Food Sovereignty

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Author: Melissa Carson
Editors: Brenda Wilmoth Lerner and K. Lee Lerner
Date: 2011
Food: In Context
From: Food: In Context(Vol. 1. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Series: In Context Series
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Food Sovereignty


Food sovereignty is a movement that aims to put farmers and communities—rather than transnational agribusiness, corporations, and markets—at the heart of agricultural, pastoral, labor, fishing, food, and land policies to suit their own ecological, social, economic, and cultural circumstances. The movement is one that emerged in and focuses on developing countries, or the global south. The term food sovereignty was coined by Via Campesina, an international coalition organization of more than 148 organizations founded in 1992, to assist peasant and agrarian movements in places such as South America, Asia, and Africa. It has parallels with, and differences from, the U.S. initiated Food First or food justice movement, which focuses foremost on reduction of hunger.

By empowering farmers and regional populations to make choices about their food production, cuisine, and land use policies, food sovereignty aims to address a variety of social justice issues, from hunger to racism. The tenets of food sovereignty as a social policy include food as a basic human right, agrarian reform, protection of natural resources, ending hunger, social peace, and democratic control.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The food sovereignty philosophy was born out of a reaction to the twin curses of hunger and environmental degradation. The international declaration of human rights identifies the right to food, water, and well being, yet estimates from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization are 1.04 billion people malnourished and hungry worldwide—a level deemed unacceptable by the food sovereignty movement in a world where, on aggregate, enough food is produced for all.

On the environmental side, the movement is fighting against the damage inflicted by industrial farming on the planet's life supporting ecosystems. Industrial farming uses fossil fuels extensively for fertilizers, agrochemicals, production, transport, processing, refrigeration, and retailing. Agrochemical nutrient pollution, primarily from nitrogen rich fertilizers, causes biological dead zones in areas as diverse as the Gulf of Mexico, the Baltic Sea, and off the coasts of India and China. Also, genetic diversity of both crops and livestock has been lost through the spread of industrial monocultures.

This philosophy also recognizes that food, or the lack thereof, can be used as a weapon and political tool. Food sovereignty organizations advocate for the restoration of power to peasant communities by giving them more control over their lives, and food sovereignty is one way to accomplish this. Landlords with massive holdings of land are discouraged under policies created within the food sovereignty framework, as are outside controls on food production such as dictates from the global market.

Impacts and Issues

In February 2007, 500 delegates from more than 80 countries at the Forum for Food Sovereignty in Séingué, Mali, adopted the Declaration of Nyéléni which states in part: “Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture; to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives; to determine the extent to which they want to be self reliant; to restrict the dumping (free, subsidized, or below market price food that undercuts local farmers) of products in their markets; and to provide local fisheries-based communities the priority in managing the use of and the rights to aquatic resources. Food sovereignty does not negate trade, but rather, it promotes the formulation of trade policies and practices that serve the rights of peoples to safe, healthy and ecologically sustainable production.”

Put simply, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD),

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A Mexican woman displays ears of corn during a protest in Mexico City against imported corn and genetically modified corn seeds. A Mexican woman displays ears of corn during a protest in Mexico City against imported corn and genetically modified corn seeds. AP Images.

an intergovernmental panel, 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.” According to the Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN), “What emerges [from the food sovereignty declaration] is a persuasive and highly political argument for refocusing the control of food production and consumption within democratic processes rooted in localized food systems.”

Sustainable Agriculture

Within the food sovereignty approach, environmental ills are avoided by developing production systems that mimic the biodiversity and functioning of natural ecosystems. These systems seek to combine modern science with the experiential knowledge of farmers and indigenous peoples to achieve a more environmentally sustainable approach. This means reducing dependence on expensive external inputs, and reducing cost-price squeezes and debt traps that many of the world's farmers endure.

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DUMPING: Food aid that consists of free, subsidized, or below market price food, which undercuts local farmers and can lead to the destruction of local farming and economies and lead to an ongoing cycle of poverty and hunger.

FOOD SOVEREIGNTY: The right of peoples and sovereign states to determine democratically their own agricultural and food policies.

SOVEREIGNTY: Supreme and independent power or authority in government as possessed or claimed by a state or community; rightful status, independence, or prerogative; a sovereign state, community, or political unit.

Such agro-ecological methods include crop rotation, intercropping, natural pest control, use of mulches and compost, terracing, nutrient concentration, water harvesting, and management of micro-environments. Scientists have reported that a series of large-scale experimental projects around the world have yielded excellent results: In southern Brazil, for example, the use of cover crops to increase soil fertility and water retention enabled 400,000 farmers to raise maize and soybean yields by more than 60 percent. Farmers earned more as beneficial soil biodiversity was regenerated.

Trade and Policy

Food sovereignty advocates are not against trade, but the concept does argue for a fundamental shift away from current practices. It emphasizes the need to support domestic markets and small-scale agricultural production. Networks of local food systems are favored because they reduce the distance between producers and consumers, limit food miles (the number of miles a product travels before it is actually consumed), and enhance citizen control and democratic decision-making.

Current trade policies for agriculture are straining the environment and leading to the economic demise of unprecedented numbers of farmers. Food sovereignty calls for new governance systems that stop the negative impacts of international trade such as food dumping, prioritizing local markets, restricting overproduction in commodity agreements, and guaranteeing small-scale producers equitable prices that cover the costs of producing food in socially and environmentally sustainable ways.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to the food sovereignty movement is creating inclusive alliances between farmers, fisher-folk, indigenous peoples, scholars, and other citizens of sufficient influence to exert countervailing power. In principle, governments that fully commit themselves to food sovereignty as a social policy must be prepared to promote the redistribution of land to the Page 374  |  Top of Articlecontrol of the people who farm it. Food sovereignty also emphasizes a reconsideration of the way people think about food, encouraging nations to turn away from viewing it as a mere tradable commodity and to promote democratic methods of food production.

In 2008 Ecuador became the first country to adopt food sovereignty in its constitution through a people's vote that recognized peoples' right to sustainable food production, particularly local production by small farmers, and nature's right to remain unexploited. Its new Law on Food Sovereignty, passed in 2009, was not without controversy, as the legislation left the door open to approvals of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in exceptional cases. However, it put forward many important provisions in support of food sovereignty, protecting many areas of the country, discouraging monoculture, and recognizing the rights of nature. Mali and Bolivia have also adopted the food sovereignty principles as their overarching policy framework for food and farming.



Agroecology for Food Sovereignty. Cincinnati: Food First Books, 2009.

Food Sovereignty. Warwickshire, UK: Practical Action Pub, 2010.

Majahara, Pharahada. Food Sovereignty and Uncultivated Biodiversity in South Asia: Essays on the Poverty of Food Policy and the Wealth of the Social Landscape. New Delhi: Academic Foundation in association with International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada, 2007.

Perfecto, Ivette, John H. Vandermeer, and Angus L. Wright. Nature's Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Conservation and Food Sovereignty. London: Earthscan, 2009.

Pimbert, Michel. Towards Food Sovereignty. London: International Institute for Environment and Development, 2009.

Schanbacher, William D. The Politics of Food: The Global Conflict between Food Security and Food Sovereignty. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2010.

Young, Sophie, and Anuradha Mittal. Food Price Crisis: A Wake up Call for Food Sovereignty. Oakland, CA: Oakland Institute, 2008.


Altieri, Miguel A. “Agroecology, Small Farms, and Food Sovereignty.” Monthly Review New York 61, no. 3 (2009): 102–113.

Patel, Raj. “Food Sovereignty.” Journal of Peasant Studies 36, no. 3 (2009): 663–706.

Web Sites

“Forging Food Sovereignty for Human Rights and Sustainable Livelihoods.” Food First. (accessed October 17, 2010).

Mousseau, Frederic.” Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger in Our Time.” Oakland Institute. (accessed October 17, 2010).

Melissa Carson

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1918600117