Food Sovereignty: Returning Power to Those Who Produce
By Cassidy Childs, SDG Research Assistant and Advocacy Fellow
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a critical and ongoing crisis — the people that produce our food are going hungry.
More than 50% of the hungry people in the world are small-holder farmers who operate on less than five acres — these same farmers produce 70–80% of the world’s food. In the US, farmworkers face the highest-per-capita rates of COVID-19, with estimates that 57,000 food system workers have been infected nationally. With a lack of access to federal or state aid, farmworkers avoid COVID-19 testing because they lack the time to get tested, the transportation to healthcare resources, and the resources to self-quarantine. Therefore, data on farmworkers during the pandemic is incomplete, particularly for undocumented workers. In developing nations around the world whose economies rely on food production, small-holder farmers have disproportionately experienced food shortages and hunger, already operating with little discretionary funding and no social safety nets.
However, these vulnerabilities are not new problems. Food producers alongside many grassroots organizations have been fighting for control and access over food systems for decades. In order to evaluate food security and food sovereignty, the most prominent definitions of these terms in international and academic discourse must be established.
The FAO defines food security as: 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. (World Food Summit, 1996).
The premise of food security is an individual’s or household’s ability to access nutritious food at any time. In contrast, food sovereignty focuses on both the access to food and the power to control their own food systems.
La Vía Campesina at the World Food Summit in 1996 defines food sovereignty as: 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.
Like food security, food sovereignty ensures that small-holder farmers have access to food. Unlike food security, food sovereignty also adds a political and economic dimension to ensure a right’s based approach for small-holder farmers to define their own food system and markets.
One of the most visible UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is SDG 2: Zero Hunger. The targets within SDG 2 incorporate aspects from both definitions of food security and food sovereignty. The SDG 2 Targets focus on ending hunger and malnutrition, increasing income and productivity of small-holder farmers, and promoting sustainable and resilient agriculture. Food sovereignty is crucial in the fight against hunger, because empowering small-holder farmers ensures a more equitable, sustainable, and resilient food future.
Grassroots Organizing and Social Movements
Since the UN’s inception, the public has gained an increasing awareness about global hunger, and similarly, there has been a rise in organizations that seek to address this problem. One of the most significant turning points was the 1996 World Food Summit, resulting in the adoption of The Rome Declaration on World Food Security. As more countries pledged resources to eradicate poverty and half global hunger by 2015, civil society began to organize and represent the interests of small-holder farmers.
La Vía Campesina serves as an umbrella network with 182 organizations in 81 countries, seeking to represent peasant and small-holder farmers throughout the world. La Vía Campesina was founded in 1993 in response to the rapid globalization of agribusiness and a concentration of transnational corporations. The principles of La Vía Campesina are to promote food sovereignty, agroecology, and peasant’s rights in a grassroots, decentralized manner. Similarly, sustainable agricultural techniques are taught through horizontal linkages, in a process known as Campesino-a-Campesino (farmer-to-farmer).
The application of food sovereignty and agroecological principles to the domestic food system have been proven to be successful in Bolivia. Under President Evo Morales, Bolivia enshrined the principles of food sovereignty and indigenous empowerment in its 2009 Constitution. After taking office in 2006, Evo Morales redistributed 134 million acres of private and state land to indigenous communities. Morales also increased a cash transfer program known as Bono Juancito Pinto and raised the minimum wage several times. In 2009, Morales created a universal pension plan for those over 60 for $342 a year. The increase of social safety nets and drastic land reform significantly decreased the poverty rate from 60% in 2004 to 35% in 2017, and the extreme poverty rate decreased from 36% in 2004 to 17% in 2017. Bolivia’s growth in per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been the highest in Latin America, growing more than 50% in 13 years and increasing on average 4.8% a year. Ultimately, food sovereignty in practice can reduce poverty and food insecurity by increasing social welfare and empowering small-holder farmers with land rights and market access.
Most recently, the fight for food sovereignty and peasant’s rights have taken place in India. About half of the country’s workforce are agricultural workers and agriculture makes up about one-sixth of the country’s GDP.When Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the parliament passed a set of farm bills in September 2020, 250 million people took to the streets to protest. The protests were against the deregulation of crop sales and the allowance of private property buyers into the market, previously heavily protected for small-holder farmers. The farmers claim that the new reforms will allow big corporations and agribusiness to distort the sector by aggregating plots of land and stockpiling commodities. The reforms were implemented without consultation of a single farmer’s organization and without the referral of a parliamentary panel.
Over the last few years, India’s agricultural sector has faced scrutiny after a sharp rise in farmer suicides, with a peak of 12,602 farmer suicides in 2015. The economic and environmental factors that have been attributed to the declining mental health and the suicides are climate change, natural disasters, debt from mechanization and land purchase, and neoliberal reforms. The recommendations to increase agricultural investment, increase social safety nets, and implement more trade barriers in order to protect small-holder farmers directly contrast with the actions of India’s agrarian reform bill. Smallholder farmer organizations such as Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) have been leading the national protests — BKU is a member of the La Vía Campesina, arguing that neoliberal policies and free-trade agreements give more power to corporations and agribusiness. In these protests, small-holder farmers are fighting for not only access to food, but control over the food system itself.
Market Access and Trade
The root of world hunger is not the lack of food, but rather the uneven distribution of food. Currently, there is enough food grown in the world to provide for a population of 10 billion, and yet many households cannot afford to purchase food. Therefore, the solution for world hunger must be an economic proposition that is progressive in nature, favoring upward mobility and wealth equality. By empowering small-holder farmers to have more buying power and control over a system that they fuel, they will be less susceptible to food insecurity.
Oftentimes food sovereignty movements stand in direct opposition with powerful IGOs, such as the UN, the IMF, and the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO and IMF are large proponents of neoliberal and free-trade policies- policies that favor deregulation and small government spending. These organizations argue that trade restrictions create inefficient markets and volatile food pricing. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also cement the free-trade sentiments of these international institutions.
The UN SDG 2 Target 2B seeks to:
“Correct and prevent trade restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets, including through the parallel elimination of all forms of agricultural export subsidies and all export measures with equivalent effect, in accordance with the mandate of the Doha Development Round.”
Food sovereignty organizations in developing countries argue that these institutions simply serve the economic interests of Western, developed nations. For example, when Evo Morales took office in 2006, Bolivia’s real per capita GDP was lower than in 1980, when Bolivia had originally accepted an IMF loan agreement. After breaking the IMF agreement and implementing policies that nationalized energy sectors, only then did Bolivia’s economic standing improve. Similarly, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore — often referred to as the ‘Four Asian Tigers’ — quickly industrialized in the 1970’s and 1980’s, using economic strategies that were not completely neoliberal. Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea also operationalized protectionist policies to shield new and upcoming industries, with the government taking an active role in its economic affairs.
In the agricultural sector, free-trade agreements, such as within the WTO and previously NAFTA, allow for a process known as crop dumping — a strategy that the US often deploys, in which the US sends ‘free’ food to developing countries in the spirit of feeding the poor. Crop dumping can happen through markets and US agribusiness under free-trade deals such as NAFTA or can be formalized federal government programs such as Food for Peace (Public Law 480). The US benefits by maintaining their high crop prices by limiting stock in the US, but the ‘free’ food undermines domestic food production in developing countries. Farmers in these developing countries cannot keep market prices high and compete with the price of $0, when there is a large foreign input in supply of their crops.
In the 1990s, Argentina became a model country for neoliberalism, free-trade, and deregulation, embracing the policies of the WTO, IMF and NAFTA. Removing all tariffs, Argentinian small-holder farmers could not compete with transnational agribusiness, going into debt to expand farm sizes or mechanize labor. Today, Argentina’s food regime is dominated by transnational agribusiness, and the Argentinian people are still going hungry. With a high Gini Coefficient of 41.4, Argentina’s food insecurity doubled from 2.5 million people to 5 million people from 2014 to 2018. The culmination of these neoliberal policies was the massive 2019 protests in Buenos Aires, where tens of thousands of people marched demanding social welfare, jobs, and food. Argentina, the model country for free-trade policies, has only worsened in terms of food insecurity and inequality.
For these reasons, food sovereignty movements argue that protectionist policies that protect small-holder farmers from transnational agribusiness are most beneficial and that the WTO should not be involved in the agricultural sector. The arguments made by the farmers in India are exactly in-line with this thinking. La Vía Campesina wrote an open letter denouncing the Doha Development Round for prioritizing transnational corporations over sustainability, small-holder farmers, and national developing economies.
The economic policies that La Vía Campesina propose are to promote local market access, progressive land reform, and trade protections from large transnational agribusiness. As seen in Bolivia, these policies are shown to work with astounding results and lift small-holder farmers out of poverty. Food sovereignty goes beyond food security, in the sense that it seeks to create an equitable and moral system in which small-holder and subsistence farmers can feed themselves. While food security only emphasizes accessibility, food sovereignty ensures that the power of the food system is in the hands of those who produce it.
Agroecology and Sustainability
The food sovereignty movement not only fights for economic access and rights, but also for sustainable agriculture practices, a field known as agroecology. Agroecology has several definitions: the term can refer to a scientific approach, an agricultural technique, or a sociopolitical movement. Before the 1960’s, agroecology was purely scientific, studying the ways in which agriculture interacts with the natural environment. However, the Green Revolution was a turning point, marking a technological shift in agriculture which boasted the ability to stop world hunger by increasing crop productivity.
In hindsight, we can observe that food availability was never the issue — rather, food distribution is the real challenge. The Green Revolution promoted industrial agriculture, dependence on fertilizers and genetically modified crops, and monocultures, yielding extremely detrimental and unsustainable effects. Industrial monocultures cause soil degradation, nitrogen and pesticide pollution, losses in biodiversity, and increased vulnerabilities in crop varieties. Because fertilizers and pesticides have diminishing returns in crop productivity, other more sustainable methods are needed to not only continue current crop production, but to increase productivity in the future.
In response, agroecology advocates for regenerative agricultural techniques and the empowerment of indigenous knowledge. Agroecology methods include agroforestry — trees grown along crops to upkeep soil fertility, cover cropping — the usage of plants to cover soil and prevent erosion, mulching — applying composted material to the soil to upkeep soil fertility, intercropping — growing different crops together, diversifying seed selections, and integrating livestock-crop systems, which promotes nutrient recycling. A common example of intercropping and agroecology is milpa. In Central and Latin America, milpa refers to the process of growing maize, beans, and squash together, with a two year fallow period. Together, the beans fix nitrate into the soil, the corn provides shade for the squash and beans, and the density of the plants together make it pest-resistant. This is an example of a traditional, sustainable and extremely productive crop system, the quintessence of agroecology.
Climate change has presented a serious challenge for agriculture, and agroecology is a solution to make our food system more resilient and sustainable. By 2050, the FAO projects that agricultural actors need to produce 60% more food, as climate change has the potential to negatively affect crop yield variability by 39%. Furthermore, current agriculture and livestock practices contribute up to 29% of global greenhouse gas emissions. A study following Hurricane Ike in Cuba demonstrated that agro-ecological farms had 40–50% less losses than the neighboring monocultures. Indigenous peoples and the women within these cultures hold the ecological knowledge to improve the sustainability, resilience and productivity of our current systems. Because women have custodial roles over seed varieties and preservation, they have the knowledge for which varieties are genetically drought or rain-resistant. This knowledge will be crucial as regions become more prone to drought or more vulnerable to increasingly extreme weather events.Over thousands of years, indigenous and small-holder farmers have acquired the knowledge to overcome environmental shocks, employing strategies that adapt the land topography, irrigation systems, and crop varieties. Ultimately, small-holder farmers continue to produce most of the world’s food and their adaptive techniques will be needed as the climate changes and our need for sustainable production increases.
As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens and future environmental crises loom, securing food sovereignty for small-holder farmers is crucial. Small-holder farmers produce most of our world’s food, and they are entitled to have control over their food system. Food sovereignty advocates that small-holder farmers are protected from global markets and have access to their own local markets. By providing a viable future for these farmers, we may also provide a viable future for ourselves. Local experts in their ecologies, the world will rely on the knowledge of small-holder farmers to adapt to a changing climate and create sustainable food systems throughout the world.