Food Sovereignty: An Alternative Model to Address the Implications of Shifting Diets

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Author: Angela Rose Guiliani, 2017.

“Alongside a growing population poised to reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050 is a dramatic and detrimental shift in global dietary patterns…”

Photo from Pixabay under Creative Commons.


Alongside a growing population poised to reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050 is a dramatic and detrimental shift in global dietary patterns (UN, 2015).  Underlined by rapid urbanization and industrialization, a growing middle class, the increasing influence of multi-national agribusinesses and advances in agricultural technologies, global diets are shifting towards greater consumption of high-input foods such as meat, dairy, and sugar in replacement of low-input, plant-based foods.  It is estimated that if no restraints are placed on these dietary trends, the world will need to produce 70 percent more food in 2050 than it did in 2006 (Ranganathan et al., 2016).  If left unrestrained, these diets will have increasingly harmful and unsustainable impacts on human health and the environment.

The popular underlying concept that organizes our ideas around issues of food— food security— is fundamentally flawed in the way that it views people merely as economic agents and prioritizes the neoliberal agenda of free markets, global trade and economic growth at the expense of small farmers, biodiversity, cultural diversity and long-term sustainability.  This makes it difficult to comprehensively address a complex issue such as the shift in global diets— one that will necessitate not only the sustainable practices that exist at odds with the food security regime but also participation from stakeholders at every level, from multi-national corporations to indigenous communities and every party in between, not only economically, but socially, politically and culturally as well.

Food sovereignty provides an alternative by which the international community can appropriately address the multi-faceted components and implications of shifting diets.  A challenge to the “hegemony of food security as an organizing concept,” this model would allow for countries to decide for themselves the types of food policies that govern their land rather than being subject to Western influence and imposition.  It would allow for the much-needed incorporation of sustainability and multi-level stakeholder engagement in agricultural practices, allowing the shift to be addressed per people, per region, per country, and in economic as well as political, social, environmental and culturally appropriate ways (McMahon, 2014, p. 111).


Why are diets shifting?


As opposed to 54 percent of the current population, 66 percent of people by 2050 are expected to live in urban centers, and 95 percent of the ‘final build-out of humanity’— development leading up to the peak of population growth, which is thought to be 10 billion people— is expected to occur in these areas as well (IFPRI, 2017; Davis, 2004; UN, 2014).  This rapid urbanization, due to factors such as industrialization, economic development and greater access to opportunities, is having and will continue to have a significant impact on people’s dietary habits (UN, 2015).

While people from rural areas purchase food from local markets or rely on small-scale subsistence farming of predominantly staple crops, those in cities find themselves constrained by physical location, price and time. As a result, urban dwellers consume greater shares of animal protein, sugars, fats, oils and processed foods.  Moving from rural to urban therefore comes with a corresponding shift in diet, called the nutrition transition.  Convenience and close proximity to supermarkets, restaurants and fast food chains facilitate access to nutritionally-empty but energy-dense foods for people living in cities, as the majority of food available in these establishments is usually some sort of animal product, infused with sugar or heavily processed (IFPRI, 2017).  For poor city dwellers in particular, there is a self-reinforcing mechanism in this type of food access where purchasing healthier foods tends to be more expensive, while less nutritious and processed foods are within budget.  If coupled with policies that constrain people’s abilities to engage in urban agriculture, which would otherwise supplement their supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, low-quality diets become all too common.

A growing middle class

By 2030, 3 billion people across the world are expected to enter into the middle class, specifically in developing countries; with their rising incomes is a change in their purchasing patterns related to food.  Defined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), middle class refers to a per capita income of $3,650 to $36,500 per year or $10 to $100 a day in purchasing power parity terms (Kharas, 2010).  Much like the rural to urban transition, rising incomes result in higher consumption of high-cost resource intensive foods— meats, dairy, sugars, and oils— and less consumption of low-cost, plant-based foods and traditional dietary staples (Ranganathan et al., 2016, p. 32).

Lester Brown points out in Full Planet, Empty Plates that “[i]n every society where incomes have risen, the appetite for meat, milk, eggs, and seafood has generated an enormous growth in animal protein consumption” (2012, p. 26).  This accruement of greater shares of animal protein is exemplified by the consumption of meat worldwide that has risen in correspondence with a growing middle class— 50 million tons in 1950 as compared to 280 million tons in 2010 (Schmidhuber & Tubiello, 2007).  In developed countries, meat consumption has generally leveled off and in some cases, even declined, but in developing countries, consumption is projected to continue to increase.  The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates these increases to occur at roughly 33 percent for Latin America, 86 percent for East Asia and the Pacific and 118 percent for Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050 (Paarlberg, 2013, p. 138).

Business and technology

The final factors influencing this shift in global diets are multi-national businesses and advances in agricultural technologies, both of which have, independently and in tandem, revolutionized food chains across the globe.  The sheer size of multi-national businesses awards them incredible influence in global agricultural markets, affecting the types of foods people are eating as well as the very food that is grown.  Oxfam describes four companies in particular— Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill and Louis Dreyfus— as being “at the forefront of the transformation that is determining where money in agriculture is invested, where agricultural production is located, where the produce is shipped, and how the world’s population shares (or fails to share) the bounty of each harvest” (Paarlberg, 2013, p. 215).  Using the United States as an example, this means greater shares of corn and soy in the American diet, and iterations of the two— high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, soybean oil, soy lecithin— found as additives and preservatives in America’s ever-processed supply of food.  Moving outward, the influence the Western diet has on diets across the globe, even if just through mass media and popular culture, means a growing demand for these processed products outside of the U.S.

In addition to agribusiness, agricultural technologies are changing the food we eat, as well as affecting our relationship to it.  Hybrid seeds and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) incorporate desirable genes into crops, making them more efficient in the distribution of their energy, which increases both yield and productivity (Paarlberg, 2013).  Increases in productivity have resulted in lower commodity prices— something that, in turn, encourages overconsumption.  Lower prices mean that food takes up a smaller share of household spending, making people more likely to purchase more than they need or are able to consume before perishing.  As a result, globally, around 30 percent of food produced each year is wasted, making food loss and waste the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) after China and the U.S. (Lipinski, et al., 2013).  The value of food for those with no barriers to access becomes largely ignored by the constant appearance of abundance and fullness that these technologies have brought about.


What are the implications?


Overconsumption of calories and diets high in meat, dairy, sugar, fats and oils, which are often referred to as Western diets, result in influxes of non-communicable Western diseases— hypertension, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancers.  These ‘diseases’ begin almost immediately after a person or people abandon their traditional dietary habits and way of life in the face of Westernization (Pollan, 2008, p. 87).

2.1 billion people in 2013 were obese or overweight, and the number of obese and overweight people is rising globally, with 37 percent of men and 38 percent of women fitting the definition of either category in 2013 compared to 29 and 30 percent in 1980, respectively (Ranganathan et al., 2016, p. 25).  Personal productivity is implicated in this, as obese and overweight people are more likely to have higher rates of absenteeism as well as having higher risks of premature death, therefore resulting in loss of future income.  OECD estimates that the healthcare costs of someone who is obese is around 25 times that of someone of a normal weight, and as they are spending greater shares of their income on health, they are consequently less able to spend it elsewhere (p. 26).

The implications of this increase are not isolated to the body of the overweight or obese person— the costs of obesity to the healthcare system make it just as much of a public health issue as it is a personal concern.  In 2012, McKinsey Global Institute calculated the economic impact of obesity worldwide and found it to be $2 trillion or 2.8 percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  This calculation included the cost of healthcare, losses in productivity, and investments in obesity prevention (p. 27).  In the U.S. alone, between 1998 and 2008, the cost of treating obesity and obesity-related diseases was around 9 percent of all medical costs: $147 billion.  Left unchecked, these costs are projected to increase an additional $48-66 billion per year until 2030— an unhealthy and unsustainable metric moving forward (Paarlberg, 2013, p. 83).


14.5 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock supply chains. Taking into account pollutants such as methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), both of which are significant byproducts of agricultural processes, this amounts to 7.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions per year. As the world becomes wealthier and more urbanized, consumption of animal based foods will continue to increase— 74 percent for meat, 58 percent for dairy and 500 percent for eggs— correspondingly (FAO, 2012; Gerber et al., 2013).

These foods are more resource-intensive and have more of a harmful impact on the environment than their plant-based counterparts.  Per ton of protein consumed, for example, beef emits almost 2,500 tons of CO2e (tCO2e), uses almost 150 hectares of land, and consumes 100,000 m3 of freshwater; dairy emits 500 tCO2e, uses 30 hectares of land, and consumes 25,000 m3 of freshwater; and pork emits 300 tCO2e, uses 20 hectares of land, and consumes 50,000 m3 of freshwater.  Compared to plant protein, these numbers are quite large— roots and tubers, rice and pulses emit around 100 tCO2e each, require around 10 hectares of land and consume 25,000, 20,000 and 15,000 m3 of freshwater, respectively (Ranganathan et al., 2016).  In 2010, almost 25 percent of global GHG emissions were from agriculture and related land-use change. By 2050, this number could increase up to 70 percent of the GHG budget allowed by the 2-degree warming scenario (p. 14).

Land wise, livestock uses 26 percent of global land for grazing and 33 percent of cropland in the production of livestock feed.  13 billion hectares of forest area each year are lost in the conversion of land to cropland for feed or pastures for grazing, which affects water resources, soil fertility and biodiversity in the immediately surrounding region in addition to contributing to global climate impacts (FAO, 2012).  About 35 percent of the world’s 2.3 billion ton grain harvest is used to feed livestock, and such large quantities of food being diverted to raising these animals means higher prices for the products derived from them, as well as less food available for the many vulnerable populations in desperate need of it (Brown, 2012, p. 32).  The production of this feed is also responsible for 45 percent of the sector’s emissions, while the change of forests into pasture and cropland is responsible for around 9 percent (Gerber, et al., 2013).

Mismanaging manure from the raising of these animals poses a threat to air and water resources.  Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are commonplace in industrialized countries and exacerbate the dangers posed by mismanaged waste by consolidating these threats into small, concentrated areas.  Keeping animals in such close proximity to one another poses health risks for the animals, and antibiotics are commonly administered to livestock in order to help them fight off bacteria. In the U.S., 80 percent of antibiotic use is said to go to cattle, pigs, and chicken alone (Paarlberg, 2013). When people then consume these animal products, they are essentially consuming the medication administered to the animals, which is ultimately contributing to growing antibiotic resistance in humans (FAO, 2012).


Food security as the dominant organizing concept

Food security as an organizing concept came about in 1974 by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) in response to the food crisis of 1972, which was spurred by several simultaneous poor crop harvests across the world (Fairbairn, 2010).  It was originally defined by the FAO as the “availability at all times of adequate world food supplies of basic foodstuffs to sustain a steady expansion of food consumption and to offset fluctuations in production and prices.”  This definition was altered at the 1996 World Food Summit to represent the condition “that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (Schmidhuber & Tubiello, 2007).  There are four main elements underlying this definition of food security— availability, stability, utilization and access.  Availability reflects the supply side, referring to the total amount of food being produced nationally or imported into the country through trade or as food aid.  Stability refers to the long-term access to food resources while utilization refers to the ways in which people are able to make use of the food to which they have access.  Finally, access itself reflects the demand side of food security and refers to both economic and physical inter- and intra-household levels of food distribution (FAO, 2008).

In addressing food security, the FAO focuses on increasing agricultural productivity so that small, rural farmers can become competitive in both local economies and global markets (Schanbacher, 2010, p. 29).  In order to do so, it promotes subsidy elimination, trade and competition, the use of high-yielding seeds, GMOs, and imported farm inputs that ultimately threaten rather than bolster the livelihoods of small farmers.  By putting emphasis on neoliberal ideals of trade, global markets and commodification, this definition of food security permits and to an extent, encourages, harmful practices such as food dumping, the purchasing of imported grains, and increased consumption of processed and junk foods, all of which undermine small farmers by making their crop uncompetitive in and unattractive to local markets while also threatening consumer choice and biodiversity (p. 59; Menser, 2014).

As Schanbacher notes, the FAO definition of food security is limited in scope as it is an interpretation of the issue that looks at people merely as economic agents.  It sees them as “autonomous, rational beings who interact through competition rather than cooperation, self-interest rather than community, and consumerism rather than culturally sustainable relations” (p. 29).  Not only does he think that this sort of definition reduces people to economic agents, but it treats food as a commodity whose only value is its economic value— there is little room, if any, to incorporate social and cultural values into the overarching concept.


Food sovereignty as an alternative model

Food sovereignty came about as a direct response to the FAOs framework of food security that favored what Menser refers to as ‘neoliberal agricultural restructuring’ over small farmers, peasants and consumers (p. 53).  Formed by La Vía Campesina in 1996, food sovereignty is “the right of all peoples, their nations, or unions of states to define their respective agricultural and food policies.”  It declares food to be a human right, and determines that food sovereignty is the pre-condition of genuine food security.  Elucidated in the Nyéléni Declaration of 2007 and included here for its thoroughness and clarity:

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.  It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.  It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation.  It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers and users. Food sovereignty prioritizes local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal fishing, pastoralist-led grazing; food production, distribution and consumption is thus based on environmental, social and economic sustainability.  Food sovereignty promotes transparent trade that guarantees just incomes to all peoples as well as the rights  of consumers to control their food and nutrition.  It ensures that the rights to use and manage lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food.  Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social and economic classes and generations (Declaration of Nyéléni, 2007).

Food sovereignty is a multi-dimensional project that does not constrain itself by solely focusing on food— it incorporates elements of democracy, gender equality, indigenous rights, resource conservation, and labor rights into its platform.  It sees food systems not as procedures that need to operate at maximum efficiency to be useful, but as structures that satisfy a deeper meaning around our very real social and cultural relationships to food (Menser, 2014).  It is not only a reaction to the neoliberal definition of food security, but also a “project for re-mocratization  of the food system” as it emphasizes “mutual well-being over self-interest, cooperation over competition, the survival of communities, traditions and cultural values over efficiency and profiteering, and sustainable development over unfettered growth and consumption” (Schanbacher, 2010, p. 99).


Why is food sovereignty the answer to shifting diets?

Up until this point, efforts to encourage more sustainable diets have centered on consumer education, food labels, and “campaigns around abstinence” such as vegetarianism, none of which have had overwhelming success.  The suggestions made in the Shifting Diets report continue on this changing consumer purchasing patterns path (p. 53).  This sort of focus on consumer habits as the mode through which change can be effectuated harkens back to the model of food security that views people merely through an economic lens, and in choosing to address the issue as such, it keeps the food security model and its focus on economics and free markets relevant, furthering the very cause of the issue.  As campaigns thus far have had limited success, just as food security has had in positively revolutionizing the lives of small farmers, the “more holistic approach” the World Resources Institute calls for might require a re-working of the underlying framework of the way we produce, distribute, consume and think about food— something that requires change of more than just the economic agent of the consumer and something that food sovereignty is well equipped to do (p. 11). 

A large, underlying component of shifting diets is the influence that Western food, culture and appearances of affluence have on the rest of the world.  Not only does the West have influence, but it also has political power and international institutions on its side to spread and profit from it.  In addressing this influence, adopting a model of food sovereignty would allow countries to actualize for themselves the food policies that best fit their economic, political, social, environmental and cultural preferences. Inherent in the very definition of food sovereignty is the right of nations to dismantle the current international food regime and make decisions based on their specific needs and values.  It would give them the option to resist the imposition of Western trends on their diets— those full of processed foods, greater shares of meat, dairy and sugar— which would, in turn, help to mitigate the environmental and health implications that come with these subsequent alterations.  The food sovereignty model prioritizes the addressing of these environmental and health implications by focusing agricultural systems on sustainability, which provide true opportunities for small farmers to integrate into local and national food markets. Most of these shifts are set to take place in developing countries rather than in the already industrialized West. Promoting a re-claiming of food policy at the national level, and in a way that promotes the preservation of traditional diets rather than encourages dietary consolidation, may be the key needed to slow the unsustainable shift away from locally grown, low-input foods and towards imported, processed and high-input ones.

A great example of this in practice can be seen in Australia.  In 1982, ten middle-aged and overweight Aborigines participated in a study to see whether or not the health complications stemming from a Western diet could be reversed.  All had type II diabetes and various other metabolic abnormalities associated with higher intakes of animal protein, fats, sugars, and refined carbohydrates coupled with predominantly sedentary lifestyles.  With no access to store-bought food or beverages for 7 weeks, and returning back to their traditional lifestyles of hunting and gathering, it was found that “all of the metabolic abnormalities of type II diabetes were either greatly improved (glucose tolerance, insulin response to glucose) or completely normalized (plasma lipids) in a group of diabetic Aborigines by a relatively short (seven week) reversion to traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle” (Pollan, 2008). 
This study is important for a number of reasons.  Although the decision to revert back to their previous diet was something imposed on these people and not something they declared for themselves, it was very much in the spirit of food sovereignty in its acknowledgement of Western foods and lifestyles as detrimental to health and well-being.  It highlights the importance of not only the food we are eating but also the deeper social and cultural relationships we have with that food— something in which the food security model, rife with overproduction and perpetual perceptions of excess, erodes.  Further, it exemplifies that reversion is possible— that what may appear to be an inevitable trend may not be so inevitable after all so long as it is treated in such a way so as to genuinely address the root of the problem rather than apply a superficial treatment.
The amount of power and influence behind the food security regime means that this will not be an easy change, but that does not make it any less necessary.  Having “[a] respect for human diversity entails a commitment on the part of developmental organizations to recognize how different cultural perspectives can and should contribute to policy formation,” and when it comes to shifting diets, this is precisely how to go about tackling the trend (Schanbacher, 2010, p. 98).  Changing consumer habits alone will not be what will help alter dietary patterns around the globe. By overemphasizing consumer habits, the more difficult and perhaps more salient issues relating to the sustainability of our organizing food regime are being neglected. This will only make the genuine addressing of shifting diets in the future more difficult to actualize.



Poignantly stated in the Shifting Diets report, “Unless curbed, the demand for animal-based products will make it hard to achieve several of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including those on hunger, healthy lives, management of water, consumption and production, climate change, and terrestrial ecosystems” (2016, p. 14).  There should be little doubt that shifting diets need to be addressed in a comprehensive manner so as to mitigate the health and environmental impacts their projections propose.  The current model of food security does not allow the underlying system to address these issues whereas food sovereignty would.  Changing profit-driven international power structures is a necessity in securing humanity’s place on the planet in years to come.



Works Cited

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Davis, M. (2004). Report: Planet of Slums. Harpers Magazine.

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Fairbairn, M. (2010). Framing Resistance: International Food Regimes & the Roots of Food Sovereignty. In H. Wittman, A. Desmarais, & N. Wiebe (Eds.), Food Sovereignty: Reconnecting Food, Nature & Community (pp. 15-32). Oakland: Fernwood Publishing.

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McMahon, M. (2014). Local Food: Food Sovereignty or Myth of Alternative Consumer Sovereignty? In P. Andree, J. Ayres, M. J. Bosia, & M.-J. Massicotte (Eds.), Globalization and Food Sovereignty: Global and Local Change in the New Politics of Food (pp. 111-137). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Menser, M. (2014). The Territory of Self-Determination: Social Reproduction, Agro- Ecology, and the Role of the State. In P. Andree, J. Ayres, M. J. Bosia, & M.-J. Massicotte (Eds.), Globalization and Food Sovereignty: Global and Local Change in the New Politics of Food (pp. 53-83). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Paarlberg, R. (2013). Food Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (2nd Edition ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Pollan, M. (2008). In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin Books.

Ranganathan, J., Vennard, D., Waite, R., Dumas, P., Lipinski, B., & Searchinger, T. (2016). Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future. Washington DC: World Resources Institute.

Schanbacher, W. D. (2010). The Politics of Food: The Global Conflict between Food Security and Food Sovereignty. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

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