places - will take us from India to South Africa to the United States to Brazil. In fact lets start with Brazil because I think Brazil is the venue for what I think is wrong about the way our food comes to us today. The way our food comes to us is through markets and the results of markets is markets can turn wonderful things into disasters. And I want to start with my audio visual device here and if you look on the back of this snickers bar, its like a long mystery, a strange concatenation of things that we don't know what they are. It starts off with something that looks fairly straight forward, milk chocolate, but the chocolate in here is actually mysterious to us, we don't know where it comes from, if it comes from the Ivory coast - and a great deal of the worlds chocolate does come from the Ivory Coast. Then there is a small but significant chance that it was grown using child slavery. Actually the ingredient that I would like to dwell on a little more is one that comes a little further down the list called lecithin. It's there primarily as an emulsifier, it is there to keep the water and the fat from separating out, so that this bar can remain on the shelf for eternity without going rancid. The lecithin comes from an ingredient that we eat everyday. It is in three quarters of everything that's in processed foods in the supermarket and in almost everything that the fast food industry sells us, and that ingredient is soy.

 

Now soy for me is a fine example of what happens when markets run riot and how markets are able to turn something wonderful into something quite awful. Everything from vegetables to the ink in our newspapers comes from soy. And one of the first enthusiasts for the industrial production of soy was also the godfather of modern capitalism. That man was Henry Ford. Henry Ford was big into soy. He held a party in 1935 in his Deerborn Michigan plant, and he came down the marble staircase and he's wearing this sort of wonderful soft downy suit, and when he reached the bottom he said to his assembled guests, "stroke my suit" and they stroked his suit and it was as soft as Down, they were very impressed. And then he said, "this suit is made entirely out of soy." Now that's obviously a very frivolous example of what soy was for but actually, Henry Ford wanted ultimately to grow entire cars out of soy. And if this sounds a little mad but bare in mind by the end of the 1930's, there were two bushels of soy in every Ford motor car. And they were used for fibre, for pigment, they even try to use in on the inside of the car as a lacquer, but they had to stop that because it smelled like a mortuary. But suffice to say that Henry Ford's production techniques and his production technologies have certainly been applied to soy with such vigour. And the soy in this bar, if it doesn't come from the United States, will come from Brazil, the world's largest soy exporter. And if it comes from Brazil than it is part of a process of great environmental damage. Soy farms are now encroaching into the cerrado and the Amazonian Rainforest. You know we're hearing about McDonalds unleashing cows on the Amazon, well it's not cows, it's soy. And the process of environmental destruction isn't just related to sort of clear cutting, the water underneath Brazil comes in part from one of the world's largest aquifers, which is being drained dry. And it is on soy plantations, as well as biofuels plantations (we didn't talk about that), but it is on soy plantations that Brazil's forty thousand agricultural slaves live today.

 

Now all this again so that the price of soy gets pushed down a little bit and this bar stays intact for just a little bit longer. So who wins from that? We might think its farmers who are reaping the rewards of low labour costs and environmental damage, but actually we have an intuition that helps us understand who wins from the way we grow food today. Think about oil. When the price of oil goes up, who do we think makes money. It's not oil workers, people who are drilling for oil who suddenly find themselves with dollars falling out of their pockets and driving around in Bentleys. By the same token it is not the people in gas stations, who are suddenly making millions of dollars. We understand that when the price of oil goes up, the people who profit are the oil industry and the financiers who surround them. Well it is kind of the same way with food. If you look at any market, any major commodity market in food, basically more than half of that market is controlled by just four or five corporations. In the global market in tea, one corporation, Unilever, controls ninety percent of the world market. That's an extreme case, basically there are in every sector just a few corporate giants. I want to relay to you a quote that explains what these companies think about us, their consumers, because a lot of the justification for having corporations come to provide us our food rests in the idea that somehow corporations compete against each other and drive down the price of food and the winner is the consumer and two big thumbs up, everything is fine. So here is a quote from a man who when he said this was chair of Archer Daniels Midland, this is from a Mother Jones interview a few years ago. He has this to say about competition and the free market, "the customer is our enemy and the competitor is our friend. There is not one grain of anything in the world that is sold in a free market, not one. The only place that you see free markets are in the speeches of politicians and people who are not from the Midwest do not realize that this is a socialist country."

 

And I think that sort of brazen honesty from Dwayne Andreas shouldn't surprise us. We shouldn't be surprised that corporations make a buck, that's kind of what they do. They are in it for profit. And if profit can be made through the skirting of certain kinds of rules and the flouting of certain kinds of regulations, so be it. The interesting question though is not why corporations are rapacious, because that's a trivial question, the interesting question is why do we have markets in food at all. And markets in food are very odd. They are very new. The worlds very first completed market in food (global market in food) was the global market in wheat. And that was really only complete by 1880. They are very very new things these global markets.

 

But it's important to understand how they came about and why, and the kind of rational that accompanied them. And the interesting place to look here is India. Lets go back in time to feudal India, in India before the British arrived. Feudal India was rubbish for peasants because peasants worked the land, the landlords took the surplus and left the peasants with barely enough to survive on. The only silver lining being when in a rough year when food was scarce, it was the landlords obligation to feed the peasants. There was this moral economy that existed this idea that people wouldn't be allowed to go hungry, they wouldn't be allowed to actually get fat but they certainly wouldn't be allowed to go hungry and in lean times, so there were responsibilities that came with that. When the British came, they thought that this was pathetically backward and that Indians shouldn't be wanting a hand out, so much as a hand up. The language of compassionate conservativism today actually hails from these moments where the British were imposing markets in grain with this rhetoric of well it will increase your productivity and it is much better to work for yourself than to rely on the handout of some landlord who is just a tosser. This process of imposing markets was to some extend deeply felt as a good thing by the British who were doing it, they felt that they were improving Indians. And they were certainly doing a favour for the British because these markets worked very well for people who had cash. It worked for the British to be able to suck grain out of India and send it to England where it was eaten by workers in the workshop, it worked well for the British. But the trouble with introducing markets in food is that if you don't have cash, you don't get to eat. As so what you have is a situation where people were loading wheat in Bombay, they were loading wheat onto ships which were then sent on to England and they were dying on the docks because they couldn't afford to buy food.

 

And there is no figure that describes the imposition of markets more starkly than a figure from Mike Davidson's excellent book, "Late Victorian Holocaust." The figure he gives is this, "in the two thousand years, before the British came to India, there was a famine once every one hundred and twenty years, but in the period after the British came to India, there was a famine once every four years." So once every one hundred and twenty to once every four years because of the imposition of markets on food. It's certainly the case that what was true for India was true for the rest of the world. In this imposition of markets in grain, over thirty million people died, just so they could learn the most brutal and vicious micro-economics lesson in history - which is that the only way to get food is to pay for it.

 

Now, lets move forward a bit. I don't want to dwell on India but I think it is an important case. And in fact the importance of it came to me when I was living in South Africa because when I was growing up, my parents use to say to me, "eat up, there are children starving in Africa, eat your greens for god's sake." Now what do you think that parents in Africa tell their children? Seriously, they say eat up because there are children starving in India, and they are more right, there are more children starving in India then the entire continent of Africa. And India to me is an example of what happens when markets go wild. Now certainly the real losers in this story of global food production are farmers, and one of the hardest, or the hardest part of writing Stuffed and Starved was talking to families of farmers who have despaired. Let me give you the story of India because certainly in the American imagination, India is the place where all the jobs have gone. And if you go to Bangalore you'll see these glittering towers of the modern capital and you'll see your Google and your Intel and Microsoft, but five hours out there is a very different story.

 

The story I want to tell you is about a farmer called Castia. Like any farmer he was farming half an acre, he had a wife, two kids, and he wanted to leave his kids something better than he had - like any parent. And so he borrowed money from the only place he could, the local moneylender. Borrowed money and he drilled a hole because he wanted to irrigate his land, he drilled a bore hole for a well. But the well was dry and that meant that he not only needed to increase the productivity just for his kids but he needed to repay the loan in a hurry. And so he borrowed more money and he drilled another hole and it was dry. And he borrowed more money and drilled another hole and it too was dry. And he borrowed more money and drilled another hole and it was dry again. And one day, when the rains refused to come, he despaired. That evening, after his wife and kids had gone to bed, he pulled down a package of pesticide called Phorate, which is illegal in the United States but still sold by U.S companies in the developing world. He mixed it with water and he drank it. And it would have been an agonizing death. His nerves would have jammed, he would have asphyxiated. But he can't of convulsed very hard because he died without waking his wife and two kids. And all this because he faced a debt of fifteen thousand rupees, or three hundred and fifty U.S. dollars. Now that's horrifying in all of itself, it's more horrifying when you know that there are tens of thousands of farm suicides in India every year. But it's not just an Indian phenomenon. Sustainable, sort of small-scale farmers around the world are in deep trouble wherever you look. They borrow up to their eyeballs just to be able to keep their heads above water. And then all its takes is one small shock, maybe the rains don't come or, as we see in Australia, maybe there's a drought and the crops fail. And we've seen farm suicides in Australia as a result. Or maybe foot and mouth disease breaks out and your entire herd is killed by the government, as we saw in Britain, and in that case farmers have committed suicide there too. And of course farm suicides started here, they started here in the U.S, in the Midwest in the 1980's with the farm crisis. And it spread around the world and it began here for reasons of debt and fear and shame. Because no farmer wants to be remembered as the one who lost the land.

 

Andrew Stelzer: Your listening to Making Contact - a production of the National Radio Project. If you'd like more information or for CD copies of this program, please call 800-529-5736. You can also download programs, or get our podcast at radioproject.org.

 

We now return to Raj Patel speaking about his new book, "Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System."

 

Raj Patel: This is in the same India that has now more billionaires than any other in the Forbes Top Ten Billionaires list. And at the same time, India's hungriest people are seeing levels of hunger that haven't been seen since the British left. And at the same time, India is now the world's largest concentration of people with Type 2 diabetes. How is it possible that all of these things can be happening at the same time? A lot of the story has to do with the guy who is now the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh. Who in 1990 introduced trade liberalization, an economic liberalization in general. That liberalization meant that companies were allowed into India, companies that had been kept out, you know Coca Cola, Pepsi, these sorts of companies. They were invited in and at the same time social supports for farmers in particular started being eroded, the government was delinquent in its payments, it shrunk the social safety net for the very hungriest of people, it denied access to local grain stores if you didn't have a fixed address - a shrinking of the entitlement body of the Indian government and the Indian state. And at the same time a sort of bracing liberalization where farmers would be exposed more or less to the wins of competition. That has resulted in extreme kinds of polarization of income and of life outcome. And again, it is not just India that is going through this, it's a global phenomenon.

 

It's one that is imposed in various ways by, one of my previous employers, the World Bank. It is important to have in your mind an image of how the World Bank works because sometimes it can seem a little complicated - concessional loans and structural adjustment policies and poverty reduction strategy credits - but there is an image that I would very much like you to have in mind and it comes from the Terry Gilliam film "Time Bandits." It is about disgruntled former employees of God. The idea is that the universe was built in seven days - so it was a rush job and there are holes in the universe. The time bandits they rob people and they jump through time and end up somewhere else. So they rob Napoleon and they jump through a hole in time and they end up in Sherwood Forest where they are met by Robin Hood. He is tremendously excited to see all of Napoleon's stuff: "Well thank you, this is tremendous indeed. The poor will love this. Have you met the poor? They are charming people, they don't have to pennies to rub together but that's because they're poor. " And there is this beautiful scene where Hood is distributing the gold and the diamonds and he walks down and shakes their hand. Right next to them there is a bloke who takes back whatever Hood has given and punches the person in the face, and that's how the World Bank works.

 

It's certainly about this sort of have you met the poor? Some of my best friends are poor. I would know I was involved in a project called, "The Voices of the Poor: Can Anyone Hear Us." There is certainly this sort of moment of representation or misrepresentation of the banker as friend of the poor and at the same time the given of the loan feels like a gift. But it's always a gift you take back and you slam in the face with these conditions, these structural adjustment conditions, which require farmers in developing countries to sit on the same playing field as the most heavily subsidized farmers on the planet - like here and in Europe. Its preposterous to think that farmers in developing countries could in any way compete against the multi billion dollar subsidies that we see here, and this is why World Bank policies are effectively geared towards kicking farmers off the land, especially small sustainable farmers. So that's kind of the state of play at the moment. But I think what we need to do is get to thinking about what we can do about it. How are we going to change this, how are we going to fix it. One of the temptations is to go down to your local supermarket and you'll go in and look for something shade grown, and organic, and fair trade, and beetle friendly.

 

The trouble is the moment you step into a supermarket, you are in the belly of the new giants of the food system. The moment you step into a supermarket you surrender a great deal of freedom. Everything about a supermarket is engineered, everything. The smell in the air - why is it that supermarkets have bakeries in them? Not because supermarkets are making billions from buns. It is because the smell of baking bread makes us buy more stuff. And why is it that the milk is always at the back? Because it is the single item that we are in supermarkets most often to buy. And so there is this golden triangle between the entrance and the milk and the checkout where corporations bid to have their products facing you at eye level or at cart level if they're going for your kids. You go into the supermarket for milk and you find yourself coming out with a ton of stuff you never expected to buy. You didn't choose necessarily, you didn't choose to buy that when you went in. But you chose it when you walked past. You call it choice, when you're being manipulated into buying something, we're taught to call that choice. In a sense it's madness to expect supermarkets to provide us with the answers to these kinds of social problems.

 

And in fact it is the supermarket these days that is the kind of embodiment of how we are linked to the exploitation of farmers in developing countries. We are being manipulated by exactly the same system. And the solution - as I will be discussing in a minute - is not to feel guilty about our food choices, not to be paralyzed into thinking I can't eat this, I'm going to have a steak - that gets you no where. Guilt is tremendously debilitating and I think that what we need is not guilt but anger. Anger at the way that we are being manipulated and that we are made complicit in a food system that denies justice to people across the world and even in the supermarket. Walmart workers have been denied rest breaks to the extent that some have been forced to urinate at the tills. And yet of course, we find ourselves going into supermarkets because it's convenient, because it fits our lifestyle.

 

This is one of the last stories I want to tell you - I think its important to get under the skin this idea of convenience. The story I want to tell you comes from South Africa. The story is about the foundational moments of apartheid. When apartheid was being built, it required laws. One of those laws was the 1947 Regulation of Separate Amenities Act. What that law entailed was that white people and black people were no longer allowed to use the same cooking facilities, no longer allowed to use the same plates or cutlery, or knives or forks or anything and this was a problem for black caddies on a white golf course in Durban. They came up with one of Durban's signature foods, its called bunny chow. Now bunny chow is a loaf of white bread, with the insides scooped out and it's filled with curry. The idea is that you run to the bunny chow guy, get your loaf of bread, he fills it with curry and all of a sudden the clock starts ticking (because the curry is seeping into the bread) and so you have to eat quickly. You take the edge of the bread and you dip it into the curry and chew until there is nothing left, the bread was your cutlery. You finish eating and it's all done. It's in entire compliance with the Regulation of Separate Amenities Act. What I think the important lesson here is that it was one of the world's first government sponsored fast foods. Because there is nothing convenient about a loaf of white bread with curry in it. I mean it's a preposterous idea. And yet it becomes convenient because of the regulation of our working lives and the laws that are imposed to govern and separate the way that we work and live. And all of a sudden, the maddest things become convenient. Another preposterous idea is diet coke plus - if you come across that its diet coke with added vitamins. This is what you get when you ask corporations to improve the nutritional quality of their food.

 

We need to be taking a step back from asking corporations to do our politics for us, and we need to be connecting more with our food. An organization that does this, and I get a great deal of inspiration from them as I'm sure you do too, is the Italian Communist Party. They ask really interesting questions in the 1970's. They were reacting to capitalism in an austere Eurocommunism and they asked, "Why is it only rich people get to have sensuous and pleasure from their food? Why is that not the right of every human being?" And so the organization that the Italian Communists started was an organization that was called Slow Food. The original Slow Food was asking some great questions; "What is it that you need to do to be able to make sure that everyone can savor food and enjoy food? What is it that people need?" We need two things - we need time and money. Is it any wonder, that twenty percent of America's fast food meals are eaten in cars - because they are convenient. And people will chose between Burger King and McDonalds but that's no choice. Although we feel that our food is made for us - you go to Burger King have it your way - in fact we are being made for our food. We are being transformed in the way that our lives are being regulated, the way that our society is being regulated towards demanding and thinking is normal, the most preposterous kinds of food. There are ways of challenging that. All the ideas I have been sharing with you today basically come from Via Campesina, the international peasant movement, which by some estimates have over one hundred and fifty million members. What they're suggesting is that what we need is a democratic conversation about food - not to turn the clocks back on fairytale past, but to move forward to a future where people have rights, where land is distributed equitably, agriculture is sustainable and where communities get to decide how food comes in and out of that community. This is about every community must produce its own thing, its about every community must have the conversation or at least be able to have that conversation about how food enters and circulates within the community. We need to learn how to do that. Food policy councils are one way of doing it, there are an infinite number of ways to have that democratic conversation, but we got to develop a taste for it. We are being deskilled in that art.

 

The preposterous example that comes to mind is Mountain Dew. I don't know if you've ever heard of or seen Mountain Dew. It's a thing where you get to choose which three new flavors of Mountain Dew will be your flavor at the end of the summer and you get to choose between Mountain Dew Voltage, Mountain Dew Supernova, and Mountain Dew Revolution. What do they call this? They call it Dewmocracy.

 

But if we have Coke or Pepsi in the supermarkets, we also have Coke or Pepsi in the ballot box. If that's our experience of democracy than actually we're use to a very candid reduced version of democracy, in fact its not democracy at all - it's its poor cousin consumer choice. But I think we do need to get involved in democracy, we do need to get involved in the kind of activist politics, we won't be able to shop our way out of this one. And we shouldn't. And we should get angry and politically engaged because we need to realize that we are not consumers of democracy, we are it's proprietors. Thanks very much.

 

Andrew Stelzer: That's it for this addition of Making Contact. You've been listening to Raj Patel, a former policy analyst for Food First speaking about his new book, "Stuffed and Starved." Patel spoke at Cody's Books in Berkeley California in May of 2008. For a CD copy of this program call the National Radio Project at 800-529-5736. Or you can get our podcast at radioproject.org. Lisa Rudman is our executive director; Tina Rubio executive producer; Puck Lowe associated producer, Alaina Backenlevy and Aubrey Green; interns, and I'm Andrew Stelzer. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.

 

Jon Steinman: And this is Deconstructing Dinner - a syndicated weekly radio show produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY in Nelson, British Columbia. I'm Jon Steinman. A thank you to Making Contact for producing that last segment.

 

In the next half of today's broadcast, we listen in on two segments produced by Redeye at Vancouver Co-op Radio, CFRO.

 

In January 2009, Redeye's Lorraine Chisholm spoke with the University of Regina's Annette Desmarais, a professor of Justice Studies and the author of La Via Campesina: Globalization and the Power of Peasants. La Via Campesina is a grassroots organization that promotes the concept of food sovereignty.

 

Lorraine Chisholm - This year, for the first time in human history, a billion people will go hungry. As prices for basic grains skyrocketed last year, millions of people were unable to purchase sufficient food. Riots and protests erupted all over the world. These dramatic headlines have faded but the prices remain. La Via Campesina, a global movement of peasant farmers, believes that the latest food crisis has exposed the disaster of the global food system. And they have a solution that they believe will feed the world and cool the planet. It's called Food Sovereignty. Annette Desmarais has worked as a technical support for La Via Campesina since the movement emerged in 1993. She's a professor in the department of Justice Studies at the University of Regina and she joins us from there this morning. Annette Hello.

 

Annette Desmarais - Hello.

 

LC: La Via Campesina held its latest international conference last October and I understand there was a lot of discussion about the food crisis and its root causes. What were people discussing around the root causes of that? Why are so many people going hungry?

 

AD: Well La Via Campesina essentially argues that there are some really long term causes to this food crisis and some much more shorter term causes and the long term causes, they have actually pointed to these some years ago in the early 1990s actually and it was partially because they had experience with the structural adjustment programs that had been implemented in a number of countries. And those structural adjustment programs, which were really based on neoliberal ideology, fundamentally altered the rural landscape and also, of course, disempowered small farmers in their ability to make a living on the land. What I mean when I say structural adjustment, it turned agriculture into a structurally adjusted agriculture where food was treated just like any other commodity and therefore was placed on the free trade agenda. And so in the year before the WTO opened its door, La Via Campesina was formed and it did that, it formed this international movement because they knew that putting food on the free trade agenda was going to spell disaster for small producers and also the health of the food system. Because what it meant was that governments then would start concentrating on increasing production and increasing that production specifically for export. That was done at the expense of production for domestic consumption. So in the process what you had then were fields, acres and acres and acres that were normally planted for food for national production for domestic consumption, those were replaced with acres and acres of broccoli, snow peas, mangos, flowers for northern markets. Consequently, countries that use to be self sufficient in certain basic grains were then becoming net importers of food.

 

LC: Tell me how the organization La Via Campesina developed an alternative model - did that emerge from what was traditionally in place or was there another approach?

 

AD: There analysis demonstrated that not only was this process of structurally adjusted agriculture taking place but that the policies of the international institutions such as The World Bank and IMF, and also national governments, were in fact encouraging the globalization of an industrial model of agriculture. That's the production system which very effectively distances production from consumption so consumers have no idea what it is that their eating and they have no idea about how that food is produced and who produces it and the conditions under which it is produced. It essentially leaves us with a food system in which food crops kind of disappear overnight from fields and then they are kind of deconstructed and they reconstructed by a number of industrial processes, and then they appear on the shelves of supermarkets in really brightly coloured packages with a tag that says "may contain." That was the model that was being globalized. Farmers in this system are completely displaced. It is a model that gives far more strength to industrial players because what those industrial players do is essentially enter the food system and lengthen the food chain and try to extract profits along every length of the chain. In that process, farmers are fundamentally marginalized because what the industrial players want to do is access whatever raw products they need at the lowest price possible. So La Via Campesina sought to turn this model completely around, which it did by developing this concept of food sovereignty.

 

LC: So tell me more then about the concept of food sovereignty, what is meant by that?

 

AD: Well can I just say one more thing about the causes because I was talking about the long term causes but the short term causes, of course, were the fact that you had the entry of speculators into the food markets. With the housing mortgage crises in the USA what happened was speculators - hedge funds - moved their investments away from real estate and placed it into the futures markets for commodities like grains and other food products. The other main short term cause was the fact that you had this agrifuel boom where that fuels that use to be planted to grains for people were now used to make grains for ethanol essentially to feed machines. So that was creating an artificial scarcity, which helps to increase the price of foods.

 

Now to your question of what is food sovereignty all about? Well it completely rejects this neoliberal idea of the right to export. Essentially it radically seeks to transform food production, food distribution and food consumption. What's essential to the idea of food sovereignty is the idea that people have the right to determine their own food and agricultural policies and to do so in a way to ensure the wellbeing of their population. So its not only about governments defining agricultural policies, its about ordinary citizens, people that both produce and consume food being involved in determining all kind of issues around the production, the distribution, and the consumption of food. So essentially it has a number of key principles and one of them is that it focuses on producing food for people, instead of food for animals that are produced in intensive livestock operations, that kind of thing or instead of producing food for machines. The second key principle is that it really focuses on closing the gap between food producers and food consumers. The third key principle is that puts those who produce and consumer food at the centre of the decision making on agricultural and food policies. That's instead of giving over the decision making powers to far away institutions, like the World Trade Organization, that really do not experience the consequences of their decisions. Food sovereignty localizes that decision making therefore making everyone more responsible, more accountable for the decisions that they make. Now that can be done through the creation of policy councils, other kinds of local government structures that determine how communities will grow and access food.

 

LC: Annette, what kind of changes would have to take place for food sovereignty to be achieved?

 

AD: Fundamental transformation.

 

LC: We're talking about the world food system.

 

AD: The way that we think about food and the place that we give food in our culture - it really speaks to some fundamental shift in how we think and how we are around food. I think in Canada, food in many ways has become less and less important as an expression of culture, for example, and that would need to change. Food is at the centre of our life. Food is not only central because we eat it daily - we absolutely need it - but because to produce food we're talking about the environment. We're also talking about how it can be central to our culture and to also social relations and I think that's what's so exciting. The other thing about food sovereignty is that it's going to be different in different places. Because it empowers local people to make decisions about how that food is produced, where it's produced, and what is produced and at what scale, then that means it's going to be different in different places based on the kinds of cultures people want to promote or to build. So central to food sovereignty is this idea of diversity also. It's not something that is going to be the same in Java as it is in Canada.

 

LC: What do you think that people could do? So if people are listening to you and they are making the connection that there has to be a big shift and their thinking around food as consumers of food, what steps could they make to change their relationship to the food that they eat which you describe as so important and central.

 

AD: I think the further away you can get from eating industrial food, the closer you're going to be in achieving food sovereignty. That is, you should know what it is you're putting in your mouth. Right now if somebody is eating Captain Crunch for breakfast, they're not going to really know what's in that Captain Crunch. There's a new study that just came out this week about the high levels of mercury that have been discovered in products made with high fructose corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup is found in an awful lot of processed foods. So one of the things you want to do is move away from foods that you don't know what it contains. The other thing that you want to do is make sure that you know who produced the food. So farmers market and community shared agriculture are two ways that are relatively easy shifts to make and that actually would allow you to be involved in some aspects of food sovereignty. The other key way to start building food sovereignty is working at trying to build a local government structure like a food policy council - I am just using that as an example, it can be something else but something that allows you to get involved in discussion of what kinds of policies should Municipal governments and Provincial governments and National governments should be putting in place to foster food sovereignty rather than some of the existing policies that we have which are so destructive. The thing about the food crisis is that its not only a food crisis, we're at a point in the history of the world where we're are faced with an environmental crisis, an energy crisis, and a food crisis. So somehow food sovereignty can help us to resolve various aspects of those various crises.

 

LC: Well it's been great talking to you this morning Annette and I really appreciate you joining me.

 

AD: Okay, thanks.

 

LC: Thank you. I've been speaking with Annette Desmarais. Annette is the author of La Via Campesina: Globalization and the Power of Peasants, published last year.

 

Jon Steinman: This is Deconstructing Dinner. More information on Annette Desmarais will be linked to from the Deconstructing Dinner website at deconstructingdinner.ca and posted under the August 13th 2009 episode.

 

Taking us to the end of today's broadcast another segment produced by Vancouver Co-op Radio's Redeye. In this segment, Redeye's Mordecai Briemberg speaks with journalist Frances Russell, a regular contributor to the Winnipeg Free Press. Russell writes extensively about the Canadian Wheat Board, an organization that has been at the forefront of controversy in the past few years. The Wheat Board is controlled by western Canadian farmers and is the largest wheat and barley marketer in the world. The Wheat Board sells grain to over 70 countries and returns all sales revenue, less marketing costs, directly to Prairie farmers. The only problem? In its efforts to ensure farmers receive a fair price for their product, the wheat board is frowned upon by anyone who believes in the global market of so-called free trade. The Canadian government, who exists at an arms length from the Wheat Board, is one of those entities wishing for the Wheat Board to disappear.

 

Mordecai Briemberg - The Canadian Wheat Board was established in 1935 as a marketing system for wheat and barley and while the Canadian Wheat Board has undergone several changes over the years to meet economic and political pressures, now it is under the severest attack by the Harper Government. On the phone from Winnipeg in Manitoba is freelance reporter Frances Russell. She has been reporting on the struggles around the Canadian Wheat Board and we're happy to welcome her to our program this morning. Good morning Frances.

 

Frances Russell - Good morning.

 

MB: Now is Harper's opposition to the Wheat Board long standing or is this something since he's come into Government?

 

FR: It's quite long standing. In fact, you may remember, after he left politics the first time, he became president of the National Citizen's Coalition, which is arguably the most right wing lobby in Canada. In 1999 he wrote a letter to the Brandon Sun in which he describe the Wheat Board as quote, "draconian wheat monopoly that for years has relied on force and fear to exist," end of quote. There has been reports that he has also compared it to the Soviet Union and, which by the way the NCC use to say that Medicare was, just a Soviet plot.

 

MB: Well this Cold War rhetoric which has a revival presently in the world but is his effort to totally destroy the Wheat Board?

 

FR: Yes, although of course they cloak it in the word of choice because they have several very small farmer organizations: the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, Western Canadian Barley Growers Association, that really got their funding primarily, and maybe still do, from the Alberta Government. They say no, no, no, we don't want to do away with the Wheat Board we just want the right to be able to use it when we want to and not use it when we don't want to. And of course anyone who knows anything about the principles of cooperative and pools know that you can't have that kind of a system because it completely brakes down almost immediately and in the case of the Wheat Board, because it purchases services, its a marketing agency in which all of western Canadian farmers pool, there's about eighty five thousand of them by the way, it doesn't have terminals (it has Hopper cars, actually they were the Federal governments). So it has to rely on everybody, it's all for one and one for all.

 

MB: Who would benefit if Harper were to be successful?

 

FR: Absolutely no question, the five big agribusiness multinationals, most of them situated in the United States: Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, Louis Dreyfus - these are the organizations that would benefit exclusively and, of course, so would indirectly the American government because what it would mean would be that instead of Canada be in a position to market Canadian grain, which is vastly superior by the way to American grain because of our colder climate (our durum and wheat are highly prized on the world market and fetch top dollar), so if they could blend that into their own inferior quality grain, they would be able to get the benefit of top dollar for American farmers and for these multinationals.

 

MB: What are the tactics that Harper has used to try and get rid of the Canadian Wheat Board?

 

FR: They are extraordinarily antidemocratic and also unconstitutional as now three different judges have asserted. When he first took office or shortly after he took office, he fired the president of the Wheat Board Adrian Measner, he fired or removed all of the government appointed board members. There are fifteen board members and the Federal government appoints five and one is made the Chief Executive Officer and the ten elected directors are elected by the farmers. Well when the very first director election to occur right after Harper became Prime Minister, the government decertified almost forty percent of the names on the producer voting list while the voting was going on and of course they targeted people - smaller farmers - who they knew would probably be more intense supporters of the Wheat Board - the bigger corporate farmers are leading the charge for so called choice. So that was one blow that he did.

 

And then subsequently, in July in 2007 they held a completely bogus plebiscite on removing barley from the Wheat Board in which they inserted a misleading question which told farmers that they could have the choice of marketing the barley either through the Board or privately, which peeled enough farmers away from supporting the Board that the Government was able to add their numbers to the relatively small number of people who wanted to end the Board monopoly in total, in order to claim that it had a victory. Well the friends of the Canadian Wheat Board, which is a group of farmers, which has been established to fight for the board, went to court and they won. They won with that fact that the Government first could not abolish the compulsory marketing of barley unless they brought legislation through Parliament, which they knew they couldn't do because it would be defeated in the House. So the Government tried to do it by regulation and that was also found unconstitutional. You're required to do it by legislation and therefore you can't do it by regulation.

 

And then in a more recent thing, the Government it's just about to go to court again, it gave a lot of the Conservative candidates, in this falls Federal election access to privileged Board information - that is the names of farmers with Wheat Board permits and the Conservatives were able to bombard these farmers with anti-Wheat Board information at the height of another directors election, which was going on this fall.

 

Finally, of course, at the very outset, at the same time that they fired Adrian Measner, the Harper Government brought in a so called gag order in which they prohibited the farmer elected directors and all members of staff of Wheat Board, the entire institution was told that it could never do anything to support the monopoly publicly, that it couldn't campaign for it and that the farmer elected directors were prohibited from campaigning for pro-Board farmers in the last two elections. Now this too was struck down in court as unconstitutional, I mean people have the freedom of speech. And it was interesting at the time that it was struck down, Mr. Harper was in Saskatoon, this was last summer, and he said that he vowed to anyone standing in his way about getting rid of the Wheat Board is going to get walked over.

 

MB: So despite this series of very undemocratic actions and the court decisions and Harper's threat, as you mentioned, to still squelch anyone who opposes his objective, the farmers recently did elect a new board of directors and were they what Harper wanted?

 

FR: No, as a matter of fact the balance has never changed. There's now been two elections because half of the board goes before their electorate every two years, there are currently eight pro-monopoly directors and only two that are opposed and in the most recently election, most of them were just re-elected. The support for the Board remains very strong, its eighty percent, if you look solely at the people that they are electing. And this is after twice that the Government has tried to tamper with the number of people who have permit books.

 

MB: So the farmers remain resolute in maintaining the Board, does that mean that the Board is now secured?

 

FR: No, not at all. I mean there is absolutely nobody that has any doubt that if Harper get the majority, he will move very quickly to bring forth the legislation and destroy the Wheat Board.

 

MB: Does the WTO have any role to play in the fate of the Canadian Wheat Board?

 

FR: Well yes because as things now stand, the Agricultural Committee of the Wheat Board has moved to just outlaw the Board, to just make it illegal under WTO rules.

 

MB: Would that be at the initiative of the Canadian government asking them to do that?

 

FR: Well no one knows for sure because as a matter of fact Canada doesn't even have the seat on this particular WTO committee. Its run by, ironically, a New Zealander who has moved to save the only other producer of a monopoly controlled board that operates in the world now because the former Australian government abolished the Australian Wheat Board before it left office. There's a marketing board for Kiwi fruit in New Zealand and this particular individual who chairs this WTO committee has made sure his removal of the right of the Canadian Wheat Board to exist does not affect the Kiwi Board in New Zealand, in his own country.

 

MB: So he's prepared to say what's good for me can be bad for you?

 

FR: That's right, absolutely.

 

MB: Does the fate of the Wheat Board depend on Harper remaining either a minority or out of Government, that the other parties, the other three parties in Parliament, would vigorously defend the maintenance of the Canadian Wheat Board?

 

FR: Oh yes, all the indications are that that's the case and I don't think that will change because of the change in the Liberal leadership. I have no doubt that Ignatieff will support the Wheat Board and the Block is firmly behind it because the Block quite rightly perceives that if the Wheat Board goes well then despite Harper's protest, supply management in dairy and poultry will also go, which is very popular in Quebec and also Ontario.

 

MB: Well thank you for making clear something that is often muddled in media reporting, I really appreciate that.

 

FR: Well you're very welcome. Yes its unfortunate, I think that a lot of Central Canadian journalists have no idea about the Wheat Board at all and they bought this line that its sort of a hold over from Soviet style command economics.

 

MB: Well good luck to you and thanks for your writing.

 

FR: You're very welcome.

 

MB: I've been speaking with Frances Russell, she's a freelance journalist located in Winnipeg and she writes for the Winnipeg Free Press.

 

Jon Steinman: This is Deconstructing Dinner. A thanks to Vancouver Co-op Radio's Redeye for that last segment. Today's episode has been archived on our website at deconstructingdinner.ca and posted under the August 13th 2009 episode.

 

ending theme

 

JS: And that was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner produced and recorded at Nelson British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host, Jon Steinman. I thank my technical assistant, John Ryan.

 

The theme music for Deconstructing Dinner is courtesy of Nelson-area resident, Adham Shaikh.

 

The radio show is provided free of charge to campus radio stations across the country and relies on the financial support from you, the listener. Support for Deconstructing Dinner can be donated online at deconstructingdinner.ca or by dialing 250-352-9600.

 


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