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Nora McKeon, Food Security Governance: Empowering Communities, Regulating Corporations (London: Routledge, 2015), pp. 246.

Reviewed by: Jennifer Clapp (Canada Research Chair and Professor, School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability and Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo, Canada)

Providing food security for all, in a way that is environmentally sustainable and socially just, is one of the most pressing challenges facing humanity today. Nora McKeon’s Food Security Governance: Empowering Communities, Regulating Corporations ponders the ways in which global governance institutions and processes might rise to this challenge more effectively than they have in the past. Drawing on her rich historical knowledge and personal experience from her 30-year career with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, McKeon provides insightful analysis of the prospects for improving global food security governance.

A farmer at work in Kenya. photo credit: Wikimedia Commons: Neil Palmer (CIAT).

McKeon makes the case that modern food security governance has served corporate interests over the needs of small-scale agricultural producers, consumers, and the environment for too long. She argues that the system desperately needs to be recast to elevate concerns for rural livelihoods, equity, and sustainability – issues that should be central for global institutions that seek to ensure greater food security.

How exactly one proposes to reform global governance institutions to prioritize these goals, however, depends on one’s worldview. As McKeon notes, the productivist paradigm aims to increase global food production within a globalized industrial food system. It promotes high-tech inputs and global value chains controlled by large-scale food corporations. This approach claims to make food more environmentally-friendly and accessible to all, because it encourages greater efficiencies in food production and distribution. Advocates of this model promote further liberalization of trade and investment to allow global agricultural value chains to expand their reach and spread their benefits. The productivist paradigm has been a dominant approach to food security since the dawn of the Green Revolution, which began in the 1940-50s.

Juxtaposed with the productivist model is a food sovereignty social movement that promotes localized food webs connecting small-scale producers with regional consumers. The food sovereignty approach emerged in the 1990s as a direct response to the rise of neoliberalism, which ushered in greater liberalization of agricultural trade under NAFTA and the WTO. Concerned with the emergence of a global industrial food system that served corporate interests over the needs of farmers and the environment, the food sovereignty movement prioritizes local food systems that provide meaningful rural livelihoods. Food sovereignty advocates also promote agroecological production methods, over those that rely on high-tech inputs, as a means to enhance the sustainability of the food system.

World Food Programme Distributes Food. photo credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider.

McKeon provides a harsh critique of the productivist paradigm, and ponders the ways in which global food security governance can better support food sovereignty. Her vision of the governance approach that is best suited to the food sovereignty model centres not just on a constellation of institutional structures that is required at the global level, but also on the processes that guide them. She is concerned with how bodies such as the FAO, the World Bank, and the WTO have been infiltrated by private interests, which have promoted a productivist worldview. This worldview is focused on deregulation on the one hand, while on the other it promotes voluntary governance measures that reinforce corporate interests. This approach, McKeon contends, has been a disaster, as the 2007-08 food price crisis clearly demonstrated.

McKeon argues that positive change is possible, but it must come from coordinated efforts at both the local and global levels. First, we need to foster bottom up governance that builds the strength of place-based social movements within a food sovereignty framework. Local transformation that supports households and family farms, ensures local resource rights, and fosters appropriate markets, is key to this process. This agenda faces significant challenges in the face of a continually expanding global industrial food system. Local struggles must be supported in addition to promoting unity in diversity among rural social movements at the transnational scale.

Former-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressees World Committee on Food Security. photo credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

Second, we need better governance institutions at the global level that will support a more meaningful engagement with civil society and social movements. Here McKeon zeros in on the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS), which, in the wake of the food crisis in 2009, undertook important reforms to be more participatory and inclusive of civil society. These reforms brought about positive change in food governance at the global level, and for this reason, McKeon argues, the CFS now has more legitimacy than other governance institutions and should be the key locus of global food security governance. But, as she points out, although the reforms at the CFS have gone a great distance to remedy weaknesses in the global food security governance framework, there is still more work to be done. In particular, the governing body would benefit from being given more authority to enact and enforce regulations that can keep corporate influence in check.

Change is required on both of these fronts if global governance frameworks are to support a more just and sustainable food security. Strong social movements are an essential force that must disrupt the dominant paradigm and demand change. And a strong and legitimate global governance framework is needed to put rules in place that open space for the food sovereignty agenda to flourish in localities around the world. The promotion of these interrelated agendas, McKeon notes, will require continual effort if we wish to effect true change in food security governance.

The book focuses its global analysis mainly on the potential for change within the CFS, in the hopes that this body will be able to wrest influence from powerful economic institutions such as the WTO, the Group of 20, the IMF, and the World Bank, which McKeon contends are part of the problem. Even if these other governance bodies lack the legitimacy of the CFS on food security issues, their efforts nonetheless continue to have an enormous impact on food security outcomes around the world, and may ultimately affect the ability of the CFS to do its work effectively. More attention could have been paid in the book’s analysis to the potential tensions between the CFS and these powerful economic governance institutions moving forward.

The Abalami Bezehkaya project, supports knowledge transfer in farming techniques, in Cape Town, South Africa. photo credit: Wikimedia Commons: Kate Holt/AusAID.

McKeon maps out a large and visionary agenda for positive change for food security governance. She makes a compelling case that the representation of small-scale producers – who provide most of the world’s food – is essential for governance initiatives to support more sustainable and just food systems. Governance without that representation, she contends, is bound to fail. Despite mapping out a huge agenda and noting the key challenges that must be tackled, McKeon leaves the reader with hope by stressing that positive change is already underway. Providing a positive outlook is important when discussing a topic that too often paints a gloomy picture without a corresponding vision of how to influence change. McKeon has done an admirable job of providing both the roadmap and the optimism for improvements to food security governance.