CONTROVERSIES AROUND FOOD SECURITY

Something Difficult to Swallow

Photography: Henri Kugler

Photography: Henri Kugler

PART I | Problematizing the Problem

Much has been said, and there is more to be added, about food and agriculture. Food now is big business and the business of food is constantly changing. People in urban areas, but also quite a few in the countryside, increasingly rely on supply chains dominated by large supermarkets that trade food and goods coming from all over the planet. That means a significant distance between producers and consumers, making seasons and local traditions irrelevant, homogenizing tastes and including many new players who were not involved before (e.g. freight ship companies, logistics personnel, lorry drivers, international lawyers and bankers, among others). The socioecological impacts of intensive, high yield commercial food production – what in Brazil and Latin America is simply described as ‘agribusiness’ (Ioris, 2016) – are therefore borne thousands of kilometres away in the spots where food is consumed. In addition, despite systematic campaigns for healthier eating and active lifestyles, a significant proportion of the global society is now ingesting something that vaguely resembles, but is not really food as our ancestors knew it. More people regularly eat, both at home and in fast-food restaurants, heavily processed food of questionable nutritional value and harmful ingredients. What is on offer on most market shelves is industrialized organic matter that results from the combination of raw material and numerous chemical substances, which looks like food, has images of food on the package, but is essentially different. Michael Pollan addresses this unsettling conundrum and suggests a basic criterion to ‘locate’ food: “don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” (Pollan, 2008: 148). This provocative, half-joke remark illustrates how ‘food’ has transmuted and is now associated with things that have only a tenuous similarity with what was eaten by countless previous generations. 

In a context where food, as experienced before, is increasingly disfigured and metamorphosed into something else, the question of food security goes beyond issues of access, affordability and self-sufficiency. The semiotics and the social construction of relations around food suggest that the agenda of food security needs to incorporate and react to many layers of complexity. The problem of food has been somehow dislocated from crop fields and national markets and, consequently, food insecurity has a much wider range of causes and repercussions. This debate is certainly not trivial. There are regular, almost daily new stories about food, hunger, trade, safety, and so on somewhere in the planet, that seems to annul our ability to think critically and react to mounting demands and distortions. We feel overwhelmed and impotent, particularly because the growing acceptance of American-style (junk) food is fuelled by investments in marketing, including dishonest advertisements aired during young children's programmes (Rahill et al., 2019; Truman and Elliott, 2019; Velazquez et al., 2019). The problem is that, just like the other major contemporary challenges, food insecurity is growing in scale and complexity, but it is hard to make sense. The common human reaction is to acknowledge the magnitude and urgency of the problem, but carry on regardless. 

It is necessary to situate the controversy in its right time and spatial setting. Food scarcity and hunger have always been major human problems, serving to justify wars and grassroots rebellions. However, it was really in the second half of the 20th century – the so-called Age of Development, since Truman’s Four Point Speech of 1949 – that food insecurity became a matter of global concern. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations was established just before the end of the Second World War (in 1943 at Hot Springs, Virginia) and many conferences were held in the last few decades – especially the 1948 meeting when the Havana Charter was signed, the 1974 World Food Conference, the 1960-1994 GATT trade negotiations and the 1996 World Food Summit. Food security is now an integral component of diplomatic activity and international development strategies. The most recognized international publication on food and nutrition, The State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) by FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO (2017: ii), reported that:

“In 2016 the number of chronically undernourished people in the world is estimated to have increased to 815 million, up from 777 million in 2015 although still down from about 900 million in 2000. After a prolonged decline, this recent increase could signal a reversal of trends. The food security situation has worsened in particular in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, South-Eastern Asia and Western Asia, and deteriorations have been observed most notably in situations of conflict and conflict combined with droughts or floods.”

And about the related issue of obesity and malnutrition:

“Multiple forms of malnutrition coexist, with countries experiencing simultaneously high rates of child undernutrition, anaemia among women, and adult obesity. Rising rates of overweight and obesity add to these concerns. Childhood overweight and obesity are increasing in most regions, and in all regions for adults. In 2016, 41 million children under five years of age were overweight. The number of conflicts is also on the rise. Exacerbated by climate-related shocks, conflicts seriously affect food security and are a cause of much of the recent increase in food insecurity.”

Interestingly, this specific document offers a comprehensive assessment of the global and regional situation, but very brief on causes, responsibilities and political disputes (this is obviously the style of the consensus-seeking United Nations initiatives). A critical part of the puzzle, hidden behind statistics and assessments, is how food security is conceptualized and acted upon. It is true that the concept has evolved significantly in recent decades, since the World Food Conference (1974) defined food security as the “availability at all times of adequate world food supplies of basic foodstuffs to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices”. That was extended in a report of the FAO director general of 1983: “ensuring that all people at all times have both physical and economic access to the basic food that they need.” Those notions were later revized and included the household scale in the 1986 World Bank Report on Poverty and Hunger. The 1996 World Food Summit (1996) reaffirmed the multidimensional basis of food security and called for policies more focused on the promotion and recovery of livelihood options. More recently, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) claimed that “[f]ood security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. The four pillars of food security are availability, access, utilization and stability. The nutritional dimension is integral to the concept of food security” (FAO, 2009). 

Yet, the majority of definitions of security adopted around the world focus on issues restricted to notions of availability, adequate diet and stable supply, typically betraying a technocratic, narrow perspective and evading the crucial political basis of food insecurity. For instance, Naylor (2014: 375) defines food insecurity as “a situation that exists when people lack secure access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life… It may be chronic, seasonal or transitory.” As we saw in the opening sentence, much more needs to be said on this, although first it is necessary to revisit the prevailing lines of reasoning before we could expand the discussion and open up the conversation.

PART II | Prevailing Approaches to Food Security

Instead of an exegesis of individual concepts, our goal in this section is to address the shortcomings of the main lines of argument and identity key gaps in those constructions. The aim is to consider the discursive processes by which food security ideas are constructed, which also both reflect disputes between different social groups and inform the formulation of policies and responses to the phenomenon of food insecurity. It is not our intention either to entail an epistemological or philosophical battle around the definition of food security, but it is important to observe that what is missing in most definitions is the connection, across scale, of food with daily life and global politico-economic and ideological systems. Food security is a global question with regional (such as the European level), local and personal ramifications. In schematic terms, there are three main positionalities from which the debate takes place at different, interconnected scales:

Photo: CC Malcolm Carlaw

Photo: CC Malcolm Carlaw

Market-based productivism

The most common reaction to the pressures of food security is the productivist paradigm (De Schutter, 2014; see also Lang and Heasman, 2015). Basically, the argument goes, if there is a lack of food, the answer is to produce more and make food more easily available in time and space (while issues of distribution and socio-spatial inequalities are much less important). Productivism betrays a strong influence of Western positivism and its search for the universal, superior ‘truth’ to be brought to the rest of humankind. The narrative is that because of steady population growth and less significant productivity gains, there is a growing threat to the ability of entire countries and regions to feed themselves, but with rising prices of basic food commodities the response was to produce more. This is evidently the principal rationality adopted by diplomacy, national governments and the corporate business sector. It directly transforms food insecurity – without asking questions about past legacies, injustices and responsibilities – into a source of political gain (in the form of promises made by politicians), the legitimization of government strategies (as response to social demands) and profits (as investments and production platforms will need to be funded and goods sold in the market). An important facet of the productivist response to food insecurity is the claim that the attention should be focused on technology, machinery, more land to be cultivated and more inputs to be transformed into higher outputs (especially in terms of caloric output). In that way, agriculture’s cultural and ecological dimensions are disregarded. Agriculture is, in practice, equated to biochemistry, engineering and business administration, as much as food is reduced to a long table of nutrients rather than an important element of family and community relations. Those excuses pave the way to technological fixes that, in the end, represent a form of Malthusianism by the backdoor. Carolan (2013: 2) rightly interprets that food security “has been hijacked by a vocal and powerful minority” who translates it into narrow, productivist policies.

The focus on unrestrained incorporation of new areas and intensification of technology is driven also by economic thinking about agricultural modernization, a model that was introduced in the end of the 19th century in the Western countries and has been expanding to the most remote parts of the world since the launch of the Green Revolution (Patel, 2013). During most of the 20th century, agricultural development, justified by the need to curtail food insecurity, relied on direct support by the state, an approach that showed signs of exhaustion during the so-called financial crisis of the state in the 1980s. The alleged excesses and insufficiencies of the classical productivist model of economic growth in the post-war decades led to the return of neoliberal strategies designed already in the 1930s. The apparatus of the state remained firmly in control of policies and supporting schemes, but the rhetoric shifted to a hybrid platform of ‘agroneoliberalism’ based on the supposed advantages of increased market space (Ioris, 2018). Evidently, the state never left the scene and exerts full control over food production policies (in the wealthy western world various forms of subsidy and monetary incentives continued more or less unabated). The developmentalist mentality continues intact, but now in the form of ‘market productivism’ that combines a neoliberalizing ideology with sustained state support (Potter and Tilzey, 2007). Multilateral agencies, such as the FAO, WTO and the World Bank, redirected their modus operandi and have required that borrowing of funds for agricultural development must be now accompanied by liberalizing policies, including trade deregulation and structural adjustment programmes.

It should be noted that productivism remains hegemonic and underpins most agriculture activity around the world, but clearly failed to resolve the problem of food insecurity. On the contrary, it has resulted in increasingly levels of farmer indebtedness, market risks and financial speculation, demonstrated by the power of transnational corporations and the grabbing of land and resourced by foreign investors (Clapp, 2019; Haller, 2019; McMichael, 2015). Due to horizontal and vertical restructuring tendencies that produce ever-bigger corporations in charge of seed, agri-chemicals, fertilizers, agricultural data, animal genetics and farm machinery industries, power imbalances have become more acute, as well as the higher levels of social and environmental unsustainability (IPES, 2017). The influence of huge oligopolistic food producers and mega distributors has been often facilitated by the intervention of neoliberalized governments under the ideology of market-based efficiencies (Otero et al., 2018). The growing power of agri-food corporations evidently aggravates farm dependency and class polarization, such as the exploitation of labour and migrants (Wolf and Bonanno, 2014). At the same time, the contradictions and manifest failures of the productivist agenda (both in its developmentalist and neoliberal tendencies) has led to reactions and search for alternatives, as in the case of the sustainability, post-productivist paradigm

The sustainability/post-productivist paradigm

With the declining economic role of agricultures in so-called post-industrial countries, a new argument began to emerge and scholars started to argue that agriculture was embarking on a post-productivist or multifuncionality phase, as much as the environmental question had reached an ecological modernization stage and the economy a service-based status (Evans et al., 2002; Michel-Villarreal et al., 2019; Omoto and Scott 2016; Robinson, 2018). According to this (mainly British) literature, while productivist agriculture is intensive, expansionist and industrial driven, constantly trying to boost production of a single crop using a large area, dependent on state support and aiming to reach national self-sufficiency, a post-productivist model (triggered by regulatory reforms, such as the adjustments of the CAP-related policies) focused on diversification, pluariactivity, quality instead of quantity and an environmentally friendly agriculture. It also includes an encouragement of activities that ‘consume’ the countryside, such as recreation, tourism and the conservation of cultural and natural heritages (Ilbery, 1998). The contention in favour of a post-productivist, multifunctional agriculture has parallels with the search for more sustainable farming. Instead of the highly impacting productivist approach, post-productivism has been described as the pursuit of sustainable farming systems (Wilson and Burton, 2015). The solution to ensure food security should then observe sustainability concerns and be more people-centred, avoiding the degradation of systems and their ability to provide human needs in the long term (McDonald, 2010). Sustainability authors denounce the real costs of ‘cheap food’ as the super exploitation of workers and the environmental passive produced by mainstream agriculture but not incorporated in the selling price. The sustainability of agriculture is related to the capacity of an agroecosystem to maintain production through time, that is, remain stable under a given set of economic and environmental circumstances (Arulbalachandran et al., 2013).

There is growing realization that the most of the commercial agri-food systems developed over the past half-century prove to be clearly unsustainable, resistant to reform and fraught with problems, such as their failure to reduce rural poverty and address power imbalances in food chains (De Schutter, 2017). At face value, it seems that the shortcomings of input-intense agriculture are self-evident (at least to a large proportion of those questioning its long-term prospects) and sustainability could be achieved with a more diversified type of agriculture that delivers high quality goods and services with lower use of chemical inputs. In practice, however, calls for sustainability are often undermined by the multiple continuities between ‘conventional’ and ‘alternative’ production systems, which leads to an uncertain transition from one model to the other (Walford, 2003). As it happened in many other areas of social activity, there was some intellectual space for self-criticism, but inevitably replicating the same dualist and utilitarian biases that informed the productivist mindset. Basically, the sustainable food paradigm entails a more efficient use of resources and the mitigation of negative impacts on natural and human capital. It is about striking the balance between the production of goods and services and the rate of natural resources consumption, but it is much less obvious how that might be achieved, which means a depoliticization of the debate (Redclift, 1997). It is often associated with organic markets, where local farmers can meet the customers on regular basis. Calls for food and agriculture sustainability, just like post-productivism, are fraught with contradictions and shortcomings. For instance, the second Sustainable Development Goal aims to reach zero hunger (SDG2 = “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”), but different donors and international development agencies have adopted conflicting strategies and all claim to be contributing towards the same goal, often ignoring the concrete geographical context and the deep causes of food insecurity, including the perverse legacies of the productivist paradigm (Blesh et al., 2019; Jones et al., 2019).

Unanswered questions therefore persist about the definition of minimum thresholds of an agriculture production system considered sustainable. Likewise, if sustainability involves maintaining some features and accepting the exchange of others for some economic gain, who decides what can be affected and what is non-substitutable? Another serious trouble is the tendency to occupy the margins of the agricultural system and the emphasis on local, secondary markets, instead of offering an alternative that challenges hegemonic agribusiness and it is at the same time able to replace current supply chains. In terms of food security, supposedly sustainable or organic food systems could represent a significant improvement because of the use of traditional farming inputs, the repudiation of agrochemicals and industrialized fertilizer, reduced packaging, etc., but the focus is on local, small-scale production, normally (but not necessarily) associated with higher costs and less convenience (more time to prepare). More importantly, if sustainability is reduced to low-impact production and ‘organic’ farming techniques, it is easy for conventional distribution chains and large supermarkets to incorporate it as a form of niche-market food. Supermarkets have combined the selling of standard goods (considered cheaper) with some shelf space for luxurious goods (often imported from ‘exotic’ parts of the world) and for organic, more sustainable food. Sustainability is reduced to a personal choice about where and how to consume, which may have some impact on production patterns, but certainly fails to provoke any significant change in agriculture that leads to higher food security and benefit wider society.

Food justice, food rights and community-based responses

A third main discursive response to the problems of insecurity is focused on the ethical and human rights dimension of food security. The is epitomized by calls for food justice, which entail more than mere distributive action, but also require the recognition of the political voice and the representation of all people in decision-making and public policies on production, consumption and distribution of food, as well as the normative connections between food-related practices and collective self-determination (Scoville, 2015). It is not difficult to perceive the cross-references between food justice and environmental justice, which both demand a fair treatment of all people, regardless of race, colour, national origin or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of laws, regulations, and policies. The departure point of this third perspective is the abundant evidence around the world of the connections between poverty, social inequalities and food insecurity. Food insecurity is thus interpreted as a socio-political problem in particular historical and geographical contexts, which cannot be resolved with better productivity and market globalization. Because of the accumulation of state and market failures, hunger and malnutrition are not distributed randomly, but concentrated in certain areas and among certain groups. For instance, UNICEF (2017) estimate that nearly half of all deaths in children under five are attributable to undernutrition, translating into the loss of about three million young lives a year (associated with the increased frequency and severity of infectious diseases); despite important gains in recent decades, high levels of mortality continue to be found especially in South Asia (48 per 1,000 live births) and Sub-Saharan Africa (78, with a peak of 95 in West and Central Africa).

The Right to Food is not a new concept, and was first recognized in the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In 1996, the formal adoption of the Right to Adequate Food marked a milestone achievement by World Food Summit delegates. It pointed the way towards the possibility of a rights based approach to food security. Currently over 40 countries have the right to food enshrined in their constitution and FAO estimates that the right to food could be judicial in some 54 countries (McClain-Nhlapo, 2004). According to Knuth and Vidar (2011), at least 56 national constitutions already protect the right to food in some form or another, which means a protection of the right to food as a justiciable right or in the form of a directive principle of state. In 2004, a set of voluntary guidelines supporting the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security were elaborated by an Intergovernmental Working Group under the auspices of the FAO Council. In parallel, an emerging and very influential concept is food sovereignty, coined by members of the international peasant movement La Vía Campesina in 1996, which challenges the role of markets and corporations and reaffirms the basic rights of those who produce, distribution and consume food to formulate policies and be meaningfully involved in decision-making. In 2007, the Forum for Food Sovereignty (with representatives from small and peasant farmers, artisans, indigenous peoples, landless peoples, rural workers, pastoralists, forest communities, among other groups) took place in Mali approved a declaration stating that “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.” (Declaration of Nyéléni, available at: https://nyeleni.org/IMG/pdf/DeclNyeleni-en.pdf).

The agenda of food justice has paved the way for the organization of farmers’ markets, as well as agroecologically managed farms, community-supported agriculture initiatives, fair trade and organic food suppliers, etc. which are all attempts to connect producers and consumers and cherish the importance of place-based agri-food chains. However, there is a common risk of local farmers’ markets becoming restricted to better informed, high income shoppers in search of better quality food, but oblivious to wider food insecurity trends and the nutritional challenges of the majority of the population. The romanticism of localized food chains leads to serious biases and represent a form of elitism by the backdoor behind the good intentions on the part of farmers, facilitators and consumers. A similar distortion, that also tempers the impact of food justice agenda, was the appropriation of the food sovereignty by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, an intergovernmental panel under the sponsorship of the United Nations and initiated by the World Bank in 2002. Its synthesis report describes food sovereignty as “the right of peoples and sovereign states to democratically determine their own agricultural and food policies” (IAASTD, 2009), which is a rather technocratic definition empty of the political content that characterizes the activity of La Vía Campesina and other critical grassroots movements. The confusion and limitations of these approaches will be examined in the following section.

PART III | Why is Food Security So Elusive? 

The three main paradigms about agri-food systems, briefly mentioned above, have filled a lively debate about agriculture production and (qualitative and quantitative) food security, in academic, policy-making and private sector domains. Food is a constant topic in contemporary public debates and food security, even in affluent western countries, remains a major source of concern for governments, farmers and consumers. The prominence of food insecurity can be demonstrated, for example, by the simultaneous manifestation of both hunger and obesity derived from the same agri-food system. However, despite the relevance of the debate, the most common outcome is a sort of unspoken impasse: the food problem is acknowledged, remains high on the agenda, but it is hard to see where effective solutions and meaningful changes would come from. Effective solutions seem blocked by the fact that there are companies and groups profiting huge sums of money from the dominant food production and distribution model (Ioris, 2015). It means that food insecurity, as much as other socio-economic distortions, result from deliberate decisions and investments in technology and production chains, and not from their absence. There is food insecurity around the planet, from megalopolises in the Global North to the remotest corners of the Global South, because food has been appropriated, resignified and transformed into a quick-profit strategy, controlled by the application of Western science and technology (what transform food into commodity-food), and sold to a universe of alienated and disconnected eaters (who themselves are treated just as consumers). 

The consequence is a (sometimes noisy) discomfort among the better off about what they are eating and sheer hunger and malnutrition among half of global population. The maelstrom with the apparent elusiveness of food security is aggravated by the constant bombardment of information about nutrition-related diseases (including cancer, diabetes and heart problems), environmental impacts caused by intense agriculture and the failure of official responses. Food insecurity has important similarities with the confusing rhetoric about other mega-questions in the world, such as climate change, racism, migration and terrorism. The persistent gap between political and economic strategies and the frustration of civil society with the lack of tangible answers is one of the most direct challenges to representative democracy and public policy-making today. It is therefore important to explore the root causes of the global food crisis and understand grassroots responses, which could open up entirely different opportunities and lead to comprehensive solutions to the problem of hunger, health and the environment (Holt-Giménez, 2010).

First of all, most of the discussion has been reduced to questions of production, distribution, access or affordability, neglecting that food security constitutes a field of disputes and source of dissention. The meaning of food security has mutated over the last half-century, mirroring the evolving views on development theory and practice, but many still think in terms of productivist goals and fail to agree that food problems are essentially political issues of first magnitude (Shaw, 2007). A range of interests and hidden agendas exists behind the benign calls for food security. While around 820 million people continue to suffer from hunger and another good share of the global population struggle with obesity-related health issues, many continue to profit from the widespread condition of food insecurity (FAO, 2019). The concept of food security has often been manipulated and used to boost the stronger interests of corporations, banks, large-scale land owners and allied politicians, as during the ‘golden age’ of developmentalism during the post-World War II decades when international development became a global project. This spurious gain is accrued either directly (from the manipulation of assistance programmes) or indirectly (from the maintenance of the current agri-food model). 

Since the time of Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, food aid has been used to tackle hunger in emergency situations and achieve food security. However, ‘food aid’, and more recently the increasing rhetoric of ‘food assistance’, are donor-driven strategies that first of all promote domestic and geopolitical interests of donor countries. It helps to maintain the price of agricultural commodities and remove surplus production from the market at the expense of subsidies paid by taxpayers (Brett, 2010). Food aid may lead to some short-term alleviation, but also disrupts production systems and local markets in the receiving countries, while increasing their dependence on further donations (Nagoda, 2017). Indirectly, food aid or food assistance, as urgent initiatives in the pursuit of food security, can even reinforce a productivist excuse for the mobilization of more land, chemical inputs and GMOs, which (as mentioned above) are ultimately production factors increasingly controlled by transnational corporations and powerful land owners.

A very influential line of reasoning, particularly among the UN agencies, is Amartya Sen’s theorization of entitlements and of command over food, which seems to present a way forward but in effect falls short of dealing with the deep institutional and political sources of food insecurity (Sen, 1991). This defence of food security is constructed in abstract and decontextualized, absent from concrete political economic and sociocultural contexts. Likewise, given the hegemonic nature of global agribusiness, powerful actors often invoke the rhetoric of entitlements in order to maintain privileges and state concessions. Like in the case of the sustainability argument (discussed above), food security from the perspective of entitlements is unadvertedly rendered into an apolitical matter, minimizing both the structural causes and the lived experience of hunger, as well as the related problems of overconsumption and wastage of food. 

Conceptualizations such as these tend to neglect that the long-lasting problems of food, which had pervaded the history of all human societies since before the ancient civilizations, mutated into a problem of ‘insecurity’ only in the course of the capitalist modernization of the world. The advance of capitalism entailed an ontological shift from (old) starvation to (modern and persistent) food insecurity. It is because of the intrinsic features of capitalism that food scarcity (as much as poverty and human degradation) remains firmly entrenched amid abundant stocks of food, sophisticated technologies and global wealth. Food has become a mere element of economic systems and food policy just a topic for top-down economic policies. People, who need to eat, reduced to mere consumer, food to nutrient, agriculture to agribusiness, meal to organic matter. The insecurity of food supply is not an isolated phenomenon, but it is an element of a wider multiplicity of scarcities that characterize market globalization; in that sense, the naturalization of food deficits in the official policy-making discourse (away from political, economic and ideological causes) to overlook interconnected mechanisms of political differentiation and socioeconomic exploitation that influence the production and allocation of food. 

That indicates the role of a non-essentialist interpretation of multiple scarcities and the need to address the totality of the experience of scarcity (Ioris, 2012). Food insecurity is, basically, the result of the concurrence of two main driving-forces unleashed by the growing commodification of everything: first, the reduction of agriculture to agribusiness and, second, the disconnection of people from the sources, the provision and the content of their food. In relation to the first main driver of food insecurity, for many thousands of years agriculture was not merely a human process employed to produce food and raw material, but the expression of particular culture, the manifestation of accumulated knowledge and the basis of social relations taking place in specific socio-ecological settings. With the advance of capitalist relations of production, profound changes took place, initially in the countryside of Western European countries and then most of the world was inserted into the sphere of influence of modern capitalist agriculture. Even areas in the Global South with the predominance of family farming and suffering from the consequences of land displacement, soil degradation and various other environmental injustices, are indirectly affected by pro-agribusiness policies (as in the case of the Common Agricultural Policy that combines subsidies and support programmes for agriculture operated by the European Union). 

The containment of agriculture within the narrow boundaries of agribusiness has involved, in general terms, the appropriation and privatization of land and other commons, the expulsion of large contingents of the population to work in urban areas, and the specialization of production according to the demands of industries and cities. In the history of capitalism, agriculture and farmers have always taken a twofold subordinate position, combining the subordination (exploitation) of labour to capital and the countryside to the city. This phenomenon can be described as “a movement from food-as-nutrition and agriculture-as-social-integration to a situation in which agri-food operations are carried out primarily to circulate and accumulate capital. The ideological and practical reduction of food to the realm of commodities, exploitation and profit also represents a decisive barrier to the resolution of nutritional and environmental problems. In synthetic terms, this is a gradual shift, which began at the end of 19th century, from agriculture-cum-food to agriculture-cum-agribusiness.” (Ioris, 2017: 21).

Due to scientific developments, in the last few decades new agricultural techniques have exponentially accelerated the erosion of social relations and food as life enrichment in favour of agriculture as business and profit. Such exogenous technologies were, in the spirit of the Green Revolution, meant to transform the ecological conditions of the soil and dramatically alter the genetic makeup of organisms, instead of focusing on the much more sustainable adaptation of plants and animals to their ecosystems. It is a very disconcerting that what is normally described as modern and superior agriculture is in effect a narrow and impoverished form of agriculture, determined by market rules and political bargains that, in the end, cause and perpetuate food insecurity. As demonstrated by Clapp and Fuchs (2009), the food systems around the world are increasingly affected by the corporate-dominated global systems and corporations are involved at all stages along the production chain, compromising small farmer livelihoods, environmental quality, food security and consumer sovereignty. The result is that agriculture-cum-agribusiness is fundamentally anti-food, anti-people and anti-future, as it is inescapably led by the logic of the circulation of capital and short-term profits. Food insecurity derives here from the mistaken delegation of something so basic and precious as food to the exclusive realm money-making. One madness of the world today, among many others, it to transfer the control and the choices of what we eat or ingest in our bodies to nameless players with explicit but selfish agendas: plantation farmers, supermarket managers, scientists, bureaucrats, unelected regulators, among others. 

Food insecurity, as dealt with by most of the global community today, is a clear sign of the highly risky and limited perspectives of the increasingly capitalization of agriculture; in simple terms, the more agribusiness, the higher the risks of food insecurity. Instead of the managerial focus on access and availability of food that underpin the aforementioned definitions, the decisive sources of food insecurity are really located in the capitalist relations of production and reproduction based on the perpetuation of symbolic and material forms of political control, which serve to maintain the primacy of exchange-value over other values and to justify exploitation as the basis of profit-making. In other words, food insecurity as such is something that can be found in a world shaped by capitalist logic of production and exchange (different than the also tragic situations of food scarcity and food-related conflicts in pre-capitalist societies). Just as liberal capitalism has increasingly undermined liberal democracy (because of the internal contradictions of capitalism, the drive for expropriation, exploitation, commodification and accumulation), an agri-food system dominated by financialization trends doesn’t allow for genuine prospects of fair food security.

That is even more noticeable in the early 21st century when liberal democracy, as adopted in western countries and replicated around the world, shows signs of electoral fatigue and indifference, eroding representative institutions, disruptive lobbying, manipulation of parliamentarian procedures, sidelining minorities through political correctness, among other problems (Tam, 2018). The relation between people and elected politicians is worryingly determined by the influence, the values and the language of large business and transnational banks and corporations (the British case is emblematic, due to the enormous proportion of the banking sector in the national and, particularly, London-based economy). For instance, in 2016 the USA electoral process produced one of the most troubling aberrations with the election of a controversial billionaire for president (himself a famous consumer of fast-food who has been involved in sex scandals and suspicious businesses), representing the direct and unqualified takeover of democracy by large business. A subset of that trend is the reduction of agriculture to agribusiness, food to processed, commodified food, and eaters to supermarket consumers. Following this logic, it is not surprising that the hegemonic thinking about food security is pervaded by quick-fix solutions that cancel the possibility of rupture and, ultimately, perpetuate the causes of insecurity.

The second main driver of food insecurity is a direct extension of the anterior: food has become something abstract, taken for granted and disconnected (disembedded) from basic cultural and socio-ecological concerns, given that the problem is basically reduced to production and purchase operations mediated by the market. As long as people have money, they assume that some sort of food will be available for buying. This simplistic, mono-dimensional thinking about food expands not only in urban areas, but also affects farmers and rural dwellers who also increasingly rely on local venders (supplied by corporate-controlled supply chains). The aberrant consequence is that the question of food is largely equated to the holding of money and economic power, provided that even when people (farmers in Western countries included) cultivate what their families eat they are likely to be food insecure. The majority doesn’t have the knowledge and have minimal opportunity to cultivate something for their own kitchens. Contemporary society is to a greater extent separated and unaware of the origin, substance and practices behind what they eat. Their experience is, in most cases, goes as far as supermarket shelves, local markets or fast-food restaurants. This condition obviously leaves low-income people very vulnerable to the vagaries of the market, as in the case of the food crisis the followed the crash of global markets in 2008 when food prices doubled or tripled, and eventually reduced again to the pre-crisis level of 2006 (Magdoff and Tokar, 2010). In sociological terms, this problem is directly related to both the concentration of power in the hands of corporations and supermarkets, and the also with the centuries-long process of peasant displacement and land commodification.

The disconnection between people and their food is, effectively, a process of alienation caused by social stratification and similar to the alienation between the worker and the product of their work described by Marx (1976). The alienation of people from their own labour is a distortion that happens in the concrete historical context of capitalism, which is a crucial pillar of an economy that create and concentrate wealth by force at the expense of the majority. The workers (the non-capitalist sectors of society) are manipulated and involved in a process of exploitation and control, although they retain the superior social and ethical ground.  Marx is evidently talking about the wider process of the advance of capitalism and industry, but it is also directly relevant for agricultural capitalization. The process is fraught with injustices and perversities in which “… the worker stands on a higher plane than the capitalist from the outset, since the latter has his roots in the process of alienation and finds absolute satisfaction in it whereas right from the start the worker is a victim who confronts it as a rebel and experiences it as a process of enslavement” (Marx, 1976: 990). Marx was concerned with agency and alienation at the personal, micro-scale level when he describes the capitalism himself/herself involved and constrained by the same process. Interestingly, the same process of alienation involves and undermines the worker and also the capitalist. In his words, “the self-valorization of capital – the creation of surplus-value – is therefore the determining, dominating and overriding purpose of the capitalist; it is the absolute motive and content of his activity. And in fact it is no more than the rationalized motive and aim of the hoarder – a highly impoverished and abstract content which makes it plain that the capitalist is just as enslaved by the relationship of capitalism as is his opposite pole, the worker, albeit in a quite different manner.” 

Having considered some of the fundamental elements of the food security controversy – especially the narrowness of agriculture as mere agribusiness and the ubiquitous alienation of people from food and food sources – in the final section below we will briefly explore what alternative, just food systems could look like.

PART IV | The Way Forward: A Full Plate of Food

From the above, it can be concluded that food insecurity is a complex, politically sensitive problem that continues to inflict much suffering and to undermine claims of democracy and justice. If there is a major food crisis today, it has been constantly manipulated and presented as a non-political crisis that is supposedly overcome through the incorporation of more production areas and more input-intense technologies. In any case, as pointed out by Harvey (2014), crises don’t make change, but they require reaction and fight. Food security is part of the pursuit of wider human security, what necessarily includes different, more inclusive and egalitarian, basis of economic production, property relations, interaction between humans and non-humans, democratic management of collective assets and issues, and so forth. The risky condition of present-day agri-food systems is certainly a serious question, but it is not an isolated or exclusive problem. On the contrary, “the food issue must, then, be situated historically with respect to particular phases of capital accumulation in the world economy and its uneven impact upon peripheral economies” (Watts, 2013: 5). For instance, the emphasis of national policies on cash crops for export exacerbates socio-economic tensions, disturbs land tenure relations and aggravates food insecurity. Likewise, it is necessary to connect pressures such as population changes and growing social inequalities, changing food diets and consumption patterns, price oscillation (as in the first decade of the 21st century), technological packages (biotechnology and digital techniques) and environmental degradation (climate change and soil erosion). The response to those challenges requires a proper understanding of the totality of politico-economic relationships and of the internal dialectics between the multiple, multi-scale components of a profoundly unequal and unsustainable socio-economic condition. There are crucial synergies, for example, between hunger and poverty, what create true ‘spaces of vulnerability’ determined by particular political, economic and institutional factors (Watts and Bohle, 1993). The construction of higher levels of food security depends on a twofold agenda: reclaiming agriculture way from agribusiness and reinstating the centrality of good, locally produced food in daily life. 

Therefore, food security depends, first of all, on the ability of peasant family farmers (the real producers of food, cf. Shiva, 2016) to maintain their activity in the long-term, which is related to problems such as land access, fair market transactions, just payment of rural labourers, the removal of control over food by supermarkets and transnational corporations, the enhancement of peasant associations, etc. The reaffirmation of agriculture as primarily the source of food, and not profit, is evidently a major and difficult political question. In addition, food security depends on the offer of a ‘full plate’, not only in terms of quantity, but quality (in terms of nutrition, safety, freshness and according to local culture and the autonomous wishes of producers and consumers). Full plate is in fact a perfect metaphor of the totality of relations underpinning food security. Good food is ‘just food’, instead of the products manipulated and commercialized by corporations. Food security requires rethinking food, revisiting agriculture, what ultimately requires rethinking the world. Those two mega-agendas will have to incorporate cultural, economic, agrarian and technological differences, but in general terms the task is similar in countries of both the Global North and the Global South. However, the non-Western parts of the world seem to have much more to offer and a lot to teach. This is perhaps the moment to return to common sense and appreciate food as food. As demonstrated by Descola (1996: 74), “in common with all societies not governed by market prices, the Achuar [a group of indigenous peoples in the Amazon] rule out lucrative transactions where food is concerned.”


Antonio A. R. Ioris
Reader in political geography and director of the MSc in Environment and Development, School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University

The project Farming for the future: ecological agriculture and food security in the 21st century is a cross-border initiative aiming to document the trends, challenges and opportunities in ecological farming across the world. This project was financed by the UK Chevening Scholarship Programme.