Wageningen University Teacher of the Year Nominee #1: Jessica Duncan

I am very honoured to have made the short list for Teacher of Year 🙂

Rural Sociology Wageningen University

The first contender for the annual award of the University Fund Wageningen (UFW) is, according to the jury, a lecturer who is to be praised for her enthusiasm and audacity. Someone who is not afraid to tackle her lectures in a different way and is always open to feedback on her methods.

At the Rural Sociology Group we are very proud that Jessica Duncan is one of the six nominees for the Teacher of the Year award. The official ceremony in which the Teacher of the Year Award 2017 will be handed out is on April 6, 2017.

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Gender & Diversity in Sustainable Development

Excited to be teaching in this course in May. Registration is now open!

Rural Sociology Wageningen University

PhD Course Gender and Diversity

Wageningen University’s School of Social Sciences  (WASS) will be offering a PhD course in May and June 2017 called Gender and Diversity in Sustainable Development.  Bettina Bock and Jessica Duncan, both from RSO, will lecture in this course.

Date Mon 22 May 2017 until Fri 16 June 2017
Time 09:30
Venue Leeuwenborch, building number 201
Hollandseweg 1
6706 KN

Inequality lies at the center of current debates about sustainable development, from which a number of policy issues, including Sustainable Development Goals, emanate. Yet, how social (in)equality contributes to creating sustainable development often remains invisible in research. This course enables participants to recognize linkages between gender and diversity and sustainable development in a contemporary globalising world.

The topics covered in this course are:

  • Introduction: key concepts in gender studies
  • Trends form a historical perspective
  • Economics: macro and micro perspectives
  • Work and care
  • Population and migration
  • Food

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Is there space for innovation (and technology) in the CFS?

By Allison Loconto

 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.

Today we continue with our fourth thematic cluster: “Emerging Issues at the CFS: How are they being addressed?”.  In this post, Allison Loconto reflects on the politics of knowledge and techniques within in the CFS and in turn, how these contribute to food security.She acknowledges that frank debate about innovation and technology for sustainable agriculture and food security are not yet high on the CFS agenda, but that the CFS could become a mechanism to provide guidance on these questions as the global community begins to tackle them.

This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know: foodsecuresolutions@gmail.com


Loconto pic.jpeg

Each of us attending the 43rd session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) this year came to the meetings with a different learning/research objective. For me, this year, I was interested in following a topic that was not a clear priority for the negotiations, but nonetheless kept popping up throughout the discussions: technology and innovation.

For someone who is quite interested in how knowledge about techniques (another way of thinking about technology) circulates, the 43rd CFS offered an interesting arena for understanding how politics around knowledge and techniques are contributing to broader questions of food security.

Throughout the week, technology could be found as a silent undercurrent that upholds specific positions in the political debates around trade and agricultural policy. For example, the strong anti-GMO position taken by civil society within the organic and agroecology movements is often countered by a strong private sector call for ‘science’ and public sector promotion of ‘productivism’ where the sole objective and value of agriculture for food security is reducing the yield gap. The latter position is part and parcel of the conventional wisdom about the need to modernize agriculture.

In the opening plenary session, the representative from South Sudan summed up this position saying: “We need to inject technology and information into our systems”, the representative from Nigeria likewise stated that their cows are only producing 1 litre of milk per day and “the will of the people is to increase their production – but the challenges are so deep they cannot [access technology]”,  while the Chinese representative stated very clearly that they are strongly committed to linking together agricultural modernization, industrialization and information technology.

This idea that technology and information can be injected like medicine into the arm of a sick patient and will solve systemic problems of food security and development both ignores processes of innovation that can explain how technology becomes useful (and thus widely used) and how information must be turned into different forms of knowledge that are actionable (Gorman, 2002).

There is an assumed linear path for innovation that begins with invention, follows through technology and product development and design, and ends with commercialization. Following this logic, individual scientists and companies invent (the latest EU Industrial R&D Investment Scoreboard figures show the more than 50% of R&D spending in the Agriculture and Food sectors come from private investment), with state investment through R&D funding (and protection of patent registration).

The private sector commercializes and develops products. The public sector distributes the benefits to all people (to prevent poverty), extension diffuses the new technologies and more broadly, the State manages environmental and social impacts of technology and innovation. Here, civil society is a watchdog that calls out bad technologies or bad practices while the majority of the people are consumers, producers, employees and voters (but not innovators).

However, there is significant evidence of innovation as multi-actor networked paths, rather than linear paths. A number of scholars have differently named these phenomena where innovation has become a collective endeavor (Van de Ven, 1999), with inventors and users collaborating and sharing ideas and information. These have been referred to alternatively as user innovation (Von Hippel, 1976); co-inventor networks (Breschi and Malerba, 2005); open innovation (Chesbrough, 2003); open source (Raymond, 2001); participatory design (Schuler and Namioka, 1993); community innovation (van Oost et al., 2009); upstream engagement (Macnaghten et al., 2005); mid-stream modulation (Fisher et al., 2006); Constructive Technology Assessment (Rip et al., 1995); cooperative research (Kleinknecht and Reijnen, 1992); democratising innovation (von Hippel, 2005; Felt et al., 2007); responsible innovation (Guston, 2006); responsible research and innovation (Von Schomberg, 2013; Stilgoe et al.); social innovation (Stirling, 2008); and grassroots innovation (Smith and Seyfang, 2013).

Therefore, “innovation is not simply a technology (or a technical object), it must be the reorganization of institutions, organizations, value chains, and businesses to enable actors to innovate on their own terms” (Felt et al., 2007). This means that innovation is not a new technology, but a new way of doing things. Thus, if innovation is a collective reorganization of systems, can we not also consider it to be innovative uses of old technologies, new combinations of traditional knowledge and techniques or perhaps the discontinuation of some technologies that have not become useful to many people?

These alternative ideas about innovation were highlighted during the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation CFS side event entitled ‘Who Will and How Will We Feed Humanity’. A panel of four speakers, representing the private sector (Syngenta), civil society (ETC Group) and farmers (Via Campesina) and a donor (GAFSP), tried to find complementarity between contrasting approaches to achieving food security and nutrition.

The motivation for this side event was precisely that discussions around how to achieve food security and nutrition and the related SDG targets are often polarized, with core challenges being framed based on an ideology or perspective (such as modernization, or productivity). As we know from theories of the performativity (Callon, 2010), different framings can lead to different and sometimes contrasting approaches to solving them. This is one of the reasons why this panel discussion was so interesting. We got to confront face to face these different framings of a single (hypothetical) problem of constraints on food security in two countries.

The Syngenta response was interesting in that the speaker argued that

“If you don’t organize the market first, higher production doesn’t make sense.”

Via Campesina responded saying that

“the assumption of this exercise is that we need to ramp up production, even though it is not articulated in the question. But is that the case in these both countries? (
) We don’t begin with that idea – we start with the idea that we are here already in a situation of production, what can we manage here in our contexts?”

Representatives from GAFSP argued that

“Technical is only part of it – if technical solutions were all that was needed, then we wouldn’t have a development business – we could all go home. Institutions matter, the people matter, the stakeholders matter and how they are engaged matters.”

Finally, the ETC Group argued that we need to better deal with policies around new technologies and that not all public-private partnerships are predatory. When investors are willing to see returns over 20 year and farmers are themselves organized, they could take care of themselves quite nicely.

“Every case is very specific and there is the need for sensitivity and for humility. The critical thing is recognizing the integrity of the actors”.

These responses all show that in some corners, serious discussions that question some of our assumptions about innovation and technology and about the role of different actors in these processes are emerging. The idea of listening more to different actors’ points of view and taking their knowledge seriously is a very good place to start.

Nonetheless, frank debates among different actors about innovation and technology for sustainable agriculture and food security are not yet high on the CFS agenda. Instead, they are increasingly being taken up in private sector arena – such as Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture – where civil society or alternative forms of innovation and technology have little to no voice. The CFS could be a mechanism to provide guidance on these questions as the global community begins to tackle this issue, the CFS could focus on knowledge sharing and particularly of sharing innovative ideas that could be experimented with in other parts of the world.

Through the CFS mechanism we could be actively thinking about the types of technologies and innovations that are best suited to a range of sustainable food systems and we should work towards ensuring that these are the ones that we promote in specific contexts because they are of use to the actors who are already there.


AL_headAllison Loconto is a Researcher at the French Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and co-leads the theme on ‘transitions, emergences and transformations’ in the Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire Sciences, Innovations et SociĂ©tĂ©s (LISIS). She is a Visiting Expert on Institutional Innovations in the Plant Production and Protection Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO). She is also President of the Research Committee on Food and Agriculture (RC40) within the International Sociological Association (ISA). Dr. Loconto’s research is focused on innovation and the governance of transitions to sustainable agriculture with a focus on standards, institutional innovations and questions of responsibility. Her most recent book is: Innovative markets for sustainable agriculture: How innovations in market institutions encourage sustainable agriculture in developing countries.

Webpage: http://umr-lisis.fr/membre/allison-loconto/



Breschi S and Malerba F. (2005) Clusters, Networks and Innovation: OUP Oxford.

Callon M. (2010) Performativity, Misfires and Politics. Journal of Cultural Economy 3: 163-169.

Chesbrough H. (2003) Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology.

Felt U, Wynne B, Callon M, et al. (2007) Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously. Report of the Expert Group on Science and Governance to the Science, Economy and Society Directorate, Directorate-­General for Research, European Commission.

Fisher E, Mahajan RL and Mitcham C. (2006) Midstream Modulation of Technology: Governance From Within. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 26: 485-496.

Gorman M. (2002) Types of Knowledge and Their Roles in Technology Transfer. The Journal of Technology Transfer 27: 219-231.

Guston D. (2006) Responsible knowledge-based innovation. Society 43: 19-21.

Kleinknecht A and Reijnen JON. (1992) Why do firms cooperate on R&D? an empirical study. Research Policy 21: 347-360.

Macnaghten P, Kearnes MB and Wynne B. (2005) Nanotechnology, Governance, and Public Deliberation: What Role for the Social Sciences? Science Communication 27: 268-291.

Raymond ES. (2001) The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary: O’Reilly Media.

Rip A, Misa TJ and Schot J. (1995) Managing Technology in Society: The Approach of Constructive Technology Assessment. London: Pinter.

Schuler D and Namioka A. (1993) Participatory Design: Principles and Practices: Taylor & Francis.

Smith A and Seyfang G. (2013) Constructing grassroots innovations for sustainability. Global Environmental Change 23: 827-829.

Stilgoe J, Owen R and Macnaghten P. Developing a framework for responsible innovation. Research Policy.

Stirling A. (2008) “Opening Up” and “Closing Down”: Power, Participation, and Pluralism in the Social Appraisal of Technology. Science, Technology & Human Values 33: 262-294.

Van de Ven AH. (1999) The innovation journey, New York: Oxford University Press.

van Oost E, Verhaegh S and Oudshoorn N. (2009) From Innovation Community to Community Innovation: User-initiated Innovation in Wireless Leiden. Science, Technology & Human Values 34: 182-205.

Von Hippel E. (1976) The dominant role of users in the scientific instrument innovation process. Research policy 5: 212-239.

von Hippel E. (2005) Democratizing Innovation: MIT Press.

Von Schomberg R. (2013) A vision of responsible innovation. In: Owen R, Heintz M and Bessant J (eds) Responsible Innovation. London: John Wiley.


Winds of change, or more of the same? Urbanization and rural transformation in the context of emerging global initiatives


By Alison Blay-Palmer

 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.

Today we continue with our fourth thematic cluster: “Emerging Issues at the CFS: How are they being addressed?”.  In this post, Alison Blay-Palmer reflects on opening at the international level for discussing food with an increasingly regional and sustainability focus. She questions whether emerging initiatives call into question the capacity of the CSM and its constituent groups to achieve its mandate on the Right to Food.

This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know: foodsecuresolutions@gmail.com



I offer the following comments as a new observer of the CFS process. I attended CFS 42 (2015) and then 43 (2016), and participate in the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) meetings for the SDGs and Urban and Rural Transformation.

The food spaces within and between rural and urban communities are simultaneously interconnected and contested in part due to increasing distances between smallholder producers who provide most of the world’s food, and urban eaters who are now in the majority and increasing in numbers.

In opposition to the globalization and industrialization that creates these rifts in our food system, and in tandem with increased explicit attention to urban-rural linkages by the CFS, recently launched initiatives such as the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFPP),  New Urban Agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals and the City-Region Food System project offer local pathways to more coherent regional sustainable food systems and increased capacity for urban and rural transformation that respects the Right to Food.

Nevertheless, being outside of CFS debate, these initiatives might call into question the capacity of the CSM and its constituent groups to engage based on:

  1. inadequate funding for the CFS,
  2. a lack of joined-up policy; and;
  3. the threat to agro-ecological farming systems from high technology.

The MUFPP, launched in 2015, now has 133 signatory cities that together include more than 460 million people. The Pact draws direct connections between rural and urban communities “Recognizing that family farmers and smallholder food producers, (notably women producers in many countries) play a key role in feeding cities and their territories, by helping to maintain resilient, equitable, culturally appropriate food systems; and that reorienting food systems and value chains for sustainable diets is a means to reconnect consumers with both rural and urban producers” (MUFPP 2015: 1).

Enhanced direct links between producers and consumers offer the potential for better market opportunities for smallholder farmers and improved access to nutritional food for the urban food insecure. This level of integration is also key to addressing the 2030 Agenda goals. For example, the Report of the UN Secretary General titled ‘Agricultural development, food security and nutrition’ (2016) points to SDG 2 (zero hunger) that addresses food and nutrition security and its interconnections with production considerations including soil quality (Goal 15), water quality and availability (Goal 6), climate (Goal 13), gender equality (Goal 5) and production and consumption patterns (Goal 12).

While developed as an international initiative through UN-Habitat, the New Urban Agenda looks to integrate ‘urban and territorial planning’ to end hunger and malnutrition by making local food supply-consumption loops less wasteful and more affordable, coordinating policy at the food-energy-water-health-transportation-waste nexus, and conserving genetic (and presumably, though not explicitly) biodiversity. Paragraph 123 of the Agenda states:

 “We [Heads of State and Government, Ministers and High Representatives] will promote the integration of food security and the nutritional needs of urban residents, particularly the urban poor, in urban and territorial planning, to end hunger and malnutrition. We will promote coordination of sustainable food security and agriculture policies across urban, peri-urban and rural areas to facilitate the production, storage, transport and marketing of food to consumers in adequate and affordable ways to reduce food losses and prevent and reuse food waste. We will further promote the coordination of food policies with energy, water, health, transport and waste policies, maintain the genetic diversity of seeds and reduce the use of hazardous chemicals, and implement other policies in urban areas to maximize efficiencies and minimize waste.”

The city-region food systems projects also work to close loops between urban and rural spaces to enhance smallholder farm income and improve access to food for urban residents, especially those with low income. This seven-city project looks for ways to track food system activity from field to waste heap and to address policy gaps that can facilitate improved rural-urban connections.

While these initiatives could all enhance urban and rural transformation, they also call into question the capacity of the CSM and its constituent groups to ensure the Right to Food in several ways.

First, it is well recognized that the CFS is underfunded and that by extension civil society constituents as well as the states most impacted by poverty are also underfunded. Second, facilitating sustainable regional food systems requires both joined-up, coherent policy across multiple scales as well as the requisite local autonomy to capture benefits and address challenges in the regional context.

Formal reference points for subsidiarity, a robust Precautionary Principle, as well as sustainability, including principles of social equity and the Right to Food, economic localization, ecological regeneration and citizen engagement, need to be incorporated into policy and entrenched in law at all levels. While the New Urban Agenda, the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, and City Region Food System projects all draw much needed attention to the important, foundational role of rural communities and food, there is a lack of cohesion. So while these initiatives offer openings to raise the profile of and address questions around urban and rural transformation, given the lack of both policy coherence and funding for the CFS, these opportunities may be missed.

Finally, the increasing presence in the CFS of high technology-driven solutions,  such as those promoted by the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture undermine the rights of smallholder farmers and the people and communities they nourish to food grown using agro-ecology methods. While the CFS has the moral authority to focus policy and initiatives on the Right to Food, in reality, this seems difficult without a deliberate and explicit return to the principles that emerged from the CFS reform.


Alison Blay-Palmer cropped.jpgAlison Blay-Palmer is the Centre for International Governance Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. She is also the founding Director for the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, Director of the Viessmann European Research Centre and an Associate Professor in Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research and teaching combine her passions for sustainable food systems and community viability through civil society engagement and innovative governance. Her research receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada, the Carasso Foundation, the International Social Sciences Council and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food.


The CFS policy recommendations on Connecting Smallholders to Markets

An important step for increasing peasant family farmer recognition in the global governance of food and agriculture

By Thomas Patriota

Photo credit:  Kamran Ali

By Thomas Patriota

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.

Today we inaugurate the fourth and last thematic cluster on “Emerging Issues at the CFS: How are they being addressed?”.  Thomas Patriota comments on policy recommendations adopted at the last CFS: Connecting Smallholders to Markets (CSTM). Reviewing the discussions that lead to this instrument, he stresses that the CSTM represent an important discursive affirmation of the primary role of smallholders in agricultural investment and food security. He further argues that the adoption of the CSTM recommendations is a step forward in recognizing peasant family farming within global food governance.

This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know: foodsecuresolutions@gmail.com

Increasing recognition of the central role of smallholders in food security and nutrition in the CFS

The policy recommendations on Connecting Smallholders to Markets (CSTM) adopted at the CFS 43 session last October are an important new addition to the gradual accumulation of policy dialogue and consensus-building on measures for the strengthening of peasant family farming[1] that can be traced back to the 37th CFS session in 2011 – two years after the Committee’s reform.

That session’s policy roundtable on ‘How to Increase Food Security and Smallholder-Sensitive Investment in Agriculture’ saw the terms of multilateral policy debate on this issue crucially shifted (McKeon, 2015). The relative strength of the  discursive affirmations enshrined in the CFS 37 final report regarding the primary role of smallholders in both agricultural investment and food security gradually intensified in the following years. This can be partly attributed to the strong evidence and argumentative basis provided by the HLPE report that was commissioned during that session and from which would emerge the policy recommendations on ‘Investing in Smallholder Agriculture for Food Security and Nutrition’, endorsed at the CFS 40 session in 2013.

These in turn eventually yielded the High Level Forum on Connecting Smallholders to Markets, held in 2015, for which a Background Document previously prepared by a technical task team comprising members of the three Rome-based UN agencies plus the Civil Society and Private Sector Mechanisms also contributed to deepening the quality of policy debate. The resulting CSTM recommendations adopted in July of the following year and their endorsement three months later at CFS 43 are the latest developments in this succession of debates and policy documents.

Investing in Smallholder Agriculture for Food Security and Connecting Smallholders to Markets

Whereas the first set of policy recommendations is framed with regards to investment by and for smallholders, and the second on strengthening smallholders’ access to markets, both documents cover a considerably wide range of interconnected policies, and how these relate to the roles of both state and private actors. But they also bring in a narrative that posits a greater degree of autonomy for smallholders both politically, with regards to the state (through the promotion of greater organizational strength for smallholders and more bottom-up direct participation of organizations in policy formulation and implementation) as well as economically, particularly in their interaction with larger and more vertically integrated transnational private actors (with which diverse forms of contract farming are only seen as potential opportunities for smallholders if and when properly regulated, so as to ensure a level-playing field in both contract negotiation and enforcement).

The CSTM policy recommendations in particular give special importance to ‘institutional procurement’ programs, reflecting an increasing consensus on the benefits for both consumers and small-scale food producers of using the structured demand of state institutions (schools, hospitals, social protection programs) to directly purchase food from smallholders. This increasing consensus on public procurement programs is not only reflected in CFS policy guidelines, but also in reports, programs and activities undertaken by FAO, IFAD, and WFP, as well as in other branches of the UN system – such as the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, through its Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

‘Soft’ CFS policy recommendations, ‘hard’ WTO restrictions, and potential contributions of FAO in bridging the gap

Despite this growing recognition, public procurement and other forms of state support to smallholders in developing countries are considerably restricted by existing multilateral trade rules, as defined by the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) and in particular its provisions on Public Stockholding for Food Security – an issue that has come to the fore since the Bali Ministerial Conference in 2013. Indeed, although WTO rules in principle allow developing states to purchase from their country’s family farmers to constitute national food security stocks, severe restrictions apply regarding any form of price support given to these farmers by the purchasing public institutions[2].

Part of the reason for these restrictions can be linked to the absence of anything remotely close to the kind of deepened qualified policy debate and multi-stakeholder representation that have yielded the above-mentioned policy recommendations in the CFS, when it comes to discussing the role of ‘low-income or resource-poor producers’ – as they are referred to in WTO parlance – in the much more restricted and less representative environment of international agricultural trade negotiations. Nevertheless, if smallholders are to benefit from national tailor-made policies, developing country states of all sizes should be allowed to implement such enabling policies without having to fear retaliation for circumventing international trade rules. It is with this rationale that, following a proposal originally emanating from Brazil’s Ministry of Agrarian Development, the G20 group of developing nations in the WTO proposed changes to the existing AoA (reflected in the last circulated draft proposal for a new agreement dating back to 2008), which, if adopted, would no longer consider public purchase for food stocks at subsidized prices to be ‘trade-distorting’ provided these are purchased from ‘low-income or resource-poor producers’ (Cedro, 2011)[3].

These and other multilateral discursive and negotiating battlegrounds for greater policy space to support peasant family farmers of the Global South, who also represent most of the world’s food insecure, include current efforts to obtain greater respect, protection and fulfillment of their own Human Rights as well as recently approved measures that identify them as part of the solution to bringing about economic, social and environmental Sustainable Development. In this context, some of the FAO’s initiatives emanating from the global civil society-led campaign and subsequent celebrations of the UN International Year on Family Farming – IYFF 2014 also represent decisive – if still initial – steps forward. These include, among others, the internationally agreed FAO definition on Family Farming, which officially establishes both family management and predominance of family labor as two key criteria, as well as the Committee on Agriculture’s 24th session in which member states officially recognized the need to both ‘develop and implement specific policies’ as well as to adopt ‘common criteria for achieving definitions and typologies of family farming’ across all regions of the world.

Definitions, common criteria and indicators for SDG 2.3 monitoring: bases for better international coordination on policies that support family farmers

The SDG monitoring process represents a significant opportunity for generating greater policy coherence across the international governance system related to smallholders, given the fact that the two agreed indicators for SDG 2.3 (which aims to ‘double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers’ by 2030) need to be able to refer to commonly agreed criteria on who these producers are and who they are not, in order to generate comparable data across developing and developed countries.

In an international food system still largely dominated by transnational corporations and governments of the Global North, and in which different multilateral negotiation forums tend to function as separate and often disconnected entities, social movements, academics, governments and other actors from the Global South and North should take advantage not only of the growing political recognition of producer organizations and increasing evidence on the manifold benefits of public policy support to small-scale farming worldwide (as provided by the CFS), but also draw on the significant work conducted by FAO on gathering and systematizing data and knowledge on family farming worldwide (as produced by the IYFF-related agenda[4]) in order to step up efforts towards greater convergence between initiatives that aim to strengthen those who are alternately referred to as peasants (HRC), low-income or resource-poor producers (WTO), smallholders (CFS), small-scale food producers (SDGs) or family farmers (FAO).

Indeed, the capacity of national governments to implement a comprehensive set of intersectoral measures to support peasant family farming, as prescribed by the relevant CFS policy recommendations that these same governments have officially endorsed, ultimately also depends on a better integrated, more coherent and more equitable international governance regime that respects and reflects the primary role played by smallholders in the world’s food systems.


linkedin-profile-pictureThomas Patriota is a PhD Candidate at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex, UK, funded by a scholarship from CAPES, Brazil. He previously worked in the Brazilian Government, including two years in the Ministry of Agrarian Development’s (MDA) International Department. Publications include: Public policies for the strengthening of family farming in the Global South (Policy in Focus special edition, co-edited with Francesco Pierri and Michael MacLennan, IPC-IG/UNDP, 2015)  ‘Brazil’s cooperation in African agricultural development and food security’ (with Francesco Pierri, in Cheru, Modi, Agricultural Development and Food Security in Africa: the impact of Chinese, Indian and Brazilian Investments, Zed Books, 2013), and Le BrĂ©sil, un partenaire de l’Afrique qui s’affirme. Les relations BrĂ©sil-Afrique durant les gouvernements Lula (2003-2010) (IFRI, 2011). His current doctoral research focuses on comparatively examining peasant family farmer organisations’ influence on trade and family farmer registry policies through their participation in policy deliberations at the regional level in South America (MERCOSUR) and West Africa (ECOWAS).


Cedro, Rafael, 2011, Desenvolvimento Rural e a OMC. A ExperiĂȘncia do Brasil, Curitiba: JuruĂĄ Editora.

McKeon, Nora, 2015, Food Security Governance. Empowering Communities, regulating corporations, New York: Routledge.

[1] FAO’s definition of ‘Family Farming’ is the main reference for the ‘Peasant Family Farming’ umbrella-term used here to designate a wide-ranging and extremely diverse sector that is nevertheless differentiated from larger more capitalized agricultural sectors through the main criterion of its ‘predominant reliance on family labour’ (FAO, 2013). The terms ‘family farmers’, ‘smallholders’, ‘small-scale food producers’, and ‘peasants’ are used here interchangeably.

[2] Under current WTO rules, the difference between state purchase price and market price is accounted for in the ‘Aggregate Measurement of Support’ – AMS calculations that fall under the ‘amber box’ – i.e., these amounts are considered ‘trade-distorting’ subsidies that should be eventually reduced and eliminated.

[3] The issue of Public Stockholding for Food Security is still under discussion at the WTO, and India – backed by the G33 – has been the main country defending the right of developing countries to maintain public stocks for food security at ongoing negotiations. Debates in international trade negotiations, however, tend to be strongly skewed in favor of the interests of larger transnational corporate actors and of developed country delegations.

[4] Examples include a series of regional Working Papers, work conducted by an International Working Group on Family Farming – IWG-FF (in partnership with IFAD and CIRAD) to establish common criteria and typologies at national and regional levels, and the Family Farming Knowledge Platform.

Reflections on an epistemic road block in the CFS

by Philip McMichael

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.

Moving forward with the third the thematic cluster: “CFS: Multi-stakeholder or multi-actor? And does it matter?”  Philip McMichael presents a review of how different actors in the CFS understand key terms and key issues. He also reflects on the implications of this for the future of the CFS.

This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know: foodsecuresolutions@gmail.com


As a member of the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) technical support team in the preparation for the debate over a CFS version of Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems in 2014 and 2015, it became clear that this process involved some measure of windmill tilting. It revealed the substantial obstacles faced by the CSM in ensuring legal regulation of investment in land deals. Worse, CSM representations along these lines at the closing of this debate in October 2015 were dismissed by the then CFS Chair. But the debate also revealed substantial misunderstanding of the difference between small farming and industrial agriculture.

There was a clear epistemic standoff between the CSM and Private Sector Mechanism (PSM), which is not about scale preference, but really a distinction between farming culture and ‘agriculture without farmers,’ in the words of Vía Campesina. This distinction includes the claim made by the CSM on behalf of small producers for the ‘right to produce’ (as opposed simply to the ‘right to food’).

Small-producers produce about 50 per cent of the world’s food, yet account for about 50 per cent of the world’s hungry (ETC 2009). Further, they have experienced the dismantling of infrastructural supports and exposure to food dumping in their national markets in recent decades, as governments have come to serve markets instead of their citizens. Within this neoliberal milieu, UN/FAO member states and their private sector allies recast small producers as potential ‘smallholder businesses,’ waiting to engage in entrepreneurial agriculture if only provided with sufficient financial investments.

The focus here is on ‘productivism’, by which ‘smallholder’ farming is evaluated and found lacking, in terms of ‘yield gaps’ to be resolved via ‘improvements.’ Productivism imposes a standardized yield metric on farming, measuring only plant yields (but neither efficiency of water/energy use, nor environmental externalities), rather than what may be reproduced (eg, seed, soil fertility, water cycles, common resources, rural livelihoods) by low-input or agro-ecological farming.

This distinction between small producer farming and corporate agro-industrialization is routinely conflated in the CFS debates. Given the intensifying land deal context, in addition to the notion of land as an investment refuge, it serves investor interest to represent ‘smallholders’ as potential entrepreneurs, despite CFS documentation of the multifunctional character of small producer communities. Thus the CFS High-Level Panel of Experts’ Report on Investing in Smallholder Agriculture for Food Security defines small-scale farming in the following way:

Smallholder agriculture is practised by families (including one or more households) using only or mostly family labour and deriving from that work a large but variable share of their income, in kind or in cash… it includes crop raising, animal husbandry, forestry and artisanal fisheries… Off -farm activities play an important role in providing smallholders with additional income and as a way of diversifying risk… smallholders producing only or mainly for subsistence are not uncommon… smallholder’s families are part of social networks within which mutual assistance and reciprocity translate into collective investments (mainly through work exchanges) and into solidarity systems
 smallholder agriculture is the foundation of food security in many countries and an important part of the social/economic/ecological landscape in all countries. (CFS 2013: 10–11)

Furthermore, the ‘potential efficiency of smallholder farming relative to larger farms has been widely documented, focusing on the capacity of smallholders to achieve high production levels per unit of land through the use of family labour in diversified production systems’ (CFS 2013: 12). The CSM claims a significant difference between labor, and financial, investment. Labor investment is the differentia specifica of small producer agriculture (Ploeg 2009), and, according to the CFS, small producers are the ‘main investors’ (2013: 16). But this point goes unrecognized in CFS debates because of the singular insistent understanding of ‘investment’ as financial.

Within the UN, the recent Special Rapporteur on the  Right to Food recommended deepening domestic production to reduce food dependency, observing that there are ‘approximately 500 million small-scale farmers in developing countries making them not only the vast majority of the world’s farmers but, taking into account their families, responsible for the well-being of over two billion persons’ (De Schutter 2011: 13). Reclaiming this right requires a power re-balance in order to restore integrity to domestic farm sectors and rights to producing communities. In the UN debates the persisting trade reflex (by which states secure their balance of payments) reproduces the notion that agriculture is a revenue operation and is best left to ‘entrepreneurial farming’ to ‘feed the world.’ One representative of the PSM, from an agro-food network, made the following observations in a CFS 41 debate:

While there is a consensus that farmers are at the center, farming needs to be understood as a profession, and food security is about economic growth, not just growing food— thus farmers need to break the subsistence cycle and become entrepreneurs, produce more with less land, and stabilize via land ownership, inputs (agro-chemicals), knowledge, and market access.

This representation of farmers echoes other such statements in the course of CFS debates regarding smallholders being at the heart of a ‘transition.’ Thus PSM representatives claim: ‘we invest in large and small’ – implying scale neutrality that obscures the incommensurability of small farming and industrial agriculture, and: ‘agriculture investments are wonderful job creators’ – suggesting either plantations or agro-industrial estates as job safety nets for displaced farmers where jobs are the currency of modernization. Job provision assumes that small-scale producers are better off earning a wage, and that small farming is no different from farm working.

The emphasis on a financial calculus similarly discounts local common pool resources, managed by self-organizing land users with shared rules which ‘differ from the logic of capital—they reflect, instead the interests and perspectives of the involved producers, ecological cycles and/or principles such as social justice, solidarity, or the containment of (potential) conflicts’ (Ploeg et al. 2012: 164). In sum, CSM’s ability to gain traction in this area of rights will require problematizing the epistemic reductionism of forms of farming, which obscures power differentials as well as incommensurability in the material and cultural meanings of agriculture.


McMichael.pngPhilip McMichael is Professor of Development Sociology at Cornell. His research is informed by a world-historical perspective and focuses on food regimes and food sovereignty, and rethinking the agrarian question. He has authored Food Regimes and Agrarian Questions (Fernwood, 2013), Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective (Sage, 2016), and the award-winning Settlers and the Agrarian Question (Cambridge, 1984); and he has edited Contesting Development: Critical Struggles for Social Change (Routledge, 2010), and co-edited Biofuels, Land and Agrarian Change, with Jun Borras and Ian Scoones (Routledge, 2011). He is a member of the Civil Society Mechanism in the FAO’s Committee on World Food Security, has worked with UNRISD and the FAO, and has collaborated with La Vía Campesina, and the IPC for Food Sovereignty.


CFS. 2013. Investing in smallholder agriculture for food security. Rome: FAO.

De Schutter, O. 2011. How not to think of land-grabbing: three critiques of large-scale investments in farmland. Journal of Peasant Studies, 38(2): 249–280.

ETC. 2009. Who will feed us? ETC Group Communique, 102 (November): http://www.etcgroup.org.

Ploeg, van der J. D. 2009. The ‘new’ peasantries. Struggles for autonomy and sustainability in an era of empire and globalization. London: Earthscan.

Ploeg, van der J. D., Ye, J., and Schneider, S. 2012. Rural development through the construction of new, nested markets: comparative perspectives from China, Brazil and the European Union. Journal of Peasant Studies, 39(1): 133–174.


The politics of food governance: Final call for abstracts

This year the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) is meeting in September in Oslo, Norway.

We have a great session planned on “The politics of food governance“. Deadline to submit abstracts is February 15th.

To submit an abstract you do need to sign up on the ECPR website . You will get there directly if you click on “propose a paper”. If you submit, please indicate which panel you would like to be a part of (listed below).

Hope to see you in Oslo!

69. Session description:

During this conference we welcome panels and papers that critically analyze the struggle for power at the global level in relation to food governance. Since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 2 which aims to eradicate hunger, many public and private players have been engaged in a benevolent and concerted action to reach the goals in 2030. At the same time international markets are globalizing leaving smallholders and other food producers as price takers, leaving them increasingly vulnerable and dependent. Organized (EU) farmers are also seriously affected by the globalization of food governance and the liberalization of the world markets. And all together it results in a complex power dynamic between emancipating smallholder social movements, resiliency-testing farmers from the EU, power/profit seeking multinationals, NGOs and governments.

Continue reading “The politics of food governance: Final call for abstracts”