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Tony Quizon

Asia today has many of the world's fastest growing economies, each competing for markets and investments by offering lower wages and working standards and providing the most attractive subsidised infrastructure. One consequence of the rush to integrate into the global economy is a drastic reorientation of agricultural priorities as basic food crops are phased out to devote lands to higher-value export products. The consequences are ominous: endangered food security, a degraded environment, uprooted rural communities, and greater dependence of the poor on the market for their survival.

The predictions are grim. In just a few years, Asia will be dependent on rice imports from other regions. Even today, one bad crop in Southern China alone could wipe out all surplus stocks on the global rice market. Our water resources are so badly mismanaged that some believe future wars will be fought, not over land, but over water. It is hard to believe that this is Asia, with its long history of food self-sufficiency deeply imbedded in a culture of community survival.

The change in priorities is reflected in international institutions as well as in Asia's rural villages. When it was founded 50 years ago, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) focused on farmers. Now its focus is on production. Then it was concerned with household food security. Now the focus is on markets and global surplus stocks and the lead role in dealing with issues of food and agriculture has been passed to financial institutions (such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank), the system of international agricultural research centres, the World Trade Organisation, and transnational corporations, which view food security solely as matters of money and technology.

When we speak of agriculture, are we thinking of the producers? Or only the production? When we speak of food security, are we referring to market-led food security? Or to farmer-led food security?

These were central questions raised at the September 1995 Asian NGO Workshop held in Quebec in preparation for the November 1996 World Food Summit in Rome. We concluded that if we truly believe the right to food is the right to life, then this right should supersede other secondary rights, including the right of corporations to profit in the presence of hunger or famine. Similarly, the right of landless farmers to cultivate idle private land to feed their starving families must supersede the property rights of the persons or corporations that may own that land. Imagine the agony of a landless worker peering over her neighbour's fence, and seeing vast tracts of idle land to which she has no access.

For small farming households in Asia, food security used to be a relatively simple affair: you reaped what you sowed, ate what you harvested, and traded your surplus. What the term hand-to-mouth implied was not a pitiful existence, but a noble life. Yet, in recent years, the market intruded between farmers and their harvests. Farmers were taught that to ensure food security for themselves and their families they must sell what they plant and buy what they eat.

Thus today, in fields that used to grow food, we find cut-flowers being cultivated for export. Other fields are transformed into food factories, and chemicals are dumped into their soils. And as farmers become increasingly alienated from their land and produce, they become careless about the environment. And why should they care? How can we expect of people to take care of the land that is not theirs?

Given today's harsh realities, the mere survival of small farmers is a living testimony to their hard work and ingenuity. Hidden from the probing eyes of the market, we find that farmers do know the dangers of chemicals. For while they may sell their pesticide-laden vegetables to the market, many also maintain a backyard plot of organically grown crops for their own family consumption.

We need an approach to food security that places farmers at the centre of agricultural research, technology development and extension. There are efforts all around Asia to establish community seed banks, carry out agrarian reform, restore the ecological vitality of local land and water resources, and help communities use alternative indicators of household food security as a basis for community planning. These efforts remind us that agriculture is a human enterprise to be carried out by and for people - not simply one more opportunity to enhance corporate profits. This is a message that Asian NGOs will be bringing with them to the forthcoming World Food Summit.

Tony Quizon is Executive Director of the Asian NGO Coalition, P.O. Box 3107, QCCPO 1103, Quezon City 1103, Philippines, fax (63-2) 921-5122, email and a contributing editor of the PCDForum. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on his presentation to the Global Assembly on Food Security, 8 October 1995, in Quebec, Canada.

Source: PCDForum Column #81, release date 1 June 1996.

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