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Food Security & Agriculture

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What Does Food Sovereignty Look Like?
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The common principle of food sovereignty movements worldwide is the right to democratic participation in the food system. But a prerequisite for realising this right is a ‘moral universalism’ that may sit uncomfortably with its advocates, writes Raj Patel.

This article is an introduction for the Grassroots Voices section of the Journal of Peasant Studies, Volume 36, Issue 3. The full edition, entitled 'Food Sovereignty', can be accessed here.

9th November 2009 - Published by the Journal of Peasant Studies

There is, among those who use the term, a strong sense that while 'food sovereignty' might be hard to define, it is the sort of thing one knows when one sees. This is a little unsatisfactory, and this section marks an attempt to put a little more flesh on the concept's bones, beyond the widely agreed notion that food sovereignty isn't what we have at the moment. Before introducing the papers that make up the rest of this section, it is worth looking at the etymology of the term 'food sovereignty'.

It is, admittedly, the first instinct of an uninspired scholar to head toward definitions. I have, far more frequently than I'd care to remember, plundered the Oxford English Dictionary for an authoritative statement of terms against which I then tilted. The problem with food sovereignty is, however, a reverse one. Food sovereignty is, if anything, over defined. There are so many versions of the concept, it is hard to know exactly what it means. The proliferation of overlapping definitions is, however, a symptom of food sovereignty itself, woven into the fabric of food sovereignty by necessity. Since food sovereignty is a call for peoples' rights to shape and craft food policy, it can hardly be surprising that this right is not used to explore and expand the covering political philosophy. The result of this exploration has sometimes muddled and masked some difficult contradictions within the notion of food sovereignty, and these are contradictions worth exploring.

Before going into those definitions and contradictions, though, it is worth contrasting food sovereignty with the concept against which it has traditionally been ranged - food security. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has done a fine job of tracking the evolution of 'food security' (see FAO 2003), but it is useful to be reminded that the first official definition in 1974 of 'food security' was

"the availability at all times of adequate world food supplies of basic foodstuffs to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices. (United Nations 1975 cited in FAO 2003)"

The utility of the term in 1974 derived from its political economic context, in the midst of the Sahelian famine, at the zenith of demands for a New International Economic Order, and the peak of Third Worldist power, which had already succeeded in establishing the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) as a bastion of commodity price stabilisation (Rajagopal 2000). In such a context, when states were the sole authors of the definition, and when there was a technocratic faith in the ability of states to redistribute resources if the resources could only be made available, it made sense to talk about sufficient world supplies, and for the primary concern of the term's authors to lie in price stabilisation. Compare the language and priorities reflected in the early 1970s definition to this more recent one:

"Food security [is] a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life." (FAO 2001 cited in FAO 2003)

The source for this definition was The State of Food Insecurity 2001, and herein lies some of the tale in the widening gyre of 'food security'. The definition in 2001 was altogether more sweeping. While it marked the success of activists and the NGO and policymaking community to both enlarge the community of authors of such statements to include non-state actors and to shift the discussion away from production issues toward broader social concerns, it was also an intervention in a very different world and series of debates. No longer was there a Non-Aligned Movement. Nor was there, at least in the world of state-level diplomacy, the possibility of an alternative to US-style neoliberal capitalism. It was an intervention at a time when neoliberal triumphalism could be seen in the break away from a commitment to the full meeting of human rights, to the watered down Millennium Development Goals, which provided, under the mantle of 'realistically achievable goals', a much more elastic time frame for the achievement of goals that were intended by the authors of such goals to be delivered with all due haste. The early 2000s was also a time when the institutions originally created to fight hunger, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, were looking increasingly irrelevant and cosmetic in the decision making around hunger policy. The expansion of the definition of food security in 2001, in other words, was both a cause and consequence of its increasing irrelevance as a guiding concept in the shaping of international food production and consumption priorities.

While harsh, this assessment is not unreasonable. The terms on which food is, or is not, made available by the international community has been taken away from institutions that might be oriented by concerns of 'food security', and given to the market, which is guided by an altogether different calculus. It is, then, possible to tell a coherent story of the evolution of 'food security' by using the term as a mirror of international political economy. But that story is not one in which capital is dominant -'food security' moved from being simply about producing and distributing food, to a whole nexus of concerns around nutrition, social control, and public health. In no small part, that broadening was a direct result of the leadership taken by Via Campesina to introduce at the World Food Summit in 1996 the idea of 'food sovereignty', a term that was very specifically intended as a foil to the prevailing notions of food security. The understanding of food security in 1996, as reflected in the declaration of the UN World Food Summit, was this:

"Food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels [is achieved] when all people, at all times, 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." (FAO 19962003) cited in FAO

Critically, the definition of food security avoided discussing the social control of the food system. As far as the terms of food security go, it is entirely possible for people to be food secure in prison or under a dictatorship. From a state perspective, the absence of specification about how food security should come about was diplomatic good sense - to introduce language that committed member states to particular internal political arrangements would have made the task of agreeing on a definition considerably more difficult. But having been at the whip end of structural adjustment and other policies that had had the effect of 'depeasantising' rural areas under the banner of increasing food security by increasing efficiency (Araghi 1995), Via Campesina's position was that a discussion of internal political arrangements was a necessary part of the substance of food security. Indeed, food sovereignty was declared a logical precondition for the existence of food security:

"Long-term food security depends on those who produce food and care for the natural environment. As the stewards of food producing resources we hold the following principles as the necessary foundation for achieving food security. … Food is a basic human right. This right can only be realized in a system where food sovereignty is guaranteed. Food sovereignty is the right of each nation to maintain and develop its own capacity to produce its basic foods respecting cultural and productive diversity. We have the right to produce our own food in our own territory. Food sovereignty is a precondition to genuine food security." (Via Campesina 1996; emphasis added)

To raise questions about the context of food security, and therefore to pose questions about the relations of power that characterise decisions about how food security should be attained, was shrewd. The first exposition of food sovereignty recognised this ab initio, that the power politics of the food system needed very explicitly to feature in the discussion. In the context of an international meeting, at a time of unquestioned US hegemony, and given states' reluctance to discuss the means through which food security was to be achieved, it made sense to deploy language to which states had already committed themselves. Thus, the language of food sovereignty inserts itself into international discourse by making claims on rights and democracy, the cornerstones of liberal governance.

Big Tents and Rights-Talk

The outlines of food sovereignty have been well rehearsed elsewhere (McMichael 2008, Rosset 2003, Windfuhr and Jonsén 2005). The common denominator in these accounts is the notion that the politics of food security is something that requires direct democratic participation, an end to the dumping of food and the wider use of food as a weapon of policy, comprehensive agrarian reform, and a respect for life, seed, and land. But as the exponents of food sovereignty, myself included, have begun to explore what this might mean, things have started to look increasingly odd. The term has changed over time, just like 'food security', but while it is possible to write an account of the evolution of 'food security' with reference to changing international politics, it is much harder to make coherent the changes with 'food sovereignty'. From the core of the 1996 definition, italicised above, consider this one, written six years later:

"Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture; to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives; to determine the extent to which they want to be self reliant; to restrict the dumping of products in their markets; and to provide local fisheries-based communities the priority in managing the use of and the rights to aquatic resources. Food sovereignty does not negate trade, but rather, it promotes the formulation of trade policies and practices that serve the rights of peoples to safe, healthy and ecologically sustainable production." (Peoples Food Sovereignty Network 2002)

It is a cautious definition, talking about the right to define food policy, sensitive to the question of whether trade might belong in a world with food sovereignty. Perhaps most clearly, it is a definition written in committee. The diversity of opinions, positions, issues, and politics bursts through in the text - from the broad need for sustainable development objectives to the specific needs of fishing villages to manage aquatic resources. This is an important strength. Food sovereignty is a big tent, and the definition reflects that very well indeed.

The idea of a 'big tent' politics is that disparate groups can recognise themselves in the enunciation of a particular programme. But at the core of this programme needs to lay an internally consistent set of ideas.1 It is a core that has never fully been made explicit, which might explain why in more recent definitions of food sovereignty, increasing levels of inconsistency can be found. Consider this statement, from Via Campesina's Nyéléni Declaration, reprinted in full later in this section:

"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 those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers. Food sovereignty prioritises local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability. Food sovereignty promotes transparent trade that guarantees just income to all peoples and the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition. It ensures that the rights to use and manage our lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food. Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social classes and generations." (Via Campesina 2007)

The contradictions in this are a little more fatal.2 The phrase 'those who produce, distribute and consume food' refers, unfortunately, to everyone, including the transnational corporations rejected in the second half of the sentence. There is also a glossing-over of one of the key distinctions in agrarian capitalism - that between farm owner and farmworker. To harmonise these two groups' interests is a far less tractable effort than the authors of the declaration might hope. Finally, but perhaps most contradictory, is the emphasis of 'new social relations' in the same paragraph as family farming, when the family is one of the oldest factories for patriarchy.

There are, of course, ways to smooth out some of these wrinkles - one might interpret 'those who produce, distribute and consume food' as natural rather than legal people. Corporations are not flesh and blood, and while they might be given equal rights as humans, there are growing calls for the privilege to be revoked (Bakan 2004). Even if one accepts this definitional footwork, we remain with the problem that even between human producers and consumers in the food system, power and control over the means of production is systematically unevenly distributed.

One way to balance these disparities is through the explicit introduction of rights-based language. To talk of a right to shape food policy is to contrast it with a privilege. The modern food system has been architected by a handful of privileged people. Food sovereignty insists that this is illegitimate, because the design of our social system is not the privilege of the few, but the right of all. By summoning this language, food sovereignty demands that such rights be respected, protected, and fulfilled, as evinced through twin obligations of conduct and result (Balakrishnan and Elson 2008). It offers a way of fencing off particular entitlements, by setting up systems of duty and obligation.

Hannah Arendt and the Right to Have Rights

Hannah Arendt is perhaps the most appropriate theorist to bring to bear here, not least because in her Origins of Totalitarianism, she makes an observation about rights strikingly similar to those motivating food sovereignty:

"... people deprived of human rights ... are deprived, not of the right freedom, but of the right to action, not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to opinion. ... We become aware of the existence of a right to have rights (and that means to live in a framework where one is judged by one's actions and opinions) and a right to belong to some kind of organized community, only when millions of people emerge who had lost and could not regain these rights because of the new global political situation." (Arendt 1967, 177)

Although referring to European Jewish refugees in the wake of World War II, her argument about how humans are rendered unable to effect change in the world around them by being excised from the state could also describe the contemporary context of food politics. Well, perhaps with the caveat that the political situation has never been favourable to those who produce food - its new global context merely compounds a millennia-old disenfranchisement.

But despite its apparent applicability, the language of rights does not come cheap, and it might not be well suited to the idea of food sovereignty. Central to the idea of rights is the idea that a state is ultimately responsible for guaranteeing the rights over its territory, because it is sovereign over it. As I have written elsewhere (Patel 2006), this understanding of the agency required for rights to proceed is something that Jeremy Bentham (2002, 330) has put rather directly: 'Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, - nonsense upon stilts'. The argument that Bentham makes is simple - rights cannot be summoned out of thin air. For rights to mean anything at all, they need a guarantor, responsible for implementing a concomitant system of duties and obligations. Bentham, in other words, was pointing out that the mere declaration of a right does not mean that it is met - in his far more elegant terms, 'wants are not means; hunger is not bread' (Bentham 2002, 330).

I have also argued elsewhere that one of the most radical moments in the definition of food sovereignty is the layering of different jurisdictions over which rights can be exercised. When the call is for, variously, nations, peoples, regions, and states to craft their own agrarian policy, there is a concomitant call for spaces of sovereignty. Food sovereignty has its own geographies, one determined by specific histories and contours of resistance. To demand a space of food sovereignty is to demand specific arrangements to govern territory and space. At the end of the day, the power of rights-talk is that rights imply a particular burden on a specified entity - the state. In blowing apart the notion that the state has a paramount authority, by pointing to the multivalent hierarchies of power and control that exist within the world food system, food sovereignty paradoxically displaces one sovereign, but remains silent about the others. To talk of a right to anything, after all, summons up a number of preconditions which food sovereignty, because of its radical character, undermines.

That there might be, in breach of Westphalian notions of state sovereignty, a class of people who were not covered by the territory of the state was a concern that troubled Arendt. Hence her analytical (and personal) interest in refugees, people stripped of nation-state membership, and people who were thus denied the ability to call on a state government's power to deliver and protect their rights. Yet, as Bentham suggests, talk of rights that exist simply because one is human, as Arendt argues for, is talk without substance. For who will guarantee the rights, for example, of those without a country? Who, for instance, guarantees the human rights of Palestinians, a people with a nation but no state?

Building on Arendt's work, Seyla Benhabib offers one of the more thoughtful extensions of the idea of human rights, in the tradition of Habermas. Benhabib discusses the notion of a 'right to rights' helpfully (Benhabib 2002). Without rehearsing her arguments, she ultimately makes the case for a Kantian politics of cosmopolitan federalism and moral universalism (Benhabib 2004). It is useful to see that the ideas of multiple 'democratic attachments' (Benhabib's term) can be attached to a longer tradition of political theory. But while expanding the conceptual resources available to discuss the existence of multiple and competing sovereignties, the Kantian call for cosmopolitan federalism and moral universalism looks very different under Benhabib's interpretation than advocates of food sovereignty might wish.

For Benhabib, a good if imperfect working example of the kind of multiple and overlapping juridical sovereignties that are necessary to deal with the new political conjuncture is the European Union (Benhabib 2005). Within the EU, a citizen can appeal to government at municipal, regional, national, and Europe-wide levels, with each successive level trumping the ones below it. And, indeed, this looks like a very un-Westphalian system of rights provision. The cosmopolitan federalism element, with overlapping geographies over which one might claim rights, looks familiar in the definitions of food sovereignty.

But there is a problem. The European Union, despite its multi-faceted sovereignties, is not a place characterised by food sovereignty. Although, compared with the United States, it offers comparatively better prospects for small-scale farmers, its Common Agricultural Policy is the subject of scathing critique from within Europe by members of Via Campesina. Such subsidies that do reach small scale farmers are crumbs from the table of a larger division of spoils between agribusinesses, and the fact that such crumbs are more plentiful in the EU than elsewhere does not, according to La Via Campesina, signal a democratic or accountable system.

This is clearest in looking at the EU's Economic Partnership Arrangements, which violate the basic terms of food sovereignty in the Global South. This suggests that it is insufficient to consider only the structures that might guarantee the rights that constitute food sovereignty - it is also vital to consider the substantive policies, process, and politics that go to make up food sovereignty. In other words, a simple appeal to rights-talk cannot avoid tough questions around the substance and priority of those rights. In other words, while food sovereignty might be achieved through cosmopolitan federalism, if we are to understand what it looks like, we will need also to look at the second part of Benhabib's dyad - to moral universalism. Food sovereignty's multiple geographies have, despite their variety, a few core principles - and they are ones that derive from the politics through which Via Campesina was forged.

The Trace of Partial Universality in Via Campesina

The history of Via Campesina has been well documented elsewhere (Desmarais 2007), but one of the central features that characterises the organisation is the in-principle absence of a policy-making secretariat. Integral to the functioning of Via Campesina is the absence of a sovereign authority dictating what any member organisation or country can do. This suspicion of policies imposed from above is unsurprising within Via Campesina, an organisation forged in resistance to autocratic and unaccountable policy making, largely carried out by the World Bank together with local elites. Yet no organisation can be a part of Via Campesina without subscribing to the organisation's principles. These principles provide the preconditions for participation in Via Campesina's politics, and it is not surprising that the principles should find their analogue in the definition of food sovereignty. Another return to the definitions shows that there are a number of preconditions before food sovereignty can be achieved. Bear in mind, of course, that food sovereignty itself is a precondition for food security. Yet before any of this can be attained, there are a number of non-negotiable elements, preconditions, if you will, for the preconditions for food security to exist.

The Nyéléni Declaration suggests that there are a range of conditions that are necessary for food sovereignty to obtain, such as a living wage, tenure security and security of housing, cultural rights, and an end to the dumping of goods below the cost of production, disaster capitalism (Klein 2007), colonialism, imperialism, and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), in the service of a future where, among other things, 'agrarian reform revitalises inter-dependence between consumers and producers' (Via Campesina 2007). Specifically, these changes include a commitment to women's rights, not merely over property but over a full spectrum of social, physical and economic goods.

It is here, I suggest, that we can use a feminist analysis to open a discussion around food sovereignty, specifically around the prioritisation of rights. Under neoliberalism, as Monsalve evocatively suggests (2006, 187), women's rights have become a Trojan Horse; the project of 'giving rights to women' has been conscripted to spread a particular economic agenda founded on the primacy of individual private property rights. Other rights, such as those to education, healthcare, social assistance, and public investment derive, if at all, as rights secondary to individual private property. While women's rights to property are unarguably important, the attainment of these rights cannot be understood as a sufficient means to 'level the playing field for women'- in a country with equal rights to property for all, the fact that some have more resources than others, and therefore are able to command more property than others, reflects underlying, and persistent, inequalities in power that make the ability to trade property much less substantive than its neoliberal promoters would argue. This is no mere armchair theorising on my part. These conclusions were reached independently by members of Via Campesina at their fifth international conference in Maputo in 2008, at which a new slogan emerged: 'food sovereignty is about an end to violence against women'.

This base inequality in power is one that food sovereignty, sometimes explicitly, seeks to address. And it is here, in challenging deep inequalities of power, that I argue we see the core of food sovereignty. There is, at the heart of food sovereignty, a radical egalitarianism in the call for a multi-faceted series of 'democratic attachments'. Claims around food sovereignty address the need for social change such that the capacity to shape food policy can be exercised at all appropriate levels. To make those rights substantive requires more than a sophisticated series of juridical sovereignties. To make the right to shape food policy meaningful is to require that everyone be able substantively to engage with those policies. But the prerequisites for this are a society in which the equality-distorting effects of sexism, patriarchy, racism, and class power have been eradicated. Activities that instantiate this kind of radical 'moral universalism' are the necessary precursor to the formal 'cosmopolitan federalism' that the language of rights summons. And it is by these activities that we shall know food sovereignty.


The canvas on which inequalities of power need to be tackled is vast. It might be argued that in taking this aggressively egalitarian view, I have opened up the project of food sovereignty so wide that it becomes everything and nothing. In my defence, I would like to call on the Tanzanian political theorist, lawyer, and activist, Issa Shivji. In Not Yet Democracy (1998), his brilliant analysis of land reform in Tanzania, he addresses the question of what it will take for Tanzania to become a fully functioning democracy.

He sees land reform as one of the central issues, and argues forcefully that for the franchise to be meaningful, resources need to be distributed as equally as the right to vote. In a poignant introduction to the book, he talks about how his daughters will grow up in a country that contains only the most cosmetic features of democracy, and that their ability to be full and active citizens will be circumscribed, because of the government's refusal to address the tough questions of resource distribution. Shivji's point is one that applies to the logic of food sovereignty, because both he and food sovereignty advocates are concerned, at the end of the day, with democracy. Egalitarianism, then, is not something that happens as a consequence of the politics of food sovereignty. It is a prerequisite to have the democratic conversation about food policy in the first place.

In taking this line, it looks like I am violating the first rule of food sovereignty. The genesis of the concept was designed precisely to prevent the kind of pinning-down of interpretation that I attempt in this essay. But my interpretation does not pre-empt others, nor does it set in stone a particular political programme. In making my interpretation, I am merely identifying and making explicit some of the commitments that are already implicit in the definition of food sovereignty. If we talk about food sovereignty, we talk about rights, and if we do that, we must talk about ways to ensure that those rights are met, across a range of geographies, by everyone, in substantive and meaningful ways. In taking this line, I am clear that I come down on one side of a broader series of debates on the tension between individual and collective human rights, arguing that in cases where group rights threaten individual ones, individual ones ought to trump.

This is not likely to be an interpretation that goes down agreeably among all stakeholders. In taking this egalitarianism seriously, several important social relations need to be addressed. Via Campesina has already identified the home as one such locus of social relations; what else can it mean when food sovereignty calls for women's rights to be respected than that the patriarchal traditions that characterise every household and every culture must, without exception, undergo transformation. The relations between farmers and farmworkers, too, are ones that are characterised by structural inequalities in power. Quite how Via Campesina members address this is not my place to say, and that is as well, because I am very far from sure about the answer. But the fact that the question needs to be addressed is, to my mind, clear. Although the individual democratic movements within Via Campesina come at these issues from different starting points, traditions, and politics, it seems to me that the questions about power, complicity, and the profundity of a commitment to egalitarianism are ones that, by dint of their commitment to food sovereignty, the movements will ultimately have to address.

It is a challenge, as the papers in this special Grassroots Voices section demonstrate, that many have already taken up. To begin the discussion, we reproduce the Nyéléni Declaration on Food Sovereignty, which is followed by Hannah Wittman's interview with Paul Nicholson, one of the leading thinkers in Via Campesina. In this dialogue, Nicholson explains the philosophy of food sovereignty, strongly emphasising its democratic, procedural character. Food sovereignty is not something that can be forged by one person alone, nor, as Nicholson notes, can it be brought about exclusively by peasants, particularly in contexts where peasants form the political and social minority. This is explored further by Christina Schiavoni's account both of the Nyéléni Forum and the applications of food sovereignty not in rural Africa, but in urban New York City. Asking activists and workers in a range of community gardens about food sovereignty, she points to the rich potential that food sovereignty has for urban contexts in the Global North.

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman adds further nuance and scope to food sovereignty by showing how a group of natural and social scientists who were tasked with tackling the future of global agriculture arrived at conclusions strikingly similar to those articulated by the peasants at the Nyéléni Forum. In recognising the ecological costs of industrial farming and the need for locally flexible policy in order to tackle future food crises, the International Agricultural Assessment of Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development offers a rich and valuable complement to the political foundations of food sovereignty built by peasant groups.

Finally, Rodgers Msachi, Laifolo Dakishoni, and Rachel Bezner Kerr present a concrete case study of moves toward food sovereignty in Malawi. The report of their experiences in developing the Soils, Food, and Healthy Communities project in northern Malawi shows the extent to which food sovereignty is simultaneously about farming technology, democratic policymaking, public health, the environment, and gender, but also how the process of increasing food sovereignty is integral to its achievement. Together, these papers offer practical wisdom and analysis from activists in North America, Europe, and Africa, reminding us of the past contributions to justice and food sovereignty, as well as of the contributions that are yet to come, from the world's most organic intellectuals.


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