By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi
A democratic claim for self-determination from the world’s largest peasant movement
One of the most important social movements of the past decades has without a doubt been La Via Campesina, a transnational peasant organization representing 200 million farmers from 70 different countries. It campaigns for issues linked to agricultural production such as sustainable food systems, access to natural resources, indigenous and women rights, and access to land (Desmarais 2007). Above all, however, it is the world’s most vehement supporter of the concept of food sovereignty. According to Via Campesina, “food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems”. It is a principle with which small agricultural producers worldwide attempt to reclaim their productive systems from the monopoly of transnational agribusiness.
Small scale farmers are increasingly disenfranchised by a handful of corporations which dominate virtually all aspects of the food cycle, from production to distribution. If we look at the inputs needed for agricultural production, only six corporations own more than 75 percent of the world’s pesticide market, and only four sell more than half of the world’s seeds. Furthermore, the distribution dimension of agriculture is equally monopolized. For example, only 4 companies process 90% of the global grain trade, and within the US only three companies process 70 percent of all beef (source).
The monopolization of agricultural production is not the only problem faced by small producers. The use of genetically engineered sterile seeds dubbed “terminator seeds”, force farmers to buy seeds from the same companies every single year. The same companies, Monsanto above all, have been accused of making their seeds genetically resistant to their own fertilizers and pesticides. The ecological disasters linked to the excessive use of chemical fertilizers is also a well documented fact: just to cite the example of the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, where nitrogen discharge carried by the Mississippi has created a zero-oxygen area of 9,400 square miles which threatens the livelihoods of thousands of small fishermen and the resilience of marine ecosystems.
Moreover, this status quo is maintained by powerful supranational institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and by free trade agreements (FTA) between rich and poor countries. The WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) effectively removes much government oversight from agricultural trade and policy. As such, agribusiness is able to influence agricultural policy worldwide, frequently resulting in heavily subsidized agricultural products from rich countries being “dumped” at below market price on the markets of poor ones (Holt-Giménez 2008, Windfhur & Jonsén 2005). The dumping of subsidized and genetically modified US corn into Mexico is a case in point, where Mexican farmers which have ancestrally grown corn for millennia are unable to compete with the flooding of cheap corn accruing from the North American FTA (Pollan 2006).
In this context, food sovereignty is employed as an umbrella concept attempting to reclaim the various domains which have traditionally been under the control of local peasants from the hegemony of corporatist agribusiness (Patel 2009). In fact, there are many different definitions of food sovereignty and a variety of issues which the term embraces. What all definitions share, however, is the fundamental claim that small farmers have the right to define and shape their own productive systems. It is, essentially, a democratic demand for self-determination and a cry for independence.
Perhaps the most important issue at the heart of food sovereignty is the right to subsistence farming. Industrial agriculture increasingly displaces diversified food systems for monocultures, to the point where entire agricultural sectors of countries are devoted to mono-production. If the price of what a country is mono-producing plummets, the livelihoods of the farmers producing it are jeopardized and so is their access to food. Food sovereignty demands that governments stop promoting agricultural policy dependent on monocultures and shift their resources towards the diversification of crops for resilient food systems which do not subordinate the livelihoods of farmers to the vagaries of the free market. As such, food sovereignty attempts to break the dependence of farmers on fluctuating and unpredictable markets thereby securing the basic right of subsistence (Petrini 2009).
Protecting biodiversity is another central issue of food sovereignty. In particular, the protection of seed varieties from the homogenizing effects of GM plant species has become a key struggle of movements such as Via Campesina. Of more importance still, agribusiness is patenting and privatizing the genetic codes of resistant plant varieties which are the product of centuries of patient intercropping by small famers. This amounts to an act of biopiracy. The privatization of the genetic patrimony of domesticated plant species robs farmers of what has been ancestrally a right of every producer: the right to exchange and use seeds freely (Windfhur & Jonsén 2005). The concept of food sovereignty demands that local populations should not be forced to buy GM seeds and that they should retain control over what is rightfully theirs, namely, the natural resources and knowledge derived from their ancestral coexistence with local ecosystems (Petrini 2009).
Finally, food sovereignty is also a demand for the right to define what systems of knowledge are best suited for particular contexts. We may term this an epistemological sovereignty. The drives towards “progress” and “modernization”, coupled with the obsessive fixation with “growth” force small farmers worldwide to adopt agro-industrial practices at the expense of their traditional practices of production. This results in a loss of valuable knowledge of food systems which were once sustainable, ecologically sound and extremely resilient (Altieri & Toledo, 2011). Food sovereignty refutes the neoliberal paradigm of growth and its exaggerated faith in the virtues of free markets (Patel 2009). On the contrary, it supports the re-discovery of local knowledges which embrace diversification, biodiversity, sustainability and resilience to risks.
The concept of food sovereignty is therefore one which attempts to reclaim the right to define one’s own livelihood. Supranational institutions, multinationals and markets have erected a system in which small farmers have no say, no vote and no access to the higher levels of decision making. They are therefore dependent on unaccountable organizations for their livelihoods. In this light, food sovereignty exercises the fundamental democratic right of self-determination: the right to define, control and participate in the decisions influencing one’s life. It is a democratic claim which seeks to break the condition of dependence between small farmers on one hand, and market fluctuations and agribusiness on the other. Its central message, however, should not be misinterpreted as a demand for complete autonomy (political or economic), but as one demanding freedom from dependence and the right to exercise local self-determination.
For more comprehensive definitions of food sovereignty please consult the following links:
Nyeleni Food Sovereignty Declaration:
Manifesto on the Future of Food:
Altieri & Toledo, 2011. The Agroecological Revolution in Latin America: rescuing nature, ensuring food sovereignty and empowering peasants. Journal of Peasant Studies, 38:3, 587-612
Desmairis, A.A. 2007 La Vía Campesina: La globalizzazione e il potere dei contadini. Jaca Book: Milano
Holt-Gimenez, E. 2008 From Food Systems to Food Sovereignty: urgent call to fix a broken system. Food First. Available online @ http://www.foodfirst.org/files/pdf/bgr%20spring%202008%20-Food%20Rebellions.pdf
Patel, R. 2009 Food Sovereignty. Journal of Peasant Studies, 36:3, 663-607
Petrini, C. 2009. Terra Madre: come non farci mangiare dal cibo. Giunti & Slow Food Editore: Milano
Pollan, M. 2006, The Omnivores Dilemma. Bloomsbury Publishing: London
Windfhur & Jonsén, 2005. Food Sovereignty: towards democracy in the food system. FIAN-International, ITDG Publishing. Available online @ http://www.ukabc.org/foodsovpaper.htm