Food Sovereignty – A Brief Introduction

Here’s a short piece that came out in the UK’s Food Magazine late last year.

food sovereignty sign

If you’ve been following the debates around the international food crisis, you’ll have spotted a new and odd bit of language coming from the progressive corner. In defence of a sustainable food system, activists are summoning up a new and portentous term — ‘food sovereignty’.

It all sounds grand, but many people, even in the progressive community, are a little baffled by it. It sounds like it means that countries should be able to grow their own food, an idea minted in the seventeenth century, when it rejoiced in the name ‘autarky’. But food sovereignty is a very twenty-first century idea – though it’s sometimes a little hard to tell. There are a few, lengthy, definitions floating around – Wikipedia has one of the best – but even the definition seems to give little away. The abridged version of food sovereignty is that it is the “right of peoples to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems”.

It is a right, in other words, to have a say about the food system. It is, to use the words of the German political philosopher Hannah Arendt, a call for a right to have rights about the food system. It’s a call that comes from those who have systematically been excluded from the formulation of food policy, who have long been forced to live with the consequences of agrarian policy authored by those in cities with few, if any, links of accountability to those whose lives are wrecked by their ideas.

To get a grip on the idea, it’s helpful to put food sovereignty in its historical context. Since the 1970s, the international community has shaped its food policy with a goal of ‘food security’ in mind. Food security is a term that has had a few definitions and incarnations itself, but today it’s commonly understood to be this:
“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

But this definition, from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, says nothing about how we get to food security. All it says is that people have enough to eat. The idea of food security is entirely compatible with a dictatorship – as long as the dictator provided vouchers for McDonald’s and vitamins, a country could be said to be ‘food secure’. Admittedly, this is an extreme example, but the history of the world food system is one of a few elites in a handful of countries telling the world how it was going to eat, and how best to feed itself. Today, these elites aren’t dictators in third world countries. Today’s architects of the food system are policy makers in institutions like the World Bank, the US Department of Agriculture and the European Commission, from where from which they write the food policy that affects the rest of the planet.

Food security, in other words, has a built-in democratic deficit. This has long been a central point of contention for Via Campesina, the international peasant movement organisation that developed the idea of food sovereignty. Their argument is that it’s impossible to have food security if the people affected by the policy don’t get to have a say about it, and taking it into their own hands to make it happen. A precondition for everyone having something to eat, they argue, is genuine and direct democracy. And that’s something that has been systematically denied to the world’s rural poor.

This is why food sovereignty is important – it is a call for the right of everyone to be able actively to shape the food system, rather than being shaped by it. It’s a call for a democratic debate and action around food, and about redistributing power more equitably in the food system.

If this sounds like high-minded rhetoric but still leaves you confused about what food sovereignty is about, take heart. Via Campesina itself is still exploring the idea, and what exactly it means. But that exploration is part of the idea of food sovereignty – it’s not up to a secretariat to come up with a definition of how we have the democratic conversation. Part of what a democratic conversation means is that it requires our involvement, and an engagement from each of us.

Via Campesina has a few ideas about how this democratic process will happen. For a start, they demand women’s rights, rights not just to property but to health, welfare, education, dignity, work and leisure. There’s something very modern in the understanding that if democracy is to work for everyone, then everyone needs access to the resources and services that make informed and sustained democratic engagement possible.

Women’s rights aren’t the only demand – for democracy to work, resources need to be equitably distributed, so there’s a call for land reform as part of food sovereignty. And there’s a demand that Europe and North America lay off their agricultural subsidies so that developing country rural producers can get a foothold in the market.

All of these are, Via Campesina’s insists, preconditions for food security. And it’s a compelling argument. When democratic choice, in rich and poor countries, has been reduced to the act of putting a cross next to almost indistinguishable candidates once every four years, what food sovereignty offers is not just a way to reclaim the food system, but a way of reclaiming our society too.