What is food sovereignty? | World Development Movement

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What is food sovereignty?

Participants arrive at the camp built specially for the Food Sovereignty Forum in 2007, in Selingue, Mali (Photo: Donkeycart)


Food sovereignty is about the right of peoples to define their own food systems. 

Advocates of food sovereignty puts the people who produce, distribute and consume food at the centre of decisions on food systems and policies, rather than the demands of markets and corporations that they believe have come to dominate the global food system. This movement is advocated by a number of farmers, peasants, pastoralists, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, women, rural youth and environmental organizations.

The 6 pillars of food sovereignty:

  1. Focuses on food for people: The right to food which is healthy and culturally appropriate is the basic legal demand underpinning food sovereignty. Guaranteeing it requires policies which support diversified food production in each region and country. Food is not simply another commodity to be traded or speculated on for profit.
  2. Values food providers: Many smallholder farmers suffer violence, marginalisation and racism from corporate landowners and governments. People are often pushed off their land by mining concerns or agribusiness. Agricultural workers can face severe exploitation and even bonded labour. Although women produce most of the food in the global south, their role and knowledge are often ignored, and their rights to resources and as workers are violated. Food sovereignty asserts food providers’ right to live and work in dignity.
  3. Localises food systems: Food must be seen primarily as sustenance for the community and only secondarily as something to be traded. Under food sovereignty, local and regional provision takes precedence over supplying distant markets, and export-orientated agriculture is rejected. The ‘free trade’ policies which prevent developing countries from protecting their own agriculture, for example through subsidies and tariffs, are also inimical to food sovereignty.
  4. Puts control locally: Food sovereignty places control over territory, land, grazing, water, seeds, livestock and fish populations on local food providers and respects their rights. They can use and share them in socially and environmentally sustainable ways which conserve diversity. Privatisation of such resources, for example through intellectual property rights regimes or commercial contracts, is explicitly rejected.
  5. Builds knowledge and skills: Technologies, such as genetic engineering, that undermine food providers’ ability to develop and pass on knowledge and skills needed for localised food systems are rejected. Instead, food sovereignty  calls for appropriate research systems to support the development of agricultural knowledge and skills.
  6. Works with nature: Food sovereignty requires production and distribution systems that protect natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, avoiding energy-intensive industrial methods that damage the environment and the health of those that inhabit it. 

The global movement

Movements of people across the world are fighting for food sovereignty. La Via Campesina is the largest social movement in the world bringing together more than 200 million small and medium-scale farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous peoples, migrants and agricultural workers from 70 countries.

There are many local and even some national success stories. In 2012 WDM campaigners, Heidi and Miriam went to Venezuela - one of a handful of countries to make food sovereignty part of national policy. Below is a photo of an urban garden growing salad in the centre of Caracus.

What's wrong with the current food system?

Neoliberal policies implemented under structural adjustment programmes overseen by the World Bank and IMF have involved many governments in the global south cutting back support for farmers (such as research and extension services) and dismantling mechanisms designed to help stabilise food prices, such as grain reserves. This has resulted in greater poverty and hunger.

Alongside this, big business has been able to extend it's control of our food system. Only a small handful of large corporations dominate the production, processing, distribution, marketing and retailing of food. This concentration of power enables these businesses to wipe out competition or dictate tough terms to their suppliers.

To find out more please check out our introductory briefing or our short tricky questions document which explains more about the problems of the food system and food sovereignty.

European movement

The Austrian delegation welcomes people to the Nyeleni Europe forum

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

The objectives were to strengthen local actors, build a sense of common purpose and understanding, as well as a joint agenda for action, celebrate the struggle for food sovereignty already underway in Europe and inspire and motivate people and organistions to work together.

Since 2011 there have been numerous Europe wide gatherings and actions, such as the Good Food March. This is where citizens, young people and farmers came together to call for a greener and fairer agricultural policy in Europe, as well as more democratic reform of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy.

UK movement

Food sovereignty now! Producers and activists at the UK gathering in July (photo: War on Want)

Building on what has already been achieved in local communities across the country and taking inspiration from the European forum, July  2012 saw people came together to galvanise the food sovereignty movement in the UK. Over 100 farmers, community gardeners, co-op workers, campaigners and activists from all corners of the country took part in a weekend of discussions, action planning and skillsharing.

Take action 

Now the UK movement has gathered together it is looking to do more and more in the way of campaigning, research and events. To find out more, visit the UK food sovereignty website here

Donate to WDM to help us strengthen the food sovereignty movement here

Eat, Grow, Resist

In every town across the UK there are community projects you can get involved with to further the relience of the local food system. Search for local community gardens, food cooperatives, community supported agriculture, anti supermarket campaigns and community meals.

Regulate food speculation - take action 

Stop the sell off - find out more