Food sovereignty: small contributions

A major article about the Brazilian economy by Canadian journalist Stephanie Nolen argues that Brazil could massively expand agricultural output without clearing a single new hectare of land. An area the size of Iceland has been cleared and abandoned or underutilized: how could that land be retrieved for productive agriculture? By supporting farmers to make such simple, sustainable improvements as crop rotation (to prevent land degradation) and use of water-collection tanks rather than surface ponds for irrigation.

Placing drip hoses, Hleketani Garden

The simplest innovations are often the most powerful for farmers. This is a key argument in the final report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter: calling for a democratization of food production systems to return control to farmers and their communities – a state referred to as food sovereignty, a more robust and political concept than “food security” – De Schutter details the urgent need for reform of the global food system, including a shift to agroecological methods that feed people well and work with rather than against nature. While food security has been criticized for emphasizing availability of sufficient calories to sustain life (and sedentary life at that), food sovereignty entails “the right of every individual, alone or in community with others, to have physical and economic access at all times to sufficient, adequate and culturally acceptable food that is produced and consumed sustainably, preserving access to food for future generations” (Report of the Special Rapporteur, 2014). To mere availability is added accessibility, nutritional adequacy, and sustainability in this formulation.

To illustrate, residents of a refugee camp receiving  2000 calories in white rice and Plumpy Nut may be assessed as food secure (at least so long as the deliveries continue). These are crucial interventions in the midst of conflict and other crises, of course, but it is hard to see food aid as food security. Similarly, residents of a township with sufficient income to keep themselves fed on cheap processed meat and maize meal are counted food secure. Food sovereignty sets a much higher bar: through purchasing power, social grants, own production or some mix of these methods, people enjoying food sovereignty have secure access to nutritionally and culturally appropriate food, produced without harm to the environment, and ensuring physical and mental health according to age, gender, and occupation.

Statistical sleights of hand by the measurement arms of the World Bank, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and other agencies in the wake of the economic and food crises of 2008 paint a picture of overall improvement in food security:

Pogge article, ‘The Hunger Games’

From the early 1990s until 2012, UN statistics suggest, extreme undernutrition fell from over one billion people to just under 800 million (or from 19 percent to 12 percent of world population). These figures have been shown to be misleading for several reasons. To name a few, they are based on annual averages, thereby erasing the widespread experience of seasonal or short-term food shortage; they neglect inequalities in food access within households, erasing the hunger of women who prioritize feeding their children, for instance;  and, most alarmingly, they rely on a calorie requirement for a sedentary lifestyle – as if poor people in the Global South sit at desks all day, rather than performing physically demanding work in fields or urban settings (picture a woman hoeing or a man pulling a rickshaw in oppressive heat).

Sedentary lifestyle?

Food insecurity is coming to be understood as far more complex than simply hunger and undernutrition. It can have distinctive rural and urban dimensions, and is today characterised by “the triple burden of malnutrition/ undernourishment, micronutrient deficiencies, and overnutrition manifest in overweight and obesity” (Battersby 2017). Recent attention to the scale of micronutrient deficiency worldwide, for example – 2 billion people lacking the vitamins and minerals required for healthy mental cognition and physical wellbeing – undermines the good-news story of declining rates of malnutrition.

The simple addition of water-conserving drip irrigation has contributed to a good-news story for many in the community served by Hleketani Community Garden. As the farmers put it, “our people are being saved – their lives are being saved.” This is perhaps an overstatement: the farm’s vegetables did indeed improve nutrition for many in the community, beginning in the early 1990s. The telltale signs of severe protein and micronutrient deficiency disappeared, and children fed by the farm became “fresh,” in the words of Sara M M and Alice K.

Sara M M and others near the water-collecting cistern

But one farm of six hectares is not able to supply the whole, growing community. Lack of access to credit and sufficient labour – widespread challenges for women farmers across the Global South – hamper expansion of the farm’s production.

Other challenges rooted in gender relations persist as well. The effort to hire younger women farmers has been hampered by husbands suspicious of the motives of a “women’s farm,” and afraid of their wives’ desire to earn and control their own income. The older women know where such fears come from; a few of their own husbands were suspicious at the outset, but most of the men quickly came to see the value to the household of a regular flow of free vegetables. Men like Daniel M, husband of one of the farmers and a regular contributor of labour and material to the farm, find the resistant mens’ views “small-minded”:

Basani Ngobeni and Daniel M

They think only of themselves, Tatana (Father) Daniel says, and are unwilling to recognize the contributions of women to the wider community. As some of the women put it, such men are “jealous” of the women’s potential.

Such social challenges aside – and they exist everywhere, as revelations of rampant sexual harassment and gendered pay disparities in the Global North illustrate – some of the most powerful local solutions to support food sovereignty lie in simple innovations. The shift from labour-intensive flood irrigation to water-conserving drip irrigation, for instance, has made it possible for the women at Hleketani Garden to grow more food per hectare (efficient intensification), to diversify the crops they can grow (extension of nutrition and biodiversity), and to commit farmers to a wider range of daily tasks than watering alone (labour efficiency). With sustainable irrigation fed by a productive groundwater source, they get three distinct seasons of produce from the field. Compare this to home cultivation: dependent on rainy seasons that are increasingly capricious as a result of climate change, home farmers are lucky to get one crop of maize and groundnuts.

Woman power: Selinah S with new drip hose

Agroecological innovations like water-conserving irrigation have the potential to underwrite improvements in food sovereignty globally – particularly in smaller-scale farming, but also in large industrial operations. Such change is a requirement for democracy in food systems.

Sources include —
Battersby, Jane. MDGs to SDGs – new goals, same gaps: the continued absence of urban food security in the post-2015 global development agenda, African Geographical Review, 36:1 (2017): 115-129.

De Schutter, Olivier. Final Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

Hickel, Jason. The UN is hiding the true extent of global hunger. Mail and Guardian (SA) 30 July 2015.

Nolen, Stephanie. Highway of Riches, Road to Ruin (Brazil’s Amazon). Globe and Mail 27 Jan. 2018.

Pogge, Thomas. The Hunger Games. Food Ethics 1 (1), June 2016.

Vibert, Elizabeth. Gender, Resilience, and Resistance: South Africa’s Hleketani Community Garden. Journal of Contemporary African Studies 34 (2), 2016.

World Bank, Levelling the Field: Improving Opportunities for Women Farmers in Africa (2014)