The G8's widely publicised summit on food security has, in recent weeks, put conflicting narratives on the solutions to world hunger back into the global media spotlight. The summit appears to have been designed to give self-styled 'world leaders' the opportunity to massage their public image by appearing to take decisive action toward the noble goal of 'feeding the world'. However, it has unintentionally provided a platform for dissenting voices to question the intentions and vision of the G8 decision-makers.
These past weeks have served to highlight key disagreements about how best to achieve a solution to food poverty in a world where access to food, not inadequate production, is at the heart of hunger.
Battle lines have once again been drawn between the G8 members, and their opponents in the global food movement. The former, who continue to favour 'free market' based, neo-liberal solutions, talk about achieving food security - ensuring access to nutrition through a privatised, corporate-controlled food system. But farming and civil society movements around the world know from experience that this corporate agribusiness model serves to remove power from the hands of the very farmers and communities that they purport to help. Instead these movements are calling for Food Sovereignty - the right of peoples to control their own, localised food systems.
Numerous commentators have found the G8's New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition policies to be inexcusably ignorant of the root causes of hunger. George Monbiot relays how, to secure membership to the New Alliance, African nations will be required to bring in laws which vastly favour multinational private sector ownership of both land and seed. This will mean dispossessing small-scale land owners and imposing legislation which facilitates the buying up and patenting of seed by biotech companies, whilst making unregulated, local varieties of seed illegal. Yet it is these varieties which are locally adapted, and whose diversity meets the many nutritional and livelihood needs of African communities.
The direction proposed by the New Alliance ignores decades of farmer and development sector experience showing that livelihood loss is the first step on the road to destitution and hunger. The loss of seed diversity and biodiversity that large-scale GM mono-cropping entails is catastrophic, even without the looming spectre of climate change. Communities on the ground widely refute the benefits of the market-focused agribusiness interventions that are extolled in boardrooms and at exclusive, elitist conferences.
Each of the measures the New Alliance proposes, as part of a 'partnership' between it and African nations, is far more likely to benefit multinational corporations than national farmers. It will secure their access to the natural resources of a continent on a scale unseen since colonialism's heyday. The mechanisms are slyer but the principle is the same - the New Alliance is a means to legitimise the securing of the vast wealth of a continent through land grabbing, intellectual property and trade law.
Whilst these criticisms have been widespread, the possible alternatives for addressing the world's hunger problem have received little attention by comparison. Several articles and op-edshave referred to NGOs such as World Development Movement, Friends of the Earth and Via Campesina's opposition to the New Alliance. However, few if any have drawn on compelling examples of pioneering individuals working for food sovereignty at the grass roots level in the Global South.
This is a missed opportunity. It has never been more vital to tell the diverse stories of individuals working for just and inclusive solutions to hunger. It is their pioneering actions that can inspire others to know that there is another way; a fact the G8 are keen to downplay.
One man who can offer us some insight into what a more equitable, localized and democratic set of solutions might look like is Dr Debal Deb. A pioneering ecologist, he has been working alongside farming communities in India for decades, helping to conserve indigenous seed diversity and traditional farming methods threatened by the kind of 'development' the New Alliance is proposing.
Based amongst the Niyamgiri hills of the eastern Indian state of Orissa, Debal's farm, its bio-diverse surroundings and the many varieties of seed growing there, is a testament to his philosophy of lived conservation and holistic sustainability. Debal is a key proponent of the 'food web theory'. His firm belief is that maintaining seed diversity, and biodiversity of arable and non-arable land in general, leads to far healthier, climactically resilient local farming systems than industrial monocultures.
As part of his research Debal has saved over 920 varieties of locally adapted indigenous rice over almost twenty years. This is vital work in a country that has lost 90% of its seed diversity in rice seed alone. Saving these species involves the conservation of not only the
physical seed but also the generations of adaption that have endowed them with the ability to withstand drought, soil salinity and other hardships. Debal has not done this work alone.
Working closely with small-scale farmers, Debal recognises the value of their rich knowledge of seed, the seasons and sustainability. These farmers are highly eco-literate, having worked with, bred and diversified their local seed for hundreds of years. Those who ignore their knowledge, skills and solutions in the debate over 'feeding the world' would do well to remember that farmers such as these still produce 70% of the worlds food supply.
Rather than ignoring these facts and casting the small-scale farmer as fodder for large-scale technological development, Debal works with them to revive their ecologically sound and productive methods of farming. In contrast to agribusinesses who seek claim intellectual property over seed in order to charge others to use it, Debal freely places this research and resources in the service of the local community. In such a way he has ensured that their combined efforts are socially equitable, sustainable and democratic.
The most recent manifestation of Debal's communal approach to the unification of science and agriculture is the construction of a community seed bank in Orissa. The third that Debal has constructed, built entirely using sustainably sourced local materials and labour will house hundreds of varieties of rice and act as an open access resource for and run by local communities.
The subject of a new Gaia Foundation film - The Farmer, The Architect and The Scientist - this democratically managed farmers' hub can be seen as a symbol of how Debal's work can inform the discourse surrounding food politics today.
Working with farmers as fellow scientists, in the laboratory that is their fields, Debal's greatest achievement may be to show how the narrative surrounding science and the environment can change. In his work, science is not a domineering force, it does not seek to unnaturally manipulate ecosystems nor supersede indigenous knowledge.
Instead, operating within nature's boundaries and recognising the equal worth of other knowledge systems, Debal Deb's efforts are re-empowering farmers, strengthening their livelihoods and dramatically reducing the likelihood of hunger.
This is food sovereignty in action, a glowing example of why investing time, effort and money in local agriculture and collaborative science, and handing back control to farmers- the guardians of our seed- holds the key to reducing hunger.
Debal's is not a story the G8, wedded to globalised top down intervention and food security, want to hear. But Debal and others are the seed heroes that the world needs to know about right now. As the shadow of the New Alliance looms, promising both monoculture of the fields and of the mind, stories of hope, rising from countries suffering hunger, have never been more important.