Biting The Hand That Feeds

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For centuries, world hunger has been tackled by economists, politicians, scholars, and activists. Multi-million dollar hunger relief campaigns, multilateral organizations, and government agencies have been established to fight this cause. Globally, India has been the recipient of many of these programs as part of its long struggle with widespread hunger. Under British colonial rule, over 60 million people died from famine. Although death by famine in India has reduced significantly since the country’s independence in 1949, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, India continues to have the largest population of hungry individuals in the world. In the last four decades, Indian officials have made substantial efforts to combat malnourishment. These efforts, however, rely on a problematic status quo framework: food security.

Food security, as defined by the United Nations, is when “all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet dietary needs for a productive and healthy life.” It seems nonsensical to criticize such a goal; how is an individual having access to food a contestable issue? The problem lies in the political contexts under which this idea emerged. In the last 30 to 40 years, as the concept of food security gained traction among government and international institutions, it quickly began to underpin another emerging framework—neoliberalism. In the 80s and 90s, the IMF and World Bank had begun to impose structural adjustment policies on nations in the global south, and trade was becoming liberalized under the WTO. At international summits and conferences, global leaders soon consolidated both neoliberalism and food security into a singular framework to address hunger. They viewed food as a commodity and understood hunger as an issue that is solved through the market, or basic supply and demand: the demand being hungry populations in need of food; the supply being commodity crops produced by large agribusinesses. It seems simple enough—if India (or any “developing” country) is able to experience economic growth by joining the global agriculture market, then food producers will have enough money to purchase food and thus alleviate any and all food insecurity.

However, three decades of neoliberal economic reforms have not fulfilled this vision. Instead, independent farmers across India have been quickly displaced as subsidies, government assistance, and agricultural import duties were slashed. Marginal farmers had no choice but to quit farming or work under exploitative conditions for large food producers. India’s 2015-2016 Agriculture census finds that small farmers comprise 86.2% of total farmers but only own 47.3% of total farmland. Furthermore, corporate food regimes place stringent controls on these farmers, who are forced to produce high crop yields using expensive genetically modified seeds. Local crops are replaced by cheaper imported goods. At the same time, to remain competitive in the market, cash crops are grown and exported en masse, although farmers and laborers receive only fractions of the profit.

Food security, as defined by the United Nations, is when “all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet dietary needs for a productive and healthy life.

The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs reports that over 300,000 Indian farmers have commited suicide since the 1990s. Many of these individuals are smaller farmers who own less than five acres of land and are from Dalit (historically lower caste and marginalised groups) and Adivasi (indigenous) communities.  Behind this phenomena is an increased reliance on moneylenders and lack of financial autonomy. The National Crime Records Bureau reported that 60% of farmer suicides were directly tied to issues of bankruptcy and debt. The labor of small farmers and non-landowning agricultural workers serves a critical purpose for multinational agriculture corporations, yet they can barely afford the food they themselves grow. Thus, food security relies on the very same regimes that exploit marginal farmers to solve problems of hunger and malnutrition, ultimately replicating the same unequal power structures that create hunger in the first place.

During the World Food Summit in 1996, as global leaders voiced their support for neoliberal food regimes, La Via Campesina, an international farmers organization, brought forth the concept of food sovereignty to directly challenge the mainstream conceptualization of food security. Unlike the latter, food sovereignty views food as more than a commodity, and does not ignore the politics of food production–that is, the socio-political and cultural aspects of food growth, consumption, and distribution are given priority. Food sovereignty promotes sustainability, community development, and mutual aid. It delivers autonomy and control over the production of food using grassroots approaches such as the promotion of small-scale production methods which do not rely solely on commodity crops. Food producers can assess community hunger and nutritional needs and grow subsistence crops that are not sold in marketplaces thousands of miles away, but to their own neighbors. Today, groups such as the Food Sovereignty Alliance in India are working to establish community control over local food systems by empowering marginalized food producers. Campaigns to re-establish agricultural self-reliance have emerged throughout the country, often led by Advasi and Dalit communities who have formed local markets, created community gardens, petitioned for land rights, and organized through collective actions.

Food sovereignty also focuses on sustainable growth, production, and distribution processes. Historically, indigenous farmers would grow a diverse variety of crops, supporting local biodiversity. With the rise of monocropping (growing one or two crops repeatedly on the same plot of land) and chemical fertilizers, however, farmlands have become vulnerable to diseased crops and poor soil quality. Given the ever rising threat of climate change and the demonstrated culpability of current food production and distribution methods in exacerbating this issue, food sovereignty is more urgent than ever. 

Of course, transforming food systems into those rooted in the principles and practices of food sovereignty is not a simple task. It requires reimagining the way we understand food and its local and global impacts, as well as acknowledging its deep interconnection with environmental and economic justice. Although food sovereignty was established as a direct challenge to neoliberalism, the values exemplified by the movement have existed for centuries. Adivisa communities have long been utilizing sustainable, culturally relevant, and localized methods of food production. The voices of these very communities, those who are fighting for the autonomy that has been repeatedly stolen from them, should be centered as we envision future solutions to hunger.