It is no longer radical to state that the dominant way of producing food is doomed. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) acknowledges it, as do more and more governments. Agroecology, a way of producing food by staying close to natural processes, is being embraced as a more hopeful avenue. Yet views differ widely on what exactly it involves, because behind the innocuous term loom several power struggles.

It is these power struggles that have been explored in a recent academic volume on the subject, titled Food Sovereignty, Agroecology and Biocultural Diversity: Constructing and Contesting Knowledge. The book’s editor’s, Michel Pimbert, is a professor of Agroecology and Food Politics at Coventry University in the UK and although the book is quite clearly meant for an academic audience, it addresses issues that deserve wider debate and awareness. Pimbert’s accessibly-written introduction and concluding chapter do cater to a wider audience. However, the price paid for this accessibility is that the conclusion glosses over some of the power issues raised in the contributions.

From access to autonomy

In his introduction, Pimbert provides a useful discussion of the terms that make up the title of the book. It was the transnational agrarian movement La Vía Campesina that put food sovereignty on the agenda of the FAO in 1996, demanding seven principles to be respected. “Everyone must have access to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food in sufficient quantity and quality to sustain a healthy life with full human dignity,” is the first and most well-known principle. The other six principles are about what needs to change to realise food sovereignty: agrarian reform, protection of natural resources, food for domestic consumption first, regulation and taxation of speculative capital, peaceful relations and democratic decision-making.

With time, the movement calling for food sovereignty has come to include urban activists and organisations, while it has also more explicitly identified itself with the struggle against the dominant agri-food system. At an international forum in Nyéléni, Mali in 2007, the emphasis shifted from access to autonomous control over food: “the right [of peoples] to define their own food and agriculture systems” and food sovereignty as “a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime”. Food sovereignty thus emerges as an alternative for the environmentally destructive and socially oppressive agri-food regime. According to Pimbert, food sovereignty is necessarily linked to agroecology, which means adapting to the local environment, taking care of soil life, minimising losses of water and energy, recycling nutrients and creating habitats for natural enemies of pests. It also involves allowing for diversity in all sorts of ways. Hence the notion of biocultural diversity, the diversity of life in all its manifestations, in the title of the book.

The economic mentality

The main culprit of the doomed agri-food system identified in the book is Homo economicus. An economic mentality suffuses the entire agri-food system and leaves very little space for other worldviews. In fact, other mentalities are consistently suppressed and pushed to the margin. Perhaps the most telling example is offered by Nina Moeller, who stayed with Kichwa-speaking people in Ecuador to closely study their cooperation with a German pharmaceutical company. The company, Schwabe, came to Ecuador to develop a series of fair trade health products, for which the Kichwa people could deliver ingredients from the forest. In a vividly-written essay, Moeller brings to life the ways of knowing of Kichwa people and how they clash with those of Schwabe. Incidents abound in which explanations by the Kichwa people on their traditional understanding of the medicinal properties of plants are ignored by Schwabe, and in which the latter try to impose theirs instead.

During a “capacity-building course”, when one participant explained that they time the harvest, as plant properties change according to the cycle of the moon and another stressed the importance of having a spiritual connection with the plants, the facilitator responded with an “Aha” and continued his scientific explanation of genetic inheritance. The relations between the Kichwa people and the German company turned sour after many such incidents and no deal was made. Moeller concludes that the German pharmaceutical company refused to learn about traditional Kichwa knowledge, casting it solely in market terms. It tried to impose its economic mentality on the project from the beginning to the end.

This story of clashing ways of knowing – traditional and scientific – leads Moeller to the question whether they are compatible at all. She notes that they are basically different visions of the cosmos and come with fundamentally different ways of living. In this case the traditional ways of knowing depend on the day-to-day dealings with the forest, with an intimate acquaintance of its animal and plant life, cosmic forces, winds, water, soils and spirits. The scientific ways of knowing are, in this case, those from the laboratory and the world of business. The world of science and business has its own forms of life, just as varied. Yet it would be no exaggeration to say that Homo economicus is calling the shots in the latter world, and that it tries to impose its power on others. Sometimes, however, it fails – a hopeful sign for matters of food and thought.

Food Sovereignty, Agroecology and Biocultural Diversity: Constructing and Contesting Knowledge, edited by Michel P Pimbert, Routledge.