What can energy sovereignty learn from food sovereignty?

As a part of Arun Agrawal’s International Environmental Policy course this Winter, I took part in the first of several ‘debates’ in our classroom on topics that represent ongoing conversations in the development and environmental policy conversation. Our prompt was to argue, pro and con, the truth and validity of the following statement: “Technology is the solution to food insecurity.” As someone with a whopping single high-school debate tournament and a “Did Not Place” result under my belt, I felt more capable than ever.

Thankfully, I found myself on the con side of the argument. Allow me to ramble on a topic I’m marginally prepared on: Technology-forward, industry-led, and export-oriented policies have characterized the development project since its inception, and that development trajectory has led us to a situation where our agricultural system creates more than enough calories to feed everyone, but the FAO reports that 815 million people—11 percent of the world’s population—are still chronically undernourished. Despite ‘yield gap’ literature that would problematize the non-ideal farming practices of those suffering most, hunger is often the product of regional, national, and international sociopolitical issues and disruptions (see FAO’s report linked above). A truly sustainable food system would understand the struggles of the smallholder farmer at a household level, and build institutions that are resilient to market price jumps and political disruption. Technological innovation is an important piece of ending hunger, but we need to remember that those innovations are mediated by social and political institutions that reflect and amplify inequity.

I’m happy to take part in these conversations. While development and food policy aren’t topics that I feel particular expertise on, I’m grateful to learn from the world’s leading thinkers on the topic. And just as readings in the run up to our debate reminded me that it’s inappropriate to focus on notions of ‘food security’ without considering households and livelihoods as a whole, that also rings true of sustainable, reliable, and affordable energy provision. In fact, linkages between the Sustainable Development Goals are so strong that it might be more appropriate to consider them as important, connected components of sustainable development instead of discrete goals to achieve.

In fact, I discovered more parallels between food and energy discourses than I’d ever expected In my preparation for this class’s debate (wow, competition is a great motivator). I visited the distinction between food sovereignty and food security that has emerged in the second half of the 20th century, and I’m still floored by the conviction that organizations like The People’s Food Sovereignty Forum and La Via Campesina showed in contesting dominant food and development paradigms. Security-first development schemes locked smallholder farmers out of agroeconomic conversations; evicted and re-settled residents; and fundamentally re-shaped landscapes and land tenure. The People’s Food Sovereignty Forum defined food sovereignty as a process of:

Transforming the current food system to ensure that those who produce food have equitable access to, and control over, land, water, seeds, fisheries and agricultural biodiversity. All people have a right and responsibility to participate in deciding how food is produced and distributed. Governments must respect, protect and fulfill the right to food as the right to adequate, available, accessible, culturally acceptable and nutritious food. (Jarosz, 2014).

Food sovereignty asks us to re-consider what is entailed in a commitment to feed the world. What say should countries, communities, and households have in their food system? What characterizes an effective and sustainable way to feed the world? Who gets to participate in the planning? What is the role of subjective experience versus objective evidence?

Obviously, access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy is less critical to human survival than access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable food. But access to energy is criticial for households and communities to flourish in the 21st century (check out the graph on losing energy access brought to you by Vox, below. The contexts are different–this visual is more about what happens when provision is lost–but the basic services are the same).


Not only that, but especially before the age of renewable energy, energy development projects were characterized by many of the problems decried by La Via Campesina. Popular participation in energy planning was (and still is) rare. Large, top-down hydro-electric projects have displaced millions of people and in many cases power lines run directly over energy-impoverished communities. Here in Michigan, a local utility removed a city’s streetlights because the city couldn’t pay its bills–leaving its citizens in the dark.

In many ways, it might be possible to map the discourse on energy needs, participation, and self-determination in energy provision directly over the conversation on food insecurity and sovereignty that unfolded over the 20th century. A major part of the energy poverty discussion began in 1991, when Brenda Boardman literally wrote the book on energy poverty. Since then, a number of discourses, monikers, and terms have popped up, including energy justice, insecurity, precarity, and vulnerability (be on the lookout for new research on this from SEAS’ own Dominic Bednar!).

In any case, there’s a lot to learn from those who have come before. Energy sovereignty thinkers and practitioners might benefit from looking toward the ongoing food sovereignty debates for inspiration. There’s a lot of progress to make if we’re going to transition to clean energy that is created by, owned by, operated by, and for the benefit of, our communities. Let’s pull inspiration from wherever we can.


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