Many of the world’s largest food producers are currently dumping thousands of gallons of raw milk, plowing millions of pounds of vegetables back into the earth and smashing hundreds of thousands of unhatched eggs in the face of the growing coronavirus pandemic each week.
Despite much concern about the security of global food systems, industrial farmers are destroying millions of pounds of fresh food items weekly to maintain food security.
Food security, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, exists when “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious foods to meet their dietary needs and enable an active and healthy life”.
Food security is the outcome of large-scale production processes that aim to ensure that affordable food resources are widely available and accessible in the global food system.
A major consequence of these processes, however, is that it places the continuous generation of profits over efforts to protect the social and economic welfare of all populations.
At a time of widespread uncertainty about the future of global food systems, the growing embrace of food security to re-orient local production, distribution and consumption processes appears counterproductive.
Efforts to expand market systems, when the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic is eroding the capacity for consumers to support them, is likely to prove ineffective to a looming food crisis.
For small, open Caribbean economies, a market-based approach to food security is problematic because it places an increasing burden of debt on countries that are struggling to grow after decades of heavy borrowing.
New burdens of debt are the outcome of state efforts to aggressively scale-up domestic farming systems through processes that are intensive in the use of capital.
Such burdens are an existential threat, in terms of challenges to governance, because it systemically undermines the viability of the social, economic, ecological and political systems across these sovereign states.
Caribbean island states, then, are merely reproducing the cycles of public debt that enable external powers to control local processes of development by means of financial leverage.
It is in this vein that small, open economies should move away from food security and towards food sovereignty.
Food sovereignty is an alternative framework for thinking of the security and sustainability of local and regional food systems.
It focuses on preserving a people’s right to decide on how food is produced, traded and consumed in their communities.
In placing subsistence farmers at the center of food production, distribution and consumption processes, food sovereignty disrupts longstanding patterns of dependence on industrial forms of agriculture for food security.
Food sovereignty recognizes subsistence farming as a way of life where connections to the land are key to agricultural advancements.
It is through the use of land for subsistence agriculture that food sovereignty re-orients the production, distribution and consumption processes of local and regional food systems over the long-term.
In Caribbean island states like The Bahamas, however, land-use decisions heavily support the expansion of export-oriented services like tourism, which do not support opportunities for food sovereignty.
Instead, the expansion of these sectors better aligns with the dispossessive elements of a capital-intensive approach to food security.
Like food security, the growth of Caribbean tourism heavily depends on imports to sustain the livelihoods of local populations.
Extreme levels of dependence on imports are problematic because it heightens a country’s vulnerability to issues of crisis.
Earlier Caribbean scholars like George Beckford, Lloyd Best and Kari Levitt all warned against the use of imports to fuel economic growth and expansion throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
From their perspective, a heavy dependence on imports to sustain the economic viability of different state systems extended the relations that historically granted foreign powers control over economic processes of development in the region.
Such control inhibited the capacity for these sovereign states to adjust economic policies to deal with downward spirals in unemployment and income inequality and upward spirals in public debt and food insecurity.
In import-dependent countries, these effects are significant in the sense that the most vulnerable segments of the population lose the income necessary to reproduce themselves and their families amid issues of crisis.
The mass layoffs and furloughs resulting from closures across different sectors of the Caribbean’s economy, to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, now increase the barriers to food for vulnerable populations.
While subsistence farmers are ready and willing to feed different groups of people, policymakers tend to envision the private sector as a catalyst for agricultural expansion.
Private sector-led growth, however, challenges the capacity for subsistence farmers to compete with the tide of cheap food products produced by commercial farmers.
Further, it diverts attention from the structural issues which underlie a distinct form of food insecurity for Caribbean people.
A move towards food sovereignty, then, represents a move away from approaches that prioritize the needs, capabilities and preferences of corporate elites.
It is an approach that prioritizes the needs of people who are less able to function successfully as independent, competitive producers in the local economy.
Food sovereignty removes the capacity for external powers to control local food and agricultural policies by taking control of production away from market forces and placing it in the hands of local populations.
A food sovereignty approach advocates the rights of people to determine the extent to which they want to be dependent on global markets.
As the novel coronavirus continues to shut down global market spaces and send countries into lockdown, food sovereignty offers the capacity to curb supply chain disruptions.
These disruptions are significant because of how they may adversely affect food accessibility, affordability and availability at any given time.
The time for food sovereignty, then, is now!
— Kasmine Forbes
Ph.D. candidate in geography at Queen’s University, Canada