Food sovereignty

Food sovereignty is a food system in which the people who produce, distribute, and consume food also control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution. This stands in contrast to the present corporate food regime, in which corporations and market institutions control the global food system. Food sovereignty emphasizes local food economies, sustainable food availability, and center culturally appropriate foods and practices. Changing climates and disrupted foodways disproportionately impact indigenous populations and their access to traditional food sources while contributing to higher rates of certain diseases; for this reason, food sovereignty centers indigenous peoples. These needs have been addressed in recent years by several international organizations, including the United Nations, with several countries adopting food sovereignty policies into law. Critics of food sovereignty activism believe that the system is founded on inaccurate baseline assumptions; disregards the origins of the targeted problems; and is plagued by a lack of consensus for proposed solutions.


The term "food sovereignty" was first coined in 1996 by members of Via Campesina, an international farmers' organisation, and later adopted by several international organisations, including the World Bank and United Nations. In 2007, the "Declaration of Nyéléni" provided a definition which was adopted by 80 countries; in 2011 it was further refined by countries in Europe. As of 2020, at least seven countries had integrated food sovereignty into their constitutions and laws.


Aligned somewhat with the tenets of the Slow Food organization, the history of food sovereignty as a movement is relatively young. However, the movement is gaining traction as more countries take significant steps towards implementing food systems that address inequities.

Global gatherings

At the 2007 Forum for Food Sovereignty in Sélingué, Mali, 500 delegates from more than 80 countries adopted the "Declaration of Nyéléni", which says in part:

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.

In April 2008 the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), an intergovernmental panel under the sponsorship of the United Nations and the World Bank, adopted the following definition: "Food sovereignty is defined as the right of peoples and sovereign states to democratically determine their own agricultural and food policies."

Becoming part of government policy

Issues of food production, distribution and access are seldom apolitical or without criticism. For example, the adoption of the Green Revolution in countries across the globe has increased world food production but has not "solved" the problem of world hunger. Food sovereignty advocates argue this is because the movement did not address access to land or distribution of economic power. Others argue that food sovereignty is based on incorrect baseline assumptions around the role of subsistence farming in government policy. Agrarian aspects of food sovereignty put the movement in conflict with globalisation, industrialisation, and urbanisation trends.

In September 2008, Ecuador became the first country to enshrine food sovereignty in its constitution. As of late 2008, a law is in the draft stages that is expected to expand upon this constitutional provision by banning genetically modified organisms, protecting many areas of the country from extraction of non-renewable resources, and to discourage monoculture. The law as drafted will also protect biodiversity as collective intellectual property and recognize the Rights of Nature.

Since then Venezuela, Mali, Bolivia, Nepal and Senegal; and most recently Egypt (2014 Constitution) have integrated food sovereignty into their national constitutions or laws.

Indigenous food sovereignty

Global Issues


Climate change is impacting the food security of indigenous communities as well, including Pacific Islanders and those in the Circumpolar North, due to rising sea levels or erosion.


Activists claim that native food sovereignty is also appropriated as a cuisine for mainstream dining because indigenous foods are framed to be culturally authentic, desired by those outside of these communities. Ingredients that are cultural staples, which are harder for these populations to find, are displaced due to a greater demand for access outside of indigenous populations.

Indigenous food sovereignty in the United States

Native Americans have been directly impacted in their ability to acquire and prepare their food and this disruption of traditional diets has resulted in health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. Indigenous food sovereignty activists in the United States assert that the systematic displacement of indigenous communities has led to mass food insecurity. Activist groups advocate for revitalization of traditional practices, development of local food economies, the right to food, and seed sovereignty.

Indigenous people's food sovereignty and food security are closely related to their geographical location. Traditional indigenous foodways in the United States are tied to the ancestral homelands of Native American populations, especially for those with strong subsistence traditions. For instance, it is taught among the Muckleshoot that “the land that provides the foods and medicines we need are a part of who we are."

The disruption of traditional foodways is described to be tied to the disruption of the connection between traditional Native land and their people, a change Rachel V. Vernon describes as being tied to “racism, colonialism, and the loss of autonomy and power.” Pre-colonial lands were expansive and thriving with traditional foods. Because of disease and war, Native peoples in the early 20th century were directly impacted in their ability to acquire and prepare their food. In addition to this, relocation away from ancestral lands further limited traditional foodways. Many indigenous people in the United States now live in food deserts. Due to inadequate or inhibited access to food, indigenous peoples suffer disproportionately from food insecurity compared to the rest of the US population. At reservations, the “‘highly processed, high sugar, high fat, and processed foods,’” further contributed to health issues in Native populations, leading to indigenous peoples in the United States having the highest rates of diabetes and heart disease in the nation. In addition to this, a majority of Native peoples also live off-reservation, and so are even further removed from traditional foodways.

Because Native American nations are sovereign from the United States, they receive little help in rehabilitating traditional foodways. As defined by the National Congress of American Indians, tribal sovereignty ensures that any decisions about the tribes with regard to their property and citizens are made with their participation and consent. The United States federal government recognizes Native American tribes as separate governments, opposed to “special interest groups, individuals, or ... other type of non-governmental entity.”


Native Americans today fight for food sovereignty as a means to address health, returning to culturally traditional foods for healing. Returning to traditional eating is challenging, considering an extensive history of relocation and cultural genocide. Many Native American histories of traditional culture foods have been lost or are now difficult to recreate.

Indigenous food sovereignty activists in the United States assert that indigenous communities have been systematically displaced from their traditional foodways, which has led to mass food insecurity. It is argued that the most effective way to achieve food security for indigenous groups is to increase their agency in food production. Some activists also argue for food sovereignty as a means of healing historical trauma and as a means of decolonizing their communities. In the United States the Indigenous Food Systems Network and the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance work towards education and policy-making concerned with food and farming security. Another group focused on requiring food and energy sovereignty is the White Earth Anishnaabeg from Minnesota, who focus on a variety of foods, planting and harvesting them using traditional methods, a form of decolonization. Such groups meet to establish policies for food sovereignty and to develop their local food economies at summits such as the Diné Bich’iiya’ Summit in Tsaile, Arizona, which focused on Navajo traditional foods.

Indigenous food sovereignty activists also often advocate for seed sovereignty, and more generally for plant breeders’ rights. Seed saving is important to indigenous communities in the United States because it provides those communities with a stable food source and holds cultural importance. In addition, seed sovereignty advocates often argue that seed saving is an important mechanism in creating agricultural systems that can adapt to climate change.

Seed Sovereignty

Seed sovereignty can be defined as the right “to breed and exchange diverse open-sourced seeds." It is closely connected to food sovereignty, as seed sovereignty activists argue for the practice of seed saving partly as a means of increasing food security. These activists argue that seed saving allows for a closed food system that can help communities gain independence from major agricultural companies. Seed sovereignty is distinct from food sovereignty in its emphasis on seed saving specifically, rather than food systems in their entirety. Seed sovereignty activists often argue for seed saving based on environmental reasoning, not just food justice ones. They argue that seed saving fills an important role of restoring biodiversity to agriculture, and producing plant varieties that are more resilient to change climatic conditions in light of climate change.

Food sovereignty versus food security

Food sovereignty was born in response to campaigners' disillusion with food security, the dominant global discourse on food provisioning and policy. The latter emphasises access to adequate nutrition for all, which may be provided by food from one's own country or from global imports. In the name of efficiency and enhanced productivity, it has therefore served to promote what has been termed the "corporate food regime": large-scale, industrialised corporate farming based on specialized production, land concentration and trade liberalisation. Critics of the food security movement claim that its inattention to the political economy of the corporate food regime blinds it to the adverse effects of that regime, notably the widespread dispossession of small producers and global ecological degradation.

Writing in Food First's Backgrounder, fall 2003, Peter Rosset argues that "food sovereignty goes beyond the concept of food security... [Food security] means that... [everyone] must have the certainty of having enough to eat each day[,] ... but says nothing about where that food comes from or how it is produced." Food sovereignty includes support for smallholders and for collectively owned farms, fisheries, etc., rather than industrializing these sectors in a minimally regulated global economy. In another publication, Food First describes "food sovereignty" as "a platform for rural revitalization at a global level based on equitable distribution of farmland and water, farmer control over seeds, and productive small-scale farms supplying consumers with healthy, locally grown food."

Food sovereignty has also been compared to Food justice, which focuses more on race and class inequities and their relation to food, whereas food sovereignty refers more so to agency over food production systems.

Criticisms of the Green Revolution

The Green Revolution, which refers to developments in plant breeding between the 1960s and 1980s that improved yields from major cereal crops, is upheld by some proponents of food security as a success story in increasing crop yields and combating world hunger. The policy focused primarily in research, development and transfer of agricultural technology, such as hybrid seeds and fertilisers, through massive private and public investment that went into transforming agriculture in a number of countries, starting in Mexico and India. However, many in the food sovereignty movement are critical of the green revolution and accuse those who advocate it as following too much of a Western culture technocratic program that is out of touch with the needs of majority of small producers and peasants.

While the green revolution may have produced more food, world hunger continues because it did not address the problems of access. Food sovereignty advocates argue that the green revolution failed to alter the highly concentrated distribution of economic power, particularly access to land and purchasing power. Critics also argue that the green revolution's increased use of herbicides caused widespread environmental destruction and reduced biodiversity in many areas.

Academic perspectives

Food Regime theory

It is in its capacity as a social movement that food regime analysts are interested in food sovereignty. With its Marxist influences, food regime theorists are interested in how moments of crisis within a particular food regime are expressive of the dialectical tension that animates movement between such configurations (i.e., periods of transition). According to leading theorist Philip McMichael, food regimes are always characterized by contradictory forces. Consolidation of a regime does not so much resolve as it does contain, or else strategically accommodate, these tensions.

According to McMichael, a "world agriculture" under the WTO Agreement on Agriculture ("food from nowhere") represents one pole of the "central contradiction" of the present regime. He is interested in the food sovereignty movement's potential to escalate the tension between this and its opposing pole, the agroecology-based localism ("food from somewhere") advocated by various grassroots food movements. Offering slightly different conclusions, recent work by Harriet Friedmann suggests that "food from somewhere" is already being co-opted under an emergent "corporate-environmental" regime (cf. Campbell 2009).


Wrong baseline assumptions

Some scholars argue that the Food Sovereignty movement follows wrong baseline assumptions, citing that small-scale farming is not necessarily a freely chosen lifestyle and farmers in least developed and highly developed countries do not face the same challenges. These critics claim the Food Sovereignty movement may be right about the mistakes of neoliberal economic ideology, but it is silent about the fact that many famines actually occurred under socialist and communist regimes that pursued the goal of food self-sufficiency (cf. Aerni 2011).

Political-jurisdictional model

There is a lack of consensus within the food sovereignty movement regarding the political or jurisdictional community at which its calls for democratisation and renewed "agrarian citizenship" are directed. In public statements, the food sovereignty movement urges strong action from both national governments and local communities (in the vein of the indigenous rights movement, Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) . Elsewhere it has also appealed to global civil society to act as a check against abuses by national and supranational governing bodies.

Those who take a radically critical view on state sovereignty would argue against the possibility that national sovereignty can be reconciled with that of local communities (see also the debate about multiculturalism and indigenous autonomy in Mexico ).

Crisis of the peasantry?

In its strong reassertion of rural and peasant identities, the food sovereignty movement has been read as a challenge to modernist narratives of inexorable urbanisation, industrialisation of agriculture, and de-peasantisation. However, as part of ongoing debates over the contemporary relevance of agrarianism in classical Marxism, Henry Bernstein is critical of these accounts. He claims that such analyses tend to present the agrarian population as a unified, singular and world-historical social category, failing to account for:

  • a population's vast internal social differentiation (North/South, gender and class positionalities);
  • the conservative, cultural survivalist tendencies of a movement that has emerged as part of a backlash against the perceived homogenising forces of globalisation (Boyer discusses whether food sovereignty is a counter or anti-development narrative) Berstein claims that these accounts cannot escape a certain agrarian populism (or agrarianism). For a response to Bernstein, see McMichael (2009).

See also


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