Translating the Politics of Food Sovereignty:
Digging into Contradictions, Uncovering New Dimensions
Annie Shattuck, Christina M. Schiavoni & Zoe VanGelder (2015)1, Globalizations
A recent issue of the journal “Globalizations” looks at the dimensions and contradictions of the concept of food sovereignty in the light of developments since the 90s. In an excerpt (extract here ), the authors review the evolution of the definition, the scope and issues related to the concept of food sovereignty.
Food sovereignty is a concept that was developed and presented for the first time by “Via Campesina” at the FAO Food Summit in Rome in 1996. It is presented as the “[international] right for populations, their states or their unions to define their agricultural and food policy, without dumping vis-à-vis third countries”. Unlike food security, it has a more pronounced political orientation.
Reading this article, it appears that food sovereignty, a relative and cyclical concept, has radically changed over the past two decades. Today it is associated with a complex array of factors (socio-economic, geopolitical, endogenous and exogenous) and new realities (land purchasing policies, external policy issues ...) predominantly related to the financialization of agricultural markets in an increasingly uncertain and unstable international context.
momagri Editorial Board
Shifting Terrain, Shifting Politics of Sovereignty
Food sovereignty was born, like all ideas, as a product of its time. The concept has its roots in nationalist food politics of the 1980s (Edelman, 2014), but on the world stage, food sovereignty rose to prominence in the aftermath of structural adjustment. In the mid-1990s social movements were forced to reckon with a wave of free trade agreements. As cheap commodities flooded rural economies in the Global South, the agricultural sector consolidated dramatically. These circumstances left an already weak state apparatus even weaker with respect to regulating flows of food and agricultural goods. The peasant farmers represented by La Via Campesina were, in many ways, the collateral damage of this era. Invoking sovereignty as a rallying cry framed hunger, agrarian reform, and rural economies as an issue of human rights and national control (McMichael, 2014; Patel, 2009). The call to sovereignty was a conscious effort to bring power back to the state from deregulated markets and free trade regimes—and as such, to bolster the rights and livelihoods of peasants.
Since ‘food sovereignty’ rose to prominence in 1996, the ground has shifted under rural social movements. Peasant farmers are dealing with a confluence of events, including the growing involvement of financial actors in agricultural production and food provisioning (Isakson,2014), increasing ecological pressures and uncertainty (Ribot, 2014), more rural–urban circular migration and multi-cited livelihoods (Hecht, 2014; Nguyen & Locke, 2014), and increasing concern with health, given the rise in diet-related disease and pesticide toxicity in both the Global North and South (De Schutter, 2011; Noyes et al., 2009).
First, as Phil McMichael explains in this issue, movements have had to confront not only a trade-centered assault on peasant economies, but also vast—and vastly complicated—financialization of agriculture (Clapp, 2014; Fairbairn et al., 2014; Isakson, 2014). Since 2007, three spikes in food prices have occurred, all partly fueled by commodities speculation. Corporations continue their patterns of vertical integration, while also turning to schemes such as contract farming to ‘incorporate smallholders into global value chains’: small-scale farmers may own the land, but in many cases, cede degrees of control over their economies and labor (McMichael, 2015). A new wave of investment, in farmland—the oft-cited ‘land grab’—is also bound up in the transformation of global agricultural politics and trade (McMichael, 2012). This ‘investment-led assault’ (McMichael, 2015) is multifaceted and has shifted the terms of opposition to include defending ‘“ways of life” on the land against not only market forces . . . but also organized physical and economic enclosures’ (McMichael, 2015). Meanwhile, in both the global North and South, food insecurity is becoming an increasingly urban concern, intensified by these new waves of dispossession.
Changes in geopolitics have also affected food sovereignty as the power dynamics between and within states are shifting. While the countries of the G8 remain major players in global food politics (see McMichael, 2015), they must now play alongside other powerful actors, from the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to the growing ‘pink tide’ of left-leaning countries in Latin America (see Schiavoni, 2015). These shifting axes of power are reflected not only in new relationships among states, but also between states and civil society, as can be seen with the newly reformed UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) (see McMichael, 2015; Claeys, 2014). Such developments simultaneously pose new challenges and openings and raise new questions for the role of the state vis-à-vis food sovereignty—a theme that emerges throughout this issue.
These changes in geopolitics and structural transformations in the global economy come at a time of increasingly unstable climate conditions, among other challenges. Urban and rural ways of making a living are no longer as distinct as they once were: many households are stretched between spaces, with the work of childrearing and caring for the elderly in the countryside and rural youth increasingly drawn to urban life and the economic opportunities there. Migration between city and countryside is often the only way to make ends meet. Pesticide toxicity affects more farmers and farmworkers, as well as consumers, making access to healthy food a rallying cry for urban and rural communities alike; and the global movement for agroecology is rising. Now considered a twin pillar of food sovereignty, agroecology has become the practical method for building food sovereignty at the farm scale (Altieri & Nicholls, 2012).
In short, these new realities suggest that the context—socioeconomic, political, and ecological— in which food sovereignty was originally hatched has changed more than a little. The experiences, movements, and positions encompassed under the umbrella of food sovereignty have always been diverse (Desmarais & Wittman, 2014), but the shifts that we are seeing today demand a new degree of flexibility in the way that food sovereignty is imagined, researched, and put into practice.
For researchers, this shifting political terrain is a fruitful space of engagement. While there has been a flush of recent literature on financialization and the global land grab, there have been fewer investigations on other aspects of change in the global food regime, including of the effects of increasing rural–urban circular migration, the way climate change interacts with market volatility and historical inequality, new South–South trade arrangements, and corporate consolidation in the Global South, to name a few. Deeper examination of the spaces in which these changes are negotiated could help to identify where there might be opportunities for structural transformation.
1 Respectively researchers at : University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA, International Institute for Social Studies (ISS), The Hague, The Netherlands, Yale Fox Fellow, Mexico City, Mexico.
2 The entire review is available from