Oxfam campaign suggests fixes to the world's broken food system

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Our food system, as Oxfam's new report Growing A Better Future: Food justice in a resource-constrained world attests, is broken.

Almost one billion of us are hungry. Food prices have soared out of control, and beyond the reach of many of us. Just three corporations control the global grain trade. Cash-poor farmers are selling their land to speculators who gamble that land for food will be at a premium soon, or to governments intent on shoring up their own national food security. Prime farmland is sold for more lucrative real estate development. Farmers' net income in Canada has plummeted to the level of the 1930s (adjusted for inflation); farmers globally have left the land in droves. In India thousands of small farmers succumb to unsustainable debt-loads and commit suicide, often by drinking the same pesticides that drove them into debt.

Yesterday Oxfam launched a four-year campaign to fix the food system. The GROW campaign combines top-down policy advocacy with bottom-up organizing and support for local organizations. The goal is to restore sustainability and justice to a tragically failing food system.

Who are the hungry? Oxfam Canada Executive Director Robert Fox reports that 15 per cent of the world's population do not know where their next meal is coming from. Another 25 per cent are one personal or household disaster away from hunger -- a lost job, a once-in-a-lifetime flood, sudden illness, displacement from war. The majority of the hungry are rural women and their children; the majority are also the main food providers in most cultures -- planting, harvesting, processing, preparing and marketing food. How does hunger feel for these 40 per cent struggling with food insecurity? It reduces concentration; affects physical development including the brain; compromises the immune system; in short, for 40 per cent of the planet's residents, we are losing their creativity, energy and talent. As Robert Fox states, "It is a sorry morass of tales of woe."

Oxfam's solutions are place and culture specific, as well as oriented to global policy changes. They ignite "community conversations" which create safe spaces for people to talk about local issues (particularly important for issues around women's rights and leadership). They support asset-based mapping projects which identify the local resources, from concrete resources like water and roadways to social resources like knowledge and skills.

For instance, one project in Ethiopia identified an important and under-utilized skill among the women who directly handled and prepared the millet grain (while men do the bulk marketing). The women were able to develop a grading system with premium and higher priced grades. The women also provided techniques to replace expensive chemical inputs with animal manures. Since the women tend the oxen used for plowing, it was easy for them to add a few cows to their herds with the money saved. The new cows provided a daily income (dairy) as well as a source of new cows to share with other women farmers. The project created enough cash for the women to pay school fees for their daughters instead of putting them to work.

The GROW campaign is three-pronged. First, Oxfam advocates increased support for small-scale producers, particularly women, and an elimination of agricultural subsidies (which largely benefit large agri-businesses like Cargill). Second, the equity challenge: Oxfam advocates the elimination of gender discrimination in agricultural systems, and the provision of equal access to land ownership, capital and markets for rural women. In addition, they advocate equity between North and South to reduce the uneven playing field. We must dismantle the subsidy and food aid system that allows the North to dump food in southern markets at prices so cheap that local producers cannot compete. The final challenge for those of us who want to eat is the resilience challenge -- the increase in climate chaos across the world as the temperature rises and the planet responds accordingly.

Oxfam's Robert Fox cautions against complacency in Canada. Although we are a relatively wealthy country, our farmers are giving up in despair (over 60,000 since 1991). We are suffering an expanding national crisis of food-related illness, including obesity and diabetes, while over 14 per cent of the population experience food insecurity annually. The food crisis is global and our responsibilities are correspondingly global. More information and Oxfam's new report is available here.

Sally Miller is the author Edible Action, published by Fernwood Publishing, and is involved with Toronto's West End Food Co-op, Fourth Pig Worker Co-op and other amazing co-ops.

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