Toward a Better Food System: Empowering Communities and Regulating Corporations

How we have landed ourselves with a global food system that generates hunger alongside of obesity, and what can we do about it? The universal EXPO 2015 that opened in Milan on May 1 with the theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” is placing its bets on “best technologies” and “free trade” to do the job. The US Pavilion’s sponsors include technology vendors like Dow and 3M and proponents of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) like the US Dairy Export Council, which is seeking to lower EU barriers to antibiotic-plumped US products.

But the problem really lies elsewhere: over the past three decades, public responsibility for food security has been sold out to markets and corporations while the frontline actors – families, communities and small-scale food producers – have been disempowered. Unprotected by governments, smallholder family farmers are being driven off their land and out of their markets with the allegation that they are inefficient and archaic. Yet, it is they who produce some 70% of the food consumed in the world.

The same period has witnessed an astounding concentration of transnational agrifood corporations in global supply systems, thanks to favorable trade and investment rules adopted with the support of solicitous governments. Programs like the US-led New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition are pushing African governments to change national legal frameworks, facilitating the corporate take-over of natural resources and markets. With the rise of private standards and the decline of the state’s regulatory role, agrifood corporations are playing an increasingly important role in the regulation of the very food system that they dominate.

The corporate narrative depicts global food supply chains as “modern” and “productive” – as the only way to feed the 9 billion who, it is widely proclaimed, will be at the table in 2050. In reality, the present food supply is more than adequate today and will be tomorrow. The problem is one of unequal and inequitable access to food, so the solution requires political will and not just a technical fix.

In any event, the claim that industrial, high-tech agriculture is more productive than agro-ecological family farming is also a false premise, abundantly challenged at a milestone symposium on agroecology organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) last September. If the prices of corporate products were obliged to include the cost of the negative externalities they are allowed to inflict on society – from greenhouse gas emissions (50% of the annual total) to obesity-linked type 2 diabetes – they would be far higher than those of the products of small-scale agro-ecological producers selling on local markets.

While EXPO 2015 focuses on “best technologies,” the real questions have to do with power – who wields it, to what effect, and to whose benefit. Who frames the food agenda, who establishes the “facts” of the situation? What actors weigh in when decisions about food are being made, with what relative weights? Can we address imbalances of power and give more voice and leverage to the majority of the world’s population, who are now in the camp of the hungry, the food insecure, the dispossessed? What prospects are there to identify and defend fundamental common goods and public interests? These are questions I explore in my recently published book, Food Security Governance: Empowering communities, regulating corporations (Routledge 2015).

Now is the time to reflect on them not only because we are getting very close to the absolute ecological, socio-economic, and political limits of today’s unsustainable and inequitable food system, but also because there are alternatives. If we have the courage to say “no” to the dominant regime we are not jumping off a cliff into a pre-capitalist pastoral dream world. Over the past three decades, a robust, diversified network of different ways of going about food provision have sprung up, rooted in territories and cultures throughout the world. Often – as in Africa – they are not “alternative” at all, since they constitute the main avenue through which peoples’ food needs are met.

These solutions are practiced and advocated by organizations of peasant farmers, artisanal fisher folk, pastoralists, indigenous peoples, urban poor and other constituencies most affected by food insecurity and most active in seeking solutions. Many identify with what is known as the food sovereignty movement. They are mobilizing from the local up to the global level, where they have been instrumental in establishing the first ever global food policy forum in which peasants are protagonists (unlike at EXPO 2015): the United Nations Committee on World Food Security based in Rome.

What would it take for the food sovereignty movement to help overcome the global domination of the corporate food system in favor of a territorially rooted approach to food provision? Defending the autonomy of sustainable, family-based peasant food production and local food systems from the dominant value-chain market logic is fundamental. So is regulation. Transnational corporations’ rights are backed by hard laws like trade and investment agreements with strong tools for enforcement, while their obligations are subject only to codes of conduct and voluntary guidelines.

We need to do a better job of obliging governments to transform global “soft” law – like the guidelines on tenure to land and other natural resources adopted by the Committee on World Food Security in 2012 – into “hard” enforceable national regulation protecting the vulnerable. It can happen, when sufficient social pressure is brought to bear. The Indian government has challenged WTO rules on using public procurement and stocks for food security. Cameroon has raised tariffs to protect local poultry production in from dumped, substandard frozen chicken parts.

States are often among the worst offenders in promoting narrow and short-sighted objectives, and yet they are a basic building block for accountability and defense of peoples’ collective rights. A better world food system can only be the outcome of political will generated by mobilization in which social and citizen movements – all of us – are the prime movers.