Food Sovereignty: Definition, Principles, and Importance

Urban Farmers Organising Crates Of Fruits And Vegetables On Truck
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The term food sovereignty was first used in 1996 by La Via Campesina, a transnational movement of small-scale farmers, peasants, agricultural workers, and Indigenous groups that subsequently defined it as “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 system.”

La Via Campesina emerged during the early 1990s in opposition to the increasingly industrialized model of agriculture that created exploitation, displacement, and deep inequities in the food system. Since the term food sovereignty was coined, it has gained prominence worldwide as a decentralized movement acting in solidarity with other social justice movements to support self-determination and human rights—in this case, by seeking a more just, sustainable, and democratic food system. 

What Is a Food System?

A food system involves a comprehensive range of actors and activities that contribute to the production, processing, distribution, consumption, and disposal of food products.

History of Food Sovereignty

The concept of food sovereignty is rooted in much older food traditions as well as historical struggles for autonomy and self-determination. For millennia, Indigenous peoples, subsistence and peasant farmers, herders, fishers, and others developed and managed sustainable food systems. Colonization often dismantled traditional gathering and production practices and replaced them with methods that devalued local cultural knowledge about how to find, grow, and distribute food in a sustainable manner. 

The accelerating industrialization of food systems worldwide in the 20th century further disrupted traditional practices, particularly since the Green Revolution that employed biotechnology and chemical inputs like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to vastly increase crop productivity. It also concentrated land ownership and control of food production in the hands of large corporations. 

Despite promises that these new practices and technologies would solve world hunger, global food insecurity has grown significantly in recent decades. The use of minimally regulated or unregulated synthetic/toxic agricultural fertilizers and pesticides that caused air, water, and soil pollution raised additional concerns about the environmental and health impacts of industrialized food production systems.

So, too, did the proliferation of unhealthy processed foods that were enabled by the ramp-up of commodity production during and since the Green Revolution. Over time, additional concerns arose about the growing use of genetically modified crops to maximize industrial production and profit, and attendant policies that harmed small farmers.

The creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) provided another rallying point for the nascent food sovereignty movement. Critics of the WTO accused it of pushing trade policies that sought to concentrate agriculture where labor and production costs were lowest, resulting in disruptions to agricultural systems and rural economies in many poor countries. It also led to the expansion of monoculture crops, with additional social and environmental consequences.

The food sovereignty movement challenged these practices. At the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, it was proposed as a new approach to achieving food security: “This model, based on decentralization, challenges the current model, based on a concentration of wealth and power, which now threatens global food security, cultural diversity, and the very ecosystems that sustain life on the planet.”

As the movement grew, food sovereignty became associated with agroecology, climate and environmental justice, peasants’ and women’s rights, agrarian reform, and the rights of food workers. Tenets of food sovereignty have been incorporated into policies of national governments and intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations. 

Principles of Food Sovereignty

In 2007, many of the grassroots groups who were part of La Via Campesina and other networks gathered in Mali for the Nyéléni International Forum on Food Sovereignty. Named for the Malian goddess of fertility, the Nyéléni forum established the following six principles of food sovereignty.

Focuses on Food for People

People, not corporations, should be at the center of food, agriculture, and fisheries policies. All people have the right to sufficient, healthy, and culturally appropriate foods, including the hungry and other marginalized people. An example of this principle can be seen in the proliferation of urban farms and gardens, especially in communities considered “food deserts,” where free and low-cost fruits and vegetables are made available to residents who might otherwise lack sufficient access to fresh, nutritious foods. 

Values Food Providers

Value and protect the rights of those who cultivate, grow, harvest, and process foods, including migrant workers. Food sovereignty rejects policies that undervalue workers and threaten their livelihoods and health. 

Localizes Food Systems

Food sovereignty puts community first, meeting local and regional food needs before international trade. It rejects free trade policies that exploit developing countries and restrict their right to protect local agriculture and food supplies. It advocates consumer protections that shields people from poor quality, unhealthy or unsafe food, including inappropriate food aid and GMO foods. 

The tension between local food needs and international trade can be clearly seen today in Africa, where a new Green Revolution is occurring. Through agricultural reforms and technologies, it aims to improve food security by massively increasing food production with use of GMOs, fertilizers, pesticides, and other industrial production methods. In practice, it has often had unintended consequences for small farmers and rural communities, creating debt, land grabbing by foreign agribusiness interests, displacement, and chemical contamination of soil and water supplies.

A parallel African food sovereignty movement has responded by promoting development of more agro-ecological methods. It also endorses policies that support smallholder farmers in supplying local food needs rather than producing commodity exports and rejects cheap imports that smallholders can’t compete with.

Local Control

The food sovereignty movement supports local control of resources such as land, water, seeds, livestock, and fish. It encourages using and sharing these resources in socially and environmentally sustainable ways. It asserts that local communities have the right to exist in their territories, and rejects natural resource privatization. 

Conflicts over land and water have been devastating for Indigenous peoples and other rural communities that lack the power to resist land-grabbing by corporations, armed groups, and the state. In Latin America, booming agribusiness, mining, and energy interests, including biofuels, has led to large private companies accumulating both land and water rights while smallholders are deprived of the resources necessary to sustain themselves. The result is not only ecosystem degradation and economic and food insecurity, but an increase in violence against those defending their land and water rights.

In 2008, Indigenous and peasant groups in Ecuador persuaded the government to incorporate food sovereignty into its constitution and prohibit GMOs and the concentration of land ownership. Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Venezuela have also enshrined food sovereignty in national law. While significant milestones in the food sovereignty movement, the laws haven’t been especially effective in bolstering local control of the food system.

Builds Knowledge and Skills

Food sovereignty builds on the skills and local knowledge of food providers and local organizations to manage localized food production and harvesting systems, and preserve that knowledge for future generations. It rejects technologies that undermine this, such as genetic engineering. 

The introduction and proliferation of GMO seeds has posed an enormous challenge to small farmers around the world. Genetic contamination from GMOs causes loss of plant varieties, which frequently results not only in loss of livelihood but of cultural knowledge. Many communities have responded by creating local or regional seed banks to protect their crops and traditional knowledge and many countries have banned GMO crops and related products. However, large agriculture and biotech corporations have in turn undertaken retaliatory actions to challenge such bans.

Works With Nature

Food sovereignty values ecological production and harvesting methods and reinforce resilience and adaptation. It seeks to avoid harmful industrial methods, including monoculture crops, factory farms, unsustainable fishing practices, and other practices that damage the environment and contribute to climate change. 

Though not a new practice, agroecology is gaining popularity around the world as a sustainable alternative to industrial agriculture. It uses ecological principles that seek to mitigate climate change, eliminate harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and prioritize local supply chains. Agroecology incorporates beneficial ecosystem services, like biological pest controls and natural pollinators. It aims to empower farmers and local communities in decision-making and protect human rights in food production and distribution.

Indigenous Food Sovereignty

Though the term food sovereignty is relatively recent, it is in many ways a very old concept. Indigenous peoples have always managed their food systems in keeping with cultural values and sustainable practices. While those practices have never disappeared, colonization has had dire impacts on Indigenous communities and foodways.

In the 19th century, the United States forced many Indigenous peoples from their traditional territories to internment camps and reservations. Forced to subsist primarily on government-issued rations of commodities like flour, lard, and sugar, they suffered extreme food insecurity, chronic health conditions, and to varying extents an erosion of traditional ecological knowledge they had used to sustainably manage land and food production. Food became a powerful tool by which to control and oppress tribes long after the establishment of reservations. 

Though hard-fought victories have restored some tribal hunting and fishing rights, there remain many barriers to accessing traditional foods. In addition, many reservations today are considered food deserts, with few or no stores that sell fresh, healthy, affordable foods. 

Indigenous communities worldwide have endured variations of this bitter legacy of colonialism and racism. But things are changing. Today, many are embracing food sovereignty as a path to restoring traditional foodways. Through saving heirloom seeds, resisting the introduction of genetically modified seeds, and re-establishing traditional, climate-resilient agriculture are among the ways that Indigenous peoples are reclaiming and reinforcing heritage and health on their own terms. 

This includes teaching young people how to grow, hunt, fish, and gather foods according to cultural beliefs and practices. As Indigenous communities—and the world—face major challenges on the horizon from climate change, biodiversity loss, and social injustice, nurturing local, sustainable food systems will be increasingly important.

Food Sovereignty vs. Food Security

Food security has been repeatedly recognized internationally as a basic human right. The Rome Declaration on World Food Security states that: “Food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels [is achieved] when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” While food security is an ever-evolving concept, it generally embraces the current agro-industrial food system in the service of ensuring that everyone has adequate, safe, and healthy foods.

The term food sovereignty was in part a reaction to the way food security had been defined. Rather than working within the current industrial agricultural system, food sovereignty seeks to transform it into a just, democratic, “bottom-up” system in which people, not corporations, control the means of production and distribution. Food sovereignty values ecological sustainability and trade that respects the rights of everyone affected by the food system.

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