Local Public Policies for Food Sovereignty – A recap of the International Seminar in Donostia, Spain

By Jordan Treakle

This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here. This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know: foodsecuresolutions@gmail.com

This week we take a diversion and focus on the outcomes of the International Seminar on Local Public Policies for Food Sovereignty that took place in mid-November in the Basque Country.  In this post Jordan Treakle identifies key themes to emerge out of the Seminar. We note that these themes relate to discussions taking place at the CFS and are thus relevant for this special series. Further, while focussing on global policies, there is a need to also address local-level policies.


In mid-November over a hundred participants from across Europe, the Americas, and Asia convened at the International Seminar on Local Public Policies for Food Sovereignty in Donostia (San Sebastian), Spain to share experiences and perspectives on four inter-related topics linked to food sovereignty:

  • Land access and the commons
  • The role of education in public food policies
  • Linking urban and rural spaces through territorial development approaches
  • Local public policies to support agroecology

Donostia is known as a food capital of the country with its famous tapas culture, as well as having a fiercely independent regional political identity. In this delicious and inspiring socio-political environment one of the core issues of the Seminar was the recognition that “urban” food policies (such as the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact) and agendas (such as the role of urban policies in the Sustainable Development Goals) are gaining prominence in the international policy arena. And to illustrate this trend, much of the Seminar focused on presenting urban-centered food sovereignty initiatives in Spain, such as the work of Red TERRAE on supporting municipal agroecology platforms and Llaurant Barcelona on mapping and reorienting Barcelona’s tourist food economy toward food sovereignty.

As pointed out by representatives of the NGO FIAN, the international policy turn to “urban” spaces is not only a response to an increasingly urbanized world, but also reflects certain urban-focused political agendas, and thus presents both opportunities and challenges for more holistic systems-based approaches to supporting social justice and environmental sustainability in agriculture and food systems.

Drawing on the event’s presentations and participants’ discussions, below are some topics for thought and debate:

1)      The need for inclusive and participatory food governance mechanisms:

Following a presentation by Deirdre Woods of London’s community group Just Space, there was a lot discussion on how urban spaces with many (likely conflicting) interests in a small geographical area need food governance mechanisms that are both participatory (i.e. effectively reactive to the interests and needs of common citizens) and inclusive (meaning minority and less powerful voices have representation in the participatory political process) for identifying and engaging the common public interest in regard to food issues.

One clear challenge identified by the participants is that urban spaces (compared to rural areas) are often more socially fluid, with people often staying short periods in cities or being pushed economically from city centers to peripheries due to gentrification. In this socially dynamic context, how can food governance mechanisms equitably identify who and what interests are included and participate in food policy development?


2)      How to effectively link urban and rural institutions through territorial approaches:

Helen Nilsson from the Department of Environment for the Municipality of Malmö (Sweden) provided a presentation on Malmö’s efforts to promote “locally produced” and certified Bio/Organic foods in the municipality’s public institutions (such as schools and hospitals) and restaurants in the city. The policy seems to have made important progress toward increasing the amount of “local” and Bio certified food served in the city, despite having few mechanisms for ensuring that individual institutions actually take-part in the program.

Stepping outside of this Swedish context, the presentation raises important questions about how urban institutions (such as a city government, or more specifically a Department of the Environment in an urban center) can and should directly support rural institutions (especially those with dwindling tax revenue due to rural depopulation) that provide services to rural producers who feed urban residents. The broader theoretical question here is whether urban institutions have a responsibility to support rural institutions and rural producers through policy action that goes beyond the marketplace.

On a more practical level, some ideas of forms of urban institutional support raised by the Seminar’s participants include municipal support for public procurement training in agricultural extension services, urban-funded rural food processing centers, and municipal agricultural development grants for farmers.

3)      Going beyond public food procurement policies

On day 2 of the Seminar, Janaina Stronzake from the Movimiento Sin Tierra (MST) in Brazil gave a powerful presentation on the political violence against rural communities and farmer advocates in Brazil over the past year.

Brazil’s Fome Zero food program is often highlighted as a successful urban institution-driven policy that has undeniably reduced food insecurity and malnutrition in many parts of the country through demand-driven public food procurement (primarily in public elementary schools and public lunch-counters). Building urban markets that are accessible to both low-income consumers and small-scale producers is critical, but too often this discussion ignores the producer-end of this food program in-which family farmers continue to be under-cut by an increasingly concentrated large-scale industrial agriculture sector, as well as facing overt violence. How urban institutions can go beyond just building public markets to address these issues while protecting the rights of food producers (such as those spelled out in the Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure) and limiting concentration of the rural agricultural sector, are still open questions.

4)      Institutionalization of food sovereignty?

The above areas of research and advocacy all contribute in various ways to an important debate that unfortunately was missing at the conclusion of the event – what are the benefits and drawbacks of institutionalizing food sovereignty?

As concepts and struggles from social movements, such as food sovereignty, agroecology, and territorial development become increasingly mainstreamed into policy discussions, there are opportunities for these kinds of approaches to benefit larger groups of people by being institutionalized. There is also a credible concern, often raised by social movements such as La Via Campesina and Food First, that institutionalization can lead to the corruption and watering-down of these concepts. A few thoughts:

  •         Top-down vs. bottom-up efforts for food sovereignty: Food sovereignty efforts emerging from social movements and farmer organizing have been particularly vibrant because those families and communities most impacted by food and agriculture policies have typically led these actions. Therefore food sovereignty actions have generally reflected the reality of challenges and opportunities facing these farmers and rural residents. Yet, institutionalization often leads to actions that are initiated in a top-down versus a grassroots manner, and therefore can lead to a form of disempowerment of local communities and stakeholders (whether intentional or not). Thus top-down institutionalized food sovereignty initiatives can have significant consequences for farmers if these actions are no longer driven by producers’ needs and interests.
  •         Institutionalization vs. standardization: Another potential pit-fall of institutionalizing food sovereignty efforts is that this will lead to the need for defining food sovereignty around a set of (potentially low-bar) measurable indicators. Although there are some benefits of this – such as measuring progress, comparing regions etc. – these concepts are inherently dynamic and adaptable to local communities’ sense of place, geography, and socio-economic needs. Developing a highly adaptable and participatory mechanism that allows “local” citizenry to define and guide institutional food sovereignty efforts presents many challenges, but is not impossible.
  •         Institutionalization and politics: Finally, there is a clear challenge that in institutionalizing food sovereignty efforts, these initiatives become dependent on the political agendas of the politicians administering these institutions. The case of Brazil and the future of the country’s pro-family farmer institutions after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff offers an obvious example. For small-scale farmers already facing significant economic challenges in highly concentrated global markets, reliance on political institutions that change their mandate every few years following elections can be risky.

The International Seminar on Local Public Policies for Food Sovereignty offered an important venue for researchers, a few policy-makers, and advocates to gather and exchange ideas on the role of institutions in promoting food sovereignty, but as this blog illustrates, many questions and issues on this topic need more in-depth and broader discussion.

Jordan Treakle

4318_691623259308_2717225_41609373_1021772_nOriginally from the mountains of western North Carolina in the United States, Jordan is an international consultant and independent researcher working in areas of agriculture and land policy, territorial development, and sustainable food systems.

Jordan’s young career as a farmer advocate began with the NGO the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, conducting grassroots farmer outreach and education, and campaigning for State policy reform to strengthen farmer lands rights in the United States. In 2012 he shifted his professional focus on land tenure security from the local level to the international policy arena with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). As Territorial Development Specialist at FAO he has worked with civil society and governments in Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, Europe, and Southeast Asia on promoting participatory natural resource governance, community land rights titling, and gender equity in agriculture.

In 2016 Jordan completed his Masters of Science degree in International Rural Development at Wageningen University (the Netherlands) where he gained a background in rural sociology and institutional economics. With this academic training Jordan has conducted socio-ecological field research on multifunctional agriculture, agricultural cooperatives, place-based development, and agricultural social movements.

Jordan is currently based in Rome, Italy.
Contact: jtreaks (@) gmail (.) com


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