Food Sovereignty in Organization & Environment 24(4)

Food Sovereignty
Reconnecting Food, Nature and Community

Edited by Annette Aurélie Desmarais, Nettie Wiebe and Hannah Wittman  

Food sovereignty is the name of the “policy framework” first articulated by the global peasant and small-farmers’ social movement La Via Campesina at their Second International Conference in 1996 and announced to the world at the World Food Summit, Rome, the same year. Since then this set of ideas and claims have demonstrated their inspirational potential by, among others, being incorporated within the constitutions and legislative frameworks of a number of states, and providing a global rallying point–and organizational reference–for a broad range of actors extending well beyond the core food producer constituency of La Via Campesina. Indeed, the food sovereignty movement has also spilled over into academia–partly through the fact that some dynamic food sovereignty intellectuals have crossed over there from activism, and partly through its take up in various different ways by both early career and more established academics–as evidenced in the steadily increasing stream of various different types of academic output within which food sovereignty features in one way or another. Indeed, just 5 or 6 years ago it was hard to locate anything resembling food sovereignty scholarship. Now it’s hard to keep track of it all. This book–at least two of whose editors can most definitely be counted within the category of those having made the activist-academic crossover (though such distinctions are of course messy and imprecise)–represents, however, one of the few and certainly one of the first attempts to gather the efforts of those working in this vein into a single location where the focus on food sovereignty is both singular and central.

The purpose of this edited volume comprising 13 pithy chapters is stated very clearly by the three editors (two of whose ongoing reflections on food sovereignty–Annette Desmarais, grain farmer and Canada’s National Farmers Union [NFU] official-cum-academic whose work has been at the vanguard of food sovereignty scholarship, and Nettie Wiebe, ex-Women’s President of the NFU and now an ethics professor at the University of Saskatchewan–benefit no doubt from their history of close quarter participation within La Via Campesina). It is this: The global food system is in trouble, as evidenced by the 2007-2008 food crisis, which, though it certainly doesn’t predate the ongoing crises being experienced by rural peoples the world over, has increased awareness of the range of food system challenges–from climate change to biodiversity loss–and made the search for solutions more pressing (at least among urban populations and elites). Food sovereignty represents one set of solutions, but the range and depth of its program means that its realization will not come without a struggle, particularly in the context of a strong counterposition in the form of “neoliberal globalization.” The purpose of the book therefore, is to contribute to this struggle “by engaging in a conversation that identifies and expands the meanings, understandings and implications of food sovereignty in an international context.” (p. 2). That such a conversation is necessary is rooted in the fact–and this is a point echoed throughout the book–that while food producers have been at the vanguard of food sovereignty’s development, the scale of the changes it envisions and the historical moment in which they need to be made will require “[t]he solidarity of allies from all walks of life and many sectors of society around the world” (p. 12). This book, then, represents an attempt by food sovereignty advocates to both focus and refine their ongoing dialogue, and expand it.

The structure of the book is as follows: the first section explores “the genesis of the alternative model for food systems expressed in the language of food sovereignty” (p. 10). This comprises a chapter by the editors; a chapter by Fairburn that links–to powerful effect–regime theory with the social movement concept of “framing” to identify the relationship between the changing post- World War II political-economic context and hegemonic understandings of food policy; and a chapter–very importantly–comprising interviews conducted with two important La Via Campesina leaders, Itelvina Masioli, from Brazil, and Paul Nicholson, from the Basque country. The second section examines “the powerful economic forces unleashed by capitalism,” and counts among its ranks a contribution by Handy and Fehr exploding–by a focus on the British experi- ence–the historical myth that peasant displacement is a necessary precondition for (agricultural) development; a chapter by Bello and Baveira situating the food price crisis in its broader context– “the centuries long process of displacement of peasant agriculture by capitalist agriculture” (p. 73); and a chapter by Holt-Giménez and Shattuck focusing on the transformations being wrought upon the world’s food and farming systems by the agrofuels boom. Section three addresses “the ways in which contemporary peasant movements are revaluing the relationship between agriculture, land and the environment through campaigns on land reform, agroecology and food sovereignty” (p. 11). Here we find contributions by Wittman, developing her ongoing reflections on the concept of “agrarian citizenship” and its invocation through the “Green Deserts” and “Seed Sovereignty” campaigns in Latin America; Borras and Franco, who bring the vision of food sovereignty “down to the complex, messy real world,” specifically in the context of agrarian reform; and Altieri, addressing both the potential and challenges for scaling-up agroecological approaches in Latin America. The penultimate section takes up the issue of seeds, addressing “the powerful nexus of problems” generated by “capitalist economic strategies and policies working in lock-step with sci- ence.” This includes a chapter by Kerr in which–on the basis of her extended research there–she discusses the dynamics of the seed struggle in Malawi; and a chapter by Kloppenburg addressing the incompatibility between food sovereignty and intellectual property regimes and exploring the possibility of “open source biology” to provide food sovereignty with legal and institutional arrangements appropriate to its intrinsic (communal) character. The final section returns to the book’s “orienting theme”–“bridging the gap between the theory and practice of food sovereignty” (p. 11). Here we find two chapters, one by McMichael and one by Patel, both of which, among others, alight on the central importance and challenge of creating substantively inclusive policy- making processes–essential to food sovereignty’s “ethic of democratization” (p. 173). Beyond these editorial distinctions there are many different ways of reading this book and of organizing its content. Three key, interrelated themes stood out for me. The first of these is the dynamism of food sovereignty. One way of looking at food sovereignty is as an invocation by grassroots food system constituencies for locally oriented, culturally appropriate, ecologically sustainable food systems, and for the right to participate in the governance of those systems. But beyond this food sovereignty becomes different things in different places, assuming different tones and scales. This is reflected in a number of ways, but perhaps most clearly in the chapter featuring interviews with farm leaders Itelvina Masioli and Paul Nicholson. From Masioli, for instance, we encounter language about class conflict, education, and consciousness building, whereas from Nicholson we hear about campaigns against abattoirs and local farmers’ coopera- tives. This indicates the dynamism of food sovereignty, ranging from the conceptual to the con- crete, from the sectoral to the societal. This also connects to a second important theme–the importance of context. Food sovereignty is intrinsically transformative, but the transformative potential of food sovereignty will only be realized by sensitivity on the part of its advocates toward context. This point emerges particularly in the chapters by Kerr, Kloppenburg, and Borras and Franco, each of which in different ways identifies critical variations in context (respectively, the absence of meaningfully organized farmers in Malawi; the presence of a residual public research capacity that may form a potential alliance node in the campaign for seed sovereignty; and regional variations in patterns and types of land ownership) attention toward which is deemed essential to transform the “theory” of food sovereignty, into “practice.”

And the third theme is, of course, the importance of alliances. As multiple contributors make clear, attaining food sovereignty requires the coordinated action of a wide range of food system actors, not just food producers. The editors of this text themselves are–as we might expect, given their back- grounds–very clear about the active, and inclusive nature of the food sovereignty struggle. Indeed, as has been noted, a key objective of this book is to both continue and expand that struggle, with the book acting as “an open invitation to the reader to enter the discourse and engage in this vital work” (p. 12). For the richness and breadth of the contributions, the scale of the challenges confronting the global food system, and the fecundity and potential of food sovereignty–and many others–I urge any and all potential readers to take up that invitation.4

–Josh Brem-Wilson is a PhD student at the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK. His research focuses upon the nascent transnational public sphere that is being created as a result of the interac- tion between “new publics” such as the global social movement La Via Campesina and sites of transna- tional political authority such as the UN Committee on World Food Community.

–Review appeared in Organization & Environment 24(4)

← Back to Food Sovereignty