Food Sovereignty: Convergence and contradictions, conditions and challenges

Alberto Alonso-Fradejas, Eric Holt-Giménez, Martha Jane Robbins, Saturnino M. Borras and Todd Holmes | 04.27.2015

Abstract: This article introduces this special collection on food sovereignty. It frames the collection in relation to a broader political and intellectual initiative that aims to deepen academic discussions on food sovereignty. Building upon previous and parallel initiatives in ‘engaged academic research’ and following the tradition of ‘critical dialogue’ among activists and academics, we have identified four key themes – all focusing on the contradictions, dilemmas and challenges confronting future research – that we believe contribute to further advancing the conversation around food sovereignty: (1) dynamics within and between social groups in rural and urban, global North–South contexts; (2) flex crops and commodities, market insertion and long-distance trade; (3) territorial restructuring, land and food sovereignty; and (4) the localisation problematique. We conclude with a glance at the future research challenges at international, national and local scales, as well as at the links between them, while emphasising the continuing relevance of a critical dialogue between food sovereignty activists and engaged scholars.

KEYWORDS food sovereignty, food justice, agrarian justice, environmental justice and sovereignty, transnational agrarian movements, flex crops


Food sovereignty – as an idea for an alternative food system and as a global social movement – has constantly evolved since its launch by the international agrarian movement, La Via Campesina (LVC), during the period 1993–96. In 2007 a food sovereignty world assembly was held in Mali, where more than 500 advocates coming from 80 different countries gathered for several days to commit themselves, and their respective movements, to the ideals of food sovereignty. The joint declaration from that event became popularly known as the Nyéléni Declaration – a key reference point for the what, who, why, how, where, when and why does it matter questions in food sovereignty. The name ‘Nyéléni’ was inspired by ‘a legendary Malian peasant woman who farmed and fed her peoples well’.1 The most abbreviated vision of food sovereignty is captured in the following extended quote from the Nyéléni Declaration:

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers and users. Food sovereignty prioritizes local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability. Food sovereignty promotes transparent trade that guarantees just incomes to all peoples as well as the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition. It ensures that the rights to use and manage lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food. Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social and economic classes and generations.

It is clear from the Declaration that food sovereignty is a political project. The how questions in the political construction of food sovereignty will thus necessarily involve questions about engaging with social forces external to the collective movement that may facilitate or hinder the attainment of food sovereignty. Yet they will also entail a constant, internal renegotiation within the emerging social forces constructing food sovereignty. In the 2007 Nyéléni Declaration, advocates committed thus:

We are committed to building our collective movement for food sovereignty by forging alliances, supporting each other’s struggles and extending our solidarity, strengths, and creativity to peoples all over the world who are committed to food sovereignty. Every struggle, in any part of the world for food sovereignty, is our struggle.

We have arrived at a number of collective actions to share our vision of food sovereignty with all peoples of this world […] We will implement these actions in our respective local areas and regions, in our own movements and jointly in solidarity with other movements. We will share our vision and action agenda for food sovereignty with others who are not able to be with us here in Nyéléni so that the spirit of Nyéléni permeates across the world and becomes a powerful force to make food sovereignty a reality for peoples all over the world.

The political build-up from food sovereignty’s initial public launch during the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome towards Nyéléni in 2007, as well as the post-2007 momentum in its political construction (idea and social movements), have proven both inspiring and challenging. The initiative has steadily advanced and expanded, albeit unevenly, across space and time. And, in the process, it has answered some questions while also provoking new ones.

A fundamentally contested concept, food sovereignty has – as a political project and campaign, an alternative, a social movement, and an analytical framework – barged into global discourses, both political and academic, over the past two decades. Since then it has inspired and mobilised diverse publics: workers, scholars and public intellectuals; farmers and peasant movements; food vendors and restaurant owners; public health advocates and neighbourhood gardeners; NGOs and human rights activists in the North and global South. The term has become a challenging subject for social science research, and has been interpreted and reinterpreted in various ways by different groups and individuals. Indeed, as it is a concept that is so broadly defined, it spans issues such as food politics, agro-ecology, land reform, pastoralism, fisheries, biofuels, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), urban gardening, the patenting of life forms, labour migration, the feeding of volatile cities, community initiatives and state policies, public health, climate change, ecological sustainability, and subsistence rights. Similarly the meaning of food sovereignty has morphed and expanded quite significantly beyond the ‘rural/agricultural’ framing originally given by LVC. Today it stretches across a manifold of socio-political and economic scaffolding: rural/agricultural, rural/non-agricultural, urban/agricultural, urban/non-agricultural, spheres of production, circulation/trade and consumption, the North–South hemispheric divide, state–society institutional spaces, as well as class and other social attributes and identities. Such is a key indication of the relevance – and power – of food sovereignty (FS) as an idea, a social movement, a campaign, and an analytical framework. It also provides us with a glimpse of why FS can be a complicated issue to negotiate within and between social classes and groups across societies.

Since Nyéléni in 2007 FS has significantly gained more ground within the academic community internationally. Slowly FS has been introduced into various academic disciplines, including agrarian political economy, political ecology, international political economy, international relations, ecological economics, world-system studies, social anthropology, development studies, law, sociology, politics, gender studies, public health, and human rights. All the while FS has increasingly garnered the attention of advocates, supporters, sympathisers and sceptics. In the effort to explore what FS means to each of these academic disciplines, and how the academy could contribute to deepening and broadening the conversation around FS, several academics and research institutions organised two international conferences around the theme ‘Food Sovereignty – A Critical Dialogue’. The first conference was held at Yale University in September 2013. It was hosted by the Yale Program in Agrarian Studies and the Yale Sustainable Food Project, and coordinated by James C. Scott. Close to 300 participants from around the world attended that conference, where some 82 papers were presented and discussed. The second conference was held four months later, in January 2014, at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, and attended by around 350 academics and activists from across Europe. The conferences were co-organised by the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First). In all, nearly 100 conference papers developed from these two events. Militants, advocates, supporters, and sympathisers – as well as sceptics – from inside and outside the academy gathered at these events and debated in collegial and comradely fashion several critical issues surrounding FS. Indeed, these conferences complemented the earlier, equally critical conferences organised by key scholars including Annette Desmarais, Hannah Wittman, Nettie Wiebe, Harriet Friedmann and Philip McMichael regarding FS, and proved to be immensely productive, both politically and academically. The editors of this special collection were among the organisers of these two conferences.

Three journal special issues have been produced from the said conferences. The first collection appeared in the Journal of Peasant Studies, 41, no. 6 (2014), edited by Marc Edelman, James C Scott, Amita Baviskar, Saturnino M Borras Jr, Deniz Kandiyoti, Eric Holt-Giménez, Tony Weis and Wendy Wolford. This collection focuses on the agrarian dimensions of FS. The second collection is forthcoming in a special issue of Globalizations (summer 2015), edited by Annie Shattuck, Christina Schiavoni, and Zoe VanGelder. It focuses on general globalisation-related issues and includes a number of contributions linked to issues in the global North. The third collection is this current special issue of Third World Quarterly – the content and focus of which we will introduce below.

Building on the critical dialogue at Yale and ISS, this present collection identifies a number of key questions regarding FS. What does (re)localisation mean? Although the concept stands at the centre of the food sovereignty narrative, (re)localisation has rarely been problematised systematically in any academic terms. How does the notion of food sovereignty connect with similar and/or overlapping ideas historically? How does it address questions of both market and non-market forces in a dominantly capitalist world? There is a tendency in the food sovereignty narrative to sidestep divisive issues such as gender: how does FS deal with such differentiating social contradictions? The alternative FS both embodies and promotes often focuses on scattered localised food systems. But how does the movement deal with larger issues of nation-state, where a largely urbanised world of non-food producing consumers harbours interests distinct from those of farmers? How does food sovereignty address the current trends of crop booms, as well as other alternatives that do not sit comfortably within the basic tenets of food sovereignty, such as corporate-captured fair trade? How does FS grapple with the land question and move beyond the narrow ‘rural/agricultural’ framework? These are among the current questions facing food sovereignty (also see the key questions raised in the Journal of Peasant Studies and Globalizations special issues). Such questions, indeed, call for a new era of research into FS, a movement and theme that in recent years has inspired and mobilised tens of thousands of activists and academics around the world: young and old, men and women, rural and urban. In the remainder of this article we will elaborate on some of these questions.

Click here to access the article at Taylor & Francis Online. (available for free download through July 30, 2015)


Alberto Alonso-Fradejas, Saturnino M. Borras Jr, Todd Holmes, Eric Holt-Giménez, and Martha Jane Robbins (2015) Food sovereignty: convergence and contradictions, conditions and challenges, Third World Quarterly, 36:3, 431-448, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2015.1023567

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