Book review: N. Lambek, P. Claeys, et al. (eds.),”Rethinking Global Food Systems, Structural Challenges, New Strategies and the Law”

The following article review will be based on the book Rethinking Global Food Systems, Structural Challenges, New Strategies and the Law. Nowadays, it is more important than ever to understand what is hidden behind our meals. Food is not simply something that allows us to exist. It is inseparably connected to a set of interrelated issues, such as history, culture, traditions, rights, environment, economics, law and politics. The latter create our current food systems. However, today more than ever, these systems need to be called into question.  They have to be rethought with regards to efficiency and sustainability, in order to take care of the environment from which food comes. This is exactly what the book by Lambek et al. attempts to do. Its goal is to critically investigate our food systems and identify possible solutions at local, national, regional and international level.

After the Second World War, the number of hungry people worldwide was 960 million[1]. The response of the international community was to produce more by apply high-tech solutions with strong support of the state. However, recent data provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization shows that the amount of people suffering from hunger is still considerably high[2]. This means that consideration of hunger as a quantitative problem did not achieve satisfactory outcomes. Furthermore, more than 1 billion adults are currently overweight and 500 million are obese[3]. These data prove that hunger is no more an issue of production. Rather, as the authors claim, it is the one of social exclusion and distribution[4], caused by multiple factors: industrialisation of our food systems, intensive food production, bargaining power in the hands of few leading actors and the lack a global long-term food governance. These factors are in the root of the disappearance of small and local farmers, severe environmental impacts, as well as the wholescale food crises in 2007/2008. Only after the surge in prices that occurred during the mentioned crisis it became obvious and widely accepted that the food system itself has to be rethought.

Authors claim that for the goal of attaining a new functional food system it is of primary importance to reach food security conditions at the national level. According to the official definition provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization in 1986, food security is achieved when people of a certain geographic area have, at all times, available and adequate access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food in order to maintain a healthy and active life. In recent years, a bottom-up approach of social movements, like Via Campesina, has been playing a key role in seeking to reach food security. It has done so primarily by institutionalizing – i.e. by including in the domestic and international legal system – two new concepts: food sovereignty and the right to food. However, the case studies of Nicaragua and Uganda, among others, show that the processes of institutionalization have to be improved. In fact, regarding the case of Nicaragua, there remains the problem of how to enforce the 2009 Law of Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security that would lead to the development of the economic dimension of food sovereignty. This would imply a shift from an international trade and investment framework to a development model based on agriculture and access to local resources. On the other hand, Ugandan context is characterised by the lack of coordination of several domestic dimensions – such as legal, policy, institutional and judicial -, that are necessary to make the right to food, expressed in the Food and Nutrition Bill, effective.

Continuing in the same direction, the authors claim that in order to reach food security conditions, the right to food needs to be addressed, a fortiori, by the states through a top-down approach. In the FAO’s 2004 Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of the National Food Security it is shown that states should play a central role in providing food, without being a potential barrier to food supply. Particularly, the state must regulate its own actions and those of third parties (such as transnational corporations, enterprises or investors), by complying with three essential obligations. First, the state must protect the right to food by making sure that no one could, directly or indirectly, deprive citizens of their access to adequate food (as best exemplified by the case study of the coal mine in Bangladesh). Secondly, it is required of them to respect the right to food, by not interfering in a negative way (for instance, by favouring the land-grabbing) in the channels through which people access food. Finally, the state must fulfil the concerned right, by ensuring that no one goes hungry, and, if this happens, it must provide practical remedies. However, these duties are not themselves sufficient to reach the right to food and, hence, the domestic food security conditions. States also need to combine these measures with social policies and strategies, to become able to lessen poverty and inequalities, involve citizens in the political decision-making process, reinvest in small-holder agriculture and build an alternative rural development model.


Furthermore, authors notice that the achievement of a global food security should be accompanied by a greater consistency of the international legal framework. Its current fragmentation could be addressed in two ways. On the one hand, it can be achieved by integration of cross-cutting legal issues: states should, in fact, negotiate international agreements paying particular attention to any potential impact caused by transnational trades and investments on farmers’ rights, human rights and environmental protection. On the other hand, it can be achieved by adopting a long-term global governance model, already undertaken thanks to the reform of the Committee on World Food Security in 2009, which is particularly promising because it represents “the foremost inclusive international and intergovernmental platform for […] the elimination of hunger and ensuring food security and nutrition for all human beings[5].


According to the scenario outlined above, different worldwide actors are currently engaged in implementing and achieving structural changes at local, national, regional and global level, using the law and legal based tools. The subject of this process are food producers, consumers, activists, civil society groups, economists, politicians, social movements and ordinary citizens, all sharing a common ingredient: the will to change the corporate food paradigm towards a more democratic one. Certainly, it is not easy to undermine mutually supportive mechanisms which cohabited and dominated our food systems for years. It is clear that the latter will not change if our life style do not. According to the authors, the source of change should come from the bottom, namely from local communities, and in time they will reach upper levels of governance. Indeed, national and international policies are the tools to drive social development and make things that are invisible visible. Big changes take time and a great amount of effort, but it is definitely worthy for living in a fairer world.


In conclusion, this article review aimed at analysing the current, dramatic situation of our global food systems, suggesting some possible ways by which the problem of hunger can be tackled. As can be seen, there is no single solution able to solve all dimensions of such a complex problem. The context we live in is made up of cross-cutting issues which are extremely hard to eradicate. However, setting urban food policies, shortening the food supply chain, taking our cooking skills back and considering food as a convivium could be a good start to give new and meaningful importance to food as well as keep the local food traditions. In this way, deconstructing the global mechanism by which food is seen as a commodity and rethinking of it as a valuable asset will allow to feed not only our bodies but also the earth we come from.

Valentina De Gregorio

[1] Small Planet Institute, hunger: number of hungry people in the world 1969 to 2007 with sources, (checked in January 2017)

[2] 800 million. FAO, World hunger falls to under 800 million, eradication is next goal, (checked in January 2017)

[3] WHO, Obesity and overweight, (checked in January 2017)

[4] This idea was already developed in the 80’s by the Nobel price Amartya Sen, in his book Poverty and Famines: “Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food”.

[5] Comm. on World Food Sec. [CFS], Reform of the Committee on World Food Security para. 4, U.N. Doc. CFS:2009/2Rev. 2 (Oct. 2009).


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