Foreign Policy Blogs

Five Questions For…William Schanbacher

Five Questions For...William SchanbacherWill Schanbacher holds a PhD in Religious Studies from Claremont Graduate University.  His research and teaching interests include social ethics, globalization and poverty, religious ethics, and liberation theologies.  His recent book, The Politics of Food: The Global Conflict between Food Security and Food Sovereignty offers an ethical examination of the current global food system and argues that it currently constitutes a massive violation of human rights.  He will be teaching in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida beginning in the fall of 2011.

[FPA Q1.] In your book, you describe the concept of “food sovereignty” as an improvement on the term “food security.” How do these concepts differ?

[WS] First, I would like to mention that the concept of “food security” is a well-intended concept – i.e. attempting to curb global hunger and malnutrition. However, I think the food sovereignty model is more adequate to the task because it seeks this same goal, but refocuses attention on small and medium-scale farmers, local production for local consumption, sustainability, and the needs of communities that directly suffer from poverty and hunger. Organizations such as La Via Campesina (International Peasant Movement) define food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” Directly involved with this effort is prioritizing the needs and livelihoods of those who produce, distribute and consume food in their respective communities.

Focusing on the needs of the community rather than international market demands or corporate profits, food sovereignty is also challenging the idea that agriculture needs to follow an industrialized model in which crops are mass produced for export. On a deeper level, food sovereignty challenges what has been deemed the neoliberal economic model that endorses policies of trade liberalization, privatization, deregulation, and so forth. I think this has profound ethical implications, and will be a future ground of contention. Not only do the interests of small and medium-scale farmers differ from their large-scale counterparts within countries, but developing countries may also have conflicting self-interests with industrialized nations. So, even though food sovereignty will face some tough challenges ahead, I think it holds great potential.

[FPA Q2.] What structures, whether governmental or otherwise, need to be in place in order for a “food sovereignty” policy to feed an ever increasing population?

[WS] While a daunting task, I think we need some deep structural changes in the global food system. I think it also should be noted that studies do vary with respect to both future population growth rates and the earth’s potential to feed a growing population. Even if we were to assume the more pessimistic assumptions about our ability to sustain an increasing global population, food rights workers, farmers, and scientists such as Miguel Altieri are demonstrating agricultural practices that can increase productivity, are economically feasible, cause less harm to the environment and are socially conscientious at the same time.

With that said, the global food system is a complex phenomenon with various players, including multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, IMF, the UN, trade arrangements enshrined in World Trade Organization, agribusinesses, and so forth. If I had to identify a few places to start, I would say unfair trade arrangements between industrialized and developing countries need to change. For instance, we see how certain WTO policies that compel developing governments to open their markets while simultaneously eliminating trade distorting practices are not met with equal commitments by European countries and the United States. Loan conditionalities that basically oblige developing governments to constrict their economies to the detriment of social welfare programs, which in turn harms the most in need, are also policy issues that need to be addressed. Finally, here at home, I think we need more educational programs and activist movements that challenge us to learn about who produces the food we eat and the consequences of our consumption choices.

[FPA Q3.] What do you mean by saying food is a “cultural commodity?”

[WS] Food is cultural commodity as opposed to simply an economic commodity in the sense that it is intimately tied to multiple dimensions of our lives. The types of foods we eat, the manner in which we prepare our meals, and the ways in which we gather together (or not) to eat are all a reflection of cultural identity. I worry that if we lose sight of the cultural aspects of food production and consumption, we will continue on the path we are currently heading down.

A good example of how food can be seen as a cultural commodity in a global context is the grassroots, farmer-led agricultural movement in Latin America (Campesino a Campesino or farmer to farmer movement). Briefly stated, local farmers meet at workshops to generate and share knowledge of their local agricultural environments as well as successful agricultural techniques. These workshops and gatherings are accentuated by songs, stories, games and food; they are virtually non-hierarchical in organization; and they illustrate how communities are increasingly concerned with issues of sustainability, environmental conservation, and the protection of their agricultural livelihoods. Eric Holt-Gimenez, in his book Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America’s Farmer to Farmer Movement for Sustainable Agriculture, described the simple stick figure they use as a symbol of their movement, noting that it represents campesinos who “work with two hands: one for production of food and the other for protection of the environment.” Its two legs symbolize innovation and solidarity, its heart believes in love of nature, family and community and it ‘sees’ with farmer-led, sustainable agricultural development. So again, we see how food is intimately connected to the community and the community’s cultural identity.

[FPA Q4.] Why do you believe that multilateral organizations such as the UN, World Bank, IFAD, and so on, cannot succeed in ending global hunger and poverty?

[WS] Well, first, I think we need to distinguish between these organizations, and second, it’s not that I think that they cannot succeed, but rather that the lack of substantial progress begs the question of whether it is time to now consider alternative approaches such as food sovereignty. With organizations such as IFAD and the FAO that are directly engaged in the effort to curb global hunger and malnutrition, I think there is potential for progress even if we haven’t achieved that progress at a desired rate. Unfortunately, I think the evidence shows organizations such as the World Bank and IMF – who are often backed by U.S. interests – have at best impeded progress, and at worst intensified global hunger and poverty. We have historical examples of how structural adjustment programs have proved counterproductive, especially for the extremely poor. Given the massive size of these organizations, the problems associated with adjudicating fair trade agreements, and the inherent conflict between large corporate agriculture and small and medium-scale agriculture, we again see a need to consider how food sovereignty might be a better alternative.

[FPA Q5.] Don’t developing countries need policies that lead to greater growth more than they need “food sovereignty?”

[WS] I think these two goals can potentially go hand-in-hand. First, I would like to point out an interesting ethical question implicit in this question, namely, to whom will go the spoils of greater growth? If greater growth corresponds to improved conditions for the poor as well as a reduction between the gap between rich or poor, I’m all for it. Unfortunately this is not guaranteed. Depending on how we look at things, an economy can grow on the books, while the conditions of the poor remain stagnant, in other words inequalities remain or increase. With that said, I’m more interested in the ethical implications of the economic practices we have in place, and I think with respect to food sovereignty, we have a movement that puts a human face to our global food and agriculture system.

Let me use an example of how an abstract notion of growth can have what I see as harmful ethical consequences. After the earthquake in Haiti, the three main policy responses included rebuilding agriculture, bolstering tourism, and increasing export processing zones (read: sweatshops). While rebuilding agriculture is the only potentially positive response, the other two examples are more ethically dubious. On the surface, one might question what is wrong with bolstering tourism? Doesn’t it increase economic growth? Possibly, but for whom? When we look at who owns the hotels, environmental tour agencies, and so forth, we see it’s not the locals, but foreigners. Moreover, tourism as a whole depends on wealthy foreigners for its success. Ultimately, this type of policy solution reduces indigenous peoples to a status of dependency. With respect to sweatshop work, aren’t they providing jobs? Sure, but doing what, mass producing textiles and manufacturing goods to be sold abroad for exorbitant profits? My challenge won’t sit well with a free market capitalist, but I think it’s important to be honest about the ethical implications embedded in these types of policies.

Interview conducted by Rishi Sidhu.



Rishi Sidhu

Rishi Sidhu is a freelance writer and journalist based in Boston, Massachusetts. He found his love for international relations while teaching English on the Japan Exchange and Teaching program in the rural town of Agematsu in Nagano prefecture. After 2 years in Japan, Rishi traveled to India to study Hindi and pursue his journalism career. He became interested in food security when he first heard people in India complaining about rising food prices and loves the issue because of its impact on all aspects of human society; from health to politics, from environmentalism to global development.