By Diana Fu
Food security has long been framed by the following question: how do we grow enough food to feed a population of 9 billion by 2050?
Who are “we” and who are the 9 billion? I think it’s of the utmost importance to analyze who is supposed to be growing enough food and whom it is intended to feed. The rhetoric of “we” and “them” runs the risk of inducing a logic of othering that alienates humanity from itself, often through racial, economic, and nationalist differences. In the search for solutions to global problems, “we” always seem to be burdened with finding the solutions to the problems with “them,” framing the power dynamics between the two parties as unequal. Thus, when we talk about solving world hunger through the goal of “food security,” we completely ignore the problematic power dynamic between “we” and “them”. Accordingly, I think we who seek to help alleviate world hunger should be extremely aware of our position as privileged do-gooders and its boundaries, as well as reflect critically on the long-term implications of our actions.
“Food security” was defined at the 1996 World Food Summit as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” However, how we achieve the goal of food security is not clearly prescribed.
On the other hand, the term “food sovereignty”, encompasses both the means and the end. Popularized by the peasant movement Via Campesina, food sovereignty emphasizes food as a human right, not a commodity. It also asserts food as a sacred relationship between people, land, history, and culture. It prioritizes self-determination: people, not corporate monopolies, should have agency in the foods they produce, distribute, and consume. In this way, food sovereignty is the democratic path to food security, a means to the end that affects not only the hungry, but everyone. It seeks to re-appropriate power to the poorest, most marginalized people of our society (and ironically, those who happen to be closest to the production of food): people of color and women.
Thus food sovereignty is more than about solving hunger, although it is certainly included; it’s about equalizing the power dynamics between “we” and “them”. To fully understand how “we” and “them” are oriented in systems of food, it is best to first study the historical relationship between “we” and “them” in the modern globalized market.
While some have lauded the “progress” that accompanies globalization, it should be noted that this progress almost exclusively means material progress, which doesn’t always entail societal progress, especially in respect to equality. In the late 20th century, “we,” the West, have pushed neoliberal agendas in an attempt to improve the markets of post-colonial nations (“them”) through deregulation, fiscal austerity, and free-trade. However, for “them,” neoliberal agendas designed by global powers such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank often meant the crippling of the borrower’s economy due to little protection from the international market and high barriers of entry. Essentially, national economies (and of the utmost importance, their people), were at the mercy of international competition, and often found themselves in greater poverty than before.
An example of the negative effects of neoliberalist agendas can be seen in Jamaica, whose public debt has been spiraling out of control ever since they signed on to loan agreements from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to alleviate post-colonial debt. These short-term loans contained conditions that followed the neoliberal agenda of “monetary austerity, currency devaluation, and lowering wages.. Similarly, the World Bank, whose long-term loans in the form of structural adjustment programs (SAP’s) attempted to modernize the borrower’s economy into a free-market economy, often proposed deregulation that cleared the way for “dumping” of agricultural commodities by subsidized grain from the United States and Europe. Conditions “we” gave “them” for the loans presumably undercut local production and often resulted in increasing dependency on artificially-low priced products. In Jamaica, loans received from the IMF and World Bank outlined support for cash crops and industry, which bent food production towards cheap, government-subsidized foreign grains and not towards a local sustainable agricultural economy. In 2001, Jamaica imported $402.7 million in agricultural products and only exported $227.7 million of the same category. The dependency upon foreign food imports continues to cripple the development of any local Jamaican agricultural economy, while also circulating money out of Jamaican hands into already wealthy international corporations.
With poverty comes hunger, and since the Green Revolution, per capita hunger has been steadily increasing, and the number of desperately hungry people in the world in 2009 was numbered at over 1 billion. The Green Revolution, which supposedly “saved billions of lives” through biotechnology such as high-yield crops, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides, was spearheaded by researchers in the United States and Europe. However, it is widely known that the Green Revolution “damaged the environment, caused dramatic loss of biodiversity and traditional knowledge, favored wealthier farmers, and left many poor farmers deeper in debt” by making them consumers of foreign inputs when they were once self-reliant producers. At the beginning of the 21st century, record numbers of the world’s poor experienced hunger at a time of all-time high harvests (In 2007, record grain harvests were enough to feed the world 1.5 times over, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization). The contradiction of increasing hunger amidst abundance, then, points not to a problem of the quantity of food being grown in the world (the focus of the Green Revolution), but of the systems of distribution.
Poverty and hunger go hand in hand, and in Jamaica, as in many other postcolonial nations, the distorted power dynamics between “we” privileged do-gooders and “them” have historically been in the richer’s favor.
Food sovereignty’s attention to power inequalities encompasses not only food security’s goal of access to food, but also control over the land that produces it and the economy that supports it.6 Because of this, food sovereignty is concerned with the long-term sustainability of global food security, and much more — It is concerned with the right of every individual, regardless of race, class, or gender, to healthy, culturally appropriate, and ecologically sound and sustainable food.10 It seeks to equalize the current distorted dynamics between “we” and “them,” which can help us see the full humanity in each other.