Localization, food sovereignty and food systems transformation

For underdeveloped countries in Asia, which comprise the great majority of the region, localization as a counter to liberalization must be understood in the context of the historical restructuring or reorientation of domestic agriculture and food production that dates back to the era of colonialism. We have to take this historical perspective in order to fully grasp the relevance to poor Asian countries of localization of food systems, many of which remain neo-colonies of the imperialist powers.

Western colonialization deeply and fundamentally restructured the way Asian countries produce food. In order to serve the requirements of the colonial masters, agricultural and food production was reoriented away from meeting the domestic food security needs of local communities and the overall socioeconomic development needs of nations. Colonies were transformed to become sources of cheap raw materials for the industrial needs of the colonizers, as well as for their own food security and food production needs. At the same time, the colonies became dumping grounds for the surplus food and agricultural production of the colonizers, further destroying in a systematic manner the domestic food and agriculture sectors of many Asian countries. A key aspect of this process was land and resource grabbing, wherein peasants and other small food producers were dispossessed of ownership and control over their means of production and these were taken over by the colonialists and their allies from the local elite like the big landlords and compradors (or the local agents of foreign powers).

Hundreds of years have passed and these colonial relations essentially remained between the rich and powerful countries, on one end, and the poor and neocolonial countries, on the other. The neoliberal globalization of the past four decades, including the liberalization of food and agriculture, further built on such lopsided relations, with transnational corporations or TNCs at the front and center of the onslaught against domestic food and agricultural production today. The TNCs and their network of local landlords and compradors further deepened their monopoly control over land and resources and how food is produced and for whom. The global market and international trade where TNCs and their compradors profit massively became the topmost priority for food and agricultural production, at the great expense of domestic food security. This aggravated the permanent crisis in the neo-colonies, characterized by the ever-worsening hunger and poverty of the people, including the landless peasants who directly produce food. The production of staple food like rice, the production of vegetables and other food crops to meet domestic requirements were further undermined as production became more and more oriented toward what is profitable for the TNCs in the context of global market and trade.

Thus, when we say localization from the perspective of the former colonies and modern neo-colonies in Asia, more than anything else it means challenging and ending the historical and current domination of colonial and imperialist powers in the food and agriculture sector. This is the only meaningful way that food and agricultural production can be localized, or be reoriented back toward meeting its original purpose of securing the domestic food security needs of the people, and away from the big global market fixation of neoliberalism and the profit-driven agenda of TNCs and their compradors. To make this kind of localization possible, it is necessary to end the monopoly control that TNCs and the local elite have over land and other agricultural resources, which provides the material basis for their unrestrained control on how and for whom food should be produced. Genuine agrarian reform and rural development is therefore a must if we want to talk about localization of food systems.

This also means that localization does not simply involve connecting the farmers or food producers directly to the market at the local or community level such as through farmers’ markets or community-supported agriculture, without structural changes in the social and production relations between farmers, traders and landlords, and without the necessary policy reforms and programs at the national level. Because how could such community-led initiatives prosper amid a predominant system wherein the global food supply chain is monopolized by a handful of TNCs? How can local farm production be advanced and strengthened to meet community needs when the prevailing policy environment is neoliberal restructuring of agricultural production at the expense of food security and farmers’ livelihoods? In the case of many neo-colonial and backward countries in Asia, how can the great majority of farmers even participate in such community partnerships or food localization movements when they are dispossessed of lands to till and are deprived of the capacity to produce food?

In other words, most important is that localization should mean that at the national level, there is a comprehensive program where farmers have individual and/or collective ownership and control over land and resources; and where local food production for domestic consumption is supported or encouraged through state subsidies, price support and protection from unnecessary foreign competition, among others. With these firmly in place, other supportive programs can be more easily introduced and widely promoted such as institutionalizing agroecological methods of farming as opposed to the chemical-heavy, export-oriented corporate farming.

All these principles that should guide localization are encapsulated in what we call food sovereignty, which is very useful for neocolonial countries that want to embrace localization to counter and reverse liberalization. Food sovereignty refers to the right of peoples, communities and countries to determine their own production systems which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances. It is different from food security, which neoliberalism distorted to mean as the availability of food regardless of where and how they were produced, justifying unbridled liberalization and destruction of ecosystems. Food sovereignty is the power of the people and their communities and countries to assert and realize the right to food and produce food and fight the power of corporations and other forces that destroy the people’s food production systems and deny them food and life.

Therefore, at the heart of food sovereignty should be a strong mass movement of farmers and small food producers, of workers and consumers, and all their advocates – a people’s movement that will push for the policies and programs to dismantle the monopoly control of TNCs and landlords over land and resources, and to reorient and radically transform food systems toward addressing the basic needs of the people. ###

Arnold Padilla is the Food Sovereignty Programme Coordinator of PANAP. The article is based on his remarks during the Peasants Rise Up! episode “Localize, Transform, Reverse Liberalization” last June 11, 2021 that the Asian Peasant Coalition (APC) organized with PANAP.