Bringing Democracy into the Global Agriculture Arena

The problems embedded in the world agriculture situation have been popularly labeled as “food insecurity” or “hunger,” and these terms have risen on the international agenda particularly since the 2008 global food crisis. What’s glaringly missing, however, is any sense of the political—how the relations between corporations, governments, farmers and consumers manifest themselves in a deeply unequal distribution of benefits. The task for international social movements, then, is to craft discourses centered around local people’s sovereignty. John Dryzek, in his book Deliberative Democracy and Beyond, terms this “transnational discursive democracy,” which is highly relevant to the push toward a new model for world agriculture. 

The link between transnational discourses and a more democratic state is particularly relevant in combatting the “race to the bottom,” whereby poor countries make their resources amenable to foreign investment at the expense of local people’s human rights. This issue is not just a matter of globalization, but of the absence of democracy in developing countries. Movements to strengthen the position of, say, laborers or farmers at the domestic level may prevent the state from opening its doors to foreign capital that undermines local people.

The impasse at the Doha (Qatar) round of World Trade Organization negotiations, which have dragged on since 2001, is often considered to be a failure of international cooperation. Yet looked at another way, this stands as a promising example of how domestic-level political concerns can protect vulnerable groups in one country and promote collective action by the developing world as a whole. Leaders from developing countries refused to budge on the issue of farm subsidies, which have long been central to U.S. and European policy to artificially lower the price of agricultural exports, undermining local farmers around the world. Critics in developing countries point out the injustice of continued protectionism in the U.S. and Europe even as these powers have sought to prevent other countries from subsidizing their own farmers. That position was in no small part influenced by global discourses highlighting agricultural trade liberalization’s disastrous impact on the world’s poor. Dryzek correctly states that inserting civil society into global trade institutions would do little for democracy, serving only to remove key actors from the international “public sphere” that has really been the most effective space for advocating for a more democratic world. If the WTO itself cannot be democratized, then there still remains the possibility of democratizing its member states so that they defy the WTO’s free trade orthodoxy.

Furthermore, transnational discursive democracy’s connection to the state is evident in the movement for the “Right to Food.” This rights-based approach has been unfairly criticized for focusing on technical and legal components while neglecting structural political-economic factors. Yet efforts to implement the Right to Food at the country level inevitably draw upon transnational discourses of agriculture and development, which certainly do indeed incorporate the political economy element. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, is the embodiment of global narratives coalescing into a coherent agenda for national development. When he conducts right-to-food missions to individual countries and meets with high-level leaders, he is essentially transmitting transnational discourses to the state.

Interestingly, successful activism in one part of the world may inadvertently have detrimental consequences for that same social movement in another region. In response to the European Union’s ban on genetically-modified crops, multinational seed companies headed into developing countries intent on expanding their market for such crops. It is unlikely that their efforts in India and Africa would be so aggressive if the European market had remained open. Clearly the higher degree of democracy in EU member states, compared with those of the global South, accounts for this outcome. Rather than dismiss this situation as the inevitability of capital flight, the challenge is to strengthen democracy in the global South in order to push back against capital flight.

Indeed, there is an important place for global North-South discourse in facilitating such a shift in agriculture. Food sovereignty movements in the U.S. and Europe can send a message to Southern political leaders: even as they seek to adopt the former’s agriculture system, mobilization around an alternative agriculture offers a warning that industrialized food production has proved a failure in the very countries that are supposedly the model for the rest of the world.

Dryzek encapsulates an effective way for thinking about social change when he suggests that we ask, “Will action X help bring into being the kind of world I find attractive?” rather than “Will action X achieve particular goal Y?” The task for social movements is to facilitate an arrangement of actors that transforms the apolitical “food security” frame to the explicitly political “food sovereignty” frame. These actors, in turn, will elevate the legitimacy of people and knowledge systems that have long been marginalized by trade-based and large-scale industrialized food production. By contrast, the second question does little challenge the prevailing order.  One way to think about a paradigm shift, Dryzek writes, is as the contestation of discourses rather than as competition among identities.

Discourses transcend the constituencies directly affected by an issue by appealing to moral standards of the dominant order, exposing the contradictions within that order (i.e. increasing hunger despite higher crop productivity), and imagining an alternative. All this then allows for collective choice, which rebuts the notion that discourses have little relevance to actual policymaking processes aimed at bringing about a major transition. Framing such resistance merely as the assertion of particular interest groups (i.e. developing world smallholder farmers) is problematic because it creates a zero-sum game whereby those farmers’ gain must come at another’s expense; yet in reality, significant parts of society benefit from policies favorable to those farmers. The other issue is that collective choice is deemed intractable if farmers are seen as an “interest group,” when in fact constituencies other than farmers would be supportive of their agenda.

Agricultural development strategies—be it new technologies or export-oriented production—have long evaded political accountability, finding their legitimacy in seemingly common sense notions of progress and modernization. What social movements can do is to raise questions in the political arena that have long remained off the table, challenging the taken-for-granted nature of development narratives and expanding the realm of what is indeed possible.