What Are the Main Critiques of Food Sovereignty?
We Read all the Academic Articles so You Don't Have To
Food sovereignty, like any radical movement, is not without its share of skeptics. We often see articles popping up in academic literature or popular media that question the coherence of food sovereignty as a concept or challenge various aspects of its tenets. It’s worth taking these critiques seriously (some more than others, of course) because formulating responses to them helps to further the movement. It’s something we’re always discussing internally, trying to sharpen our understanding of the movement and what a world characterized by food sovereignty might look like.
Let’s dive into some of those critiques today. Understanding them requires a basic working definition of food sovereignty, which we recently broke down on Instagram and suggest giving a read if you’re unfamiliar with the concept.
I’ll also offer a caveat before we jump in. None of us at AGC are authorities on the concept of food sovereignty—we’re trying to be of service to the broader movement and contribute to it as much as we can, so we also try our best to understand it from all sides. But although the underlying principles guiding the movement have existed for centuries, food sovereignty as a term is relatively new, and it’s been largely developed by a heterogeneous group of grassroots movements with different goals, values, and understandings of the concept. As such, there is really no one definition or one answer to the critiques—which we think is a good thing. A just food system requires that we take into account the wide diversity of problems and develop solutions that are appropriate to a given context.
In doing the research for this, we wanted to understand what people were still skeptical about when it comes to food sovereignty and give our best account of how the movement might respond. As you read, ask yourself whether you agree, whether we missed something, or how you might answer the critique differently, and let us know in a comment. It’s through this kind of questioning that we move forward, together.
Let’s dive into the critiques.
#1: Food sovereignty is incompatible with global trade
Food sovereignty tends to advocate for the localisation of food systems, so this naturally brings up a lot of questions about how this would interact with our system of global trade. Millions of farmers are producing for export—what happens to them? If food systems become more localised, does that mean that certain foods will be less available if they aren’t grown locally? Does food sovereignty mean a future of protectionist policies?
The first thing to note here is that no conception of food sovereignty we’ve come across advocates for an outright ban of all international trade. A more accurate understanding would be that food sovereignty advocates are (rightfully) skeptical of the current regime of global agricultural trade that is controlled by international institutions and transnational corporations and would like to see it reformed.
While it is true that there are ambiguities regarding the nature of trade and what forms of trade are considered ‘appropriate,’ the movement has emphasised the need for fairer trade policies and the prioritisation of local and regional trade. Food sovereignty advocates simply center the needs of the local community and weigh them more heavily than those of international trade. As such, trade reforms like ending the practice of dumping surpluses on Majority World countries would be one concrete place to start. The considerations here are also procedural ones—agricultural communities advocating for food sovereignty also want to have a role in shaping them: deciding on prices, negotiating terms, and generally having agency over the process. So it’s fair to say that food sovereignty is not opposed to trade in principle, but it is opposed to the current system of globalised trade. More work needs to be done to understand what, exactly, this looks like in practice.
It’s also true that this shift in global trade might mean that certain countries may not be able to import tropical fruits twelve months per year, for example, or they may become more expensive. We’ve known for a long time that this demand is unsustainable, however. The earth cannot support that degree of transportation of food to faraway places at all points of the year. This is a place where some sacrifice may simply be inevitable given the constraints of climate change.
#2 What about food deficit countries that can’t produce their own food?
This critique is related to the first one. If we’re prioritising localised food systems, what does that mean for countries that cannot be self-sufficient for geographic, climatic, or other constraints?
The answer is also somewhat similar. The food sovereignty movement, although skeptical of trade, is not averse to trade in specific circumstances. Through the course of the movement, we see a gradual acceptance of fairer trade policies with a priority on localisation, especially where domestic production cannot meet demands. The model emphasizes the focus on feeding populations first and not prioritising commercial trade. For this to become a reality, power must be shifted to the hands of small-scale farmers who will work toward building self-reliance in their local economies and then will engage in trade to support food-deficit regions.
#3: Food Sovereignty is incompatible with our current system of land ownership
At the heart of food sovereignty is the equitable redistribution of land or ‘land sovereignty.’ This raises a number of important questions: how should land be distributed? Should it be owned collectively or privately? How would this work with land being, on the aggregate, privately owned today?
This is part of a larger conversation about our current system of land ownership. Redistribution of land is an essential component to realizing the autonomy of peasant and Indigenous farmers whose lands were stolen and continue to be appropriated by colonial forces. The ultimate goal is to transfer the control of the land from these colonial forces, large landholders, and transnational corporations back into the hands of peasants and Indigenous peoples.
There are many proposed models of doing this, many of which require an essay in and of themselves. Open access, public property, individual, communal, cooperative, and collective ownership are some examples. Different models are appropriate to different contexts, and each of these forms have merits and serve different purposes. Although there is a strong preference for collective rights over individual rights (owing to the fact that collective rights are easier to safeguard against colonial forces), the food sovereignty movement acknowledges that the solution to land distribution should take a highly localised, contextual approach.
#4: If food sovereignty becomes a right, who should guarantee it?
This is a common point of contention in the conversation about food sovereignty. Because food sovereignty is a rights-based account, questions emerge about who would guarantee the suite of rights it advocates for. States and the private sector are both problematic actors within the food system, so who would one go to for recourse if one’s right to food sovereignty were violated?
These are good questions, and there isn’t one clear answer. One thing to note is that the food sovereignty movement imagines a world in which peasants are in control over the means of food production and consumers are in control over their food choices. It advocates for equitable distribution of resources, localisation of control, and a global movement resisting institutional and market forces that seek to appropriate labor and land.
This brings us to a crucial point about food sovereignty: what the movement proposes is a structural transformation of these power structures and a just, humane, equitable, sustainable world. The intention of the movement is not necessarily to draw out a clear outline of how this is to be carried out, but rather to create inclusive spaces through which these power structures can be reimagined. Thinking about the food sovereignty movement as a space for reimagining a different world, rather than a detailed roadmap, is a compelling way to think about the term right now, during a time where imagining systems beyond those we have now is absolutely essential to move forward.
So what we expect from the food sovereignty movement in terms of ideological coherence should also depend on what we take the primary purpose of the concept to be. And at this stage, leaving room open for the meaning of food sovereignty to take on local, adaptive forms seems more useful than trying to unite it under one singular meaning. That inevitably means sacrificing some level of ideological cohesion, but this isn’t necessarily a problem.
#5: Food sovereignty is overly idealistic
This is one of the most common critiques of food sovereignty that we believe misses the whole point of the concept. The critique is that there is no clear roadmap to what a future characterized by food sovereignty might look like in our current world; therefore, it can’t be taken seriously as a proposed solution.
The claim that many of food sovereignty’s tenets are incompatible with our current systems is… kind of the whole point. The systems we have today are largely exploitative and unjust. In a capitalist economy, idealism is often synonymous with imagining a world that is more just, humane, equitable, and sustainable. Food sovereignty allows us the space to imagine such a world. It’s also worth mentioning that food sovereignty is not generally advocating for some kind of world-scale overhaul of the food system at an internationally-coordinated level (like food security tends to do). It rather advocates for the support of diverse solutions that emerge at the local level to address the issues facing a given community and their context. Therefore, some unilateral vision or roadmap for food sovereignty doesn’t really make sense or support the vision that the movement is putting forth.
I hope that some of these critiques sparked some reflection on where the movement currently stands, what some of the points of resistance are, and how we might begin responding to them. As always, we encourage you to engage in the comments section — are there answers you disagree with or want to nuance further? We would love to hear from you. Finally, look out in your inbox next week for the first Ask AGC — we’re still accepting questions, so drop them at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Ask AGC” to be included.
This blog post from Jennifer Eddis gives a great breakdown of the differences between food security and food sovereignty. We recommend reading if you’d like to learn more.
This article from Atmos talking about the most recent IPCC report naming ‘colonialism’ as an ongoing driver of the climate crisis. It’s simultaneously ridiculous that in 30 years of publishing the report, this is the first time colonialism is mentioned, but also heartening that this recognition is happening at that level.
This article from Civil Eats about the challenges of disposing of pesticide and chemical-treated seeds. It highlights a risk of these kinds of seeds that isn’t often spoken of, and is the beginning of what will surely be a fantastic piece of investigative reporting on the issue.
Our next Peasant and Indigenous Press Forum is happening on April 19th! The Press Forum connects Indigenous communities, peasant and small-scale farmers with journalists, media outlets and storytellers to bring their voices and perspectives to the forefront of narratives.
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This instalment of Offshoot was co-written by Thea Walmsley and Rohan John Antony, who led the research for this newsletter.