Missing politics and food sovereignty

via campesina muralOver the last two decades La Via Campesina has grown as a movement campaigning for a change in the global agri-food system. Some claim that it is the world’s largest social movement. Its main rallying cry has been a demand for ‘food sovereignty’, a term, as Marc Edelman notes, that has a longer genealogy but has become very effectively popularised by La Via Campesina in recent years. This is an argument for peasant autonomy, local food systems, fairer more environmentally-sound, agroecological production and trade and much more besides. As a vision and political programme it is one to which many would subscribe.

A major event was held last week at the Institute for Social Studies in the Hague, co-hosted by the Land Deal Politics Initiative. It brought together around 350 academics and activists concerned with food and agriculture in both the global North and South in a critical dialogue about food sovereignty. It followed on from a similar event at Yale University last year that was equally well attended. Over 80 papers have been produced, some of which have already appeared in the Journal of Peasant Studies.

I was intrigued to find out where the food sovereignty debate had got to, what political strategies were emerging and whether, in different and diverse contexts, the ideals were in fact realisable. The ISS event opened with an impressive keynote panel that I chaired. Elizabeth Mpofu, the General Coordinator of La Via Campesina from Zimbabwe opened the proceedings, and this was followed by a panel including Susan George, the  famous author and activist and Chair of the Transnational Institute, another of the hosts; Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food; Teodor Shanin, President of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences a leading scholar on peasant issues; and Tania Li, professor at Toronto University and who has done excellent work on agrarian change in southeast Asia. An impressive array of expertise and experience indeed. The subsequent sessions were no less impressive and the discussion was vibrant and challenging. This is a debate that raises passions and differences.

What were my reflections on the day? In many ways I was left rather confused as to what food sovereignty was, and how it was to be translated into a political struggle. As Peter Rosset from ECOSUR in Chiapas explained, the concept has evolved, and the movement has adopted many different angles as more and more elements have been incorporated. These included the move from a focus on small-scale production and markets to concerns with gender, indigenous peoples, environment, workers, consumers, migrants, trade relations and more. All are unquestionably important themes, and each was debated intensively during the conference.

Through accreting issues and agendas, the movement thus offers an all-encompassing vision where nothing is left out it seems. This helps build linkages between different areas of activism, but it also makes it very difficult to get a handle on what the core issues are, and where to focus intellectual and political energies. This is made more challenging by the lack of clarity over the focus of the key concept – sovereignty. There is much focus on ‘the local’, but this may not be sovereign without addressing the role of the state, or indeed the relationships between states in international trade and global politics. A populist appeal to locality may miss the importance of defining the arenas for political action that necessarily impinge on what happens in local settings.

In my comments, I observed the slightly odd paradox that a clearly intensely political issue, part of an assertive political project, often lacked a solid political analysis, and indeed that a more thorough-going engagement with critical agrarian studies might help address this gap.

Three areas of politics, I felt, were missing.

The first was the politics of peasants. La Via Campesina – the peasant’s way – asserts the rights of peasants. But who is the peasantry in the context of a globalising world, with dynamic patterns of differentiation across sites? Classic issues of class formation and differentiation are raised, ones that Henry Bernstein so effectively elaborated in his ‘sceptical view’ paper for the Yale conference. What is the relationship between the peasantry and workers, or indeed worker-peasants, with one foot in town and another in the countryside? Are petty commodity producers or even emergent commercial farmers part of the peasantry, or separate? What differences of gender, age, race for example cut across these class differences, and what conflicts and tensions arise? These are old questions, but highly pertinent to the formation of the emergent solidarities that must define a movement. Creating an idealised vision of a peasant, seemingly independent of context, makes the political project problematic, as the contradictions and conflicts that arise between and within groups may act to undermine the alliances required for a movement to gain traction.

The second area of missing politics was around the politics of technology and ecology. An important strand of the food sovereignty movement is the advocacy for an agroecological approach to farming. Low external inputs, organic production, rejection of biotechnology and so on are all hallmarks. Yet in the advocacy of agroecology too often there is a resort to an essentialist, technical argument, thus falling into the same trap as the advocates of the technologies that are opposed. As Jack Kloppenberg has put it in respect of agricultural biotechnology, the argument should be less about the particular technology but instead around the terms of access. An open access approach to research and development may generate a range of productivity-enhancing technologies that improve efficiency and reduce production costs, without being at the behest of large-scale corporations. New technologies are of course essential for improving agriculture. Improving the yield of crops through high-tech genetics or the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides may be essential, yet seem to be rejected by agroecology fundamentalisms.

The bottom line is that farmers want good prices, and consumers want cheap food. This structural relation between producers and consumers was discussed many times at the event, while noting that the current agri-food system involves much distortion of prices, and a distribution of value in corporate-controlled value chains that often benefits agribusinesses and retailers, and neither producers nor consumers. Yet too often local food systems can only produce expensive food for elite markets – to the bourgeoisie of Paris’ Left Bank shopping in the flourishing bio-organic weekend markets, as noted by one commentator. Clearly internalising the costs to the environment and to labour of the current agri-food system is essential, and this will doubtless produce shorter commodity chains, more localised production and marketing, better conditions for workers and a more equitable distribution of value, as well as more ecologically-sensitive forms of production. Yet, even with such measures, a diversity of innovative, technological responses will be necessary that should not be limited by a technically narrow definition of agroecology.

The third area was the politics of capital, and in particular the relationships between capital and the peasantry. Again, a very old debate. Peasants, however they are defined, are never disengaged from the historical processes of capitalist development. Indeed they are mutually constituted by such processes. The debate is not therefore how to disengage, but how to negotiate the terms of incorporation. There were many examples of adverse incorporation discussed at the conference, where poor, marginalised farmers were disadvantaged. But the solution, as Tania Li showed with her case from Indonesia, is not to go back to earlier forms of production and market relationship, but to organise for a better deal – in her case for small scale cocoa production, produced as a mono-crop in a remote area where few other livelihood opportunities existed. Re-embedding markets in social contexts, following Karl Polanyi, is essential if a more democratic control of the food system is to be realised, and this means a political struggle around the terms of trade, the rejection of monopolistic market behaviours, and the opening up of markets to a wider range of players. In many ways, this is an advocacy for a better functioning capitalism without the distortions of corporate concentration, not its rejection outright. This means developing a more strategic engagement with capital around the terms of incorporation and the relationships between markets and societal values, much as the fair trade, organic certification and other movements have done.

The progressive ambitions and utopian ideals of food sovereignty are clearly evident, and ones that many can easily subscribe to. But how to translate this into a political programme and strategic advocacy around which clear solidarities and alliances can build is less evident. Perhaps with a tighter political economic analysis of the nature of the problem, always necessarily contextualised by history and place, then a more targeted, more effective approach might emerge. I left the conference unsure. I was inspired by the passion and vision of the movement participants and their academic allies, but I was perhaps more sceptical at the end than when I arrived about the practicalities of how, in any setting that I know of, such a vision might be realised in practice. This is of course not a reason to reject trying, but it also suggests the need to think harder about both political possibilities and strategies.

Photo: Por uma vida sem catracas – MPL e Via Campesina juntos via desvio on Flickr