Food politics 2: Fifty shades of food… Security VS Sovereignty

As mentioned in another post, Swiss citizen should soon vote on several federal initiatives related to food and agriculture. I would like to discuss two of them more in details here. The first, supported by the conservative majoritarian farmers’ union, talks about “food security” (http://www.securitealimentaire.ch). The second is proposed by a leftist minority farmers’ union under the flagship of “food sovereignty” (www.souverainete-alimentaire.ch). If you are familiar with food politics, you might guess what the main differences between these two concepts might be, but even then, the situation remains quite confusing… Let’s try to figure out together how the two initiatives differ from each other.

The first one is surprisingly simple if you look at the text that would be added to the federal act. Its goals are apparently a very strict protection of arable lands (that slowly but steadily vanishes under the pressure of urbanisation) and a strengthening of national agricultural production. It is criticized, most notably by environmentalists, as a backward-looking position inspired by a nostalgia for the good old productivist past. Others just comment on it as useless and adding nothing significant to the law. Indeed, this initiative, if successful, could have very little impact on the Swiss agri-food system, as it would probably not change the basic rules of the game, just slightly adapt them. Still, the government seem to take seriously a potential success of this initiative that has proved to be quite popular, probably because of the strong support of many citizens to the farming population.

The second initiative is more radical in the changes it wants to provoke: GMO ban; more protection for agricultural workers; support to “peasant” style family farms; taxes on food imports; etc. In contrast with the short text of the first initiative, this one offers a long and quite detailed list of actions and changes to be implemented. I wonder if many citizens will actually understand the pro and cons of all these arguments. And as a fact, being more controversial, this second initiative receives less support from political actors.

The two initiatives still present some similarities. Both focus on the agricultural side of the food system, without addressing at all the role of other actors (such as the very powerful retailers). Both want to revivify protectionism to limit the impact of free-trade and food imports. Both argue that they will benefit all actors and the environment. However, they are based of two very different paradigms. To summarize, the food security initiative wants to adapt existing structures (by mitigating the free-market orientation), while the food sovereignty initiative aims at transforming the principles on which the policy is based (by changing the rules).

For many the food sovereignty is utopian while the food security seems more pragmatic and feasible. However, one wonders if food security will actually fix any problem. Food consumption re-localisation do not per se produce positive outcomes, at least for the environment, for social justice and even for farmers. If the new motto is neo-productivism for national consumption, then there are good chances that the pressures on prices and farmers’ income will remain. On the other hand, it is hard to believe in a program that wants to change the fundamentals of the Swiss agriculture policy alone, doing as if this policy was not part of a larger system. However, food and agriculture are not separated from the rest of the society and it is hard to believe that they can become the only exceptions in a context largely dominated by free markets ideologies. This said, change has to begin somewhere… And small steps might have big consequences.$

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