Ask An Ag Economist: What Exactly Is Food Sovereignty?

I’ve always wanted this blog to be a sort of translation tool, explaining scientific or technical terminology and ideas to show that food policy, and agricultural economics for that matter, isn’t something “smart people should deal with”. Rather, everybody can (and should, in my opinion!) get involved. There is nothing that drives me more mad than professions that try to create barriers to understand what they do in order to protect their profession. Think of lawyers, speaking legalese. Or economists, doing fancy calculations. Sociologists that frown at you if you don’t know the latest theoretical concept. Ugh, right?

So I’d love to introduce a new feature called “Ask An Ag Economist” where I answer questions – ideally the ones that you submit! – on anything regarding economics, politics, nutrition or food security concepts or vocab. Don’t understand an argument? Want to know how this study was carried out exactly? Ask me! And if no questions are submitted, I’ll just choose some topics of my own – writer’s prerogative!

First up on the agenda: What exactly is food sovereignty?


The background: at a lunch seminar, the head of unit of the unit “Rural Development, Food and Nutrition Security” was asked about supporting food sovereignty in addition to food security. In response, he talked at length about the fact that countries supporting that idea often just produce heaps of some staple crops and close their borders to imports, which doesn’t necessarily improve food security of the poorest. Looking around me, I saw a collective sad head shake shared between the NGO representatives. Apparently, the concept hasn’t yet reached the mainstream, so what better topic to start on these series? So, for that guy as well as everybody else:

Food sovereignty is not the same as food independence. I actually wrote my bachelor’s thesis on terminological confusion like this –  in particular, the fact that the Russian government likes to confuse food security and food independence. So let’s differentiate clean and easy:

Food independence or self-sufficiency is the fact that a country can feed its population with food produced within its borders. That was the strategy of the European Union in the very beginning of the common agricultural policy – producing butter mountains and milk lakes eventually – and the strategy of Russia currently, seeing as they feel threatened by any kind of dependence on other countries, and be it through their pear consumption.

Food security, as defined on the World Food Summit in 1996, is “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. The WHO adds that “commonly, the concept of food security is defined as including both physical and economic access to food that meets people’s dietary needs as well as their food preferences.” While we look at three axes – food availability, food access, and food use – (as we talked about looking at the state of food insecurity), we don’t necessarily pay attention to the food system providing this nutritious food.

Now, finally, food sovereignty adds another layer: that of democratic food systems and the empowerment of those who should be granted food security. The most commonly used definition is the one suggested by La Via Campesina:

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.

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The @WorldResources Institute On How To “Create A Sustainable Food Future”

It happens that once you specialize in a topic, you get a little jaded about ‘broad overview’ talks. Whenever I go to one of those now, I notice myself mentally playing the ‘food security bingo’ game – what doesn’t the presenter mention? What is emphasized? The point scale in my head looks somewhat like this:

  • Mentions food waste as a problem: + 3
  • Speaks about diet choice: + 3
  • Mentions food sovereignty: + 2
  • Has a differentiated opinion about GMOs: + 1
  • Opens with “how in the world will we feed 10 billion people?”: – 1
  • Speaks about the green revolution as something to emulate: – 1
  • Doesn’t question the current feed vs. food vs. fuel distribution: – 2
  • Speaks about “incredible unused land resources in Africa and Latin America” (which are mainly pastoral or rainforest land): – 3
  • Speaks about multinationals as saviors or alternatively as THE ENEMY: – 3

Like a blackjack player that is counting cards, I try to keep track of whether the tally in my head is positive or negative, and more often than not it finishes around 0 – which is always a slight disappointment. Not so with the World Resources Institute: they thoroughly impressed me with the broadness of their approach, the balanced variety of solutions – focusing on both demand- and supply-side issues – and the honesty with which they presented their research.

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 8.56.00 PM

The talk that was presented at DG AGRI was based on the WRI’s upcoming World Resources Report which they dedicate to the challenge of “feeding more than 9 billion people by 2050” and “filling the food gap” (- 1). The speaker thus opened the talk by presenting the fact that we need to produce 70% more food by 2050 – making my eyebrows rise in anticipation of yet another talk focusing on production, production, and yield increases. But I was positively surprised: look at the list of recommendations they give, and look at the top of the list (list as presented in their press release):

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On Toast, Coconuts, and Community

I just came back from a gloriously sunny run during which I listened to the latest This American Life episode, and was mesmerized by the third story. You can listen to it here or find the article that it’s based on here. It’s ostentatiously about investigating the latest food craze in San Francisco – artisanal toast for 4$ a slice -, but gets to be so much more than that.

What’s the link between toast and community spirit?
Image by Monica Müller, via Flickr CC.

I would recommend listening for the full experience and come back after so that I don’t spill the secret, but if you don’t have time, here is what I found remarkable about it:

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New Evidence on Erosion of Crop Variety in Food Supply – What Consequences?

A new study conducted by the CGIAR in collaboration with a whole number of universities (its title is “Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security” and was published in the PNAS journal) sheds some light on the realities of whether our diets are converging as much as we think they do. Spoiler alert – they do.

Through looking at FAO data on food supply over the last 50-ish years (1961 until 2009), and comparing the supply numbers of different countries, they find that a) national per capita food supplies increased both in the amount of calories, protein, fat and weight provided and the share of calories coming from energy-dense foods; and that b) “the number of measured crop commodities contributing to national food supplies increased, the relative contribution of these commodities within these supplies became more even, and the dominance of the most significant commodities decreased“.

Funnily enough, while these two facts should read as good news – people getting more food and a greater variety of it -, on a global perspective it means that our diets are becoming more and more homogenized. Think about it – if there are more and more products entering most national diets, and evening out over time to equal shares, the previously ubiquitous product (which was radically different between different diets) is being abandoned for Western staple goods. I know, it takes a while to wrap your head around, but here is some more data:

Wheat, rice, maize, and other ubiquitous crop commodities were among those with the greatest gains in both relative and absolute abundance in national per capita food supplies over the past 50 y. In addition, the degree of increase in spread was generally a good predictor of change in the abundance of the crop commodities in food supplies. For example, oil commodities such as soybean, sunflower, palm oil, and rape and mustard were among the crops showing the greatest average increase in relative abundance in national food supplies, whereas millets, rye, sorghum, yams, cassava, and sweet potatoes showed the largest declines. (p. 2)

So while everybody is enjoying the influx of Western-style processed and high-caloric food – based on wheat, corn, and oil – other previous staple crops such as yams and millets are being left behind. This can be explained to a certain extent by the increase in average income in many countries during this time; in addition, the article points towards globalization, urbanization, trade liberalization and the development of extensive commodity transport systems, multinational food industries, food quality and safety standardization, mass media, labor changes, smaller family sizes, supermarkets, fast food, processed foods, and human migration as causes for the homogenization of what we eat. Just think of the ubiquity of McDonald’s and other fast food chains around the world.

Map originally by Business Insider EU, found on

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IFPRI 2013 Global Food Policy Report – What You Need to Know

They also provide a handy-dandy infographic – click through for a larger image!

Every year, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) presents a report on what happened in the previous 12 months in the global food policy arena. Of course, it is nearly impossible to shed light on every development, but the full report, spanning more than 120 pages, does a great job at attempting it! You can download it for free here if you are interested.

If, however, you don’t have the luxury of a free weekend or two at your disposal to catch up on everything that happened in 2013, the first chapter of the report (available here) gives a pretty comprehensive global overview, focusing both on regional policy issues as well as the overarching theme of nutrition security making a come-back on the political world stage. And if you just want the quick and dirty facts, look no further – I read through the chapter for explicitly that purpose and am here to give you a quick and dirty summary!

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EU Parliament Rejects Draft Seed Regulation

Writing this blog is a great way to experience the truism that policy-making is a marathon, not a sprint. Or, as we say in German, you have to be ready to drill holes into thick slates of wood (weird expression much?) What I want to say is – the next episode of the story of the new EU seed regulation (which we talked about here and here) just occurred, and it shows the power of public opinion as much as the need for adequate communication and stakeholder involvement. But let me back up for a second.

How much freedom for our seeds and bulbs?
How much freedom for our seeds and bulbs?

Remember the issue? The new EU seed regulation was set to unify the current 12 different directives that concern intellectual property rights on ‘plant reproductive material’ into one, but was thought to give undue power to larger seed corporations by requiring costly and inconvenient registration processes and prohibiting the sale or exchange of non-registered seeds. This gave rise to massive public protests to preserve heirloom seeds and biodiversity. Campaigns such as Free Seeds interpreted the regulations the following way: “Older and rarer varieties will soon be declared illegal. Brightly speckled tomatoes, purple potatoes, the tasty apples we ate as children: these could soon vanish from our plates and gardens. While consumers, horticulturists and farmers are increasingly restricted by diminishing biodiversity, the agricultural industries can finally breathe a sigh of relief: with biodiversity wiped out, all that remains is regulated monoculture, which they can serve up to the people. The EU seed regulations allow for the concentration of seed production in the hands of even fewer multinationals. This would put an end to many indigenous varieties of vegetables, fruit and grains.

As I wrote then, the revisions of the draft proposal actually addressed some of the concerns, creating exceptions for niche species, but questions about the concrete application of the law still remained, and apparently were not sufficiently discussed within EU decision-making bodies, while NGO lobbying efforts stayed strong.  In the end, the Parliament voted to kill the regulation by 650 votes to 15 after the Commission refused to take it back and rewrite the text.

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