In food politics, all roads lead to Rome

| 28th February 2019
Peasant leader with agroecological seeds from ZIMSOFF
Salena Tramel
Social justice movements are finding human rights-based solutions to hunger and the climate crisis and holding global legislators to account.


Nothing says ‘pay attention’ quite like children walking out of their classrooms to educate adults on the most pressing issue of their generation. 

Young climate activists are tracing the connections between escalating hunger, decaying democracies, and environmental chaos – and building the momentum for a global Climate Strike planned for 15 March.

It is now estimated that some 70,000 schoolchildren in 270 cities and towns around the world over are making a habit of these new weekly protests. 

Food insecurity 

The connections between maintaining a liveable planet for our youth and providing for human rights could not be clearer. At the core of those rights is food, as it is precisely the one that sustains life – yet it is consistently violated by a variety of state and corporate actors whose interests lie in profit accumulation rather than providing for basic needs. 

Today, the number of food-insecure people around the world has surpassed 821 million – a figure that has been on the rise for several years now despite commitments to achieve zero hunger by 2030. Paradoxically, the majority of those who go hungry are small-scale food providers in the countryside – such as farmers, fishers, and pastoralists – who live and work on the frontlines of the climate crisis.  

High-level meetings come and go – each with its promise to tackle hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation while achieving financial gains. 

When the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund met in Bali in late 2018, the institutions stated their commitment to mitigating famine in partnership with technological and agricultural giants. The World Economic Forum hailed the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders as an innovative leadership platform for tackling the climate crisis at its annual Davos meeting in January. 

At the heart of these intentions and initiatives lies the recycled message that big business can solve the world’s most pressing issues. 

Structural inequalities

The rural workers that provide food are not invited to participate in these institutionalised corporate spaces in any meaningful way; they aren’t recognised as protagonists in their own development. 

Even worse, they are seen as nuisances obstructing large-scale investment projects similar to the ones that inflicted much of the human and environmental damage at the outset. 

Given this context, it is unsurprising that hunger is on the rise, and is exacerbated by climate change and other forms of violence and conflict.  

Christiana Louwa, a small-scale fisher from Kenya who is a leader of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples, a global social justice movement, said: “We want to make politicians understand the human tragedies and structural causes behind these figures, and that they are consequences of man-made policy failures that can and must be stopped.” 

But if decision-making spaces continue to exclude many, what kind of options exist for those like Louwa who seek to conquer the twin tasks of tearing down harmful policies and putting something better in their place? In the world of food, agriculture, and the environment, all roads lead to Rome.

United Nations 

Individuals and social justice movements have three distinct mechanisms through which they are able to target their policy demands. They can pressure their own governments to implement policy, they can demand that their states interact with global governance to legislate policy, or they can supersede the state and work directly with global governance institutions.

Intergovernmental institutions – namely the United Nations and its various branches – play a key role in creating rights-based mechanisms to hold member states accountable for the basic needs of their populations. 

Human rights-based legislation is sometimes directed towards groups that are perceived as especially vulnerable – like women, refugees, peasants or Indigenous peoples. At other times, it outlines a specific basic need, such as housing and shelter or water and sanitation. 

These rights are usually debated in the UN branch closest to the population or need being advocated, brought to the United Nations Human Rights Council, and, if all goes well, they are then adopted by the General Assembly. 

When it comes to food and its inextricable ties to control over land, the branch to target is the Rome-based Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and its multi-stakeholder platform, the Committee on Food Security (CFS). 

Powerful corporations

Like other parts of the UN, the FAO is often muddled with bureaucratic procedures that are difficult for everyday people and their movements to permeate. 

Since the CFS includes the political interests of corporations and big NGOs with which they are aligned, it can be challenging – if not impossible – for small-scale food providers with scant financial means to bring their demands to the table. 

A good example is Climate-smart agriculture, an approach that FAO claims is in line with its vision of hunger and poverty alleviation as well as sustainable agriculture. Some climate activists warn, however, that Climate-smart agriculture is simply a renovation of Green Revolution policies. 

In the past, these policies put land and seed control in the hands of powerful corporations; today they do so by applying carbon trading to farmland with the stated goal of saving the environment.  

It is for this reason that many have lost faith in the international systems governing environmental and human rights, and constructed their own people’s processes and assemblies. But this is also why a coalition of people from within and outside the FAO system decided to try something new by creating the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM). 

Participatory spaces

The CSM brings together small-scale providers and consumers in constituencies – smallholder and family farmers, pastoralists, fishers, indigenous peoples, agricultural and food workers, landless, women, youth, consumers, urban food insecure, and non-profits – to formulate their political demands and deliver them to member states via the CFS. 

Currently, the CSM’s membership represents some 380 million people on the frontlines of food insecurity and climate change across all regions and continents. 

Elizabeth Mpofu, a small-scale farmer from Zimbabwe, said: “The Rome processes are where UN member states make decisions, so the work done by social movements is a benefit to my own community in Shashe.” Mpofu’s southern African village was once in the spotlight of the first wave of land reform in Zimbabwe. 

For social movements, involvement in people’s processes and global governance are not mutually exclusive. In fact they are complementary and mutually reinforcing strategies of working both inside and outside institutional spaces. A good example is advocating for agroecology, which is both political (a battle cry for food sovereignty and climate justice) and scientific (a concrete way of feeding people and reducing greenhouse gas emissions).  

Now, the Zimbabwe Organic Smallholder Farmers' Forum (ZIMSOFF), an organisation that Mpofu leads, is active in Shashe and throughout the country in promoting fair agricultural practices and food policies. Mpofu said: “In Shashe at the grassroots level, we are pushing for agroecological farming practices so as to achieve food sovereignty.” ZIMSOFF has been able to bring its concerns to Rome through the CSM. 

Rights-based legislation

ZIMSOFF is also currently hosting La Vía Campesina, the transnational peasant movement that stresses the need for hunger-eradication policies to be rooted in larger struggles for land, territory, and agrarian reform. La Vía Campesina has been one of the most active groups driving the CSM agenda. 

It was out of the CSM policy space that movements helped generate one of the most promising pieces of rights-based legislation: the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (Tenure Guidelines). 

After a lengthy and participatory consultation with small-scale food providers, the CFS/FAO delivered these guidelines in 2012 with the stated purpose of democratising land, water, and related natural resources for the most vulnerable and marginalised citizens. 

The Tenure Guidelines are currently the only international instrument dedicated to land, fisheries, and forests, and advocates claim that it has set a new global standard for land tenure and resource control from a right-to-food perspective.

When UN member states sign onto the guidelines, they are agreeing to minimal standards – many of which were proposed by social movements – in order to protect food sources, territory, and the climate. Small-scale food providers and others can then use this legislation to hold states accountable to their actions. 

In a similar vein, the CFS is in the preparatory phase of developing the Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition, which are expected in 2020. Just as the Tenure Guidelines unapologetically link food to land, this promising political tool stresses that food access alone does not equal adequate nutrition. 

Global governance

The way in which social movements approach global governance highlights their desire to reverse the problematic tendency to silo the world’s most pressing problems such as land, trade, food, and GMOs. 

Activists have used the CSM to demand that states and global governance attack these issues at their shared root. Social movements insist that the answers are there, from the food sovereignty political project to agroecology to climate justice. 

Kannaiyan Subramaniam, a peasant leader from the South Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers Movements (SICCFM), explained: “Food production should be predominantly local, national, and regional, and distributed locally by small peasants.”

Subramaniam divides his time between the vegetable garden on his family land in Tamil Nadu and the UN offices in the heart of Rome. He sees his role with global governance as a counterattack to the trade policies in India that have put many farmers out of business, or worse. Free trade agreements favouring large-scale agriculture and imports have driven more than three hundred thousand Indian peasants to suicide since 1995. Among those deaths, some 60,000 were linked to climate change.  

Subramaniam continued: “Corporations are part of problems and not solutions. There should be better-regulated trade in the place of free trade, to protect the interests of peasants, fishers, and Indigenous peoples’ food production.”

It is perhaps this new generation of activists, equipped with tools capable of taking on corporations and states, that will get us to this point – where we look to frontline communities to heal the broken system rather than regressing deeper into the politics that shattered it in the first place. 

This Author 

Salena Tramel is a journalist and PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, where her work is centered on the intersections of resource grabs, climate change mitigation, and the intertwining of (trans)national agrarian/social justice movements.

Image: Peasant leader with agroecological seeds from ZIMSOFF, © Salena Tramel. 


The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here