Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Food Sovereignty: what it means for Ireland

During Latin American Week in 2009, I attended “The bittersweet taste of globalised food” - a day of talks and workshops run by the Latin American Solidarity Centre. One of the speakers was the Mexican agrarian campaigner Alberta "Bety" Cariño Trujillo - a year before she was tragically assassinated by paramilitaries in Oaxaca, Mexico in April 2010. During a workshop we were asked to brainstorm ways in which food sovereignty could be applied to the Irish context. Through an interpreter, Bety suggested adopting the potato as a symbol in the same manner as maize has been used in Mexico. 

The potato is, of course, not indigenous to Ireland but originates closer to Bety's own homeland. However, it occurs to me that her suggestion was the seed from which this blog developed. Her dedication towards campaigning for agrarian movements and maintaining the integrity of indigenous food in the face of corporate dominance was an inspiration that drove me to think about the whole area of food culture. Bety believed wholeheartedly in food sovereignty - a topic which has received scant attention in public discourse. By its nature, it is a nebulous concept, defined thusly by the Declaration of Nyéléni:

"Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems."

It is the democratic essence of this concept that poses such a threat to corporate interests. It should be of no surprise that food campaigners, particularly in Latin America, live their lives under constant fear of violence. The global food industry is predicated on the notion that consumers must have as little control as possible over where their food is sourced. By distancing populations from food sources, the supermarket chains which now dominate the market demand dependence from their customers and in turn, from the producers who rely on them.

In Ireland, the topic of food sovereignty has barely been mentioned amongst the debates about Peak Oil and the mass return to the soil predicted in the wake of recession. Like concepts such as food culture and the Slow Food movement, it is a concept that few are familiar with. Perhaps this is due to a belief that such concerns are removed from the lives of ordinary people - a foodie fad that has little place in our current straitened times. However, as an island nation we are at the mercy of rising oil prices and other threats. Farming and rural life in general are now held in disdain by many - the vestige of a poverty-stricken past. The move away from agriculture has spelled disaster for many rural areas, but the increasing reliance upon supermarkets has also sounded the death knell for many artisanal and family-run businesses which formed the backbone of small communities.

The triumvirate of Tesco, Supervalu and Dunnes Stores dominate the Irish food market, which in itself demonstrates how divorced Irish people have become from the rural backbone of the food industry. Tesco alone rakes in a wider profit margin in Ireland than in any other country in the world, according to analysts. Oddly, Tesco - like its main rivals - does not disclose its profits in this country.

An example of how active and aware the people of Latin America have become concerning food issues is seen in the Peruvian government's recent ratification of a 10-year moratorium on the import of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). On the other hand, the Irish government has shown itself to be characteristically meek in the face of big business. In 2009, the cultivation of GMOs was banned and a 'voluntary' label for non-GM food introduced. Despite this, GM products continue to be imported from countries such as Argentina, Brazil and the U.S   in the form of animal feed. We have Bertie Ahern to thank for engineering the pivotal vote which allowed Monsanto corn to be imported into Europe, after being aggressively lobbied by members of the U.S. congress during the 1998 St. Patrick's visit to Washington. I queried the Department of Agriculture about their advocacy of GM products and received this reply:

"The marketing of GM crops within the EU is strictly controlled by legislation which has been jointly adopted by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Any company wishing to place on the market a food or animal feed containing a GM ingredient must go through a robust assessment and authorisation process involving the European Feed Safety Authority."

It's likely that most Irish consumers are unaware that the meat products they consume are fed on genetically modified feedstuffs. The Irish government has clearly decided that it will sneak these unwelcome products into people's diets my hook or by crook. Proponents for GM claim that it is a necessary measure for feeding the world's hungry. 'Suicide genes', inserted into crops to prevent them from reproducing (a twisted form of copyright protection) deny farmers the right to save seeds - a freedom they have enjoyed for centuries. Farmers who adapt to genetically modified crops are forced to buy GM seeds, fertilizers and pesticides in perpetuity. Author Raj Patel, author of 'Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System', argues that investing in rural workers is the key to ensuring self-sufficiency. Encouraging and fostering the independence and self-reliance of farmers and small holders everywhere is the only way to ensure that food remains an inalienable right enjoyed by all.     

In recent years, Irish organizations like Grow it Yourself have sprung up as a means of support and information for people eager to take control of their own food supply. However, what is missing at the heart of such movements is a philosophy based on an indigenous Irish food ethic. In Mexico, the Zapatista Agrarian Indigenous Movement is known by the acronym MAIZ. The driving force behind this grassroots campaign is maize and its importance to the diet and food culture of Mexico.

In Ireland, we cannot point to the potato as our indigenous food as Bety Cariño suggested. We can, however, rediscover a vast tradition of food history all but forgotten in our collective struggle for cultural amnesia. Centuries of deprivation, war and famine have stunted the development of a food culture, preventing its evolution to the same level of sophistication and artistry seen in other European countries. We have lost our love for simple fresh ingredients, preferring to look for convenience, or else to imitate the styles of other cultures. Luckily, Irish Seed Savers, a seed bank dedicated to conserving native Irish strains has managed to rescue many unique varieties which would otherwise have been lost. Their commitment to maintaining the integrity of Irish food species and continuing a food tradition which is centuries old runs contrary to the prevailing ideology which states that Irish people must look outward for validation in all matters, including food matters. Surely eating - the most fundamental of all human functions and a ritual which helps affirm social bonds like none other - is more vital than this? 

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