Food Sovereignty: the struggle for a fair global food system

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La Via Campesina at COP16
The global food system is in crisis. Food is being treated as a commodity to be traded, rather than a fundamental human right.

The scale of hunger and malnutrition across the world today is the direct result of our global economy in which hundreds of millions of small farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists and indigenous people face ruin - because of the hijacking of the food system by large corporate agribusiness and food retailers.

Decisions about what is produced, what is consumed and who has access to food are defined by multinational corporations which control the entire food chain, and by unequal trade rules laid out in trade deals and agreed by institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). Companies like Cargill and Unilever continue to report record profits, whilst record numbers of people – 690 million – are going hungry. A further two billion people lack regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food.

Today, agribusinesses and corporations are responsible for the overproduction of crops and the resulting vast amounts of food waste throughout the entire supply chain, from field to supermarket shelf. A popular belief that the world’s population has grown too large for us to produce enough food to feed everyone is completely false [1].

Family farmers  – not corporations – feed the world

One of the main problems within this broken food system is not the low production of food, but how resources are organised and distributed: who controls the land, water, and seeds necessary to grow crops, who decides what to produce, how, and where to sell it.

Family farming [2] is the main form of food production in developed and developing countries, producing over 80 percent of the world’s food in value terms (FAO, 2014 and 2019), using only 30% of the world’s agricultural land. Whereas the corporate industrial agriculture system produces just 20% of the world’s food, using a vast 70% of the world’s agricultural land.

It is clear that food production and distribution should be kept in the hands of family farmers and small-scale producers, rather than large-scale agribusinesses. 

The ‘low-cost’ illusion and corporate control

Over the past 60 years the food system has been transformed into an illusory ‘low-cost’ food economy, where large corporate companies have positioned themselves as the feeders of the world, with an army of supermarkets and long food chains.

The crisis in the global food system is a result of deliberate political choices that favour corporate interests, condemning hundreds of millions to poverty and hunger. The corporate exploitation of land, and control over seeds and agricultural processes has created devastating impacts all over the world.

In India, the introduction of genetically modified cotton among small farmers has led to increased debt and suicides. The recent farmers’ protests in India are an example of the overwhelming distress felt by millions of farmers towards agricultural reforms that will lead to the deregulation, and a system of enhanced benefits for transnational corporations.

Throughout Africa, movements are struggling to oppose large land grabbing projects and corporate-led philanthropic initiatives from introducing patented genetically modified seeds and big data, which benefit philanthropists’ own companies at the expense of local farmers. These initiatives are a huge threat to seed sovereignty.

In Latin America, land is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small number of landowners. Agricultural production is largely devoted to monoculture crops for export, such as sugar, soy, cotton, bananas and coffee. The resulting deforestation and unregulated use of harmful pesticides (agrotoxics) is killing biodiversity and devastating the health of farmers, agricultural workers and rural communities.

The impact of Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the existing inequalities and resulting poverty of the global food system.  Countries in the Global South and the most vulnerable communities in the Global North have been worst hit.

Corporations are seizing the opportunity to grab even more power and influence over the food system. Many governments around the world have shut down local outdoor food markets, which has had a massive impact on informal economy workers [3], while corporate retail chains have been allowed to keep  their supermarkets operating throughout the whole pandemic – giving them huge competitive advantages to cash in and increase their profits..

The pandemic has exposed the fragility of global food supply chains which rely on long-distance transport and fail to respect workers’ rights. The lack of recognition for food and farm businesses’ unions and collective bargaining has meant that farm and food workers’ have struggled to see their basic rights respected, such as a living wage, occupational sick pay, safe working practices and adequate personal protective equipment.

Food Sovereignty in action: the practical alternative

For the last 60 years, the international community (including the UK government) has  promoted the idea of ’food security’ as a solution to hunger and the broken global food system.

Food security as a concept relegates hunger to a social welfare problem resolved by simply handing out more food, instead of addressing the fact  that the right to food is a fundamental human right.

Food sovereignty is an alternative to the conventional approach of food security. It is a practical solution that respects people’s right to food, ensures ecologically sustainable farming, and proposes an end to corporate control of the global food system. It is a comprehensive and grassroots  solution that aims at reduce hunger and feed the world’s population with nutritious, healthy food, produced sustainably and sold at a fair price.

In 1996, the international movement of La Via Campesina, representing millions of small-scale farmers around the world, introduced the concept of food sovereignty at the World Food Summit in Rome. 25 years on the movement continues to grow.

In 2007, the Nyéléni Declaration for Food Sovereignty was signed in Mali, establishing the six pillars of Food Sovereignty, which still as relevant and important today as they were when they were first cited.

The Six Pillars of Food Sovereignty

  1. Focuses on food for people: the right to sufficient, healthy and culturally appropriate food for all individuals, peoples and communities. This includes those who are hungry, under occupation, in conflict zones and marginalised, at the centre of food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries policies. It rejects the proposition that food is just another commodity or component for international agribusiness to trade.
  2. Values food providers: values and supports the contributions, and respects the rights, of all people of all genders who cultivate, grow, harvest and process food. This includes peasants and small-scale family farmers, pastoralists, artisanal fisherfolk, forest dwellers, indigenous peoples and agricultural and fisheries workers, including migrants. It rejects policies, actions and programmes that undervalue them, threaten their livelihoods, and eliminate them.
  3. Localises food systems: brings food providers and consumers closer together. Puts providers and consumers at the centre of decision-making on food issues; protects food providers from the dumping of food and food aid in local markets; protects consumers from poor quality and unhealthy food, inappropriate food aid and food tainted with genetically modified organisms; and resists governance structures, agreements and practices that depend on and promote unsustainable and inequitable international trade and give power to remote and unaccountable corporations.
  4.  Puts control locally: places control over territory, land, grazing, water, seeds, livestock and fish populations on local food providers and respects their rights. They can use and share them in socially and environmentally sustainable ways which conserve diversity; it recognises that local territories often cross geopolitical borders and ensures the right of local communities to inhabit and use their territories; it promotes positive interaction between food providers in different regions and territories and from different sectors that helps resolve internal conflicts or conflicts with local and national authorities; and rejects the privatisation of natural resources through laws, commercial contracts and intellectual property rights regimes.
  5.  Builds knowledge and skills: builds on the skills and local knowledge of food providers and their local organisations that conserve, develop and manage localised food production and harvesting systems, developing appropriate research systems to support this and passing on this wisdom to future generations; and rejects technologies that undermine, threaten or contaminate these, e.g. genetic engineering.
  6. Works with nature: uses the contributions of nature in diverse, low external input agroecological production and harvesting methods that maximise the contribution of ecosystems and improve resilience and adaptation, especially in the face of climate change; it seeks to heal the planet so that the planet may heal us; and, rejects methods that harm beneficial ecosystem functions, that depend on energy intensive monocultures and livestock factories, destructive fishing practices and other industrialised production methods, which damage the environment and contribute to global warming.



Building the Food Sovereignty Movement

Since the international movement of La Via Campesina (representing millions of small-scale farmers around the world) introduced the principle of food sovereignty  the movement has continued to grow.

The global food sovereignty movement includes peasants and smallholder farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, indigenous people, workers and migrant workers, consumers and urban movements.

War on Want’s partners in South Asia, Latin America, and the African continent, have proved it is possible to build a food system that is sustainable, equitable and democratic.

We are committed to building the global movement for food sovereignty. Together with our partner organisations and other allies within La Via Campesina and other international networks, we call on all people to join the global movement in demanding the adoption of food sovereignty. We urge all national governments and international institutions to endorse and implement the food sovereignty framework.

La Via Campesina at COP16

Join the fight to fix our broken food system

Food Sovereignty is a practical solution and a positive alternative to our failed food system, putting  human rights at the centre, instead of corporate profits.

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[2] “a means of organising agricultural, forestry, fisheries, pastoral and aquaculture production that is managed and operated by a family and is predominantly reliant on the family labour of both women and men. The family and the farm are linked, co-evolve and combine economic, environmental, social and cultural functions” (FAO, 2019).