Don’t mix up food security with its sovereignty

This article appeared originally in Gulf News: link to original article

Many countries perceive their food security as a reflection of their food sovereignty … and this misconception is where the confusion lies. Yet, we cannot discuss food security without discussing food sovereignty, neither can we talk about food sovereignty without making reference to self-sufficiency policies that different countries adopt and carry on in their food production.

Food security is access to food. Whether access to food comes from production of food, or from importing it, it is still classified as food security because it paves access to food regardless of their source. Additionally, non-access to food could also be because of its unaffordability, which is why individuals often get classified as food insecure even though the country or the region could have ample supply of food.

Food insecurity can also be attributed to distribution issues, which the Ethiopian famine of 1980s is an example of.

Food sovereignty is the right to produce food, more significantly by farmers. The assumption here is that by producing food, farmers, and by extension countries, will be food secure. This is of course conditioned on how central the producing commodities are to the country’s food consumption and for its security, with food sovereignty considered fundamental to a country’s food security.

For instance, mass production of cherry tomatoes cannot be described as part of a wider attempt at food security. By producing their own food, countries are also safeguarding themselves against high global food prices that could transmit into their domestic economies and lead to food riots. There were “51 food riots in 37 countries” from 2007 onwards as documented by the book “Who Really Feeds The World?”.

Now where does self-sufficiency policies fit into all of this? China has clear-cut self-sufficiency policies, which it considers as essential to its future access to food. Therefore, China has drafted and effected policies to make sure that its food production is always at an adequate level to feed its growing population, turning it into a top producer and exporter of food commodities produced onshore and offshore, in Africa and East Asia.

Countries that cannot produce enough food for their populations, or are at an absolute disadvantage in food production, have ventured into different regions in different continents to offshore food production. This can be found in India’s ventures into the African continent and GCC agricultural investments in Africa and elsewhere.

Whether offshoring food production guarantees access to food when needed is a different matter altogether, and is subject to the food producing country’s national security priorities. In 2008, prices of key food commodities such as corn, wheat, and rice skyrocketed. Rice especially witnessed the biggest increase because of limitations on production and exporting.

As a result, India and Vietnam, both among the Top 5 producers of rice and Vietnam among the Top 5 exporters too, enacted bans on rice exports to secure it for domestic consumption.

Food sovereignty, or the right to produce food, is being increasingly identified with farmers to protect their access to food. A country’s food sovereignty is driven by its self-sufficiency policies, where the focus is on more food being produced rather than imported to feed a country’s population. This is why global food security is being criticised now as undermining farmers’ food security because it takes away their food sovereignty, moving the focus from small farmers to larger ones who are better integrated with global food systems and hence better able to produce food more efficiently.

The assumption, however, has been repeatedly falsified by recent literature on small-scale and organic farming. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a country’s Self-Sufficiency Ratio (SSR) can be calculated by dividing its production of a specific commodity by (production + imports — exports) of that same commodity. The SSR is an indirect measure of a country’s food sovereignty, showing how much of its food supply is being provided for by production relative to imports.

While a country’s food sovereignty is key to its own food supply and food security by ensuring access, it is that same food sovereignty, which if adopted vigorously by many countries, can undermine the world’s state of global food security. Bhutan is a case in point, even if it’s a small rice producer among rice producing behemoths.

Bhutan possesses the ability to cultivate rice twice a year, producing at least 13 varieties of the commodity. Surprisingly though, and according to the CIA Factbook, rice is considered a key import for Bhutan.

Bhutan here is an apparent example of an inverse relationship between a country’s food sovereignty and global food security, where its farmers produce enough rice for their households but not necessary for the entire country. Therefore, the country ends up importing rice to supply a market of individuals that cannot produce their own rice.

Though this is rooted in Bhutan’s work-leisure balance lifestyle and farmers desire not to spend the whole year working, it also has prevented Bhutan from becoming a net exporter of rice and to loosen up a very tight global rice market.

In conclusion, food sovereignty is one way for countries to achieve food security without jeopardising their national security by being too exposed to food imports and fluctuations in its prices. Self-sufficiency policies are what countries adopt and execute to increase food production, whether through their farmers, more food sovereignty, or offshoring.

More importantly is the indispensable potential and future role that small countries like Bhutan can play towards a better global food security for all, without undercutting their own food sovereignty.

The last thought that I want to leave you with: is there a way for food sovereignty to go hand-in-hand with global food security?