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Subversive Future Seeks Like-Minded Model: On the Mismatch between Visions of Food Sovereignty Futures and Quantified Scenarios of Global Food Futures

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 May 2021


Will we, by 2050, be able to feed a rapidly growing population with healthy and sustainably grown food in a world threatened by systemic environmental crises? There are too many uncertainties for us to predict the long-term evolution of the global agri-food system, but we can explore a wide range of futures to inform policymaking and public debate on the future of food. This is typically done by creating scenarios (story lines that vividly describe what different futures could look like) and quantifying them with computer simulation models to get numerical estimates of how different aspects of the global agri-food system might evolve under different hypotheses. Among the many scenarios produced over the last twenty years, one would expect to see the future advocated by the food sovereignty movement, which claims to represent roughly two hundred million self-described “peasants” (small farmers) worldwide. This movement defends a vision of the future based on relocalized, sustainable, and just agri-food systems, self-governed through direct and participatory democratic processes. Yet, food sovereignty is conspicuously absent from quantified scenarios of global food futures. As part of the roundtable, “Ethics and the Future of the Global Food System,” this essay identifies seven obstacles that undermine the creation of food sovereignty scenarios by examining two attempts at crafting such scenarios.

Roundtable: Ethics and the Future of the Global Food System
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

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I would like to thank Michiel van Dijk, Eric Kemp-Benedict, Kasper Kok, Olivier Mora, Antonio Onorati, and Detlef van Vuuren; participants at the Scenarios Forum 2019, held at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver; and audience members at the colloquium series hosted by the Department of Philosophy of the University of Twente in the Netherlands for helpful discussions. This research was partly funded by a grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.



1 My discussion of the history of the movement is based on Edelman, Marc, “Food Sovereignty: Forgotten Genealogies and Future Regulatory Challenges,” Journal of Peasant Studies 41, no. 6 (November 2014), pp. 959–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Claeys, Priscilla, Human Rights and the Food Sovereignty Movement: Reclaiming Control (London: Routledge, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 “The International Peasants’ Voice: Globalising Hope, Globalising the Struggle!,” La Via Campesina, n.d.,

3 Claeys, Human Rights and the Food Sovereignty Movement.

4 Many definitions of food sovereignty can be found in the “Key Documents (La Via Campesina)” pages of LVC's website ( and in the secondary literature provided there. See, in particular, the special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies (41(6), 2014) entitled “Global Agrarian Transformations: Critical Perspectives on Food Sovereignty”, guest edited by Marc Edelman, James C. Scott, Amita Baviskar, Saturnino M. Borras Jr., Deniz Kandiyoti, Eric Holt-Gimenez, Tony Weis, and Wendy Wolford. Another important source is Michel P, Pimbert, ed., Food Sovereignty, Agroecology and Biocultural Diversity: Constructing and Contesting Knowledge (Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2018).

5 See, for instance the special issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies (36, no. 3, 2009) edited by Raj Patel; and Bina Agarwal, “Food Sovereignty, Food Security and Democratic Choice: Critical Contradictions, Difficult Conciliations,” Journal of Peasant Studies 41, no. 6 (2014), pp. 1247–68.

6 For a discussion of plausibility, see Yashar Saghai, “Is a Thriving Food Sovereignty-Based Global Future Plausible?,” in Justice and Food Security in a Changing Climate, edited by Ivo Wallimann-Helmer and Hanna Schuebel (Wageningen, Netherlands: Wageningen Academic Press, forthcoming).

7 Jerome C. Glenn and the Future Group International, “Scenarios,” in Jerome C. Glenn and Theodore J. Gordon, eds. Futures Research Methodology, version 3 (Washington, D.C.: The Millennium Project: Global Futures Studies and Research, 2009), CD-ROM, For a discussion of the scenario process, see Rafael Ramirez and Angela Wilkinson, Strategic Reframing: The Oxford Scenario Planning Approach (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

8 Michiel van Dijk, Marc Gramberger, David Laborde, Maryia Mandryk, Lindsay Shutes, Elke Stehfest, Hugo Valin, and Katharina Faradsch, “Stakeholder-Designed Scenarios for Global Food Security Assessments,” art. 100352, Global Food Security 24 (March 2020),

9 “4 Plausible futures for FNS,” FoodSecure Navigator, Reused under Creative Commons license.

10 Bruno Dorin and Pierre-Benoît Joly, “Modelling World Agriculture as a Learning Machine? From Mainstream Models to Agribiom 1.0,” art. 103624, Land Use Policy 96 (July 2020),

11 There are other ways to quantify scenarios that I will not discuss here. For an overview, see Michiel van Dijk, Yashar Saghai, Marie Luise Rau, and Tom Morley, “Global Food Demand Projections: A Review,” in Feeding the World Well: A Framework for Ethical Food Systems, ed. by Alan M. Goldberg (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), pp. 98–124; and Michiel van Dijk, Tomas Morley, Marie Luise Rau, and Yashar Saghai, “Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Global Food Security Projections to 2050” (under review).

12 Lise Cornilleau, “Magicians at Work: Modellers as Institutional Entrepreneurs in the Global Governance of Agriculture and Food Security,” in “The Politics of Anticipatory Expertise,” special issue, Science & Technology Studies 32, no. 4 (September 2019), pp. 58–77.

13 van Dijk et al., “Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Global Food Security Projections to 2050.”

14 These studies include International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development: Global Report, ed. Beverly D. McIntyre, Hans R. Herren, Judi Wakhungu, and Robert T Watson (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2009); and Chantal Le Mouël, Marie De Lattre-Gasquet, and Olivier Mora, Land Use and Food Security in 2050: A Narrow Road (Paris: Editions Quae, 2018).

15 UN Human Rights Council, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, A/HRC/RES/39/12, September 28, 2018,; and Priscilla Claeys and Marc Edelman, “The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas,” Journal of Peasant Studies 47, no. 1 (October 2019), pp. 1–68.

16 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development: Global Report, p. 3.

17 Ibid., p. ix.

18 Ibid., pp. 113–14.

19 Ian Scoones, “The Politics of Global Assessments: The Case of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD),” Journal of Peasant Studies 3, no. 3 (January 2009), pp. 547–71.

20 Le Mouël et al., Land Use and Food Security in 2050.

21 Marie de Lattre-Gasquet and Sébastien Treyer, “Agrimonde and Agrimonde-Terra: Foresight Approaches Compared,” IDS Bulletin 47, no. 4 (September 2016), p. 39.

22 Ibid.; Tétart, Gilles, “Debating Global Food Security through Models the Agrimonde Foresight Study (2008–2010) and Criticism of Economic Models and of Their ‘Productionist’ Translations,” Science, Technology and Society 25, no. 2 (January 2020), pp. 6785CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Dorin and Joly, “Modelling World Agriculture as a Learning Machine?”

23 Le Mouël et al., Land Use and Food Security in 2050.

24 Leblond, Nelly and Trottier, Julie, “Performing an Invisibility Spell: Global Models, Food Regimes and Smallholders,” International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food 23, no. 1 (2016), pp. 2140Google Scholar.

25 Olivier Mora, Chantal Le Mouël, Marie de Lattre-Gasquet, Catherine Donnars, Patrice Dumas, Olivier Réchauchère, Thierry Brunelle, et al., “Exploring the Future of Land Use and Food Security: A New Set of Global Scenarios,” ed. Elisabeth Bui, PloS One 15, no. 7 (July 8, 2020), e0235597, pp. 8–10,

26 Ibid., p. 10.

27 Brian C. O'Neill, Cecilia Conde, Kristie Ebi, Pierre Friedlingstein, Jan Fuglestvedt, Tomoko Hasegawa, Kasper Kok, et al., “Forum on Scenarios of Climate and Societal Futures: Meeting Report” (working paper 2019.10.04, Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures, University of Denver, October 4, 2019),

28 Müller, Birgit, Hoffmann, Falk, Heckelei, Thomas, Müller, Christoph, Hertel, Thomas W., Polhill, J. Gareth, van Wijk, Mark, et al. , “Modelling Food Security: Bridging the Gap between the Micro and the Macro Scale,” Global Environmental Change 63 (July 2020), 102085CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 De Cian, Enrica, Dasgupta, Shouro, Hof, Andries F., van Sluisveld, Mariësse A. E., Köhler, Jonathan, Pfluger, Benjamin, and van Vuuren, Detlef P., “Actors, Decision-Making, and Institutions in Quantitative System Modelling,” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 151 (February 2020), 119480CrossRefGoogle Scholar.