Can the concept of “food sovereignty” justify increasing agricultural protection in developing countries?

The food crisis has challenged the political legitimacy and economic efficiency of the deregulation and liberalization of international agricultural trade. In the second half of the 20th century, “food security” was put forward as the grounds for the implementation of modern protectionist agricultural policies in developed countries. In response to falling, unstable agricultural prices on world markets, price support mechanisms became the main European agricultural policy tool, generating high tariffs. The protection of agricultural markets was reassessed by the Uruguay Round of the GATT international trade negotiations (1986-1994), resulting in binding commitments to reduce domestic support measures suspected of impacting world prices. The ongoing Doha Development Agenda round of agricultural negotiations still aim to discipline and reduce the protection WTO members obtain through trade policies and domestic support measures in the agricultural sector. However, a certain number of NGOs and civil society representatives have developed the concept of “food sovereignty” to defend the idea that developing countries should have the right to protect their domestic markets from imports of food products when these imports compete with domestic production and consequently threaten their agricultural sector. At the same time, food sovereignty campaigners suspect that WTO rules and the ongoing negotiations will make this goal unattainable. Few studies have tried to understand the concept of food sovereignty and the basis on which it is built, as seen by its supporters. Another aspect of the issue is which economic instruments it requires. The purpose of this paper is to look at whether the introduction of the “food sovereignty” concept into the WTO negotiations would enable developing countries to better protect their smallholder agriculture against agricultural imports. We believe that the focus of this study may be of importance in explaining some key points of discord at the WTO. We base our analysis on recent WTO negotiations to compare the concept of food sovereignty, as developed by NGOs, with the economic instruments contained in draft WTO agreements concerning developing countries. Our starting hypothesis is that the concept of food sovereignty could be a political tool and could provide economic instruments to boost the necessary protection of agriculture in developing countries. The particularity of our approach is to combine a factual historical-economic analysis of food security with a cognitive analysis – developed by political scientists – of the concept of food sovereignty. Firstly, from a historical point of view, we focus on how the concept of “food security” was used as grounds to build modern agricultural and trade policies and how, in some cases (CAP), it led to the creation of protectionist instruments or, at the other end of the scale, trade liberalisation. The second part of our paper studies food sovereignty from the point of view of its emergence and in relation to WTO negotiations. We base our analysis on founding texts on food sovereignty written by a few NGOs and identify a number of definitions. We then conduct a cognitive analysis of the concept from the point of view of the frame of reference underlying the public policies. The aim of this approach is to construct the food sovereignty campaigners’ mental maps, which draw on the different levels of perception of the world (such as images of the agricultural world and the societal role of trade). The third part of our paper subsequently looks into the extent to which it is possible for developing countries to protect themselves against agricultural imports, while respecting current international trade law. For instance Special and Differential Treatment (S&D) entitles them to a lower and slower reduction in their tariffs than developed countries. In addition, special arrangements are often discussed to cope with their potential vulnerability to trade liberalisation. Under the ongoing WTO talks, developing countries can, for instance, negotiate “special products” that benefit from a less stringent application of tariff reductions than regular agricultural products. We then argue that some technical arrangements made at the WTO already tie in with the concept of food sovereignty, even if the term is not actually mentioned in the draft agreements. This begs the question as to the possibility of the official introduction of the concept as it stands and its potential effects on the terms of the multilateral agreements for the developing countries. We show that whereas this concept may clarify some of the developing countries’ needs, its implementation would not extensively change the outcome of the negotiations because many developing countries already have tools available to protect their smallholder agriculture. These results provide some insight into the interactions between trade policies and world hunger. Nevertheless, outside of the WTO negotiations or in a departure from its rules, other international agreements (bilateral trade agreements, funding conditions dictated by international organisations, etc…) may add more rules against protection from imports into developing countries. They suggest a broader hypothesis for further research into the effects of other international agreements on food sovereignty.

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 Record created 2017-04-01, last modified 2018-01-22

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