What is food sovereignty?

The concept of food sovereignty originated in the early 1990s from small-scale farmers in Latin America whose communities realised they were working hard but still struggling to make a living. Quickly taking form as a social movement called “La Via Campesina” – literally meaning “the peasant road”, new ideas surrounding food sovereignty soon spread to farmers around the world.

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.

Definition of food sovereignty.

What’s wrong with the current food system?

First and foremost, food is a human right; it is a resource unique in the fact that it is critical for life. Food security and food justice are on-going critical challenges that aim to create a world free from hunger. But as long as food is treated as a commodity, the food system will create social, economic and environmental inequalities.

Currently, the majority of agricultural food systems include middlemen that have almost complete control over a foods’ supply chain (See diagram 1). These middlemen consist of transnational corporations whose sole priority is economic growth. Consequently food is considered a commodity to be traded at maximum profit, benefitting the business but minimising farmer income. Many small-scale farmers around the world receive earnings below their production costs, ironically meaning they face high levels of food insecurity, and hence, malnourishment.

Goal 2 of the SDGs aims to end hunger by making food accessible to all, and in quantities and varieties that satisfy nutritional and cultural needs. However, with multinational corporations holding the power, this goal continues to be of secondary importance. The concept of food sovereignty transfers more power to the producers. It stands as a potential solution to help achieve Goal 2 of the SDG’s as well as tackling farmer poverty and corporate domination of the food system.

[The SDGs aim to] adopt measures to ensure the proper functioning of food commodity markets… and facilitate timely access to market information… in order to limit extreme food volatility.

Target 2.C, Goal 2.

Power in the Wrong Hands

Each and every item of food you buy has been through a supply chain, or value chain, taking steps to arrive from ‘farm to fork’. Each step adds value to the food in some way, changing it from a raw material into the finished product. Without a supply chain, food would never reach your plate unless you grew the ingredients yourself. So the chain is indispensable in modern society. However, the current mainstream system results in vast inequalities so food sovereignty aims to change who has control over how, where and why things happen in the food system.

Diagram 1: An hourglass representation of the food system, food is produced and consumed by millions but traded internationally by few.
Diagram produced by author, based on Farm Radio International and ICCO.

Case Study: Cocoa

There are about 40-50 million cocoa farmers worldwide and over 90% of these are small-holder or family run. To put a supply chain into context, a bar of chocolate starts as raw cocoa beans that have been arduously cultivated by the farmers. Before even leaving the field, the beans are fermented, dried, selected against impurities and packaged into bags. Next, small traders directly purchase beans by visiting the small-holders one by one. Small traders sell the beans on to wholesalers, who sell them again to exporters. By this point cocoa has entered the international market, where it’s price has more than doubled! (2015 average US$/tonne: market price of cocoa = 3,379 but a farmer earns = 1,500).

A cocoa farmer drying beans in Ghana, the second largest producer of cocoa in the world.

But, due to the middlemen that separate producers from the consumers, farmers are not informed on the value of their product or the quality standards that buyers request, resulting in a lack of bargaining power and the forced acceptance of a low “take it or leave it” price.

Some multinational organisations have attempted to channel money back into the agricultural sector, like the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, an aid scheme founded in 2012. However, countries are required to adhere to land, seed and trade rules in favour of the businesses investing in them. This is a critical problem because farmers lose access to their land’s resources and countries have restricted control on exports meaning that even during food shortages, food leaving the country can’t be slowed down.

This food system reflects the issue of dependency theory, the reliance of poor farmers in the Global South on a highly volatile income that fluctuates with international prices beyond their control.

Who’s fighting back?

La Via Campesina actively promotes food sovereignty through strengthening farmer solidarity and lobbying governments. Alongside other social movements, 2018 brought a success with the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. Another important focus is resolving the direct conflict between corporations and small-scale food systems. This conflict arises due to the threat posed to transnational trading through decreased control of the agricultural system.

Armed security protecting farmers following violence in Honduras.

In some instances, the conflict has turned into violence and persecution as extreme as evictions, kidnappings and killings. For example, Dinant, a corporate oil palm grower, was linked to 120 deaths surrounding land disputes in Honduras. And yet multinational corporations continue to get away with such complicity and violation of human rights. A recent win against such impunity has been the adoption of the UN Binding Treaty For Transnational Corporations In Human Rights.

Honduras is the most dangerous country in which to defend land.

La Via Campesina.

The Treaty’s primary aims:

  • To address the systemic power of transnational corporations which has reached unprecedented impacts on the daily lives of affected communities
  • To establish direct legal obligations for TNCs
  • To reaffirm the hierarchical superiority of human rights norms over trade and investment treaties
  • To enforce just punishment for corporate complicity (illegal activity linked to or caused by the company)

Oxfam has also taken action towards the unfairness of the current food system. In 2002 they released a report “Mugged: Poverty in Your Coffee Cup”, a report in which they uncover the financial and social implications of the coffee industry. In 5 years the value of coffee dropped by US$4bn, comparative to 2 years of debt repayments in Honduras, Ethiopia and Vietnam amounting to US$4.7bn. Many governments in developing countries are in debt as a result and millions of farming families can not afford medicine or education for their children, with an imbalance of mostly girls being taken out of school.

Food Sovereignty as a Solution

A support scheme set up by the Landworkers Alliance to establish new entrants into farming sustainably.

The campaign for food sovereignty is a global one. Support from the global North is appearing in response to grassroots movements initiated in the global South. For example, the Landworkers Alliance is a sub-group of La Via Campesina based in the UK that aims to spread awareness of the issues faced by farmers today. They help to build solidarity between UK farmers as well as lobbying for food security worldwide.

Swisscontact, a business-oriented foundation, claims to have trained 107,900 people in up-to-date skills and labour market insertion. In a business report, the company identified a lack of cooperation and communication between the producers and consumers of supply chains as a key downfall in the food system. On top of this, political, social, technical and innovative solutions coming from grassroots initiatives in the developed and developing world are needed to achieve food sovereignty.

Ideas towards shifting power from middlemen to producers:

  • Professionalization of farmers. Individuals are trained to become more specialist producers (higher quality produce sells at a better price, producing more can cause supply to surpass demand which lowers the market price)
  • Increasing trust and support between actors in the supply chain (improving communication and transparency)
  • Informing producers on current market prices so they know the true value of their produce (gives farmers ‘bargaining power’)
    • This includes informing producers on what foods are high in demand to open opportunities to engage with market fluctuations (tailoring production to increase efficiency)
  • Creating more farmer cooperatives because large groups have higher market power that can help to receive more stable income and create savings (like loans for members or training for improved farming practices, linking to professionalization)
  • Creating niche markets. For example, single origin chocolate which contains fine flavours from a particular part of the world (increasing selling price and control over a specific product)
  • Setting a minimum price on produce that is higher than the cost of production so farmers have a disposable income to sustain their families (helps farming become a job of the future to feed generations to come)

Finally, by changing behaviour as a consumer, such as choosing certain foods over others, it is possible to dictate what products are in demand on the market, and which are going to fade out. Starting with reducing food miles, which heightens the chance of reducing the number of middlemen involved. Secondly, by identifying certification on products, like the Marine Stewardship Council or the Rainforest Alliance, more support is given to sustainable methods of production. Not only will these choices start to shape a new food system, but awareness is spread in order to create a truly global movement.