Food sovereignty: a contested concept

Emerging out of two major conferences and with a background reading list of more than 90 papers, a special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies has just emerged on ‘critical perspectives on food sovereignty’. This is free to view for a limited period (here:  http://www.tandfonline.com/r/fjps-41-6 – click to articles via this link if you don’t have a subscription), and contains a number of important papers and commentaries by both academics and activists, and many hybrids. It is an important moment, both for the food sovereignty movement and for the debate around it. For far too long there has been an absence of sustained critical and engaged debate about the meanings and implications of food sovereignty. These papers discuss, among other things, the origins of the concept, its connection to other food justice movements, its relation to rights discourses, the roles of markets and states and the challenges of implementation. It demonstrates a maturing of the movement, and a growing willingness to debate from a position of confidence and strength.

The most visible representation of the food sovereignty movement is the peasant movement, La Via Campesina. This has grown through combining diverse campaigns for changes in the global agri-food system. Some claim that it is the world’s largest social movement. ‘Food sovereignty’, is a term, as Marc Edelman notes in his paper that has a longer genealogy but has become very effectively popularised. This is an argument for peasant autonomy, local food systems, fairer more environmentally-sound, agroecological production and trade and much more besides. As a vision and political programme it is one to which many would subscribe.

For a while I have been intrigued to find out where the food sovereignty debate had got to, what political strategies were emerging and whether, in different and diverse contexts, the ideals were in fact realisable. I attended one of the conferences early this year in the Hague. Elizabeth Mpofu, a Zimbabwean farmer from Shashe resettlement area near Mashava and now the General Coordinator of La Via Campesina and a leader of the movement, opened the proceedings with a passionate rallying call.

What are my reflections on the debate? In many ways I remain rather confused as to what food sovereignty is, and how it is to be translated into a political struggle. The concept has evolved, and the movement has adopted many different angles as more and more elements have been incorporated. These included the move from a focus on small-scale production and markets to concerns with gender, indigenous peoples, environment, workers, consumers, migrants, trade relations and more.

Through accreting issues and agendas, the movement thus offers an all-encompassing vision where nothing is left out it seems. This helps build linkages between different areas of activism, but it also makes it very difficult to get a handle on what the core issues are, and where to focus intellectual and political energies. This is made more challenging by the lack of clarity over the focus of the key concept – sovereignty. There is much focus on ‘the local’, but this may not be sovereign without addressing the role of the state, or indeed the relationships between states in international trade and global politics. A populist appeal to locality may miss the importance of defining the arenas for political action that necessarily impinge on what happens in local settings.

It is clearly intensely political issue, part of an assertive political project, but it often lacks a solid political analysis. As many argue in the Journal of Peasant Studies issue, a more thorough-going engagement with critical agrarian studies might help address this gap. Three areas of politics, I felt, are missing.

The first is the politics of peasants. La Via Campesina – the peasant’s way – asserts the rights of peasants. But who is the peasantry in the context of a globalising world, with dynamic patterns of differentiation across sites? Classic issues of class formation and differentiation are raised, ones that Henry Bernstein so effectively elaborates in his ‘sceptical view’ paper for the issue. What is the relationship between the peasantry and workers, or indeed worker-peasants, with one foot in town and another in the countryside? Are petty commodity producers or even emergent commercial farmers part of the peasantry, or separate? What differences of gender, age, race for example cut across these class differences, and what conflicts and tensions arise? These are old questions, but highly pertinent to the formation of the emergent solidarities that must define a movement. Creating an idealised vision of a peasant, seemingly independent of context, makes the political project problematic, as the contradictions and conflicts that arise between and within groups may act to undermine the alliances required for a movement to gain traction.

The second area of missing politics is around the politics of technology and ecology. An important strand of the food sovereignty movement is the advocacy for an agroecological approach to farming. Low external inputs, organic production, rejection of biotechnology and so on are all hallmarks. Yet in the advocacy of agroecology too often there is a resort to an essentialist, technical argument, thus falling into the same trap as the advocates of the technologies that are opposed. As Jack Kloppenberg puts it in his paper in respect of agricultural biotechnology, the argument should be less about the particular technology but instead around the terms of access. An open access approach to research and development may generate a range of productivity-enhancing technologies that improve efficiency and reduce production costs, without being at the behest of large-scale corporations. New technologies are of course essential for improving agriculture. Improving the yield of crops through high-tech genetics or the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides may be essential, yet seem to be rejected by agroecology fundamentalisms.

The bottom line is that farmers want good prices, and consumers want cheap food. This structural relation between producers is crucial. The current agri-food system involves much distortion of prices, and a distribution of value in corporate-controlled value chains that often benefits agribusinesses and retailers, and neither producers nor consumers. Yet too often local food systems can only produce expensive food for elite markets. Clearly internalising the costs to the environment and to labour of the current agri-food system is essential, and this will doubtless produce shorter commodity chains, more localised production and marketing, better conditions for workers and a more equitable distribution of value, as well as more ecologically-sensitive forms of production. Yet, even with such measures, a diversity of innovative, technological responses will be necessary that should not be limited by a technically narrow definition of agroecology.

The third area is the politics of capital, and in particular the relationships between capital and the peasantry. Again, a very old debate. Peasants, however they are defined, are never disengaged from the historical processes of capitalist development. Indeed they are mutually constituted by such processes. The debate is not therefore how to disengage, but how to negotiate the terms of incorporation. There are many examples of adverse incorporation, where poor, marginalised farmers are disadvantaged. But the solution is not to go back to earlier forms of production and market relationship, but to organise for a better deal. Re-embedding markets in social contexts, following Karl Polanyi, is essential if a more democratic control of the food system is to be realised, and this means a political struggle around the terms of trade, the rejection of monopolistic market behaviours, and the opening up of markets to a wider range of players. In many ways, this is an advocacy for a better functioning capitalism without the distortions of corporate concentration, not its rejection outright. This means developing a more strategic engagement with capital around the terms of incorporation and the relationships between markets and societal values, much as the fair trade, organic certification and other movements have done.

The progressive ambitions and utopian ideals of food sovereignty are clearly evident, and ones that many can easily subscribe to. You only have to visit Elizabeth Mpofu and her colleagues on Shashe farm to get a sense of the vision. But how to translate this into a political programme and strategic advocacy around which clear solidarities and alliances can build is less evident. Perhaps with a tighter political economic analysis of the nature of the problem, always necessarily contextualised by history and place, then a more targeted, more effective approach might emerge. I am inspired by the passion and vision of the movement participants and their academic allies, but I am perhaps more sceptical about the practicalities of how, in any setting that I know of, such a vision might be realised in practice, including in Shashe (a question asked by Tania Li). This is of course not a reason to reject trying, but it also suggests the need to think harder about both political possibilities and strategies, and be less dogmatic about approaches, technologies and economic arrangements for more sustainable, people-centred agriculture than sometimes the agroecology and food sovereignty advocates allow.

This blog draws from an earlier reflection on the ISS conference published by Future Agricultures

The post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

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1 Comment

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One response to “Food sovereignty: a contested concept

  1. am

    The post indicates the great confusion as to what Food Sovereignty is apart from being a latest and populist catch-all phrase for many things and as a result incoherence is a feature of the movement. It reminds me of the different type of protest marches and rally slogans that used to take place in the 70’s and still do around the more recent global warming issue. In effect there are disparate groups coalescing round the movement all with their own particular agenda. I do wonder if the origins of the movement have been hijacked beyond its original intent and as a result the focus has been lost. It has become another anti-capital, anti-commercial, anti-supermarket, anti-globalisation movement while the peasant in all of it must be controlled in case he becomes too independently minded. Is it not just a movement originally for the benefit of the peasant but now hijacked by a more politically and environmentally than commercially minded fringe groups.
    As to Zimbabwe I don’t think that it will ever catch on. The small holder is independently minded and is very wary of help organisations. Especially due to their experience of corruption. What is more needed here is the direction of assistance to individuals and they make of it what they will.

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