The short story
We first met in 2010 at a meeting of the UN’s Committee on World Food Security in at the Food and Agricultural Organisation in Rome. We were both working on our PhDs and kept running into each other at meetings across Europe. United by our shared passion for social justice and food sovereignty, as well as our commitment to deep analytic reflection with a view towards social change, we decided to team up to think and act around food system transformation.
The whole story
In November 2016, both of us attended the Nyéléni Forum that took place in Cluj, Romania, with 500 participants from all over Europe and Central Asia. We had met before at the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) and at a few academic conferences, but had never worked together. We had a lot in common, however, since both of us had done extensive work in and with the food sovereignty movement at the global level.
In Cluj, we were struck by how much of the organization of the Forum relied on distinguishing participants based on which constituencies they belong to. We knew about constituencies from our work at the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), because the Civil Society Mechanism (CSM) to the CFS is structured around 11 constituencies (peasants, pastoralists, fishers, Indigenous Peoples, etc.). Constituencies are groups of actors with distinct identities. In the European context, constituencies refer to 4 main categories of participants, i.e. small-scale food producers, agricultural workers/migrants, consumer and urban food movements, and NGOs. Constituencies tend to share similar priorities, struggles and visions, although there are of course multiple understandings and therefore tensions within each constituency. At the Forum, constituencies were given the space to meet separately to discuss, for example, how they would implement the proposed campaigns that had been agreed upon by the European food sovereignty movement as a whole.
In Cluj, it was clear to us that there was a clear disconnect between the 4 constituencies used by Forum organizers, and the diversity of participants actually attending the event, many of which did not identify with, or fit in, any category. For example, we realized that a lot of researchers had made the trip to Cluj. This inspired us to convene a meeting of scholar-activists, at which we discussed our roles and contributions to the movement. We found out that researchers made about 10% of Forum participants, and had multiple activist commitments (and hats) at local, national, regional and global levels. We also found that researchers were formally invisible and not accountable to the movement, since there was no mechanism facilitating their interactions with the movement. We documented the rich debates that took place at that meeting, as well as our collective reflections about scholar-activism for food sovereignty in Europe, in a paper co-authored with Marta Rivera-Ferre, Elisa Oteros-Rozas, Barbara Van Dyck, Christina Plank and Annette Aurélie Desmarais (open access in Journal of Peasant Studies, 2019). The key contribution of that paper is to explore what separates researchers from the affected constituencies of the movement, and if/why they should organize.
Returning from Cluj, we decided to undertake some historical research into the use of constituencies in the Global Food Sovereignty Movement, looking at how and why constituencies had developed, and the roles that these played. We conducted many interviews between October 2016 and April 2018, selecting people from various regions who had played an important role in the major forums and events of the movement since the emblematic parallel NGO Forum to the World Food Summit of 1996 (essentially movement activists, NGO representatives and researchers). We published the outcome of that research in an article called ‘Do we need to categorize it? Reflections on constituencies and quotas as tools for negotiating difference in the global food sovereignty convergence space’ (open access, Journal of Peasant Studies, 2018).