A way with words: The difference between food security, self-sufficiency, sovereignty, and justice

Food security, food self-sufficiency, food sovereignty, food justice. So many terms, aren’t they all the same thing?

Not really.

Food security is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) as “the access for all people at all times to enough food for a healthy, active life.” This is often used interchangeably with food self-sufficiency, which is the same as food security, except the food in a self-sufficient society is, as its name says, generated from within the community itself. 

We tend to add “a food secure Philippines” to our wish list for progress when being food secure is just scratching the surface. In this scenario, everyone has access to enough nutritious food to live active, healthy lifestyles, but the food need not have been grown or cultivated in the same area. A community with enough imported food to feed its populace is still considered food secure.

This is different from food self-sufficiency, which the FAO defines as “the extent to which a country can satisfy its food needs from its own domestic production.” For example, before the ASIN Law that mandated all salt produced in the Philippines had to undergo the iodization process before it could be legally sold was passed in 1995, the country was 100% self-sufficient when it came to the table seasoning (that is also a natural preservative, not to mention a deterrent against many supernatural creatures). But after the law passed without local salt farmers being given the necessary structural support to include iodization in their production process, the country now imports around 93% of its salt, despite being an archipelago. 

But what about food sovereignty and food justice?

According to international peasant movement La Via Campesina, food sovereignty is “the right of people everywhere to produce food locally and sustainably through agroecological methods that respect the climatic, cultural and geographical context of each region.”

Food sovereignty moves past merely having enough food for everyone to include the rights and welfare of its producers, particularly in how said food items are grown, distributed, and consumed within a sustainable framework, focusing on community growth.

According to Food Secure Canada, an alliance of like-minded organizations, ”food security is a goal while food sovereignty describes how to get there.” 

Food justice goes a step higher, involving “questions of land ownership, agricultural practices, distribution of technology and resources, workers’ rights, and the historical injustices communities of color have faced,” according to the Boston University’s Community Service Center’s web page on food justice. Whether we like it or not, food has always been political (everyone is to eat, and they who control food sources can control everyone else), and food justice places this aspect front and center. 

The Philippines, which ranked 69th out of 121 countries in the 2022 Global Hunger Index, continues to struggle towards food security. Unfortunately, it tends to rely on importation instead of self-sufficiency, despite the efforts of many government, non-government, and private organizations. Many of our agricultural workers belong to marginalized communities and are systematically left out of decisions that affect their welfare. When they do clamor for change, however, they are often ignored, or worse. 

This is a worldwide problem, one that gets more complicated as more and more people disengage from the food production process. With the commodification of food rendering it as mere status symbols or accessories to be shown off on social media, many people, especially those in urban areas, begin to lose respect and reverence for food producers, unless they’re a celebrity chef or a famous restaurant or food vendor. That said, credit must be given to the chefs who go out of their way to highlight the farmers, fishers, and other food producers who make their craft possible, but this isn’t enough. 

An ethical, sustainable food system relies on the fair treatment and participation of everyone involved. Apparently, two years living with the threat–if not the actual experience–of starvation was not enough to alert people to how broken the food system really is. We’ve already forgotten the terror faced, especially in the first two months of the pandemic, in the threat of not having enough food to live on. Now that the world is returning to normalcy, the food producers have once again been forgotten.

Our food producers deserve to thrive, especially if we want to encourage more people to join the industry. If we continue dismissing our farmers and fishers, we shouldn’t be surprised when they encourage their children to take jobs elsewhere.

As the Philippines moves towards food sustainability and self-sufficiency, it’s worth remembering to include moving towards food sovereignty and food justice as well. 

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Yvette Tan
Yvette Tan is Agriculture magazine's managing editor’s web editor. She is an award-winning writer who likes to eat, travel, and listen to stories about the strange and supernatural. She is dedicated to encouraging people to push for sustainable food sources and is an advocate of food security, food sovereignty, and the preservation of community foodways.

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