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Food sovereignty: a growing activist and intellectual movement

Food sovereignty is ‘the right of people to democratically determine and control their food system’. In a world in which 868 million people, 12.5% of the 7 billion population, experience hunger, that sounds good. But what it means in practice, and whether or under what conditions it is an achievable goal and a coherent political project, is another matter.

A ‘critical dialogue’ on food sovereignty took place on 24 January 2014 at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague. Co-organised by ISS, the Land Deal Politics Initiative, the Initiative for Critical Agrarian Studies and the Transnational Institute, the event brought together more than 300 participants: academics and activists, together with a broad range of civil society organisations, donors and students from across Europe, but also Latin America, Africa, Asia and North America. Most funded their own participation in this event, a one-day version of the highly successful Food Sovereignty conference at Yale on 14-15 September 2013.

The dialogue was conceived as a critical engagement by scholars and activists, enabling rigorous but constructive contestation of the coherence of food sovereignty as a political project.


The problem

Despite growing output, and a net surplus of food in the world, the current global food system is failing to secure people’s right to food. This arises from the extension of corporate control over production as well as input markets (seed, fertiliser, pesticide) and food processing and distribution. Overproduction of food coexists with poverty and immiserisation of farmers in the global South. What is needed is not more of the existing agricultural development programmes, but a new direction and a structural change.

When commodity chains get elongated we see ‘distancing’ between production and consumption, geographically and differentials in power, culture, knowledge, argued Jennifer Clapp of the University of Waterloo in Canada. She described the recent ‘financialisation’ of agriculture – the growth of farmland funds, food derivatives and futures markets. This trend has brought new actors in and around commodity chains, taking bets and making profits out of volatility. The financialisation of food, notably since the financial crisis of 2008, has also seen the abstraction of food from its physical form to being a common financial instrument. This matters because it obscures causal linkages between speculation by financial actors and outcomes in the food system. It is difficult to pin cause to effect: gambling on futures prices and the collapse of prices (or hyperinflation) in local markets. This allows financial actors to externalise cost, avoid responsibility, and portray the financialisation as the answer rather than the cause to the problems in the food system.

Susan George, renowned scholar and author of ‘How the Other Half Dies’, and currently chairperson of the Transnational Institute, reflected on changes in the food system: 30-40 years ago, she said, famines and acute food shortages arose from crop failure and took place in the countryside. Now, famines and acute food shortages occur due to the volatility in global prices, and famine localities have moved from the countryside to peripheries of the cities, where so many former farmers now live. This arises from the liberalisation of trade, globalisation of commodity markets and the rise of financial derivatives in food futures. In deregulated markets, unlimited anonymous trade means that nobody knows who has how much of current and future food.

Increasingly, industrialised and corporatised agriculture is taking us into an era of ‘agriculture without farmers’, said Phil McMichael of Cornell University, and author of the ‘food regime genealogy’. Terry Boehm of the Canadian National Farmers’ Union and La Via Campesina weighed in on how trade agreements allow corporations to undermine family farming. Trade agreements are ‘constitutions for corporate raids’ he said, and corporations and the people behind must be made liable for their effects on farmers and on consumers.


What is food sovereignty?

The concept of food sovereignty prioritises resilience over growth, aiming for reduced dependency, and greater diversity of food crops in order to reduce risk, especially for the poor. Olivier de Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, has been an outspoken critic of corporate control over the global food system, and an important supporter of the food sovereignty movement. He argued that the current food system externalises the real costs of food production — to human beings (labour) and to the environment — in the interests of cheap food and corporate profits. Instead, he argued, we need to democratise and re-localise the system.

At the same time, many small farmers are locked into new commodity relations that are difficult to alter. The anthropologist Tania Li of the University of Toronto illustrated with reference to her field sites in Indonesia that those peasants with remittances and state transfers may prefer to produce cash crops for export and buy their food, rather than growing food for themselves and their communities. Yet ‘choice’ is always constrained, so an urgent question for those advocating for food sovereignty is: what are the conditions that might enable accumulation from below and the emergence of middle peasants?

Teodor Shanin, the modern father of peasant studies, and follower of the Russian agrarian scholar Alexander Chayanov, questioned whether the definition of food sovereignty was too narrow and ahistorical. Food sovereignty presupposes the family farm as the basic unit of production and the village as the main unit of territorial relations. Transforming the food system requires the global peasantry to become a ‘class for itself’, to achieve change in class relations on a global scale. This means that there are ‘objective enemies’ of family farmers and of food sovereignty — capitalist farmers and agribusiness, as well as their allies in the food system, including financial institutions and the state — yet they claim not to be their enemies. So there is an ideological fight underway.

Food sovereignty is explicitly an anti-capitalist project, privileging social reproduction over capital accumulation. It is also a long-term proposition. Clapp emphasised the need to think of a series of incremental processes, and establishing a set of norms that over time might be institutionalised and gain traction. Jan Douwe van der Ploeg of the University of Wageningen spoke of ‘pockets of alternatives’ as being the building blocks for change at scale in the long term. Because food sovereignty is not achievable under current conditions, the dialogue identifies a need for action at multiple scales, from grassroots alternative food markets to global mobilisation for ‘eco-taxes’ on transcontinental food trade.

Ian Scoones of the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex observed that, by looking at class implications within the existing global conjuncture, the dialogue pulled the discussion of food sovereignty away from populist rhetoric and back to the political economy of the global peasantry — still the producer of 70% of the world’s food. But others insisted that food sovereignty is an ‘active anti-systemic model’ (Phil McMichael) or an ‘anti-hegemonic agenda’ (Wendy Wolford) — and not merely a form of agrarian populism.


What is to be done?

There remain real tensions within the concept and how it is used: one the one hand, the notion of sovereignty privileged the local — but this has its limits, as Marc Edelman of City University New York pointed out. Global trade in food is here to stay; what is problematic is the reduction of both producer and consumer power within that system. While some participants emphasised the need to ‘re-localise’ food production, the idea of limiting long-distance trade provoked debate. What about consumer tastes (not least the European love of coffee, we joked)?! The principle of localisation was more about reducing corporate power in value chains than in presuming a simple return to the local. So while localised alternative markets might seem attractive, food sovereignty implies, both in analysis and in political struggle, the need to work at multiple scales.

A crucial point of entry is to regulate global value chains, to reduce the ‘super-mark-up’ by retailers. This is essential to balance the interests of farmers and consumers, said Peter Rossett of El Colegio de al Frontera Sur in Chiapas, Mexico. But it is not only at the retail end, but at the processing and distribution, and also input end of the value chain that interventions are needed. As some participants noted, for peasants to exert sovereign control over their food production, though, there is a need for seed sovereignty (rather than multinational monopoly on gene patents) and land sovereignty (rather than land grabbing by states and investors) and also, presumably, water sovereignty. All these resource rights are sites of struggle across much of the global South.

Eric Holt-Gimenez of Food First argued that, since ‘we are not in a revolutionary moment’, what is needed is a mix of building alternative food systems at local level, from the bottom up, while refining the utopian vision. ‘We need utopias’, he said. This should not be dismissed by intellectuals as populism, but understood as the galvanising of diverse ideas towards radical and structural change, to which they too can contribute.


Study the rich

Earlier in the week I attended the Agrarian Studies Summer School, where the eminent African political economist Issa Shivji exhorted colleagues: ‘if you want to address poverty, study the rich!’ Taking this as inspiration, I argued in the closing session of the dialogue that profiteering through financialisation poses a particularly significant challenge for those advocating for food sovereignty — there is an urgent need to understand the modus operandi of new financial actors in the food system in order to inform strategies to contest it at multiple levels. A priority now is to identify ways to re-internalise the real costs of food production, to ecologies and to labour. While local-alternative food markets may emerge on the periphery, there is also a need for direct contestation of the terms of global food trade. This should aim to limit speculative behavior, shorten commodity chains, increase the power of both producers and consumers, and regulate the ‘super-mark-up’ by retailers.


Globalise hope! Globalise the struggle!

‘It is gratifying to see academics and researchers from universities around the world coming together for the second time to debate a concept developed by peasant farmers. For us, it means we are now being visible and we can be heard’, said Elizabeth Mpofu of Zimbabwe, general coordinator of La Via Campesina, the global movement of peasant and family farmers.

The struggle for food sovereignty for all people is gaining momentum, and under the ‘banner of struggle’ is a broadening range of actors — not only peasants and other farmers, but urban workers, the landless, and also academics and researchers. Academics have a critical role to play in social movements, insisted Bridget O’Laughlin, emeritus professor at ISS. The task of intellectuals is to bring to the movement discussion of ambiguities, debatable assumptions, gaps in understanding, and practical questions that need research. And the movement needs to sharpen its thinking: identify your enemy; know your demands; and ensure your members can communicate what food sovereignty means.

The Yale conference last year debated the question: does food sovereignty have an intellectual future in critical agrarian studies? At the recent dialogue in The Hague, Eric Holt-Gimenez concluded the final session with the inversion of the question, asking: do critical agrarian scholars have a future in the food sovereignty movement? After a rigorous and constructive debate, the resounding answer was yes.

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