I’ve always wanted this blog to be a sort of translation tool, explaining scientific or technical terminology and ideas to show that food policy, and agricultural economics for that matter, isn’t something “smart people should deal with”. Rather, everybody can (and should, in my opinion!) get involved. There is nothing that drives me more mad than professions that try to create barriers to understand what they do in order to protect their profession. Think of lawyers, speaking legalese. Or economists, doing fancy calculations. Sociologists that frown at you if you don’t know the latest theoretical concept. Ugh, right?
So I’d love to introduce a new feature called “Ask An Ag Economist” where I answer questions – ideally the ones that you submit! – on anything regarding economics, politics, nutrition or food security concepts or vocab. Don’t understand an argument? Want to know how this study was carried out exactly? Ask me! And if no questions are submitted, I’ll just choose some topics of my own – writer’s prerogative!
First up on the agenda: What exactly is food sovereignty?
The background: at a lunch seminar, the head of unit of the unit “Rural Development, Food and Nutrition Security” was asked about supporting food sovereignty in addition to food security. In response, he talked at length about the fact that countries supporting that idea often just produce heaps of some staple crops and close their borders to imports, which doesn’t necessarily improve food security of the poorest. Looking around me, I saw a collective sad head shake shared between the NGO representatives. Apparently, the concept hasn’t yet reached the mainstream, so what better topic to start on these series? So, for that guy as well as everybody else:
Food sovereignty is not the same as food independence. I actually wrote my bachelor’s thesis on terminological confusion like this – in particular, the fact that the Russian government likes to confuse food security and food independence. So let’s differentiate clean and easy:
Food independence or self-sufficiency is the fact that a country can feed its population with food produced within its borders. That was the strategy of the European Union in the very beginning of the common agricultural policy – producing butter mountains and milk lakes eventually – and the strategy of Russia currently, seeing as they feel threatened by any kind of dependence on other countries, and be it through their pear consumption.
Food security, as defined on the World Food Summit in 1996, is “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. The WHO adds that “commonly, the concept of food security is defined as including both physical and economic access to food that meets people’s dietary needs as well as their food preferences.” While we look at three axes – food availability, food access, and food use – (as we talked about looking at the state of food insecurity), we don’t necessarily pay attention to the food system providing this nutritious food.
Now, finally, food sovereignty adds another layer: that of democratic food systems and the empowerment of those who should be granted food security. The most commonly used definition is the one suggested by La Via Campesina:
Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.
Food Secure Canada adds the following differentiation: “Food security is a goal while food sovereignty describes how to get there. They differ in some key ways. Food sovereignty is rooted in grassroots food movements. Food sovereignty highlights the need for a democratic food system, one that involves inputs from citizens as well as producers. Food security is concerned with the protection and distribution of existing food systems.“
But wouldn’t you know, it’s more complicated than that? Unbeknownst to me until I started writing this blog post, a keen debate has developed on how this concept should actually be applied. Through first the Yale conference “Food sovereignty. A critical dialogue” in September 2013, and then its European homologue organized in The Hague in January 2014, supporters and critics have had intense heart-to-hearts on the usefulness, need, and applicability of the concept. All 82 paper submissions to the New Haven conference are freely available here, and the keynote speech of Elisabeth Mpofu, the global coordinator of Via Campesina, to the The Hague conference can be read here. In her talk, she speaks of agroecology, of land reform, seed saving, free trade agreements, the role of women and youth, and much more, and links all these approaches to food sovereignty. She then says this:
At the Yale Conference on Food Sovereignty, some academics and analysts were concerned that La Via Campesina seems to have a new and different definition of Food Sovereignty after every meeting and forum. Maybe they think this reflects a lack of seriousness on our part. But that would be a misunderstanding.
We are not trying to create the perfect definition, for a dictionary or for a history book. We are trying to build a movement to change the food system and the world. To build a powerful movement, you need to add more allies. And as you add more allies, you have more voices. More contributions. More issues to take into account. So your concept grows, it evolves, it broadens. To understand what Food Sovereignty is for La Via Campesina, yes, it is a vision of the food system we are fighting for, but, above all, it is a banner of struggle, and ever evolving banner of struggle.
This debate – around what food sovereignty is, isn’t, and should or shouldn’t be – has also been put onto the page in a special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies, and some of the articles are (at least currently) freely available here. The introductory paper asks some really good questions, amongst which the following:
- “How does long-distance or foreign trade fit into the food sovereignty paradigm, if at all? Is it possible to incorporate the millions of small farmers that produce commodities for export into a food sovereignty model and, if so, under what terms? […]
- How much pluralism is acceptable in a food-sovereign society with respect to models of agricultural production, commerce and consumption? What are the obstacles to scaling up agroecology as a strategy of resistance to industrial agriculture and to centring agroecology as a normative farming style in the future? […]
- How does food sovereignty address the complex agrarian transitions to modern food systems? How might it serve to stabilize livelihoods and labour flow to build in greater social resilience? What are the roles and realities of food workers, consumers and people in general in the construction of food sovereignty? Will food sovereignty be able to address situations where agriculturalists manifest a desire to enter, remain in or leave agriculture or where young rural people prefer not to become farmers?”
[Marc Edelman, Tony Weis, Amita Baviskar, Saturnino M. Borras Jr, Eric Holt- Giménez, Deniz Kandiyoti & Wendy Wolford (2014) Introduction: critical perspectives on food sovereignty, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 41:6, 911-931, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2014.963568]
From my current understanding, and I’m continuously learning too, I guess I set myself a trap, since I can’t really answer my own question. But then again, neither can the people that created the term. Since food sovereignty centers around letting people, particularly peasants, decide which food system they want, its only clear definition is its variety. Yet, there seems to be a tendency – in Via Campesina and other organizations – toward a re-localization, a focus on agroecology as growing method, and a decidedly anti-globalization and anti-capitalist stance. How far that represents the desires of most peasants, though, is a good question.
Did you know about the current debate surrounding food sovereignty? Did you know the concept beforehand?