My doubts about ‘food sovereignty’

I was asked to act as a discussant for a paper on ‘food sovereignty’.  Food sovereignty is an idea being promoted by Via Campesina.  Via Campesina “defends small-scale sustainable peasant agriculture as a way to promote social justice and dignity based on food sovereignty.” They describe food sovereignty in these terms:

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. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. … Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social and economic classes and generations.

It sounds very warm and human, but it’s a muddled, ill-considered set of claims.  The core problem with it is that food sovereignty doesn’t protect food security – people’s right to have food to eat.  It protects the interests of producers, not populations.  The second problem is that it can’t offer a response to significant vulnerabilities, such as civil war, drought or climate change; if (or when) such things happen, the localities where they happen will be not be protected by a system that is relatively localised.  Third, providing healthy diets locally and on the small scale must mean less food.  That’s true partly because it’s only possible to provide varied diets locally by growing things that grow less well locally as well as those that grow better, and partly because comparative advantage is lost – less specialisation and less trade means less food.  Fourth, for what it’s worth, there’s absolutely no reason to assume, as this declaration assumes, that local production will be ecologically sound.  Why should it be?  Finally, food sovereignty can’t deal with the distributive issues within societies.  There’s reason in some aspects, such as gender relations,  to believe it won’t.

More troubling still is the ranting, anti-capitalist wrapping this comes in. This is from the Via Campesina website:

For too many years, we have witnessed with deep pain the systematic plunder and destruction of our precious natural resources and the oppression of our people. We know that our African elites in the public and private sectors have been for many years colluding in corruption with the evil transnational corporations which today represent the new face of imperialist neo-colonialism. We are appalled by this and demand an immediate end to immoral and irresponsible behaviour of many of our leaders.

This is the authentic voice of populist demagoguery.  Populism has been defined as

an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.  (C Mudde, 2004, The populist zeitgeist Government and Opposition 39 (4), 541–63.)

an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice.  (D Albertazzi, D McDonnell (eds) 2008, Twenty first century populism, Palgrave Macmillan, p 34)

The examples I heard about today manipulate people’s concerns to push forward an authoritarian, collectivised, exclusive model.   This doctrine is not just foolish, but sinister.

2 thoughts on “My doubts about ‘food sovereignty’”

  1. This seems a bit harsh. I’d have thought that the local producers would be the population and don’t see how having large scale producers provides anymore food security – plainly history shows that it doesn’t. However, if the local populace are active in producing their own foods perhaps, civil unrest may be alleviated at least slightly. Also you are talking of less variety of foods which is not the same as less food. It is correct that local does not mean ecological but again more likely, if for the only reason of probably less access to chemical or large scale production methods which are not known for their ecological sound processes. I agree the statement on the website is over the top but probably borne out of frustration at the ongoing poverty and starvation in many African countries rather than a sinister intent.

  2. The suggestion that “the local producers would be the population” is an example of the pitfalls that this kind of argument falls into. What happens to women? What happens to outsiders? We’ve seen many examples in the past of this kind of aggressive localism, and they’re not the model societies that their advocates claim.

    It’s also a confusion to assume that specialisation involves large scale production. The reason why small producers are able to grow, say, coffee rather than things to eat – the basis of fair trade movements – is that they can trade their coffee for the other things they need. If they have to stop growing coffee to grow a varied local diet, there will be less for everyone.

    On the other points: I was not thinking of food supplies being disrupted by protest, but of civil war, of the sort there has been in Eritrea or Sudan. Local production is highly vulnerable to disruption, and armed conflict is one of the principal causes of famines.

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