Food Sovereignty in the 2020s

by Raj Patel

Let us begin by listing the crises. Today, there are currently 120 armed conflicts ongoing around the world. In many cases the devastation wrought by these conflicts is exacerbated by the increasingly existential threat of climate change. In Africa alone, at least 15,000 people died in 2023 as a direct result of extreme weather. Most individual states’ capacity to manage both domestic and global crises has been hampered by several years of rising interest rates. Not only do states need to somehow find more money to service the debt they’ve already acquired, but the price of borrowing to pay to rebuild after man-made and natural destruction forces governments into an impossible choice: fund social programs today, or repay existing loans so that you can afford to invest tomorrow. 

All of this reverberates through the global food system. Although lower than its peak, the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Food Price Index, which tracks international price changes for a basket of different foods, was at 120 in autumn 2023. 

Before the current crisis in the food system, the real price of food had not been this high since the early 1970s. As a consequence of soaring food prices and stagnant income, 735 million people face hunger today, and over three billion are unable to afford a healthy diet. 

This high rate of hunger seems set to continue across the decade. Food sovereignty – specifically securing the political right of peoples to determine their own food policy in order to end hunger – offers a way to respond to these catastrophes through egalitarian and democratic challenges to the existing order. The existing order is, however, fighting back. To understand how it’s worth identifying the underlying forces behind hunger in the 2020s, brought to you by the letter “C” – seven Cs to be precise: COVID-19, climate change, conflicts, colonialism, chemical agriculture, capitalism, and craven opportunism. 

C1: COVID-19

Though the death rate from COVID-19 is declining, there were still 300,000 deaths in 2023, bringing the official virus’ global death toll to around 6.9 million people. There is a direct relationship between COVID-19 and global rates of hunger. In 2019, before the outbreak of the pandemic, the percentage of the world’s population experiencing hunger was 7.9. In 2022, the latest year for which data is available, that number had risen to 9.2%. Worse, the aftershocks of COVID-19 are still being felt, and longer-term consequences will spool out a generation from now. Take the impact of lost schooling for students during lockdown; globally, this may lead to a 25% reduction in future income. Add this lower income to rising healthcare costs, and more chronic hunger is a likely result. 

C2: Climate Change

One recent major impact of climate change has been a series of droughts in grain belts across the United States and Latin America, which have sabotaged grain production. These current droughts are in line with predictions that suggest that 60% of the world’s grain-producing areas will see severe water shortages by the end of this century. This is just one example of the way in which the climate crisis is making large stretches of the planet increasingly hostile to food production. This has the obvious outcome of harvest failure and therefore increased prices and hunger rates.

C3: Conflicts

Conflicts around the world lead to increased hunger both in the countries in which they play out, and in the wider global context. As is usually the case, the two most prominent conflicts at present – the Russia-Ukraine war and the Gaza war – are dominating the news cycle, while slower-burning civil wars, or clashes led by states against their own populations – like the “War on Drugs” – fade into the background. The full spectrum of conflict matters for hunger though. Direct combat inhibits food production first-hand, most immediately by its effect on the land. One of the arms industry’s most obscene weapons, the anti-personnel landmine, has been strewn across the world’s food fields, meaning that fields become unsafe to replant and tend. More broadly, every armed conflict disrupts food supply lines, hampering global food production and distribution. In terms of the hunger of populations during wartime, states at war tend to divert funds from social security to military security, meaning that social nets start to fray. Refugees will often be forced to find food far from home, and sometimes this can play out for decades. Hunger can also be used as a weapon of war, as seen in Syria and more recently in Palestine: According to Oxfam, Israeli forces have been implementing actions with the aim of starving the population in Gaza. 

C4: Colonialism 

Centuries of colonialism have shaped both the modern taste for crops such as wheat and maize, and the supply paths of all commodity crops. India and Argentina are the counter-seasonal fallbacks for wheat, which can be directly traced to British colonialism and the United States’ Monroe Doctrine. Indeed, continent-spanning supply chains share the same origins as racial capitalism itself. As for the contemporary colonial project, land-grabbing and violence against indigenous peoples go hand-in-hand with the disappearance of native seeds and the loss of biodiversity.

C5: Chemical Agriculture

Chemical agriculture fortified this colonial supply of grain, and has become an integral part of the food system. Market consolidation in the fertiliser industry has led to few options for farmers, and fertiliser shortages can lead to the disruption of food production. In the United States, the potash fertiliser market is entirely controlled by Nutrien and the Mosaic Company; 75% of nitrogen fertiliser is controlled by CF Industries, Nutrien, Koch, and Yara-USA. As a consequence of sanctions against Russia, one of the world’s largest fertiliser manufacturers, urea and potash prices are only just starting to return to normal, and phosphate prices are sky high.

C6: Capitalism

Capitalism continues to invent new modes of extraction through global markets, and to stymie possibilities of egalitarian transformations that might end hunger. On March 25, 2022, as Russian shells fell on the grain shipment facilities in Mariupol in Ukraine, the share prices of the food companies Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Bunge hit an all-time high. The way that capitalism plays out within the food industry is entwined with finance and national debt. Clearing debt often takes precedence over providing social programmes and services; before the pandemic, 34 African countries spent more on servicing debt than healthcare. Today, 18 countries in the Global South have defaulted on their debt, with 11 in debt distress and another 28 at high risk of it. As an example of how debt operates, in 2020 Zambia asked for debt relief, and in 2023 the country’s debt was reduced by 18%. But with this immediate relief comes higher interest rates, which means Zambia is now repaying US$100 million more than before. Repaying these high interest rates diverts funds from social programs. On top of this, debt spurs countries to use agriculture as a tool for export (in order to earn US$ to repay loans) rather than to produce food for domestic consumption. 

C7: Craven Opportunism

This leads us, finally, to craven opportunism. Disaster capitalism loves a war, and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict provided an alibi for exploiters of land and labour to double down. Fertilisers have emerged as a major theme of this exploitation. For instance, the former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro authorised the mining of indigenous Amazonian lands for fertiliser in response to the international price rises. The United States Farm Service Agency considered loosening conservation restrictions on land, and the EU paused its call to reduce pesticide use by 50%, as the result of intense lobbying by the chemicals industry. Meanwhile, Agnes Kalibata suggested in TIME that one solution to African food shortages would be for farmers to use more fertiliser – the same fertiliser whose price hit record highs in 2022. Kalibata is president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an organisation founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and registered in the United States. AGRA was launched in 2006 with the aim of doubling the agricultural yields and incomes of 30 million small-scale food producer households by 2020, thus halving both hunger and poverty. By 2023, the number of hungry people in AGRA’s focus countries, relative to population, had increased by almost 50%, according to the latest UN data. What, then, might be done? There always have been, and remain, better options to confront hunger. For the sake of symmetry, I present the five Ds.

D1: Depots

Recently the head of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) made a startling request: that countries should “please” not hoard grain, with the rationale being that there is not enough to go around if grain producing countries prioritise their own citizens. Since the massive food price spike in 2008, even the World Bank’s own consultants averred that perhaps governments in the Global South were reasonable in wanting to control access to their local grain reserves. Although those reserves might be inefficient, they represent an investment in domestic stability that has long been discounted by the bankers. 

D2: Diversify

The homogenisation of crops is a consequence less of genetics than of finance. Commodity traders have shaped global markets to offer crops that are fungible, so that a tonne of wheat from Kazakhstan might substitute for a tonne from Kansas in the United States. Diversified crops will need their own circuits of risk and price management, but that assurance needn’t be bought at the price exacted by the food industry’s profiteers. Public insurance for diversified crops offers a way to de-risk the portfolio of new crops that we need in order to feed the world sustainably. 

D3: Debt Reparation

Countries in the Global South rarely get to shape their economic policy because they are indebted to the Global North. This has only increased in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Occasionally bankers from rich countries perform a pantomime of debt forgiveness, or offer overseas development aid. In 2022 the figure for that aid was US$211 billion; for comparison, the debt held by the Global North over the Global South is US$8.966 trillion. With high interest rates, governments in the Global South indebted by development financiers could face an even more acute choice between paying the rich or feeding the poor. This can only be alleviated through a global debt reparation policy. 

D4: Decouple

Fossil fuels play an outsize role in the modern food system – 15% of total fossil fuel usage happens in food production. This despite abundant evidence that the planet cannot sustain humans’ persistent attempts to shove nitrogen into the soil by using the energy locked up in natural gas. A key driver of food price inflation is the oil industry. Living within the planetary boundary for nitrogen can, by contrast, offer a path to feeding 10 billion people by 2050. Doing that will require breaking the hold energy and food industries have on the economy.  

D5: Decolonise

The croupiers of global hunger are heading for bumper bonuses because we live in a system of exploitation built by centuries of greed. It would be foolish to expect them simply to shrug and walk away; power concedes nothing without a demand. Decolonisation demands revolutionary economic transformations in the lives of the working classes around the world. This would take us away from the imperial corporate structures that run the global food system, towards systems of solidarity and exchange that push back against exploitative capitalist frontiers.

To build food sovereignty is to develop the politics to meet these challenges. Through proposing a democratic and egalitarian process to reshape the politics of food, food sovereignty demands that the working classes come together to end hunger. Although more and more countries have adopted the language of food sovereignty – Italy and France most recently – this is a movement that cannot be limited to a single national approach. This is largely because of the global way in which food is produced and distributed. In France, for instance, “sovereignty” means that the French state is seeking to monitor and control its import supply chains, without a thought to the economic and social conditions under which those imports are produced, or what the workers along the supply chain might want for themselves and their communities. 

Without solidarity on the ground, food sovereignty becomes the most attenuated kind of sovereignty – a nationalist kind that starts and ends within a single country’s borders. 

There are better alternatives than the French national law. In Brazil, the MTST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto – Movement of Unhoused Workers) has benefited from recent legislation, passed by Guilherme Boulos, formerly the movement’s coordinator and now a socialist Congressman, that would support Cozinhas Solidarias (solidarity kitchens). These community feeding spaces double up as zones of movement organising in urban areas. They source their food, with government support, through local farms that include those of the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra – Landless Workers Movement). 

These kinds of joined-up policies, in which solidarity builds in and through movement engagement, are an antidote to incipient global fascism. Better still, the schools for this transformation already exist from the shacks of South Africa to the streets of Detroit in the United States and the agroecological laboratories of the MST in Brazil. It is through these counter-hegemonic experiments that food sovereignty offers the possibility of new forms of social relations. This is why – despite many reasons for pessimism – food sovereignty seeds the ground for pragmatic optimism. 

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Raj Patel

Raj Patel is a research professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Stuffed and Starved and, most recently, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, cowritten with Jason W. Moore.

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