Notes on Corn: Part 3


Today I’m finishing up my wee Notes on Corn series with a bit about food sovereignty and agroecology.  It’s the good part of the story, the part where people work towards change for the better and unite to retain their identities and protect the agricultural future of the planet.  Food sovereignty and agroecology movements= awesome.

Such movements are not limited to maize farmers and involve producers of a range of crops from a range of countries, both in developed and developing nations.  As McAfee describes it, farmers and peasants worldwide ‘are challenging liberal views of citizenship as a set of rights and responsibilities granted by the state’ (McAfee in Cohn et al 2006).  The movements that have stemmed from such challenges to identity have included the international peasant organisation, La Via Campesina, as well as new models for global agriculture and food production, such as food sovereignty and agroecology.

La Via Campesina is one of the most important organisations to draw together the movements that have stemmed from these new global identities to work for change in the international food system.  Firstly, it ‘[consolidates peasants] collective identity […] building alliances with other social movements and progressive non-governmental organisations (NGOs)’ (Desmarais 2008).   This ability coalesce the aims and values of disparate movements – it comprises around 150 local and national organisations from  70 countries – has shaped La Via Campesina’s overall goal, i.e. the movement away from industrial agriculture to a system based on food sovereignty.  Secondly, since its inception in 1993, it has become a broad enough social movement that it is heard by organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).

Food sovereignty, as defined by La Via Campesina, is:

  • The right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems… It puts the aspirations, needs and livelihoods of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.
  • Food sovereignty prioritizes local food production and consumption. It gives a country the right to protect its local producers from cheap imports and to control production. It ensures that the rights to use and manage lands, territories, water, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those who produce food and not of the corporate sector. Therefore the implementation of genuine agrarian reform is one of the top priorities of the farmer’s movement. (La Via Campesina 2011).

Food sovereignty thus describes an alternative economic, political and ecological system.  It removes peasants from their role as contract farmers to large agribusinesses, allowing them choice in what they grow and how they sell their produce, which may, in its turn, improve food security.  Furthermore, proponents of food sovereignty suggest that when ‘livelihoods […] are tied to the longer-term health and productivity of the land […] farmers have more incentive to conserve and improve soils, landscapes and water systems’ (McAfee in Cohn et al 2006).  As such, food sovereignty represents a paradigm shift, from corn as commodity back to corn as food.  For large agribusinesses, the trade of corn as a commodity means that such externalities as the environment are of less interest – they can easily move elsewhere if the land ceases to be productive.

Food sovereignty is not the only movement towards more sustainable farming that has developed in response to the neoliberal agricultural system.  Agroecology is also a growing international movement towards more sustainable farming methods, based on ‘time proven farming methods, new ecological science, and local farmer knowledge’.   While the movement itself can be seen as a relatively recent reaction to the shortfalls of industrial agriculture, it is based on farming techniques that are often hundreds of years old. Agroecology has been described as a genuine alternative to current agribusiness models, with some authors suggesting that over the next 10 years, small-scale farmers will be able to double food production using currently available agroecological methods (Altieri et al 2012).   In terms of its environmental impact, it involves greater biodiversity than conventional agriculture in three ways:

1)  A variety of crops are usually planted on each farm, rather than monocultures.  This also reduces the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides.

2) Crop biodiversity is preserved.  As discussed earlier, in situ conservation is vital to the preservation of the wide variety of maize landraces

3) Less land is required to produce a similar amount of food, thus posing less of a threat to the local environment

In addition to the environmental advantages of agroecology,  its impact on re-peasantisation and the overall survival of rural and peasant culture should also be considered.   Agroecology is thus a particularly interesting movement because it suggests that agriculture, prosperity in both developed and developing nations, and the health of the environment are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Such reactions to industrial agriculture and unsustainable farming techniques are also not exclusive to farmers in developing nations.  Alternative agricultures are also emerging in developed nations such as the United States, where the ongoing sustainability of productivist farming methods has been questioned, in terms of both their human and environmental impacts.  In a parallel to ideas of food sovereignty, movements towards alternative food networks that encourage ‘ healthier food and environments […] long term maintenance of farming livelihoods, the provision of quality food and nutrition to individuals regardless of socio-economic status, and the distribution of public goods’ are gaining momentum (Trauger and Passidomo 2012).  Such alternative notions of agriculture, like food sovereignty, reimagine economies as local rather than international networks, reimagining producers as economic actors in their own right, rather than as subservient to major agribusinesses.

Food sovereignty and agroecology, as well as moves towards post-productivist agriculture in developed nations are thus challenging the status quo and the notion that prosperity in the developed world must come at the expense of the health of the environment and the prosperity of developing nations.  Given that most of these movements are still relatively young though, the full extent to which such movements are able to truly challenge the power of global capitalism in corn agriculture, still remains to be seen.  Exciting, no?

Bibliography for the series
Altieri M A,  Funes-Monzote F R, Petersen P 2012,   Agroecologically efficient agricultural systems for smallholder farmers: contributions to food sovereignty, Agronomy for Sustainable Development, 32:1-13.
Bellon M R and Berthaud 2006, Traditional Mexican agricultural systems and the potential impacts of transgenic varieties on maize diversity, Agriculture and Human Values, 23:3-14
Cox C, Hug A, Bruzelius N 2011, Losing Ground, Environmental Working Group,, Accessed 23 September 2012.
Del Casino Jr. C 2009, ‘Social Activism/ Social Movements/ Social Justice’ Social Geography: A Critical Introduction, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell: 154-182.
Desmarais A A 2008,  The power of peasants: Reflections on the meanings of La Vía Campesina, Journal of Rural Studies, 24:138–149
Fitting E 2006, Importing corn, exporting labor: The neoliberal corn regime, GMOs, and the erosion of Mexican biodiversity, Agriculture and Human Values, 23: 15–26
Ford Runge C 2002, Institutional Innovation in International Governance to End Hunger, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 84(3): 839-844.
Hunt S A and Benford R D 2004, ‘Collective identity, solidarity, and commitment’ in Snow D A, Soule S A, and Kreisi H (eds) The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing: 433-458.
Keleman A 2010, Institutional support and in situ conservation in Mexico: biases against small-scale maize farmers in post-NAFTA agricultural policy,  Agriculture and Human Values, 27:13–28.
Kneen, B 1999, Restructuring food for corporate profit: The corporate genetics of Cargill and
Monsanto, Agriculture and Human Values, 16: 161–167.
Koc M and Dahlberg K 1999, The restructuring of food systems: Trends, research, and policy issues, Agriculture and Human Values, 16: 109–116,
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Lang T 1999, The complexities of globalization: The UK as a case study of tensions within the food system and the challenge to food policy, Agriculture and Human Values, 16:169–185
May P H and Segura Bonilla O 1997, The environmental effects of agricultural trade liberalization  in Latin America: an interpretation, Ecological  Economics, 22:5-18.
McAfee K 2003, Corn Culture and Dangerous DNA: Real and Imagined Consequences of Maize
Transgene Flow in Oaxaca, Journal of Latin American Geography, 2(1): 18-42
McAfee K 2006, ‘Sustainability and Social Justice in the Global Food System: Contributions of the Yale Workshop’ in Cohn A, Cook J, Fernández M, Reider R, Steward C (eds) 2006, Agroecology and the Struggle for Food Sovereignty in the Americas,, Accessed 3 November 2012.
McAfee K 2008, Beyond techno-science: Transgenic maize in the fight over Mexico’s future, Geoforum, 39 (1):148–160
McMichael P 2009, A food regime analysis of the ‘world food crisis’, Agriculture and Human Values, 26:281–295.
McMichael P 2011, Food system sustainability: Questions of environmental governance in the new world (dis)order, Global Environmental Change, 21: 804-812.
Merrett C 2001, Understanding Local Responses to Globalisation: The Production of Geographical Scale and Political Identity, National Identities 3(1): 69-86.
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Pollan M 2006, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The search for a perfect meal in a fast-food world, Bloomsbury, London.
Reider R 2006, ‘Food Security and Food Sovereignty: Production, Development, Trade’ in Cohn A, Cook J, Fernández M, Reider R, Steward C (eds) 2006, Agroecology and the Struggle for Food Sovereignty in the Americas,, Accessed 3 November 2012.
Ribeiro S 2004, The day the sun dies: contamination and resistance in Mexico, GRAIN,, Accessed 3 November 2012.
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Rosset P and Martinez-Torres M E 2012, Rural Social Movements and Agroecology: Context Theory and Process, Ecology and Society, 17(3): 17.
Shapiro L 2006, ‘Interview: Jesús León Santos, Integral Peasant Development Center of the Mixteca
(CEDICAM), Mexico’ in Cohn A, Cook J, Fernández M, Reider R, Steward C (eds) 2006, Agroecology and the Struggle for Food Sovereignty in the Americas,, Accessed 3 November 2012.
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Trauger A & Passidomo C 2012, Towards a post-capitalist-politics of food: cultivating subjects of community economics, ACME:An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 11(2): 282-303.
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One thought on “Notes on Corn: Part 3

  1. Pingback: 2014: Year of Family Farming | eek.ology

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