Environmental Politics of Food

Addressing issues of insecure and unequal access to food, in environmentally sustainable ways, is a major challenge for the 21st century. In parts of South and Southeast Asia, and Latin America, the price of substantial productivity increases realised under the Green Revolution is now paid in the form of depleted groundwater aquifers, pesticide treadmills and reduced (agro-)biodiversity. In regions where intensive food production based on chemical-input dependent monocultures used to be the standard, alternative options seem to have emerged on science and policy agendas.

Yet, in other regions such as in many Sub-Saharan African countries, large-scale land grabs and biofuel cultivation pose new threats to food security, sovereignty and sustainability. These resource problems, coupled with dramatic though largely unknown climate change impacts, seem incommensurable with the goals of food security, whether at the level of global production requirements or food access by and sovereignty of poor households and communities at regional and local levels.

Proposed solutions typically come in two discursive formats that seem diametrically opposed to one another. Advocates of the ‘sustainable intensification’ position heavily rely on the conviction that science and science-based technologies will eventually make productivity growth, equitable access to food and environmental sustainability commensurable. Applications of (molecular) biological sciences will create an ever-green (or gene-) revolution through which enough ‘food-for-all’ will become possible with limited pressure on the environment. This approach not only relies on the advances of science but also on those (larger) farmers who are willing and able to invest in high-tech solutions offered by science.

The reliance on science and venture capital are reasons for others to raise objections, pointing out that some forms of knowledge, most prominently those based on farmers’ own experimentation and other innovations by ‘indigenous’ people, are excluded by default and that capital-rich farmers and commercial companies will be in even greater control. Therefore, they argue that truly sustainable and responsible innovation pathways can only be created by relying on region-specific developments, bringing in knowledge from a variety of collaborating stakeholders who collectively develop new agro-ecological cultivation practices and other low-cost solutions that benefit smallholder farmers in providing food for the millions.