For Freedom of Movement & Fair Development!

Making sense of the food rebellions

Raj Patel and Eric Holt-Giménez (09/2009)

Food sovereignty, the democratisation of food systems and the trouble with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa are among the topics touched on by Raj Patel and Eric Holt-Giménez, in a lively interview with Pambazuka News about their latest book, Food Rebellions! Drawing together wide-ranging diagnosis of the causes of recent ‘food riots’ around the world, with ‘an understanding of the politics of resistance that they bear witness to’, the authors describe the text as a ‘working book, for real social change’. Food Rebellions! is published by Pambazuka Press.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: How did Food Rebellions! come about? And why now?

RAJ PATEL/ERIC HOLT-GIMENEZ: The book was driven by Eric’s vision for a text that could interpret and contextualise the wave of protest around the world that the media had referred to as ‘food riots’, but which were the confluence of factors far more complex and urgent than most journalists could acknowledge. Although the academic publishing industry is now cranking out waves of anthology about the crisis, there isn’t an accessible text that brings together both a wide-ranging diagnosis of the causes of these rebellions, and also an understanding of the politics of resistance that they bear witness to. Also, a number of organisations in the food movement wanted a text that could inform a people’s campaign for solving the food crisis – we also wrote the book with them in mind. This is a working book, for real social change.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What were the primary materials and experiences informing your work?

RAJ PATEL/ERIC HOLT-GIMENEZ: At Food First, we’ve been following the food crisis for over 30 years, during which time many many people from the social movements have taught us where the true roots hunger and environmental destruction lie. We have included their insights and their testimonies, inspiration and vision for food justice and food sovereignty in this book.

More frivolously, one of the experiences that mattered most in the writing of this book was Eric’s back injury – he couldn’t lie down or stand up for a month, and over Christmas he spent the entire time reclined in a chair writing, turning a good manuscript into a great one.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: How would you define the term 'food sovereignty'?

RAJ PATEL/ERIC HOLT-GIMENEZ: Food sovereignty seems to mean all things to all people, and that’s no accident. The widely accepted definition speaks of ‘people’s right to control their food and agriculture policy’. What it calls for is a democratisation of the food system. This turns out to be revolutionary: What, after all, is real democracy? It’s a situation of radical equality in which every person, regardless of income, race, gender, class or, ultimately indeed citizenship, can shape the politics and policy of the food system.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: A major theme of your book is the need to genuinely democratise both food systems and the decisions taken around them. You discuss the tension between calls for a 'green revolution' from international organisations like the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and those of the continent's grassroots movements for African agroecological alternatives. How would you describe these competing views on developing agriculture?

RAJ PATEL/ERIC HOLT-GIMENEZ: The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa starts from the unimpeachable observation that African agriculture needs investment. But from that point, it rather rapidly goes off the rails, developing a model of agriculture that is driven not by the needs and successes of the world’s poorest farmers, but by the world’s richest foundations. The rise of ‘Philanthropy capitalism’ is necessarily at odds with democracy – in the latter, people decide their own fates. In the former, the fates of the world’s poorest people are shaped by the richest men. For instance, the ‘We Are the Solution’ campaign seeks to address the food perspective from a genuinely African perspective (not merely parroting policy written in Seattle, relying on foreign dollars). The farmer federations and women’s organisations launching this campaign see the solutions to hunger in Africa as addressing both the structural causes of hunger as well as advancing African agroecological practices to production.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: As a challenge to the often-assumed superiority of top-down and executive knowledge around agriculture, what will be the key means of promoting grassroots voices and ensuring the centrality of local expertise in the future of the global food system?

RAJ PATEL/ERIC HOLT-GIMENEZ: AGRA, like the original Green Revolution, is a campaign for the corporate colonisation of African food systems. African farmers and civil society are mounting a counter-campaign, based on food sovereignty and agroecological solutions to hunger, rather than genetic engineering. One of the misconceptions around food sovereignty is that it is in some way anti-science, that it mistrusts expertise. On the contrary, if we are to overcome the ecological disasters that industrial agriculture has wrought, we’ll need a great deal of science, research and expertise. Ensuring that this expertise is democratically controlled isn’t some political pipe dream – it’s already happening. Eric’s work on the Campesino a Campesino movement in Central America is a study of a living example of this democratic exchange of expertise, but it’s happening in Africa too, from Mali to Malawi.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Your chapter on Africa touches on the need to 'cultivate farmers' enthusiasm' in the effort to mobilise the continent's agricultural majority and ensure that smallholders themselves develop their own sustainable methods.

RAJ PATEL/ERIC HOLT-GIMENEZ: Enthusiasm is that quality which can’t be bought, but without which there is no social change. All [Bill] Gates has is money, but what he can’t buy is enthusiasm. We need to amplify the voices of the farmers’ federations and the women’s organisations who are enthusiastically advancing genuinely democratic solutions to the food crisis.

With the dominant role of international NGOs and the imposition of external knowledge over the last 30 years or so however, the experience for many African people has been a sustained loss of confidence in their own knowledge and capacity for solutions. If people are accustomed to looking outside for help, how can they be encouraged to trust in local knowledge and look first to themselves?

We need to be careful about a reactionary impulse to head to ‘100 per cent African’. Capital can hide its power behind local faces – take AGRA, for example, in which ‘African owned’ might mean ‘owning the Africans’! Luckily, there are so many examples of both successful traditional and agroecological approaches to food production in Africa that people don’t have to look any farther than the continent to find the solutions to their problems. Of course, international solidarity matters, but the terms of that solidarity need to be mutual, not unilateral. What we try to do is tell the stories of agroecological success more broadly, in the face of outside intervention in African agriculture. We’re not opposed to exchange, but we’re concerned to broaden the number of people who set the terms of that exchange.

RAJ PATEL/ERIC HOLT-GIMENEZ: What would you say are the changes required in the immediate future to tackle the food crisis and move towards a sustainable end to world hunger?

The immediate concern is local and sustainable purchasing of food aid (which the US doggedly resists, and which the EU dances around), but the shift toward sustainability requires changes both in the international agricultural trade environment – specifically, agriculture needs to be removed from the WTO so that countries can develop their own policies around how to feed themselves – and in the relationship between science and the public. At the moment, agricultural science is increasingly privatised, and for solutions to be sustainable, they need to be socially and democratically owned.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What do you see as the connection between the arguments laid out in Food Rebellions! and Raj Patel’s now famous book Stuffed and Starved?

RAJ PATEL/ERIC HOLT-GIMENEZ: We see them as very complementary. Stuffed and Starved was finished at the beginning of 2007, and it was aimed at people who might not have thought about food and the food system before. It’s very much an introductory book. What Food Rebellions does is take the ideas in Stuffed and Starved to the next level, with more theoretical rigour and more up-to-date information from struggles around the world.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: And where to from here? What are your plans for moving this campaign forward? Does the new Obama administration offer hope?

RAJ PATEL/ERIC HOLT-GIMENEZ: Food First is working to look behind the myths of a green revolution in Africa. Bending the Obama administration to a sensible agriculture position is going to take a lot of work, though. They’re very much in the thrall of conventional agricultural interests. Obama was, after all, the Senator from Illinois, an agribusiness hub – he writes about his regret at having to stop flying in the Archer Daniels Midland jet (though he did get to meet ‘the people’ when he flew commercial first class).

We’re working on another book that will invite representatives from social movements around the world to think strategically about how we implement the promising and sustainable solutions which are currently on the margins of international food policy, so that they can become the mainstream. This book talks about the root problems and solutions, and in the next book people will discuss how exactly we’re going to get there.


  • Eric Holt-Giménez is the executive director of Food First. Raj Patel is an honorary research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and works with the South African Shackdwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo.
  • Food Rebellions! is available from Pambazuka Press for just £12.95.
  • Please send comments to or comment online at Pambazuka News.