Jose Bové and Food Sovereignty: An Interview

Jose Bove

photo courtesy of Jose Bové
Jose Bové in 2018 at a demonstration against the construction of a new highway near Strasbourg.

  1. In the US, we heard a lot about you when you dismantled a McDonalds that was under construction, but we have not heard much since then. Please bring us up to date on your story.

Bové : Since 1999, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. Until 2003, I was spokesperson for the Peasant Confederation (Confederation Paysanne, which represents 20 percent of the farmers in France), and until 2005 for Via Campesina on food sovereignty. We launched a movement against GMOs in France which prevailed since there are no GMOs grown in France or in all of Europe, except for Spain. Starting in 2007, I believed that we should bring our ideas to the field of politics. That year I was a candidate for President of the Republic. In 2009, I participated along with Daniel Cohn-Bendit in the founding of Europe Ecologie, a new political party, and I was elected as a Member of the European Union and reelected in 2014. I almost forgot, my non-violent actions dismantling a MacDonald’s and tearing up GMO plantings earned me two summers in a row in prison. Then I was forbidden to visit the USA when I tried to travel there in 2007 since I had fought against Monsanto, an American company, and tarnished its reputation. It’s hard to sum up twenty years of my life in a few lines.

2. What are the historical roots of the term food sovereignty? Is there a connection with the Confederation Paysanne and the Confederation’s definition of Peasant Agriculture? What is the relationship between the Confederation and La Via Campesina?

Bové: The idea of food sovereignty was born in 1996 during the meetings organized by Via Campesina and other organizations for the defense of the environment, the rights of women and of indigenous peoples. The World Trade Organization was established in 1994. The international agreements turned agriculture and food into commodities like all others. Everything became subject to free trade. It quickly became clear to us that this would turn into a social, environmental and economic catastrophe in the countries of the North as much as in the countries of the South. Twenty-five years later, I have to say that we were right. Liberalization has fattened the big enterprises like Monsanto, Nestle, AGM, Cargill, while at the same time ruining millions of small-scale family farm-ers. Many of them had no other recourse than to join the exodus from the countryside to find a better future in the cities or in the North. The men and women who left their countries in Central America last year don’t want to go to the USA to live on welfare. They took to the roads because they can no longer live at home. In acting this way, they force us to act. We have two options: build a wall to keep them from crossing the border, or change the rules of international trade. It goes without saying, I am for the second option.

3. Is Food Sovereignty linked to particular farming practices? agroecology? organic? other?

Bové: The basis of food sovereignty is the right of a country or a group of countries to define the agricultural policies that seem best adapted to that country, its citizens and its environment. Food Sovereignty is first of all the capacity to produce the amount of the food the population needs and which is adapted to local tastes, to local cuisine, and to the environment. Except for fast food, people in Paris, Seoul, La Paz or Yaounde do not eat the same things. To be logical, it is obvious that the autonomy of farms must be developed and the way to do that is through organic agriculture. At the same time, it is not possible to continue specialized production of crops in some regions with animal breeding in others. Those activities should be linked. No manure, no food.

4. What is the relationship between Food Sovereignty and the concept of terroir?

Bové: Food Sovereignty creates a strong connection between local farm production and local food consumption. In France or in Italy, for example, we have hundreds of regional products that are only produced in well-defined geographical areas. In my home region, we produce Roquefort sheep milk cheese. During my visits to Bolivia, I have eaten quinoa, but I don’t eat it when I am in Europe. In Mali, I have tasted fonio, a delicious grain perfectly adapted to the sub-Saharan climate. In 1999, before I went to Seattle, an American family invited me to share their Thanksgiving turkey. Each country has its own customs, traditions and culinary treasures. They are linked to their traditions or their land. We should preserve these specificities. The Italian organization Slow Food has done exemplary work on this for twenty years giving value to this diversity that we should preserve.

5. What does Food Sovereignty mean to you and what role has it played in your work as an activist?

Bové: We should reverse the phrase “think global and act local” and transform it into “Think local and act global.” Food sovereignty leads us in this direction. To reconsider our agricultural model at the level of our region, of our city is not at all easy. You have to think the changes through and do it collectively. At the global or international level, we have to act and demonstrate in order to be heard by the political decision-makers.

How do you actualize food sovereignty as a peasant?

Bové: When I farmed, I raised sheep, producing milk that we made into yogurt and cheese at our farm and sold at the markets close to our farm. For me, producing locally for the people around me was obvious. It would have been hard to defend this idea on the international level if I had not put it into practice concretely on my farm. I think we cannot be content with talk and concepts. Consistency between what you say and what you do is mandatory. Food Sovereignty pushes us to work on two levels at once, the local and the global. That demands a certain suppleness. We cannot be happy just working at home without caring about what happens elsewhere and closing our eyes to the questions which cannot be resolved except at the national or international level in order to take control over the multinationals, to fight against land grabbing, to put everything on the line to reduce the impact of human activity on climate.

6. Have you been involved with the movement for Associations pour le maintien d’une agriculture paysanne (Associations for the Maintenance of Peasant Agriculture – AMAP, CSA in English)?

Bové: Since the mid-1970’s, in the region where I raised sheep, we were already doing cheese production and direct sales. Tight connections existed between peasants and their customers. I have met the peasants who started AMAP in France, I have visited quite a few networks of this kind and the Peasant Confederation was instrumental in anchoring this type of direct relations, contracts between peasants and their customers. In France, the movement started in the south-east where peasants hoped to connect with the people who live in low-income sections of the big cities like Marseille. Studies have shown that it is less expensive to buy vegetables year round from a peasant through an AMAP than to go to a supermarket. Less waste, less transportation of the products, seasonal production. Reasons for rediscovering a taste for vegetables and fruit and taking up cooking because there are lots of people who no longer even know how to prepare a soup.

7. Do you feel that Food Sovereignty has spread across the earth in the years since the phrase was coined? If so, how?

Bové: At the European Parliament I would say that food sovereignty is better understood these days by progressive delegates. At the UN for those who work on agricultural issues, both food and environment, food sovereignty has become self-evident. By contrast, to be honest, we must recognize that we have a lot more work to do at the international level to change trade policies. The WTO has created a detrimental framework, but is not moving any further. Today numerous bilateral agreements go much further. The bilateral agreement between the European Union and Canada is a perfect example of what we should not do. I hope that one of the parliaments of one of the member states of the European Union will block it.

8. How have you advanced the concept of Food Sovereignty at the European Parliament?

Bové: That is long-term work, pedagogical work. I have to explain to colleagues who are not familiar with agricultural issues that food sovereignty has nothing to do with sovereignty, a term which in French is tainted with nationalism and isolationism. Food sovereignty does not mean creating autarchic countries. It does not ban trade in agricultural products between countries. It does mean organizing them so that economic, social and environmental rights take priority over the multinational global corporations. Some ministers speak of food sovereignty. The French President Emmanuel Macron has referred to it. So we can say that we have succeeded in breaking through. What remains is to push those with the power to make decisions to act and for their actions to conform with their words. This will not be easy. In the face of global warming in order to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions we must move towards food sovereignty.

Food sovereignty brings a new dimension in the context of the international uncertainty that we experience today. Socrates said 2300 years ago that every politician had to be a fine connoisseur of agricultural markets. Remember, at that time Athens imported more than 30 percent of its food and exported artisanal products. The city depended on it colonies to feed itself. That was its Achilles heel. Grain came from the Black Sea and from Sicily.

Today, Brexit has awakened the United Kingdom where the questions of food sovereignty and food security are posed in stark terms. Several ministers have spoken publicly about the fact that there could quickly be a shortage of certain basic foods if the country leaves the European Union without an agreement, which is a more and more likely possibility. April 1, 2019 – feeding the British won’t be easy. History leads us to the essential question – what are we going to eat?

9. What message do you have for the family-scale organic farmers, homesteaders and gardeners of the Northeast Organic Farming Associations in the United States?

Bové: I had the pleasure of meeting some organic farmers in March 2005, the last time I was in the US to give a lecture at Yale. I was agreeably surprised by their dynamism and modernism. As in Western Europe, organic agriculture has the wind in its sails in some parts of the USA. It’s a strong current and we have to congratulate ourselves for having been among its predecessors. The big food agribusinesses have realized that organic farming is profitable and are trying to get into this expanding market. The purchase of White Wave Food by Danone is an example of what is happening in this sector.

Organic farmers should be vigilant, not let themselves rest on their laurels. They should regroup, mobilize to negotiate prices that cover their costs of production and make it possible for farmers to earn a proper living from their work. Without making sure that prices are fair, organic agriculture runs the risk of being cheated.

We are at a crucial juncture between two types of organic agriculture. One that allows family scale farmers to keep control of what they produce; and the other where they become mere suppliers of materials for an organic food industry. In France, some new cooperatives have appeared. They make long-term contracts with the peasants to guarantee stable prices that allow them to invest for the long term. It’s a kind of trade – Domestic Fair Trade. Consumers understand and often are ready to pay a bit more.