Opinion

Do the opportunities outweigh the limitations of food sovereignty?

Elizabeth Mpofu

Food sovereignty is the answer to food and nutritional security

Agriculture is one of the dominant sectors supporting the majority of people living in rural areas of developing countries, especially women who depend on the sector to feed their families. But research shows that these farmers are continually marginalised in food policymaking processes for sustainable agriculture.

Globally there has been continued support for agricultural programmes embedded in industrial agriculture and supported by the Green Revolution. This is not in line with the agricultural practices commonly used by women farmers – who are custodians of indigenous seed and knowledge systems – which are also embedded in food sovereignty and agroecology. Food sovereignty lies in the ability of farmers to decide their own farming practices, choose the seed they want to use and adopt their own consumption patterns.

What is food sovereignty?

‘Food sovereignty’, a term coined by members of La Via Campesina in 1996, asserts that the people who produce, distribute, and consume food should control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution, rather than corporations and market institutions which dominate the global food system. This concept also encompasses the right of people to healthy and culturally-appropriate food and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.

Food sovereignty promotes practices that build resilient and sustainable farming and food systems through agroecology, diversified health and nutritious food systems. These practices protect the entire ecological system, which is essential in a world facing diverse ecological, economic and social challenges. Poverty, food insecurity, hunger, malnutrition and stunting rates are on the rise, but these are all challenges that can be addressed when farmers have a say in policies on food production, processing and marketing. Industrial agriculture focuses on cash crops such as maize, which has led to mono-cropping, reduced crop diversity and expanded maize cultivation (often into marginal or fallow land) as farmers plant more to access subsidies.

Overcoming key challenges

Women farmers play an important role in agricultural activities to feed millions of rural and urban people. The challenges that these rural women face, particularly in Africa, are based on a long history of oppression and struggle. Patriarchal power and injustice continue to be a daily reality for many African women farmers. The increasing corporate concentration of land and resources makes rural women’s struggle for access to land ever more difficult. As more and more rural families are displaced, women are less secure and more vulnerable to violence and exploitation.

Decades of industrial forms of agriculture, which promote increased usage of hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers, agro-chemicals and currently genetically modified organisms, have led to the ecological, food and nutritional crises we face today. This has been at the expense of rural farmers’ own initiatives in terms of farm managed seed systems, agroecology, regenerative agriculture, and climate change mitigation and adaptation practices.

It has been widely acknowledged that the loss and, in some cases, extinction of indigenous or traditional seed and knowledge systems threatens our ecology and food systems. Climate change has led to a fall in productivity, loss in livestock and destruction of people’s livelihoods, especially women farmers. However, these challenges can all be addressed by promoting sustainable agricultural practices, such as agroecology, food sovereignty and increased usage of indigenous seeds.

Food sovereignty has proved to be the only sustainable way that agriculture can provide diversified, healthy and nutritious food systems. The argument for food sovereignty has won the support of international organisations, such as FAO, which recognised my role in the struggle for food sovereignty by appointing me as Africa Special Ambassador for Pulses in 2016.

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.