Food Sovereignty: A Breviary

I was very pleased to write this piece for The Financial Times and very pressed to condense the idea of ‘food sovereignty’ down to 600 words. If you’d like to know more, here’s a slightly lengthier treatment.

While hunger is timeless, the concept of food security is less than 40 years old. Its changing definition shows it is a product of its time – but also suggests why that time may soon be up.

Half a dozen countries have adopted policies for “food sovereignty” – an idea spawned by farmers but rapidly attracting attention beyond the fields. To understand why, history helps.

Food security was first defined at the 1974 World Food Conference, when attempts by what were then called Third World countries to steer between the US and Soviet Union were foundering. Food security, it was agreed, happened when there was enough “to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices”.

Then a new definition emerged at the 1996 World Food Summit. Food security became about individuals’ – not countries’ – ability “at all times, [to] have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. Like the original, this definition was coloured by contemporary politics. Absent the Soviet Union and developing countries, this was food policy for Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay The End of History. Food would be made available through trade and the market. Hunger was a matter for individual, not government, management.

Many farmers’ groups disagreed with the framework of trade rules – the US and EU subsidised their farmers, dumping excess produce. Why should the World Trade Organisation Agreement on Agriculture deny poor farmers the same kind of support?

Anti-hunger campaigners concurred, pointing out that political commitments to trade exceeded the pledges to end hunger. They were proved right. The number of people considered “food-insecure” in the US increased from 31m in 1999 to 49m in 2012.

At the 1996 summit, La Via Campesina (The Peasant Way), a group representing more than 100m farmers, farmworkers and landless peasants, came up with food sovereignty. The first draft included demands for peace; the removal of agriculture from the WTO; an affirmation of the right to food; respect for traditional knowledge and insistence on agro-ecological science.

A core idea emerged. People could eat well only if their governments were free to adopt policies that supported domestic production and consumption. Food sovereignty was a demand not only to disconnect from the circuits of global food trade, but also to behave more democratically in the production and distribution of food within countries.

In 1996, this seemed hopelessly backward, a Keynesian throwback. But the food crisis of 2007 changed the minds of many food-importing governments. Policies that encouraged a domestic buffer against international instability began to look appealing.

In North America, some 200 food policy councils convene small businesses, municipal government, farmers, farmworkers and food advocates to develop harmonised ways to end urban hunger. La Via Campesina’s 40 agro-ecological schools are independent of large-scale commercial agriculture.

In practice, food sovereignty has been characterised by a commitment to equality and an insistence on autonomy. Food sovereignty might be something that cannot be given – only asserted.

National land reform, the realisation of the right to food, and gender equity policies can help end hunger. But governments ought also to imagine how they might take back their food sovereignty from a multilateral system that increasingly denies it.


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