For the love of food security

I love food and think a lot about food.

These days many thoughts about food float through my mind, from obvious matters such as “What’s for dinner?” to big-picture questions like “Can we keep feeding a growing world population?” and “How do we stop the unfolding obesity epidemic?”

I also love to talk and share my thoughts on food, but I’m even more interested in looking for new perspectives, different ideas, and innovative solutions to the many big picture food challenges we’re faced with.

I started State-of-Affairs in 2013 during my doctorate studies as a venue to share some of my early thoughts, initially covering the wider spectrum of ‘contemporary security challenges’.

Today, after a hiatus of two years (life got in the way), I’m relaunching the site. Don’t expect anything fancy, though. In reality, I’ll just be posting new blogs and resources, but with a more specific focus: food security.

The refocus is simple to explain: I completed my PhD on the topic of food security, and in some ways I’m now a food security expert.

As such, the purpose of state-of-affairs has been narrowed down to ‘exploring contemporary and emerging food security challenges’.

This is still a massive task, as the field of food security covers a huge realm of directly or indirectly related topics and issues.

Here are some of the topics I will explore:

  • Population growth
  • Climate change
  • Resource scarcity
  • Organic and genetically modified food
  • Nutrition transition
  • Food and energy
  • Food prices, export and speculation
  • Hunger and famine
  • Resource conflict over food, water and land
  • Food safety and disease
  • Agriculture, production and distribution
  • Food waste
  • Food sovereignty

I’m a perfectionist and committed to separating fact from fiction. This means that in researching and writing on a topic I tend to follow the rabbit hole all the way until I hit the bottom. And sometimes, more often than not, I’ll need to follow several linked rabbit holes all the way down. This takes diligence and time, and the latter I’m very short on these days with a young family and full-time job.

With this in mind, the present project is ambitious to say the least. However, my love for food and a desire to create a better world drives my commitment to contribute to the body of thought on the future of food.

I intend to publish a comprehensive article at least once a month, and more frequently update the resources section and post links to interesting material.

PhD completed: ‘food as security’ abstract and thesis

Good news! It has been a long time coming, but last week I received the final verdict from the University of Sydney: “the examination of your PhD thesis has been completed and your degree of Doctor of Philosophy is awarded without further conditions”. It’s a wonderful feeling to successfully complete such a four year project. Still, I feel like the thesis has only uncovered the beginnings of the real potential of my research. As such, in contradiction to many fresh Doctor keen to move to the next project or academic challenge, I’m keen to further explore some of the areas in security theory and food security practice that were central to my PhD research.

For now, time is my major limitation. With a full-time job in public international health for the Oil Search Health Foundation in Papua New Guinea I’m left with scarce moments to dive back in to my food security research. Nonetheless, I aim to convert several thesis chapters into journal articles over the remainder of this year.

Enough talk about my future plans, what’s important now is the PhD thesis; I bet you’re dying to read it (right!?). Without any further ado, below you find the abstract of the thesis and the thesis in PDF format, so you can read at your convenience (ePub ebook version soon to follow).

TC Siegenbeek van Heukelom - Food as security_PhD thesis (2013)_cover image

Food as security: The controversy of foreign agricultural investment in the Yala Swamp, Kenya

Tim Siegenbeek van Heukelom

Centre for International Security Studies
Business School
University of Sydney
August 2013


This thesis explores the security implications of a wave of large-scale land acquisitions in developing countries led by foreign investors – generally known as the ‘global land grab’ – which came about in the aftermath of the 2008 Global Food Price Crisis. This ‘land grab’ phenomenon poses some fundamental questions about the state of the world food system and the role of emerging non-traditional challenges and threats to our future food security. At the same time, the security studies perspective that underlies the approach taken in this thesis has a rather uncomfortable association with the study’s main subject matter of ‘food security’. As a result, empirical enquiries into the phenomenon of land grabs need to be pre-empted by a solid theoretical foundation to elucidate the multifaceted relationship between food and security. This necessitates a thorough assessment of food as a matter of security; asking how our understanding of ‘food’ changes when we approach it as a security question.

This thesis therefore sets out to achieve two objectives: 1) to bring the subject of ‘food’ into the security realm, and 2) to utilise a contextualised case study to critically assess the human security implications of a ‘land grab’. At the same time, however, a more holistic argument runs throughout the work, propounding the notion that there may be no technical solution to the world food problem. The idea is put forward that the natural sciences are perhaps not capable of single-handedly safeguarding our future food security. To be more precise, the solution to the world food problem may need to emanate from a radically changed human vision; one to inspire new values, ideas, morality, and above all, a change in behaviour.

Keywords: food security, land grabs, food sovereignty, critical security studies, securitisation

The ‘securitiness’ of food

originally posted as “The ‘securitiness of food” in The Broker

‘Food’ has a strong normative connotation with ‘security’, which inexplicitly links the notion of ‘food security’ to the political realm. This explains the tremendous amount of time and resources devoted towards achieving the desirable situation that we refer to as ‘food security’. Even so, the actual meaning of the term ‘food security’ unfortunately remains problematic in that it presents semantic as well as conceptual challenges.

The cornucopia of ideas that underlie the notion of food security has practical significance for considerations pertaining to which measures, policies, interventions and investments are most appropriate to realise a situation of food security. But notwithstanding the importance of critical consideration of food policies, at the same time the emerging securitisation of food raises the notion of a fundamental, perhaps even existential, relation between ‘food’ and ‘security’. In other words, can – and should – ‘food’ be considered as a matter of security?

The securitiness of food

To be secure, the human species is highly dependable on food – like any other species. In recent years, however, the social unrest and political instability generated by major events like the Global Food Price Crisis of 2007–2008 and Arab Spring of 2011 have demonstrated serious vulnerabilities and confirm the relevance of such a ‘security’ assessment of ‘food’. Yet, counter-intuitively, contemporary debate about food and the future of the world often lacks any discussion of the ‘security’ factor. Instead, discussions revolve by and large around the ‘food’ part of the food security equation, and not so much – if at all –the relation with ‘security’. Only on the odd occasion are attempts made to comprehend the concept of security in relation to food. The recent work by Brown emphasises the need to seriously consider the ‘geopolitics of food’, whereas Fullbrook sensibly suggests that “food security will only improve when values and perceptions adjust to reflect food as security”. But bringing the polysemous concept of food security into the security paradigm necessitates a thorough and comprehensive approach and methodology.

When placing food in the perspective of the mounting challenges the world is facing (e.g. population growth, climate change, environmental destruction, shifting diets), there is certainly a normative obligation and a practical sense of urgency in addressing this security question. More so, in a world of finite and constrained resources we need to start thinking seriously, strategically and sustainably about the role and availability of food in the remainder of this century. We need to ask ourselves when the time comes to consider food as more than a habitual part of our daily existence; namely, when should we perceive it as a political priority and, perhaps even, elevate it to the realm of existential threats? The answer to these questions will hinge upon how we explain and understand food in terms of being a challenge, a threat, or even a security measure. In other words, is it practical, logical and theoretically sound to bring food into the realm of security studies?

Prudence demands a rather cautious approach when commingling the concept of food with the concept of security. Looking at the roots of ‘food security’, Gibson offers three reasons for conceptual concern: ‘food as security’ could misunderstand what is meant by security; it could lead to more political expediency than objective analysis; and by aligning food with security, there is an inherent connotation with risk management. Against the first concern, however, can be brought that discussing whether food can or should be seen as a matter of security does not impede on the meaning of the concept of security, rather it is a debate about broadening and deepening the security agenda, and whether this is a good thing or not. The second concern seems to overlook that political prioritisation at times actually drives objective analysis, for which the polarised climate change debate serves as an example. The ‘three debilitating flaws’ Gibson points at in the potential association with risk management are not unfounded. Indeed, sparsely available data and subjective experiences in combination with probabilistic ‘what-if’ scenarios can indeed artificially construct impact indicators that are not meaningful or objective.

To conceptualise food as a matter of security also propounds the notion that achieving ‘food security’ on a global scale will in effect function as a precautionary principle of security by reducing human suffering and preventing food-related conflict and violence. Falcon and Naylor conclude, therefore, that “perhaps the most direct ways to security and democracy, as to love, may be via the stomach”. ‘Food as security’ therein deepens the security agenda vertically by highlighting and emphasising the existential type of threat that food poses against national security, human security, and environmental security.

Practically this means that in terms of national security we may need to consider a return to the debate on ‘food power’. During the 1970s there was particular interest in the potential of food as a political or economic weapon. The then US Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, made great effort to make food power part of the American diplomatic toolbox. He contended it would be an eloquent way to influence world politics. At the time, this move was far from surprising as the notion of food power came to pass as the obvious response to the 1973 oil embargo in which Arab oil producing states used ‘petropower’ as a geopolitical tool. However, one of the key arguments against the potential utility of food power was the reality of a world food market characterised by abundance rather than scarcity – with the latter a structural condition required to turn an economic asset into a political instrument. Now, more than three decades later, there appears to be an emerging consensus that we have reached the end of the era of cheap and abundant food. With the crucial comprehension that food, water, and land are finite resources that face a mounting demand, perchance this century will see food power truly assume the potential as a powerful geopolitical weapon.

More urgently, however, is the need to consider ‘food’ as human security. There were still some 870 million people classified as hungry over the period 2010–2012. Solutions are sought, amongst others, in increasing food production, enhancing distribution channels, state-of-the-art agricultural technology, and accelerating economic growth. Yet, such a technological problem-solving approach is no panacea; some would even suggest that it does not truly address the root causes of hunger. Hence, what is needed inaddition to these technological fixes is a critical re-conceptualisation of ‘food security’, one that transcends traditional conceptualisations of food security as a measure of national availability by advocating for a stronger focus on the household and individual level. The idea of ‘food sovereignty’ has therefore been presented as a logical precondition for achieving genuine food security. While hard to define, food sovereignty amounts to the cosmopolitan human right to maintain and develop one’s own capacity to produce basic foods respecting cultural and productive diversity, in the absence of social injustice, speculation, and violence. In practical terms this means providing small-scale farmers assistance in many forms: better infrastructure and refrigeration to reduce pre-market food-waste (from field to market), closure of rural technology gaps, the empowerment of (female) farmers with education and (micro)credit, fair market-competition conditions, agrarian reform, improved land tenure rights or even ‘land sovereignty’, and sustainable use and protection of natural resources.

That said, in pursuance of food security, we thus need to accept that the contemporary challenge of feeding the world is as much about sustainable development as it is about security and survival. In other words, the idea of ‘food as security’ supports, and even promotes, the quest for global food security, but it does so by emphasising the ‘securitiness’ of food. The raison d’être for this approach is captured best in Fullbrook’s assertion that “putting food first will strengthen the security in food security”.

In conceptualising food as a matter of security we ultimately come to the point where three overarching realms require further exploration: the philosophy of science, security theory, and the empirical reality of food as security.

Touring Dominion Farms: a matter of perspective

Since my return in August 2011 from six months of fieldwork in Kenya, I keenly follow the latest political and agricultural developments in this East African country. I’m particularly interested in news about Dominion Farms, an American owned company that is developing some 40% of the Yala Swamp in West Kenya for irrigated-rice production and aquaculture. Not in the least since I’m writing a detailed case study for my PhD on Dominion Farms’ foreign agricultural investment (or as some prefer ‘land grab’) to explore how food  is becoming a matter of security.

As I observed in an earlier post, the interest in Dominion Farms has not ceased — especially since the Kenyan farm is now replicated on an even larger scale in Nigeria. When I visited Dominion Farms in the Yala Swamp in March 2011, the operation there already seemed quite massive to me. Even so, at that time there were already preliminary talks about expanding Dominion Farms across Africa, which around my visit focused on the potential of South Sudan. It seems the Nigerians beat them to the punch, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see operations commence in both countries (at least if the South Sudanese get their act together).

Last month another report on the operations of Dominion Farms came to my attention. Jill Richardson, the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It, detailed her trip to Kenya on her blog  La Vida Locavore. Naturally, she visited Dominion Farms and did a tour of the Farm, which she describes in four parts: one, two, three, and four. Jill’s account of the tour around the farm is quite interesting, especially since I can compare it to the two farms tours I did. One with ex-employee James, and one with the owner Calvin Burgess. It appears that Jill’s guide knew the basics of the farming operation, but obviously many details lack — in particular about the history of the reclamation of the swamp (more on this soon, as I’m currently writing a very detailed history). Overall, Jill’s conclusion appears to be somewhat negative, which is not surprising since her book focuses on moving away from the dominance of agribusiness and corporate farms towards a sustainable agricultural system that allows people to eat sustainably, locally, and seasonally.

Even so, Dominion Farms certainly produces a lot of affordable food, and I did eat their rice and tilapia which tasted delicious. But, whether their large-scale approach is good or bad in the Kenyan context is perhaps a matter of perspective: should we pursue food security or food sovereignty, or is the solution to eradicate hunger and poverty a mix of both?

The ongoing interest in Dominion Farms

Last year I visited a large reclamation and development project in the Yala Swamp in West-Kenya. The operator of this project, Dominion Farms, has since the inception of the project in 2004 been under constant scrutiny of local media, NGOs, environmentalists, and the community surrounding the farm. In 2009 the documentary Good Fortune featured Dominion Farms to show “how massive, international efforts to alleviate poverty in Africa may be undermining the very communities they aim to benefit”. Raising, as MacDonald points out, “tough questions about top-down approaches to development”.

After my own visit to the farm and conversations with the surrounding community in March 2011, I wrote for the Kenyan development and governance newspaper The Link about the intricacies of foreign agricultural investment in the Yala swamp. Currently I’m working on an academic version of this article for my PhD thesis, which will provide a much more in-depth and accurate account than my 2011 version.

While most Kenyan news and media accounts continue to describe Dominion Farms as a dystopia, where a well-intended attempt to build a better world has unintentionally gone wrong, there has been rising international interest in the project. Recently, with the growing concerns over a global land grab, more international interest goes out to Dominion Farms’ operations in the Yala swamp. Published around the same time this year we find two new perspectives on Dominion Farms. Both Fred Pearce and Gerhard Meister do a great job at describing some of the contradictions that are bedevilling the project.

Pearce’s account of the development of the Yala swamp, featured as the chapter ‘One Man’s Dominion’ in his book The Landgrabbers, touches upon many of the issues I also identified, and highlights a cultural clash that has its roots in Kenya’s colonial history. He also touches upon the widely differing stories about Dominion and the swamp, “a lot of nonsense has been talked about the swamp since Burgess arrived.” In the end, Pearce comes to a sensible conclusion: “The Story of Yala swamp shows how even outsiders with the best of intentions can create severe problems. Dominion Farms is not engaged in a crude corporate takeover of the land, as imagined by some NGOs. It is hard-nosed, but also philanthropic in intent. … You might say that if Burgess can’t make this kind of development work, through sheer force of personality and invoking the will of God, then who can?

Meister, in his article Afrika Kaufen is a bit more sceptical in his assessment of the work of Dominion Farms. He doubts whether Dominion can give the locals ‘ein besseres Leben’  (a better life) as Calvin Burgess claims, and speaks with many local who knew a better life, that is, before the arrival of Dominion Farms. But in the end, he remains unsure whether Dominion’s president Calvin Burgess is a religious nutcase, a joker, or perhaps that miracles are possible in Africa…

Note: a translation of the original German article into English is available here (the automated Google translation is poor, but it at least gives you some idea of Meister’s story).

The provided digital versions of the mentioned chapter by Fred Pearce and article by Gerhard Meister are solely meant to encourage readers to engage in a discussion on land grabs. If this amounts somehow to a copyright infringement, please contact me on


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