Academic journal article Austrian Journal of South - East Asian Studies

Food Sovereignty and Conceptualization of Agency: A Methodological Discussion

Academic journal article Austrian Journal of South - East Asian Studies

Food Sovereignty and Conceptualization of Agency: A Methodological Discussion

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The question of global food security has gained renewed attention with the latest food crises, which have severely affected food producers and consumers - mainly in the Global South. The ongoing debate on 'how to feed the world' is re-politicized in particular by the food sovereignty movement. This article methodologically reflects on the conceptualization of agency as implied in the framework of food security and food sovereignty. From our actor-oriented research perspective as development sociologists, we contribute to a deeper engagement with the role of different actors and their negotiations on food sovereignty and security, highlighting the importance of an actor-oriented understanding of food sovereignty to strengthen the relevance of the concept for development studies and politics.

Both concepts - food security and food sovereignty - are of high relevance to the context of Southeast Asia. The region has been presented as a 'success story' in terms of food security. This applies, for example, to the case of Vietnam which, following the country's market reforms and agricultural investments in the mid-1980s, moved from a severe and enduring state of food insecurity to one of the major global rice exporters nowadays (Tran Thi Thu Trang, 2011). In general, most governments adopted food security policies and the region became an experimental ground for the Green Revolution. Despite the region's achievements in food security, food crises still occur (e.g. the rice crisis in 2008). Struggles over the ownership and use of basic productive means such as water and land are ongoing, and pressing new challenges regarding the quality and social distribution of foods arise (Manahan, 2011; Thi Thu Trang Tran, 2013 for the case of Vietnam).

The broad transformations of agriculture and food in Southeast Asia cannot be understood without taking into account the modernist development paradigm and programs that have framed them for decades. Development agendas and food policies, as well as the debates in the social sciences, can be characterized by contradictory and often conflicting positions regarding the role of structure versus agency in shaping and changing societies. The food sovereignty movement draws on and shares Friedmann and McMichael's (1989) political-economic understanding of global food regimes. At the same time, it is a child of its time as it mirrors the actor-turn in the realm of development policies, embracing civil society participation and global social movements as actors of change since the 1990s. The movement has its origins in Latin America, but soon developed to become a global social movement from the Global South. As such, the agenda of food sovereignty also gained attention among peasant and civil society organizations in Asia, where a 2004 conference in Dhaka resulted in the People's Coalition on Food Sovereignty publishing 'The People's Convention on Food Sovereignty' that focuses on the right of people and communities to food sovereignty (PCFS, 2004). In addition, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and several governments in Southeast Asia and beyond have started to adopt, at least rhetorically, the term food sovereignty (for Indonesia, see Lassa & Shrestha, 2014, for Venezuela see Schiavoni, 2014). In this context, the conceptual vagueness of the concept of 'sovereignty' becomes increasingly problematic. The questions of whose sovereignty is institutionalized in which spaces, and who is sovereign by what means are essential to the quest of food sovereignty and gain momentum as a growing diversity of actors relates to it.

The term sovereignty, coined by legal and international relations scholarship, conventionally refers to the sovereignty of the state over its national territory and the legitimacy and right to impart policies without external interference. Regarding food policies, the nation state would be sovereign over food production and distribution without interference by, for example, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank (WB), and multinational corporations (Schiavoni, 2014, p. …

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