What is meant by Food Democracy and Food Sovereignty and what do they signify?


Food Democracy is a slogan mobilized by groups and initiatives all over the world, which generally aim to raise awareness, develop action strategies, and promote a political conversation about the production, distribution and consumption of food, with efforts aimed at fundamental and extensive food system change. It operates mostly in parallel to the Food Sovereignty discourse which was mobilized by the La Via Campesina International Peasant’s Movement in the early 1990s as a decentralized global movement and struggle for land and agrarian reform, agroecology and the rights of peasants and indigenous populations to maintain traditional methods of feeding themselves and their communities. Proponents also argue that these traditional methods are more sustainable and healthy — for humans and their environments — than ‘conventional’ forms of agriculture that have become dominant in the ‘industrialized’ world.

Beyond the paradox of prosperity and abundance

It is important to contextualize critiques of the food system within what I would call the “paradox of prosperity and abundance”. This paradox acknowledges on the one hand the general upward ‘trend’ that (at least material) living standards have undergone in the past centuries, including the reduction in global poverty and unprecedented levels of material abundance. This macro-view of an upward trend is often used as evidence to dismiss creative alternatives to status quo economics, and creates a political environment that is deeply conservative in approaching the novel problems of the twenty-first century while echoing Francis Fukuyama’s claim that history has ended. However, this view must be tempered from claims which naturalize progress, and assume that (in the case of Fukuyama, after the fall of Communism) things will just keep getting better by themselves. As psychologist Steven Pinker points out in Enlightenment Now — a book which is the picture of optimism and argues that the world is, on average, better for humans than it has ever been — this conclusion is flawed. Pinker argues that we should not be paralyzed from taking action; we should rather acknowledge that problems do not solve themselves and that progress is the result of individuals and collectives scientifically and creatively engaging with problems. Pinker’s message is, therefore, one of hope: positive, and even unlikely, change has happened and can continue to happen through engagement.

So as a growing number of citizens are becoming concerned with and taking action to address the social and environmental ‘side-effects’ which are generated by industrial modes of global food production and distribution, their critiques should not fall upon deaf institutional ears simply because the supermarket shelves are full of cheap food. The production of food in developing countries is often unregulated and plagued by unjust working conditions where food producers are paradoxically at risk of food insecurity themselves.  Environmental costs like biodiversity loss, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are seen as ‘externalities’ in the marketplace, and are therefore not reflected in the price that consumers pay at the supermarket.  Meanwhile, small family farms are incentivized to ‘get big or get out’ and industrialize production in order to pay their bills.  The result is a disappearance of diverse rural livelihoods and cultures, and the devotion of more land to the mass monoculture production of commodity crops and feed for factory farming with harmful effects on animal welfare and environmental health.  All of these factors contribute to demands for a sweeping change in the food system, and themselves demand institutional engagement.

But, surely this could all be changed by individual consumers making different decisions ... right?

That’s certainly part of it.  However, consumers who wish to support ethical and sustainable production practices often pay much more to do so.  Therefore biological, local or ‘fair’ food remains an occasional luxury for those with low budgets.  Also, the overload of information on food labels, ambiguity of certification systems, and the lack of transparency and accountability in supply chains often leaves well-wishing consumers feeling lost, frustrated or helpless while trying to ensure that they are purchasing the ‘right’ products – and there are plenty of incentives for food producers and processors to use fashionable buzzwords to mislead shoppers and greenwash conventionally-produced products.  Many consumers simply don’t have the time or energy to solve the complex puzzles of ethical urban food buying.  Meanwhile, the majority of citizens – and politicians – continue to see food as a mere consumer good, and therefore the food problem as one of consumer choices, not one of political debate.  In response, concerned citizens in a growing number of other cities want to take things into their own hands by foregrounding food as a political issue. 

Becoming democratic means to reconnect with our desire to rule ourselves, to nurture it, to help it grow, and to give it space.
— Mark Purcell

What is to be done?

Due in large part to the lobbying of special interests and the lack of autonomy at the local level, traditional channels of political citizenship in representative democracy (like voting) are seen as insufficient in this regard. Consequently, Food Democracy and Food Sovereignty take shape in the form of grassroots citizen activism, which generally operates under the motto: “Think Global, Act Local”. For political theorists like Mark Purcell and others, these instances of citizen activism present a horizon of opportunity for radical deep democracy, or “active democratic autonomy”; not as an impossible utopian endpoint, but as an ideal to move towards.[1] An ideal which sees cities — and the processes that support life in them — as sites for the development of human potential. The heuristic of a democratic horizon rejects the notion that history can or will end. In other words, it gives us a political lens in which dogmatic utopian endpoints of, e.g. the liberal democratic state - in which citizenship is a mere legal status - are replaced with an ongoing navigation towards deep democracy, in which the strengths of both liberal citizenship and civic republicanism are built upon, and in which people work to reclaim their own political power. To conceptualize this horizon, Purcell looks to Lefebvre’s “new contract of citizenship”, in which democracy is not a political end goal; it is rather a “political opening statement” which serves to rouse individuals into a contract of becoming active “to take control over the conditions of their existence, and to begin to manage those conditions themselves.”[2] The spread of calls for “Food Democracy!” can, therefore, be recognized as wills and desires toward Purcell’s democratic horizon, and leaves us to consider how these wills and desires can be facilitated and empowered.

[1] Purcell, M. (2013). The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

[2] Ibid, p. 37.