Whilst the term food sovereignty has gradually gained prominence since it was coined by La Via Campesina almost 30 years ago, it seems that perceptions of it as a concept often remain limited to the realm of food production and food security.
Although food sovereignty necessarily involves ‘food in our hands’ (collectivising the power to make decisions about seeds, food production, food waste, and trade – as well as having more food on our plates in a literal sense) there is a danger of limiting ourselves as food growers, farmers, fishers and community organisers if we think of food sovereignty as solely a ‘food’ issue.
So, what does it mean to understand and work towards food sovereignty as a holistic concept? And what does it mean to contextualise food sovereignty against a backdrop of colonialism, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy?
First, we must look towards the original definition of food sovereignty created by La Via Campesina as “the people’s right… to define their agricultural and food policy without any dumping vis-a-vis third countries.” During the global Nyéléni process in 2007, this definition was expanded:
“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 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.”
The concept has six main pillars: food for all, the valuing of food producers, the localisation of food systems, centring local control, a food system that works with nature, and one which prioritises agricultural knowledge sharing.
What these main pillars mean in practice go far beyond the realm of food provision and into the realm of anti-oppression, decolonization and anti-capitalism. This is because our food system cannot be isolated from the political and economic context in which it exists. Food is not just about feeding ourselves – it is a symbol of so much more. But what do we mean by this? We can look at the pillars in more detail to understand.
To provide food for everyone, we must implement the Right to Food, which necessitates the understanding that nutritious food should not be something that is conditional based on income, ethnicity, gender or physical ability, but is a basic human right. Again, the Right to Food is not just about food, but extends to issues of housing, homelessness, and the cost of living. We must understand that not everyone experiences the food system in the same way, and multiple systemic factors can obstruct access to food. Our food sovereignty movement must be intersectional.
To value food producers, we must value all food producers, providing them with a living wage, supportive working conditions and strong workers’ rights. We must recognize the incredible work that women and marginalised genders do across the world to put food on our plates, and remove barriers to accessing land and food growing roles for Black people and people of colour who are often alienated and excluded by systemic racism in terms of accessing land and the food production industry. Our food sovereignty movement must be feminist, it must be anti-racist, and it must be pro-workers’ rights.
To localise food systems, we must invest heavily in UK-based agroecological farming practices, importing food only where and when communities decide it is best, based on human need over accumulation of capital. We must support our siblings internationally in a symbiotic exchange by cutting out the middleman of the corporate world, and we must allow ourselves to be led by indigenous peoples and revolutionary movements who are successfully resisting oppressive and often murderous food systems in the Global South. Our food sovereignty movement must be localised, but it must also be internationalist.
To centre local control, we have to decentralise power so that decisions are no longer made by corrupt governments or corporations but by the people themselves. Our movement must build grassroots power.
To create a food system that works with nature we must move away from an economic system which values profit over all human and non-human life. Our food system is dominated by corporations whose main priority is to accumulate capital. This is why most of us have little option but to eat unhealthy food laced with agrochemicals and pesticides, why food apartheid abounds in the UK, and why our environment is being destroyed at an overwhelming rate. For a food system to work with nature, we must resist the capitalist system. Our food sovereignty movement must be anti-capitalist, and it must centre climate and ecological justice.
Finally, to build agricultural, and ancestral, skills and knowledge, we must prioritise intergenerational healing, spiritual re-connection, and the reclamation of stolen indigenous knowledge. Our movement must be decolonial.
Food sovereignty is at the heart of climate justice, degrowth, anticapitalism, decolonization, anti-racism, feminism, and intersects all forms of justice. We simply cannot afford to relegate the term to an apolitical corner where concepts like ‘environmentalism’ and ‘regeneration’ abound. When our movements become co-opted by corporations, whiteness, or the dominant culture, we find the heart of our movements removed. With care and accountability, food sovereignty can be an antidote to so many of our oppressive societal systems, but in order for it to provide the solutions it promises, our movement must have its roots in the dismantling of power and unjust political and economic systems. Ultimately, food sovereignty is not just about food. It is about global justice.
As stated in La Via Campesina’s Manifesto for the Future of Our Planet:
“Food sovereignty offers a vision for our collective future, and defines the principles around which we organise our daily living and co-exist with Mother Earth. It is a celebration of life and all the diversity around us. It embraces every element of our cosmos; the sky above our heads, the land beneath our feet, the air we breathe, the forests, the mountains, valleys, farms, oceans, rivers and ponds. It recognizes and protects the inter-dependency between eight million species that share this home with us.”
So how do we shift the narrative of food in the UK beyond the realm of food security and into the realm of food sovereignty, power, and justice? We are building a movement of movements, a collaboration of organisations, activists and individuals, under the banner of Food In Our Hands; the re-ignited UK food sovereignty movement. We are allied with the Landworkers’ Alliance, Youth FLAME, the African and Caribbean Heritage Food Network, and many more organisations working towards food sovereignty. But we need you, too. Whether you are growing, cooking, or eating food, yearning to be in a community with others, or just angry about the power that corporations wield over your life, we invite you to join us. We will be agitating for change, fighting to dismantle corporate power, decolonising the food system, building the alternative, and putting the future of food – which means the future of all life – back into our hands.