Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion on Food Sovereignty and Land Grab in Africa. The discussion was co-hosted by Institute for Policy Studies Foreign Policy in Focus (IPS’ FPF), Africa Africa, and Transafrica Forum. While food security has been an interest of mine for a while now, but I was unfamiliar with the concepts of food sovereignty and land grab. Luckily for me, there was a fabulous panel to elucidate.

In a nutshell, food sovereignty goes beyond food security in that while food security focuses on the certainty that everyone will have access to enough food to eat every day, food sovereignty holds that it’s just as important to consider where that food comes from and how it is produced.  Food sovereignty supports small farmers and collectively owned areas of production (farms, fisheries, etc) instead of large-scale industrial production.

The panel was moderated by Emira Woods, the Co-Director of IPS’ Foreign Policy in Focus. Also speaking on the panel was Mamadou Goita, the Director of a Food Security Program in Bamako, Mali, Rachel Smolker, from Biofuelwatch, and Matt Kavanagh, from Health Gap. The aim of the panel was to tackle the competing interests of land use, specifically the growing trend in Africa to use scarce land to grow fuel for cars in developed countries in place of growing food for local communities.

Each of the speakers brought something new and different to the conversation, and made me realize how truly immense and interdisciplinary the issues of food sovereignty and land grab are.

Smolker discussed the impacts and possible dangers of growing biofuel in place of food (a struggle she termed “food versus fuel”). She argued that in about 75% of the cause of the rise of food prices that lead to riots in 2008 was from the diversion of croplands from food production to biofuel production.  She also cautioned audience members that people must keep the motivations of those investing in African land for biofuel production in mind; is there a code of conduct for investment? What are investors really concerned about, the welfare of the people or profit?

Kavanagh argued that health has an impact on food sovereignty and food security and vice versa. Kavanagh pointed out the example of HIV/AIDS and food sovereignty. He noted that the majority of those infected by HIV/AIDS in Africa are between twenty and forty years old, those in their economic prime for production. However, sick people are less production and households headed by sick people are also less productive. These less productive households can have issues feeding themselves, which can lead to the heartbreaking choice of choosing to spend money on HIV/AIDS medication or food. Sadly, most HIV/AIDS medications require that food be eaten alongside it to be effective. He also warned that putting the health and welfare of the people into the hands of a few corporations doesn’t always end well.

For me, the most interesting speaker of the day was Goita, who focused the most of the connection between land grab and food sovereignty. He defined land grab as land acquisition or purchase from foreign investment. He argued that this investment threatens food sovereignty, or each nation’s right to decide how they produce food and how they trade this product with others. Without domestic access to land, nations cannot produce local food—a key tenant of food sovereignty. Goita warmed that foreign investment in land results in land being used to feed other nations (he specifically pointed to Saudi Arabia as an example of a nation buying land in Africa to grow crops for its people) or land being used to produce fuel for other nations. He also pointed out that working the land is not just a economic, but cultural as well—and with large plots of land being sold to foreign nations, it was threatening traditional culture within African states.

Overall, I thought the panel discussion was informative and eye opening. As someone with an interest in climate change and alternative transportation, understanding the effects of a policy aimed at increasing alternative transportation (such as increased American biofuel usage to reduce carbon dioxide emissions) on Africa is necessary. If we cannot increase biofuel usage among developed nations without causing food riots or threatening the ability of a nation to determine how its land will be used, then is it really a good alternative to oil?