Food Sovereignty: Global Rallying Cry of Farmer Movements

Peter Rosset | 10.01.2003

Food First Backgrounder, Fall 2003, Vol. 9, No. 4

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 in 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 Vía 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.

What Vía Campesina and others say is that we face a clash of economic development models for the rural world. The contrasts between the dominant model, based on agroexports, neoliberal policies, and free trade versus the food sovereignty model, could not be more stark.

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.

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.