#16 food & farming
David Betge

Food Security Versus Food Sovereignty?

The food security discourse has seen some interesting developments in recent years that show how farmers and landless people could find more common ground in the future.

Food security is a core policy objective for the Indian government. In a country soon to host the largest population on earth, feeding the population is a central issue by necessity. That people must have access to food is beyond debate, but the question of how to achieve this is highly political. Policy decisions taken around food security often essentially embody key decisions for development.

Around 70% of the Indian population lives in rural areas and almost 60% is economically dependent on agriculture and allied sectors. Chengal Reddy, Secretary General of the Consortium of Indian Farmers Associations (CIFA), says that the most pressing issues for supporting Indian farmers are increasing technological inputs, market facilities and training. Sitting in his office in the Indian capital New Delhi, he strongly emphasizes the need to introduce genetically modified varieties into Indian agriculture in order to increase production. He also laments the government’s neglect of the agricultural sector over the past decades, which has severely constrained production in his view.

In a different part of Delhi, Ramesh Sharma, campaign organiser for the Indian landless people’s movement ‘Ekta Parishad’, argues that one of the greatest problems in Indian agriculture is the high dependency on chemical fertilizers, caused inter alia by the heavy state subsidies incentivizing fertilizer use. Sharma claims that Indian agriculture is strongly geared towards the interests of big corporations, follows a development model that relies on high inputs, and negatively affects both small- and medium-scale farmers as well as the landless. Ekta Parishad advocates an agroecological approach to farming, one that is less input oriented and with a stronger focus on the needs of the people on the ground. More importantly though, the movement demands land for the millions of landless people in India.

...input-oriented agriculture for increased production versus a needs-based, emancipatory approach with a strong focus on the poor and marginalised.

At first glance, Sharma and Reddy seem to be at opposite ends of the discussion. Sharma represents landless people wanting access to land, and is critical of chemical inputs and even more so of genetically modified plants, while Reddy speaks on behalf of landowners integrated in the Indian agricultural system, demanding more inputs and support from the government. This constellation seems to perfectly represent the dichotomy between the two global paradigms for agriculture with strong implications for Indian policies: food security and food sovereignty – input-oriented agriculture for increased production versus a needs-based, emancipatory approach with a strong focus on the poor and marginalised. At some points though, the interests of farmers and landless people actually converge. The food security discourse has seen some interesting developments in recent years that show how farmers and landless people could find more common ground in the future.

In 2012, Ekta Parishad organised a march on the capital, mobilizing around 40,000 landless people. Their core demand was for the adoption of a national land reform policy to facilitate the redistribution of land to the landless for agricultural and housing purposes. For Ekta Parishad, access to land is the precondition of a life in dignity and the cornerstone of self-determination and welfare improvement for the rural poor. But the government and many farmers claim that further redistribution of agricultural land will threaten food security in the country. While the landless still struggle for access to land, as was promised during the struggle for independence, many Indian farmers demand the abolition of existing land ceilings restricting the amount of land to be held by an individual. The food security argument is strong in the Indian context, a country with a history of severe food shortages. It implies that food production may be impeded by giving land to people with no or only very limited means to invest in modern technology, high-yielding seed varieties and chemical fertilizers.

Increased technology inputs and international trade have usually been at the centre of national and international food security strategies. But an alternative concept is increasingly getting recognition: food sovereignty.

India is not the only country in which landholders use national food security as an argument to protect their assets. In South Africa, where land reforms were high on the political agenda during the elections last year, large commercial farmers reminded the government that they are the ones producing the majority of food. The well-connected lobbying organisation Agri SA is adamant that only large-scale farming using heavy machinery and the latest technology can guarantee food security and facilitate surplus production for the export of agricultural goods.

Globally debate around food security has been going on for decades. Increased technology inputs and international trade have usually been at the centre of national and international food security strategies. But an alternative concept is increasingly getting recognition: food sovereignty. The international peasant movement La Via Campesina is surely the most vocal organisation promoting food sovereignty in the international arena. At the core of their concept is the right of people to determine how to ensure their personal food security. They assert that people must be able to decide whether they want to produce food themselves or if they would rather rely on trade and markets, the emphasis being that this should be a sovereign decision. As an emancipatory concept, food sovereignty aims at social relations free from repression. While the food sovereignty movement is not homogeneous, it focuses primarily on the right and the need to be able to access land for food production and the common agenda to oppose neoliberal trade policies and food regimes. These are seen to be at the core of a food security paradigm developed inter alia by the World Bank and the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in the late 20th century.

Food security can mean national food security, which is at the centre of agricultural policies in India and South Africa, and it can also mean global food security, which is at the core of FAO policies around food.

This food security paradigm is seen as essentially revolving around two main issues: markets and technology. Food security can mean national food security, which is at the centre of agricultural policies in India and South Africa, and it can also mean global food security, which is at the core of FAO policies around food. Food security advocates argue that people need to be able to access sufficient and healthy food at all times. This is to be facilitated through increasing production on the one hand, while making sure that functioning markets for the trade of food are in place on the other. While national governments would often rather argue for the need to protect domestic agricultural producers from the negative effects of a liberalized trade system, especially in the context of billion-dollar subsidies to producers in the US and the EU, global actors emphasize that it is not so much individual national production that is needed to guarantee food security, but overall global production and efficient trade. Nevertheless, the food security paradigm established in the 1980s, whether the focus was on national production or international food systems, strongly relied on what has become known as Green Revolution technology, which started to dominate agriculture in the 1960s. Yield increases through new seed varieties and chemical fertilizers as well as improved machinery seemed to promise the end of hunger on a global scale. In the context of rising production and a growing belief in the powers of the market, the World Bank also started advocating market-based land reforms, which were supposed to enable formerly landless people to become successful market participants and contribute to national and global food security.

Food sovereignty advocates especially emphasized the unequal power relations on the ground, which in their view would not be compensated by market mechanisms.

The food sovereignty movement, which emerged in the 1980s, strongly opposed this one-sided model for agricultural development. One central argument was that reliance on supposedly modern agriculture would eventually primarily benefit the corporate sector, while agricultural systems dependent on high capital inputs and specific expert knowledge were often not in line with the needs of the rural poor. Food sovereignty advocates especially emphasized the unequal power relations on the ground, which in their view would not be compensated by market mechanisms.

The international food security discourse is starting to reflect the reality that the more people are able to take care of their food needs themselves, the more they will be able to contribute to food security beyond the individual level.

Some of the arguments of the food sovereignty movement have found their way into the international food security discourse in recent years. International organisations, most notably the FAO, have realized that a simple focus on production increases and advanced global trade does not lead to sustainable agriculture and most certainly not to global food security, as the 2008 food price crisis amply demonstrated. The fact that international trade systems disadvantage emerging countries and that global food systems have created barriers for smallholder farmers is reflected in more recent FAO strategy documents. Landless people and marginal landholders often suffer from the same problems related to power asymmetries and a lack of access to information and political decision-makers. Food security advocates are beginning to realize that food security starts at the individual level, that the existence of sufficient food and global trade systems does not automatically lead to people having access to that food, not even with state support and the help of international organisations. The international food security discourse is starting to reflect the reality that the more people are able to take care of their food needs themselves, the more they will be able to contribute to food security beyond the individual level. This could lead to an increasing understanding on the part of small- and medium-scale farmers and landless people alike that they have more in common than they might have thought. The basis for achieving food security should be to identify what stops people from accessing food, besides economic restraints. This also means identifying what stops people from accessing land to take care of their food needs themselves.

The government’s development policies, which side-lined the interests of the rural poor to the benefit of industrialization projects, severely impeded people’s sovereignty and brought together actors often perceived to have strongly diverging interests.

In March 2015, thousands of landless labourers and farmers from all over India marched to New Delhi to protest the amendment of land acquisition laws by the central government. The protesters followed calls from dozens of different civil society organisations, among them farmers’ organisations representing commercial farmers as well as Ekta Parishad. Farmers and landless people were highly alarmed by the proposed amendments, which were going to severely restrict the participation of affected people in the land acquisition processes for development purposes. For Ekta Parishad, this also presented an opportunity to bring land issues back on the agenda after the government had neglected their demands for a national land reform policy for years. So landless people protested side by side with landholders in unusual unison. The government’s development policies, which side-lined the interests of the rural poor to the benefit of industrialization projects, severely impeded people’s sovereignty, and brought together actors often perceived to have strongly diverging interests.

While food sovereignty arguments are increasingly finding their way into international food security debates, national governments are generally highly reluctant to adopt a food sovereignty approach to restructuring the agrarian sector. The South African government favours highly state-centric policies to address land issues, largely barring landless people from policy decisions and antagonizing both commercial farmers and the landless with its approach. Similarly, the Indian government tries to keep ignoring the plight of the landless while it attempts to provide foreign investors with better inroads to investments in land and the agricultural sector, also antagonizing both farmers and the landless in the process.

The fear of losing one’s land is strong among small- and medium-scale farmers, but the real threat often derives from land acquisition for industrial purposes rather than for land redistribution to the landless.

The fear of losing one’s land is strong among small- and medium-scale farmers, but the real threat often derives from land acquisition for industrial purposes rather than for land redistribution to the landless. Disagreements about whether and how much to rely on technical and chemical inputs will remain, but small- and medium-scale farmers in many countries are suffering, as are the landless poor, from development strategies geared towards large-scale agriculture, driven by the interests of multinational corporations and governments convinced that this is the only way to ensure food security.

A food sovereignty perspective essentially allows for different approaches to agriculture and serves as a healthy corrective to a one-sided view on agricultural development, which must be seen as unsustainable in many ways. At the same time, a more classical food security perspective serves as a reminder that the needs and interests of existing farmers and non-producers need to be considered as well. As long as national governments refuse to start recognizing the need to integrate a food sovereignty perspective into their agricultural policies, which are still dominated by an outdated food security paradigm, landless people and farmers might find more occasions in the future to unite against adverse policies, and not just in India.

Photo: „Floating Market |||“ by Fran
2013 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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