Hanny Van Geel: «How will we develop more local and better futures in a global context? Connecting globally but acting locally»

Food sovereignty from Brussels

Hanny Van Geel is currently one of the board members at the European Coordinating Via Campesina (ECVC), a civil society that not only fights for food and land rights around the world but for women rights. As Hanny explains me when we meet at the coordinating office in Brussels, at the end all crises are gendered. She is not an economist but she manages her own numbers and, with proposals and ideas that come from a very human perspective, she puts a name on today's challenges and responsibilities towards a more sustainable and fair future. 

You are one of the active board members of Via Campesina in Europe. Looking back upon your life, what did it bring you to this moment?

I was a farmer in the Netherlands until 5 years ago, when I got divorced. This is a very common women's issue, they often don't own the land so when you have a crisis and you're married you also lose your rights to work in the farm, this is what happened to me. I was born in a farm, my father had this little farm in a small agricultural village in The Netherlands. I was used to the type of local community where everything is right there, then I grew up quite traditional. We were six children and my parents thought we should start working as soon as possible because they couldn't afford our education. When I was 16 I studied one year to become secretary, I worked in the municipality and at the same time I met my future husband, he was a farmer as well. So it was all very traditional, catholic... when I was 21 I got married and when I was 24 I had my first child. After some time, I started working at the municipality again and then we transformed the farm into an organic one where I had a clearer role. In the Netherlands we had one big association for the conventional farmers called LTO, but many farmers did not agree with the policies, so there was an initiative to create this new kind of union, we cooperated to develop this union which was founded in 1994. I was always very active so after ten years they asked me to become the president, which I did for five years and since 2012 I am a member of the board at ECVC.

How is the ECVC organised?

We are ten board members, five men and five women, all farmers. We also have 2 payed staff and some interns. We meet once per year with all the member organisations for the general assembly where we talk about strategies and our working plan.

What specific problems are we currently facing in Europe related to food and what are the main difficulties to deal with according to Via Campesina?

Food prices and regulations are framed by the global markets while the majority of the food is traded and eaten locally. It's crazy that the prices are so low, far below the production cost, it seems to be over-production and the supermarkets say that the market has to balance it but the market doesn't work that way. As a farmer you cannot compete at a global level because a cow cannot stop its production depending on the market. In agriculture you cannot organize it in that way and everyone knows it. I don't see a good reason to have the system as we have it; it's pushing farmers out of work, building big industrial farms often with labour that is not rewarded. If you can locally feed a community and respect the environment that's all you need. In Europe there are many concrete examples of unsustainable methods like the shift from growing vegetables or fruit to growing wrong products for the processing industry. In the Netherlands we grow sugar beets to produce sugar. I always say sugar is not food -we don't need it- so you better do growing vegetables. Potatoes for the French fries and chips... we don't need it, again that's not food. This is what happens now in Europe, processing industry has become much more developed and more powerful. For instance, the organisation of processing food -FoodDrinkEurope- is very powerful, even in civil dialogues groups they are present. Are they really civil though?

Would you say they have more power than the public institutions? Than the governments we, as citizens, vote for?

Yes, you can see it by the number of lobbies in the food industry. In the Netherlands a recently published research claim that the food industry lobbyists are the most regular visitors of our ministers. In the rest of Europe it is the same, if you control the food system you earn a lot of money because people need to eat every day. For example, the farmers don't have free seeds anymore, they are forced to buy hybrid seeds from companies. Therefore those same companies also have the power to decide what we are going to eat every day.

How do the other regions of the world fit into this system?

I think the best way to help Southern countries to develop, is to allow them to grow their own food instead of growing our coffee, our sugar, our soy… if we would only allow them to grow their own food, to protect their markets from our cheap imports, that's what they really want. If we ask them to grow crops to export to Europe, it is not for their own benefit. On top of that, if they could process that food also in their own country, they would also have an added value.

You can also see that behavior within Europe...

It's always about the cheapest, they don't care about anything else. Also, in some parts of Europe there are people working in hard conditions, do we want that? Why do we have to eat tomatoes all year? We are getting used to things all the time. The health issue is very important as well, people should be aware that instead of just putting things into your body you have to nourish it. It's not about the quality of the food nor the labour or the environment. Values don't count.

So a mentality change would be a big part of the solution?

Mentality change can be done step by step. Where does my organic food come from? You go to the supermarket and read and then you can think about a possibility to buy locally. Is also about how much you want to get involved, every step is a good one to re-think. The institutions follow but they don't lead. The same goes for the supermarkets because they are self-defensive, they want to defend their own system. The change never comes from the same system that has created the problem; this is kind of a natural law. It's not a sustainable way of producing, we know of examples where the supermarkets decide not to buy, for example green beans, because they find it cheaper somewhere further away and all those beans from the first farm will eventually become food waste. It's not sustainable, not a long time relationship.

Collaboration between NGO's and private sector has been growing during the last years, do you think it is a permanent relationship? Can it actually work?

If you want to have access to EU funds you need to show that you work together with private sector so for an NGO sometimes the only way to survive is to start with private sector. It's not always bad, but you have to understand very well what their aims are. For example, corporations want profit. The problem is that every development is evaluated from an economical perspective. But if profit and competition are the only incentive, where are the values like human rights and environment? They are not integrated in the economic system, they are just the external costs. And this is what happens for instance in the financial system, why do governments have to save banks with our taxes? This is not just the system, is a choice that has been made. What we do with food sovereignty is to think beyond the system from the grassroots level. You need the people not the corporations, and people need food, environment, social relationships and local relationships. If we all take responsibility for our local environment -our local social environment- it will be more effective. And this is something that is changing all around, happening everywhere. But some institutions still think from an old perspective. NGO's working on fair trade products might solve the symptoms but it doesn't solve the problem of a wrong system.

What can we do, as citizens, to play an active role?

First of all, we can start making a change with what we buy. Those companies only exist because we buy their products. The power balance is still with the old institutions, but I think the challenge is to strength and develop all the grassroots movements for citizens to become more aware and to change their behaviour. For instance, if once per week or per month we all stop buying our food in the big supermarkets, it would already make a big impact. If you buy local you know where your money goes and you do know your choice is not affecting the environment or your health.

Some political decisions have been made by municipalities, like proclaiming TTIP/CETA free cities or recently places like Barcelona declaring themselves a vegetarian and vegan city with a list of measures to support sustainable small-scale commerce instead of the big chains. All these initiatives are driven by municipalities, sometimes ignoring what their state stands for.

There is definitely a big role for local authorities. This is a relation that we could build from grassroots organisations to address our local authorities and to have policies that help sustainable local development. In November we will have a meeting for local authorities especially on this topic. In terms of every social crisis, as a municipality or as a region, it’s very important to use all the power and the people. There are so many human resources now wasted, it's such a pity. In countries with high unemployment, for example, there is an important role for youngsters to build new systems at a local level, and authorities play a very important role as well. How will we develop more local and better futures in a global context? Connecting globally but acting locally. Competition is not the right direction, solidarity is. 


Ana Díaz C