What Does Food Sovereignty Look Like?

Raj Patel | 07.01.2009

In The Journal of Peasant Studies, Volume 36, Issue 3, 2009

Hannah Arendt observed that the first right, above all others, is the right to have rights. In many ways, Via Campesina’s call for food sovereignty is precisely about invoking a right to have rights over food. But it’s unclear quite how to cash out these ideas. This Grassroots Voices section examines some of the difficulties involved in parlaying the right to have rights about food systems into practical solutions.

The etymology of food sovereignty

There is, among those who use the term, a strong sense that while ‘food sovereignty’ might be hard to define, it is the sort of thing one knows when one sees. This is a little unsatisfactory, and this section marks an attempt to put a little more flesh on the concept’s bones, beyond the widely agreed notion that food sovereignty isn’t what we have at the moment. Before introducing the papers that make up the rest of this section, it is worth looking at the etymology of the term ‘food sovereignty’. It is, admittedly, the first instinct of an uninspired scholar to head toward definitions. I have, far more frequently than I’d care to remember, plundered the Oxford English Dictionary for an authoritative statement of terms against which I then tilted. The problem with food sovereignty is, however, a reverse one. Food sovereignty is, if anything, over defined. There are so many versions of the concept, it is hard to know exactly what it means. The proliferation of overlapping definitions is, however, a symptom of food sovereignty itself, woven into the fabric of food sovereignty by necessity. Since food sovereignty is a call for peoples’ rights to shape and craft food policy, it can hardly be surprising that this right is not used to explore and expand the covering political philosophy. The result of this exploration has sometimes muddled and masked some dificult contradictions within the notion of food sovereignty, and these are contradictions worth exploring.

This article is available for free download at Taylor Francis Online.