Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue

International Conference · Yale University · September 14-15, 2013
14 October 2013
Article

The concept of food sovereignty has exploded in the agrarian studies literature over the past decade, the aim of this critical dialogue was to explore whether or not the subject of food sovereignty has any intellectual future in critical agrarian studies, and if so, on what terms.

Academics, activists, farmers, and NGO representatives gathered at Yale University on September 14-15, 2013 for the conference “Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue”. The international conference brought together some of the world’s leading scholars and activists who are both sympathetic and supportive of the idea of food sovereignty, as well as those who are highly skeptical of the concept. The idea was to foster a critical dialogue on the issue to examine its various meanings, interpretations, and political implications.

While the concept of food sovereignty has exploded in the agrarian studies literature over the past decade, the aim of this critical dialogue was to explore whether or not the subject of food sovereignty has any intellectual future in critical agrarian studies, and if so, on what terms. After two full days of critical discussions, over 80 conference papers, and more than 200 conference participants, it was clear that the subject of food sovereignty has a vibrant, albeit challenging, intellectual future in critical agrarian studies and will continue to be developed.

 

The importance of this critical dialogue should not be understated and it could not have come at a more opportune time. This year marks the 20th anniversary of La Via Campesina – the organization that popularized and politicized a ‘food sovereignty’ alternative to the FAO’s concept of ‘food security’. It also marks the 40th anniversary of the Journal of Peasant Studies (JPS), one of the leading journals in critical agrarian studies and co-sponsor of the event.

It was therefore fitting not only to have one of La Via Campesina’s founding members, Paul Nicholson, give a keynote address on the opening day, but also to have the two co-founders of JPS and world renowned agrarian studies scholars Teodor Shanin of the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, and Henry Bernstein from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, give a keynote speech and participate in a plenary session, respectively.

Opening the conversation with these renowned figures, James C. Scott, Co-Director of the Yale University Agrarian Studies Program, began the event by expressing his skepticism and reluctance to the idea of food sovereignty as a viable alternative. This activist-intellectual engagement along with notable contributions from Bina Agarwal of Manchester University, UK, and Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food set the stage for the next two days as supporters, skeptics, and everyone in between engaged in a critical dialogue, continuing and enriching debates on the subject.

 

Though not the first of its kind, and based on the enthusiasm at the event, certainly not the last, “Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue” will certainly be remembered as a historic event. It brought leading scholars, activists, and researchers across generations from around the world to engage with a concept that was arguably in danger of losing its intellectual relevancy in critical agrarian studies. At risk of becoming a concept that ‘means everything and therefore nothing’, this critical activist-intellectual engagement continued and revitalized the relevancy of food sovereignty.

The conclusion of the conference can perhaps best be summed up by Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of Food First, who closed the conference by asking not whether food sovereignty has an intellectual future in critical agrarian studies, but rather if “critical agrarian studies has an intellectual future in the movement of food sovereignty, and if so, on what terms?”

“Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue” was sponsored by Yale Agrarian Studies, The Journal of Peasant Studies, Initiatives for Critical Agrarian Studies (ICAS), International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Transnational Institute (TNI), and Food First.

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photo by Farming Matters