Food Security and Sovereignty: Rachel Bezner-Kerr, Hannah Whitman, Philip McMichael

Hannah Wittman, Philip McMichael, and Rachel Bezner-Kerr discuss gaps between the framework of food security as defined by international organizations and the more challenging  grass-roots notion of food sovereignty.   Food sovereignty, as articulated by groups such as La Via Campesina, is the right of people to define agricultural and food policy, including prioritizing local agricultural production, access of peasants and landless people to land, water, seeds, and credit. Wendell Barry once wrote, “If you eat, you are involved in agriculture.” As advocates of food sovereignty emphasize, agriculture and food are inextricably linked.

Wittman, McMichael and Bezner-Kerr were interviewed by Calumet Quarter students Katherine Rittenhouse and Dylan Meyer before their lecture on May 9.

Q: First we were wondering if you could each tell us about your background and how it pertains to food sovereignty.
Hannah Whitman: I grew up on a farm in rural Idaho and worked for many years (20 years) with small scale farmers in Latin America on different aspects of agricultural development, food security, land reform, community based forest management, agroforestry – So, a whole range of different approaches to food production and environmental management and how those work together. That’s my main interest; how we can produce food in an environmentally sustainable way that also protects people. A way that’s socially just: providing jobs, protecting jobs, making sure kids have enough to eat. So, my personal background and professional background have come together in that interest.

Rachel Bezner-Kerr: I grew up in the city and didn’t come at food sovereignty from the same angle. I certainly remember growing food in the backyard garden and loving that, eating fresh carrots from the garden is an early memory. I’ve also been working with smallholder farmers probably the same length of time [as Hannah]; initially in Guatemala and then most of my time in Malawi, in Southern Africa.
I think my passion is around what are the driving forces of malnutrition and hunger and what are some sustainable ways that farmers can address their food insecurity in ways that have long-term benefits for their communities? Most of my research is focused around that. But also as a person, both of us, I know, have a passion for supporting local farmers and finding out where our  food is coming from and being aware of what we’re eating, and who has grown that food, and how it’s produced, and questions like that. So, I see a lot of connections between my personal food choices and thinking about my work.

Q: Why do you both think food sovereignty is the next step in alleviating hunger and ensuring food security?
HW: The sum of it is that food security policy for many years has been about food transfers. We figure out someplace where there’s lots of food and we deliver it to someplace where there’s not much food. We haven’t thought about why isn’t there very much food in that place and why is there so much food in that other place and who controls those distribution channels. So the current dominant sense of food security is just about letting the market do its work properly and getting the food to those who need it which tends to mean those who can pay for it. As we know there are lots of people who can’t pay for food and their ability to provide for themselves has been undermined by global food policy. So the food sovereignty framework turns that on its head and says: well how do we protect peoples right to produce their own subsistence, to control their own food systems which may involve trade, but in a way that is beneficial for them rather than beneficial for somebody in some other continent. Its access versus control. Those are the two fundamental concepts.

RK: If you look at the current food system its very broken, you have almost a billion people who are hungry and you have a rising and very troubling epidemic of obesity which is killing us at the other end of the scale and that is due to a system where the control is in the hand of a few multinational corporations and governments so if you’re looking at it from that angle, another option needs to be looked for because its not addressing these very big issues. It has to do with control and who is making the decisions and that’s why food sovereignty is such an appealing concept. I didn’t come at it you know from “I’m going to take a food sovereignty approach, it was more that I was doing this work with farmers in Malawi who were trying to produce food using local resources without having to rely on external inputs and get enough food to feed their families and have a reasonable livelihood and realizing some of the ideas around food sovereignty really meshed with the approach we were using in Malawi so its more that the concept has emerged out of organizations like La Via Campesina.

HW: This is not an academic concept, this is a concept that has emerged from people practicing food production and practicing experiencing hunger as a result of global trade policy and its a result in shifts in natural agricultural programs so we’re not in a sense pushing food sovereignty from the top down, people have been talking about food sovereignty at the grassroots level since 1993. The first books are coming out including our book (2-3 years ago). So it’s taken an awful long time for academics to notice, it’s taken an awful long time for policy makers to notice. Governments are actually noticing now. The idea of food sovereignty is making its way into constitutions, its making its way into laws and making its way into programs. People are actually catching up. The extent to which that’s actually implemented is another question, that’s the next step, but the discourse has certainly evolved and its evolved based on our ability not to just shut our eyes to what is going on with the broken food system. It’s staring us in the face; you can’t deny that the current model of distributionist food policy is not working.

Q: How do you see the role of the World Trade Organization in the move toward food Sovereignty, can it help?
RW: That’s a question for Phil, but I have an answer. It shouldn’t, it shouldn’t have a role. It should get out of agriculture and food all together. That’s really the position of the Via Campesina, and that’s really what was one of the spearheading movements around food sovereignty, so I think that would be a very simple answer in that get out of it all together, they shouldn’t be involved.

Philip McMichael: Its [the WTO] is finished. Paralyzed.

Q: So you don’t think it has any role to play in food security or food sovereignty at all anymore?
PM:  The UN Human rights rapporteur Olivier De Schutter is really pushing the WTO right now as hard as he can to take domestic food security seriously. You know, the WTO doesn’t really food security because trade is more important so what De Schutter is trying to do is flip that somehow. He’s arguing that in the post food crisis 2008 world, the WTO is irrelevant if it doesn’t address domestic food security. I don’t know if he’s going to win that particular battle, maybe he’s using that challenge to open us space somewhere else in the FAO.

HW: And some people are arguing (we can discuss whether this is a helpful argument or not) but I just reviewed a paper where Robert Gray actually is arguing that there’s nothing in the current WTO [provisions] that hinder local food procurement and he’s not using the word food sovereignty, but he’s saying that if your payments for environmental services for sustainable agriculture or local food procurement programs or school feeding programs or any kind of the mechanisms that people are sometimes proposing as leading toward the implementation of a food sovereignty framework, he says those aren’t actually illegal if you read the letter of the law of the OA.
Now, why the countries have the capacity to enact those programs and whether they’ll be contested, I mean a lot of countries are scared to do those things in case they’re going to get into some sort of trade war so the WTO could just be irrelevant or it could be increasingly more stringent. What’s allowable under the current rules is pretty vague. Some people say food sovereignty is allowable, much more so than (Dunkin?) so it’s sort of a complex policy framework.

Q: A lot of other international organizations like the World Band and  International Monetary Fund as well as the World Trade organization have ‘pro poor’ development to help alleviate poverty as well as hunger, do you think that food sovereignty can achieve poverty alleviation as well as hunger alleviation?
RW: So let me tackle the first part of your sentence, which had to do with the IMF and World Bank having ‘pro poor’ policies. I think that’s not true. I think their policies have been very anti-poor in many ways and that has been well documented and with specific regard to food sovereignty I think very many of their policies work against countries trying to build food sovereignty within their own country.
An example very specifically from Malawi is, under IMF pressure, they sold their grain stores that they had been holding. They had national grain stores as part of trying to sustain grain availability in their country should there be drought in a given year, and the IMF said ‘that’s to expensive, you should sell that’ and put pressure on them to do so because they [the IMF] had more money and due to the debt crisis and were obligated to some extent to follow what the IMF said and they experienced a very severe famine in 2002 in part because they had sold all their grain stores and there was a drought that year. They were not able to obtain grain quickly enough to address food shortages in the country so I would take strong issue with the notion that the IMF and World Bank have pro poor policies. I’ll let my colleagues answer the second half of the question which is: Food sovereignty and poverty, can they be addressed hand in hand?

HW: Sure, I mean part of the interesting thing about the food sovereignty framework is that it has more components than just feeding food to hungry people, so pro poor policy might be a school feeding program which brings corn and wheat from the United States and gives it to hungry African or Latin American Children. That could be considered pro poor, and the World Food Program has done that. A food sovereignty framework would be one that says well lets buy food from local farmers, protecting local jobs, lifting local farmers out of poverty and then letting that food be filtered into the school where local people can cook it in culturally appropriate ways, providing jobs in that way. So if you look at the difference in poverty reduction potential of delivering a high calorie biscuit which has been mass produced in China with wheat from the United States versus a soup that’s been grown locally, marketed through a local store or a local wholesale vegetable distributor and then made at the school, you can see the job and employment potential.

It’s often cheaper than the cost of transporting that biscuit in an international context. Where is that value being generated and who is capturing that value? So in that way if you look at it as an anti poverty strategy integrating food production and consumption then you have much more potential. The World Bank and IMF programs don’t tend to look at economic development in that holistic sense. They look at the one thing; they don’t look at the countervailing factors

PM: I think what Hannah was also saying is that food sovereignty represents the possibility of rural development beyond simply getting food in people’s mouths. It’s about re-skilling and providing people jobs, not necessarily paid jobs, but community involvement in rebuilding the resilience of that village or that community. People may be living at a standard of living, which we would consider poor but they wouldn’t consider poor so long as they’re being adequately fed…access to proper nutrition and those kinds of things

There’s a very interesting article… [whose conclusion says] that the World Bank claims to be attacking poverty but in fact it’s attacking the poor. … [I]t’s an article about the series of World Bank World Development reports that came out over a 12 year period, and the author went back and didn’t isolate each report on its own terms but put them all together, and in fact discerned a pattern across that period, and the pattern was very clearly the idea of assuming that peasants [or small farmers] don’t belong in the modern world, and basically instituting policies to provide jobs as opposed to allowing people to continue to subsist on the land. And I think that’s a very strong underlying assumption that’s made in the developing agencies, that people need to move off the land and find jobs. Of course they’re not finding jobs.

HW: If you look at Mexico, I mean the idea of NAFTA was that those peasants should get off the land and let food production occur where it needed to be, which was in the United States and all those Mexican workers would then go to the automobile factories and the maquiladoras. And where are they today? They’re migrating to the United States because there’s no jobs in Mexico, the jobs didn’t materialize.

PM: They went to China.

HW: The jobs went to China, and here we are in a situation with lots of people who formerly had at least a basis for survival are now crossing the borders and dying of, you know, heat exhaustion.

PM: And interestingly, many of them are actually performing agricultural labor, but not on their own farms.

HW: So not earning minimum wage, not being subject to health and safety regulations, and totally under the radar.

PM: The last thing I would say is that when Rachel was saying she wanted to challenge the terms you were using in your first sentence, I also wanted to… draw attention to the assumptions we make about … [the relationship between] alleviating poverty and food sovereignty. Given what I was saying we often assume that people who are subsisting on the land, and by that I mean they are actually surviving not really in a degraded situation, that people who are subsisting but are not earning money are poor. But, in fact, that may not be the case, so we have to think carefully about how we define what poverty is. Because otherwise it’s very easy to engage in this self fulfilling prophesy and say well if people are leaving the land its because they can’t survive or they don’t belong there, and that’s the way the world is. And we forget to think about NAFTA and its political impact on small farmers.

HW: That NAFTA required the privatization of communal agricultural land in Mexico, which effectively pushed a lot of people off the land, not because they wanted to go.

RK: And allowed the influx of very cheap corn from the United States over time which undercut peasant agriculture

HW: Those who remained.

RK: And made it unviable for them to compete and as a result they had to leave the land and go work elsewhere. Mexico’s a really good example because we’re intimately connected to it, whether we’re in Canada or the US, and it was the first international trade agreement between a country from the global south and two wealthier countries and at the time is was hotly contested, certainly in Canada, and in the US, [with people] saying we’re going to lose jobs to Mexico.

PM: ‘The great sucking sound’.

RK: Yes. And it was really an election issue in Canada, I don’t know how it played out in the US, but obviously NAFTA won out and we can now witness the impact, particularly on Mexico. And it’s really been devastating… environmentally and socially and economically for the majority of Mexican peasant farmers. And socially you see this rise in crime associated with the border dynamics, that is various narco-trafficking, which is very much related to NAFTA.

HW: That became an economic alternative.

RK: And it’s that model of [attaining] global food security through increased trade [and] reduced borders, and that model hasn’t been successful. And associated with that is also rising rates of obesity… where Mexican families are now eating many of the same foods we’re eating here in Canada and the US, and it’s leading to rising rates of obesity and heart problems and so on, so that problem as well… is related to our food system.

Q: We were talking about how just a few years ago, no one really knew about food sovereignty, and even now it’s becoming more and more of an academic subject. But it’s another thing to have it in place on a large scale. So what are the steps that need to be taken to, first of all, make it seen as a legitimate solution and idea by a majority of people, and second of all, to have it actually in place on a more global scale?

HK: We can see the steps that are already being taken, this is a grassroots concept that people have developed and they are now demanding from their particular national experiences. In a number of countries, particularly in Latin America but also in Nepal, [for example], where there has been constitutional amendments or new constitutions made that include the right to food sovereignty. So you have a direct relationship between local constituencies, reflecting on their reality, recognizing that possible alternative, and then getting this ratified through the national legislative process. So it’s not even radical in that sense, in terms of what steps need to be taken.
That’s the first step. I mean the Bolivian constitution has a clause that says any national trade agreement signed by Bolivia must respect the principles of food sovereignty. So all of a sudden it becomes an element of debate. Whether or not Bolivia will sign a national trade agreement with some other country to respect [the principles of food sovereignty];  …  we don’t know what the outcome of that will be, but now it’s on the table, now it becomes a negotiating concept. So as far as I’m concerned, the steps that need to be taken, well I’m not going to dictate what countries need to do or what individual communities need to do, but they are taking those steps, they… are designing programs that work for their community, … demanding changes in national legislation, … lobbying [their] governments not to sign such and such a trade agreement.
In Canada there’s a lot of mobilization against the Canada-Europe economic trade agreement[, Canada-European Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement], CETA, because there’s some clauses in the draft of CETA that seem to limit the ability of municipalities to choose local food. And this is actually something that the European constituents are up in arms about, and the Canadian civil society is just starting to recognize this… now that [they’re] finally recognizing school feeding programs, and the importance of local agriculture for regional agro-biodiversity and the ecological services. So CETA has some clauses that would actually limit the policy capacity of local governments to make its own choices. So all of a sudden you see some of these groups starting to use the food sovereignty discourse in their debates about these topics. So there’s definitely steps that are being taken in terms of collective action, public mobilization, but there’s also legislative steps, that are quite promising.

PM: [W]hen I was at the conference in Saskatoon, Paul Nicholson was there…. And the concept of food sovereignty was being thrown around at that conference in all kind of ways that were alien to me. And I was sitting to next to Raj and nudging him and saying ‘look, anything can be food sovereignty’. So we talked to Paul about it and he said ‘look, … the peasant movement doesn’t have a monopoly on the concept food sovereignty. In fact we want it to travel and to take on different meanings in different contexts.’ So I was laughing with Raj because… a farmers market person was talking about food sovereignty and we were saying ‘boy its really departed a long way from land rights and stuff like that.
But of course … local farmers markets are connected to supporting local farmers. So Nicholson was really quite interesting, because I would have said 10 years ago the food sovereignty movement would have been very jealous of who gets to define the term. But now I think they’re realizing that it needs to travel. This conference was a way in which they were reaching out to academics, and realizing they need to form alliances… Canada is a good example because there’s another book on food sovereignty coming out soon… out of Ottowa I think. I have the final chapter in there. And it’s quite a range. Food sovereignty has so many different meanings in that book. And what I tried to do in the final chapter was say ‘well we have to remember that food sovereignty came out of a very specific moment of agrarian crisis in the late 80s early 90s. It came out of the peasant movement and then now its traveling and we need to continue to connect back to the land and farmers’…

HW: And here’s an interesting example that I was just hearing about, Venezuela, which doesn’t have a large amount of agricultural production, for a number of reasons, they’re buying food from Brazil, and selling it in the mercados populares, the state-run subsidized food outlets. And they’re labeling this Brazilian chicken with the food sovereignty label, because this is considered to be…

PM: A cooperative advantage

HW: Yeah, it’s a trade relationship that’s… Brazil and Venezuela are trade partners in solidarity with one another and so buying industrial Brazilian chicken and selling it at reduced price to Venezuelans is Venezuela’s definition of food sovereignty.

PM: You never thought you’d hear Hannah Wittman talking about industrial chicken as food sovereignty.

HW: Well, I haven’t developed a final assessment of what I think about this. It sort of threw me for a loop for a minute. But if you define food sovereignty as each country’s right to decide how it wants to run its local food system,

PM: Yeah, it’s a good example.

HW: It’s a good example, and in the interim, it’s allowing access to protein, whatever I think about the quality of that protein… What I was thinking was ‘counterproductive,’ you know? Not everything is going to work together very seamlessly.

PM: There’s an absolutely wonderful movie that was made by an Australian… and I showed it to my undergraduates… and it just pulled everything together brilliantly for them. It gave them a real understanding of what food sovereignty was. And it’s really about how the Chavez government is using their oil wealth to re-establish and reinvigorate local agriculture in the most profound way. And its sort of helping to mobilize the locals, the locals themselves are actually pushing the state so there’s this sort of two way thing going on… Growing Change it’s called…