University of Vermont

University Communications

UVM Summit Addresses World Hunger, Justice and Environmental Sustainability

Eric Holt-Giménez
“You make the road you travel,” said Food First executive director Eric Holt-Giménez, urging the fight for a fair, sustainable food system. (Photo: Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist)

This year’s annual UVM Food Systems Summit took a broad look at what presenters view as a worldwide crisis: one billion people undernourished, an energy-dependent food system that relies on non-renewable energy sources, a dangerous lack of biodiversity, tropical forests in Indonesia cleared for palm oil plantations, releasing carbon that contributes to climate change. Yet for keynote speaker Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of the think tank Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, the political became personal in Vermont this week.

On a drive north visiting small farms, he told the capacity crowd in the Davis Center’s Grand Maple Ballroom, he was charmed by the countryside and nostalgic for the farm work of his youth, until stopping to visit with workers from southern Mexico, people like the ones who taught him agroecology. People, he said, with deep cultural knowledge who, at home, would be part of a rich village life. Here, he realized, they never leave the farm, fearing deportation. 

“I’ve never seen such solitude amongst farm workers in my life,” Holt-Giménez said. “I’m impressed with Vermont, but I’m haunted by the deep cultural suffering, part of the violence of the industrial food regime.”

It was a poignant moment in his otherwise forceful indictment of corporate monopolies that have created, he said, not a broken system as many allege, but one that works exactly as a capitalist food system should, i.e., “disastrous” for most of the world.

While people lament how to feed an exponentially growing global population, Holt-Giménez argued that there’s been a 12 percent rise in global food production per capita since 1990, while the undernourished population increased by nine percent. “It’s not scarcity but overproduction that causes hunger,” he said, displaying figures on the screen overhead that showed both record profits and record hunger in 2011, with Monsanto’s profits up 45 percent, Cargill’s up 86 percent and hunger reaching one billion people. “Monsanto’s stock goes up as people go hungry and down as people are fed. There are tremendous windfalls for monopolies who control our food systems.”

This industrial agri-foods complex has been on a campaign to saturate markets with machines and fertilizers, according to Holt-Giménez, and created a global agricultural system with 91 percent of cropland devoted to just five crops (cotton, maize, wheat, rice and soy) with a 75 percent loss in crop diversity, a system susceptible to environmental and economic shock. “With one variety -- some type of pathogen, and it’s all over,” he says.

Holt-Giménez also blamed “free trade mania” beginning in the 1990s with cementing international treaties such as NAFTA and CAFTA into law, allowing the North to overproduce subsidized grains and dump them in the South, effectively insulating the food system from any democratic influence. The most egregious effect of rampant capitalism, he said, is “coerced” immigration. “The people cutting lawns and working in the back of the house of fancy restaurants,” said Holt-Giménez, “are farmers. Tremendous market power determines who gets to eat and who gets to farm.”

Given the extreme concentration of wealth over the last 10 years that has stagnated economic growth, it will take a powerful counter movement to introduce real reform, food sovereignty and local food system economies, said Holt-Giménez. “Do that Vermont thing you guys do so well,” he told the crowd of farmers and academics, policy makers and student activists. “But you have to organize nationally. You have to change the rules and the institutions -- that’s the only way it’s going to work, no matter how much compost you put on it.”