Sovereignty Now! in the Midst of Economic and Environmental Crises, People Are Taking Back Control of Our Food Systems

Article excerpt

CURRENT FOOD, economic and environmental crises are marked by volatile food prices, urban food riots and the continued displacement of the rural poor - a clear indication that the dominant model of agricultural development has not succeeded in eradicating poverty or world hunger. La Via Campesina, an international agrarian movement that promotes peasant and family-farm sustainable agriculture, argues that these linked crises result directly from an industrial, capital-intensive and corporate-led model of agriculture and that the time for "food sovereignty" has come.


Food sovereignty, as a framework, evolved from the experience of farmers who were most immediately affected by changes in national and international agricultural policy introduced throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Structural-adjustment programs, regional trade agreements and World Trade Organization negotiations resulted in communities losing control over food markets, environments, land and rural cultures. The current version of "food security," which emphasizes maximizing food production and enhancing food-access opportunities, exacerbates the situation by failing to pay particular attention to how, where and by whom food is produced.

In 1996, La Via Campesina proposed food sovereignty as a radical alternative to mainstream, corporate and export-oriented agriculture. It is based on democracy and social justice, putting control of land, water, seeds and natural resources in the hands of those who produce food. Food sovereignty is broadly defined as the right of nations and peoples to control their own food systems, including their own markets, production modes, food cultures and environments.

At a 2007 international workshop on food sovereignty, Jim Handy, a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan, summarized the revolutionary implications of the seemingly simple idea of democratizing the food system. He suggested that "... food sovereignty demands that we treat food not simply as a good determined by the market; it demands that we recognize the social connections inherent in producing food, consuming food and sharing food. In the process, it will change everything."

Certainly, ideas about food sovereignty force us to rethink our relationships with food, agriculture and the environment. But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of food sovereignty is that it forces us to rethink our relationships with one another. The magnitude of this transformation hit home in a powerful way when, during its Fifth International Conference in Maputo, Mozambique in 2008, La Via Campesina launched a campaign with the slogan "Food sovereignty means stopping violence against women." Because women play a key role in food production and procurement, food preparation, family food security and food culture, food sovereignty entails equality, respect and freedom from violence for women. As the Declaration of Maputo stated: "If we do not eradicate violence towards women within our movement, we will not advance in our struggles, and if we do not create new gender relations, we will not be able to build a new society."

As an alternative approach to rural development, food sovereignty is not limited to how, where and by whom food is produced. It is integrally linked to other issues facing rural and global society. Fundamentally, food sovereignty involves the right to food and other human rights; the exploration of alternative notions of citizenship that include participatory and democratic structures and practices related to rural and urban food production and distribution; and enhancing the relationship between food production, resource redistribution and environmental and social well-being.

As a result, challenges to food sovereignty abound, especially as they relate to its successful implementation. The struggle for food sovereignty is intense, long and, in some countries, life-threatening. …