Towards Food Sovereignty

Monday 19 January 2009

The access of small farmers to land, water and seeds… is not a guaranteed
right nowadays. Agricultural and commercial liberalisation condemns to
poverty a large part of the population that lives from agriculture and
that should be in charge of providing food for the population locally and
regionally. Neoliberal globalisation, on its way to privatise all aspects
of life, has done the same with agriculture and natural resources. Today,
claiming the right of the population to food sovereignty has turned into a
prevailing need.

The concept of food sovereignty was proposed for the first time by the
international movement Via Campesina in 1996 in Rome, on the occasion of
the International Food Summit of the Food and Agriculture Organization of
the United Nations, FAO. Food sovereignty is defined as the right of
communities and people to decide on their own agricultural and food
policies, to protect and to regulate the production and the internal
agricultural trading with the aim of achieving a sustainable development
and guaranteeing food security.

To reach this sovereignty requires a strategy that breaks with neoliberal
agricultural policies imposed by the World Trade Organization, the World
Bank and the International Monetary Fund and with the dominant capitalist
economic system, which promotes a totally unsustainable model of
agricultural and food production.

The globalised system of production, trade and distribution of food has
proved to be a resounding failure in terms of ecologically guaranteeing a
minimum food security. According to a study realised by the FAO, in the
year 2000, it was considered that there were 826 million people in the
world, mainly women and children, who suffered from hunger and other forms of malnutrition, when at world-wide level there is sufficient food
production to feed all the population. So, where is the problem?

One of the main reasons for hunger and malnutrition has to do with the
lack of access to natural resources (land, water, seeds…) of the small
peasantry. Most of the cultivable land in the world is in the hands of the
big transnational companies that impose the model of agricultural
production for exportation, forgetting food necessity of the local
population. A merchandised, intensive and genetically modified agriculture
that puts the economic interests before the needs of the people.

In contrast, the concept of food sovereignty places agricultural producers
at the centre of the political debate, supporting the right of the people
to produce its own food independently of the conditions established by the
market. A principle that breaks with the myth that only international
markets will be able to solve the question of food insecurity. It is about
prioritising local and national markets, reinforcing agriculture, fishing
and family cattle ranches by promoting food production, distribution and
consumption on the basis of social, economic and environmental

Women, the most affected

The industrialised agricultural and food model and the transnational
companies that apply it threaten the existence of farmers, traditional
fishing, pasture economy as well as the food commerce on a small scale
where the women have a central role. It should be taken into account that,
in the southern countries, 80% of the food is produced by women, who are
the main responsibles of the maintenance of the biodiversity, of the
seeds, and consequently are also those who suffer most from the neoliberal
and sexist policies.

At the same time, women and children are the most affected by hunger at a world-wide level, even though, as we said previously, they are the main
food producers. In addition, the massive use of chemical agents and
genetically modified crops in intensive agriculture has harmful effects on
the environment, human health and, in particular, on the reproductive
health affecting mainly the women, who are the main work force in the

Another example of this inequality has to do with the access to the land:
in many southern countries the law denies to women the right to own land,
and in those where, legally, they have this right, traditions and
practices prevent them to exert it. In Europe, many female farmers suffer
a complete legal insecurity, since the majority of them works in family
farms where the administrative rights are the exclusive property of the
farm holder and the women, even though they are working in them, do not
have a right to subsidy, to plantation, to milk quota, etc. Let alone the
labour conditions of immigrant women in agriculture in the northern
countries, where they work in totally unacceptable social and legal
conditions, suffering a double discrimination: as women and as

Steps forward

But the mobilization in favour of food sovereignty can presently count on
new allies. Groups of women, fishermen, consumers, shepherds, indigenous people… join the farmer movement in the fight of the population for food sovereignty. This was the main result of the Forum for Food Sovereignty that took place on February 2007 in the rural village of Sélingué, in Mali.

An encounter that allowed progress in the defining of joint strategies
between a wide range of social movements worldwide. The international
encounter got together more than 500 delegates from 80 countries, with a
balanced participation of people from all the continents, especially
invited for the occasion. The objective was to carry out a strategic
debate on what is understood from the different social movements by food
sovereignty, what concrete proposals are presented and how to carry them

The encounter was promoted through an international call from movements as significant as Via Campesina, the World March of Women, Friends of Earth, the World Forum of Fishing Population, the Networks of Farmer and Agricultural Producer Organizations of West Africa (ROPPA). It was the culmination of a long preliminary process and, at the same time, a
departure point for a new stage of mobilisation in favour of the food
sovereignty. A step forward in this fight, literally vital for hundreds of
millions of people.

*Esther Vivas is co-coordinator of the books in Spanish “Supermarkets, No
Thanks” and “Where is Fair Trade headed?”. She is a member of the
editorial board of Viento Sur (
**Article translated by Carine Simon.

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