As I sit in the Free Speech Movement Cafe diligently studying for midterms, I cannot help but eavesdrop on the line of people ordering drinks. I start to notice a pattern: “Can I have a small soy latte … a large cappuccino, with soy … a chai with soy milk?” Soy milk is a trendy milk alternative that we can all pour into our coffee without feeling the guilt associated with the dairy industry, right? The truth is, our infatuation with soy is exacerbating certain health consequences, such as hunger and undernutrition, that small-scale farming communities face in Latin America, as agricultural operations seize their farmsteads. Some of our “healthy” food alternatives are thus uprooting indigenous communities, their cultures, traditions, food security and health.
A land grab refers to a sort of land acquisition that displaces people from their lands and resources. Specifically, land grabs privatize the livelihoods of small farmers and deprive them of their right to live by limiting their ability to support themselves. The multinational corporations that partake in extractive land grabs are ultimately in control of the resources available to the surrounding region. This power concentration limits the access of the indigenous people and small-scale agriculturalists to the resources upon which they depend to live. These communities are pushed even more into the outskirts of society, worsening continual issues of political invisibility, exploitation and oppression.
Here is a more tangible way to view the problem: A report on land and power inequality in Latin America disclosed that Paraguay’s economy grew significantly in 2010 as a result of its soy industry, while its national poverty level has barely decreased. Poverty is closely linked to the concentration of land ownership that has resulted from agricultural industries buying up viable farmland to grow crops for export. The health consequences of the impoverishment of these rural Paraguayans are far reaching and devastating; they include limited access to basic social and health services, low income levels that prohibit families from purchasing basic goods such as food and exposure to large-scale farming externalities, such as pesticide runoff and air pollution.
What is happening in Paraguay is happening all over South and Central America. Interestingly, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United States’ most recent map of world hunger in conjunction with its 2014 book on land concentration in Latin America reveals a correlation between land grabs and food security: The Latin American countries that experience the most land grabbing are also the countries with the highest levels of undernourishment. The relegation of these underserved communities throughout Latin America to unfarmable lands makes growing food unfeasible. Without a sustainable and healthy diet from family farming, displaced people suffer from malnutrition as well as heightened susceptibility to decreased birth weights, slower rates of child growth and infectious disease. Undernourishment is particularly harmful to younger children as it compromises their current and future health. Mineral and vitamin deficiencies, for example, can stunt brain development, weaken immune systems, cause blindness and sometimes lead to death. When communities lose access to both the ability to grow their own food as well as to purchase affordable, culturally appropriate, healthy foods, they lose the right to live a nourishing life.
To realistically impact the decisions of larger corporate and government entities, we, as consumers, can use our purchasing power to shift demand away from products that rely on land grabbing for production. While the concept of purchasing our way out of a problem can be elitist and even self-fulfilling, not everyone can devote their lives to direct action and activism for every issue looming over our global society. So, one tangible way to make some sort of impact is by shopping locally. We can support local farmers through farmers markets and community-supported agriculture to ensure that our food is grown in close proximity to our home and is thus not stealing land from communities in Latin America. The second step that consumers can take to better support disadvantaged farmers is to purchase foods that are surely produced by small-holder farms, both globally and locally. This is a bit more challenging, but it can be achieved by staying informed. Seek out articles written by trusted farmer advocacy groups such as Food First, and have conversations with friends and family about the impacts that food choices have on marginalized communities. We must think critically about all foods that we purchase, including our “eco-friendly” soy milk! We need to support the folks that are invisible to governments and corporations — whose voices are suppressed and ignored, and whose right to a healthy life is under threat. It is essential that we use our resources, our judgement and our empathy to change their otherwise-predetermined fate.
Nina Angelo is a graduating senior studying society and environment, with a focus on justice and sustainability in food systems, at UC Berkeley.