A Tale of Two Food Prizes

logoWhat’s in a prize? The politics of distribution versus growth.

On October 14th in Des Moines, Iowa, the Food Sovereignty Prize will be awarded to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, run by African-American farmers of the southern United States and to OFRANEH—the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña).

The next day, hundreds of distinguished international guests will also gather in Des Moines, Iowa as Sir Fazle Hasan Abed accepts the World Food Prize in the name of BRAC—the world’s largest non-governmental rural development agency.

Both prizes are awarded in recognition of the fight against hunger. That’s where the similarity ends and the lesson begins.

Founded in 1986 by the “father of the Green Revolution” Norman Borlaug, the World Food Prize typically celebrates technological innovations that increase agricultural yields. This is because the award committee assumes that there is not enough food in the world to feed everyone. Actually, over the last four decades we have consistently produced 1 ½ times enough food for every man, woman and child on the planet. Yet, over a billion people are still hungry and malnourished because they are too poor to buy food. Awarding the Word Food Prize to BRAC should be a reminder that poverty, not scarcity, is the main cause of world hunger.  

Sir Fazle’s knighthood and 20 international awards all attest to the positive impact of BRAC’s anti-poverty work. Their selection was a safe move for the World Food Prize, which has been roundly criticized for giving the award to yet another Green Revolution scientist last year and to a triad of biotechnology scientists from the private sector the year before. BRAC will undoubtedly help restore some of the Prize’s lost luster in a world were genetic engineering has lost much of its credibility.

Does this award reflect a shift in the World Food Prize’s paradigm? Is the emblematic lightship of the Green Revolution ready to admit that hunger will not be ended by dint of a continuous flow of industrial crop varieties and chemical inputs? Not likely. A review of nearly thirty years of Food Prize laureates reveals a smattering of recipients who do not fit the dominant Green Revolution paradigm (Hans Herren, Muhammad Yunus, George McGovern and Robert Dole, among others). While the Prize entertains intermittent forays into areas of food aid, economic development and even agroecology, it always returns, lemming-like, to its foundational discourse: to end hunger we must double food production. The corollary to this theorem is that only chemically-based, industrial agriculture is up to the task.

That the planet has been overproducing food for nearly half a century is irrelevant to Green Revolution champions. That agroecological methods of production are cheaper, more accessible and consistently more productive and climate resilient than anything the Green Revolution has on offer, is also quietly swept under the rug in the yearly World Food Prize celebrations.

The destitute farmers producing over half the world’s food—primarily peasant women—make up most of the world’s hungry. They need more land, more water and a larger share of the food dollar. But the World Food Prize does not understand hunger or poverty as a problem of resource distribution. Rather, the World Food Prize believes that hunger and food insecurity are the result of scarcity. Whatever the problems underlying poverty and world hunger—in the Global South and the Global North—the solution for hunger is always the same: growth. Growth in productivity, growth in commercial inputs, growth in credit, growth of global markets…

But global food supply has been growing at 12% per capita a year for several decades. At the height of the global food crises of 2008 and 2011, the world saw record-breaking grain harvests. The problem of hunger is poverty. Resource-poor farmers—who make up 70% of the world’s hungry—are forced to sell their harvest cheaply (because they are poor). Later, when their own supplies run out and prices rise, they go hungry because they can’t afford the food in the markets. The steady spread of high-external input, plantation agriculture—largely soy for livestock, cane and maize for biofuels and oil palm—pushes smallholders and pastoralists off the land, destroying their livelihoods, increasing poverty and hunger even as more food is produced.

Why does the World Food Prize insist that the answer to hunger is growth?

Because a focus on growth allows us to ignore the problems of inequity, exploitation and the growing disparity of wealth in the world. It allows us to ignore the issue of resource distribution—and its corollary: re-distribution. Eighty-four individuals now own as much wealth as half of the world’s population. The growing wealth gap is causing hunger. It is easy to talk about baking an ever bigger pie. It’s much harder to talk about who get the biggest piece, or who gets to cut the pie.

This political convenience becomes evident when we look at the Food Sovereignty Prize, in many ways the antithesis of the World Food Prize. This prize has a shorter history (and an infinitely smaller budget) than the World Food Prize. This year’s laureates, the U.S.-based Federation of Southern Cooperatives and OFRANEH were chosen for their steadfast commitment to human rights and their historical resistance of oppression.

What do human rights and oppression have to do with hunger? Everything.

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, founded in 1967 came out of the civil rights movement when according to its founders, as a black person in the rural south,

You took your life in your hands when you went anywhere. Particularly if you were going somewhere where they were talking about freedom and independence and cooperative farming.”  

For four decades across 16 southern states, the Federation has promoted Black and family owned farms, coops, training in sustainable agriculture, forestry, management and marketing, and has advocated in the courts and state and national legislatures for the rights of Black farmers. They have stood up against the steady trend in Black land loss that has gone from a peak of 14% to less than 1% of agricultural land in the United States. Ben Burkett, southern farmer and Director of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives (and president of the National Family Farm Coalition) states,

“Our view is local production for local consumption. It’s just supporting mankind as family farmers. Everything we’re about is food sovereignty, the right of every individual on earth to wholesome food, clean water, clean air, clean land, and the self-determination of a local community to grow and do what they want. We just recognize the natural flow of life. It’s what we’ve always done.”

Co-prize winner OFRANEH from Honduras came together in 1978 to protect the territories and the human rights of the Garifuna people of Honduras’ Atlantic coast. These descendants of African-Carib ancestry are a historically oppressed minority in Honduras. Their traditional lands are being grabbed by oil palm plantations and tourism developments. Because displacement and deforestation have made the Garifuna extremely vulnerable to the extreme weather events associated with climate change, OFRANEH works with local populations to build climate resilience. Says OFRANEH Coordinator Miriam Miranda,

“Our liberation starts because we can plant what we eat. This is food sovereignty. We need to produce to bring autonomy and the sovereignty of our peoples. If we continue to consume [only], it doesn’t matter how much we shout and protest. We need to become producers. It’s about touching the pocketbook, the surest way to overcome our enemies. It’s also about recovering and reaffirming our connections to the soil, to our communities, to our land.”

The difference between the World Food Prize and the Food Sovereignty Prize is the difference between entrepreneurial “empowerment” and real political power. While the former implies an increase in personal agency within the existing system—by becoming economically successful—the latter is about how the resources of that food system are allocated.  

When compared to BRAC’s impressive economic successes, the impacts of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and OFRANEH seem circumscribed, their positions romantic; small, grassroots Davids standing up to the Goliath of institutionalized racism and unstoppable global economic forces.

The World Food Prize provides us with an optimistic story of successful grassroots capitalism, while the Food Sovereignty Prize is a resistance story about hope against all odds. But these narratives actually distort our understanding of hunger and its causes. The fact is that for the vast majority of the world’s peasant farmers, BRAC’s successes are the exception rather than the rule. The default is land grabs, racism, hunger, institutionalized violence and climate disasters—the daily reality of the farmer and fisher families of OFRANEH and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.

If the entrepreneurialism promoted by BRAC is so good for rural people then why, after four decades and widespread international recognition, haven’t these alternatives become standard policy everywhere?

Clearly, farmers with BRAC are better off and their success stories should be celebrated and replicated. But giving prizes for optimistic alternatives should not blind us to the harsh realities of an economic system that prevents most farmers from accessing the coops, micro credit, training and services promoted by BRAC. Indeed, unless “empowerment” enables rural communities to protect themselves from the waves of dispossession and climate chaos resulting from global capitalism and the spread of industrial agriculture in the name of ending hunger, even these gains may be short-lived.

Economic development is necessary for the oppressed, discriminated and exploited communities of our food system. It is also insufficient. Not all growth benefits the poor. Indeed, much of it hurts them.  Economic growth without redistribution of power and wealth ultimately reinforces the existing systems of exploitation. Without political control over land, water, markets and food producing resources—without food sovereignty—rural people will be a tourist development or an oil palm plantation away from poverty and hunger.

What’s in a prize? A tale of two paradigms and the difference between optimism and hope, between food security and food sovereignty—between the status quo and the end of hunger.

Eric Holt-Giménez, Ph.D, is the Executive Director of Food First. 




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