Food Sovereignty: Global Rallying Cry of Farmer Movements

Peter Rosset | 05.18.2015

In celebration of our 40th anniversary year, Food First is revisiting past publications from our rich archive of analyses on the root causes of hunger and social movements fighting for the right to food around the world. We hope you enjoy (re-)reading these trail-blazing pieces, which remain highly relevant today.

In 2003, Peter Rosset wrote this Backgrounder outlining the principle of food sovereignty, and how it challenges dominant neoliberal economic approaches to agriculture and international trade. Advocating for local control of production and distribution of food, as opposed to mere food security as advanced by the corporate food regime, remains the core of Food First’s work.

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture; to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives; to determine the extent to which they want to be self-reliant; [and] to restrict the dumping of products on their markets….Food sovereignty does not negate trade, but rather, it promotes the formulation of trade policies and practices that serve the rights of peoples to safe, healthy and ecologically sustainable production. — Statement on Peoples’ Food Sovereignty by Via Campesina et al.

As corporate-driven economic globalization and runaway free trade policies devastate rural communities around the world, farmers’ organizations are coming together around the rallying cry of food sovereignty. Food sovereignty says that feeding a nation’s people is an issue of national security—of sovereignty. If the people of a country must depend for their next meal on the vagaries of the global economy, on the goodwill of a superpower not to use food as a weapon, or on the unpredictability and high cost of long-distance shipping, that country is not secure in the sense of either national security or food security.

Food sovereignty goes beyond the concept of food security, which has been stripped of real meaning. Food security means that every child, woman, and man must have the certainty of having enough to eat each day; but the concept says nothing about where that food comes from or how it is produced. Thus, Washington is able to argue that importing cheap food from the US is a better way for poor countries to achieve food security than producing it themselves. But massive imports of cheap, subsidized food undercut local farmers, driving them off their land. They swell the ranks of the hungry, and their food security is placed in the hands of the cash economy just as they migrate to urban slums where they cannot find living wage jobs. To achieve genuine food security, people in rural areas must have access to productive land and receive prices for their crops that allow them to make a decent living.

To achieve genuine food security, people in rural areas must have access to productive land and receive prices for their crops that allow them to make a decent living.

The only lasting way to eliminate hunger and reduce poverty is through local economic development. One way to achieve such development in rural areas is to create local circuits of production and consumption, where family farmers sell their produce and buy their necessities in local towns. Money circulates several times in the local economy, generating town employment and enabling farmers to make a living. In contrast, if what farmers produce is exported, fetching international market (low) prices, and most everything they buy is imported, all profits are extracted from the local economy and contribute only to distant economic development (i.e., on Wall Street). Thus food sovereignty, with its emphasis on local markets and economies, is essential to fighting hunger and poverty.

Food Sovereignty, Trade Agreements, and Monopolies

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Via Campesina and other adherents to the food sovereignty principle call for excluding food and agriculture from trade agreements like the World Trade Organization (WTO), North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and other regional and bilateral agreements. They see out-of-control trade liberalization as driving farmers off their land and as a principal obstacle to local economic and food sovereignty. The governments of large agroexport nations, in the North and in the South, continue to push for such agreements, though they may argue the details that determine the distribution of benefits among this relatively small subset of nations. These governments are all held hostage to varying degrees by their big agricultural exporters and by transnational agribusiness corporations. These corporations see food as a commodity to be bought and sold. Yet food implies the stewardship of productive resources; it is culture, farming, health—food is life itself.

The real enemy of farmers is low prices. And farm gate prices—what farmers receive—continue to drop even while consumer prices rise and rise. This is because the main force dictating low prices to farmers is the same one that dictates high prices to consumers: the monopoly control that corporations like Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Dreyfuss, Bunge, Nestlé, and others exert over the food system. That means that breaking up these monopolies by enforcing antitrust laws nationally and globally is a key step toward ensuring that farmers worldwide can earn a living on the land and consumers can have access to affordable, nutritious food.

Food sovereignty is a concept that should make sense to farmers and consumers in both Northern and Southern countries. We are all facing rural crises and a lack of affordable, nutritious, locally grown food. We must struggle together against global trade polices and in favor of real agrarian reform and more participatory, sustainable and locally controlled food systems everywhere. We must take back our food and our land.

Featured image photo credit: La Vía Campesina

Click here to read the full Backgrounder.