Interview with Walden Bello

We conducted an interview with the Filipino scholar-activist Walden Bello for our site Siyada. We asked him some questions in order to further our understanding of the food sovereignty project in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as to shed some light on the recent developments of the global situation where transnational Companies (TNCs) continue to control global supply chains. Walden Bello provides us with a general summary of his perspectives and methodology presented through his recent study published in Arabic on our website.

In the following, we offer our readers a rich interview:

“We must see the opportunity to relocalize production not only during this emergency but strategically, for the long term”

1- In the context of the many discussions sparked by the global health crisis and in the midst of a frantic race to find an effective vaccine against Covid 19, in your opinion, what is the importance or relevance of the food sovereignty project and how can we shed light on it?

I think Covid 19 is both a terrible tragedy as well as an opportunity.  Covid 19 is not only a disease that has taken a terrible toll of human life.  It is also a product of the unrestrained human plunder of our forests, stemming from the commercial exploitation of wildlife, in this case, anteaters that transmitted the Novel coronavirus from bats to humans.  Capitalism has destroyed the balance that traditional societies achieved with their ecology, and a blowback like this was bound to occur sooner or later.

But Covid 19 has a silver lining.  Owing to the crisis of global and regional food supply chains, we can take the opportunity to relocalize food production and revive agricultural production and rural communities that had been destabilized and eroded by these supply chains.

2- The major capitalist companies control the food supply chains in the world, which increases the possibility that entire populations will be exposed to hunger when they are unable to pay for imports or as a punishment for political ends. How do we get rid of this dilemma in the long term?

We must see the opportunity to relocalize production not only during this emergency but strategically, for the long term.  There must be no going back to corporate supply chains after the pandemic subsides, though, of course, there will be great pressure from vested interests to do do.

3- “Never let a good crisis go to waste: The Covid-19 pandemic and the opportunity for food sovereignty” is a title of a study that you wrote and that we translated into Arabic and published on our site. Can you first briefly summarize for our readers the main arguments of that study?

The main arguments are

  • Covid 19 has shown the vulnerabilities of global and regional supply chains to disruption caused by pandemics and cataclysms.
  • In the short term, governments are closing borders not only to travel but to the long-distance transportation of goods, including food. Communities themselves, as in Argentina, have prevented the entry of transport vehicles for fear they are carriers of the virus.
  • With food supplies dwindling and prices soaring, a crisis is emerging for communities that have become dependent on imports of food from long distances.
  • This has created demand for locally produced food, with local farmers filling the demand from urban centers.  However, inappropriate government-imposed public health measures are sometimes preventing farmers from supplying much needed food.
  • The crisis, and in some cases, the collapse of Transnational Companies (TNC)-controlled supply chains shows the importance of localizing food production and achieving food self-sufficiency and reversing the process whereby some 50 per cent of food consumption in China and Southeast Asia and close to 20-30 per cent in India, Latin America, and parts of Africa are now controlled by distant global and regional suppliers.
  • Relocalizing food production must be guided not only by the principle of food self-sufficiency but also by that of “food sovereignty” which says, among other things, that a) the production and consumption of food must be determined principally by local needs and preferences; b) that production of food for domestic consumption must take priority over production for export; c) that production of food must be done through processes that, unlike global supply chains, radically reduce carbon emissions; d) that production must be done mainly by smallholders; e) that the technology of production must creatively combine innovative but safe and ecologically and socially benign methods with proven traditional methods; and that f) agroecological methods that limit external inputs and encourage an internally self-sustaining processes must be promoted and diffused widely.

4- In the light of the weakness of progressive organizations that seek to achieve food sovereignty, it seems that it’s the major transnational companies that are wasting no opportunities in benefitting from crises. How realistic is that opportunity for food sovereignty is in your view?

As I said, after the pandemic, there will be a big push on the part of the transnational corporations to reestablish their global and regional supply chains.  If the local producers that stepped into the breach and established links with local retailers and consumers get organized, however, they will be in a better position to resist the TNC onslaught.  The producers must form alliances with the retailers and consumers based on their ability to deliver better quality products health-wise and taste-wise than the TNC’s.  The TNC’s will try to get back to their position of dominance through low, subsidized prices; so it is important for the local alliances of producers, retailers, and consumers to get the government to levy high taxes on the products of the TNC’s as well as the profits of the latter.

5- North Africa is one of the areas known to witness an expansion of intensive and export-oriented agribusiness with all the associated environmental impacts and the brutal exploitation of agricultural workers. How do you see this type of industrial capitalist agriculture? And based on your experience, how can food producers’ organizations fight against this agricultural model?

This type of industrial capitalist agriculture is very damaging on many different dimensions.  TNC’s engaged in industrial agriculture are extremely exploitative in terms of their relationship with contract farmers, who have very little leverage on the terms of the contract they have with the former.  Thus they contribute to growing inequality.  They promote genetically engineered seeds as well as chemical intensive agriculture, thus posing a threat both to public health as well as to the climate owing to uncontrolled carbon emissions.  They super-exploit migrant workers, who have to suffer not only low wages but also bad working conditions while also being deprived of permanent resident status.  I see no other way to resist them except to build strong producer organizations, with strong links to academic people, consumer groups, and to key government agencies.  These types of alliances is what has prevented substantial inroads of Genetically Engineered (GE)-based food production in parts of SubSaharan Africa, though that resistance has to be strengthened.

6- We would like you to share with us some information about ongoing struggles and experiences of small farmers or indigenous people in the region that you come from?

The struggle against TNC’s, GE seeds, and global and regional chains were ongoing in Southeast Asia before Covid 19.  The struggle for food sovereignty has been bound up with the struggle for land reform in the Philippines, which unfortunately has stalled owing to great landlord resistance to land redistribution.  In Thailand, small farmers that were favored by the populist policies of the governments connected with Thaksin Shinawatra have lost influence ever since the government of Thaksin’s sister Yingluck was overthrown in 2014.  Meantime, the giant, Thailand-based CP food corporation has extended its supply-chain tentacles throughout Southeast Asia, to the detriment of local food producers.  In Myanmar, agriculture is still mainly done by smallholders that are not integrated into global and regional supply chains, but the Asian Development Bank and the Food and Agricultural Organization are pushing to integrate them into these chains.  A number of NGO’s are assisting farmers in resisting this trend, with limited success.

7- La Via Campesina, a global movement was able to organize millions of peasants in the world and promote progressive concepts such as food sovereignty in light of the globalized neoliberal assault and the consolidation of food dependency like in our region, North Africa. Can the movement be considered one of the possible international alternatives in the face of capitalism?

Yes, Via Campesina’s great advantage is that it was brought into being mainly by peasant leaders and continues to be led by peasant leaders.  These leaders and their organizations have formed very productive links with NGO’s as well as with agrarian academic specialists in many universities throughout the world that have advised them on how to integrate peasant smallholder methods of production with agroecology and other socially and ecologically technologies.  I have a lot of confidence in the future of Via Campesina.

8- A final word

Some 70 per cent of the world’s food is still being produced by peasant smallholders.  Alternative agriculture has a large potential mass base.  But we have a lot of work to turn that potential base into reality.

To read Walden Bello’s study in English:

To read it in Arabic: