Food Sovereignty: A Path Forward
What Is Food Sovereignty & Why We Must Work For It
One in nine people worldwide are undernourished today and beyond that, one in three do not have consistent access to adequate food. However, there is more than enough food to feed everyone. This is why we must shift towards food sovereignty.
Sadly, while world agricultural systems are more productive than ever, people who work within them are often those who lack access to food. Farmers, fishers, farm workers, and others along the food chain face especially high risk for food insecurity.
The problem isn’t lack of food, rather it lies in the imbalance of power, poor food governance, unequal distribution, and systemic injustice.
What Is Food Sovereignty?
Food sovereignty holds that all people, from food producers and harvesters to consumers, have the right to reclaim their power in the food system, by rebuilding relationships between people and the land, and between those who produce food and those who eat it.
When the power of food is usurped by corporations that put profits first, community and planetary health deteriorates. Corporate shareholders’ financial priorities overpower considerations like making sure our food is healthy, accessible to all, and sustainable. The result: farmers’ incomes decline, our diets and health worsen, and the planet suffers.
Food sovereignty recognizes food as a right, rather than a commodity. This goes beyond ensuring that people have enough food to meet their physical needs. Food as a right is more than merely the right to be free from hunger. It is the right of all humans to hold power in the food system. This looks like sustainable relationships between people and the land, and between food providers and those who eat.
The food sovereignty movement also recognizes the intersections of discrimination that create greater food insecurities for marginalized populations and heavier burdens on small producers, women farmers, and Indigenous communities. Food justice, gender equality, racial justice and climate change are not exclusive issues. They are intimately connected.
The History of Food Sovereignty
Food sovereignty is a movement growing from the bottom up, from the farmers, fishers, Indigenous peoples and landless workers most impacted by global hunger and poverty. The international collaboration of La Via Campesina initiated the food sovereignty movement at the World Food Summit in 1996. The movement is rooted in disrupting ongoing imbalances of power that control food, land, water, and livelihoods.
La Via Campesina was founded in Belgium by farmers from four continents in 1993. It is an international movement of peasants, small and medium-sized producers, Indigenous peoples, landless people, rural women, rural youth, and agricultural workers. It is an autonomous, pluralist, and multicultural movement, independent of any political or economic affiliation. Today, La Via Campesina represents about 200 million farmers through over 180 organizations in 81 countries.
The Global Forum on Food Sovereignty
In 2007, 700 delegates from five continents attended the Nyéléni Forum for Food Sovereignty in Mali. Together they clarified the economic, social, ecological, and political implications of the movement and created an international process to achieve recognition of the right to food sovereignty.
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 the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.
Declaration of Nyéléni, the first global forum on food sovereignty, Mali, 2007.
Why Is the Food Sovereignty Movement so Important?
Four companies—Bayer (the company that acquired Monsanto in 2018), Corteva Agriscience, Sinochem, and BASF—control more than 60 percent of global seed sales. In many cases, these corporations and their patents deny farmers the right to save seeds. This imbalanced structure strips small farmers and producers of their power to produce and continuously decrease biodiversity.
There is so much excess food that we waste almost one third of it, around 1.3 billion tons. U.S. Americans waste on average one pound of food per person every single day. The average family of four in the United States throws out $1,600 a year in produce alone. Not only is this a waste of food that could feed hungry people, it’s a major contributor to the climate crisis. Up to 10% of global greenhouse gasses comes from food that is produced, but never eaten.
Farmers and farmworkers all over the world take the highest risk, work the most dangerous jobs, and often receive the lowest pay.
When there is so much excess food that it rots in landfills in some parts of the earth while people go hungry in places that have been robbed of their resources, the problem isn’t food, it’s power. When four companies own the constructed right to create plant life from seeds and give themselves the power to deny that right to others, the problem is power. When farmers don’t have enough to eat or earn a living wage but a handful of wealthy men are buying farms and farmland and touting solutions that look suspiciously like the problems that got us here, we must ask why. And then how.
Why should all our food, that which gives us life, be controlled by a relatively small group of people? Solutions that offer to feed people from external sources such as organizations or corporations may keep them alive, but it disempowers them. Why do they even want to hold such power over humanity? How do we change these systems?
Food is a fundamental need and access to food is a basic human right.
In our current society, we can see either taking this right for granted or a complete disregard for this right. For many in the overdeveloped world, food seems abundant; it is abundant enough to fill the landfills. This abundance, however, relies on fragile structures of a highly controlled and exploitative food and agriculture system.
For example, the entire structure of the United States was built on exploitation of the land, the people who existed on the land, and the people who were kidnapped from their lands and enslaved to feed the colonizers. The system didn’t exactly change with the end of slavery. More recently, decades of inequitable US farm and trade policy, including the Bracero program, NAFTA, and others, have continued to perpetuate harmful labor and destructive farming practices, while creating a food system that is an environmental and public health disaster.
In the Global South, centuries of colonist rule and more recent neoliberal expansion, have made the concept of sovereignty and self-rule especially resonant.
Food sovereignty offers itself as a process of building social movements where communities organize themselves in ways that transcend the neoliberal vision of a world of commodities and global markets, where a few people own the majority of land and sever the connections of others to it.
The path to sovereignty is a path full of connections between people and land, and individuals and communities.
Food sovereignty may seem like a big concept or unattainable goal, but there are many small acts that we can start doing to work towards a world where food sovereignty is the norm. These acts include individual and community processes around seed saving, using open-pollinated seeds, seed exchange, and building community gardens. They include incorporating regenerative practices and agroecology into our current farming systems, building traceability and transparency into our supply chains, and rejecting privatization of natural resources. This also means shifting our mindset to understanding decolonized food systems and circular economies and also centering Indigenous knowledge, leadership and agricultural practices.
What Does Producers Trust Do for Food Sovereignty?
Food sovereignty doesn’t offer a one-size-fits-all solution, because there isn’t one. Instead there are a myriad of complex problems and food sovereignty is a dynamic process that adapts to the people and places where it is put in practice. Food sovereignty means solidarity, not competition, and building a fairer world from the bottom up.