On Saturday, an interesting sight greeted tourists emerging from Blackfriars station. Outside the imposing offices of corporate giant Unilever, 50 campaigners, growers and community activists from the expanding UK food sovereignty movement had built a pop-up community garden.
The action, one of five held around the UK, was timed to coincide with ‘hunger summit’ being held at Unilever as part of a series of events being hosted by the UK government as part of the G8. We were there to challenge the G8’s approach to global agriculture, known as the “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition”, which is seeing aid money support big business, and developing countries forced to implement policies which will exacerbate rather than reduce hunger. Our demand was for a shift away from this corporate-led approach to one that puts the demands of those who feed the majority of the world's population: “In defiance of the New Alliance; food sovereignty now!”
Unfortunately, our message didn’t appear to be heard inside the conference, with apparently not a single question from any of the delegates following Cameron's speech. (Although with reports that the event was “spectacularly dull”, perhaps this was because most people there were asleep.) But what exactly was the outcome of the event?
Delving behind the headline figures about sums of aid pledged (though not so far delivered), it’s far from clear. Number 10’s press release mentions a “global agreement” signed by world leaders that will “prevent millions of infant deaths”. Yet on closer inspection, the commitments are vague, and most of the signatories are developing country governments that would no doubt already have sorted out hunger and malnutrition in their own country given the opportunity. Many of the remaining signatories are among the world’s most powerful companies – including Associated British Foods (infamous for tax-dodging in Zambia), Cargill (accused of using child-labour in its supply chain) and BP (no explanation required) – who have apparently committed to a simple and meaningless piece of CSR in the form of “putting good nutrition at the core of business practice…by introducing a nutrition policy and improving policies for maternal health”.
If this four-page document isn’t so clear, perhaps Cameron’s speech can give us a clue? Speaking at the summit, the PM defended the UK's aid commitments and argued: “we should do things differently. We will never beat hunger just by spending more money… It’s all about helping those in developing countries take control of their own destiny.”
It might sound promising, but as the media coverage of Saturday’s events shows, the development debate has gone back to being a dumbed-down numbers game about how much aid has been pledged, and on the rare occasion when policy is talked about, it’s business as usual. The G8 countries could be using their power to reorient the food system in favour of the small-scale producers who feed most of the world’s population. But instead the New Alliance sets the trajectory firmly for developing countries to lose even more control of their own economies and resources, with the initiative already being dubbed 'structural adjustment 2.0'.
That’s why it’s more important that we build a strong and vocal food sovereignty movement in the UK. And things are looking promising: since the first ever gathering last year, there have been regional food sovereignty meetings and network building, and the Land Workers’ Alliance has become the first UK-wide member of the global peasant’s movement, La Via Campesina, which first coined the term food sovereignty. But we’ve got more work to do before we become a real force in the political debate – so get involved now!