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Food sovereignty: the debate, the deadlock, and a suggested detour


Whereas hundreds of social movements and NGOs all over the world have embraced the concept of food sovereignty, not many public authorities at the national and international level have adopted the food sovereignty paradigm as a normative basis for alternative agriculture and food policy. A common explanation of the limited role of food sovereignty in food and agriculture policy is that existing power structures are biased towards maintaining the corporatist food regime and neo-liberal thinking about food security. This article sets out to provide an alternative explanation for this limited role by critically reflecting on the debate about food sovereignty itself. The main argument is that this debate is characterized by deadlock. Two mechanisms underlying the deadlock are analyzed: confusion about the concept of sovereignty and the failure of the epistemic community to debate how to reconcile conflicting values, discourses, and institutions regarding food. To overcome this deadlock and organize meaningful debate with public authorities, it is proposed that the food sovereignty movement uses insights from legal pluralism and debates on governance and adopts the ending of “food violence” as a new objective and common frame.

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  1. 1.

    Epistemic communities consist of academics and professionals with shared beliefs on cause-and-effect relationships of normative problems and a shared set of normative and principled beliefs (Haas 1992). On the basis of these shared beliefs, they “frame collective debates, propose specific policies, or identify salient points for negotiation for politicians” (Dobusch and Quack 2008, p. 8). Haas (1992, p. 20) explains that, “The solidarity between the members of an epistemic community derives not only from their shared interests, which are based on cosmopolitan beliefs of promoting collective betterment, but also from their shared aversions, which are based on their reluctance to deal with policy agendas outside their common policy enterprise or to invoke policies based on explanations that they do not accept.”

  2. 2.

    Admittedly, human rights doctrine also includes the contentious concept of collective or group rights, such as the rights of indigenous people or ethnic minorities. Collective rights and food sovereignty are both rights of each community or nation, but indigenous or minority rights are specific to a particular group. Another difference is that rights of indigenous people or ethnic minorities comprise single rights to something, for instance to be educated, or to have access to healthcare, whereas food sovereignty is about the right of a community or nation to develop its own food and agriculture policies.

  3. 3.

    Violence includes both direct (physical) forms but also “structural violence” (Galtung 1969): “chronic economic marginalization, social exclusion, disempowerment, and other forms of indirect violence to which vulnerable people are exposed” (Eakin et al. 2010, p. 246).

  4. 4.

    According to Holt-Giménez and Shattuck (2011), the progressive trend of the food movement is primarily composed of the middle and working classes of the global North. It employs a food justice discourse and focuses on local “foodsheds,” family farming, and good, clean, and fair food. The radical trend is primarily framed by the concept of food sovereignty, and seeks to bring about deep, structural changes to food and agriculture that may adversely affect the middle and working classes of the global North.


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The author is grateful for the inspiring debates on food law, food values and food sovereignty with Professor Francois Collart Dutilleul, head of the LASCAUX programme at Nantes University. The author also wishes to thank the LASCAUX programme and Nantes University for funding and facilitating his stay as a visiting professor at Nantes University in March and June 2011. The author is also grateful for advice of Joy Burrough on the English.

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Hospes, O. Food sovereignty: the debate, the deadlock, and a suggested detour. Agric Hum Values 31, 119–130 (2014).

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  • Food sovereignty
  • Sovereignty
  • Food values
  • Food violence
  • Food governance
  • Reconciling conflicting values on food