Food sovereignty

"Food sovereignty", a term coined by members of Via Campesina in 1996,[1] asserts that the people who produce, distribute, and consume food should control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution, rather than the corporations and market institutions they believe have come to dominate the global food system. It also encompasses the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. The phrase "culturally appropriate" signifies that the food that is available and accessible for the population should fit with the cultural background of the people consuming it.


The history of food sovereignty as a movement is relatively young. However, there are a number of key movements and countries that have made significant steps towards making an alternative food system a reality.

Global gatherings

At the Forum for Food Sovereignty in Sélingué, Mali, 27 February 2007, about 500 delegates from more than 80 countries adopted the "Declaration of Nyéléni",[2] which says in part:

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers. Food sovereignty prioritises local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability.

In April 2008 the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), an intergovernmental panel under the sponsorship of the United Nations and the World Bank, adopted the following definition: "Food sovereignty is defined as the right of peoples and sovereign states to democratically determine their own agricultural and food policies."[3]

Becoming part of government policy

In September 2008, Ecuador became the first country to enshrine food sovereignty in its constitution. As of late 2008, a law is in the draft stages that is expected to expand upon this constitutional provision by banning genetically modified organisms, protecting many areas of the country from extraction of non-renewable resources, and to discourage monoculture. The law as drafted will also protect biodiversity as collective intellectual property and recognize the Rights of Nature.[4]

Since then another five countries have integrated food sovereignty into their national constitutions or laws. These countries are Venezuela, Mali, Bolivia, Nepal and Senegal; and most recently Egypt (2014 Constitution).[5]

Food sovereignty in Europe

In 2011 more than 400 people from 34 European countries met from the 16th to 21 August in Krems, Austria, to plan the development of a European movement for food sovereignty. The meeting included people from the Atlantic to the Urals and Caucasus, as well as from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. These people included international representatives from diverse social movements and civil society organisations.

By coming together they aimed to build on the foundations of the Mali forum in 2007. The objectives were to strengthen local involvement; build a sense of common purpose and understanding; create a joint agenda for action; celebrate the struggle for food sovereignty in Europe; and inspire and motivate people and organisations to work together.

The forum, which was organised on the principles of participation and consensus decision making, used methods to avoid institutionalised prejudices that are inherent in society (such as gender, age, language, occupation). It did this by making a concerted effort to allow for all sections of society to be included in the discussion.[6]

The forum allowed producers and activists from projects across Europe to share skills, coordinate actions and discuss perspectives. The forum culminated in the Nyéléni declaration.<"Nyeleni Europe declaration">

Since 2011 Europe-wide gatherings and actions have continued, including the Good Food March, where citizens, youth and farmers came together to call for a greener and fairer agricultural policy in Europe, as well as democratic reform of Europe's Common Agricultural Policy.

Food sovereignty versus food security

Food sovereignty was born in response to campaigners' disillusion with food security, the dominant global discourse on food provisioning and policy.[7] The latter emphasises access to adequate nutrition for all, which may be provided by food from one's own country or from global imports. In the name of efficiency and enhanced productivity, it has therefore served to promote what has been termed the "corporate food regime":[8] large-scale, industrialised corporate farming based on specialised production, land concentration and trade liberalisation. Food security's inattention to the political economy of the corporate food regime blinds it to the adverse effects of that regime, notably the widespread dispossession of small producers and global ecological degradation.

Haiti can be seen as a case study. Migration from the countryside to cities has reflected a transition from subsistence agriculture to factory labor. Farmers were forced to make this move because of heavy imports of "Miami rice", with which their natively-grown rice could not compete in the local market. By 2008, Haiti was importing 80 percent of its rice, leaving them extremely vulnerable to price and supply fluctuations. When the price of rice did triple in 2008, many Haitians could not afford to buy it.[9]

Writing in Food First's Backgrounder, fall 2003, Peter Rosset argues that "food sovereignty goes beyond the concept of food security... [Food security] means that... [everyone] must have the certainty of having enough to eat each day[,] ... but says nothing about where that food comes from or how it is produced."[10] Food sovereignty includes support for smallholders and for collectively owned farms, fisheries, etc., rather than industrializing these sectors in a minimally regulated global economy. In another publication, Food First describes "food sovereignty" as "a platform for rural revitalization at a global level based on equitable distribution of farmland and water, farmer control over seeds, and productive small-scale farms supplying consumers with healthy, locally grown food."[1]

Food justice is a similar concept, but its discourses focuses more on race and class inequities and their relation to food, whereas food sovereignty refers more so to agency over food production systems.[11]

Criticisms of the Green Revolution

The Green Revolution is upheld by some proponents of food security as a success story in increasing crop yields and combating world hunger. However, many in the food sovereignty movement are critical of the green revolution and accuse those who advocate it as following too much of a Western culture technocratic program that is out of touch with the needs of majority of small producers and peasants.

The ‘green revolution’ refers to developments in plant breeding between the 1960s and 1980s that improved yields from major cereal crops, particularly wheat and rice, and other staple crops. The main focus was on the research, development and transfer of agricultural technology, such as hybrid seeds and fertilisers, through massive private and public investment that went into transforming agriculture in a number of countries, starting in Mexico and India.

While the green revolution may have produced more food, world hunger continues because it did not address the problems of access.[12] Food sovereignty advocates argue that the green revolution failed to alter the highly concentrated distribution of economic power, and if anything, exacerbated it – particularly access to land and purchasing power.[13]

Some critics argue that globally the green revolution caused vast environmental destruction though the increased use of herbicides which caused dramatic loss in biodiversity.[14] There was also a loss of traditional knowledge as farmers relied more heavily of biotechnological inputs.[14] The green revolution favored wealthy, large scale farmers and forced many smaller, poorer farmers into debt.[14]

Some of these views are supported by the World Bank- and UN-sponsored IAASTD report.[15][16] The focus on technology paid no regard to who controlled that technology and ignored the knowledge of the people who were expected to adopt it. Results included significant biodiversity loss due to the mass adoption of hybrid seeds and soil erosion.

The adoption of genetically modified (GMOs) cropping by the government of Western Australia in 2010 and the subsequent failure of crop segregation has led to the contamination of at least one organic farm by Monsanto's GM canola.[17] The organic certification of the certified organic farm of Steve and Sue Marsh was withdrawn in 2010 due to GM contamination.[17] A court case in the Supreme Court of Western Australia for nuisance and negligence failed to achieve any relief or protection for the organic farm.[17] However, the organic certification of the Marsh farm was reinstated in 2013.[17]

Academic perspectives

Food Regime theory

It is in its capacity as a social movement that food regime analysts are interested in food sovereignty. With its Marxist influences, food regime theorists are interested in how moments of crisis within a particular food regime are expressive of the dialectical tension that animates movement between such configurations (i.e., periods of transition). According to leading theorist Philip McMichael, food regimes are always characterised by contradictory forces. Consolidation of a regime does not so much resolve as it does contain, or else strategically accommodate, these tensions; meanwhile, their intensification, often via the mobilisations of social movements, often signals a period of transition.

According to McMichael, a "world agriculture" under the WTO Agreement on Agriculture ("food from nowhere") represents one pole of the "central contradiction" of the present regime. He is interested in the food sovereignty movement's potential to escalate the tension between this and its opposing pole, the agroecology-based localism ("food from somewhere") advocated by various grassroots food movements.[8] Offering slightly different conclusions, recent work by Harriet Friedmann suggests that "food from somewhere" is already being co-opted under an emergent "corporate-environmental" regime[18] (cf. Campbell 2009).[19]


Wrong baseline assumptions

Some scholars argue that the Food Sovereignty movement follows wrong baseline assumptions (small-scale farming is not necessarily a freely chosen life-style and farmers in least developed and highly developed countries do not face the same challenges). The Food Sovereignty movement may be right about the mistakes of neoliberal economic ideology, but it is silent about the fact that many famines actually occurred under socialist and communist regimes that pursued the goal of food self-sufficiency (cf. Aerni 2011).[20]

Political-jurisdictional model

There is a lack of consensus within the food sovereignty movement regarding the political or jurisdictional community at which its calls for democratisation and renewed "agrarian citizenship" (cf. Wittman 2009)[21] are directed. In public statements, the food sovereignty movement urges for strong sovereign powers for both national governments and local communities (in the vein of the indigenous rights movement, Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) and the like) (elsewhere it has also appealed to global civil society to act as a check against abuses by national and supranational governing bodies).

Those who take a radically critical view on state sovereignty would argue against the possibility that national sovereignty can be reconciled with that of local communities[22] (see also the debate about multiculturalism and indigenous autonomy in Mexico[23][24][25] ). On the other hand, Raj Patel is more favourable towards this prospect: for Patel, an adapted version of Seyla Benhabib’s Kantian-inspired cosmopolitan federalism – involving multiple, layered geographies of democratic attachment and jurisdiction – could offer a promising vehicle for the realisation of food sovereignty on a large scale. Patel’s important proviso here is that a stronger version of Benhabib’s accompanying principle of moral universalism is also pursued. By Patel’s assessment, the food sovereignty movement is showing promising signs of moving towards the radical egalitarianism and democratic praxis that such a model entails.

Crisis of the peasantry?

In its strong reassertion of rural and peasant identities and forms of social reproduction, the food sovereignty movement has been read as a sharp challenge to modernist narratives of inexorable urbanisation, industrialisation of agriculture and de-peasantisation. However, as part of ongoing debates over the contemporary relevance of the "agrarian question" in classical Marxism,[26][27] Henry Bernstein is critical of these largely celebratory accounts. Specifically, levels Bernstein, such analyses tend to present the agrarian population as a unified, singular and world-historical social category. Therefore, they fail to account, in any more than a gestural manner, for:

  • this population's vast internal social differentiation (North/South, gender and class positionalities);
  • the conservative, cultural survivalist tendencies of a movement that has emerged as part of a backlash against the perceived homogenising forces of globalisation[28] (Boyer discusses whether food sovereignty is a counter or anti-development narrative[29] )

In so doing, these accounts cannot escape a certain agrarian populism (or agrarianism) according to Bernstein (for a response to Bernstein, see McMichael (2009)[30]).

See also


  1. "Global Small-Scale Farmers' Movement Developing New Trade Regimes", Food First News & Views, Volume 28, Number 97 Spring/Summer 2005, p.2.
  2. Declaration of Nyéléni (text), Nyéléni 2007 - Forum for Food Sovereignty. Accessed online 19 February 2010.
  3. International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), Global Summary for Decision Makers Archived 2012-07-17 at Accessed online 23 September 2008
  4. Karla Peña, "Opening the Door to Food Sovereignty in Ecuador, Food First News & Views (Institute for Food and Development Policy), Winter 2008, Volume 30, Number 111, p. 1.
  5. Hannah Wittman, Annette Desmarais & Nettie Wiebe "Food Sovereignty - Reconnecting Food, Nature and Community" (2010)
  6. Iles, Dan (19 August 2011). "Towards a democratic, inclusive, participatory and fun structure in all events: An explanation of the Nyeleni structure". Retrieved 27 January 2017.
  7. Beuchelt, Tina D; Virchow, Detlef (2012). "Food sovereignty or the human right to adequate food: which concept serves better as international development policy for global hunger and poverty reduction?". Agriculture and Human Values. 29 (2): 259–273. doi:10.1007/s10460-012-9355-0. ISSN 0889-048X.
  8. McMichael, Philip (January 2009). "A food regime genealogy". Journal of Peasant Studies. 36 (1): 139–169. doi:10.1080/03066150902820354.
  9. Leonard, Annie (2010). The Story of Stuff. Free Press. pp. 137–139. ISBN 9781439125663.
  10. Rosset, Peter (1 October 2003). "Food Sovereignty Global Rallying Cry of Farmer Movements". Food First Backgrounder. Vol. 9 no. 4. Retrieved 27 January 2017.
  11. Clendenning, Jessica; Dressler, Wolfram H.; Richards, Carol (2016-03-01). "Food justice or food sovereignty? Understanding the rise of urban food movements in the USA". Agriculture and Human Values. 33 (1): 165–177. doi:10.1007/s10460-015-9625-8. ISSN 0889-048X.
  12. Friends of the Earth International (2005) Nature: poor people’s wealth - the importance of natural resources in poverty eradication. Amsterdam: FOEI
  13. Timmermann, Cristian; Félix, Georges F.; Tittonell, Pablo (2018). "Food sovereignty and consumer sovereignty: Two antagonistic goals?". Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. 42 (3): 274–298. doi:10.1080/21683565.2017.1359807. ISSN 2168-3565.
  14. Alteri, Miguel (2009). "Agroecology, Small Farms, and Food Sovereignty". ProQuest. 102-113. via ProQuest.
  15. Greenpeace (2008) The World Agriculture Report 2008: Results and Recommendations. Amsterdam: Greenpeace
  16. Practical Action (2010) Securing Future Food: a summary of the IAASTD findings and their implementation... or not ! Rugby: Practical Action.
  17. Paull, John (2015) The threat of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to organic agriculture: A case study update, Agriculture & Food, 3: 56-63.
  18. Friedmann, Harriet (2005). Buttel, F.H (ed.). "From colonialism to green capitalism: social movements and the emergence of food regimes". New Directions in the Sociology of Global Development. Research in rural sociology and development. 11: 229–67.
  19. Campbell, Hugh (2009). "Breaking new ground in food regime theory: corporate environmentalism, ecological feedbacks, and the 'food from somewhere' regime?". Agriculture and Human Values. 26 (4): 309–319. doi:10.1007/s10460-009-9215-8.
  20. Aerni, Philipp (2011). "Food Sovereignty and its Discontents". ATDF Journal. 8 (1/2): 23–39..
  21. Wittman, Hannah (2009). "Reworking the metabolic rift: Via Campesina, agrarian citizenship, and food sovereignty". Journal of Peasant Studies. 36 (4): 805–826. doi:10.1080/03066150903353991.
  22. Smith, Mick (2009). "Against ecological sovereignty: Agamben, politics and globalisation". Environmental Politics. 18 (1): 99–116. doi:10.1080/09644010802624843.
  23. Aida Hernandez, J (May 2002). "Indigenous law and identity politics in Mexico: indigenous men's and women's struggles for a multicultural nation" (PDF). PoLAR. 25 (1): 90–109. doi:10.1525/pol.2002.25.1.90.
  24. Stolle-McAllister, J (2005). "What does democracy look like?: local movements challenge the Mexican transition". Latin American Perspectives. 32 (15): 15–35. doi:10.1177/0094582x05278141.
  25. Hilbert, Sarah (1997). "For whom the nation? Internationalization, Zapatismo, and the struggle over Mexican modernity". Antipode. 29 (2): 115–148. doi:10.1111/1467-8330.00039.
  26. Haroon Akram-Lodhi, A; Kay, C (2009). Peasants and globalization: political economy, rural transformation and the agrarian question. New York: Routledge.
  27. Araghi, Farshad (1995). "Global depeasantisation, 1945-1990". The Sociological Quarterly. 36 (2): 337–368. doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.1995.tb00443.x.
  28. Bernstein, Henry (2009). A, Haroon Akram-Lodhi (ed.). "Agrarian questions from transition to globalization". Peasants and Globalization: Political Economy, Rural Transformation and the Agrarian Question.
  29. Boyer, Jefferson (2010). "Food security, food sovereignty, and local challenges for agrarian movements: the Honduras case". Journal of Peasant Studies. 37 (2): 319–351. doi:10.1080/03066151003594997.
  30. McMichael, Philip (2009). A, Haroon Akram-Lodhi (ed.). "Food sovereignty, social reproduction and the agrarian question". Peasants and Globalization: Political Economy, Rural Transformation and the Agrarian Question.: 288–312.


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