Lecture by Bina Argarwal on Food Sovereignty, Food Security, And Democratic Choice


Below are the notes from Bina Agarwal’s talk ‘Food Sovereignty, Food Security, And Democratic Choice ‘ in DCU, 21 June 2016.

Notes by John Baker and Photo by Nita Mishra

The idea of Food Sovereignty (FS) is attractive at first sight, since it seems to protect each country from the risks involved in relying on the international food market for feeding its population. However, it raises important questions that have not been adequately addressed.

As the concept has developed, its definition has become increasingly complicated. In 1996, FS was defined as ‘the right of each nation to maintain and develop its own capacity to produce its basic foods, respecting cultural and productive diversity. ‘A 2002 definition shifted to ‘The rights 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 ‘. And a 2007 definition was much longer and more complex: ‘the rights 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 prioritises local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, … It ensures the rights to use and manage lands … [It] implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social and economic classes and generations. ‘Clearly, as the definition becomes more complicated, there is more scope for internal tensions and contradictions.

Agarwal placed FS in the context of international trade in food, noting that Asia, Africa and South America, although producing just over half (57%) of the world’s cereals, also accounted for 90% of the world’s imports. Importing 165 million tons of cereal per year, they are very far from being self-sufficient and are therefore highly vulnerable to market forces. The objective of FS is therefore attractive, but it would require a very substantial increase in productivity. Is that consistent with the FS objective of supporting small-scale, peasant farming?

Agarwal also noted the high and increasing degree of feminisation of agriculture in most continents, due in large part to a shift of male employment into other sectors of the economy. Although women do not make up the majority of agricultural workers in any of them, they now constitute more than 40% in Asia, Africa and Oceania and between 20 and 30% in North America, South America and Europe. The shifting definitions of FS seem to elide potential tensions in the role of women in these modes of agricultural production, talking on the one hand about ‘family’ production, with all that this implies about neglecting inequalities within families, while on the other stressing gender equality – itself open to the question of how to achieve gender equality in households in which males may be earning high wages in non-agricultural employment while women carry out subsistence farming.

Proponents of FS seem to assume that peasant farmers prefer farming over other occupations, and are committed to producing food rather than non-food crops. But neither assumption is accurate. A large proportion [not disclosed in PowerPoint slides] of farm households do not like farming. These farmers are more likely to be households with smaller holdings, and to be less well informed and less highly educated than households that like farming. Farming households may also resist FS demands to produce food crops, even where NGOs provide incentives to do so, for a variety of valid reasons, such as that food crops require more water and that profits from non-food crops may be higher. If FS is defined in terms of the right of farmers to decide the extent to which they wish to produce food, and to act in ways necessary to enhance their own food security, they may well choose to produce non-food crops, but this may then conflict with the capacity of a country to produce all of its own food.

As noted above, FS requires increases in agricultural productivity, which includes economies of scale that arise through farming larger holdings and using expensive capital equipment. But the history of attempts to promote agricultural productivity through collectivization has not been a happy one. Farmers have often been strongly committed to retaining ownership of their land and have fiercely resisted collective ownership. Agarwal reviewed an alternative strategy, illustrated by cases in Romania, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and North India, that allows farmers to retain ownership of their land but enables them to farm their land collectively. This allows them to achieve economies of scale while retaining greater control. Internal processes are typically developed to ensure that everyone does their share of the work and to sanction free riders. The model does not ensure that they produce food rather than non-food crops – that is for them to decide. It does not necessarily enhance gender equality within households if the unit of cooperation does not go beyond an extended family, but inter-family groups and women’s groups do help to empower women. In either case, the model departs from the FS ideal of family farming. [For JB, one of its major attractions is as a model of cooperation that challenges some central features of capitalist production.]

In summary, Bina made the following points:

  • The FS vision of self-sufficiency, diversity, agro-ecology, democracy and equality is undeniably attractive, but some elements can be in serious conflict.
  • National self-sufficiency goals resonate given need to reduce over-dependency on imports. But farmers, facing constraints, may not make choices to enable national self-sufficiency.
  • Group approaches provide alternatives but require departure from family farming models. Gender equality may need further institutional innovation.
  • Many small farmers want to leave farming. Of those who choose to stay many want to grow commercial crops, to use some chemicals, and to connect beyond local markets.
  • The choices exercised by the poor locally cannot always fulfil those defined by global movements on their behalf.

This raises some key questions for those attracted to the FS vision:

  • Are global visions of FS representative of actual producers?
  • Can institutions that promote voice and choice ensure individual freedom while defining new forms of collective responsibility?

Agarwal set out six essential principles of the alternative model of cooperative production:

  • Voluntariness
  • Small Size
  • Socio-Economic Homogeneity
  • Participatory Decision-Making
  • Checks To Contain Free Riding
  • Fair & Transparent Distribution Of Production Benefits