Hunger and Food Production in Nicaragua: How Do We Feed the People?

Rohan Rice
The ATC which represents tens of thousands of farm workers helps run trainings on agroecological food production to help ensure healthy food access for all. Photo: ATC

As hunger and food insecurity increases globally, the Sandinista government in Nicaragua has been working for the last decade to strengthen local food production and ensure food sovereignty in the face of sanctions

Food security should be top of every government’s agenda. However, since 2014 world hunger has been steadily increasing.  In 2019, it was thought that around 750 million people—approximately in one in every ten people—around the world were exposed to severe levels of food insecurity. With the effects of Covid-19 on the global food supply, this number is expected to rise to 840 million in less than ten years.

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) uses data from the United Nations and other multilateral agencies to determine hunger levels in countries around the world. There are five hunger levels, ranging from low (level one) to extremely alarming (level five). Nicaragua’s hunger score is currently at a level two, ‘moderate hunger levels’, on their index. In 2000, at the height of neoliberal governance in Nicaragua, the country was at a level three, ‘alarming hunger levels’. Since the FSLN was elected in 2006, hunger has been declining rapidly. Overall there has a 40.8% reduction in hunger according to the index. Nicaragua is one of only 38 countries to reach the UN Millennium Development Goal of cutting malnutrition by half.

This is an even more impressive feat for a socialist country that has been under unilateral sanctions. As is evident from Venezuela, sanctions can have a severe effect on hunger, Venezuela currently rank at a level three on the GHI with the highest hunger levels of any country in Latin America. The central issue for Venezuela had been food imports: Venezuela imports around 70% of the food it consumes, leaving it incredibly vulnerable to blockades, like the one imposed by the US and EU.

The same issue now faces socialist Cuba. While hunger levels have been remarkably low in Cuba for decades, their reliance on food imports is finally catching up with them. Global food prices have surged 40% because of the pandemic and Cuba, who also imports around 70% of its food, is desperately struggling under the blockade to source enough for its people. As a result, the Cuban government has been forced to ration supplies.

Nicaragua’s Sandinista government has always been very aware of how food can be weaponized to destabilize a developing country. Consequently, they have embarked on a ‘food sovereignty’ campaign since 2007 to reduce Nicaragua’s dependence on foreign imports. This has been a remarkable success and Nicaragua is now estimated to produce around 80% of all the food it consumes. As a result, it faces no such food crisis.

Nicaragua’s food sovereignty model deserves some exploration as it has been a cornerstone of the Sandinista revolution. It illustrates a system of food production that is completely antithetical to the industrial food chain that has caused these widespread disparities in hunger levels and destroyed the natural environment.

Food sovereignty and agroecology

Nicaragua is a case study in how pursuing food sovereignty can help to reduce hunger levels within society. Food sovereignty is a system that ensures people have continual access to plentiful, healthy, and affordable food locally produced. Marlen Sánchez of the global peasant movement La Via Campesina in Nicaragua, suggests food sovereignty is a “historical process”, based on indigenous rights and protection of land, water, and life. She describes it as an inherently anti-capitalist food production system. While providing sufficient food for everyone is at the core of food sovereignty movements, Fanny Boeraeve of the University of Liege and others have suggested that for food sovereignty to be effective it must be prioritize sustainable agricultural farming methods. That is, methods that ensure a harmonious relationship with the planet.

Considering that the degradation of arable farming land has been the predominant cause for civilization decline throughout human history, learning how we maintain high agricultural production while also protecting the environment is perhaps the conundrum of our time. Within this debate there are two predominant production models, agribusiness and agroecology. Nicaragua has been using both in its pursuit of food sovereignty, but through its collection of small land holdings, indigenous lands, and cooperatives, Sánchez suggests that Nicaragua is inherently an agroecological society.

Agroecology is a sustainable form of farming that combines contemporary knowledge and indigenous practices to cultivate food. Sánchez describes agroecology as one of the principal pillars of food sovereignty. It helps to regenerate the land destroyed by intensive farming through diversification of crops; developing natural pest controls (no chemicals); protecting and improving soil health; and using local, renewable resources. In animal farming, the rights, health, and respect of the animal are prioritized. Agroecology has even been proven to increase the nutritional value of the food.

In Nicaragua, agroecology is now being taught in agricultural institutes led by La Via Campesina. The Latin American Institute of Agroecology (IALA) Ixim Ulew, located in Santo Tomas, Nicaragua was the first to implement this program. The school was established in 2017 and accepted its first cohort of students in 2018. La Via Campesina work in tandem with Nicaragua’s Association of Rural Workers (ATC), who represent tens of thousands of farm workers and as an organization were integral part to the Sandinista revolution of 1979.

Students of IALA Ixim Ulew, whose course fees are heavily subsidized by the government, take what they learn back to their community to ensure everyone has access to healthy food. Their days are split in to three parts: 1) theoretical learning at the institute 2) practical skills training at the institute 3) community work. Carlos Alberto Rodriquez Valera is Venezuelan but lives in Nicaragua. He is a member of IALA and the ATC. This is how he explains the idea of food sovereignty:

“we have a chicken, we have a calf, we have diversified crops with which we not only protect ourselves from any imperialist attack, but also protect ourselves from natural disasters. Because if the rain effects my beans, I still have my corn. Or if these two crops are affected, I still have an avocado tree, or my chicken. Having so many different crops allows me to share with neighbor: I give them a chicken, they give me an avocado. This is the most popular way of explaining food sovereignty.”

More and more of Nicaragua’s small-holder farmers are adopting agroecology as part of the food sovereignty movement, including cooperatives like the Gloria Quintanilla Women’s Coffee Cooperative, an all-women’s coffee co-operative. This system of food production is as much a social model as anything else. As agroecology doesn’t depend on expensive farming technology, it allows more of society to participate in it. This in turn, expands food sovereignty which in itself alleviates hunger levels.

Agroecological farming is part of the ‘peasant food web’. To use the definition put forward by the ETC Group, the peasant food web is described as:  “small-scale producers, usually family or women-led, that include farmers, livestock-keepers, pastoralists, hunters, gatherers, fishers and urban and peri-urban producers. Our definition includes not only those who control their own production resources, but also those who work for others to produce and supply food, and who have often been dispossessed of their land.” The alternative to the peasant food web is agribusiness. This is the other side of Nicaragua’s food production model.

Agribusiness in Nicaragua

The levels of hunger around the world are even more galling when one considers that a third of the food produced globally goes to waste. Vijay Prashad calls this ‘Food Apartheid’, one of the three apartheids of our time. He uses the word ‘apartheid’ as it is impossible to uncouple hunger from food production systems that are so unevenly developed around the world that it constitutes a form of apartheid. This unevenness finds its roots in capitalist agribusiness which dominates the global food supply and distribution.

Agribusiness, which encompasses powerful but very few transnational corporations (TNCs), runs the industrial food chain. This is the model of agriculture that produces food for-profit. It attempts to control the production and distribution of foods plus feeds through just a handful of global business. The focus of these businesses is making money from food production, rather than providing healthy nutrition for people and protecting the land that is being used. Agribusiness has both its ideological and financial roots embedded in colonialism, which from its inception abused the labour force of the Global South to produce food for the imperialist powers.

Agribusiness is not only immoral, but wildly inefficient. The industrial food chain feeds only 30% of the global population, but uses 75-80% of the earth’s land and 80% of fishable waters. It also consumes 90% of the total combustible energy used by the agricultural sector. The peasant food web is dramatically more efficient. Despite only having access to 20-25% of land and 20% of fishable waters, it produces 70% of the world’s available food.

It’s not just inefficient, the industrial food chain is problematic for multiple reasons. TNCs, often dispossess otherwise autonomous, indigenous peoples of their land and traditional food production and does so to feed select few people. If agroecology is a social practice, agribusiness is anti-social. Many families farm for subsistence, agribusiness denies them this right by progressively monopolizing land and fishable waters.

Agribusiness is also harming our environment. Not only does the destruction of forests by TNCs for animal husbandry and crop farming exacerbate the spread of zoonotic diseases (like Covid-19), but the disruption of these environments, namely the soil, speeds up climate change by releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. Through monocultural cash-crop production, they also exacerbate crop diseases, like coffee rust, which disproportionately hurts small-holder farmers.

Across all of Latin America, the harm caused by agribusiness is widespread. The continent is increasingly being used as the world’s farm by just a handful of TNCs. 80% of deforested land in Latin America is simply used to grow animal feed, in particular bovine and pig feed. That is to say, the crop grown on these deforested land is not even directly consumed by the people.

In Nicaragua, there are three notable TNCs present, all of which are part of the very elite group of TNCs that control the entire industrial food chain. The first is Corteva, owned by DowDuPont and with an average revenue of over US$14 billion. They run a ‘biofortification’ program in Nicaragua. This is the selective breeding and modification of crops (mostly cassava, beans, and maize) to fortify certain traits, usually longevity, to accommodate the demands of the capitalist market. To monopolize the industry, rural women producers have been their designated targets for the program, as they were most prone to food insecurity.

The second is Sygenta, owned by ChemChina, average revenue of over US$13 billion. They run the FRIJOLNICA programme which: “provide[s] growers with inputs, technologies, access to credit, and technical support, so they could increase their income”. In reality, this is the promotion of Sygenta products that lock you in to using Sygenta products: Sygenta developed seeds, for example, that respond only to Sygenta produced herbicides. In their own words, the program was specifically set up to counter “geographical, agro-egological, and cultural” forms of bean production, and replace them with the Syngenta-way. However, the strength of local agroecological techniques has proven its worth, as yields among FRIJOLNICA growers and traditional growers are virtually the same. Like Corteva, Sygenta has specifically targeted small-holders and farmers co-operatives to break up the peasant food web and weaken local solidarity.

The final big agribusiness present in Nicaragua is Cargill, a privately held US-food corporation with revenues of over US$114 billion. Cargill supplies 65% of Nicaragua’s chicken and has a 68,000-square-foot refrigerated distribution center in the country.

Like the other two TNCs, Cargill wants to disrupt the peasant food web and hopes to turn community producers into private for-profit businesses: “When farmers tell you, ‘I used to be a producer, now I’m a business person,’ that’s when it really sinks in,” remarks Maria Nelly Rivas, Cargill’s Corporate Affairs Director. “We’re changing how people perceive their role in their communities because they now see their personal potential to succeed.” Rivas has specifically stated that she sees the company as a bridge between the USA and Nicaragua and they’ve been on a hearts and minds mission to ensure this. In collaboration with CARE, they have built kitchens in some Nicaraguan schools and taught the kids to cook Cargill products, establishing dependency and loyalty to the brand among the next generation.

How do we feed the people?

The FSLN government has done tremendously to combat hunger in Nicaragua. Through Sandinismo, thousands of Nicaraguans have been granted land titles to farm, indigenous communities earned land rights, and food security is a national priority – all of this is protected under Nicaraguan law. The campaign for food sovereignty has rapidly brought down hunger levels and simultaneously protected the Sandinista revolution from imperialist food blockades. 60% of Nicaraguans make their living from agriculture and most of these are small-holders, as part of the peasant food web they naturally provide most of Nicaragua’s food. But its food system, like its economy more generally, is one of compromise. Nicaragua has also made concessions to agribusiness: it allows neocolonial TNCs to operate, albeit under certain controls, and some local farmers are beginning to use unethical farming methods like artificial insemination.

What is evident, however, is that Nicaragua has developed a model that works for the people. It’s currently at a juncture where agroecology cannot provide quite enough food for all of society. Perhaps over time this sector will develop further and we will see the demise of all TNCs in Nicaragua. Or, it may be that Nicaragua maintain this current blended model to feed its people. The people of Nicaragua will decide and have the sovereign right to determine their own future. Either way, Nicaragua remains an integral case study in food sovereignty and hunger alleviation.

This article was written in collaboration with the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign UK. In November 2021, Nicaraguans will vote in their national elections. The USA has already begun a campaign to try to oust the incumbent socialist FLSN government at the voting booth. This article is part of a year-long series that seeks to present the truth of Nicaragua under the Sandinista government.

Rohan Rice is a writer, photographer, and translator from London. You can find his work at: https://rohanjrice.wordpress.com/