The challenge of feeding the world: food security or food sovereignty?

Deborah Doane

01 November 2011

In the last six months of 2010 alone, 44 million people were pushed into extreme poverty by rising food prices. The food crisis, exacerbated by the perfect storm of climate change, rising populations, and bio-fuels production, has sparked heated debates in international forums, such as the Food and Agricultural Organisation, the G20, and the World Bank.

In 2007-2008, when food prices started to rise globally – wheat by as much as 80%, and maize by as much as 90%, food riots took place in over 30 countries around the World. Whereas in the UK, we might typically spend 10-15% of our income on food, in countries where food riots were breaking out, such as Kenya, Indonesia and Mozambique, the most vulnerable people were spending anywhere between 50% and 90% of their income on basic food.

While speculation by financial markets is largely to blame for such short term price hikes, many argue that the underlying cause lies in a system of over commercialised, globally traded food production. In Kenya for example, where 75% of people work in agriculture, and where agricultural exports account for 25% of GDP, though there was some crop failure in 2008, there was, nonetheless, plenty of food to eat. People simply couldn’t afford to buy it.

Global trade in agricultural commodities is nothing new. But never have we been so reliant on food from afar to sustain ourselves. Since trade in agricultural commodities was adopted wholeheartedly as a strategy for ‘development’ in the 1980s and 1990’s, never have many in developing countries been so vulnerable to the shocks of what happens in global food markets as a result.

In his research on understanding the root causes of famine, Development Economist, Amartya Sen famously declared that there is no such thing as an apolitical food problem, determining that famine, for one, was entirely man made. But while the scientists and traditional agro-economists debate the merits of production methodologies to feed the world, grassroots social movements are looking beyond technology to the ways in which the politics of power shapes our global food systems, under the aegis of the burgeoning food sovereignty movement.

Whereas food security is simply about getting enough to eat, food sovereignty is about tackling inequality of power and justice in our global food system. It is as much a narrative about human rights, about social, economic and environmental justice, as it is about food.

Since the concept was first articulated by the international peasant movement, La Via Campesina, it has inspired a growing grass-roots movement, who have gone beyond the politics of dissent, to the politics of defining the type of system we want to see. ‘There is,’ says Raj Patel, ‘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’. The Nyeleni forum, in Mali, in 2007 took the concept further, and more widely, with a detailed definition of what food sovereignty looks like, that is quoted below. As a result the FAO has now recognised that ‘food sovereignty’ does have a role to play in our food future.

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. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers.

Food sovereignty prioritises local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability.

Food sovereignty promotes transparent trade that guarantees just income to all peoples and the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition. It ensures that the rights to use and manage our lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food. Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social classes and generations.1

Six principles of food security

Going beyond the pure sustenance role of food, six principles of food sovereignty clearly set the agenda for an overhaul of how we look at the challenge of how to feed the world. With a focus on justice as much as on nutrition, food sovereignty provides an overarching framework for policy makers and producers alike.

These principles include first, a focus on food for people – that is, food should not simply be another commodity to be traded or speculated on for profit. It should be culturally appropriate – diverse, unique and healthy. Processed food is wholeheartedly rejected as is the corporate production of food.

Second, the providers of food, including smallholder farmers, or agricultural workers, should be valued. Importantly, food sovereignty looks at the politics of labour in food production. In large-scale agribusinesses, people are displaced from their land; agricultural workers are marginalised and rights are often ignored. Food sovereignty, conversely puts the producer and their rights at the heart of our food system. One example in practice can be seen in Brazil. Around 400 families in the Itaituba settlement in South-west Brazil were displaced from their land in the 1980s by wealthy dairy farmers. After a long struggle, the government finally returned the land to the families as part of the government’s agrarian reform programme. After many years of transforming soil that was full of pesticides, they now produce all of their own food, enjoy more variety and have full control over their land.

A third principle further embeds the notion of local food systems. Food is seen as something for the community – not something to be traded. When the idea of local food first rose up the agenda, the clash between environmentalists and international development experts was laid bare – if we rejected imported food, some argued, we take away a vital source of income for poorer countries. But the debate has since moved on. Under food sovereignty, local and regional provision takes precedence over supplying distant markets, and export-oriented agriculture is rejected. Domestic markets, including in developing countries, are nurtured and supported. Importantly, food sovereignty recognises the notion of protection. Thus subsidies and tariffs, are welcome. Malawi was one country that ultimately dismissed the idea of growing food for export in the mid-2000s. As a result of subsidising small farmers, this small, land-locked country that used to be subject to cyclical famine, not only survived the 2007/2008 food price crisis – it became a net exporter to its region. Food sovereignty was its saviour.

The fourth principle is the rejection of corporate control. Building on anti- GM movements, food sovereignty places control over both land and resources, such as water and seeds, into the hands of the women, men and communities who provide the food. Privatisation of such resources, for example through intellectual property rights, is explicitly rejected. Privatisation of food systems has been devastating for many in the poorest parts of the world. ‘We were falling into an ever increasing debt trap. We had to spend lots of money on chemical inputs and seeds. And every year, we had to increase the amount of chemicals we used in order to get a decent harvest. We felt that we were becoming slaves’ said AA Priyanthi, a peasant farmer from Katuwanayaya in Sri Lanka, on the effects of dominant farming practices. He is part of a community of 42 families that has since embraced food sovereignty and moved to natural, mixed farming methods in their community. ‘For me, the basic element of this concept of food sovereignty is that it allows us to feel free once more,’ he says.

The fifth principle focuses on building knowledge and skills. Over the past few decades, people have been effectively “de-skilled” from how to grow food, while investment in agricultural knowledge by public bodies has been de-prioritised. As a result, technological solutions, such as GM foods, favoured by agribusiness, and private foundations, like the Gates foundation, have displaced traditional knowledge. This principle isn’t about rejecting technology. But it is a nod to ensuring appropriate research systems to support development of agricultural knowledge and skills and not to offload this onto a small group of technocrats, sponsored by large companies. Implementing such a principle would, of course, require significant new public investment in building such knowledge. We would need to see food as a public good – not a private one.

Lastly, food sovereignty works with, not against nature. It aims to protect natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It looks at the system of food in a far more holistic way overall.

Global relevance

While these ideas have been spreading in the Global South, it bears significant relevance for the UK and European context as well. The UK still imports at least 40% of its food, and its model of food production is dominated by corporate agriculture. ‘Britain still has an attitude to food production that is based on the politics of empire, with a reliance on importing food currently mainwired into British culture,’ says Tim Lang.2

Still, while it may not be mainstream parlance, the concept of food sovereignty is clearly on the rise here. It finds its way into the ethos of Transition Towns. The concept is at the very heart of the Slow Food movement. And many in the organic food movement are largely living the ideal of food sovereignty in practise. Embedding food sovereignty, is not about romantic ideals, and it certainly comes with its challenges. It raises difficult questions of protectionism and commercialism, the economics of competitiveness. And it injects new forms of democracy into something that has largely been taken out of our own control. In sum, it does nothing less than demand that we think completely differently about our global food future.

Food sovereignty is a compelling framework for addressing the challenges we face, both locally and globally and instinctually feels like an antidote to the over-commodification and commercialisation of food. Food sovereignty captures the imagination by requiring not just that everyone is fed, but that our systems of food are just and sustainable as well.

Deborah Doane, the director of the World Development Movement. The case studies mentioned in this report originally appeared in the the WDM briefing on food sovereignty that is available online here.


1 Extracted From the Nyeleni Declaration, Feb. 2007.
2 Interview in Yorkshire Post, 3 July 2011

This article was first published in Mother Earth, the Soil Association's journal of organic thought and policy. We hope you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share this with your contacts. If you wish to support the production of Mother Earth in future, and receive the latest issue direct to your door, then please subscribe to Mother Earth, for just £12 a year.

Join to help us stop the use of neonicotinoids and save our living landscapes

Donate to help us create healthy farmland and countryside without pesticides