A twentieth anniversary invites reflection. Reflection on where we came from, the path we have travelled, and the challenges ahead. Without pretending to provide a full analysis, we present below some discussion on this. In the process, we have talked to many of the people who have accompanied us over the last two decades, and asked them about the paths that they have taken, and for their reflections on the struggle for a better food system and a better world. Some of their responses are included in the text and accompanying boxes.
When we set up GRAIN back in 1990, we were keen to influence the international fora that were drawing up agreements around seeds and biodiversity. We often found ourselves at the FAO in Rome, where governments were negotiating an agreement on the rules of the game for conserving and exchanging seeds and benefiting from seed diversity. Those were also the days when the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was taking shape, which was eventually signed into existence in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit. Just before that, we were deeply involved in the campaign against the patenting of life forms, and organised a major conference at the European parliament to denounce the plans of the European Commission to create a piece of legislation that would permit this. At the same time, we participated in a three-year “multi-stakeholder” dialogue, organised by the Keystone Foundation, which got us to sit at the table with other NGOs, government officials and people from the seed and biotechnology industries and from agricultural research institutes, trying to find some consensus on how to save and use the world’s agricultural biodiversity.
“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples, countries, and state unions to define their agricultural and food policy without the dumping of agricultural commodities into foreign countries. Food sovereignty organises food production and consumption according to the needs of local communities, giving priority to production for local consumption. Food sovereignty includes the right to protect and regulate national agricultural and livestock production and to shield the domestic market from the dumping of agricultural surpluses and low-price imports from other countries. Landless people, peasants, and small farmers must get access to land, water, and seed, as well as productive resources and adequate public services. Food sovereignty and sustainability are
a higher priority than trade policies.” (Via Campesina, The International Peasant’s Voice: www.viacampesina.org)
What was driving us then? We were concerned about the increasing concentration in the global seed industry, which was then being taken over by transnational agrochemical and pharmaceutical corporations, leading to an ever stronger push for monocultures and uniform seeds all over the world. We were worried about emerging new technologies, such as genetic engineering, that would push diversity further towards extinction and tighten the corporate grip on farmers and the global food system. We were alarmed by legislation being proposed in a number of industrialised countries that would allow for the patenting of life forms and the privatisation of the very building blocks of life. And we noticed that the institutional response to the rapid decline of agricultural biodiversity was limited to collecting seeds from farmers’ fields and storing them away in genebanks.
The panorama around us was bleak and the fight fierce, but we thought we could achieve something by lobbying governments and delegates to stop these developments and to support instead the contribution and role of small farmers. Judging from the growing debate around genetic engineering, the massive participation of civil society in the 1992 Earth Summit, and the subsequent meetings of the CBD and other environmental fora, this optimism was shared by many. But, as the 1990s evolved, a cruder reality became apparent. Increasingly, the shaping of agriculture and food production, and the role of transnational corporations in it, were defined elsewhere: in corporate boardrooms and in trade ministries. The 1990s were also the decade of the establishment and rise of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), where, shielded from the critical eyes of civil society organisations, a ruthless neoliberal trade agenda was being forced upon the world, especially on “developing” countries that still had some level of market protection. More economic growth and international trade at any cost had become the central dogma of all policies. And no treaty or agreement related to environmental or agricultural issues was allowed to interfere with this vital concern.
Then came Seattle in 1999. The confrontation between governments trying to push the world further down the neoliberal route with a new WTO agreement, and social movements taking to the streets to stop them, had a powerful impact on both the WTO and on the people and organisations fighting for a better world. The WTO never fully recovered from the blow, and the industrialised countries, in response, started signing bilateral or regional trade agreements instead, to secure their interests. To the social movements and NGOs involved in fighting the neoliberal corporate agenda came the realisation that we could actually win by having a clear, radical and coherent line of analysis and action.
Another world is possible
Often hidden from view, and unexposed at international fora, were the organisations and movements that were quietly resisting and building at the local level. The importance of these experiences became forcefully clear to GRAIN when we got ourselves involved in the “Growing Diversity” project.1 During a three-year period (2000–2003), this project worked with hundreds of organisations around the world to discuss, analyse and document the experiences of groups working at the local level to build local food and agricultural systems based on biodiversity. A massive amount of evidence came out of this project that an agriculture different from the one being promoted by the industrial powers and corporations was not only possible, but also more productive, more sustainable, and better for the farmers and communities involved. It became clear to us that the work at local level of organisations and communities resisting the neoliberal onslaught while developing strong alternatives was the backbone of any struggle to bring this other world into being.
There was another development in the first decade of the present century that started strongly influencing agendas around agriculture and food systems. This was the emergence of the call for food sovereignty and the growing presence and maturity of small-farmer organisations such as Via Campesina. Via Campesina was created in 1993, and erupted on the international stage at the global civil society forum held parallel to the 1996 world food summit in Rome, where it launched food sovereignty as the alternative framework for a global world food system. Food sovereignty articulates the prioritisation of food policies oriented towards the needs of local communities and local markets, and based on local knowledge and agro-ecological production systems (see Box: “Food Sovereignty” on page 4). For the first time, the global movement for a different food system had a concept and an action agenda that connected all the dots, brought together local and international struggles, and formed a basis for building alliances between different social movements and NGOs. In the decade that followed, many more groups and movements started to use food sovereignty as their framework for action, and this framework was articulated and further elaborated in numerous international and regional fora. The movement received a tremendous boost at the global food sovereignty forum held in Nyeleni, Mali, in 2007, at which organisations representing small farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, indigenous peoples, women and youth joined with NGOs and groups from the environmental movement to further articulate a common action agenda for the future.
In the late 1990s, GRAIN embarked on an ambitious and radical decentralisation process that would bring us much closer to regional and local realities and struggles, and transform us into a truly international collective (see Box: “A brief history of GRAIN”). This process transformed GRAIN’s agenda as well. The increased exposure to local struggles and social movements made us realise that we could not limit our work to the issue-oriented agenda of agricultural biodiversity, and we gradually broadened our focus to deal with the wider food system. As a result, we were able to produce new analysis and fresh thinking on issues such as agrofuels, hybrid rice, bird flu, swine fever, the food crisis, climate change and land grabbing, and connect them with the struggles for food sovereignty. At the same time, we strengthened and deepened our relationship with – and support role to – groups in Africa, Asia and Latin America. “Think globally, act locally” became GRAIN’s very way of working.
A brief history of GRAIN
GRAIN’s work goes back to the early 1980s, when a number of activists around the world started drawing attention to the dramatic erosion of genetic diversity – the very cornerstone of agriculture. Our work began as research, advocacy and lobbying under the umbrella of a coalition of mostly European development organisations. The work soon expanded into a larger programme and network that eventually needed its own independent base. In 1990 Genetic Resources Action International, or GRAIN for short, was legally established as an independent non-profit foundation.
In the second part of the 1990s, GRAIN reached an important turning point. We realised that we needed to connect more with the real alternatives being developed on the ground in the South. Around the world, and at the local level, many groups had begun to rescue local seeds and traditional knowledge, and to build and defend sustainable, biodiversity-based food systems under the control of local communities, while turning their back on the laboratory-developed “solutions” that had only got farmers deeper into trouble. In a radical organisational shift, GRAIN embarked on a decentralisation process that brought us into closer contact with realities on the ground in the South and in direct collaboration with partners working at that level. At the same time, we brought a number of those partners into our governing body and started regionalising our staff pool. By the turn of the century, GRAIN had transformed itself from a mostly Europe-based information and lobbying group into a dynamic, truly international collective – functioning as one coherent organisation – that was linking and connecting with local realities in the South as well as with developments at the global level. In that process, GRAIN’s agenda shifted markedly, away from lobbying and advocacy, and towards directly supporting and collaborating with social movements, while retaining our key strength in independent research and analysis.
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