What is food sovereignty?
The food sovereignty approach sees the production of food and the achievement of food security as the central goal and purpose of agriculture, rather than treating agricultural products as a commodity like any other. It also emphasises the need for food systems that enable food producers to earn a decent livelihood. This is particularly key in Africa where the majority of people living in hunger are smallscale farmers.
Food sovereignty stresses the need for effective food systems to be locally based and locally controlled. With this approach people would mainly depend upon the food that is produced in their region, reducing the 'food miles' (the distance food travels from farm to plate) and restoring closer connections between producer and consumer. It also means that the policies that guide these food systems should be decided through local democracy, taking account of the local context and enabling people to choose the type of food system that they want. As a principle food sovereignty seeks to overturn the prejudice that the expert knowledge and guidance needed to formulate policy can only come from ‘scientists’ and not from farmers themselves.
Lastly, food sovereignty emphases the need for a environmentally sustainable approach, promoting agro-ecological methods of farming. In today’s context of climate change, this has particular relevance. Unlike industrial farming, which is a major contributor to climate change gases, smallscale farming using sustainable methods can actually reduce levels of carbon dioxide.
Where did the idea come from?
The concept of food sovereignty was developed in the early 1990s, born out of a mobilisation of groups of smallscale farmers all around the globe who were finding they could no longer make a living from farming. The concept was presented by an alliance of smallscale farmers and other food producers, La Vía Campesina, at the 1996 World Food Summit – the summit that first saw the commitment to halve global hunger by 2015.
The concept has evolved and grown since then as it has been embraced by people all around the world. In 2007 more than 500 representatives of farmers’ networks, unions, social movements and other civil society groups gathered in Selingue, Mali for the Nyéléni World Forum for Food Sovereignty. The outcome of the forum was a call for a radical restructuring of the global food and agriculture system to replace the current system which is largely dominated by the powerful interests of transnational corporations (TNCs). They instead advocated for local and national food systems that empower peasants and small scale farmers. The forum also defined six pillars of food sovereignty (above). Since the Nyéléni forum food sovereignty has continued to gain acceptance in Africa, and has even been formally taken up by regional economic blocs such as ECOWAS.
Recently, Viá Campesina has developed the Declaration of the rights of peasants: women and men.