10.02.2015 |

Food Security Governance Empowering Communities, Regulating Corporations

Nora McKeon, January 2015. 248 pages

Review by Ingeborg Gaarde

The book “Food Security Governance; Empowering Communities, Regulating Corporations” by Nora McKeon explores the global food governance at a crossroads. The global food crisis from 2008 affirmed that the struggle over the global food system is not between farmers in the ‘Global North’ and the ‘Global South’, but an intensified struggle between two opposing pathways for food and agriculture:  those upholding the dominant status quo model of industrial agriculture and those struggling for alternative models emphasizing local diversified and resilient food systems.

In her book, Nora McKeon investigates the dynamics behind the intensified struggles over the agriculture model that should be the basis for the future development path. On the one hand the author sheds lights on power relations and uncovers the discourses behind paradigms and ’objective myths’ behind corporate globalization dominating the global food system. On the other hand, the book uncovers how members of the global food sovereignty movement – uniting peasants with artisanal fisher folk, pastoralists, indigenous peoples, urban poor and other concerned citizens – have found new ways to challenge the dominant paradigm. In the course of the revelations of the ongoing transformations in the global food system, the author investigates people-driven alternatives that are underway, produced by the social actors that feed most of the world’s population.

What makes this volume particular captivating is that McKeon moves between global and local perspectives in a unique combination of a food regime analysis combined with her personal portrayals of encounters with some of the key actors engaged in the struggle to solve global food problems, in particular small-scale food producers themselves. The author openly states that she has been involved in many of the processes described in the book and her own personal story being engaged in the interface between institutions and civil society makes this volume a fascinating insider's view on some of the bold ongoing transformations and dynamics in the global system today.

Democratizing Global Food Gover­nance

One of the central goals of the book is to shed light on ongoing experiments to push forward a more transparent and accountable governance directed to take authority and control of food out of the hands of markets and corporations. In this regard, the 2009-reformed Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is presented as one of the more encouraging developments in food governance at the global level. 

By examining the example of the CFS reform as an expansion from a purely intergovernmental process to an inclusive global policy forum, where participants other than governments have the right to contribute to formulation of policies, the book explores the shift towards more legitimate and transparent practices for global policy making on food and agriculture.

One distinctive feature in the CFS reform - in which civil society organizations and social movements took part - has been the self-establishment of an autonomous civil society mechanism (CSM) functioning as an interface for civil society actors engaged in the global policy processes in the CFS. With a design to award greatest voice to organizations directly representing sectors of the population most affected by food insecurity, such as peasants, fisherfolk, pastoralists, indigenous peoples, the CSM distinguishes itself from most other civil society spaces often dominated by NGOs or other less transparent networks not accountable to a broad membership base.

Another innovation highlighted in the book in relation to the reforms in CFS is the establishment of the High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) as a new model of ‘thinking science.’ The panel does not only comprise scientist experts and academics, it also includes other forms of non-academics empirical knowledge to built its reports on various issues to provide background information and analysis for ’for evidence-based decision-making’. Doing so, it challenges the very fundament for global decision-making: “how food insecurity is measured, how data is collected and packaged, whose evidence counts” (p.9).

Building the Links

The book is a compelling testimony to the building of alternatives to the dominant development model of agriculture taking place in the broader food sovereignty movement. The authour sheds lights on the mushrooming of links – not only the market-led networks, which make up the “conventional global food regime” – but those links being build among people involved in small scale food production from a particular territory. The book is particular ingenious as it gives insight to different ways of buldinging links across different sectors and scales. Some of these  trans­formational links that are today built from local spaces and initiated at grassroots level are today coupled to selected global institutional UN arenas, such as the CFS.

In this regard, the book provides an important empirical foundation to rethink the ‘scaling up’ versus ‘scaling down’ dichotomy dominated in much political thinking. Alternative building is today being shaped in dialectic between both horizontal and vertical links. While the links between global policy forums and action at all levels remain to be further developed, the book is an important impetus for political imagination and the unleashing of the potentials for social change in the interplay between social forces and new modes of global food governance.

The Large-Scale Transformation

Besides being a contribution to re-thinking the theorizing of the messiness of scales and how global paradigms are being contested and shaped, the book provides empirical proof that transformations are underway. In the recent year, citizens all over the world have been engaging and are united in community struggles in creation an ‘alternative’ food production, such as local agro-ecology and food sovereignty directly challenging much status quo of dominant thinking of and doing agriculture.

The emerging of converging crises arising from climate change, energy and food insecurity, and institutional failures, affirm that that dominate economic analyses on the advantages of modernization with promises of permanent growth, did hold empirically.  

Although the increasing scientific evidence of the finitude of the planet, unprecedented global warming and other malfunctions in the dominant global system have led to new openings for global reforms, engaged citizens around the world are aware that the paradigm shift does not come into view overnight or by itself. It remains an intensified struggle over which interests and worldviews that should determine the direction of the future development path.

‘Food Security Governance; Empowering Communities, Regulating Corporations’ is a must read for anyone striving to understand the grammar of the global food system, and what can be done to support the building of the existing alternatives.

Nora McKeon studied history at Harvard University and political science at the Sorbonne before joining the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. She is the author of Global Governance for World Food Security (2011), The United Nations and Civil Society (2009), and Peasant Organizations (2004).

Ingeborg Gaarde is PhD Candidate, Centre d'analyse et d'intervention sociologiques (CADIS), École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), Paris, France. Email: ingeborggaarde[ät]gmail.com