"Food sovereignty", a term coined in 1996 by members of Via Campesina, an international farmers' organisation, asserts that the people who produce, distribute, and consume food should control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution. This stands in contrast to the present corporate food regime, in which corporations and market institutions dominate the global food system. 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.
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."
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.
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).
Food sovereignty in Europe
In 2011 more than 400 people from 34 European countries met from 16 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.
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.
Indigenous food sovereignty
Climate change is impacting the food security of indigenous communities as well, including Pacific Islanders and those in the Circumpolar North, due to rising sea levels or erosion.
Activists claim that native food sovereignty is also appropriated as a cuisine for mainstream dining because indigenous foods are framed to be culturally authentic, desired by those outside of these communities. Ingredients that are cultural staples, which are harder for these populations to find, are displaced due to a greater demand for access outside of indigenous populations.
Indigenous food sovereignty in the United States
Indigenous people’s food sovereignty and food security are closely related to their geographical location. Traditional indigenous foodways in the United States are tied to the ancestral homelands of Native American populations, especially for those tied to subsistence traditions. For instance, it is taught among the Muckleshoot that “the land that provides the foods and medicines we need are a part of who we are,” land constituting an important part of American Indian identity because of its importance for food.
The disruption of traditional foodways is described to be tied to the disruption of the connection between traditional Native land and their people, a change Rachel V. Vernon describes as being tied to “racism, colonialism, and the loss of autonomy and power.” Pre-colonial lands were expansive, thriving with traditional foods. Because of disease and war, Native peoples in 1900 were directly impacted in their ability to acquire and prepare their food. In addition to this, relocation away from traditional lands further limited traditional foodways. Many now live in food deserts. Due to inadequate or inhibited access to food, indigenous peoples suffer disproportionately from food insecurity compared to the rest of the US population. At reservations, the “‘highly processed, high sugar, high fat, and processed foods,’” further contributed to health issues in Native populations. In addition to this, a majority of Native peoples also live off-reservation, and so are even further removed from their traditional foodways.
Because Native American nations are sovereign from the United States, they receive little help in rehabilitating traditional foodways. As defined by the National Congress of American Indians, tribal sovereignty ensures that any decisions about the tribes with regard to their property and citizens are made with their participation and consent. The United States federal government recognizes Native American tribes as separate governments, opposed to “special interest groups, individuals, or some other type of non-governmental entity.”
Health and Disease
Indigenous populations are affected by the highest rates of diabetes and heart disease among the US population, being over three times more likely to have diabetes compared to all other demographics of the US population. Disproportionate health concerns are a direct result of oppression foods or foods supplied by the US government, mostly consisting of non-traditional, cheap processed and canned foods.
Indigenous peoples have a long history of experiencing pandemics. When the Aztecs were invaded by the Spaniards in 1519, they were completely wiped out by smallpox, and when the Europeans arrived in the late 1590s and early 1600s, they brought a multitude of diseases and epidemics that greatly affected indigenous life of the past, and can still even be seen among various Indigenous populations today. During the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, Indigenous people all across the globe suffered exponentially, and in some cases were completely decimated, and the fatality rates of Native Americans were four times higher than the rest of the broader American population.
The COVID-19 Virus is another pandemic that’s affecting Indigenous communities in the United States and internationally. Indigenous communities already have little to no access to things like healthcare and other preventive measures such as soap, purified water, and chemical disinfectants. During mandatory lockdowns, those who face the challenges of hunger and malnutrition due to the loss of their native lands now have to confront even larger challenges to access to food. As a result of all of this, indigenous populations have substantially suffered as governments globally do not offer assistance. Indigenous peoples in America are also facing discrimination when it comes to gaining resources for those who are sick with the virus, as a Native American health center located in Seattle requested medical supplies for their growing number of cases. Three weeks later, they were not sent any supplies, but rather a single box of body bags.
Native Americans today fight for food sovereignty as a means to address health, returning to culturally traditional foods for healing. Returning to traditional eating is challenging, considering an extensive history of relocation and cultural genocide. Many Native American histories of traditional culture foods have been lost or are now difficult to recreate.
Indigenous food sovereignty activists in the United States assert that indigenous communities have been systematically displaced from their traditional foodways, which has led to mass food insecurity. They assert that the most effective way to achieve food security for indigenous groups is to increase their agency in food production. Some activists also argue for food sovereignty as a means of healing historical trauma and as a means of decolonizing their communities. A variety of activist groups work towards indigenous food sovereignty globally. Largely, they work towards revitalizing traditional cultural practices for acquiring and preparing food or establishing new ways to navigate their local economies alongside non-native farming. In the United States, these groups, including the Indigenous Food Systems Network and the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, work towards education and policy-making concerned with food and farming security. Another group focused on requiring food and energy sovereignty is the White Earth Anishnaabeg from Minnesota, who focus on a variety of foods, planting and harvesting them using traditional methods. Such groups meet to establish policies for food sovereignty and to develop their local food economies at summits such as the Diné Bich’iiya’ Summit in Tsaile, Arizona, which focused on Navajo traditional foods.
Indigenous food sovereignty activists also often advocate for seed sovereignty, and more generally for plant breeders’ rights. Seed saving is important to indigenous communities in the United States not only because it provides those communities with a stable food source, and therefore of public health value, but also because of its cultural importance. In addition, seed sovereignty advocates often argue that seed saving is an important mechanism in creating agricultural systems that can adapt to climate change. A few notable seed sovereignty advocates include Rowen White, who has worked largely with Sierra Seeds, and Winona LaDuke.
Seed sovereignty can be defined as the right “to breed and exchange diverse open-sourced seeds." It is closely connected to food sovereignty, as seed sovereignty activists argue for the practice of seed saving partly as a means of increasing food security. These activists argue that seed saving allows for a closed food system that can help communities gain independence from major agricultural companies. Seed sovereignty is distinct from food sovereignty in its emphasis on seed saving specifically, rather than food systems in their entirety. Seed sovereignty activists often argue for seed saving based on environmental reasoning, not just food justice ones. They argue that seed saving fills an important role of restoring biodiversity to agriculture, and producing plant varieties that are more resilient to change climatic conditions in light of climate change.
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. 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": 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.
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." 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."
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.
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. 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.
Some critics argue that globally the green revolution caused vast environmental destruction though the increased use of herbicides which caused dramatic loss in biodiversity. There was also a loss of traditional knowledge as farmers relied more heavily of biotechnological inputs. The green revolution favored wealthy, large scale farmers and forced many smaller, poorer farmers into debt.
Some of these views are supported by the World Bank- and UN-sponsored IAASTD report. 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. The organic certification of the certified organic farm of Steve and Sue Marsh was withdrawn in 2010 due to GM contamination. 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. However, the organic certification of the Marsh farm was reinstated in 2013.
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.
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. 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 (cf. Campbell 2009).
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).
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) 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 (see also the debate about multiculturalism and indigenous autonomy in Mexico ). On the other hand, Raj Patel is more favourable towards this prospect: for Patel, an adapted version of Seyla Benhabib’s Kantian-inspired federalism, involving multiple geographies of democratic jurisdiction, could offer a promising way to realize food sovereignty on a large scale. A proviso is that Patel requires a stronger version of Benhabib’s accompanying principle of moral universalism. By Patel’s assessment, the food sovereignty movement is showing promising signs of moving towards the egalitarianism and democratic process that such a model entails.
Crisis of the peasantry?
In its strong reassertion of rural and peasant identities, the food sovereignty movement has been read as a challenge to modernist narratives of inexorable urbanisation, industrialisation of agriculture, and de-peasantisation. However, as part of ongoing debates over the contemporary relevance of agrarianism in classical Marxism, Henry Bernstein is critical of these accounts. He claims that such analyses tend to present the agrarian population as a unified, singular and world-historical social category, failing to account for:
- a 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 (Boyer discusses whether food sovereignty is a counter or anti-development narrative )
- Food price crisis
- Food speculation
- Indigenous decolonization
- Land grabbing
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