The Right to Food and the Heartland


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By Kathy I. Andersen

From a UNICEF conference this past May to a special G8 meeting in June, international attention is honing in on the failure of current food programs to address hunger. World leaders have agreed upon the Right to Food as a Universal Human Right, and starvation causes the most pain for the world’s poor. What priorities will help us accomplish the aim of providing every world citizen with access to nutritious, affordable food? Out of the debate two camps tend to emerge, those advocating for food security and those advocating for food sovereignty.

In actuality, this is an artificial distinction: food security is after all best accomplished through food sovereignty. Going forward, we need to use food sovereignty as a basis on which to forge a new path in policy, industry and ideology that will enable us to achieve the goal of food security for all. And the Heartland should play a big part.

The food security camp emphasizes achieving economies of scale and maximizing food production. However, this ethos can lead to environmental degradation, conflict, inadequate nutrition and loss of cultural heritage. The food security regime today operates in the interests of big agribusiness, other multinational corporations and diplomats, ultimately making it unwieldy and unresponsive. These interests have been very vocal in denouncing one alternative viewpoint, the food sovereignty movement, as a radical and deluded fringe group. Founded on the heels of La Vía Campesina, a small farmer movement of the 1990s, food sovereignty encompasses principles of justice and dignity in food systems, which are manifested in land reform, market revitalization, small-scale participation and producer agency. Both concepts differ drastically in economic and political underpinnings, with implications across every level of the world food system.

First, it is proven that a food sovereignty-based system can be productive enough to meet the world demand. IFPRI found in 1998 that employing agroecology methods of production can sustainably yield target crops and auxiliary products with a total value that outweighs any difference in yield from conventional monoculture cultivation. There are more benefits beyond a yield comparison: where agriculture is carried out on a small-scale, landowners are directly implicated in the long-term effects of their practices, and if ensured property rights and empowered with enough knowledge, as the food sovereignty movement emphasizes, they will be more likely to be better land stewards and act rationally to preserve their share of the land resource. Reduced chemical inputs, soil quality improvements, decreases in incidence of plant disease are all positive externalities of farming within a food sovereignty ideology. Thus, direct involvement acts to preserve the long-term environmental sustainability of the food system, the best way forward for maintaining our capacity to provide food for the world.

Next, considering access to food and the failings of food security, let us not forget the global food crisis of 2008, where volatile fluctuations in highly interconnected markets wreaked havoc on developing countries. This volatility is not just a byproduct of globalization; we need to envision a world where food is accessible—sourced from both local producers and from regional and global markets. We do not need to repeat history with an exclusionary, self-sufficiency dogma as was pursued by some communist and socialist regimes. Instead, we need to harness technological innovations such as access to Internet and mobile phones as a way to increase access to markets and foster more market integration for people across all levels. This would engender price stability if more markets for crops exist in local areas. In that way, more integrated food systems also have the potential to decrease the frequency and severity of conflicts related to famine, where sources are numerous and control of food is decentralized.

Finally, there is an important humanist aspect to what food sovereignty offers for both producers and consumers. Food sovereignty advocates for increased agency and interconnectedness and thereby encourages a reinvigoration of social structures surrounding food production. In the past few decades the American agriculture has seen a drastic eroding of the social aspects of farming, and the same is occurring in developing countries today. In addition, increasing production on a person-by-person basis not only has benefits for overall productivity but also for household consumption, sparking a cascade of benefits in health, income, education and more. This April, Bertini and Glickman on stated that “growth in agriculture has been shown to be at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors.” Thus, more agricultural approaches based on food sovereignty would increase the benefits on a small-scale producer level and would better address poverty than simply focusing on providing food security. Lastly, with increased agency and dignity, producers can choose the crops that are most culturally and ecologically appropriate instead of those toted by big agribusiness interests, better for individuals and communities.

There is a need to reenvision market structures and to promote an ethos of stewardship and community. We, here in the Great Plains, are also implicated in the struggle. Greater understanding of the potential that food sovereignty systems offer can lead to more funds, research and policy support. Change is beginning and we need to decide where we fit in. We’re due for another agricultural revolution: where the work of the Green Revolution has failed us, the new agricultural paradigm can begin.



Altieri, Miguel A., Peter Rosset and Lori Ann Thrupp. “The Potential of Agroecology to Combat Hunger in the Developing World.” IFPRI. 1998.

Bertini, Catherine and Dan Glickman. “Making Every Dollar Count.” Politico, April 2013.

Bjerga, Alan. “Obama Wants More Food Aid to Be Locally Sourced.” “Bloomberg Businessweek,” April 2013.

Ching, Lim Li. “Sustainable Agriculture is Productive.” TWN Briefings for WSSD No. 19, July 2003.

De Schutter, Olivier. “Right to Food.” United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

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