Food S_________ty

by Lara Shirley

We have just published a primer on food sovereignty and how it’s different from food security: check it out here!

(In a nutshell, food security means everyone having enough to eat, but without taking into consideration where the food is coming from and what effect it has on the communities it is bought or distributed in. Food sovereignty means the right of everyone to grow their own food, with their own seeds, methods and land, without being dependent on large and often transnational corporations. This reinforces local economies, strengthens local communities and in general stabilizes and improves people’s lives. Half of the world’s hungry are farmers: the problem is not merely a lack of food, but rather a deeper structural inconsistency, and food sovereignty explicitly addresses this.)

It’s so interesting to think about how these terms are created. ‘Sovereignty.’ ‘Security.’ Who is coming up with these phrases? What interests are vested in each?

Let’s start with security. Security is comforting, reassuring, an older sibling that will take care of you when times get tough. Thus, it is also a little condescending. It assumes that you need protection. More recently, security also rings uncomfortably close to a pretext for foreign, often military, interventions in fragile situations: Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya are the first that come to mind.

Sovereignty brings up a completely different range of connotations. Firstly, it’s immediately more complex: unlike security, which conjures up images of big guns and muscular men, sovereignty is a sophisticated concept which requires you to sit back for a minute and think about it. It is omnipresent at the UN, in one form or another, and most often employed by the G77, often in opposition to the previous concept of ‘security’. Its latest manifestation in the negotiations leading up to Rio+20 has been as ‘the right to development’. Perhaps sovereignty is a little too intellectual for everyday chitchat, it’s true, but in UN negotiations it is the equivalent of a fierce rallying cry from the developing countries. (That is not to say that sovereignty is a purely good thing – it can also be used to justify human rights abuses and environmental exploitation – but relative to ‘security’ and foreign interventions, it is an important notion to have around.)

It’s essential to be aware of how ideas are being framed. To be aware of not only what is being said, but how it is being said – and how we can use that to convey at every level exactly what it is that we want to say, instead of weakening and confining our ideas by presenting them through another lens.

It is absolutely fascinating to see how language is manipulated within the UN, especially because it does not initially seem to be. Words are fairly understandable, not too jargonized, and yet inherent within them are so many levels of meaning: history, past debates, expected disagreements, unspoken arrangements and tenderly subtle power dynamics. It is not just that words tend to take on new layers of meaning – that is inevitable, to a certain extent – but rather that they almost completely shed the meanings they had before. It epitomizes what an antiquated institution the UN is: you have to spend so much time and effort to just scratch the surface of what these seemingly innocuous words are really saying. Security isn’t a bad thing, right? It’s necessary to see not only what the words mean, but what they don’t mean, and that is only possible by learning about new concepts that don’t neglect those fundamental gaps – concepts like sovereignty.

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