Home » Food Security, Food Justice, or Food Sovereignty

Food Security, Food Justice, or Food Sovereignty

By Eric Holt-Giménez
Food Security,
Food Justice,
or Food
The New Year saw renewed food riots in India and Africa, and record levels of hunger here in the US.
This year also saw transformation in the food movement, with new power and national recognition.
The food movement has successfully shone the spotlight on hunger and food access in the US, created
a drive for more local food, and gotten better policy from the federal to the local level. The question
now is: how do we turn these initial reforms into lasting, food system transformation?
How do we know the food movement is a force for transformative change, rather than a passing fad, a
collection of weak reforms, or isolated local efforts? To know this, we need a moment of reflection on
how the food system is structured historically, politically and economically. We need to build alliances
to take on the root of our failing food system.
Corporate Food Regimes
One way to imagine the food system is as a “regime.” A food regime is a “rule-governed structure of
production and consumption of food on a world scale.” The first global food regime spanned the
late 1800s through the Great Depression and linked food imports from Southern and American
colonies to European industrial expansion. The second food regime reversed the flow of food from the
Northern to the Southern Hemisphere to fuel Cold War industrialization in the Third World.
Today’s corporate food regime is characterized by the monopoly market power and mega-profits of
agrifood corporations, globalized meat production, and growing links between food and fuel. Virtually
* This Backgrounder is based on Eric Holt-Giménez and Annie Shattuck’s 2011 article ‘Food crises, food regimes and food
movements: rumblings of reform or tides of transformation?,’ Journal of Peasant Studies, 38: 1, 109 — 144. References are
at the end of that article which can be accessed at http://www.foodfirst.org/en/node/3253
Thatcher ushered in our current era
of neoliberal “globalization,” in the
1980s, characterized by deregulation,
privatization, and the growth and
consolidation of corporate monopoly
power in food systems around the
With the global food and financial
crises of 2007-2010, desperate
calls for reform have sprung up
worldwide. However, few substantive
reforms have been forthcoming, and
most government and multilateral
solutions simply call for more of the
same policies that brought about
the crisis to begin with: extending
liberal (“free”) markets, privatizing
common resources (like forests
and the atmosphere), and protecting
monopoly concentration while
mediating the regime’s collateral
damage to community food systems
and the environment. Unless there
is strong pressure from society,
reformists will not likely affect (much
less reverse) the present neoliberal
direction of the corporate food
Food Enterprise, Food Security,
Food Justice, Food Sovereignty
Combating the steady increase in
global hunger and environmental
degradation has prompted
government, industry and civil
society to pursue a wide array of
initiatives, including food enterprise,
food security, food justice and food
sovereignty. Some seek to ameliorate
hunger and poverty through charity.
Others see it as a business opportunity
and call for public-private
partnerships. Human rights activists
insist that government and industry
should be held accountable when they
undermine the right to food. Those
who can afford good food promote
individual consumer choices (vote
with your forks). Food justice activists
from underserved communities
struggle against structural racism in
the food system. Some efforts are
highly institutionalized, others are
community-based, while still others
build broad-based movements aimed
at transforming our global food
Understanding which strategies work
to stabilize the corporate food regime
and which seek to actually change it
is essential if we are to move toward
more equitable and sustainable food
Some actors within the growing global
food movement have a radical critique
of the corporate food regime, calling
for food sovereignty and structural,
redistributive reforms including land,
water and markets. Others advance
a progressive, food justice agenda
calling for access to healthy food
by marginalized groups defined by
race, gender and economic status.
Family farm, sustainable agriculture
advocates, and those seeking quality
and authenticity in the food system
also fall in this progressive camp.
While progressives focus more on
localizing production and improving
access to good, healthy food, radicals
direct their energy at changing
regime structures and creating
politically enabling conditions for
more equitable and sustainable food
systems. Both overlap significantly
in their approaches. Together,
folks in this global food movement
seek to open up food systems to
serve people of color, smallholders,
and low income communities
while striving for sustainable and
healthy environments. Radicals and
progressives are the arms and legs of
the same food movement.
The Food Regime—Food Movement
Matrix helps describe the dominant
trend in the food system according
to the politics, production models,
tendencies, issues and approaches to
the food crisis:
all the world’s food systems are tied
into today’s corporate food regime.
This regime is controlled by a far-flung
agrifood industrial complex, made up
of huge monopolies like Monsanto,
ADM, Cargill and Walmart. Together,
these corporations are powerful
enough to dominate the governments
and the multilateral organizations that
make and enforce the regime’s rules for
trade, labor, property and technology.
This political-economic partnership is
supported by both public and private
institutions like the World Bank and
International Monetary Fund, the
World Food Program, USAID, the
USDA and big philanthropy.
Liberalization and Reform
Like the larger economic system of
which they are a part, global food
regimes alternate between periods
of liberalization characterized by
unregulated markets, corporate
privatization and massive
concentrations of wealth, followed
by devastating financial busts. When
these busts provoke widespread
social unrest—threatening profits
and governability—governments
usher in reformist periods in which
markets, supply, and consumption
are re-regulated to reign in the crisis
and restore stability to the regime.
Infinitely unregulated markets would
eventually destroy both society and
the natural resources that the regime
depends on for profits. Therefore,
while the ‘mission’ of reform is to
mitigate the social and environmental
externalities of the corporate food
regime, its ‘job’ is identical to that of
the liberal trend: the reproduction of
the corporate food regime. Though
liberalization and reform may appear
politically distinct, they are actually
two sides of the same system.
Reformists dominated the global
food regime from the Great
Depression of the 1930s until
Ronald Reagan and Margaret
Finance Corporation
(World Bank);
(Vilsak); Global
Food Security Bill;
Green Revolution;
Challenge; Heritage
Chicago Global
Council; Bill and
Melinda Gates
Foundation; Feed
the Future (USAID)
Corporate Food Regime
International Bank
for Reconstruction
and Development
(World Bank); FAO;
UN Commission
on Sustainable
USDA (Merrigan);
mainstream fair
trade; some Slow
Food Chapters;
some Food Policy
Councils; most food
banks & food aid
Alternative fair
trade and many
Slow Food
chapters; many
organizations in
the Community
Food Security
Movement; CSAs;
many Food Policy
Councils and youth
food and justice
movements; many
farmworker and
labor organizations
Via Campesina,
Planning Committee
on Food Sovereignty;
Global March for
Women; many food
justice and rightsbased movements
Food Movements
Food Enterprise
Food Security
Food Justice
Food Sovereignty
Orientation Corporate Development Empowerment Entitlement
unregulated markets
and monopolies;
(including organic);
GMOs; agrofuels;
mass global
consumption of
industrial food;
phasing out of
peasant and family
agriculture and local
certification of
niche markets
(e.g. organic, fair,
local, sustainable);
northern agricultural
roundtables for
agrofuels, soy, forest
products, etc.;
market-led land
produced local
food; investment
in underserved
communities; new
business models
and community
benefit packages
for production,
processing, and
retail; better wages
for agriculture
workers; solidarity
economies; land &
food access
Dismantle corporate
agrifoods monopoly
power; parity;
redistributive land
reform; community
rights to water and
seed; regionally
based food systems;
democratization of food
systems; sustainable
livelihoods; protection
from dumping/
overproduction; revival
of agroecologically
managed peasant
agriculture to distribute
wealth and cool the
planet; regulated
markets and supply
Increased industrial
unregulated corporate
monopolies; land
grabs; expansion of
GMOs; public-private
partnerships; liberal
markets; international
sourced food aid
Same as neoliberal but
with increased medium
farmer production
and some locally
sourced food aid;
more agricultural aid
but tied to GMOs and
“bio-fortified/climateresistant” crops
Right to food;
better safety
nets; sustainably
produced, locallysourced food;
based agricultural
Human right to food
sovereignty; locally
sourced, sustainably
produced, culturally
controlled focus on
UN/FAO negotiations
World Bank 2009
Development Report;
“Realizing a New
Vision for Agriculture
(World Economic
World Bank 2009
Development Report;
“Realizing a New
Vision for Agriculture
(World Economic
Assessment on
Agriculture Science
Technology and
Framework for Action
to Eradicate Hunger
to the food
i n s t i t u t e f o r f o o d a n d d e v e l o p m e n t p o l i c y
398 60th Street • Oakland, California 94618 USA • TEL: (510) 654-4400 • EMAIL [email protected]
Time for transformation
The current food crisis reflects the
environmental vulnerability, social
inequity, and economic volatility of
the corporate food regime. Absent
profound changes we will continue
to experience cycles of free market
liberalization and mild regime reform,
plunging the world’s food systems into
ever graver crises. While food system
reforms—such as localizing food
assistance, increasing aid to agriculture
in the Global South, increasing food
stamps and funding research in organic
agriculture—are certainly needed
and long overdue, they don’t alter
the balance of power within the food
system, and in some cases, may even
reinforce existing inequities.
Progressive projects are tremendously
energetic, creative and diverse, but can
also be locally focused and issue—rather
than system—driven. For example, the
movement to improve access to food
in low-income urban communities has
received high level support from the
White House and the USDA. But the
causes of nutritional deficiency among
underserved communities go beyond
the location of grocery stores. The
abysmal wages, unemployment, skewed
patterns of ownership and inner-city
blight, and the economic devastation
that has been historically visited on
these communities are the result of
structural racism and class struggles
lost. No amount of fresh produce will
fix urban America’s food and health gap
unless it is accompanied by changes
in the structures of ownership and a
reversal of the diminished political and
economic power of low-income people
of color. To end hunger at home and
abroad practices, rules and institutions
(structures) determining the world’s
food systems must be transformed.
Food movements unite!
The challenge for food movements is
to address the immediate problems of
hunger, malnutrition, food insecurity
and environmental degradation,
while working steadily towards the
structural changes needed to turn
sustainable, equitable and democratic
food systems into the norm rather than
a collection of projects. This means
that both reform and transformation
are needed. Historically, substantive
reforms have been introduced to our
political and economic systems, not
by the good intentions of reformists
per se, but through massive social
pressure on legislators—who then
introduce reforms. The social pressure
for system change comes from social
The food crisis of 2007-2010 has
opened up new opportunities for
reform and transformation, but
has also led to a retrenchment of
liberalization. This suggests that
substantive changes to the corporate
food regime will originate outside
the regime’s institutions—from the
food movement. Whether or not
the food movement can bring about
change depends on whether or not
progressive and radical trends unite.
The inequities and injustices of the
corporate food regime are the default
condition between food movement
organizations. These social, economic
and political divides of race and class
can’t be ignored or willed away. An
honest and committed effort to the
original food justice principles of
anti-racism and equity within the
food movement is just as important as
working for justice in the food system.
Rural-urban and North-South divides
must also be addressed in practice and
in policy for the food movement to
unite in a significant way.
In this regard, the progressive trend is
pivotal: If progressive organizations
build their primary alliances with
reformist institutions from the
corporate food regime, the regime
will be strengthened, and the food
movement will be weakened. In
this scenario, we are unlikely to see
substantive changes to the status quo.
However, if progressive and radical
trends find ways to build strategic
alliances, the food movement will be
strengthened. Social pressure from a
united food movement has a much
higher likelihood of bringing about
reforms and of moving our food
systems towards transformation.
Photo by the Growing Youth Project, Alameda Point Collaborative

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