Sustainable farming ideas cross boundaries at Mount Holyoke

This article originally appeared in the October 29 edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

By Steve Pfarrer

SOUTH HADLEY—It's a disturbing scenario that's been broached in the past and still has its adherents: The world is fast losing the ability to feed itself.

But food rights activist and rural development specialist Peter Rosset says the notion is flat-out wrong. "There's a vast reservoir of food production capacity out there that isn't being used ... if farming was done more sustainably and not just for profit, more land would be farmed and more people would be farming."

But that's the rub. As Rosset told Mount Holyoke students and faculty and others in the Valley this week, many people around the globe face chronic hunger and out-of-control food prices, largely because of international trade agreements that have led to corporate control of much of the world's food supply and the impoverishment of millions of small-scale farmers.

What's needed, he said, is an embrace of the idea of "food sovereignty" - the right of countries and people to have control over the production and distribution of their own food, rather than leaving it subject to international market forces.

Rosset, who has an extensive resume as a writer, teacher, and researcher on food issues, spent this week as a scholar-in-residence at Mount Holyoke, as part of the college's McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, a program that brings various experts to campus each fall to examine what Director Eva Paus calls "hot-button" issues that impact an increasingly globalized world and need to be examined through "an interdisciplinary approach," she says.

"Every year, it seems we've been able to bring in people to address topics that were amazingly timely," Paus said. The program's first scholar, in 2004, was Rami Khouri, executive editor of a major Lebanese newspaper and a prominent commentator on Mideast issues.

"When it comes to topical issues, it's hard to find one more relevant to all of us than food," Paus added.

Talking about food - specifically, the dramatic reforms he says are needed in the way it's grown, distributed and paid for - has kept Rosset on the go this week at Mount Holyoke. He's been a guest lecturer in a host of classes - economics, Latin American politics, medical ethics, global inequalities; given a campus address, led a faculty seminar, and met with students and professors.

"They've kept me busy," Rosset said with a laugh on Wednesday, after he taken part in Jens Christiansen's course "Introduction to the Global Economy." "But it's been a great experience." A native of New York who now lives in southern Mexico, where he is a researcher and coordinator for nonprofit groups studying rural issues such as land reform and food production, Rosset has previously taught at Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Texas, and in Cuba and Nicaragua.

A food critique

On Wednesday, he offered students from Christiansen's class a blunt critique of the global food system, saying it's been hijacked in the past 35-odd years by transnational corporations, agribusiness and trade policies in the United States and other major countries that have effectively saturated Third World nations with cheap export crops, in turn driving many indigenous farmers out of business.

"Until the 1970s, Third World countries were still mostly closed off" to corporations and global banking institutions like the International Monetary Fund, Rosset noted, and had tariffs and other protections for their crops and foodstuffs. Industrialized countries and banks later convinced many of these Third World nations to take on loans for development with a host of conditions. "One of them was 'Stop protecting your own food supply, because we want you to become a market for us.'"

As a consequence, he said, many poor countries have become reliant on food imports, in turn making them vulnerable to price spikes for crops in international markets, such as those that began in 2008 for corn, wheat and rice. In the U.S., meantime, subsidies that go primarily to large growers and agribusiness have depressed overall crop prices, hurting small growers while helping industrialized farming that relies heavily on petroleum and is harmful to the environment and food safety.

The students queried Rosset about some of the options that have been proposed to help smaller farmers. Claire Dunnigan said she had spent time on an Italian farm that serves as a model for agritourism. "Is that a viable avenue for farmers?" she asked.

"Agritourism is fine as a sideline," Rosset responded, "but it's no substitute for getting a fair price for your food."

Another student wondered about microlending, providing loans to growers who lack access to conventional banks, something Rosset called "vastly oversold." He said some farmers have been victimized by "usurious" interest rates by microlenders, even higher than those charged by conventional banks.

The only real solution to helping small farmers, he said, lies in the concept of food sovereignty, a term first coined by a movement called La Via Campesina, or The Farmers' Way - a grassroots coalition of small farmers, peasants, rural workers and indigenous communities in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe. Rosset, who does networking and outreach work for the coalition, says La Via Campesina calls for land reform, sustainable agricultural practices, and the strengthening of local markets - all steps that members say will make farming more profitable for small growers and produce healthier food.

Photo by Gazette photographer Gordon Daniels.