Food Sovereignty: Towards the Democratisation of the Food System

Groundnut seedling

In the run up to our conference on 12 November we are publishing a series of articles on our key themes: food sovereignty, climate justice and resistance.  We start with Teresa Martinez on the movement for  food sovereignty.

For us, rural women, food sovereignty means having our own seeds, preserving them and also our food. Our life is at stake and depends on having basic food from the countryside. All people should preserve their seed and their food. That is being sovereign in my opinion: to defend this food that we all need and to have our own production.

Julia Lezama, Network of Rural Women from Costa Rica[i]

Most of the ailments of the global food system come down to a disproportionate imbalance between power and governance. Food and agricultural trade is controlled by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which promotes an export-led model of agriculture and the deregulation of the food market. This has favoured big agribusiness companies and retailers, which control most of the production and retail market, leaving small-scale farmers, consumers and some states with little bargaining power and little control over the means of production and the supply chain. In short the result is an undemocratic food system which is not only unable to provide food security for all but is also contributing to increase poverty in both developed and developing countries.
  • Ten corporations control 80% of the global agrochemical market.
  • Ten companies control 31% of the seed market and four agribusinesses (Syngenta, Du Pont, Monsanto and Bayer) control almost 100% of the transgenic (GM) seed market.
  • Four supermarkets (Tesco, Asda/Wal-mart, Sainsbury and Somerfield) control 75% of UK food retailing.
  • Six processors (Arla/Express, Dairy Crest, Robert Wiseman, Glanbia, Associated Co-operative Creameries and Nestle) control 93% of UK dairy processing and six supermarkets control 65% of liquid milk sales.
  • Just two companies Rank Hovis (part of Tomkins PLC) and Archer Daniels Midland Milling account for more than 50% of bread flour milled in the UK.
  • In 1960 small independent retailers had a 60% share of the food retail market. By 2000, their share was reduced to 6%.

On November 2009 the World Food Summit on Food Security took place in Rome. The main theme of the summit was to discuss how to feed nine billion people in 2050 in order to tackle what Jacques Diouf, Director-General of FAO, has called the “tragic achievement” of reaching the appalling figure of 1 billion hungry people. At the same time civil society organisations (CSOs) held a parallel forum to the World Food Summit demanding that Food Sovereignty was “the real solution to the tragedy of hunger in our world”.[i]During the post-war period and the establishment of the Bretton Woods system the emphasis in developed nations was on national self-sufficiency and productivity in a context of food shortages. Now, agriculture is a matter of international trade and the focus is on food security, which does not necessarily imply domestic self-sufficiency. For the poor food security is a matter of life and death, and for the rich it is a matter of satisfying demand using domestic and international markets, services and produce. The commodification of agriculture has created a privatised and volatile food system, based on free trade ideology, which has led to a situation in which hunger coexists with food surplus and waste.As argued by Patrick Mulvany (UK food group), the majority of the world food’s “is grown, collected and harvested by more than a billion small-scale farmers, pastoralists and artisanal fisherfolk”. However, farmers and consumers have little control of how food is produced because the food system and the rules that govern it are in the hands of a few agribusiness companies and international institutions and the speculative international market. There is a growing consensus among CSOs, NGOs, farmers, pastoralists, indigenous people and other interest groups that a food sovereignty framework in policy-making could democratise the food system and at the same time contribute to the long term development goals of reducing world hunger and poverty.The concept of Food Sovereignty was first developed by the organisation Via Campesina and used in the international debate during the 1996 World Food Summit. Via Campesina is an international movement of peasants, small- and medium-sized producers, landless, rural women, indigenous people, rural youth and agricultural workers. It has 148 members from 69 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, including the Scottish Crofting Federation. There are various definitions of food sovereignty as the concept and framework are still developing, but the main emphases are on the Right to Food and a decentralised model in which production, processing, distribution and consumption are controlled by the people and the communities themselves and not by transnational corporations.Food Sovereignty Framework

  • 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.


  • Food sovereignty promotes transparent trade that guarantees just income to all peoples and the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition.


  • It ensures that the rights to use and manage our lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food.


  • Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social classes and generations.
 Extracted from Declaration of Nyéléni, World Forum for Food Sovereignty 2007. 
Food Sovereignty is increasingly used as a concept to influence policy-making, and the food sovereignty movement has been successful in bringing this framework to the attention of politicians, scientists and international organisations. For example, the IAASTD[ii] has defined food sovereignty as the right of peoples and sovereign states to democratically determine their own agricultural and food policies. Mali and Ecuador have already incorporated principles of food sovereignty in their national constitutions. According to FAO (World Food Summit 1986), “ food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. This definition includes aspects of access, availability, use and stability. Food security is at the heart of the food sovereignty framework, which, however, goes beyond these aspects by enquiring if our food is produced following fair and sustainable practices and by demanding the democratisation of the global food system through localising food systems, promoting collective and community rights over territories and food production resources, and giving more control to farmers, consumers and citizens over how food is produced, traded and consumed.  

Globalise the fight, globalise the hope
Promoters of food sovereignty principles argue that in order to achieve a more democratic system, something as basic and vital as food and agriculture should not be controlled just by the WTO and the Agreement on Agriculture.[iii] They claim food is not just a trade matter but a peoples’ matter and therefore agricultural policies should not be dealt under a monopolistic trade paradigm.  There is a need for a new independent international body and multilateral agreement in agriculture to prioritise food sovereignty and the Right to Food over food commodification and corporate control of the food system.  As we see the first structural adjustment policies imposed in some European countries, we also see the spread of the Food Sovereignty movement throughout Europe. From the 16th to 21st of August more than 400 people from 34 European countries from the Atlantic to the Urals and Caucasus, from the Arctic to the Mediterranean, as well as international representatives from diverse social movements and civil society organisations, met in Krems, Austria to take a step forward in the development of a European movement for Food Sovereignty. They are building on the foundations of the Declaration of the Nyéléni 2007, which reaffirmed the international framework for Food Sovereignty – the right of peoples to democratically define their own food and agricultural systems without harming other people or the environment. (click here to see the Declaration of Nyeleni Europe, 2011).

[i] Declaration from Social Movements, NGOS, CSOs Parallel Forum to the World Summit on Food Security, Rome, November 13-17 2009.
[ii] IAASTD stands for International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development.
[iii] Friends of the Earth International. (2001). Sale of the century? Peoples’ Food Sovereignty: Part 2- a new multilateral framework for food and agriculture.


[i] Extracted from Women and Food Sovereignty: voices of rural women of the South, Friends of the Earth International, July 2011.

  • Admin
    The Fife Diet September 29, 2011 at 13:16

    Thanks for this Pete – thought the recommendations for fFood Sovereignty didnt make it into the final report did they?

    Instead, this is what we’re planning:

  • Teresa September 27, 2011 at 20:15

    Climate change and food sovereignty caravan
    Bangladesh Krishok Federation

    Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change and sea level rise.
    The majority of this population are poor and dependent on agriculture, and are thus more vulnerable to tropical cyclones, storm surges, floods, and droughts. For example, in 2004 severe floods destroyed over three quarters of food crops, and left 10 million people homeless. There is also a desertification process occurring in the northern districts of the country. Finally, the coping capacity in Bangladesh remains limited due to the relatively poor physical infrastructure.

    These trends were confirmed by the Bangladesh Krishok Federation (peasant farmer’s organisation, BKF) and Bangladesh Kishani Sabha (peasant women’s organization, BKS) who organized 31 workshops in different parts of Bangladesh from 17th December 2009 to 27th January 2010.

    Those workshops were organized to asses the impact of climate change. Peasant communities commented on the increasing length of hot dry periods; decreasing water table levels; increased incidence of flooding; changes in weather (such as cold periods and fogs) causing failure of crops; increased cyclone activity and high tidal inundation causing salination of rivers and soil; and changes in the frequency and character of the Monsoon disrupting traditional farming practices.

    Further, in Bangladesh, food security for peasants has been undermined by issues such as unequal land distribution (especially landlessness) and lack of credit.

    As a result, there is an urgent need for both education concerning climate change amongst the peasant population and mobilisation of the population around key issues such as access to land and food sovereignty. Food sovereignty has been recognised by peasant communities and movements as one of the most important practices that enable peasant communities to both mitigate, and adapt to, the effects of climate change. Food sovereignty implies control over territory and biodiversity; self-governance; and ecological sustainability and has acted as a point of encounter, common interest and solidarity. As a result, the BKF has been actively involved in the international farmer’s network, La Via Campesina (LVC), whose opposition to dominant responses to climate change has combined a commitment to the importance of localized forms of agriculture, and food sovereignty.

    Aims of the Caravan

    The Caravan will be organized by the Bangladesh Krishok Federation and Bangladesh Kisani Sabha who will be the host movements in Bangladesh.

    The broad aim of the caravan is to address the key issues of climate change, gender and food sovereignty, because there is an ongoing and urgent need to (i) inform and mobilize vulnerable peasant populations throughout Bangladesh in order to respond to the threats of climate change: (ii) increase awareness about gender discrimination and the disproportionate impacts of climate change upon women; and (iii) build upon international solidarity networks concerning climate change and food sovereignty, such as those nurtured within La Via Campesina of which the BKF is a participant.

    More information here:

  • Teresa September 27, 2011 at 15:00

    Yes, these are all great and accessible articles. If you are new to the Food Sovereignty concept and movement I will also recommend the last two reports by Friends the Earth International. Specially relevant for Fife Diet’s members (most members are women!) is the one on Women and Food Sovereignty with testimonies from activists and farmers around the world. You can download both here:,

  • pete ritchie September 20, 2011 at 20:07

    people might also be interested in reading the recommendations on food sovereignty developed as part of Scotland’s food and drink policy here and the report Our Mutual Food here

  • Mike September 16, 2011 at 08:44

    Some great articles in the Nation on these themes, some with an American focus but all still required reading…

    Michael Pollan
    How to Change the Food System

    Raj Patel
    Why Hunger is Still With Us

    Vandana Shiva
    Resisting the Corporate Theft of Seeds