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Food's Big-Picture Guy

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I wish Olivier de Schutter had the power to match the acuity of his analysis, but it's great that we've had an advocate whose vision is as broad as that of the corporations who have for the last 50 years determined global food policy. Since 2008, the human rights lawyer has had the title of United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food. (His second three-year term ends this week.) This is obviously not a genius marketing title and, even worse, the position carries no real power.

Still, the notion of an impartial observer who can see trends as corporations do - across political borders, and agnostic to them - is a valuable one. It's easy enough for individual Americans to see how our problems may resemble Canada's; it's much more difficult to imagine ourselves struggling the way Indonesians do. That's what De Schutter has done: shown us that the issues with the food system are as global as trade.

With increasing depth, De Schutter has analyzed a food crisis that is international and systemic, with common threads in countries rich and poor. He's revealed how we can change things, how the will of the citizens and countries of the world can be powerful tools in making a new food system, one that is smart and sustainable and fair. "All over the world," he says, "food systems are being rebuilt from the bottom up, often on a small, city-wide scale. That's food democracy, which should be promoted just as in the early 20th century people dreamt of workplace democracy."

De Schutter's job has been to travel the world, observe and report. He's spent time in countries as disparate as Malaysia and Mexico. During his term, he says, the "entire discourse" about food has changed (these quotes are from conversations we've had over the years and a phone interview this past Monday), and that more and more the solutions are seen to be moving away from what he calls "productivism": the focus on chemically intensive monocrop agriculture with high yields and cash profits as the main goals.     


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