No Time to Lose Common Ground: Why land matters in nutrition debates

Alberto Alonso-Fradejas, Christina Schiavoni and Zoe Brent | 01.19.2015

In Development (2014) 57(2), 218–225. doi:10.1057/dev.2014.72


Although food supply chains are global, and urban populations have ballooned, human beings nonetheless remain inextricably linked to the land by the food they eat. However, the ways in which links between land and human nutrition are articulated and maintained today are complex. This article seeks to explore this complexity, in light of current policy debates, including those related to the Second International Conference on Nutrition.

KEYWORDS land, nutrition, food regimes, food systems, food security, ICN2


To address the nutrition challenges that global populations confront today, from hunger and under nourishment to over-consumption and diet-related diseases, we must recognize how diets and nutrition are embedded in historically specific power dynamics that mediate the relationship between humans and land. First, this article highlights some of the dominant trends in global food production that have shaped this relationship in the past 50 years. The expansion of industrial meat production provides a powerful example of how patterns in diets and control over land mutually shape each other today. Furthermore, the expansion of industrial agriculture and subsequent shifts in land use and diet are reinforced by what Scrinis (2012) calls ‘nutritionism’, an approach that reduces consumption to a game of counting nutrients. The convergence of these powerful trends is both strengthening corporate control throughout the agri-food system and exacerbating problems of malnourishment globally. Next, the article shows how a discourse of food security based on ‘productionist’ solutions to global hunger serves to justify the deepening of these processes. Finally, it explores how and to what extent the complex relationship between land and nutrition has entered into the policy discourse and the role of social movements in advancing current debates. The way in which the International Conference on Nutrition (ICN) has evolved from its first instance in 1992 to the second gathering (ICN2), planned for November 2014, reflects an interest among intergovernmental organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to link the issue of nutrition to other cross cutting topics. Despite its central role in shaping nutrition trends globally, control over land is given a peripheral role in the nutrition debate as framed by the organizers of the ICN2. Nonetheless the interest in a multi-sectoral approach to the issue of nutrition opens the door to a number of important issues, which we raise as points for debate.

By looking at the structural features of trends in food production and consumption globally and historically, the central role of food and agriculture in capital accumulation emerges – what Friedmann and McMichael (1989) have described in terms of ‘food regimes’. After World War II, the second food regime, as identified by Harriet Friedmann, was made up of particular agri food complexes (wheat, durable goods and livestock), which reflected the key changes in production and consumption relations. ‘Each complex is defined as a chain (or web) of production and consumption relations, linking farmers and farm workers to consuming individuals, households and communities’ (Friedmann, 1992: 371). Land and nutrition are and have always been interconnected, but today the dominant forms of production and consumption link them in particular ways that advance certain interests over others. In other words, certain forms of land use and food production help to reinforce certain understandings of nutrition, and vice versa. We argue that by using the food regime lens to look at the livestock complex, food industry marketing strategies and hunger, the dynamics and consequences of the way our current agri-food system links land and nutrition become clear. Different types of small-scale food cultivators are being displaced by or losing control over their land and water in favour of corporate commodity producers supplying the international grain–oilseed–livestock complex and other processed foods (Alonso-Fradejas, 2012; Kerssen, 2013; La Vía Campesina and FIAN International, 2014; McKay et al., 2014; Oliveira and Schneider, 2014). This is in turn reshaping the nature of access and control over food production, thus changing diets in ways that are having negative impacts on health and livelihoods (Friedmann, 2005; Scrinis, 2012). While global policy debates have made significant progress in recognizing these dynamics (largely due to pressure from below), the lack of attention to land, and particularly to issues of power and control over land, in the framing documents of the ICN2 indicates a disconnect between some of the key factors driving malnutrition and the solutions that are being proposed to address it.

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