Democratizing our Food System: Food Sovereignty

Food Sovereignty
Posted by: Catherine Webb Category: Sustainable Agriculture Tags: ,

Democratizing our Food System: Food Sovereignty

Social Development Goals

No Poverty. Zero Hunger. Good Health and Well-being. 

These are the first three Social Development Goals (SDG) out of seventeen outlined by the United Nations in 2015. Together, the Social Development goals act as a blueprint to achieve sustainable peace and prosperity both for the people and the planet. And when viewed in the context of our global food system, these top-priority goals intersect and connect in unexpected ways.

Our food and agricultural system has two sides. On one side, there is farm consolidation, food waste, and land degradation. In 2012, 36 percent of all cropland was on farms with at least 2,000 acres of cropland, up from 15 percent in 1987. Increased land consolidation resulted in increased crop consolidation. Crop consolidation, or reduced crop diversity, defines the monocropping practices that degrade soil health and contributes to climate change.

On the other side, there is potential for job creation, localized food systems, and climate change adaptation and mitigation. Localized agricultural production that promotes soil health has strong links to human health and carbon sequestration, while also keeping money in the communities that need it. These are two sides of the same coin. The question we now confront is how to permanently shift to the side promoting a better future. 

Food Security 

Food insecurity is commonly viewed as a result of uneven resource distribution. However, initial attempts at achieving global food security have played an inherent role in the consolidation of resources and access pipelines. In the late 1960s, western scientists thought they had solved the issue of food security. This era of technological advancement, termed the Green Revolution, brought farmers chemical pesticides and new crop varieties that increased world-wide production and fed billions of people. At the same time, large-scale farming operations forced small farms out of business, reduced the resiliency of rural communities, reduced the biodiversity of crop production, and initiated environmental risks through their production practices. The Green Revolution, which promised widespread abundance, essentially concentrated power in fewer hands and privatized natural resources. 

In effect, efforts towards developing global “food security” have promoted the consolidation of food production in agribusiness and the liberalization of agricultural trade. Both trends have devastated domestic agricultural systems by undermining the economic position of small farmers and reinforcing the power of multinational corporations. Rather than putting resources back into the hands of those who would produce food for themselves, these food security efforts have perpetuated the marginalization and inequity of both rural and urban communities and paradoxically have benefited multinational agribusiness corporations.

This consolidation of food production is evidenced in the example of coffee, a highly globalized supply chain. Coffee is grown by about 25 million producers and purchased by about 500 million consumers. However, only four firms carry out 45% of all coffee roasting, and only four firms carry out 40% of all international coffee trading.

Food Sovereignty 

The consolidation of the global food and agriculture system is not on track to achieve the UN’s Social Development Goals. This system of industrial agriculture has been a driver of land-use change resulting in climate change, contributing 24% of greenhouse emissions worldwide. Climate change is predicted to increasingly strain the stability of the food system at large due to variability in supply and access and therefore increase hunger and malnutrition.

However, an alternative term emerged to replace the flawed “food security” paradigm. Food sovereignty, first defined in 1996 and brought to the world stage in 2007, is defined as “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.” 

Food sovereignty presents an opportunity to achieve the UN’s Social Development Goals from a systems-thinking perspective. The 2007 Declaration of Nyéléni, the first global forum on food sovereignty in Mali, highlight the following:

  1. The importance of putting food producers and consumers (rather than corporations) at the heart of the food system. 
  2. The necessity of including the next generation in food production and empowering food producers
  3. The importance of environmental, social, and economic sustainability across food-based value systems. 
  4. The need for transparent trade, as well as gender, racial, and socioeconomic equality. 

Food sovereignty is a concept and a method that seeks to address issues of hunger, environmentally unsustainable production, economic inequality, and social justice. Food sovereignty works to democratize food production, distribution, and consumption. This naturally transfers the focus from the right to access food to the right to produce it. In other words, this movement empowers people to feed themselves. Food sovereignty is a means of democratizing our food system in a way that corporate-led consolidation and globalization has failed to. 


A movement away from food security and towards food sovereignty is needed in order to overcome the underlying disparities that contribute to an unequal, unsustainable, and climate-hazardous food system.

While the food security paradigm tries to address social welfare, its approach does not challenge root causes of poverty, hunger, and poor health. Food sovereignty both identifies systemic problems and defines best practices. Although there is no current model on how to achieve global food sovereignty, it is clear that prioritizing the people most vulnerable in the food system will yield far-reaching results within local and domestic markets.

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