By: Ryder Bell

At the confluence of creating a more equitable food system and finding solutions to feed a growing world population sits the concept of food sovereignty. Attention devoted to food sovereignty has increased in light of a global social and racial justice movement fueled by Black Lives Matter and other organizations, and due to the cracks - or at least, our acknowledgement of those cracks - taking form in the food system. But food sovereignty is not a new phenomenon. In the same vein as the rise of regenerative agriculture or agroecology, the underpinnings of the food sovereignty movement have been around for a long time, but have only just recently consorted with the mainstream.  

Food sovereignty is inseparable from La Via Campesina, a Zimbabwe-based organization founded in 1993 that advocates for the rights of small-scale farmers worldwide. The organization coined the term in 1996, bringing the concept to the forefront of food and agriculture. About a decade later in 2007, the first global forum for food sovereignty was held in Mali. The Declaration of Nyéléni offered an amended conceptualization of food sovereignty, defining it as:

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.

At its core, food sovereignty seeks to eradicate global hunger and rural poverty, but the concept is also defined by the ideologies and politico-economic structures it opposes. In the late 20th century, the economic and philosophy of what some scholars call neoliberalism gained political favor. The neoliberal worldview and its policies extended to all facets of society and life, including the world of food and agriculture. In the context of the food system, neoliberal policy based on free market solutions and deregulation had a series of repercussions: defunding of food assistance programs, privatization of hunger relief programs, and free trade agreements that left local and small-scale farmers vulnerable. 

As both the appeal of these economic policies and technology advanced worldwide, this period was also characterized by a series of developments that exacerbated the disruption of rural communities that are dependent on agriculture. These include mass corporate consolidation of producers, mechanization and industrialization, globalization, urbanization, and other phenomena. Pure, unbridled free-market capitalism and the institutions it produces - specifically in the form of world trade agreements - are antithetical to a system advocated by La Via Campesina and the global peasant farmers movement. The impetus for developing the concept of food sovereignty emerged in response to this market-oriented political philosophy, as well as the term “food security.” Supplanting “security” with “sovereignty” acknowledges and encapsulates the power dynamics inherent in the food system that the former term does not.

How this response to the dominant socioeconomic structure plays out in practice is not monolithic or dogmatic, but fluid and adaptive to the region of implementation. Five broad principles or axes gleaned from the 2001 Final Declaration of the World Forum on Food Sovereignty held in Havana, Cuba include:

  1. Increasing access to resources like land, seeds, water, capital needs, other services
  2. Fostering production models that are local, family-oriented, traditional and endogenous
  3. Protecting the rights of farmers and other laborers in the food system
  4. Ensuring access to healthy, culturally-appropriate food
  5. Creating agricultural and agri-food policies that put farmers and consumers at the center of consideration

These principles and the sentiment of the food sovereignty movement ultimately seek to reposition the locus of food and agricultural production towards small-scale, local and indigenous practitioners, rather than transnational corporate conglomerates. They are humanistic, favoring the people and communities involved in providing food by assuring their gratification and protecting their existence. This means fortifying local markets rather than perpetuating small farmers’ reliance on whimsical international export markets. It means developing equitable and just institutions that are racially, ethnically and socially sensitive and work within the food system on behalf of those groups with the right to representation. It also means an overhaul of the relationship between people and food, rekindling communality and camaraderie instead of fueling competition and profit.

When you understand the mission of groups like La Via Campesina - specifically, the right for peripheral groups in the world economy to have a say in how their food is produced and consumed - it’s impossible to make an ethical argument against it. The world has corroborated their fight, as a broad coalition of peasant farmer groups as well as food system stakeholders and thinkers have organized and expressed support and need for global food sovereignty. A reckoning of technocratic and market-based solutions for the problems in the food system seems to be rippling. But for a wave of vast, worldwide endorsement to form, everyday citizens should be informed on the significance of what’s at stake. 

Below are some episodes from HRN on the topic of food sovereignty. They include informative and engaging conversations on the philosophy of the movement, grassroots organizations putting the concept into action and tips for how everyday people can get involved. 

The Big Food Question Episode 15 How Can Growing Your Own Food Address Issues of Food Sovereignty and Access? 

The pandemic has brought long standing issues of food access and insecurity to the forefront. While hunger and lack of access to affordable and healthful food is by no means a new problem, individuals and families are finding it harder than ever to put food on the table. 

In this episode, we’re taking a look at how non profit organizations, farmers, and individuals are offering growing expertise to their communities to empower more of us to grow our own food. Connecting eaters with farmers and their wealth of knowledge is an important pipeline to deepen our cultural understanding and ownership of the food we eat. 

We hear from Kathleen Finlay, the president of The Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming, and garden designer and co-host of We Dig Plants, Carmen DeVito. Plus we’re featuring an excerpt from Soul Fire Farm’s video series “Ask a Sista Farmer”, with their co-founder Leah Penniman and Julialynne Walker of Bronzeville Agricademy.

The Farm Report Episode 407 Growing Produce—and Food Sovereignty—in Black Communities 

Reverend Dr. Heber Brown, a Baltimore pastor, community organizer, and beginner farmer, started the Black Church Food Security Network in the wake of the city’s Freddie Gray uprisings in 2015. Since then, he’s been connecting farmers and faith communities in an effort to empower more Black communities to grow their own food on church-owned land. Five years later, in the midst of another pivotal moment in the movement for Black lives, host Lisa Held talks to him about what the network has accomplished so far and the importance and future of food sovereignty as it relates to racial justice.

Meat + Three Episode 83 Striving for Sovereignty in Indigenous Foodways 

This week we share stories about indigenous foods and food sovereignty, here in the U.S. and across the globe. We’ll explore the richness of indigenous ingredients, the power of small-holder farms, and the importance of representation. First, we explore the lasting impact of settler colonialism on the food sovereignty of indigenous people in the U.S. Then, we look to Yolélé Foods to understand how they are expanding the market for fonio while benefiting farmers in West Africa, where the grain originates. We hear from The Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman about his foray into the world of indigenous culinary history and look at battle to identify Palestinian cuisine as just that, Palestinian. 

Eating Matters Episode 164 Farming While Black 

Host Jenna Liut speaks with farmer, educator, author, and food sovereignty activist, Leah Penniman. She is the Co-Founder, Co-Director and Program Manager of Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, New York, and she is the author of the book, "Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm's Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land." For the past 20 years, Leah has worked to end racism and injustice in our food system by increasing farmland stewardship by people of color, promoting equity in food access, and training the next generation of activist farmers.

Greenhorns Radio Episode 286 Jeff Conant, Friends of the Earth-US 

Jeff Conant directs Friends of the Earth's international forests program, which campaigns to protect forests and the rights of forest-dependent peoples by addressing the economic and political drivers of forest destruction. Prior to joining Friends of the Earth, Jeff ran communications and popular education efforts around climate and development justice with Global Justice Ecology Project, International Accountability Project, and other advocacy organizations, and co-authored A Community Guide to Environmental Health (Hesperian Health Guides, 2008), a comprehensive community education manual that covers issues from basic sanitation to big dams and from forestry to food sovereignty. The Community Guide has been translated into over a dozen languages.

Eating Matters Episode 170 Gather 

Ever wonder why we don’t eat Bison meat in this country? This is a little known - but extremely important - part of American history that perfectly demonstrates one way the US government worked to systematically steal land from and decimate Native American people. It was a tactic that effectively communicated that ‘one dead buffalo is two dead Indians.’ 

Director Sanjay Rawal (Food Chains) joins host Jenna Liut to discuss his critically-acclaimed, newly-released documentary, Gather. The film demonstrates how Indigenous Americans are reclaiming their sovereignty over their annihilated ancestral food systems, while battling against the historical trauma brought on by colonialism and centuries of genocide. Eating Matters’ Amber Chong joins the show as co-host.

Eating Matters Episode 171 Native Foods with Chef Nephi Craig 

Following up on our previous episode featuring Sanjay Rawal, director of the newly-released film, Gather, host Jenna Liut interviews a central character of the documentary: Native food practitioner, Nephi Craig. Chef Craig is the founder of both the Native American Culinary Association as well as Café Gozhóó where he also serves as the Executive Chef. They discuss Indigenous food systems and the modern colonial violence that continues to threaten them, as well as cultural appropriation in the culinary world. Chef Craig helps us to solidify our definition of food sovereignty and better understand the intersection of Native foods, cultural preservation, community health, and political autonomy. Eating Matters’ Amber Chong co-hosts. 

Meant to Be Eaten Episode 77 Why Food Pantries Are Unable to Combat Hunger 

A conversation with Rebecca de Souza.

Do food pantries completely miss the point? Rebecca de Souza thinks they might. In “Feeding the Other,” Rebecca demonstrates how “food pantries stigmatize their clients through a discourse that emphasizes hard work, self help, and economic productivity rather than food justice and equity.” We discuss the power and significance of stigma, and why food pantries are unable to combat hunger