The Battle for Food

Small Farmers vs. Big Corporations: Who Wins? Book review by Claude Forthomme

Food Security Governance, Empowering communities, regulating corporations by Nora McKeon,  Routledge’s Critical Security Studies, February 2015. $38.

The battle between rural communities and big corporations is a modern replay of David vs. Goliath. And it’s a battle that concerns all of us, as Nora McKeon, a political scientist and the author of three books on the United Nations and civil society, reminds us  in her latest, just-published book, Food Security Governance. She  reveals the complexities of the world food crisis and provides a unique chronicle of how this battle landed at the United Nations.

The book opens with a vivid account of the food riots that erupted around the world in 2008 when spikes in food prices sent thousands of people protesting in the streets, from Cairo to Lima. And it reminds us that such episodes will happen again and again as food price volatility has become a permanent feature of our food production system.

algeria food rio

Hunger – especially in developing countries – is only one of the recurrent problems. Others are rising food waste, greenhouse gas emissions, health problems like obesity and diabetes that affect all of us in the developed world.

How did this happen and what can be done?

Nora McKeon provides exhaustive and highly informed answers, revealing the forces at play.

On one side, you have the big “modern” producers, transnational corporations like Cargill and Monsanto whose large-scale, export-oriented industrial agricultural model based on all the latest technologies, GMOs included, threatens Nature’s balance.

On the other side, you have local food systems run by traditional communities of small farmers with a deep knowledge of their land and an ancestral respect for Nature. And, though modest, they are still the food providers for most of the world.

But if transnational corporations can have it their way, not for long.

The battle, really a war, is taking place largely in the “Global South“, where land and water grabbing are among the major tactics employed by transnational corporations, but it is also happening in the “Global North” as farmers in the United States and other advanced countries are turned into “contract farmers” working for agribusiness giants and relentlessly forced to produce more for a lower price – and ever lower returns. Contract farmers are pushed into a new kind of poverty, the case, for example, of contract poultry farming in the United States where the big companies enjoy 20 to 30% returns on their investment compared to 1 to 3% for the contract farmers working for them.


The menacing cover of Nora McKeon’s book perfectly reflects the war-like dimension of modern agriculture. This raging food war, as she explains in her book, has now moved to the United Nations – specifically to FAO, the UN specialized agency for food and agriculture. Its Committee on World Food Security (CFS), long a dormant intergovernmental forum, was reformed in 2009 and opened up to civil society. As a result, the CFS is, in Nora McKeon’s words, “unprecedented in the history of UN intergovernmental forums.” For the first time, social movements are “allowed in the room” with governments (p.107). The CFS is the locus of many innovations, including the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM), a new way for civil society to organize itself and dialogue with governments. Although complex and slow, it works and wields a form of “soft power”, forcing governments to pay attention.

Battles Won, Battles Lost

So far, progress has been made on two fronts: (1) access to land and (2) investment in agriculture. Of the two, access to land is further along, with the adoption in 2012 of the “Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land and Other Natural Resources”.

Since the Guidelines are based on the principles of universal human rights, they are, as Nora Mc Keon points out, “legally relevant at national and international levels even though it did not prove politically possible to eliminate the term ‘voluntary’ from the title.” But battles were won on several critical issues, including the protection of customary tenure and a strong gender approach, although, as the author notes, “the Guidelines did not address some of the issues the social movements felt were important, like the water grabbing which so often accompanies land grabbing or the qualitative question of how land should be used and managed sustainably.” (p. 161)

Thus, a victory, certainly, but only a half one. Moreover, as the author argues, implementation of the Guidelines is stalled as Big Business lobbies have succeeded in moving some of the planned follow-up mechanisms for implementation of the Guidelines outside of FAO, in institutions that are more favorable to the Agrifood complex, like the International Land Coalition (ILC), UN-Habitat, the World Bank and others.

02-19-quinoa2   In the photoQuinoa famers in Bolivia show off their latest crop which could help promote food security and eradicate poverty. Photo: Claudio Guzmán/FAO

As the food security war plays out, this book apportions blame to certain players that one might have expected to be on the side of rural communities, like the World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the G8 and G20 where heads of governments tend to support the Big Business agenda.

The author provides convincing evidence that this is the reason why progress on the investment front has stalled. As the book went to press (at the end of 2014), the final outcome is not yet known as civil society is prepared to “negotiate strongly and to react forcefully if it judged that the document adopted by governments is not acceptable.” The war is not ended, “more efforts are needed in analyzing the nature of markets that are congenial to smallholders…” (p.180).

In short, what this book argues is that what is needed is a paradigm shift away from the “agribusiness” vision of agricultural development.

Some of the battles have been lost, notably the one on biofuels (where Brazil plays on the other side) and the little understood price volatility dossier, as explained in detail (p. 182 and ff.)  But not all is lost, Nora McKeon is fairly optimistic. A step forward was taken, she notes, when the CFS adopted in October 2012 the Global Strategic Framework for Food Security and Nutrition (GSF) which recognizes the right to food and food security rather than economic growth of “free” trade as organizing principles. But of course, it’s only a “framework”, and the battle over the next few years will be in fleshing it out.

Food Sovereignty: The Way Out?

This is a book that gives the reader a sense of fear for the outcome – yet the author, a convinced supporter of social movements, strongly believes in their ability to change the current paradigm: “this time may be different,” she writes, “it may prove possible to leave capitalism behind us as an organizing principle of human society” (p.197). The book posits that “The food sovereignty movement constitutes a counter-force that has the potential of substantially altering the basis of food regime organization by helping to fragment global hegemony and reconstitute a territorially rooted and governed approach to food provision.”

Food sovereignty is the new paradigm: it is “rights based, including the rights of Mother Earth. It is attentive to ecology, the environment and biodiversity. It fights climate change and builds resilience. It is territorially rooted, bridges the distance between producer and consumer, and furnishes healthy food for all.” (p.198)

In short, whatever you find that’s good in your plate is what your local farmer is putting into it.

Rural food market, Assam, India                     In the photo: Food market in Assam by Michael Foley

This is a book that successfully demolishes the arguments of agrifood transnational corporations that they alone hold the solution to the food crisis and it provides a unique, in-depth look into the working of the CFS and how the food battle is waged at the United Nations. And Nora McKeon, with her liberal background (her father was one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and her years in FAO where she closely followed the CFS (and she still does while teaching at the Sapienza University in Rome), is particularly well positioned to provide deep insights into what is really happening at the international level – how the food war is waged and the outlook.

This is a must read for UN diplomats, and more broadly, for social activists and academics, but also for people simply interested in understanding exactly why the food they eat is the way it is, either wrapped in plastic, genetically modified and filled with hormones or not…

One can only regret the wholesale acceptance of the environmentalist argument that GMOs are universally bad and should be rejected which denies the science behind them. In my view, what is wrong with the GMOs is not that they are evil per se – on the contrary, they can help diminish the use of chemicals and augment phyto-resilience. The crucial question is how they are managed (and often mis-managed). What is needed is serious oversight from health authorities and a fair intellectual property system that recognizes and protects traditional seeds held by smallholders since they often provide the genetic foundation for engineering GMOs.

My expectation is that Nora McKeon in her next book will address the “issue of whether coexistence of local food systems with export-oriented large-scale agriculture is possible” (p.181). As she notes, this has not been addressed by social movements, and for the moment, the question whether smallholder agriculture can in fact feed the fast rising urban population remains open. What is needed, as she argues, are proposals to improve local producers’ revenues – if none are forthcoming, smallholders will surely follow the example of farmers in the Global North and become “contract farmers”. Such an unfortunate “solution” to the food crisis would come at the expense of the environment and local food traditions – a loss for everyone concerned, urban consumers and farmers.

About the Author /

Claude Forthomme is a writer and an economist. A graduate of Columbia University, Claude held a variety of jobs before starting a 25-year career at the United Nations (Food and Agriculture), ending as Regional Representative for Europe and Central Asia. She authored many fiction books under various pen names in both English and Italian; she is considered a prime exponent of Boomer literature and has founded the Boomer Lit Group on Goodreads. Her poetry has been included in "Freeze Frame", an international poetry anthology curated by British poet Oscar Sparrow (Gallo Romano Media, 2012).


  • Marsha Roberts

    April 28, 2015

    Thank you for shedding light on such an extremely important issue, Claude. As always your articles are thorough and compelling.

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