of Food: Food Bio-Diversity and Democracy
An address by
Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, MM
the United Nations General Assembly
the Politics of Food:
Next Policy Challenge
19 November 2008
Lerner Hall, Columbia University
New York City
Manhattan Borough President Scott
Deputy President Rosemonde
My Fellow speakers: Mayor
Bloomberg, Ms. Maya Wiley.
Dear brothers and sisters.
I thank you for inviting me to join
you today and I am pleased to return to Columbia University where I
attended the graduate school of journalism 47 years ago. Mayor
Bloomberg is the expert here, but I certainly like to think of
myself, at least partly, as a New Yorker.
Some of the most formative and
fruitful years of my life were spent here. I first arrived in 1947,
the year Jackie Robinson started playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Watching him play shortstop remains one of my most vivid and fondest
memories. Later I entered the Maryknoll Seminary in Ossining and,
after becoming a priest, returned to study at Columbia.
Later, I founded a publishing
company, Orbis Books – I will say more about that in a moment -- and
resided in the area for several years. More recently, I assumed the
presidency of the 63rd session of the United Nations
General Assembly and reside in Kips Bay. There were a few years in
between, which I won’t try to cover here today.
So I love this city and have known
it over many decades, watching it change and evolve. Today, I think
I can contribute to this meeting by providing some observations on
food policies, drawing on my international experience and applying
it to the local context of New York City. This is an issue dear to
my heart and one that I have made a priority for this session of the
From an international point of
view, I do believe that the current food crisis that we are watching
unfold on a global scale is a symptom of a broader breakdown of
models of governance and production that have failed us and betrayed
the trust of billions of people around the world. They are
unsustainable and we must find alternatives both internationally and
locally. The food crisis is linked directly to our financial crisis,
the energy crisis and the overarching problems associated with
Without innovative and broad
changes in our food policies, we will see hunger once again spread
across the world like a medieval plague. The shameful reality is
that, despite the fact that we have the knowledge, the financial and
technological means to prevent it, half of the human population
subsists at levels of malnutrition and poverty completely
incompatible with their inherent dignity and rights. This is not
only shameful—it is, to use religious terminology -- down right
In addition to being a priest and a
community organizer, I am an internationalist. My sense of
internationalism and the spirit of solidarity that guides me are in
part inspired by education and work here in New York
I mentioned earlier that I headed
the publishing house called Orbis. Reflecting the concerns of the Maryknoll
Order, our publications focused on moral and spiritual
issues related to global affairs. At Orbis we brought new voices to
the world scene. Our authors, many of them from new independent
developing countries, brought differentiation to a debate that was
increasingly dominated by the monotone voices advocating a
one-size-fits-all vision for humanity.
These new voices from Asia, Africa
and Latin America were the seeds of a new global vision, a
distinctively multi-national set of voices with local identities,
indigenous identities, with vitality rooted in distinctive cultures,
lands, traditions and peoples. We encouraged the voices of
previously invisible human communities and we encouraged a new
appreciation of geography, land and of Earth.
These views served as the
foundation for what I have done since and for what I have to say
today about the politics of food.
Today we still must move beyond
homogeneity, mono-cultural hegemony into a new and revitalized
bio-diversity and differentiation; we need a new localization and
communal participation. A politics of food needs to be rooted in the
local, distinctive and the communal. It has to be fully
representative of all members of the community. And it needs to be
closely linked to a global reality as well.
The United Nations is changing. It
has taken decades of failed development policies to realize that we
must put people first, that we must listen to the voices of people
most affected by poverty and hunger which are shocking in their
global dimensions. The long standing top-down approach has enabled
lopsided development and outrageous abuses. It has led to the
lamentable situation where we are today. The unfettered pursuit of
neo-liberal policies and the culture of aggressive individualism
that they engender, contradict the core values and principles of all
of our religious and ethical-philosophical traditions. As well, they
clash with our innate common sense.
I am convinced that today’s
burgeoning food crisis does not have to lead to wider human tragedy.
It offers an opportunity to strengthen food security and
agriculture, but we must overcome the moral mediocrity that keeps us
from making the great sacrifices that the magnitude of the problem
requires of us. We must show our readiness to address the underlying
patterns of consumption that are clearly unsustainable. We need big
changes. The policies we seek must be cross cutting.
As all New Yorkers, I marvel at the
diversity of our cityscape, from neighborhood to neighborhood. We
are indeed a global city, comprised of infinite distinctive features
that create a mosaic that fascinates the entire world. The politics
of food is also part of this mosaic. This place and its people shape
the city’s food provisioning. So is it in Rio, in London, Istanbul,
Moscow, Delhi, Kampala and Tokyo. Each has a distinctive landscape,
distinctive communal dimensions, distinctive food culture. What has
been lost to a globalization inspired by a drive to domination must
be retrieved and restored. I believe this is possible.
I have come to think of the General
Assembly as the town meeting of the global village. We feel at home
here in New York and, as concerned citizens, should bring something
to this reflection on the politics of food in this great city. I
would like to provide some thoughts on the global in the local, the
universal in the particular.
As in many other cities of the
world, hunger and poverty in New York co-exist side by side with
obsessive consumption and staggering wealth. A recent report on
poverty from the Center for Economic Opportunity points out that one
in four New York residents live in poverty. One in five children is
hungry in New York.
These are statistics that highlight
a profound moral lapse in our governance. Unfortunately, they
reflect the reality in cities around the world.
Our problems are complex and
inter-related. I understand that New York City has lost one third of
its supermarkets in the last five years, helping create nutritional
wastelands and contributing to diet-relate chronic disease. This is
not the New York that most of the world knows from television and
The vigorous and innovative
response to the food-related problems by New York activists, NGOs
and government agencies are not well known or understood.
As a media capital, the center of
global financial markets, and a place of great power, New York has
historically had a central role in promoting the dominant global and
industrial food system -- a system which has entered a process of
decline. The meltdown on Wall Street and the growing calls for the
overhaul of the deeply flawed Bretton Woods institutions have
initiated a process of dramatic change in the international
financial architecture. We can only hope that the days of the
dominance by the monoculture of industrialized food, Monsanto and
Cargil, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart are numbered as well.
And we need to shape that change.
We have good advice on food politics from many places. Last month,
the United Nations World Food Day highlighted the work of the UN
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Environment
Programmes (UNEP) in the areas of food policy and raised alarms
regarding the spreading food crisis.
UNEP, for example, recently
released a report indicating that organic, small-scale farming can
deliver the increased yields which were thought to be the preserve
of industrial farming, without the environmental and social damage
caused by industrial agriculture. Other reports point to the
ecological damage and extraordinary costs related to meat
production. The International Assessment of Agriculture Science and
Technology in Development released its exhaustive report earlier
this year, reflecting the work of many United Nations offices, which
emphasized that current methods of food production are no longer
sustainable. It argued that we must change from industrial to
Again, we are at a moment of
dramatic change, perhaps a turning point. The voices for change are
multiplying and, as old systems collapse in exhaustion, finally are
being heard. It is time for a new politics of food, one that starts
from the bottom up, not the top down. We need to have an approach to
food production that is multi-functional, that has a concern for the
poor and their right to food; a concern for the earth and its right
to life; a concern for communities and their right to
self-governance, what is referred to as food sovereignty.
At the United Nations, I have made
democratization of the Organization my number one priority. So too,
in food politics, I would advocate food democracy. We can move our
food provisioning away from dominance by a few very large
corporations to the control of people-oriented food systems that
respect communities and their right to food sovereignty, and
localized and regionalized food systems at the local and regional
People talk about Wall Street and
Main Street. How about the side streets? Don’t our neglected
neighborhoods have a right to food self-governance? New York can use
its empty lots for food production, and its roof tops. Ethnic
neighborhoods can raise the preferred foods and share with other
I hear that the city is producing
more and more food for itself and bringing it growing regional
bounty into the city. Farmers’ markets and urban gardens are
beginning to flourish again. These efforts of feeding the city, by
the city, for the city should be part of a global effort that can
only enhance food security and diminish the numbers of hungry people
As well, local markets can bring a
multiplier effect by localizing economic life and increasing
economic vitality for farmers and consumers alike. We can rally
around the city’s commitment to serious engagement around climate
change and the responsible utilization of the regional public water
system. If we can be stewards of the fresh water resources of the
Catskills watershed, we can do the same with food.
We can make New York City model for
a new food politics that puts the poor, our communities and the
right to food at the center of a more sustainable system of
self-governance. We can be a model that is appreciated and
replicated cities around the world.
It is easy to envision New York as
a model for urban-rural partnership and the development of a vibrant
market for locally grown food. The UN would be honored to showcase
such efforts at the next meeting of the Commission on Sustainable
Development here at Headquarters in 2009.
On World Food Day at the United
Nations, I said that an alternative food politics means that we must
begin by expanding the circle of decision making and ensuring that
multiple and varied voices are heard. This is not accomplished
through symbolic events or publicity stunts. New stakeholders must
participate at all levels from the local to the international.
Let us keep in mind that for some
people, these solutions are coming too late. Hunger and
malnutrition, exclusion and poverty are taking thousands of lives
each day. New York has many advantages. Let use them. Now is the
time to bring to the forefront the voices of our scientists, our
community activists, our and above all the food producers to
proclaim what should have been a fundamental right in every society:
the right to food.
Moreover, we must stop deluding
ourselves and face up to the fact that the “haves” of this world
must change their way of life, the patterns of consumption that show
little or no regard for the disastrous impact of their lifestyle on
the wellbeing of their neighbors, our brothers and sisters, and our
shared home, the planet Earth.
We can learn from those who are
moving in the direction of a new food politics, toward food
democracy. We have to move ahead in this direction. We should not
As President of the United Nations
General Assembly, I serve as a facilitator in the search for lasting
solutions to the complex problems we face. In seeking solutions, we
must transcend narrowly defined national interests and make the
common good of all our peoples, nations, as well as our fragile
planet Earth, paramount. We must demonstrate a readiness to
undertake difficult political and ethical decisions.
So let us take today’s terrible
confluence of crises and turn them into an opportunity to take
courageous actions that are needed to ensure new levels of
co-existence between humans and between us and nature, and thereby
ensure a better world for present and future generations.