FOOD SECURITY AND SOVEREIGNTY IN THE SOCIAL AND SOLIDARITY ECONOMY
C.H. Nelson and M.L. Stroink*
The social and solidarity economy (économie sociale et solidaire) emphasizes economic activity that is socially driven to support a resilient local food system. The focus is on innovative mechanisms to develop a local food system that integrates health, sustainability and the economy to foster equity in food distribution, justice in access to and availability of nutritious foods, and the adoption of ecological practices. In this transformation to a more local food system, we are recognizing that strong local food systems integrated globally will provide more opportunity for all to grow food that is healthier for individuals, communities, and ecosystems, and more adaptive to climate change.
Once again, the world has experienced international food prices soaring to record levels, triggering new global fears of insufficient food supply. The food security and food sovereignty movements appear well poised to work within a social and solidarity economy framework to address this food crisis. History informs us that social and solidarity economy approaches have often appeared most robust in responding to these socio-economic crises). Currently, there are two competing global food systems, one based on industrialization and commodification of food for export and the other based on local production and consumption. Against the backdrop of small-scale, local, indigenous food systems that have positive impacts on health, make available micro-nutrients, and generate climate and social well-being governments and big business have been pursuing a contrasting agenda. This agenda imposes deeper commercialization of agriculture and food trade and results in further risks to human and ecological health and resilience.
The current industrial agri-food system is increasingly demonstrating its inability to provide equitable access to food in just ways, or to provide nutritious, high quality food in sustainable ways that will meet increasing demands of the predicted 9 billion people who will inhabit the planet by 2050. The focus on using technology to boost production to feed people has been achieved with the accompanying costs of depleted soils and water supplies, lost crop diversity, poisoned ecosystems, rising obesity and diet-related health problems, farmers who are facing debts incurred due to the high costs of inputs, increased inequity and accelerated rural-to-urban migration. The international Green Revolution in the 1970’s had an impact in both developed and developing countries. Its emphasis on hybridization to increase yields, petroleum based fertilizers and mechanization has accelerated environmental degradation and contributed to climate change. Agriculture is a major force of global environmental change, and currently accounts for more global greenhouse gas release than transportation. Moreover, even if accelerating demand for biofuel crops is ignored, demand for agricultural crops will likely double by 2050.
Food is essential for all people and yet it is denied to about one billion people daily. Economic access to food has become the critical issue). As a planet, we are recognizing that the world food order is increasingly fragile and supplemented by ad hoc food assistance programs. Alternative agriculture that includes a movement toward community agriculture represents a counter-movement to meet the growing need for food worldwide. This regime shift is driven by social and solidarity economy initiatives that embrace this movement, transform what food is produced, the manner in which it is produced, and how it is distributed.
As discussed in the next section, the social and solidarity economy that focuses on food security and food sovereignty is contextual and place-based and has the potential to be more resilient by building on long-established traditional practices and the protection of food crop seeds that carry the genetic diversity so critical to adaptation to climactic change.
Inventory of Knowledge
As the global industrial food system demonstrates its limitations and begins to crack in the face of internal and external pressures, people from communities throughout the world are beginning to organize alternative approaches to food production and distribution. These initiatives often share an organizing vision of food sovereignty and are driven from the bottom-up. Food sovereignty originates from the global peasant movement and has been defined as “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” (Nyéléni, 2007). The food sovereignty language emphasizes that people have a say in how their food is produced and where it comes from, and it shifts the focus from food as a commodity in an industrial system to food as a public good, essential to healthy communities. Food security has been considered a more technical term describing people’s access to, and the availability of, sufficient, safe, nutritious food. Although a similar term, the food security language does not directly address the issue of people’s legal rights in an international political context. Food sovereignty implies food security, but being food secure does not necessarily entail food sovereignty.
Given the role of food in both human health and economic activity, these emerging movements offer numerous points of reflection and overlap for those interested in the social and solidarity economy. In this section, we will provide a brief inventory of the many efforts underway to achieve food sovereignty. We attempt to demonstrate the diversity of the food sovereignty movement and its reach across national, urban-rural, and economic lines. The ways in which these movements have opened up alternative economies and have resulted in various degrees of policy action at the state level in both the North and South will also be highlighted.
La Via Campesina1 , an international movement with member organizations from Africa, Asia, South America, Europe and North America, brings together peasants, small-size farmers and agricultural workers to defend small-scale sustainable agriculture that promotes food sovereignty, social justice and dignity. It represents 150 organizations and is present and vocal at international forums where they challenge industrial forms of agriculture in a number of areas including biodiversity, trade, and agrarian reform. Member groups have lobbied for national agricultural policies and have worked locally to tighten relationships between producers and consumers. In one example, Wittman (2009) described the revival of local food trade in a region of Brazil where deforestation, unemployment, and the demand for land by workers led to the establishment of agrarian reform settlements. These settlements developed farmers’ markets and local distribution networks to trade subsistence foods in local communities. Wittman pointed out that this direct form of trade enabled the establishment of authentic relationships and served as a foundation for food education. The farmers involved also came to see that through their relationships with consumers, they were able to “rework the form and process of trade” (Wittman, 2009, p815).
In Canada, the People’s Food Policy Project (PFPP) 2 is a national effort to build a set of food policy proposals based on the submissions of over 3500 citizens and organizations on the front lines of community food security. As the dominant food system fails, people across the country have self-organized innovative community-based solutions such as community supported agriculture, food policy councils, and collective kitchens. Taken together, these initiatives provide the key elements of a parallel healthy, just food system. Housed within Food Secure Canada, an umbrella NGO, the PFPP has been unique in building policy proposals from the ground up, scaling up the impact of these community endeavours on the basis of the people’s own insights into the policy barriers and opportunities they witness.
There have been several recent Canadian and international reports on the need to transform the food system. These reports provide insights into the key characteristics of the emerging alternative food systems. In particular, and consistent with research on resilience in socio-ecological systems, there is great diversity in and among these alternative food systems. They also tend to emphasize localization and recognize that more sustainable and ecologically-grounded approaches to food production are needed. For example, World Watch prepared their State of the World 2011 report on Innovations that Nourish the Planet. In it they profile numerous efforts from around the world to move toward an agro-ecology approach to producing food, including rainwater harvesting in Rwanda, farmers conducting their own research in Kenya, planting nitrogen-fixing trees in Malawi, and forming various farming and fishing co-operatives and associations. Collectively, these approaches are more diversified, more adaptive to climate change, and contribute to rural development in a way that strengthens the communities’ resilience and well-being.
Pretty and colleagues (2010) conducted a horizon-scanning approach with leading experts and representatives of major agricultural organizations worldwide to derive the top 100 most important questions for global agriculture. The purpose of these questions was to influence policy priorities in ways that would have a significant impact on global agricultural practices. Given the challenges confronting the dominant food system, they pointed out that the agriculture sector can no longer focus simply on maximizing productivity; that it must now look at optimizing food production with an awareness of the broader complexity of production, environment, rural development, social justice, and consumption. The questions were organized into four sections: natural resource inputs, agronomic practice, agricultural development, and markets and consumption. In the final section of this paper we will draw upon some of these questions to stimulate reflection and discussion toward increasing food security and food sovereignty through social and solidarity economy initiatives.
Blouin and colleagues (2009) of Équiterre and the Centre for Trade Policy and Law in Canada prepared a review of the literature on local food systems and public policy. They define local food systems as “an integrated food production, distribution, and consumption system operating within a designated geographical area for the purpose of achieving sustainable development goals” (p.11). As such, they explicitly recognize that local food systems attempt to provide economic, environmental, health and social benefits in addition to reducing distance travelled (food miles). Highlighting farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, food box schemes, institutional local procurement initiatives and farm shops, they summarize evidence indicating that local food systems do indeed bring these diverse benefits. For example, farmers using local food systems report having greater control over prices and being less exposed to market fluctuations. Community-supported agriculture and box schemes also protect the farmer from risk by distributing that risk among the community share holders. The authors also reviewed studies indicating that money spent in the local food system is more likely to stay within the locality, compared to the conventional food system. In sum, because there are a variety of benefits associated with local food systems, it is important to identify which public policies best support the emergence, consolidation and development of these local food systems. These will be reviewed in the section that follows.
The above reports and initiatives on the emerging local food system reveal a diverse set of alternatives to the dominant food system. These include self-organized community efforts to identify ways of interacting and trading that act like shadow systems – alternatives emerging in the shadows of the dominant system – bringing critical diversity and resilience to the human-ecological-economic system. Before reviewing the challenges and issues encountered by these efforts, we will provide an overview of some of the production and distribution models of social and solidarity enterprises that have emerged worldwide in local settings. These include co-operative movements, community-supported agriculture (CSA), farmers’ markets and collective kitchens, urban agriculture and seed saving as specific examples of social solidarity food sovereignty activities.
In the shadow of the agri-industrial food system, small scale and family farms often lack the capital to access marketing and processing infrastructure, leaving them at a competitive disadvantage. Co-operative movements have been generally quite successful in the food sector, offering food producers - including farmers and fishermen -, benefits such as shared access to seeds and other inputs, shared information and other resources, enhanced market power, and more effective lobbying. For example, Theron (2010) presented a case study of a Rooibos tea co-operative in South Africa. It began as a processing facility so that each member’s tea could be processed and delivered to an agent at a marketing company. It was so successful in its first year that they were quickly able to bypass the marketing agent and deal directly with the buyers, even becoming certified through the Fair Trade Labelling Organization. By pooling equipment and sharing seasonal costs this group was able to significantly improve the income of the member farmers. The cooperative’s surplus was invested in sponsoring various training and development programs.
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) directly links the farmer to the consumer, thus eliminating the physical and social distancing that is a core characteristic of the corporate agriculture system. The consumer agrees to pay upfront the costs for fresh food that the farmer will produce, thus assuming some of the risks of production. Typically, the consumer communicates directly with the farmer throughout the growing season as to how well the vegetables are growing. Most CSA operations encourage the consumer to bring the family to visit the farm at least once per season with opportunities to participate in harvesting the vegetables. This reduced physical and social distancing is a competitive advantage for CSA initiatives.
Direct selling through local markets was used in preindustrial times as a primary way for farmers to gain income from excess produce. In recent decades, farmer’s markets have mushroomed globally in both rural and urban settings as a viable way to gain access to healthy food sources. Consumer education is reintroducing potential consumers to a traditional distribution model for food 3.
Collective kitchens have emerged as a means to reduce food costs by buying in bulk and to re-learn cooking skills with local food that were lost when food became an input to industrial processing plants and removed from its direct link to local ecology and culture. A collective kitchen consists of a group of people who meet regularly to plan, budget, shop, and cook nutritious meals for themselves and their families. Collective kitchens may be organized around a certain group of people like single mothers, seniors, students or around specific food interests, and may even be seen as a path to social empowerment. Collective kitchens provide a place to develop and nourish friendships and have fun, learn new skills and prepare several healthy meals. 4
Urban agriculture, the growing or raising of food within urban and peri-urban environments, is an important part of people’s nutritional and economic well-being in developed and developing countries alike. Flynn (2001) explored urban agriculture in Tanzania. She found that nineteen out of seventy-one women in the city of Mwanza relied on growing their own food and that food could be found growing not only in private yards but also alongside public pathways and in low-lying drainage areas. Chickens could also be found roaming freely in open areas of the city. In developed countries urban agriculture is becoming increasingly popular as people seek safe and healthy alternatives to mainstream food sources Community gardens, roof-top gardens, and vertical gardening have all received attention in the literature and are increasingly recognized as essential to sustainable urban design). The bylaws that generally prevent the keeping of chickens and other small livestock in urban backyards are also being revisited by municipal officials in several developed countries (see also People’s Food Policy Project5 ). While this food is generally produced for subsistence, it forms an important component of the social and solidarity economy. Not only is this food often sold in market gardens or informally over the fence, it is also frequently traded in a barter-type economy among gardeners, between neighbours, and among family and friends.
Since the very beginning of human experimentation with agriculture, farmers have invested tremendous amounts of knowledge and labour in the process of harvesting and saving seeds. As such, the detailed knowledge and practices associated with seed saving are deeply engrained in the cultures and economies of agrarian peoples. The ability to save and trade seeds from plants that are successfully evolving in a particular ecological and climactic setting is essential to the resilience and adaptation of the people in that setting. Likewise, the resulting diversity in the overall seed-stock protects the resilience of the broader agri-ecological landscape. This is why many people throughout the world are concerned about the commodification of seeds. With changes in the laws governing intellectual property and patents, and with technological advances in genetic engineering, corporations are now able to patent, own, and sell seeds, greatly impacting the dynamics that had previously ensured the diversity of plant species.
Interestingly, community-level efforts to keep and trade seeds have self-organized below this dominant corporate system. For example, Seeds of Diversity 6 is a charitable organization helping gardeners and farmers to save and exchange open-pollinated heirloom vegetables, fruits, and grains in Canada. They offer a catalogue of heirloom seeds and preserve the knowledge of traditional seed saving and agricultural practices. Seedy Saturdays are events held in communities across Canada where people get together and swap seeds. In India, Navdanya7 is a network of seed keepers that has helped set up 54 seed banks across the country and has conserved more than 5000 crop varieties. In India and other developing countries, the corporate control and sale of seeds puts small farmers in debt, and renders them unable to control or adapt their own plant species to changing local conditions. Organizations such as Navdanya and Seeds of Diversity demonstrate how the trade and exchange of seeds in local networks is developing underneath and alongside the dominant corporate system as a social and solidarity economy.
Challenges and Issues
The dominant food system is reaching the limits of its ability to feed a growing world population. The Green Revolution of the 1970s enabled farmers to increase crop yields through intensive fertilization, mechanization, crop specialization and irrigation. These techniques are now widely recognized to be undermining the health of the soil and to be contributing to climate change. They are also unsustainable in their dependence on fossil fuels and undermine the ability of rural communities to feed themselves. With challenges from climate change, water stresses, energy insecurity and dietary shifts, global agricultural and food systems will have to change substantially to meet the challenge of feeding the world. Moreover, the emerging bioscience century - where the world is increasingly turning to microbes, plants and animals to solve energy needs and using biomaterials from crops to manufacture car parts, foam, insulation, plastics, clothes, and building materials - will put more strain on an ever-decreasing land base and water resources to produce food. These challenges to the dominant food system and its economic underpinnings present numerous opportunities to grow and expand the social and solidarity economy and enhance community food sovereignty throughout the world. As these movements continue to scale up, they too encounter a number of challenges. These issues are primarily the result of an institutional framework that has grown up within and in support of the dominant agri-industrial food system. This institutional framework includes government policy at every level, international trade agreements, and even the human habits and socio-cultural structures that shape everyday behaviour. This is the same essential challenge faced by many social and solidarity economy initiatives. We turn now to a discussion of some of these challenges.
Blouin and colleagues (2009) summarized the findings of several studies on the barriers and challenges to a local food system and identified three broad types of barriers, which manifest themselves as specific issues at each step in the food chain. The first of the three broad types is a lack of financing. Local food projects such as community supported agriculture or local food distribution networks lack sufficient financial resources. Moreover, as they are designed to achieve social and environmental objectives as opposed to focusing only on profit, they are considered high risk and unable to access credit from commercial banks. The second is a relative lack of economic power. Large food retail chains and marketing channels do not have to pay for the environmental and social costs of their businesses and are able to impose minimum quantity and quality criteria that often exclude smaller food producers. The third is a lack of knowledge, especially at the consumer level, which leads to a lack of demand for local food products.
In the People’s Food Policy Project (2011), Canada’s lack of a coordinated and explicit food policy designed for the public good is discussed. In the absence of such a policy, a “patchwork of government policies and business-oriented decision making” determines our food system (p. 2). The project explored policy recommendations in areas ranging from health, agriculture, fisheries, urban, and rural communities. For example, the current bureaucratically intensive regulations pertaining to the inspection and processing of food favours the centralization of food processing, undermining the ability of small, rural, and remote communities to produce their own food. Likewise, natural resource policies and mechanisms are organized around industrial interests in forest lands and waterways, such as timber, mining, and hydro-electric projects. These policies undermine remote communities’ capacity to protect, harvest, and certainly trade forest or traditional food supplies. In agriculture and in fisheries, food has been viewed as an export commodity and the farmers and fishers are unable to make a living unless they operate on an industrial scale.
When considered on the international level, the policies and practices of nations and the trade agreements among them further constrain the dynamics of the food system toward an agri-industrial model. For example, small farms in the developing world struggle to compete with imports from North American and European countries in which certain forms of agriculture are subsidized). For example, food grown in North America under subsidies, is sometimes dumped in developing countries under the guise of “food aid” which results in the further impoverishment of farming communities in these countries). Furthermore, it has been argued that the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Agriculture denies states the right to “full self-sufficiency as a national strategy” (McMichael, 2003, p.175). Therefore, on an international scale, participating countries are unable to place the food sovereignty of their people at the centre of their food policies. These policies clearly contribute to the chronic hunger and food insecurity that continue to plague people throughout the world by encouraging the private and public sector to mutually reinforce the dominant agri-industrial food system. On an international scale, such policies and agreements will need to be revisited with a mindful awareness of the very tight interconnections between human and ecological well-being.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) raises awareness of the complexity of food issues and challenges us to rethink our global food system so that it can feed people, ensure viable communities and economies and sustain our planet. While the industrial food system may be strong and globally ubiquitous in its influence, it is demonstrating that it promotes food security through unsustainable methods that encourage further environmental degradation and inequities in control of the food system. Furthermore, the resources required to produce food for export are not available to most small scale farmers and trade liberalization escalates greater competition in local markets. As such, the industrial food system undermines food sovereignty in communities in both the north and south.
With a food system based on locality, the nuances of climate change can be responsibly addressed and communities can be empowered in just and fair ways at both the individual and collective levels. The social and solidarity economy can address the six pillars of food sovereignty (from Nyeleni, 2007).
Focuses on food for people
Industrial agriculture may have been justified by a misrepresentation of the capacity of local food systems. Studies are showing that production and productivity in a social and solidarity economy framework can be high (Nierenberg, e Halweil, 2011). Moreover, production for world trade is a different measure than production for not only the direct consumption of food, but for renewal of the land, food crop refuse for food for livestock, and renewal of the soil. If a farming system is viewed as a whole, then production of food alone is an inadequate measure of productivity.
There is clear evidence globally that the social and solidarity economy has the potential to become a viable framework to address food security and food sovereignty issues. Yet, in spite of the documented successes as highlighted in this paper, it still appears vulnerable due to lack of enabling public policies. Policies are needed that can sustain the social and solidarity economy by recognizing its economic viability and thereby broadening the meaning of ‘effectiveness’ beyond viable incomes and profits to be inclusive of sustainable environmental stewardship and fair and equitable food systems. There is a growing global movement that suggests that public policy developed with an awareness of the dynamic and global interconnectedness of ecological, economic, and social systems (which can be understood through complexity theory) may be better able to nurture food sovereignty within a social and solidarity economy. There is compelling evidence that hunger and poverty are more the result of policy directives than actual food shortages (Allen e Wilson, 2008). The questions suggested below can assist in exploring public policy alternatives as well as new approaches to partnerships between government and civil society. Through reflection and open, inclusive dialogue, these new ways of relating and of organizing our food systems in a social and solidarity economy can emerge and foster the resilience and well-being of communities throughout the world.
Food is a way of life. It has deep material and symbolic power. Food embodies the links between nature, human survival and health, culture and livelihood. Food is vital to healthy communities that nurture healthy people. The way we practice agriculture impacts on the co-evolution between culture and environment Strategically maximizing the amount of food that we can grow locally frees up productive land in all countries to grow food more adapted to specific local contexts in a way that strengthens the social, environmental, and economic vitality of each community.
There are some compelling features of a social and solidarity economy approach to food security and food sovereignty that have the potential to provide a fundamental regime shift in the food system. However, since the 1970’s a neoliberal approach of export led and a free trade based industrial agriculture has dominated the supply and consumption chain . International policy has supported an approach that has encouraged developing countries to shift to crops that have high export value, eliminate local government-supported agricultural subsidies and in exchange, accept surplus crops from developed countries that undermine local production. The impact has been devastating on many fronts, including the erosion of traditional practices, environmental degradation and accelerated indebtedness. Efforts at debt reduction have spiralled through promises of recovery through the development of new export markets that have resulted in the eradication of local subsidies on traditional local crops. Thus, pivotal for a successful shift to a food sovereignty approach is the emergence of policies that support local production using sustainable management systems. These policies may include a blending of modern agricultural science and indigenous knowledge systems, technological sovereignty and farmer to farmer networks that support local production, distribution and food processing. This process of localizing requires a context of political engagement and action.
Allen, P. e Wilson, A.B. (2008). Agrifood inequaoities: Globalization and localization. Development, 51(4), 534-540.
* Dr. Connie Nelson is professor and director of the Food Security Research Network (FSRN) at Lakehead University,Canada. She has provided extensive leadership and research support in the development of a resilient local food system in Northwestern Ontario. Dr. Mirella Stroink is associate professor of social, community, and environmental psychology at Lakehead University. Her research focuses on adaptation, transformation, and resilience in community systems.
Universitas Forum, Vol. 3, No. 2, June 2012