Pursuing food security, not sovereignty

by Morton I. Sosland
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Agreeing on or at least understanding the meaning of “food security” and how it should be achieved is quite suddenly front and center as an issue posing consequences for the grain as well as the food industry around the world. It was not long ago, at the time when the Former Soviet Union approached collapse, that food security directly related to the ability of countries as well as political blocs like Eastern Europe under Communism to grow and obtain enough food to maintain an adequate diet for all. Even after the Soviet disintegration in the 1990s, food security issues applied to the way developed nations were in part responsible for assuring Third World countries had sufficient food. Food aid and then liberalized trade were viewed as playing the essential roles in assuring that food security was fostered in a world where suddenly at the opening of the new century production and price volatility became overriding issues.


Treatment of food security as an international obligation was reflected in high-level conferences convened by the United Nations. Yet, this was swiftly transformed into something quite different by recent searing events as well as by a country like the United States worrying more about its own people’s food security than what was happening abroad. Millions of American households were counted as food insecure because they were unable to acquire adequate food supplies due to insufficient resources. The focus was on 7 million households deemed to have very low food security. Food insecurity rates for households with children suddenly became especially important as debating intensified about governmental food assistance.

As American attention turned to domestic hunger and less concern ruled about global food security, attitudes also dramatically shifted in nations that have suffered recurring national food shortages. In a transformation that can only be described as counter-productive, if not destructive, countries like India and some of its neighbors in Asia have taken up fighting for “food sovereignty” as a replacement for “food security.” Food sovereignty is best described by one of its advocates in the following declaration: “Governments ought to imagine how they might take back their food sovereignty from a multilateral system that increasingly denies it.”

In this context, food sovereignty means individual nations would no longer be subject to limits in what they could do to provide subsidies to their domestic food producers. The goal would be to curtail or eliminate restrictions that limit expansion of food production to as near self-sufficiency as possible. All the checks included in international treaties that have been placed on governmental payments affecting farmers’ income and acreage would be ended or curtailed. Instead, these countries pursuing food sovereignty, rather than relying on supplies acquired through liberalized trade, would seek to build domestic stockpiles as protection against international swings in production and prices. One version of food sovereignty includes the suggestion that all the provisions regarding agriculture be totally eliminated from the agenda and rules of the World Trade Organization, the global body devoted to liberalizing trade.

While food sovereignty has been described as poor countries seeking equity in pursuit of the same programs developed nations have used for years and as a way for developing countries to gain the autonomy that has long been denied them, its implementation would be the road to global catastrophe. The huge progress made in recent years in helping once poor nations achieve domestic income gains and diets far superior to the past is credited for the most part to the advantages created by liberalized trade. It is hardly necessary to cite the perfectly awful situation ruling in North Korea, a country that has practiced food sovereignty for years, as an example of what the actual practice potentially threatens. Utter failure in boosting domestic food production and a population largely malnourished are the obvious result. Hardly any argument more powerfully supports trade liberalization as the path to true global food security.

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