Opinion

Do the opportunities outweigh the limitations of food sovereignty?

Hannah Wittman

Food sovereignty helps to redistribute power dynamics in the food chain

Food sovereignty is a political project that aims to improve local people’s decision-making power and control over their food systems. These systems include regional food provision, ecosystem services and biocultural heritage, marketing and distribution regulations, and food and nutritional policy. Proponents suggest that policies supporting food sovereignty – such as mediated markets, fair trade, agro-ecological food production, and support for women, youth, and new entrants to agriculture – will provide significant opportunities to develop more sustainable food systems from the ground up.

However, it is important not to equate the concept of food sovereignty with an ‘anti-trade’ food self-sufficiency approach (i.e. that each region or nation should produce all of their own food, and not be involved in trade networks). Food has been traded successfully for millennia – between urban and rural areas, between Indigenous communities as a mode of governance, and between regions and nations based on mutual interest and benefit.  On the other hand, food has also been traded violently, used as a weapon in periods of colonisation and war, and to disproportionately benefit those with political and economic power.

In short, shifting the dynamics of power over these land governance, trade and food relations – who gets to decide, who benefits, and who is harmed – is at the core of the food sovereignty movement, and provides the primary basis for opportunity.

Emerging as an international coalition of agrarian, Indigenous, women’s and fisherfolk organisations in the early 1990s, the food sovereignty movement argues that market liberalisation, deregulation, and a reduction in public support for diversified agricultural systems based in (but not limited to) regional economies has had significant social and environmental costs.  Despite record-breaking global food production, and public and private investment in a wide range of new agricultural technologies, more than 800 million people still suffer from hunger, and we are seeing unprecedented levels of environmental degradation and social dispossession associated with the expansion of industrialised agricultural systems.

Influencing food policy

Policies based on the principles of food sovereignty – equity, empowerment, ecological sustainability – aim to support food system diversification and farmer livelihoods, while improving the ability of consumers to access healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food. One good example is Brazil’s Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) platform for food and nutritional security. The platform promotes a group of policies, which include a range of social, agricultural, and economic support for sustainable agriculture, such as providing price premiums for ecologically produced food sold to public institutions, including national school meal programmes. Farmers report that this price incentive is a great opportunity to diversify their farming systems, reducing their economic risk while improving environmental outcomes on their farms.

The Fome Zero initiative includes support for women and youth to develop value-added activities as farm entrepreneurs, improving their family incomes while adding to local food availability in their regional markets. The implementation costs of such programmes are outweighed by significant benefits to local economic development and the protection of future agricultural capacity for food security.

Across the globe, new civil society networks, such as Food Secure Canada, Nyéléni Europe and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, are being formed in order to design and implement food systems from the ground up. In collaboration with local and national governments, food policy councils are also being formed in cities large and small – not just to support urban agriculture and local food markets, but to also build relationships with regional agrarian movements and Indigenous communities to build a food system together that benefits both food providers and consumers. Environmental groups are collaborating with Indigenous communities and farmers to protect valuable food land from resource extraction.  As a result, food sovereignty principles are being institutionalised in policies, programmes, and even constitutions, opening up further entry points for citizen engagement in revolutionising opportunities for food sovereignty.

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.