Food security and food sovereignty

Staff-student dialogue

Conversation between Assistant Professor Mindi Schneider and PhD researcher Christina Schiavoni

Mindi (M): Most would agree that food security is an important and honourable goal. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) defines food security very clearly - a situation in which all people, at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their daily dietary needs for an active and healthy life.

But there are issues with mainstream narratives in food security policies. The first issue lies in how food security is measured. It is derived from household income and expenditure surveys that are used to calculate the per capita available calories in a country. This statistic measures hunger, which the FAO defines as the presence of under-nourishment, defined as an extreme form of food insecurity where a household doesn’t have enough food energy to cover a sedentary lifestyle which lasts for more than a year. This definition of hunger overlooks the crucial point that the poor are not sedentary. Additionally, the FAO measures hunger for a period of a year, which does not consider short-term shocks due to seasonal scarcity, or price shocks related to the vagaries of global markets.

Secondly, food security becomes a political concept when the measure itself is modified depending on the context in which it is examined. The 2012 State of Food Insecurity in the World report, which the FAO publishes annually, changed the measure of food security, resulting in the reported number of hungry people globally being cut by about 220 million. This simply changed how the estimate was made, improving the figures, while concealing the ongoing problem of hunger.

Christina (C): Another issue with the measurements is the problem of looking at aggregate numbers in a way that vulnerable populations can often get overlooked. Also, there is much that numbers alone don’t tell us. At the World Food Summit in 1996 these issues were approached through a mainstream food security frame. Small-scale food producers, who actually make up the majority of the world’s hungry, were facing an onslaught of policies that were further driving them into poverty and hunger. In response, movements of small-scale food producers from across the globe, united under La Via Campesina, put forward the concept of food sovereignty as a response to the mainstream, neo-liberal packaging of food security. 

In 2007, a bit over a decade after the concept of food sovereignty was launched, transnational social movements including La Via Campesina, World March of Women, Friends of the Earth, and movements of workers, indigenous peoples, urban dwellers, and youth came together for the Nyéléni Global Forum for Food Sovereignty in Mali and developed a framework around food sovereignty which included its general definition and six pillars. It was defined as 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 agricultural systems. The pillars focus on food for people (rather than food merely as a commodity), valuing food providers, localized food systems, local control, building knowledge and skills, and working with nature.

...we're now in a time in which the political is personal.

M: It seems that the food security discourse wants to be equated with fighting hunger, which might be missing in the food sovereignty discourse. What do you feel about that?

C: Good point. Food sovereignty doesn’t always sufficiently address nutrition, whereas in food security dialogues there is the opposite extreme and production is hardly talked about, or the argument is simply that we need more production. I think both camps can learn from each other. Food sovereignty advocates often talk about increased crop diversity for increased dietary diversity. This is true to a large extent, but a recent study in Ghana on inter-household dynamics and nutrition found that increased crop diversity does not always translate into more diverse diets.

M: Yes. One of the key things that we have to do when we talk about the food system – its problems and their solutions - is to embed food and food systems in social relations, from the household to the global level: it’s always social relations that mediate food.

C: Absolutely. And we also have to consider what happens when we move from discourse to the actual nuts and bolts of practice. A lot of movements which are doing really important work still have a lot of internal work to do to address inequalities, both within the movements themselves and within the specific locations where they operate.

M: That’s true; borrowing from feminist scholarship, it seems we’re now in a time in which the political is personal. Big slogans, discourses, and commitments have to come down to the personal level. Because if you’re promoting equality and justice in the global food system, but you don’t have these things ‘in the house’, then that needs looking at. It’s heartening to see this coming out more prominently.

C: Agreed! Traditional food security studies have lent themselves to traditional, de-politicized methodologies; with food sovereignty, on the other hand, you’re explicitly looking at issues of power and at how movements work. I feel that the strongest and most interesting research is that in which there are real partnerships between researchers and movements; in which the lines between the two are blurred. I’d love to have more of these discussions at ISS.

M: In the Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies major of the MA at ISS, we work with and critically engage in food security, food policy, and social movements related to food and farming systems. Thinking about hunger, justice, equality, and ecology in food systems is very much at the heart of what we do, both in teaching and in research.

This conversation was conducted via Skype.

Mindi Schneider

Assistant Professor at ISS

Christina Schiavoni

(external) researcher at ISS

Image top:
Women from the Abrono Organic Farming Project (ABOFAP) showcase their seeds. Near Techiman, Ghana.
Credit: Global Justice Now


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