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The fight for food sovereignty is a global struggle for systemic change


Members of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) during a protest in the city of Eunapolis, Brazil, 4 April 2011.
Members of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) during a protest in the city of Eunapolis, Brazil, 4 April 2011. Photo: IMAGO / Pond5 Images

Food production and consumption are, by their very nature, internationalist concerns. Economic stability, political relations, the social reproduction of labour, and health care are not determined solely within a nation’s borders. The interconnectedness of food requires a careful internationalist strategy for re-thinking and the coordination of access to, and distribution of food as well as what humanity should be eating (that is, food considered beyond mere units of energy for consumption or chosen based on what makes it to supermarket shelves). Fundamentally, overcoming the food crisis will require addressing the root causes around the ownership and control of land, the commodification of food crops and the environmental and health degradation associated with the dominant global system of food production. Opposition to this system at present comes from different sources, including rural and urban workers’ organizations, impacted communities and indigenous peoples. Though these groups are disparate, their shared struggle is for the creation of a common politics for food, land and nature.

Sabrina Fernandes is Head of Research at the Alameda Institute.

A combination of recent crises — including flooding in Somalia, drought in Ethiopia and an earthquake in Afghanistan — have illustrated the increasing global dependency on food and humanitarian aid. During events like this, it becomes harder for countries to navigate external pressures, and their capacity to produce and distribute adequate food through regular economic channels is diminished. The global polycrisis impacts the ability to predict outcomes and risks, but unpredictability cannot become an excuse for normalizing inadequate responses to hunger in the face of accelerating and increasingly complex crises.

Instead, unpredictability must be factored into strategic calculations. Ecological collapse will cause damage at a scale that no fundraising and transfer of grains can mitigate. Indeed, in a landscape of ecological collapse, it will become impossible to secure the basic nutrition of the more than eight billion people living on the planet. Industrial agriculture and monocrop production become more vulnerable by the day, due to the impacts of climate change, war and dependence on the petrochemical industry. This vulnerability puts food supplies under constant threat.

From Food Security to Food Sovereignty

Inequality is not an accident, nor is it either an isolated feature or aftereffect of the polycrisis. Rather, it is a defining characteristic of capitalism. Inequality prevents the majority of the world’s population from accessing the adequate means to produce food, and from sustaining a livelihood that includes consuming a varied, healthy diet. The largest world governance institutions and state metrics still centre their approach on food security, while food sovereignty has emerged as the strategic orientation of social movements and rural worker organizations in the past thirty years. For these groups, food is more than just a matter of sustenance, but is a central means by which we can organize society justly and sustainably.

The World Food Summit of 1996 approached food security through the principles of ensuring there is enough safe and nutritious food that can be accessed daily to meet healthy dietary needs and food preferences. By definition, this is a desirable and worthy goal. However, in the years since, food security has developed into a paradigm which does not question the underlying power dynamics and the reproduction of material conditions that make food insecurity a permanent feature of the global order. At its core, the food security paradigm deals only with access to food, without challenging the political and economic structures that determine and control access, as well as distribution.

By failing to address the root causes of hunger and famine, the food security paradigm makes it impossible to end hunger globally. Of course, many people worldwide possess food security, but this is restricted to increasingly limited geographic pockets. In terms of the people localized in one area, food vulnerability is influenced and determined by class, race, gender and, of course, citizenship status. Globally, “underdevelopment” and “de-development” lead to widespread food insecurity across areas. Another problem with the food security paradigm is that it is easily co-opted to generate partial answers that pose no threat to the corporate food system, or worse, that even open up new profit opportunities. Accelerated by other crises, the food security paradigm becomes ever more dependent on aid, be it through direct food delivery, cash transfers or small development projects that cannot compete with the food giants and their price-setting powers.

The food crisis is not merely a crisis, but the result of a project that has empowered the world’s elites, century after century.

In practice, a “science of food security” emerges, one which takes as its focus calories and the output that is compatible with precision agriculture having the aim to increase crop yields and to assist management decisions using high technology sensor and analysis tools. This model tends to be reliant on Green Revolution technologies that rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides and that are tied to colonial projects and corporations, in order to optimize resources in aid response and/or development projects. In this rationale, food insecurity can be addressed by reaching optimum yields of certain crops that should meet the demand for fats, fibres and protein. All of this is carefully managed and data-driven. Precision farming is advocated by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) with the objective of optimizing, “agricultural value chains […] critical in advancing food and nutrition sufficiency without increasing the size of land under cultivation.” The framing of food that reduces it only to “optimal input” relegates vital elements of food production and the culture of eating, like territory ownership, taste, heritage, care, well-being and connection as secondary. This reductionist approach has, though, proved useful to corporate agriculture, since it reinforces the case for genetically modified crops (GMOs), more efficient fertilizers, and the standardization of food production for market purposes. Advocates of plant breeding technologies (including GMOs and hybrid seeds) argue that government overregulation is an obstacle to achieving food security. Overregulation, as the argument goes, denies populations the opportunity to grow crops that have increased nutrient use efficiency and are more resilient to climate shocks.

The unpredictability of the climate crisis and the threat of an impending ecological collapse has been hijacked by new industries. These actors dominate the agricultural sector by offering tech-based solutions that increase “resilience” by helping to absorb shocks. The rise of these industries is a prime example of what happens when resilience is taken out of a strategic horizon of radical change, and transformed instead into a market outcome. If critics of the polycrisis want to actually solve it, it is worth considering what “resilience” is being used to mean. Is it a resilience that reinforces the profit orientation and metabolic fractures that lie at the basis of food insecurity? Or resilience as a means to help build the conditions that will tackle the cause beyond the symptoms of food insecurity. The paradigm of food security is about optimizing productivity. It’s true that productivity matters — after all, feeding the world requires enormous quantities of food. But if productivity is approached solely as a technological problem, it reinforces the tendency to fragment the quantitative and qualitative aspects of food production and consumption. On the quantitative side, production for food security is viewed as a challenge of multiplication. Whereas division, that is, distribution of food, is left to logistical planning. This ignores what Raj Patel identified in his influential 2007 book Stuffed and Starved, as the bottleneck of power that concentrates international food distribution among a small set of corporations. This bottleneck excludes the poor and small-scale food producers from decision-making.

It also normalizes worrying tendencies, such as an overreliance on industrial animal exploitation as a protein source, which has direct health implications, as well as longer term consequences like the proliferation of new viruses, greenhouse gas emissions and inefficient use of water and soil. When the question of what food actually is arises, quality can get absorbed into categories like calories and a set group of nutrients. This framing, though, fails to properly widen the discussion around food to include variety, taste, customs and community life. Further, the global crisis of hunger can appear to be primarily one of not enough food. This fails to engage with the fact that, in the solutions presented to food insecurity, the perpetuation and repackaging of food as a commodity maintains colonial practices, sustains land inequality and contributes to environmental degradation.

The food crisis is not merely a crisis, but the result of a project that has empowered the world’s elites, century after century. The threat of hunger and starvation has proved potent enough to keep people in precarious working conditions in which they are subject to exploitation, as long as their most basic food needs are met. The food security paradigm does not challenge capitalism, and therefore does not challenge the root causes of the food crisis. At most, the food security paradigm attempts to partially reform the food crisis through poverty alleviation schemes.

Food sovereignty, on the other hand, offers a vision for an alternate world. Food sovereignty is based on life creation and sustenance, and therefore it needs to incorporate democratic approaches to land, territory and decision-making. Together these approaches can produce the desirable outcomes of respecting food preferences and promoting an active life that are included in the definition of food security. Food sovereignty questions the basis of the existing order, and seeks to build powerful alternatives. This even means rethinking today’s culture of food, which promotes ultra-processed foods, the unsustainable and cruelty-based consumption of animal protein, and the year-round availability of out-of-season fruits and vegetables shipped from far away. The food sovereignty paradigm urges us to rethink the causes of famine and food insecurity. Also, it asks those who have the means to choose what they eat to use this agency. Food sovereignty is necessarily concerned with questions of property ownership and the determination of the means of food production. This is why social movements fighting for agrarian reform and popular control over territory, including indigenous territorial claims, have pioneered debates on food sovereignty. La Via Campesina, the biggest international movement of peasants, small-scale food producers and agricultural workers, frames food sovereignty as a fight for the future. That means not only securing what is needed today, but changing conditions for long-term sustainable access to high quality food alongside transformed ways of living.

Diversity as Radical Resilience

The concept of food sovereignty is deeply concerned with restoring and expanding systems of care. The struggles of rural women, indigenous and black communities to access land, restore ecosystems and grow healthy food demonstrate how the task of ending hunger is intertwined with the emancipation of peoples everywhere. For example, it is not enough to include gender clauses and safeguards in trade and food aid agreements. This is because clauses like this fail to address the underlying structure that excludes women both from accessing land in the first place, and then from accessing the resources which are necessary to grow and distribute food without becoming more dependent on debt and state transfers. Food sovereignty stresses autonomy and self-determination, which means the relationships behind production must be transformed too, so that they become more horizontal, more decentralized and more diverse.

Food sovereignty defies monoculture in more than one way. In a letter to La Via Campesina Brazil, the late, great Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano wrote: “Monoculture is a prison, it always was, and now with GMOs, much more. Diversity, by contrast, liberates. Independence is reduced to a hymn and to a flag if it is not based on food sovereignty. Self-determination begins at the mouth. Only productive diversity can defend us from sudden collapses of prices, a phenomenon that is the norm, the deadly norm, of the world market.” By monoculture, Galeano means both the monocrop methods employed by corporate agriculture, and the way that the current hegemonic approach to food creates homogeneous food systems, which flatten cultural specificity. The lack of crop diversity in monocultures means there is less variety in nutritious food that is available locally. However, this is hidden from anyone who shops at major supermarket chain, where out-of-season fruits and grains imported from far away are readily available. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) believes that there is a decline in agrobiodiversity due to Green Revolution methods and globalization, which changes perceptions of what can be grown and eaten: in the past humans relied on more than 7,000 plant species as food sources, now we depend mostly on a few crops, such as rice, wheat and maize.

Fixing the global food crisis means promoting more inclusive modes of eating.

Monocrop culture carries a disdain for traditional knowledge and agricultural practices, which contributes to a production system that reshapes rural life in multifaceted ways. Women are pushed out of food production, and young people are pushed out of rural areas altogether, and into the peripheries of mega-cities. Monocrop agriculture requires only the labour of a small portion of the workers who would be needed to work the land if it were owned and managed in alternative, collective ways. This process is referred to by the Brazilian movement Teia dos Povos (People’s Web) as “deterritorialization”. Land concentration is the term used to describe the ownership of land in an area being concentrated in the hands of a small number of people or companies. This phenomenon, and the violence around it, also leads to the expulsion of people from territories, with particular consequences for gender and racial inequality. Worldwide, landowners are usually men, and where corporate agriculture is dominant, the plantation system disadvantages women with more short-term, precarious and less protected jobs.

As a response to this, agricultural women workers have led agrarian reform movements around the world. Especially powerful in the Global South, these movements have helped to set the agenda against issues like the privatization of seeds by companies and agrochemicals like chemical fertilizers and pesticides that destroy the soils and kill biodiversity. In a region as diverse as Latin America, this combination of battling to secure access to land, while at the same time ensuring that the role of women, Black and indigenous communities is valued, helps to move the struggle for food security to food sovereignty. The Marcha das Margaridas (The March of the Daisies) is one example of this. A wide-scale mobilization by rural women in Brazil, it combines grassroots and institutional politics to advance feminist agroecology, a vision of agricultural practices which centres care and democratic participation. Increasingly, the demand is not only for agrarian reform, but one that is also feminist, agroecological and that empowers local people. It is not enough to divide up the land and redistribute some of it. Public policy and investment are also needed to ensure that people can regenerate degraded soil, build adequate housing, provide schooling for their children, and find economic avenues for transporting and to get access to markets for their produce. All of this must happen with the prioritization of local and domestic populations over commodity exports

If these conditions are met, then small-scale food producers will not only benefit from a land title, but they will also earn the means to cultivate the land and to live well. Demands raised by the Marcha das Margaridas have recently resulted in new social programs launching in Brazil. The National Programme of Agrarian Reform was re-established, prioritizing women, and a new programme, Productive Backyards, was set up to advance “nutritional and food security” and the autonomy of rural women. Here, diversity translates into a call that connects land ownership to the right to food to the social transformation required to translate these rights (as access and control) into sovereignty (as permanence and safety). Globally, rural women are building collective practices that strengthen local economies and contest traditional patriarchal ways of organizing around the land. Examples include the ecofeminist organization Alianza de Mujeres en Agroecología (Alliance for Women in Agroecology) in Colombia, and the rise of “campesina feminism”, which highlights the role of women in agroecology in Guatemala. The principles of agroecology align with these strands of feminism in clear ways; for instance, rural women tend to use organic farming practices and farmers` seeds. Rural women are also a powerful driver for the local markets, through manufacturing and selling goods like artisanal soap and medicinal plants.

Inclusive Modes of Production

Fixing the global food crisis means promoting more inclusive modes of eating. This includes reimagining the distance between where food is produced and where it is consumed, how choice is created, the role of technology in production, and how to reduce global transportation. It also touches on our relationship to organic and inorganic residue creation, the problem of food waste, our relationship to other animal species and, finally, the ways in which food is about time and pace of life.

An inclusive mode of eating requires an ecoterritorial mode of food production. Agroecology plays an important role here. This is for various reasons, including its refusal to detach food production from the ecological conditions that enable a large number of crop varieties to be cultivated. Also, as a system, it is more resilient to climate shocks, without being propped up by the dual short-term ”remedies” of resource extraction and chemical inputs, both of which create a vicious cycle of long-term problems. Agroecology is not restricted to rural areas, and it helps to reconcile socio-metabolic patterns of food production by also promoting urban agriculture. This model of agriculture involves the regeneration of soil, the adaptation of cities for an era of climate crisis, and bringing together the priorities of urban and rural labour in ways that help to address the gaps created by forced migration to big cities. Corporate monoculture promotes a one-size-fits-all approach to food production. An ecoterritorial mode of food production is a radical break from this, in that it fosters a system where food and labour are considered according to scale and context. In agrarian reform movements, large farms are converted from extensive pieces of land — which tends to have less-than-ideal productivity, violent labour practices (including slave labour), and environmental degradation — to land which is approached through cooperative systems, where the use of machinery is complementary to human labour and management.

In order to think of food sovereignty as a long-term project, that includes building an inclusive and sustainable future, we must consider the role of food sovereignty in creating adequate conditions for change.

When social movements began to incorporate more of an agroecological perspective, it made strategic sense. First, because agroecology is compatible with the values of traditional communities, who approach food and nature in radically different ways from capitalist agriculture. Second, because it fosters the tools and knowledge that make the movement’s production less vulnerable to climate and market shocks and constraints. This latter reason is also why large agribusinesses have begun to appropriate agroecological techniques, in the hope of guaranteeing yields and profits and alleviating the risks brought about by climate change. But this is, again, resilience as a market band-aid solution, not as a means to build long-term strength and change the system in a fundamental way. Because agribusiness misrepresents agroecology, treating it as technology devoid of culture and livelihoods, appropriation of it will ultimately fail. The agroecological paradigm enables regeneration against unfavourable conditions by creating the means to tackle emergent and escalating challenges. Together, agroecology and food sovereignty demand radical public policy and land redistribution. Current institutions limit any alternative systems, in favour of a corporate food system. Until this stops we will not be able to realize an inclusive mode of eating, in which access to and control over food is connected to sustainable land and community relations, without agrarian reform and policies that foster new commercial connections and logistical systems, it is almost impossible for small-scale food producers, united as they may be, to compete with agribusiness and large food traders who have the ability to set prices and accumulate land. As argued in the Declaration of Nyéléni — produced at the 2007 World Forum for Food Sovereignty, written in Mali and signed by representatives from popular organizations from more than 80 countries — there cannot be food sovereignty if access to food is granted at the expense of the rights and livelihoods of those who produce it.

Transparent trade and commerce are key pillars of food sovereignty and the fight against the commodification of food. Transparent trade means resisting international free trade agreements (FTAs), such as the one currently under negotiation between the European Union (EU) and Mercosur (the economic and political block comprised of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay). In a show of internationalist strength and cooperation, peasant and small-scale farmers organizations in Europe and South America began mobilizing against this FTA. In one of their joint declarations, they argued that the agreement would worsen the lives of peasants and farm workers and stated that “instead of promoting the ecological reterritorialization of our food systems, (the FTA) will increase the transcontinental exchange of agricultural products which can rather be sustainably and agroecologically produced in our territories. From a sustainable food system point of view, this is in total contradiction with all the commitments of our governments in the climate Paris Agreement and in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

Food Sovereignty Is an Internationalist Project

These interconnected struggles make up a popular, emancipatory internationalism that centres around economic affirmation and self-determination within a state’s borders. This is without chauvinistic nationalisms which negate integration, while at the same time reinforcing the exclusion of other vulnerable peoples in the name of a single nationalist project. In order to think of food sovereignty as a long-term project, that includes building an inclusive and sustainable future, we must consider the role of food sovereignty in creating adequate conditions for change. The climate crisis threatens internationalist sovereignty today, both in the sense that it impacts national security, and that it results in the loss of entire territories and necessitates the migration of people, in this context, food sovereignty shows how popular knowledge, caring economies and inclusive systems can create the kind of resilience that mitigates risks and helps to navigate the uncertainty imposed by the polycrisis.

In the internationalist approach to the polycrisis, resilience means more than just the capacity to weather the storm of unpredictability. Instead, resilience is about constructing favourable and sustainable conditions that lead to the kind of action that targets the root of the crises. A strategic internationalist conception of food sovereignty is part of this challenge, since it exposes the international political economy that generates hunger and famine in places that would otherwise be ripe for sustainable and healthy food systems. It exposes how economic deals imposed by governments onto agricultural workers and peasants do not fix vulnerabilities, but create more of them, all to benefit corporations who then keep their tradition of price speculation and food monopolies.

Achieving food sovereignty is about fighting climate change, ensuring land rights, valuing traditional knowledge, all under the leadership of diverse social movements with an anticapitalist orientation.

This is worsened by a global context of wars and occupations. There is of course the direct destruction that is the first-hand result of these ongoing conflicts, but also the way in which they generate a constant demand to rebuild and regrow, as well as the greenhouse gas emissions that are produced along the way. The uncertainty of war hurts sovereignty in obvious ways, but also prevents any path towards food sovereignty by displacing and starving populations, at the same time as it destroys the local conditions that could remedy displacement and starvation. This is the case in Gaza, which in early 2024 is still under a humanitarian aid blockade, and in Sudan, where close to 5 million people are under emergency levels of hunger. It is also the case in Ukraine, where the war created 11 million food insecure people and impacted food prices worldwide due to Ukraine’s role as one of the world’s breadbaskets — with food supplies that previously reached up to 400 million people every year.

Since the inadequacies of the global food system are not just flaws, but deep characteristics of the dominant capitalist mode of food production, the internationalist strategy means focusing on food sovereignty over food security. Achieving food sovereignty is about fighting climate change, ensuring land rights, valuing traditional knowledge, all under the leadership of diverse social movements with an anticapitalist orientation. The weaving together of internationalist struggles in the food sovereignty paradigm can bring true resilience: growing food to feed the world, while also creating the conditions to weather systemic shocks, survive and grow stronger in the fight for systemic change.

This article is part of the joint Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and Alameda dossier Seeds of Sovereignty. Contesting the Politics of Food.