The long queues for cheaper grains, corn, and bread in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Egypt, Mexico, Southern Africa and elsewhere and the escalating violence due to food shortage in Haiti and Somalia, are becoming more commonplace. With the increasing tensions and speculations over the food crisis, the United Nations (UN), led by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) organised a High-Level Conference on World Food Security from 3 to 5 June 2008 in Italy.

During the conference, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon reiterated that more than 850 million people are deeply hit by the food shortage [1].

The food shortage has indeed become a crisis that has compounded important national issues such as political legitimacy, massive corruption, and ethnic conflicts, among others. It is a crisis aggravated by the current trade regime under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and major international financial institutions [2]. Southern farmers have been forced to abandon their lands whose produce could not possibly compete with those from outside. At the same time, governments clear themselves from the function of promoting land reform; providing extension services like subsidised seeds and fertilisers; or even investing in vital infrastructure such as irrigation and farm-to-market roads. The past years have seen the increasing transformation of agriculture as a site of industrial research and production of fertiliser-heavy and even genetically-modified crops. Lately, these lands have been utilised for biofuel production and research.

Ki-moon added, “This crisis is a chance to revisit past policies. While we must respond immediately to high food prices, it is important that our longer term focus is on improving world food security and remains so for some years.” Among the recommendations include the improving safety nets and protection programmes; strengthening small-holder farmer food production; and adjustment of trade and taxation policies.

The call for “food sovereignty” has never been more resounding [3]. Forwarded by the farmers and civil society coalition Via Campesina, food sovereignty centres on the “rights of people to define their own food and agriculture,” including trade and taking into account the environment. It necessitates a departure from the current trade regime regulated by the WTO in collaboration with the major international financial institutions. Consequently, it demands the reinstatement of government's accountability in supporting local farmers.

Yet this crisis needs more than revisiting policies. A mere return to pre-WTO agriculture likewise leaves much to be desired in ensuring equitable land distribution, healthy and accessible food, and fair trade, among others.

One of the gaps prior and after WTO deals with women. More than ever, a deeper sense of experience from the ground, especially those of women both in conflict and in “peace.”

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), women account for 60 to 80 per cent of food production [4]. But in many countries, women are not encouraged to have their own land. In most civil codes in Latin America, for instance, husbands are understood to be the administrator of conjugal property, even when the land is inherited by the wives from their fathers. Without land titles under their names, women have meagre chances of accessing credit facilities and other extension services. Often too, women have low literacy rates as families prioritise the education of male children, making the former vulnerable in land disputes.

Aside from being involved in planting, harvesting and marketing produce, women perform much of the reproductive labour for their families. Worse, many are not given the choice to determine the extent of their reproductive role. The same is true for women in the informal sectors located in urban settings.

The Ravina couple has been married for nearly 15 years now, sharing makeshift home with eight children along the murky Talayan river in the Philippines. Hard times are not new for the family. Although Tonyo works in a Japanese car firm on the opposite side of the bridge, he would never be regularised but laid off every time his contract ends. His wife, Ellen pitch in by rummaging for newspapers, cardboards, bottles, metal scraps and anything that can be sold in the junk shop from the nearby affluent village. And when money is still short, Ellen is the family's face, borrowing extra peso bills from neighbours and friends. But these days have been harder for the couple. Their makeshift home has been under threat of eviction as this stands within a danger zone. It is not just the roof under their heads that they worry about each night though. But how they are going to feed their kids the next day. The long walk to the other village and tiresome queue for just three kilos of rice strip Ellen the precious time to earn some more, including the money for the next day’s queuing.

Women's access to land and other resources as well as their control over their bodies have been a marginalised agenda in governance processes and mobilisations on access to land and food security. Although women have a huge stake on the food that the world consumes, women and gender issues have either been subsumed under the more class-based collective struggle or isolated especially when these may pique the raw nerves of conservative forces which support anti-neoliberalisation campaigns.

The current food crisis provides an opportunity for social movements to further consolidate their interest and resources. It is an opportunity to deal with a challenging context, hopefully with less silences and compromises.

Sources: [1] Address at the High-Level Conference on World Food Security. (2008 June 3). URL: http://www.un.org/apps/sg/sgstats.asp?nid=3202

[2] Bello, Walden. (2008 May 16). “How to Manufacture a Global Food Crisis.” URL: http://www.focusweb.org/how-to-manufacture-a-global-food-crisis-lessons- from-the-world-bank-imf-an.html?Itemid=159.

[3] Via Campesina. (2003 September 2). “People's Food Sovereignty: WTO Out of Agriculture.” URL: http://www.viacampesina.org/main_en/index.php?option=com_content&task= view&id=416&Itemid=38

[4] Food and Agriculture Organisation. (n.d). “Women and Land Tenure.” URL: http://www.fao.org/focus/e/women/tenure-e.htm.

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