Hunger for change in the world food system

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What do you do if you’ve been fighting to put an end to free trade in agriculture for years, but nobody pays any attention? Dutch campaigner Guus Geurts has taken radical action: he’s been on hunger strike for the past 44 days. “This is the final remedy you can turn to as a peaceful activist.”

Geurts started his strike under medical supervision, angry at the lack of political response to his pleas and “in solidarity with the victims of human rights violations through European policy”. He’s lost 17 kilograms up to now.

No simple solutions

Robert Inklaar, a senior economics lecturer at Groningen University, says that free trade benefits developing countries. “Through free trade countries can specialise in what they’re good at. China and India have become wealthier in recent years by focusing on the international market.” But it’s more complicated with food, he warns. Free trade is to be recommended, but government intervention is also desirable. There are no simple solutions.

Wide of the mark
Keith Rockwell of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) agrees. “Developing countries need trade, we don’t have a ready-made solution to reduce poverty.” That’s also why, after ten years a WTO, Doha Settlement has yet to be agreed. Mr Inklaar thinks Geurts is “totally wide off the mark” with his hunger strike. “Everyone wants to reduce poverty, but it won’t happen through campaigns like this.”

His action is a plea for change in agricultural policy.

“The Western world takes possession of land in developing countries by importing soya, palm oil, and now also biofuel. At the same time, we [Europe] still produce surpluses of milk, pork and chicken, which are dumped in developing countries. This creates major problems for farmers and indigenous peoples in these countries.”

Only option
Small-scale farmers in developing countries are under pressure from two directions. On the one hand, the World Bank and international treaties oblige them to export a proportion of their produce.

On the other hand they can’t sell their produce in their own country, because surplus food products like chicken legs from Europe are flooding the market. A chicken farmer in Africa, for example, sees the opportunities in his own market dwindling. Free trade is at the root of the problem, according to Guus Geurts.

The activist has tried a range of approaches to draw attention to the issue. He’s taken part in demonstrations and debates, set up partnerships with farmers’ organisations and written a book. Various fasting campaigns haven’t gone far enough, he decided. He saw a hunger strike as the only option left to him to publicise his cause.

Mr Geurts believes free trade should be restricted and tariffs reintroduced.

“If you want to give the farmer in Africa a chance on the local market, you need a tariff, so products from outside Africa become more expensive to the retailers.”

Now living on a cup of stock every other day and a vitamin pill, Mr Geurts isn’t alone in his views. UN food rapporteur Olivier de Schutter also calls for a system that doesn’t disadvantage the small-scale farmer. But the matter isn’t so straightforward – something that will become only too apparent at the WTO summit in Geneva, which opened on Thursday.

The WTO actively stimulates international free trade agreements, much to Mr De Schutter’s dismay.

“One in seven people in the world is hungry, two billion people lack essential nourishment and are vulnerable to disease. That’s an outrage and it has to end.”

Hungerstrike has ended 

An update from Guus Geurts:
"I ended my hungerstrike on 14 December 2011, after a 43-day fast. My weight was just 61 kgs, way below the critical limit of 18 percent weight loss - I started out at 79 kgs. The Lower House is voting on 20 December about two crucial motions put forward by the Socialist Party, about a European ban on land grabbing and on the harmful effects that free trade treaties have on food security and land rights.
Link: More info about our actions."

Critical limit
But aren’t there too many international trade interests at stake for policy change to happen? De Schutter:

“The interests of importing and exporting companies are indeed so great that they have persuaded politicians to back this system. I argue that countries should first be given a chance to get their food production in order. And if there’s space for it, then you can still export.”

Geurts will probably end his hunger strike during the WTO summit.

“The doctor says I have to stop as soon as possible. My blood pressure is very low and it’s approaching the critical limit.” He has no wish to carry on to the bitter end. “I receive very kind emails from a lot of people saying they need me in the struggle.”