Food Sovereignty: towards democracy in localized food systems
ITDG commissioned this paper by FIAN as a contribution to the discourse on Food Sovereignty, the rapidly developing food and agriculture policy framework. In a world plagued simultaneously and perversely by hunger and obesity, rational policies are overdue for governing the way food is grown, processed and traded, and how the benefits of the world's food systems are shared.
Most food in the world is grown, collected and harvested by more than a billion small-scale farmers, pastoralists and artisanal fisherfolk. This food is mainly sold, processed, resold and consumed locally, thereby providing the foundation of peoples' nutrition, incomes and economies across the world. At a time when halving world poverty and eradicating hunger are at the forefront of the international development agenda, reinforcing the diversity and vibrancy of local food systems should also be at the forefront of the international policy agenda. Yet, the rules that govern food and agriculture at all levels - local, national and international - are designed a priori to facilitate not local, but international trade. This reduces diversity and concentrates the wealth of the world's food economies in the hands of ever fewer multinational corporations, while the majority of the world's small-scale food producers, processors, local traders and consumers including, crucially, the poor and malnourished, are marginalised.
In this paper, Michael Windfuhr shows how the Food Sovereignty policy framework addresses this dilemma. The policy framework starts by placing the perspective and needs of the majority at the heart of the global food policy agenda and embraces not only the control of production and markets, but also the Right to Food, peoples' access to and control over land, water and genetic resources, and the use of environmentally-sustainable approaches to production. What emerges is a persuasive and highly political argument for refocusing the control of food production and consumption within democratic processes rooted in localised food systems.
Now, when there is intense debate about how the world will halve poverty and eradicate hunger, the policies that govern the way food is produced, consumed and distributed, how it is processed and traded, and who controls the food chain, need to be looked at comprehensively. This timely paper points a way forward and invites a more focused consideration of the principles behind what is fast becoming recognised as the most important food and agriculture policy consensus for the 21st century.
Senior Policy Adviser
Food Sovereignty: towards democracy in localized food systems
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Published by ITDG Publishing
|AoA||Agreement on Agriculture (WTO)|
|CBD||Convention on Biological Diversity (UN)|
|CESCR||Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UN)|
|CSO||Civil Society Organization|
|FAO||Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations|
|FDIs||Foreign Direct Investments|
|FIAN||FoodFirst Information and Action Network|
|FIVIMS||Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information Mapping Systems (FAO)|
|GATS||General Agreement on Trade in Services|
|GMOs||Genetically Modified Organisms|
|IATP||Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy|
|ICESCR||International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights|
|IFAD||International Fund for Agricultural Development|
|IFIs||International Financial Institutions|
|IMF||International Monetary Fund|
|IPC||International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty|
|IPRs||Intellectual Property Rights|
|ITDG||Intermediate Technology Development Group|
|ITPGRFA||International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (FAO)|
|MDG||Millennium Development Goal|
|OECD||Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development|
|OHCHR||Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN)|
|PoA||Plan of Action from the 1996 World Food Summit (FAO)|
|PRSP||Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper|
|SCM||Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (WTO)|
|SPS||Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (WTO)|
|TBT||Technical Barriers to Trade (WTO)|
|TRIPs||Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (WTO)|
|UDHR||Universal Declaration of Human Rights|
|VG||Voluntary Guidelines [on the right to adequate food]|
|WANAHR||World Alliance for Nutrition and Human Rights|
|WFC||World Food Council|
|WFFS||World Forum on Food Sovereignty|
|WFS||World Food Summit (FAO, 1996)|
|WFS:fyl||World Food Summit: five years later (FAO, 2002)|
|WSSD||World Summit on Sustainable Development|
|WTO||World Trade Organization|
The concept of Food Sovereignty has been developing rapidly since it was first pro-
posed a decade ago. It is becoming a reference point for discourse on food issues,
particularly among social movements around the world. It is no longer discussed
by farmers' organizations alone, it is also increasingly referred to by pastoralist,
fisherfolk, and indigenous peoples' organizations and by associated NGOs and
CSOs, and is starting to be recognized by some United Nations' agencies. It is there-
fore an appropriate time to analyse the different interpretations of and suggestions
for implementing the framework in order to understand its potential.
The term `Food Sovereignty' has been used increasingly since the mid-1990s. It
is an umbrella term for particular approaches to tackling the problems of hunger
and malnutrition, as well as promoting rural development, environmental
integrity and sustainable livelihoods. This approach is being developed and dis-
cussed as a counter-proposal to the mainstream development paradigm built on
liberalized international agricultural trade, trade-based food security, and industrial
agriculture and food production by well-resourced producers. Food Sovereignty has
become the new policy framework for challenging current trends in rural develop-
ment and food and agricultural policies that do not respect or support the interests
and needs of smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk (1) and the environment.
While there is no universally agreed definition for the term `Food Sovereignty',
an increasing number of documents have offered interpretations. One of the most
commonly used is from the People's Food Sovereignty Network (2002):
Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture; to pro-
tect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sus-
tainable development objectives; to determine the extent to which they want to be self
reliant; to restrict the dumping of products in their markets; and to provide local fish-
eries-based communities the priority in managing the use of and the rights to aquatic
resources. Food Sovereignty does not negate trade, but rather it promotes the formula-
tion of trade policies and practices that serve the rights of peoples to food and to safe,
healthy and ecologically sustainable production.
Many NGOs, CSOs and farmers' organizations and their social movements use
this definition in their policy documents and have contributed to the development
of the framework.
Discussion of Food Sovereignty policies is spreading beyond these organizations
and movements. Intergovernmental organizations such as the Food and
Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have started to investigate
the content and scope of the Food Sovereignty policy framework and the first aca-
demic articles are now being published. Some political parties have also incorpo-
rated it into their agendas (for example the annual P7 Summit in 2001, organized
by the Greens/ European Free Alliance, recognized Food Sovereignty as an alterna-
tive to existing trade polices).
Context: Poverty, hunger and malnutrition
According to FAO figures, more than 850 million people currently face hunger and
malnutrition. Some 815 million of them live in economically developing coun-
tries, 76% in rural areas (FAO, 2004a, pp.610). All available data and studies show
that the number of hungry and malnourished people has increased in the last
decade, even though enough food is produced globally to satisfy the needs of the
world's population. Hunger and malnutrition today are not caused by food short-
age, or scarcity: hunger is an issue of access to food, to an adequate income, or to
productive resources that allow poor people to either produce or buy enough food.
The inequitable distribution of food, land, and other productive resources are the
main causes of hunger and malnutrition.
The World Food Summit (WFS) in 1996 committed governments to halving the
number of hungry people by 2015.(2) This goal was later integrated into the first
Millennium Development Goal (MDG) set by the General Assembly of the United
Nations in 2000. At the World Food Summit: five years later (WFS:fyl) in June 2002 (3)
it was clear that this goal would not be achieved unless substantial policy changes
were made. FAO itself argued in the final declaration that the situation was caused
by a `lack of political will' to implement policies that would reduce hunger and by
the lack of investment.(4) NGOs/CSOs and social movements said in the concluding
statement of the parallel `Forum for Food Sovereignty' that not only was the polit-
ical will to combat hunger lacking but also that at the same time too much politi-
cal will is used to promote policies that actually exacerbate hunger. It is clear that
strategies to overcome or reduce hunger, malnutrition and rural poverty need to
both promote new policies as well as challenge the national and international
policy environment that hinders access to productive resources or to an income
sufficient to feed oneself for so many people worldwide.
Regular reviews of the status of hunger and malnutrition are provided in United
Nations reports presented by the Millennium Project. To recommend how to
implement the first MDG on poverty and hunger and, specifically, to halve the
number of hungry and malnourished people by 2015, a group of experts was set up
by the UN Secretary General.(5) This `Hunger Task Force' developed a typology of the
hungry worldwide (see Table 1). Current estimates are that more than 75% of the
world's poorest people live in rural areas and depend mainly or partly on agriculture
for their livelihoods.
Half the world's hungry people are smallholder farmers who live off a limited
area of land, without adequate access to productive resources. Two-thirds of them
live on marginal lands in environmentally difficult conditions, such as hillsides or
areas threatened by drought or other natural disasters, including flooding, mud
slides, etc. They have historically been forced onto marginal lands or have been
allowed access to landholdings that are intentionally too small to achieve self-suf-
ficiency. Moreover, 22% of the hungry are landless families, who often survive
from income earned under precarious working conditions as labourers. Another
8% are part of the fishing, hunting and herding communities. Secure access to pro-
ductive resources land, water, and agricultural inputs such as seeds and livestock
breeds, etc. are therefore key to improving the situation of these families. These
inequalities are exacerbated by the fact that the driving force of food and agricul-
tural policies of many countries, in both the industrialized North and the global
South, has been industrial agriculture and livestock production and commercial
fisheries, and not the needs of smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk to
have secure access to the productive resources they require. All definitions of Food
Sovereignty reflect this challenge and highlight the importance of improving
resource access rights as well as equitable trade policies and sustainable production
practices, and establishing the Right to Food.
There are still a number of myths and assumptions about why hunger and mal-
nutrition exist in a world of plenty, many of which refer to natural disasters and
conflict. Environmental factors such as unreliable rain or storms and drought
are often thought to be the main reasons behind famine and hunger, along with
complex political situations such as conflicts and civil war. According to the
Millennium Project, around 60 million people are currently affected by civil strife
and insecure political conditions.
Even though these explanations are indeed relevant, they address the symptoms
that occur in situations where people are poor and vulnerable rather than the
underlying causes. The reason why poor people are the most affected by natural
disasters is due to their lack of reserves, power, and possibilities, and their lack of
control over resources.
A typology of hunger
|Type of household||% of the hungry|
|Food-producing households in higher-risk environments and remote areas||50|
|Non-farm rural households||22|
|Poor urban households||20|
|Herders, fishers and forest-dependent households||8|
Cutting across the above groups:
Vulnerable pregnant and nursing women and their
infants, pre-school children, chronically ill or disabled,
several hundred million
Victims of extreme events
About 60 million
HIV-related food insecurity
Number of food-insecure households with adults or
children infected by HIV
About 150 million.
Source: UNDP (2003a, p.15)
It is important to note that several authors warn that the current relative overpro-
duction of food, although distribution is inequitable, is a temporarily fortunate sit-
uation that may change in the future. There are three sets of opinions about the
causes of declining future food availability per capita. Some refer to the expected
increase in world population (Population Reference Bureau, 2003). Others high-
light the growing demand for food, particularly in successful developing countries,
where increasing wealth leads to a changing diet towards more animal products
raised on grain.(6) A third set focuses on the anticipated escalation in the degrada-
tion of agricultural lands, grazing and fishery resources. Degradation can be caused
by urbanization and increased infrastructure, the loss of fertile soils through soil
erosion, salinization, contamination, and so on. The availability of irrigation water
will decrease, fishing grounds are overexploited and grazing land is often vulnera-
ble to desertification. Additionally, the expected negative impact of climate change
must be taken into consideration. (For a good overview of the relationship between
climate change and agriculture see FAO (2003b, p.35772).)
Limitations of technical solutions
The standard answers given concerning these challenges are normally technical.
Suggested solutions are often to increase productivity and the yield per hectare
through the use of modern plant varieties. This is a typical answer presented by, for
example, seed companies and their researchers to justify work on industrial pro-
duction systems. While it may not be wrong to seek options to improve produc-
tivity per area of land, it is becoming increasingly recognized that it is the
marginalized communities, rather than the already intensively cultivated agricul-
tural land, that need more attention. Moreover, further intensification in more
favourable areas is reaching its limits, for example due to the increasing shortage
of water and therefore irrigation possibilities, or through increasing environmental
problems, such as salinization, that the current intensive industrialized production
is already causing. Jules Pretty argues that it is sustainable and agroecological agri-
culture involving millions of smallholder farmers across the world that could yield
considerable increases and help restore water reserves it is only industrialized
agriculture that has reached the limits of sustainable expansion (Pretty, 2001).
Combating the processes of land degradation and the pressures from population
growth are issues that hardly get any support from either national or international
policies. Today it is increasingly recognized that those marginalized smallholder
farmer groups which have never received sufficient attention or research support
could easily increase their yields often three- or fourfold in a different policy
environment.(7) This potential for increasing yields depends on different factors,
such as the type of agricultural system (organic or non-organic), environmental
conditions for agriculture, and the respective ecosystems.
Long-term solutions for achieving higher yields, which can be secured sustain-
ably, are the most important. They will require agroecological solutions that will
increase productivity on marginal soils, but also convert damaging industrial
production systems. Miguel Altieri (2002) noted that, `Throughout the developing
world, resource-poor farmers (about 1.4 billion people) located in risk-prone, marginal
environments, remain untouched by modern agricultural technology'.
Altieri (2002, p.1) states that a new approach to natural resource management
must be developed so that new systems can be tailored and adapted in a site-
specific way to the highly variable and diverse farm conditions typical of resource-
poor farmers. Agroecology provides the scientific basis to address production in a
biodiverse agroecosystem able to support itself. The latest advances in agroecolog-
ical research need to promote natural resource management that is compatible
with the needs and aspirations of smallholder farmers. `Obviously, a relevant research
agenda setting should involve the full participation of farmers with other institutions
serving a facilitating role. The implementation of the agenda will also imply major
institutional and policy changes.'
But the problems cannot just be tackled at the technical level. The situation of
the rural poor has been aggravated by the fact that rural areas are neglected in
national and international policymaking. For a long time the policy focus was on
investments in industry and urban infrastructure and budget allocations for rural
areas were reduced substantially often by more than 50% (FAO, 2002a). The same
happened with bi- and multilateral aid budgets.(8) Support for rural development
and agricultural production was judged as outmoded and has been reduced by
more than half since the beginning of the 1990s. Recently international organiza-
tions have begun to recognize that the policy shift away from rural development
policies was too radical and the policies are now being reversed. A decade of offi-
cial work on poverty reduction without major results has lead to the realization
that policies aiming at effective poverty reduction have to address the needs of peo-
ple in rural areas (see IFAD, 2001). The FAO is also arguing that the hope of the
1990s, that poverty reduction will automatically lead to a decrease in the number
of hungry and malnourished, can no longer be justified. In fact, recognition of the
opposite argument that hunger needs to be tackled first in order to address the
problems of poverty is gaining ground.
In many developing countries agriculture is taxed and support services are poorly
equipped. Agricultural research is directed mainly towards commercial crops. But
other negative conditions such as insecure land titles and problems of access to
resources such as credit or capital, etc. often prevail. The result is that even if small-
holders do have access to some land, they have to endure poor conditions, and lack
both technical and economic support and adequate economic frameworks.
Governments seldom pay enough attention to these sectors and do not fulfil their
human rights obligations to these groups.
International policy also has an important impact on marginal rural smallholder
farmers' communities and those of pastoralists and fisherfolk. As international
polices set binding conditions for national policies, it is the combination of
national and international policies that together play a crucial role:
Structural adjustment policies have been implemented in most developing
countries since the middle of the 1980s. These policies were built around
what the World Bank referred to as the `trade-based food security' policy pack-
age. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been
influential in urging countries to open up their agricultural markets to cheap
imports. Based on the old economic recommendation to produce products in
which countries have a comparative advantage, the policy advice has often
been to increase imports of `cheap' staple foods from the world market and
exports of commodities such as grains, oil crops and sugar, or to increase pro-
duction of agricultural export crops in order to finance other imports. The
newly developed instruments of the World Bank and the IMF, namely the
Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), which aim to direct policy processes
for highly indebted countries, seldom take agriculture and rural development
properly on board (see SLE, 2002).
Trade policies became binding for many countries when the World Trade
Organization (WTO) was created in 1995. The trade rules agreed in the agri-
cultural package (Agreement on Agriculture AoA) were not significantly dif-
ferent from the policy recommendations given previously by the World Bank
and the IMF. The difference was that the rules for trade now became fixed in a
binding international agreement which member countries had to obey, since
they could otherwise face penalties or sanctions through the dispute settlement
procedure. Moreover, trade policy rules are becoming increasingly important
since they set not only the terms for tariffs, but also stringent conditions and
regulations for national policies. From food safety regulations to intellectual
property protection, from agricultural subsidies to price support for basic staple
foods, the WTO regulations are deeply affecting national policy frameworks.
One of the bigger problems linked to the WTO AoA is the imbalance in the level
of liberalization obligations for different groups of countries. While developing
countries have opened up their markets during the last fifteen years, their small-
holder farmers still have to compete with subsidized exports from industrialized
countries. Because poor countries are not able to pay subsidies to their farmers and
are forced to remove trade barriers, almost no agricultural policy instruments pre-
vail in these countries. At the same time industrialized countries are still paying
subsidies to their farm sector, even though the bulk of them do not reach small-
holder farmers, but rather go to agribusinesses and the grain trading companies.
The amount of subsidies provided, particularly export subsidies, enable developed
countries to sell their products at lower prices than the cost of production, some-
times in both food exporting and importing countries. In fact world market prices
are depressed for most staple food products. This forces poor farmers into
unfavourable competitive situations. In India, for example, imports of dairy sur-
pluses subsidized by the EU have had a negative impact on local, family-based
dairy production. Likewise, the export of industrial pork from the US to the
Caribbean has destroyed the local Caribbean market.(9) Food aid can also be misused
as a form of export subsidy. As a result local smallholder and family farms are dis-
appearing as their products are not able to compete on the global market, nor are
they able to feed their communities. This can even be found within the EU where,
for example, 17,000 farmers and farmworkers left the land in the UK in the 12
months up to June 2003 (FARM, 2004), and currently across the EU one farm is lost
The liberal response to these market distortions is to liberalize more comprehen-
sively. Would a further reduction in subsidy levels in industrialized countries
improve the situation for producers in developing countries? Yes it could, but
unfortunately not to the extent that would be helpful for many of the marginal-
ized smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk facing hunger and malnutri-
tion. It would be particularly helpful for larger-scale competitive producers in
developing countries as they could get better market opportunities, especially for
exports, and developing countries might penetrate markets which are currently
occupied by developed countries.
Other problems which make it difficult for marginalized producers to make use
of the opportunities created by international markets, are:
The situation is still far from a reality in which one can expect an end to
the existing market distortion. The current status of the WTO agricultural
negotiations shows some progress but it is slow. In the framework agreement
reached at the beginning of August 2004 it was agreed that export subsidies
should be phased out. No implementation date was agreed, however. At the
same time there are only small signs of progress concerning indirect forms of
dumping through internal subsidies. Overall support to agriculture in the
North remains at the same level as it has been for many years, while the forms
of subsidization are becoming a bit less trade distorting. Solutions under dis-
cussion may still allow the extensive use of subsidies in the future. Policies of
support for poor smallholder farmers in developing countries will therefore
need to seriously consider defensive measures in order to respond to these
The opening up of agricultural markets for food imports puts many small
and medium producers in developing countries in direct competition with
competitors on the world market. In most of the poorer developing countries,
producers with little access to factors of production such as support structures,
credit, land and water, or seeds, livestock breeds and fertilizers (particularly
smallholder farmers in Africa, mainly women) are often competing with subsi-
dized large-scale farmers from industrialized countries. The OECD reports that
farmers in industrialized countries do not have natural comparative advan-
tages, but often acquire them. Their ability to produce more competitively is
grounded in their history of support through subsidies, while smallholder farm-
ers in developing countries have often been taxed. As an example, the North
American Free Trade Agreement forces traditional corn producers in Mexico
who normally cultivate 4 hectares of land to compete with 1,000-hectare
subsidized farms in the US.
The pressure on prices is fostered by a growing international food processing
industry, which has a predominant interest in the cheap supply of inputs.
Commodity trading companies try to out-source internationally at as low a cost
as possible. Open market arrangements are therefore favourable for the inter-
national food processing industry and less so for local food processing units or
farm-based activities. Concentration and internationalization in the food
industry is increasing and putting intense pressure on primary producers to
produce at a low cost.
Industrialization of agriculture
Furthermore, the industrialization of agriculture has resulted in the consolidation
of agricultural land and assets in the hands of big landowners, agribusinesses, and
other large commercial entities. Whereas the most fertile and extensive areas of
land remain in the hands of a decreasing number of producers, in many countries
smallholders are being excluded and forced onto unproductive land. Moreover,
reduced resources and increased poverty forces smallholders in many places to cul-
tivate the land more intensively, and to abandon more environmentally sustain-
able agricultural methods. However, it would be wrong to conclude that it is
smallholders that constitute the main threat to the environment. Obviously small-
holder farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk can cause environmental problems such
as soil erosion. But at the same time they have been the main custodians of the
environment for millennia. The diversity of sustainable uses of land, soil, water,
forest, and genetic resources such as seeds and livestock breeds are the result of the
careful work and knowledge of many generations of rural and indigenous peoples.
The main environmental threats in global agricultural production come from the
industrialization of production, often in more favourable areas. The overuse of
water resources, the loss of soil through erosion and salinization, the loss of agri-
cultural biodiversity through the simplification of production and the destruction
of agroecosystems, intensive animal production, and over-fishing are all results of
the open world market and the low prices for all major commodities, which piles
on enormous pressure to produce as cheaply as possible.(10)
Large-scale industrial trans-national corporations (TNCs) are also exerting increased
control over different parts of the food system, its markets, and worldwide food
production.(11) The input sectors of the food production industry are undergoing rapid
concentration. Many traditional seed-producing companies have been bought by
agrochemical companies or oil-companies. Intellectual property rights (IPR) systems
are promoted that provide monopoly privileges over what was once common prop-
erty and thus facilitate the control over genetic material and life forms such as seeds
and livestock breeds. These systems not only prevent the free exchange of these
seeds and livestock breeds, but also allow corporations to expropriate farmers'
knowledge of food production and prevent farmers from sharing this.
Today TNCs own whole sequences of genes in, for example, soya. This means
that they are able to control more and more of the production cycle and force farm-
ers to buy licenses in order to continue farming. Intellectual property rights agree-
ments are another obstacle to the spread of knowledge and technology among
smallholder farmers and to their access to seeds and livestock breeds. The WTO's
Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs)
requires all members of the WTO to implement plant variety protection legislation,
through patents or other IPR systems, at the same level as the most developed
countries. Historically a nation's patent legislation system is gradually imple-
mented in line with the country's industrialization and development of science
and technology. The fact that developing counties lack the resources to establish a
patent system as advanced as the rich counties is clearly reflected in the distribu-
tion of the patent applications on plant and animal resources. Whereas more than
90% of genetic resources for food and agriculture are from biotopes in the South,
corporations in developed countries claim 98% of the patents on genes and living
This process of concentration is also visible in other input sectors for agriculture,
such as the production of pesticides, as well as in the food trade and the food pro-
cessing industry. All global transactions in cereals and soybeans are controlled by a
few companies. The same is true for other important international crops, such as
tropical export crops like bananas, pineapples, coffee, cocoa, etc. The strongest
pressure on prices comes from international food processing industries (see, for
example, UK Food Group, 2003).
In reality it is not just at the input end of agriculture that corporate dominance
prevails. Over the last two decades TNCs have increased their market domination
of the processing and retailing of food. Smallholder farmers who are able to pro-
duce enough to trade are now facing an ever-harder struggle to exert any influence
not only over the farm inputs they need, but also over the farmgate price for their
produce and the terms and conditions of its trade (see Christian Aid, 2003). New
approaches that empower farmers and re-localize food systems are needed. In
Europe, where the TNC dominance of food retailing has been an issue for some
time, there are already a number of farmer-based initiatives including farmers' mar-
kets, Fairtrade, farm retail outlets and vegetable box schemes that help to `localize'
food systems and empower smallholder farmers (see, for example, Sustain, 2003).
In conclusion, people facing hunger and malnutrition are, to a large extent, small-
holders, landless workers, pastoralists or fisherfolk, often situated in marginal and
vulnerable ecological environments. Moreover, they are often neglected by both
national and international policies. Without proper support they cannot compete
with increasingly subsidized industrialized agriculture. For many of them market
liberalization has resulted in damaging and often unfair competition with farmers
or commercial entities that have `acquired' comparative advantages through
decades of direct and indirect subsidies. The situation often results in smallholders
being forced off their land and moving to even more marginal areas or migrating
to the shantytowns around cities.
Without addressing the structural causes of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, a
fruitful and thorough discussion about how to reduce poverty cannot be under-
taken. In meeting these challenges it will be necessary to address these causes, most
of which are directly related to a system where local development, social and envi-
ronmental goals particularly with respect to marginalized smallholder farmers,
pastoralists and fisherfolk are not adequately taken into consideration. For the
majority of the rural poor, changes are needed, to end the failure of national and
international policies to increase the ability of countries and communities to
define their own agricultural, pastoral, fisheries, and food polices which are eco-
logically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their circumstances.
These are key areas for policy reform.
Core elements of Food Sovereignty
Behind the development of the Food Sovereignty framework policy lies a global
network of non-governmental and civil society organizations and social move-
ments, and a number of conferences, forums and declarations which have resulted
in several significant statements on `Food Sovereignty' (see the appendix for a
detailed history of the use of the term).
The Food Sovereignty policy framework includes a set of principles that protect
the policy space for peoples and countries to define their agricultural and food poli-
cies, and their models of production and food consumption patterns. For many
groups the right to produce and the right to food are mutually linked since most
of the hungry and malnourished in the world are smallholders and landless farm-
ers. During the World Food Summit, Via Campesina presented a set of require-
ments that would offer an alternative to the world trade policies and realize the
human right to food. In the statement, `Food Sovereignty: A Future without
Hunger' (1996), it declared that `Food Sovereignty is a precondition to genuine food
security', and the right to food can therefore be seen as the tool to achieve it.
From this initial platform two more concrete policy proposals were launched by
the NGOs/CSOs and social movements during the World Food Summit in 1996.
In the final document of the parallel forum, `Profit for few or food for all', civil
society organizations demanded the development of two new international legal
1. A Code of Conduct on the Right to Adequate Food; and
2. A Global Convention on Food Security.(12)
While the first instrument has been followed up since 1996, the second was
ignored for several years. Since 2001, however, a number of important events have
taken place in which the Food Sovereignty policy framework was discussed and
The discussion about a Global Convention was revitalized in Havana in September
2001, where it was discussed under the term `Food Sovereignty' rather than food
security. This resulted from discussions during the World Social Forum at Porto
Alegre, in January 2001, where the organization of a World Forum on Food Sover-
eignty (WFFS) was agreed for September 2001, a project on which many organiza-
tions across the world had been working for a long time. This Forum was held over
one week in Cuba and brought together nearly 400 people representing some 60
countries and more than 200 organizations. The Cuban National Association of
Small Farmers convened the Forum along with a group of international movements,
networks, organizations and people committed to smallholder farmers and indige-
nous agriculture, pastoralism, artisanal fisheries, sustainable food systems and the
peoples' right to feed themselves. Their statements were gathered in the `Final
Declaration of the World Forum on Food Sovereignty'. (See the `Literature and
references' section of this paper for details of where to find all these texts.)
In August 2002 the Asian Regional Consultation of NGOs/CSOs gathered in
Bangkok, Thailand. The meeting resulted in the statement `End hunger! Fight for
the right to live!', signed by over 80 NGOs from 14 Asian countries.
Parallel to the WFS:fyl, in Rome, 2002, the second Forum for Food Sovereignty
was held, representing some 700 NGOs, CSOs and social movements. This parallel
forum was co-ordinated by an International NGO/CSO Planning Committee
(IPC).(13) As a result of the parallel forum the statement, `Food Sovereignty: A right
for all', was published (NGO/CSO Forum for Food Sovereignty, 2002). The
campaign for Food Sovereignty continued at the World Summit for Sustainable
Development in the end of August in the same year.
In November 2002, the `International Forum on Food Sovereignty and an
Agro-Ecological Fair' took place in Bucaramanga, Colombia, organized by, among
others, Friends of the Earth, Colombia.
For the WTO meeting in Cancun in September 2003, another statement, `Our
world is not for sale. Priority to Peoples' Food Sovereignty. WTO out of Food and
Agriculture' was written by the People's Food Sovereignty Network. This network is
a loose global coalition of smallholder farmer organizations and NGOs working on
food and agriculture issues and to a great extent it consists of the same organizations
as the IPC.
In 2004 Asian NGOs, CSOs and social movements organized the People's Caravan
for Food Sovereignty that travelled through 13 countries across South Asia,
South-East Asia, East Asia and three countries in Europe. and culminated in a week
of events in Nepal with the Prime Minister of Nepal, Mr Sher Bahadur Deuba,
inaugurating the final event.
When it comes to trade policy objectives to achieve Food Sovereignty, NGOs,
CSOs and social movements have been remarkably united in their approach. Con-
sidering the statements and declarations as well as the additional literature pre-
sented, it is indeed possible to outline a framework of policies that have broad
support. Even though NGOs, CSOs and social movements agree on the overall
framework of policies to achieve Food Sovereignty, however different groups have
emphasized different issues within this framework. The policy framework to
achieve Food Sovereignty is indeed highly comprehensive and flexible. For many
groups the right to produce and the right to food are mutually linked since most
of the hungry and malnourished in the world are smallholders and landless
farmers. The definition based on these considerations that was made by the IPC in
`Food Sovereignty is the Right of peoples, communities, and countries to define their
own agricultural, labour, fishing, food and land policies, which are ecologically,
socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances. It
includes the true right to food and to produce food, which means that all people have
the right to safe, nutritious and cultural appropriate food and to food-producing
resources and the ability to sustain themselves and their societies.'(14)
The text was later amended in a meeting of the IPC in October 2004 to correct the
original text. The first sentence now reads: `Food Sovereignty is the right of indi-
viduals, communities, peoples and countries to define. . .' The amendment of the
text to include `individuals' was made to highlight that the right to food that is rec-
ognized in the second sentence is a human right, which is also an individual right.
The individual right component was not excluded by intention. This amendment
will overcome the criticism by human rights groups of the original formulation,
which could have been read as not incorporating the right to adequate food of the
individual. The clarification is helpful to highlight the relationship between the
right to food and Food Sovereignty.
The change made in October 2004 was already taken up by the Asian civil society
that published a draft of a `Peoples' Convention on Food Sovereignty' that was
released in July 2004.(15) The second paragraph of the preamble says:
`By this Convention, Food Sovereignty becomes the right of people and communities to
decide and implement their agricultural and food policies and strategies for sustainable
production and distribution of food. It is the right to adequate, safe, nutritional and cul-
turally appropriate food and to produce food sustainably and ecologically. It is the right
to access of productive resources such as land, water, seeds and biodiversity for
This text reflects that the right to food as a fundamental human right is also an
individual right, given claims for respect of human dignity by the nation state. Still
the text merges rights that are already recognized in binding international law such
as the right to adequate food, with rights that so far do not exist formally, such as
the `right to produce food sustainably and ecologically'. The second use of the
rights language is a political one. The two levels of rights language must be differ-
entiated in order not to lower the standards of recognition that the right to
adequate food has already reached in international law.
Between the definitions presented here, one can find only marginal differences.
However, the IPC definition incorporates even more elements than the former Via
Campesina definition, which shows that the framework is becoming more
comprehensive. Most definitions of Food Sovereignty now include the following
priority of local agricultural production to feed people locally;
access of smallholder farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk and landless people to
land, water, seeds and livestock breeds and credit. Hence the need for land
reform; for the fight against GMOs and patents on seeds, livestock breeds and
genes; for free access to seeds and livestock breeds by smallholder farmers and
pastoralists and for safeguarding water as a public good to be distributed equi-
tably and sustainably used; and for secure access to fishing grounds by artisanal
the right to food;
the right of smallholder farmers to produce food and a recognition of Farmers
the right of consumers to decide what they consume, and how and by whom
it is produced;
the right of countries to protect themselves from under-priced agricultural and
the need for agricultural prices to be linked to production costs and to stop all
forms of dumping. Countries or unions of states are entitled to impose taxes on
excessively cheap imports, if they commit themselves to using sustainable pro-
duction methods and if they control production in their internal markets to
avoid structural surpluses (supply management);
the populations' participation in agricultural policy decision-making;
the recognition of the rights of women farmers who play a major role in
agricultural production in general and in food production in particular;
agroecology as a way not only to produce food but also to achieve sustainable
livelihoods, living landscapes and environmental integrity.
While this set of elements can be found in nearly all definitions of Food Sovereignty
the specific combination of factors as well as the actual focus vary in different
definitions. The Forum on Food Sovereignty in 2002 debated the elements of
Food Sovereignty and subsequently these were summarised by the IPC for Food
Sovereignty into four priority areas for action:
1. Right to Food
To promote the adoption of a rights-based approach to food and agricultural
policies that will lead to an end to violations of the right to adequate food and
will reduce, and progressively eliminate, hunger and malnutrition, which is
now recognized as an individual's right.
The right to adequate food is foremost a right of each person to safe, nutri-
tious and culturally acceptable food. To fully implement the right to adequate
food all people need to have physical and economic access to sufficient quan-
tities of safe, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food and food-producing
resources, including access to land, water, and seeds.
2. Access to Productive Resources
To promote continued access of smallholder farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk
and indigenous peoples to, and the equitable sharing of benefits from, the sus-
tainable use of their land, waters, genetic and other natural resources used for
food and agricultural production. A genuine agrarian reform is necessary
which gives landless and farming people especially women ownership and
control of the land they work and returns territories to indigenous peoples.
In the case of genetic resources, this access is seen by civil society organiza-
tions as continued access unrestricted by intellectual property rights to seeds
and livestock breeds and wider agricultural biodiversity; and that the integrity
of these genetic resources is not compromised by the spread of GMOs and
genetic engineering technologies.
3. Mainstream Agroecological Production
To promote family and community-based agroecological models of food pro-
duction, in practice and through policy, research and development, in order
to help ensure peoples' food security, especially those who are vulnerable to
hunger and malnutrition, through the sustainable management of local
agroecosystems to produce food for predominately local markets.
Altieri (1995) defines agroecology as: `. . .the application of ecological con-
cepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agroecosys-
tems. . .' and continues `. . .agroecology. . . is the discipline that provides the
basic ecological principles for how to study, design and manage agroecosystems
that are both productive and natural resource conserving, and that are also cul-
turally sensitive, socially just and economically viable. Agroecology goes
beyond a one-dimensional view of agroecosystems to embrace an understand-
ing of ecological and social levels of co-evolution, structure and function. . .
Agroecology is the holistic study of agroecosystems, including all environmen-
tal and human elements.'
The agroecological approach to agricultural production is increasingly rec-
ognized and promoted among NGOs and CSOs as an effective response to the
pressing need for food and livelihood security, mainly but not exclusively, for
family and community farmers worldwide and especially those living in com-
plex, diverse and risk-prone environments with limited available resources.
Several comprehensive studies have been published in recent years (Pretty and
Koohafkan, 2002; Scialabba and Hattam, 2002, pp.135 and 144; FAO, 2002b).
A study published by the FAO and others before the World Summit in Sus-
tainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg in 2002 reports yield increases
averaging 94% with best results attaining 600% (Pretty and Koohafkan, 2002).
4. Trade and Local Markets
To promote equitable trade policies which enable communities and countries
vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition to produce sufficient quantities of safe
and secure food supplies and which militate against the negative effects of
subsidized exports, food dumping, artificially low prices and other similar
elements characterizing the current model of agricultural trade.
The above four priority areas for action are broadly subscribed to by all proponents
of Food Sovereignty and are often referred to as the four `pillars' or `principles' of
Food Sovereignty. Differences of interpretation appear when it comes to the meas-
ures needed to implement or realize the principles and achieve Food Sovereignty.
The opinion of many NGOs, CSOs and Social Movements has been that all issues
related to the agriculture and food needs of the majority should be removed from
the WTO and that new governance processes outside the current trading system
should be developed. Some, for example the US National Farmers Union, call for a
separate treaty altogether.
Although such differences of interpretation exist, discussions relating to the
Food Sovereignty policy framework within civil society are converging. This is not
surprising, as the concept of Food Sovereignty emanated from a political discourse
focusing on the self-determination of local communities and allowing self-defined
ways to seek solutions to local problems. While food security is more of a techni-
cal concept, and the right to food a legal one, Food Sovereignty is essentially a
political concept. Even though Food Sovereignty has gained some recognition out-
side civil society groups and social movements, and the policies to achieve it have
become more clearly defined, the question remains how advocates of Food
Sovereignty could elaborate proposals that would achieve it. The comprehensive
nature of the concept of Food Sovereignty implies that a strategy to achieve it will
have to be highly complex.
Out of the statements and declarations that have developed over time, it is
possible to distinguish at least six concrete policy proposals to achieve Food
Sovereignty. (The potential relationships between the different instruments will be
discussed in following sections of this paper.)
A Code of Conduct on the human Right to Food to govern the activities of
those involved in achieving the right to food, including national and interna-
tional institutions as well as private actors, such as transnational corporations.
Since the World Food Summit:five years later the FAO and its members have
developed a set of voluntary guidelines for the progressive realization of the
right to adequate food. Civil society pressure to adopt a code of conduct was
influential in getting work started on voluntary guidelines in 2003. The volun-
tary guidelines were finally adopted by the FAO-Council in November, 2004.
(The text of the guidelines can be found on the FAO website (FAO, 2004b); civil
society comments on the guidelines can be found on the FIAN-International
An International Convention on Food Sovereignty that replaces the current
Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) and relevant clauses from other WTO
agreements. These include TRIPs, the General Agreement on Trade in Services
(GATS), the Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS), Technical
Barriers to Trade (TBT), and the Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing
Measures (SCM). It would implement, within the international policy frame-
work, Food Sovereignty and the basic human rights of all peoples to safe and
healthy food, decent and full rural employment, labour rights and protection,
and a healthy, rich and diverse natural environment. It would also incorporate
trade rules on food and agricultural commodities. Such a convention has been
affirmed by several conferences, for example in Thailand in October, 2003 and
in the `Draft Peoples' Convention on Food Sovereignty', in July, 2004.
A World Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Food Sovereignty estab-
lished to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of trade liber-
alization on Food Sovereignty and security, and develop proposals for change.
These would include the agreements and rules within the WTO and other
regional and international trade regimes, and the economic policies promoted
by international financial institutions (IFIs) and multilateral development
banks. Such a commission could be made up of and directed by representatives
from various social and cultural groups, peoples' movements, professional insti-
tutions, democratically elected representatives and appropriate multilateral
A reformed and strengthened United Nations (UN), active and committed to
protecting the fundamental rights of all peoples, as being the appropriate forum
to develop and negotiate rules for sustainable production and fair trade. Several
major conventions and treaties have been developed by the United Nations or
their subsidiary bodies, such as the International Treaty on Plant Genetic
Resources for Food and Agriculture, developed under the FAO in harmony with
the Convention on Biological Diversity.
An independent dispute settlement mechanism integrated within an
International Court of Justice, especially to prevent dumping and, for example,
GMOs in food aid.
An international, legally binding treaty that defines the rights of smallholder
farmers to the assets, resources, and legal protections they need to be able to
exercise their right to produce. Such a treaty could be framed within the UN
Human Rights framework, and be linked to already existing relevant UN con-
ventions. La Via Campesina is currently discussing the idea to demand the
development of an `International Peasant Rights Convention'. A first draft has
been developed by the peasant organizations from Indonesia, which is
currently being discussed worldwide in the Via Campesina network.
All proposals would require far-reaching changes in the current regulation of inter-
national agricultural and trade policies, as the scope of major international insti-
tutions and treaties would have to be changed. Food Sovereignty is less a proposal
for a single policy change in one of the international regimes, more a framework
to change the broad range of agricultural policies worldwide. Under the umbrella
of the Food Sovereignty, several new institutional frameworks are possible. More-
over, it is not surprising that NGOs, CSOs and social movements' positions still
vary tremendously, since it is not an easy task to develop a new blueprint of insti-
tutions and conventions. Via Campesina described seven principles of Food Sover-
eignty: Food as a Basic Human Right; Agrarian Reform; Protecting Natural
Resources; Reorganizing Food Trade; Ending the Globalization of Hunger; Social
Peace; and Democratic control (see summary in Box 1 and full text in the appen-
dix on pp 45, 46). Also, the four pillars of Food Sovereignty already described fur-
ther summarize these issues.
Comparison of Food Sovereignty with food
security and the Right to Food
Apart from Food Sovereignty, two other terms have been used in the discourse on
the issue of persistent hunger and malnutrition and in the design of strategies for
its eradication: the right to adequate food and food security. It is important to clarify
whether the three terms represent different views of, and approaches to, the fight
against hunger, or whether they could be seen as complementary ways of describ-
ing and searching for solutions to hunger. A careful definition of each term is
required to understand whether, and how, the three policies could be used in a
complementary manner, or if they reflect contradictory analyses of the same
Right to Food
The oldest policy is the `Right to Food', which was recognized in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It is also included in the International
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1976.(16) The right to food is,
therefore, an integral component of human rights. Since it is in the category of a
human right rather than being a political concept, it has a different character to food
security and Food Sovereignty. All three policies were discussed at the NGO/CSO and
social movements' parallel events to the 1996 WFS and to the WFS:fyl in 2002.
As a human right, it implies that an individual can require the state and the com-
munities of states to respect, protect and fulfil their needs for appropriate access to
sufficient food of an acceptable quality. The right to food provides for individual
entitlements and related state obligations, which are to be enshrined in national
and international law.(17) In that sense the right to food empowers oppressed com-
munities and individuals against the state and other powerful actors. The norma-
tive content was described by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights (CESCR) in its `General Comment No.12' (GC 12), as a follow up to the
`World Food Summit Plan of Action' that was demanding such a clarification from
member states. In GC 12 the right to adequate food is described as `the right of
every man, woman and child alone and in community with others to have physi-
cal and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement
in ways consistent with human dignity'. The definition used in GC 12 also high-
lights the requirement to ensure access to an income base for each individual either
through access to productive resources (land, water, seeds, livestock breeds, fish
stocks, etc.) or through work, or, if neither of these is possible, through AN adequate
social safety nets. Each of these terms is described in more detail in the text of GC
12. Not only must the food to which access is made possible be sufficient in quantity,
but the form of access itself has to have certain qualities: access must be possible by
participating in economic life using resources and other means of procurement.
Moreover, this form of access must be sustainable.
The state has to respect, protect and fulfil this standard for each person in its
jurisdiction. The crucial issue then is to determine the related state obligations to
make sure that laws and programmes exist through which people can make their
entitlement a reality. The obligations are best explained in GC 12.(18)
`The right to adequate food, like any other human right, imposes three types or levels of
obligations on state parties: the obligations to respect, protect and to fulfil. . . The obli-
gations to respect, as existing access to adequate food requires that state parties do not
take any measure resulting in preventing such access. The obligation to protect requires
measures by the state to ensure that enterprises or individuals do not deprive [other]
individuals of their access to adequate food. The obligation to fulfil (facilitate) means
that states must pro-actively engage in activities with the intention to strengthen peo-
ple's access to, and utilisation of, resources and means to ensure their livelihood, includ-
ing food security. Finally, whenever an individual or group is unable to enjoy the right
to adequate food by the means at their disposal, states have the obligation to fulfil
(provide) that right directly.'
State parties also have external obligations with respect to individuals or groups
living in other countries.
While the principal obligation under Article 2 of the Covenant is to take steps to
achieve the full realization of the right to adequate food, GC 12 clarifies that (a) each
state has the `obligation to proceed as expeditiously as possible towards that goal',
and (b) `every state is obliged to ensure for everyone under its jurisdiction access to
the minimum essential food, . . . to ensure their freedom from hunger'. While only
states are parties to the Covenant and are thus ultimately accountable for compli-
ance with it, all members of society individuals, families, local communities, non-
governmental organizations, and civil society organizations, as well as the private
sector have responsibilities in the realization of the right to adequate food. The
state should provide an environment that facilitates implementation of these
The work of setting the standards of interpretation of the right to food has been
promoted by NGOs such as FoodFirst Information Action Network (FIAN) since the
Vienna Conference on Human Rights in 1993. In 1996, delegates to the first World
Food Summit already showed an interest in promoting the issue of the right to
food inside FAO. Since then, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human
Rights (OHCHR) has held three expert consultations on the right to food, in 1997,
1998 and 2001, (one of which was co-hosted by the FAO). The results from these
consultations have influenced the development of GC 12. GC 12 was also influ-
enced by the parallel NGO/CSO process, which began during the parallel NGO
forum to the WFS in 1996. In their final declaration `Profit for Few or Food for All'
the NGOs/CSOs demanded the development of a Code of Conduct on the right to
adequate food. The drafting of this code was carried out by FIAN-International, the
Institute Jacques Maritain, and World Alliance for Nutrition and Human Rights
(WANAHR) in September, 1997. Other advances include the work of the UN Spe-
cial Rapporteur on the Right to Food, who was appointed by the UN Commission
on Human Rights in 2000, as well as various publications on the right to food pro-
duced by FAO. In the words of Pierre Spitz (2002), `these advances are spectacular
compared to the development of FAO's follow-up in other areas of the plan of action from
The standard in interpretation of the right to adequate food that was achieved
by GC 12 and was recently supported unanimously in most elements by FAO mem-
bers. In November, 2004 the FAO council adopted the `Voluntary guidelines for the
progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food
security'. These voluntary guidelines (VG) have been developed following a deci-
sion of the World Food Summit: five years later to do so. The decision was influ-
enced by pressure from civil society organizations present at the parallel NGO/CSO
forum in June, 2002. The text agreed in the negotiating process adopts the stan-
dards of interpretation of the right to food that were developed during recent years
in the human rights system of the United Nations. While the political commit-
ment to implement the voluntary guidelines is quite weak in several formulations,
the VG have achieved a breakthrough in setting standards. Issues such as access
to land and water, safety nets, standards for the use of food aid, the prohibition
against using food as a weapon in conflicts, etc., are clearly spelt out. The text
could become a useful tool for civil society actors to challenge unwilling govern-
ments. The VG also addresses the responsibilities governments have concerning
international impacts of their own policies.
The right to adequate food has the advantage that it is based on existing inter-
national law. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
is part of the International Bill of Human Rights, and therefore at the core of inter-
national law. At the Vienna Conference on Human Rights (1993) states agreed on
the `primacy of human rights obligations' above all other obligations in interna-
tional law. It can therefore be a strong tool in defending oppressed communities
and deprived groups and individuals. When it comes to economic, social and cul-
tural rights, the current weaknesses emanate from the fact that judges and courts
in many countries still do not know enough about these rights. It is therefore only
recently that the right to food has begun to be used in court proceedings.(19) The def-
inition prepared by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,
in GC 12, has already gained a lot of support from NGOs and CSOs, academia and
by many governments. Now with the Voluntary Guidelines most of the norms of
the GC 12 are formally accepted by FAO Members. Using the Voluntary Guidelines
now provides a new tool in the defence of the Right to Food that civil society
organizations can use in the coming years.
Food security is the most frequently used term of the three. Since the end of the
1970s, when the term began to be used on a regular basis, it has been reformulated
many times. For a long period there were as many definitions as users. The current
definition, agreed during the 1996 World Food Summit, is a broad one: `Food secu-
rity exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to safe and
nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and
healthy life'. This is both the vision and the definition of food security used in the
`World Food Summit Plan of Action' and on which the FAO-co-ordinated `Food
insecurity and vulnerability information mapping systems FIVIMS' are based.(20)
However, food security is largely a definition of a goal rather than a programme
with specific policies. The implementation strategies required to achieve food secu-
rity may need to change over time, to address new threats or barriers to achieving
The term food security was developed in the context of the UN-specialized
agencies dealing with food and nutrition (see FAO, 1983a). It was then argued
that all countries with difficulties in national food supply should `potentially'
have sufficient access to basic food imports. Besides questions of trade policy,
such as the access by food-deficient countries to surplus products, the question of
the worldwide availability of surplus products and the storage of food reserves
were discussed under the umbrella of global food security. Early on it became
clear that in order to secure enough food supplies, measures at the national level
were also necessary. The `FAO Plan of Action for World Food Security' adopted
in 1979 by the Conference of the FAO, therefore introduced the term national
food security, which was used to describe ways of achieving a better national
distribution of food. Within the framework of `national food security' aspects
such as grain reserves, import and export quotas, food aid, agricultural techniques
to increase production, and irrigation were discussed. These notions of food secu-
rity were, at that time, concentrating on the availability of enough food sup-
plies in national markets and based on population/food availability ratios, and
lead strategically to policies for increasing production.
Soon, it was questioned whether these production-oriented policies helped to
solve the problems of hunger and malnutrition. Amartya Sen's (1981) seminal work
on Poverty and Famines. brought considerable challenges to the debate by high-
lighting the entitlements of individuals and groups to access food. The debate
changed gradually from the overall availability of food to the individual's access
(entitlement) to food. At the eight-minister meeting of the World Food Council
(WFC) in 1982 the decision, under the title `Food security for people', was passed.
In 1983 the Council of the FAO and the WFC followed up with the recommenda-
tion for a further definition of food security to include the access of the individual to
food (WFC, 1983; FAO, 1983b). Since then, the concept of first household and later
individual food security has been developed. (The definition during the middle of the
1980s was `access by people at all times to enough food for an active and healthy
life' (used by FAO and by the World Bank in 1986) (see Eide, A., et al., 1991,
pp.41667).) Throughout the years the scope of Food Security has become increas-
ingly comprehensive. In academic literature the determinants of food security are
described in a very similar way as the definition of the right to food. Haddad and
Gillespie (2001) describe Food Security with the following determinants: `Physical
access at national level, physical access at local level, economic access, social access,
food quality and safety, physiological access, risk of loss of access'.
While such a modern definition of food security focuses predominantly on the
individual's access to food, it does still encompass access to food in general and the
purchasing of food. Both right to food and Food Sovereignty debates concentrate
instead on access to productive resources. The Food Sovereignty framework specifi-
cally includes access and control of resources to produce food. Food security, nev-
ertheless, became the central concept used in the intergovernmental process at the
World Food Summit as well as in the follow-up process, as the title of the WFS dec-
laration `Rome Declaration on World Food Security' shows. The WFS `Plan of
Action' from 1996 reflected all stages of the food security definition and deals with
problems of global, national, household and individual food security.
There are, however, fundamental differences in the language of food security
compared to the language of rights:
1. Food security implies a desirable state of affairs which governments claim to
work for however there exists no legally binding state obligations or legal
mechanisms linked to it which could be used by the malnourished to defend
themselves against the destruction of their access to food by landlords, corpo-
rations, state authorities, etc. Under this policy, states cannot be held account-
able for being (co)responsible for the situation of hunger and malnutrition of
2. Along with the discussion on household or individual food security, a highly
aggregated vision of food security as a global, national or regional issue tends
to prevail. Hence the bias towards global, national or regional availability of
food, rather than individual access to food by deprived persons or groups. The
FIVIMS analysis is becoming more comprehensive in that respect, allowing an
improved recognition of typical groups of affected people at the national or
regional level. There is, however, still a significant difference between this and
a rights-based approach that starts from the entitlement of an individual,
family or group.
3. The use of the term food security in many documents misses a crucial element
of the right to food. Not only is it important to focus attention on the amount
of food people are able to access, but how people access this food. The rights-
based debate focuses on forms of access that respect human dignity. For the
right to food, economic access means much more than adequate purchasing
power to buy food. It means access to resources to feed oneself: to land, to
seeds and livestock breeds, to water and fishery resources, to basic capital and
credit, to skills, etc., which are needed to produce food or to gain an income
After decades of discussions about the term `food security' there is now a list of
carefully developed proposals in the `1996 WFS Plan of Action' which governments
can use to design effective policies against hunger and malnutrition. It demon-
strates that many good proposals for sound policies are available. The food security
debate is, therefore, helpful as a tool to discuss the use of certain policy choices.
However, the term `food security' has two important limitations in addition to the
elements described above. First, it does not set any priorities when it comes to the
implementation of policies. Second, a document such as the `WFS Plan of Action'
contains contradictory recommendations and, so far, there has been no room to
discuss the potential conflicts between the recommendations.(21)
Whereas it seems as if the concept of food security is understood today more and
more in terms of household or individual food security, the concept does improve
the way in which key problems of hunger and malnutrition are addressed. How-
ever, as shown for example in the UNDP Human Development Report 2000, the orig-
inal meaning of food security in terms of general food availability at the global and
national level is still the norm for most international agencies. As indicators for
food security, HDR 2000 uses data on the national averages of supplies of food
energy, protein and fat, the food production index, food imports and food aid.
Despite agencies' good intentions, the process of widening and changing main-
stream understanding of the concept seems to be lengthy and difficult. The debate
inside FAO and the UN food agencies, however, is becoming increasingly oriented
towards the `access dimension', particularly through the FIVIMS work. We have yet
to see which interpretation will become more politically powerful. Still, many
important opinion formers prefer to focus on global and national availability of
food, including, in particular, those who use these data to promote the use of new
(industrial) agricultural technologies for increasing yields and productivity.
Food security is largely a definition of a goal and is therefore a term that has been
interpreted the most broadly. A definition of a goal does not automatically recom-
mend a specific programme to achieve that goal. The Right to Food is similarly a con-
cept that does not rest on a particular set of policies, but focuses on the obligations
of states and on allowing people who are negatively affected to use legal remedies to
get their rights implemented. States have to guarantee the Right to Food but have a
wide margin of discretion on how to implement it. Food Sovereignty, however, is a
more precise policy proposal, with proponents challenging political inactivity or
other failures to pursue appropriate policies (see, for example, People's Food
Sovereignty, 2002). Therefore, the scope of the three terms is not strictly comparable
because of their different natures. What can be compared and contrasted are the
political consequences that could ensue from the implementation of the different
concepts developed to date.
Both the Right to adequate Food and Food Security emphasize the economic
access of individuals or households to food. The Right to Food additionally focuses
on the economic access to income- or food-producing resources. Moreover, the
value added by the rights-based approach is that it addresses obligations and
responsibilities of all duty bearers. This gives individuals and groups a claim vis-ŕ-
vis the state and states acting together to respect, protect and fulfil their access to
The Food Sovereignty framework also applies a rights-based approach. It includes
the aspect of the rights of access of smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk
to food-producing resources as well as the right to food and availability of just mar-
kets. It is written more from a rural perspective, where most of the intractable
poverty exists, and can be seen as a new blueprint for rural development policies.
Unlike food security, which is a set of goals for food and nutrition policies, the
Food Sovereignty framework is formulated as an alternative policy proposition to
liberalized industrial agriculture and it amalgamates elements from different policy
areas into one framework.
It covers issues which are already recognized in international law e.g. the Right
to Food but also includes other aspects using rights-based language, which are so
far not part of international law, such as `the right to Food Sovereignty' or the `right
to produce'. The rights-based language is used to support the political demands by
showing that these objectives have to be implemented to fulfil rights that are con-
sidered as basic by the affected communities. The framework covers the rights of
individuals and the rights of all people at the same time. Even though both
approaches are possible, more precision is needed in the use of the rights-based
language. The political expansion of the rights-based language contains the risks
for those rights, which are already legally binding, being seen more as political
Potential for Food Sovereignty policies to
eradicate poverty and hunger and to
provide sustainable livelihoods
Any strategy recommendation for reducing rural poverty and supporting the devel-
opment of sustainable livelihoods has to address, effectively, the causes of hunger
and malnutrition and the barriers to rural development. The main causes and bar-
riers fall into two groups: those more related to responsibilities of national policy-
making and those more related to rules and policymaking at the international
level. This distinction is not always easy to make, since in many countries national
policymaking is heavily influenced by international framework conditions.
Nevertheless, the differentiation is a useful methodological tool to enable a more
precise discussion and identify the responsibilities of different actors. Without such
an actor-oriented discussion, policy recommendations will not be specific enough
to initiate the necessary changes. The causes of hunger at national levels can be
summarized under five headings (see Table 2):
Central to the problem is that nearly half of the hungry people worldwide are
smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk who, to a very large extent, live and
work on marginal land and in degraded coastal zones. The marginalization of these
farmers is characterized by several elements. Many of them live in remote areas and
suffer because of the long distance between them and basic infrastructure, such as
local or national markets for selling their products. Often they also face fragile
environmental conditions, as their land may be located in difficult environments
for agriculture (arid, steep hills, etc.), often with poor soils and without access to
irrigation. In addition, these farmers work under extremely difficult conditions,
often lacking both capital and any support services from the state. Basic services for
successful agricultural activities are seldom available. There is, therefore, a need for
effective new rural policies to address the problems of marginalization.
The Food Sovereignty policy framework (subsequently called the Food Sovereignty
framework) covers this problem in two ways. First, it stresses the problems of
`access to land' by smallholder farmers and pastoralists, and second it opts for
a family farm / community-based rural development model that is based on
agroecology, i.e. the sustainable use of available natural resources. This family
farm/community-based model of agroecology is suggested as an alternative to the
current trends of concentration of land and the control of other inputs (such as
seeds and livestock breeds, pesticides, etc.) and outputs (marketable products).
The Food Sovereignty framework is effective in addressing the core problems of
the marginalization of farms and, particularly, the management of the difficult
fragile environmental situations of many smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fish-
erfolk through agroecology. Nevertheless, it depends on concrete policy objectives,
which are not yet expressed in sufficient detail, before it will be possible to tell
whether or not all aspects of marginalization will indeed be addressed. Moreover,
while in the policy documents on Food Sovereignty the family farm/community
agricultural model based on agroecology is presented as the new production
methodology, the specific policy proposals focus more on the international dimen-
sion of the problems that smallholder farmers have. However, whether the
problems that smallholder farmers on marginal land face are properly addressed or
not depends on national policies.
Access to productive resources and land policy
The problem of marginalization is often caused or aggravated by other problems
linked to the lack of, or insecure access to, productive resources. Access problems
are particularly highlighted in the Food Sovereignty framework and cover issues
such as access to land, water, agricultural biodiversity, traditional technology, etc.
The current process of concentration of these assets, both inputs and markets, has
had a huge detrimental impact on a family-farm-based model of agriculture. This
is most evident in Europe and the US where the economic concentration process
Table 2 Major causes of hunger and barriers to rural poverty reduction relevant for the
Food Sovereignty debate
Major causes of hunger and barriers to rural poverty reduction
remoteness (from cities/markets and infrastructure)
fragile environmental conditions (soil quality, access to irrigation water,
steep slopes, etc.)
access to services (agricultural extension services, credit, storage facilities,
market access, etc.)
2. Access to productive resources and land policy
security of land tenure vs. concentration of land
access to land for landless people, pastoralists and smallholder farmers
access to water and fishing grounds
access to agricultural biodiversity
3. Budget allocation
4. Rural employment
employment guarantee schemes
5. Other policy areas
attracting foreign direct investment
privatization of essential services
1. Prices / dumping
export subsidies and similar forms of surplus disposal (e.g. food aid)
`acquired' comparative advantages
other forms of market distortion
concentration of companies
imperfect competition (monopolies, etc.)
3. Policy space
conditionalities concerning budget allocations, land policies, extractive
industry regulations, macro-economic guidance
possibilities of increasing regulation of corporations in the context of strong
`negotiation power of companies'
in the input and output side of agriculture has been most pronounced, but it is
being replicated the world over.
The quantity of development assistance and national budget allocation for the
agricultural sector and to rural development has been decreasing for years,
although this trend now seems to be reversing. This reflected a policy orientation
that concentrated on overall poverty reduction measures, linked with the hope
that the general poverty orientation of national policies would also reduce poverty
in rural areas. Between 1986 and 1996, the budget allocation in most developing
countries for rural development and for agriculture policies dropped by more than
50% in all developing countries, as well as in bi- and multi-lateral aid. Thus, the
support for the already marginalized groups living in rural areas decreased con-
siderably. The money that still goes into these areas predominantly supports
commercial agriculture and competitive export sectors. The Food Sovereignty
framework recognizes this neglect of smallholder farmers and other groups living
in rural areas, such as pastoralists, fisherfolk and indigenous communities who
seldom get support from government policies as a central issue. Nevertheless,
the framework fails adequately to address this issue as an important element for
future change or suggest how to include effective demands directed to national
governments in Food Sovereignty strategies.
Some 22% of the hungry and malnourished are families and communities without
access to productive resources, including landless and rural labourers. The Food
Sovereignty framework highlights the problems of these groups, particularly the lack
of access to land, water and other productive resources. The policy recommenda-
tions, however, do not address in detail the situation of rural labourers. Necessary
policy recommendations would have to cover effective labour regulations as well as
positive action to support rural employment, including employment guarantee
Other policy areas
Several other policy areas are particularly relevant to the causes of hunger, malnu-
trition and rural poverty, such as the active search for foreign direct investment
(FDIs). In many developing countries FDIs lead to investment particularly in two
sectors that are important for marginal groups living in rural areas. One is the
investment in extractive industries that often have an extreme impact on chang-
ing land-use patterns, particularly where surface mining is concerned. Extractive
industries also have huge environmental impacts on water streams, soil quality and
pollution (in the case of spillages, etc.). The other sector is the privatization of
essential services, such as water supply. Even if most of the Food Sovereignty liter-
ature does not address these problems directly, it does in principle insist on the
right of peoples and nations to determine their own policies. One of the essential
arguments of Food Sovereignty is that there is a need to rebuild capacity and pol-
icy spaces to control policies that affect the lives of rural populations. On the other
hand there is not enough discussion about whether the national policy level is
even able to deliver local ownership policies, as in many countries there are huge
conflicts between local autonomy and national centralized power. This is the
`internal' risk of any local sovereignty strategy.
International economic influences
Which international influences most affect national policies and could be respon-
sible for causing hunger, malnutrition or rural poverty? The following list, while
not comprehensive, attempts to summarize the most important ones:
Prices and dumping
A core problem for smallholder farmers in many countries is that imported com-
peting agricultural products are often sold worldwide at prices below the cost of
production. There are several ways to subsidize exports. Most criticized are direct
export subsidies,(22) but other hidden export subsidies are equally important, such as
some food aid and the practices of some marketing boards.(23) The indirect effects of
subsidizing agricultural producers also contribute to the trend of depressed prices:
subsidies paid in industrialized countries foster structural overproduction there,
which has to be either destroyed or exported. So even subsidies not directly linked
to exports might depress world market prices. It has been calculated that in 2000
some US$245 billion was spent by industrialized countries to subsidize their agri-
culture (Oxfam International, 2002 p.112).(24) Long-term subsidies for large farms in
industrialized countries lead, in the long run, to `acquired comparative advan-
tages', as the OECD describes these gains in competitiveness.
The problem of cheap imports is often subsumed under the headline of `dump-
ing'. Via Campesina defines dumping as the sale of products at less than their
cost of production in the countries of origin and destination. Ending dumping
which creates some of the most damaging international impacts on smallholder
farmers all over the world is, therefore, a key concern for Food Sovereignty poli-
cies. The demands presented in the Food Sovereignty debate with regard to
dumping go further than the mere elimination of export or other subsidies paid
to agriculture in the North. At the national level it calls for measures to protect
local producers against unfair competition, and at the international level it calls
for unjust subsidies to be removed and policies at national level that enable the
supply management of food.
It is often assumed that markets function efficiently, while in reality they are
often poorly regulated and do not serve weaker participants. The problems of
smallholder farmers often start with lack of access to inputs, partly because of
their remoteness, but mainly because of market concentration in the input sector,
with a few companies focusing on the needs of intensive agriculture and ignor-
ing the needs of smallholder farmers in many rural areas. Governments also tend
not to support agricultural research and extension services relevant to the small-
holder sector, further reducing access to inputs such as appropriate seeds and live-
stock breeds, weather forecasts, etc. Smallholder's problems are further aggravated
by the physical lack of access to markets for their produce. The absence of infra-
structure for transport or storage often forces smallholders to sell their produce at
harvest, when prices are lowest. This means that middlemen who buy and store
the produce get most of the eventual revenue. State trading enterprises or other
forms of state support to overcome these problems of access to market for small-
holder farmers are under pressure from international trade rules and policies
driven by many richer countries to reduce their activities.(25) Additionally, there is
such strong concentration among the agricultural trading companies, grain mar-
keting organizations, and the food industry that it leads inevitably to imperfect
The lost role of the nation state
One of the main problems highlighted by promoters of Food Sovereignty is the loss
of governments' authority to regulate important national policy areas such as
trade, biodiversity and even land policy. The policy space for a nation's own deci-
sions is increasingly reduced, since international norms are prescribing what is pos-
sible at the national level. This is particularly visible in WTO agreements. In the
past, the GATT system was comparatively limited in the areas of agricultural policy
that it influenced. Since the establishment of the WTO, however, and the package
deal that was agreed at the end of the Uruguay Round, a set of agreements with
many subsidiary agreements was adopted. These agreements regulate many areas
from food quality, to classification of additives, labelling, rules of origin, patents,
etc. which earlier had been regulated by national policies.
In addition to international agreements such as trade agreements, many devel-
oping countries are also heavily influenced by policy conditionality and advice
given by the World Bank and the IMF through structural adjustment programmes
or poverty reduction strategies. It is important to note that while not all World
Bank and IMF recommendations are mandatory, some constitute strict conditions
often linked to debt re-scheduling and macroeconomic guidance, such as the open-
ing of markets for agricultural products, etc. These conditions influence decisions
on budget allocations, on how to run certain policy areas, such as land policies,
and on how to regulate certain types of industrial activity, such as extractive indus-
try regulations. Moreover, governments' limited opportunities to regulate their
own national policies are dictated by the strong negotiating power of foreign com-
panies. Countries seeking to attract foreign direct investment have only a small
margin of discretion in which to set standards for investment on local content pro-
visions or employment regulation. The particular strength of the Food Sovereignty
framework is that the problem of decreasing state regulatory power is addressed.
Part of the essence of the Food Sovereignty framework is to regain policy space for
national policymaking. On the other hand, whether the state can regain that
power in times of globalization still needs to be addressed.
The Food Sovereignty framework includes recommendations concerning
national policy setting with respect to all of the problem areas identified.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the policy proposals and strategies, the framework
has a slight bias towards policy changes at the international level. The main focus
is to widen policy spaces for the nation state in international regimes such as the
trade regime. National responsibilities are not addressed in as detailed a way as
international trade policy changes. Even though policy areas particularly influ-
enced by the nation state, such as the overall agricultural policy orientation and
budget recommendations, are recognized, they are not fully addressed, particularly
when it comes to concrete policy proposals. The framework first and foremost aims
to create policy space for the nation state in international forums, assuming that
they would be adopted by national governments. Whether, and under what con-
ditions, national governments would make use of these policy spaces for the ben-
efit of hungry and malnourished peoples has not yet been thoroughly discussed.
While conditions are indeed often heavily influenced by international policies,
nevertheless more and better-defined changes should be demanded at the national
level as well. In many countries national polices still play an important role and
should therefore not be downplayed.
Analysis of constraints to the adoption and
implementation of Food Sovereignty policies
Advocates of Food Sovereignty support it particularly because they see the need to
reformulate core elements of the current model of rural development. It is never
easy to advocate for substantial changes in a policy area, since proof is needed that
the current model is not working properly or is either producing a negative
outcome or too many unintended side effects.
The Food Sovereignty framework recognizes that those living in farming, fishing
and herding communities need special support to overcome the problems of
hunger, malnutrition and rural poverty in an environmentally sustainable way. It
asserts that the current model is unable substantially to reduce the number of peo-
ple who are hungry or malnourished. However, while the current system still seems
to be productive in terms of global output, there are problems with the distribution
of benefits to poor and hungry people and its unsustainable production methods
lead to the marginalization of smallholder farmers and to long-term environmen-
tal threats. An urgent re-evaluation of agricultural and rural policies is, therefore,
required to reverse these negative trends. It should no longer be acceptable to assert
that more growth in agricultural output (and more overall economic growth) will
automatically deliver substantial benefits to all people living in rural areas.
It is possible to identify six constraints and counter arguments that can be used
to challenge the framework:
1. The first challenge is from the current dominant development paradigms
which are built on a combination of elements that can be grouped under three
(a) political preconditions such as democracy, good governance, and no
(b) the macro-economic policy model based on open markets and trade-based
food security;(26) and
(c) the current development or social policy agenda which is driving the
achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which also
contain elements of (a) and (b).
The Food Sovereignty framework is a counter proposal to the neo-liberal macro-
economic policy framework. It is not directed against trade per se, but is based on
the reality that current international trade practices and trade rules are not work-
ing in favour of smallholder farmers. While the opening up of markets in devel-
oped countries is a key demand of many development NGOs, the Food Sovereignty
framework is asking for the right of nations and peoples to restrict trade, if this is
needed to protect smallholder farmers and other rural marginalized communities
against dumping and unfair competition. The focus of Food Sovereignty is to guar-
antee trading conditions that are not threatening to smallholder farmers. Many
Food Sovereignty advocates, for example Via Campesina, reject the policy propos-
als to reform the WTO by limiting trade under certain conditions, such as by using
a `development box' (i.e. giving developing countries certain exemptions),
although this is supported by some developing countries. Via Campesina fears that
Food Sovereignty could then be implemented under WTO rules, which would still
require acceptance of the basic principles of the WTO, such as liberalization, non-
discrimination and the `most favoured nation' clause. On the other hand, Food
Sovereignty is not an anti-trade policy, but implies rather a demand for a trade sys-
tem based on fundamentally different principles, such as those that promote local
trade and a careful and controlled opening of markets.
2. The second challenge comes from those who focus more on a global food secu-
rity perspective, using arguments that are more production oriented. For many
years the focus of agricultural policies was on increasing global production
through the latest technology, using high-yielding varieties and optimal appli-
cation of inputs and irrigation. This has increased global food production
steadily during the last half century and has prevented steep rises in the num-
ber of hungry and malnourished people, while the world population has been
increasing. Many questions remain, however. Will smallholder farmers, pas-
toralists and fisherfolk be able to increase global production enough, particu-
larly if support for marginal farmers is combined with agroecology? Will a new
policy based on the interests of smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk
adequately take into account the future need to increase the production of food
for the growing world population? Is there a risk that Food Sovereignty policies
will favour producers who are less `efficient' in conventional economic terms?
In fact, it seems that the focus of Food Sovereignty on rural communities and
smallholder family farms is, from time to time, supported by experts analysing the
causes of hunger and malnutrition. The Millennium Project's Hunger Task Force
was, for example, arguing: `For higher risk environments, a different paradigm focused
more on the interplay between locally developed agricultural technologies and improved
natural resource management is developing' (UNDP, 2003b, p.9). The Task Force
authors also highlighted how important it will be to focus future strategies on locally
adapted technologies, though this was not carried through to recommendations in
their final report (UNDP, 2005).
It has been shown that the yields of smallholdings, even in higher risk environ-
ments, can be increased three- or fourfold using locally adapted techniques.
fore, in any future strategy to increase world food output it will be more
appropriate to focus research on smallholder farmers, including those in marginal
environments. Moreover, an increasing number of studies support the need to
develop more diverse agricultural farming practices for all types of production sys-
tems based on agroecology, systems in which food production, biological support
systems such as pollination and pest control, and ecosystem services such as clean
water, soil conservation and watershed protection are recognized as important
outputs of farming landscapes (Altieri, 1995).
3. Another challenge to the Food Sovereignty framework is linked particularly to
the use of the term `sovereignty'. The challenge is twofold:
(1) Is the use of the term still possible in times of globalization? Is it not an
outmoded, quasi-romantic point of view that does not recognize the need
to open up economies and the need for the international exchange of
ideas, goods, services, tourism, etc?
(2) Is it still useful to refer to the nation state as an agent for policy develop-
ment, or is the nation state already becoming too weak?
The modern dilemma of the nation state has been eloquently reduced one sentence
statement in the UNDP Human Development Report 2000: `The nation state
is too big for the small things and too small for the big things.' How useful can
Food Sovereignty policies be in times when those policies' governance
mechanism, the nation state, is becoming weaker and weaker?
The first answer to these profound challenges is that Food Sovereignty does not pri-
marily refer to nation-state sovereignty. A new and modern definition of sovereignty
is found in the different interpretations of Food Sovereignty. Sovereignty is used to
demand the right to control policies, the distribution of resources, and national and
international decision-making for those who are directly affected by these policies.
The term has therefore a much connotation of local democracy, participatory devel-
opment, and subsidiarity than of national policy formulation and government
bureaucracies. Nevertheless, one can also find texts on Food Sovereignty that focus
more on the `rights of peoples and nations' than local communities.
One of the open questions in the debate is what is really meant by the term Food
Sovereignty? The different texts dealing with Food Sovereignty do not use a con-
sistent definition (see appendix) but all require greater democracy in determining
localized food and agricultural systems. Food Sovereignty highlights the negative
interference from international policies on the lives of local communities and
smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk and the need to re-assert local
autonomy in order to solve the problems of poverty and hunger. But it has also
been used to make clear that the role of the nation state is still important and that
it is necessary to carefully reconsider what should be regulated locally, nationally
and internationally. Food Sovereignty is a call to remind us that the process of glob-
alization itself is a political process that can be changed. It is also a call to encour-
age and foster a discussion on different and alternative options for future policy
development in the agricultural sector that are not entirely dominated by the glob-
alization project. It is demanding a development model that gives the control of
resources back to local communities. Nevertheless, a potential conflict remains
between the advantages of local control and sovereignty and the advantages of
open-mindedness to new internationally controlled policies.
4. The Food Sovereignty framework is challenged by the question about the need
for more global governance. How much `global governance' is needed in the
future is an ongoing debate in international relations and among NGOs/CSOs
and social movements? Would it not be wiser to invest more energy in devel-
oping the right international instruments instead of focusing on sovereignty
and improved democracy at national or even local levels? One of the
advantages of the Food Sovereignty framework is that it addresses both new
international regulations and the need to decentralize decision-making to
local or national levels. The central message of Food Sovereignty is that the
revitalization of rural development and rural policies needs to be secured in
5. Is there any space for new conventions or new legal instruments to ensure
Food Sovereignty? In the different texts about Food Sovereignty several pro-
posals are made for new international legal instruments (see p.15) such as a
convention on Food Sovereignty; an international treaty on the rights of
smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk (see appendix for summary); a
new World Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Food Sovereignty; a
reformed and a strengthened United Nations; and a new dispute settlement
mechanism. The variety of instruments and the scope of the proposed
changes are considerable.
Would it be more appropriate to design limited policy proposals set in a realistic
timeframe, instead of proposing radical changes in the current system of the
United Nations? This is a key question for all the strategic recommendations that
are made about Food Sovereignty. It can be argued that the instruments that have
been proposed so far are not a coherent package, but rather a list of incomplete
ideas, and thus are not entirely useful. What all supporters of Food Sovereignty
stress are that drastic changes are needed in many policy areas to implement this
new policy framework and reduce hunger and poverty. However, Food Sovereignty
is not yet sufficiently defined and established as a conceptual framework to be able
to decide precisely which legal instruments and infrastructure will be required to
support it at national or international levels.
6. The Food Sovereignty framework is confused in its use of the term human
rights. The problem is that two different ways of applying the concepts of
`rights' are being mixed up. First of all, it is stated that the right to food is a
fundamental human right for each individual and community. This human
right needs to be established separately from the more conceptual form of the
word `right' in a political context: the right to produce food or the right to
Food Sovereignty is so far not internationally recognized. It would be helpful
to separate the political use of the rights terminology from the legal one, since
the right to food, an established international instrument, can already be
claimed in courts. The right to food covers particular rules and regulations for
states vis-ŕ-vis people living in their territory, but also includes extraterritorial
Food Sovereignty poses political challenges, which require that states should regain
the necessary policy space to conduct their fight against hunger and to be able to
implement fully their obligations to their citizens to ensure both their Right to
Adequate Food as well as their other human rights. Moreover, states should provide
an environment that facilitates the implementation of all human rights obliga-
tions. However, the availability of the necessary policy space does not automati-
cally lead to national policies that promote or even consider the interests of
smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk or remote rural areas, because
national governments are often not respectful of the needs of the poorer segments
of their society. The right to food is, therefore, an extremely important additional
element, since it is a way to make accountable national governments to people
facing hunger and malnutrition.
To summarize, the Food Sovereignty framework paves the way for special atten-
tion to be given to the international governance of food and agriculture and to the
international causes of hunger and malnutrition. It also encourages a discussion
about the policy space that needs to exist to encourage (but not necessarily guar-
antee) the creation of national policies that aim to reduce rural poverty and elimi-
nate hunger and malnutrition. The right to adequate food, however, is a legal
reference instrument and provides legal standards for all measures and policies
undertaken by each state to secure access to adequate food for everyone. It requires
that the policy space available is used properly and that states implement their
obligations to both the right to adequate food and other human rights.
The key to reducing hunger, malnutrition and rural poverty is a renewed focus
on rural development and rural areas. Even in the next four decades the majority
of the poor will live in rural areas. The Food Sovereignty framework constitutes an
important contribution to the current discussion by directly addressing the needs
and demands of those who face hunger and malnutrition, and so merits further
Extent of recognition of Food Sovereignty
by governments, intergovernmental
organizations, civil society organizations
and social movements
Despite the fact that the Food Sovereignty framework is still evolving, it is increas-
ingly being recognized. Already at the parallel NGO forum at the World Food
Summit in 1996, the concept of Food Sovereignty was widely supported among
NGOs/CSOs and social movements. For these organizations, Food Sovereignty has
become the central policy framework within which they operate. Moreover, the
farmers' organizations linked to Via Campesina have fully adopted Food Sover-
eignty as the basis for their struggle. However, some other farmer organizations and
some NGOs do not yet support the concept. For many it is still unknown, for oth-
ers some of the challenges mentioned in previous chapters have not been answered
Among governments the concept received some early support in 1988 when a
group of developing countries used it in the negotiations on agriculture during the
Uruguay Round. In fact, representatives from developing countries suggested that
Food Sovereignty would be preferable to food security.(27) The three elements of this
interpretation of Food Sovereignty mentioned by the sponsoring governments
were (i) national self-determination of what was produced and how it was pro-
duced; (ii) a guarantee of sufficient supply at adequate prices and availability, and
(iii) incentives to rural and national development on the basis of increasing pro-
duction, consumption, and the income of producers. Since then, the term has
sometimes been used in trade negotiations, particularly in meetings in which the
introduction of a `development box' has been discussed. Nevertheless, one cannot
find any recent references to countries using the term Food Sovereignty.
Within the European Parliament, advocates such as the Committee on Women's
Rights and Equal Opportunities have urged the European Commission to introduce
the use of the term `Food Sovereignty' alongside that of food security. The term is
being used to a limited extent by official decision-makers in the EU and FAO, but
some seem to use it in a different way than civil society does. There is a real risk
that the framework will be watered down and lose its initial meaning, or become
interchangeable with Food Security. During the WTO Ministerial Conference in
Cancun in September, 2003 the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that the
Belgian government welcomed the recent EU reform of the Common Agricultural
Policy, and argued that it would make a powerful contribution to the Food Sover-
eignty of the countries of the South, while promoting their agricultural production
and export. To this end, he continued, `rules need to be adopted to provide developing
countries with the means for better integration [into] international trade'. Therefore, the
full achievement of the Doha Development Agenda is crucial, he concluded. This
shows that so far no one definition of the term exists, and that it is already being
used in ways that are quite contrary to the spirit of the original meaning. In par-
ticular the appealing tone of the word `sovereignty' will make it attractive for many
to (mis)use the term, without a specific context. An important task for NGOs and
CSOs, therefore, is to publicise and advocate for the definition that they have
agreed and to gain support for it not only inside civil society, but also among
It is easy to foresee problems in achieving more political support, particularly
since the framework is broad and covers a variety of issues and proposals. New
thinking on agricultural and rural development policies is required, but paradigm
shifts need time. Many people might agree with the principles of Food Sovereignty,
but disagree with some of the analyses or policy proposals. Moreover, the frame-
work is still in development. Although we can see a convergence in the analyses of
important problems, concrete policy proposals still have to be developed and
defined further. On a global level, we are still in a phase of influencing agendas in
international fora, where the framework is receiving increased recognition. To
encourage this discussion, a parallel event to the 2003 meeting of the FAO Com-
mittee on World Food Security was organized between civil society organizations,
FAO and some government representatives.
Nevertheless, we are still far away from finding broad political support among
governments because of the radical changes that have taken place, particularly
when it comes to trade policy issues. While few will disagree with Food Sover-
eignty's principle of the human right to food, some countries will remain opposed
to the overall framework. When it comes to reducing resistance to Food Sover-
eignty, however, its comprehensive nature could be an advantage. The policy
changes needed to reduce the number of hungry and malnourished as well as to
tackle rural poverty in the foreseeable future are enormous. A broad-based discus-
sion is more likely to initiate far-reaching changes than a discussion about making
small changes to existing instruments.
Current relevance of Food Sovereignty
The current problems of hunger and malnutrition, as well as rural poverty, are an
unavoidable challenge for international policy. They have received some attention
internationally, for example the adoption of the first Millennium Development
Goal, which built on the Rome Declaration adopted at the 1996 World Food Summit
to reduce by half the number of hungry people by 2015, and changes in some bi-
and multi-lateral aid policies of OECD countries, but so far the results have been
negative. FAO's data for 19992001 shows that there are actually 18 million more
severely undernourished people since 19957 (FAO 2003c), and that increased still
further during the subsequent three years. In 2004 there were 852 million severely
undernourished people in the world.
This negative trend shows that policy change is needed. FAO analysis still main-
tains that the failure to reduce the number of hungry and malnourished people is
a result of lack of political will. Nevertheless, it is not only a question of political
will, but also a question of identifying new policies or reforming or eliminating
The central questions of the current debate need to be:
How do we to mobilize more political will to address the root causes of hunger
How do we set up policy conditions that would lead to a substantial reduction
in the number of hungry and malnourished people in the foreseeable future?
What policy changes are needed and feasible?
The current dominant policies for eliminating hunger and malnutrition are evi-
dently not working and need to be changed. Food Sovereignty is not a luxury or a
utopian dream, but a necessity. A change of attitude and approach, at all levels of
policymaking, that prioritizes the needs and security of smallholder farmers,
pastoralists and fisherfolk the world over should be a political and social priority.
Additional analysis and a search for new, more innovative answers are needed.
current main policy options are:
1. The seven commitments agreed in the Plan of Action (PoA) from the World
Food Summit (and incorporated into the first MDG). This contains a long list
of good ideas but has not been developed into a concrete plan of action, nor
does it tackle the contradictions between different elements of the action plan.
2. A faster and more wide-ranging liberalization of agricultural markets in order
to end the devastating impact of the current market distortions the WTO's
Doha Development Agenda.
Both of these mainstream policy options address key issues and make important
proposals for changes. But even the implementation of the World Food Summit
Plan of Action would not change policy enough to end hunger and malnutrition.
Even worse, some of these proposals might result in more vulnerable people or
groups: further liberalizing the market in agricultural products, for example.
Two important components are neglected in the current mainstream
1. National and international policy changes need to be made in the right order.
The mainstream policy advice is for increased investment in the agricultural
sector and in rural areas at both national and international level. Developing
countries are to be encouraged to open up their markets for agricultural prod-
ucts. It is not sufficiently acknowledged, however, that this liberalization
requires a level playing field of competitive markets with producers capable of
taking advantage of these. Considering that most poor and hungry people are
rural smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk who have no external
support and require increased capacity to access markets, opening up their
local markets to international competition would quickly drive them out of
production altogether. Before they are exposed to global competition, they
first need increased recognition of their contribution to food security and
effective support that would enable them to be able to compete in an open
market. The need for government to support these smallholder (and often
marginalized) farmers and landless families is too often forgotten.
In terms of the order in which policies are implemented, opening up mar-
kets before smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk have the capacity
to exploit them will not benefit these producers. This damage would be even
more severe were the markets of developing countries to be opened before the
market-distorting effects of subsidies on the agricultural production and
exports of industrialized countries are reformed. A substantial reduction of
subsidies is still a long way away, but many developing countries have already
opened their markets, so it is not surprising that farmer's movements around
the world are calling for the implementation of Food Sovereignty policies.
2. Important vulnerable groups are not covered by the policy advice given.
The analysis of people facing hunger and malnutrition as well as extreme
poverty has shown that the majority are living in rural areas and are landless
families or smallholder farmers, pastoralists or fisherfolk. Most of these fami-
lies will need long-term support before they could even contemplate accessing
international markets: they would have to be supported first to market their
products locally and in regional markets. The current economic policy option
to address this is specialization and support for structural changes to move
farmers away from agricultural production that is not `competitive'. Although
in macro-economic terms this might have some validity for some people in
the long term, it does not address how hundreds of millions of smallholder
farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk and landless families will find alternative
jobs. It is the essence of the problem of hunger and poverty that economic
options other than agriculture are not available in the short term. Jobs for the
increasing rural population have to be created through agriculture and the
sustainable use of natural resources, and through the local and regional pro-
cessing of agricultural products. The failure to pay attention to this reality
explains, in part, the growing number of hungry and malnourished people in
The purpose of this paper has shown how Food Sovereignty framework developed
and has explained the basic assumptions and underlying analyses. It has described
how the framework relates to the current problems in rural and agricultural poli-
cies and has discussed what policy constraints might prevent the adoption of the
It has shown that the common thread of all the different interpretations of Food
Sovereignty is that their analyses start from the perspective of those facing hunger
and rural poverty. The debate on the different instruments and their potential has
been documented in this paper, but has only recently started among the different
civil society actors. It is a dynamic debate that needs to be supported and enriched
by more civil society and scientific contributions, because finding credible and
effective answers to the overall problem will not be an easy task. It is likely that the
Food Sovereignty framework could best be developed by implementing several of
the ideas in parallel. Some initiatives have already begun, for example some co-
ordination of views is being achieved in the IPC for Food Sovereignty. For the time
being the most important outcome could be to enrich the debate and discuss the
relevance of different potential policy changes. Each NGO, civil society organiza-
tion or social movement should then decide which strategic elements it can
This paper shows that there is no one fully fledged `Food Sovereignty model' in
the sense of a set of policies already available for the national and global gover-
nance of rural and agricultural policies. Even though many key elements of such a
new proposal have already been identified and formulated, the overall framework
and strategy needs further improvement and clarification, as this paper has shown.
The use of terminology and definitions, particularly the rights-based language,
needs to be more precise. Several issues have so far not been addressed properly by
this policy framework, such as the situation of the urban poor and their access to
food. These are areas in which further debate is needed. The framework has not yet
been finalized: it is still in development.
Food Sovereignty is the new policy framework being developed by social move-
ments all over the world to improve the governance of food and agriculture and
to fight the core problems of hunger and poverty in new and innovative ways. It
deserves serious consideration and more discussion on how to develop it further.
1 Subsequently the terms `farmer' or `smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fish-
erfolk' will be used in this paper for all those women and men who produce
and harvest crops as well as livestock and aquatic organisms. This should be
understood to include smallholder peasant/family crop and livestock farm-
ers, herders/ pastoralists, artisanal fisherfolk, landless farmers/ rural workers,
gardeners, indigenous peoples, and hunters and gatherers, among other
small-scale users of natural resources for food production.
2 The persistence of the problem is easily observed; at the World Food Confer-
ence in 1974 government representatives declared that in ten years `no child
will have to go to bed hungry'.
3 Officially the FAO estimated before the WFS:fyl that the number of hungry peo-
ple had fallen by six million a year between 1996 and 2002. Even at the summit
it was doubtful whether the figures were reliable, because the numbers were
based on a reduction of hungry people in China, while at the same time the
number of hungry people had increased in many other countries. In between,
the FAO had to adjust the figures again to more than 840 million. No progress
has been made in reducing the total number since the WFS in 1996.
4 FAO estimates the underfunding to be in the order of US$24 billion (FAO,
5 This first report was published in New York in April 2003.
See also the excellent overview by the International Fund for Agricultural Development
Rural Poverty Report 2001. The Challenge of Ending Rural Poverty (IFAD, 2001).
6 This issue has been documented by the former director of the World Watch
Institute, Lester Brown. The most recent figures can be found in World Watch
Institute (2003). `Producing meat requires large amounts of grain most of the
corn and soybean harvested in the world are used to fatten livestock. Produc-
ing 1 calorie of meat (beef, pork, or chicken) requires 1117 calories of feed.
So a meat-eater's diet requires two to four times more land than a vegetarian's
7 The Millennium Project (UNDP, 2003a, p.1622) describes in detail how mar-
ginal many farming areas are today. Marginal in the sense of rural remoteness
and distance to roads, infrastructure and markets and marginal in terms of
policy in national and international agendas.
8 The average budget for rural development in developing countries was
reduced by 50% between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. The same happened
to bi- and multilateral aid. The World Bank, for example, dropped its lending
to these sectors from nearly US$6 billion in 1986 to US$2.7 billion in 1996.
Many reasons are given for this decline, including among others: the inherent
complexity, risk, and relatively high transaction costs in agriculture and rural
development projects (particularly with poor producers); an aversion among
Bank staff and clients to lending in those sectors; and the low effectiveness
of institutions working with these sectors in many countries (see FAO, 2001).
9 The problem of dumping subsidized exports and the impact of trade distor-
tions linked to subsidies are well documented by UN, the OECD and also by
NGO documents (see Oxfam, 2002).
10 Recent price trends on the world market are quite low. See the good overview
in BMVEL (2004). Additionally all price trends are published regularly by the
11 Colin Hines (2003) has described how globalization is transforming the
diversity of food systems into an integrated and more linear world system.
12 The `Global Convention on Food Security' later became the `International
Convention on Food Sovereignty and Nutritional Well-Being' (Havana,
2001), or the International Convention on Food Sovereignty and Trade
13 The IPC for Food Sovereignty links to a network of more than 2000
NGOs, CSOs and social movements, emanating from an international con-
sultation and interaction process that began in 2000, and which built on the
networks started at the WFS in 1996.
14 The definition was elaborated during the WFS:fyl parallel NGO/CSO forum
(Forum for Food Sovereignty) and can be found on the fact sheet on Food
Sovereignty on the homepage of the IPC at www.foodsovereignty.org.
15 The draft was prepared by both the People's Food Sovereignty Network Asia
Pacific, a new regional coalition of peasant-farmer organizations and support
NGOs, working on a platform of Food Sovereignty, and the Pesticide Action
Network Asia and the Pacific. The text is available on PAN-AP's website:
16 The Right to Food is recognized in Art. 25 of the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights (UDHR) and in Art. 11 of the International Covenant on Eco-
nomic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). In both texts it is part of the
right to an adequate standard of living. Art. 11 also recognizes the right to be
free from hunger.
17 The notion of `individual entitlement' does not exclude the possibility that
in many circumstances individual rights are only enjoyed in communities,
such as in indigenous communities. It therefore does not exclude common
land title of communities, etc. It is important that the right can be claimed
through the courts and that responsible institutions can be held accountable.
18 General Comment No.12 is an interpretative note for the Right to Food
adopted in May, 1999 by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights. These types of Comments are drafted by all human rights treaty bod-
ies that monitor state compliance with the central UN human rights treaties.
General Comment No.12 is referenced as UN Doc. E/C.12/1999/5. Also rele-
vant to the Right to Food is General Comment No.15 of the same Committee
on the `Right to Water', UN Doc. E/C.12/2002/11, adopted in 2002, which
contains the Right to drinking water as part of the Right to Food.
19 The newly created network of CSOs, social movements and NGOs for eco-
nomic, social and cultural rights (ESCR-Net) has set up a database on case-
related information. Currently more than 80 court cases involving ESC
Rights are documented there. It can be accessed on the webpage of the
network: www.escr-net.org. Some of the cases are related to the Right to
20 The definition is included in paragraph 1 of the World Food Summit Plan of
Action (FAO, 1996). FIVIMS is a tool developed in response to the World
Food Summit results. A technical consultation on Food Insecurity and
Vulnerability Information and Mapping Systems (FIVIMS) was held at the
FAO in March 1997. It recommended developing guidelines for the estab-
lishment of FIVIMS at the national level. The guidelines were published in
2000 (IAGW-FIVIMS, 2000).
21 The Plan of Action, for example, recommends support to smallholder farm-
ers in many of its chapters. However, the potential conflicts with the free
trade paradigm that is also recommended are not discussed, neither in the
document, nor in the Committee on World Food Security, which is the FAO
body in charge of monitoring the implementation of the WFS.
22 The problem with the size of export subsidies using data from 2001 are
described in detail in the study Rigged Rules and Double Standards: Trade
globalization, and the fight against poverty (Oxfam, 2002, p.112ff).
23 The `misuse' of food aid was discussed at an international conference in
Berlin called `Politics against hunger'. For details see:
24 The figure deserves discussion: it is based on the OECD PSE (producer sup-
port estimate) which includes direct subsidies as well as negative subsidiza-
tion (the costs to consumers, who have to pay higher prices). Although these
estimates may be inflated, it shows that many subsidies go directly to trad-
ing and storage companies. The actual amount of subsidies paid directly to
farmers in the EU and the US will be lower than these figures suggest.
25 See monthly updates on the negotiations in Bridges, a magazine published by
the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development
26 The model is most often called `neo-liberal'. While there is now consistent
use of the term neo-liberal, here the basic components have been identified
separately in order to be more precise.
27 The proposal was submitted by Egypt, Jamaica, Mexico and Peru, supported
by Morocco and Nigeria. See document MTG.GNG/NG5/W/74 of the GATT-
28 Linked to the principle of protecting natural resources in the Food Sover-
eignty discourse, the discussion of a model of production should be based on
agricultural biodiversity and not on an industrial model: `Food Sovereignty
and security, livelihoods, landscapes and environmental integrity are under-
pinned by agricultural biodiversity and its component genetic resources for
food and agriculture. These have been developed by indigenous peoples and
women and men farmers, forest dwellers, livestock keepers and fisherfolk
over the past 12,000 years through the free exchange of genetic resources
across the world. Since the advent of industrial agriculture and the increas-
ing globalization of markets, tastes and cultures, much of this wealth of
agricultural biodiversity is being lost both on-farm and in genebanks and
increasingly the integrity of these resources is being compromised by
genetically modified organisms.' (Quote from the background paper to
the WFS:fyl CSO Forum for Food Sovereignty `Sustaining Agricultural
29 The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety became law and entered into force on
September 11, 2003.
30 The draft was prepared by the People´s Food Sovereignty Network Asia
Pacific, a new regional coalition of peasantfarmer organizations and sup-
port NGOs who working on a platform of Food Sovereignty, as well as the
Pestcide Action Network Asia and the Pacific. The text is available on the
web-site of PAN-AP: www.panap.net.
Food Sovereignty: Historical overview of the development of the concept
The concept of Food Sovereignty, that had been under discussion for a few years,
was released as a result of the International Conference of Via Campesina in Tlaxcala,
Mexico, in April 1996. Delegates decided that they wanted proper representation
at the International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources in Leipzig
(Germany) in June 1996, as well as the Word Food Summit in Rome in November
of the same year and in the parallel CSO forums. The objective was to encourage
NGOs and CSOs to discuss alternatives to the neo-liberal proposals for achieving
`We, the Via Campesina, a growing movement of farm workers, peasant, farm and
indigenous peoples' organizations from all the regions of the world, know that food
security cannot be achieved without taking full account of those who produce food.
Any discussion that ignores our contribution will fail to eradicate poverty and hunger.
Food is a basic human right. This right can only be realized in a system where Food
Sovereignty is guaranteed.' (Via Campesina, 1996b).
This definition of Food Sovereignty focuses on the right of smallholder farmers to
produce food, which is undermined in many countries by national and interna-
tional agricultural trade policy regulations. As discussed in this paper, for most
developing countries these rules have been dictated either by structural adjustment
programmes or by the WTO. In the words of Via Campesina, Food Sovereignty is
`the right of each nation to maintain and develop their own capacity to produce foods that
are crucial to national and community food security, respecting cultural diversity and
diversity of production methods.'
During the 1996 World Food Summit, Via Campesina presented a set of require-
ments that offered an alternative to the world trade policies and would realize the
human right to food. In the statement, `Food Sovereignty: A Future without
Hunger' (1996b), it was declared that `Food Sovereignty is a precondition to genuine
food security', and the right to food can therefore be seen as the tool to achieve it.
Since this document has served as a basis for other declarations to come, Via
Campesina's seven principles to achieve Food Sovereignty are worth highlighting:
1. Food A Basic Human Right
Food is a basic human right. Everyone must have access to safe, nutritious and cul-
turally appropriate food in sufficient quantity and quality to sustain a healthy life
with full human dignity. Each nation should declare that access to food is a con-
stitutional right and guarantee the development of the primary sector to ensure the
concrete realization of this fundamental right.
2. Agrarian Reform
A genuine agrarian reform is necessary which gives landless and farming people
especially women ownership and control of the land they work and returns territories
to indigenous peoples. The right to land must be free of discrimination on the basis
of gender religion, race, social class or ideology; the land belongs to those who work
it. Smallholder farmer families, especially women, must have access to productive
land, credit, technology, markets and extension services. Governments must establish
and support decentralized rural credit systems that prioritize the production of food
for domestic consumption to ensure Food Sovereignty. Production capacity rather
than land should be used as security to guarantee credit. To encourage young people
to remain in rural communities as productive citizens, the work of producing food
and caring for the land has to be sufficiently valued both economically and socially.
Governments must make long-term investments of public resources in the development
of socially and ecologically appropriate rural infrastructure.
3. Protecting Natural Resources
Food Sovereignty entails the sustainable care and use of natural resources especially
land, water, and seeds and livestock breeds. The people who work the land must have
the right to practice sustainable management of natural resources and to preserve bio-
logical diversity. This can only be done from a sound economic basis with security of
tenure, healthy soils and reduced use of agro-chemicals. Long-term sustainability
demands a shift away from dependence on chemical inputs, on cash-crop monocul-
tures and intensive, industrialized production models. Balanced and diversified nat-
ural systems are required. Genetic resources are the result of millennia of evolution
and belong to all of humanity. They represent the careful work and knowledge of
many generations of rural and indigenous peoples. The patenting and commercial-
ization of genetic resources by private companies must be prohibited. The WTO's
Intellectual Property Rights Agreement is therefore unacceptable. Farming communi-
ties have the right to freely use and protect the diverse genetic resources, including
seeds and livestock breeds, which have been developed by them throughout history.(28)
4. Reorganizing Food Trade
Food is first and foremost a source of nutrition and only secondarily an item of trade.
National agricultural policies must prioritize production for domestic consumption
and food self-sufficiency. Food imports must not displace local production nor depress
prices. This means that export dumping or subsidized exports must cease. Smallholder
farmers have the right to produce essential food staples for their countries and to con-
trol the marketing of their products. Food prices in domestic and international markets
must be regulated and reflect the true costs of producing that food. This would ensure
that smallholder farmer families have adequate incomes. It is unacceptable that the
trade in food commodities continues to be based on the economic exploitation of the
most vulnerable the lowest earning producers and the further degradation of the
environment. It is equally unacceptable that trade and production decisions are
increasingly dictated by the need for foreign currency to meet high debt loads. These
debts place a disproportionate burden on rural people and should therefore be forgiven.
5. Ending the Globalization of Hunger
Food Sovereignty is undermined by multilateral institutions and by speculative capi-
tal. The growing control of multinational corporations over agricultural policies has
been facilitated by the economic policies of multilateral organizations such as WTO,
World Bank and the IMF. Regulation and taxation of speculative capital and a
strictly enforced Code of Conduct for TNCs is therefore needed.
6. Social Peace
Everyone has the right to be free from violence. Food must not be used as a weapon.
Increasing levels of poverty and marginalization in the countryside, along with the grow-
ing oppression of ethnic minorities and indigenous populations aggravate situations of
injustice and hopelessness. The ongoing displacement, forced urbanisation, repression
and increasing incidence of racism of smallholder farmers cannot be tolerated.
7. Democratic Control
Smallholder farmers must have direct input into formulating agricultural policies at
all levels. The United Nations and related organizations will have to undergo a
process of democratization to enable this to become a reality. Everyone has the right
to honest, accurate information and open and democratic decision-making. These
rights form the basis of good governance, accountability and equal participation in
economic, political and social life, free from all forms of discrimination. Rural
women, in particular, must be granted direct and active decision-making on food and
In other texts, Via Campesina gives more acknowledgement to the recognition of
women farmers' rights, who play a major role in agricultural and food production.
It can be either subsumed under the seven headlines or be seen as an eighth core
From Rome to Cancun NGO/CSO discussion forums and activities linked
to Food Sovereignty
Since 1996 the concept of Food Sovereignty has been used by social movements,
NGOs and CSOs in parallel NGO-fora both to the World Food Summit, the WFS:fyl,
and other events. Through these fora the concept has gradually become a major
issue in international agricultural debate, as it is also within the United Nations
bodies and among some official decision-makers.
Since 1996, when Via Campesina outlined the seven principles for Food Sover-
eignty, the principles suggested by civil society have to a great extent remained the
same. However, over time these principles have become more comprehensive and
have been formulated into more concrete policy objectives.
Core documents on the development of the concept of Food Sovereignty
In relation to the forums and activities that have taken place since 1996, a number
of papers and documents have been published (Table 3). Most of the literature has
emerged during the last five years and has been published by civil society.
Statements and declarations
|Date of publication||
|April 1996||`Tlaxcala Declaration of Via Campesina'||Via Campesina, Tlaxcala, Mexico|
|November 1996||‘The right to produce and the
access to land. Food
Sovereignty: A Future without
|Via Campesina, Rome, Italy|
|November 1996||‘Profit for a few or food for all’||Rome, Italy|
|March 2000||‘End Hunger! Fight for the
Right to Live’
|Asian Regional Consultation, Bangkok, Thailand|
|August 2001||‘Our World is Not for Sale.
WTO: Shrink or Sink’
|Our World is Not for Sale Network|
|August 2001||‘Final Declaration of the World Forum on Food Sovereignty’||Havana, Cuba|
|September 2001||‘Priority to Peoples’ Food
|May 2002||‘End World Hunger – Commit
to Food Sovereignty’
|May 2002||‘Food Sovereignty: A Right for
All. Political Statement of the
NGO/CSO Forum for Food
|September 2003||‘Statement on People’s Food
Sovereignty: Our world is
not for sale. Priority to
Peoples’ Food Sovereignty.
WTO out of Food and
|Date of publication||
|November 2001||‘Sale of the Century? Peoples
Food Sovereignty. Part 1 –
the implications of current
|Friends of the Earth International, Amsterdam, The Netherlands|
|November 2001||‘Sale of the Century? Peoples
Food Sovereignty’ Part 2 – a
new multilateral framework
for food and agriculture’
|Friends of the Earth International, Amsterdam, The Netherlands|
|November 2001||‘Food Sovereignty in the Era
of Trade Liberalization: Are
Multilateral Means Feasible?’
|Suppan, S. Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP)|
|June 2002||‘Sustaining Agricultural
Biodiversity and the integrity and
free flow of Genetic Resources
for Food for Agriculture’
|January 2003||‘What is Food Sovereignty?’||Via Campesina|
|February 2003||‘Towards Food Sovereignty:
Constructing and Alternative to
the World Trade Organization’s
Agreement on Agriculture,
Farmers, Food and Trade’
|International Workshop on the Review of the AoA. Geneva, Switzerland|
|April 2003||‘Trade and People’s Food
|Friends of the Earth|
|June 2003||‘How TRIPs threatens
biodiversity and Food
Sovereignty’. Conclusions and
recommendations from NGO
The majority of the literature consists of position papers which are very much in
line with the statements and declarations presented in this paper. In this regard
two position papers were published in 2001: `Priority to Peoples' Food Sovereignty' by
Via Campesina, and `Sale of the Century? Peoples Food Sovereignty', published in two
parts by Friends of the Earth. The latter outlines a detailed proposal for a new
multilateral framework for food and agriculture. Both position papers follow the
principles described in this paper and are therefore not repeated here.
Food Sovereignty in the Era of Trade Liberalization: Are Multilateral Means Feasible?
For the NGO Forum for Food Sovereignty, 2002, the paper `Food Sovereignty in the
Era of Trade Liberalization: Are Multilateral Means Feasible?', was prepared by Steve
Suppan, from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), based in
Minneapolis. This paper evaluates some of the policies that have been adopted by
civil society in order to achieve Food Sovereignty. The policy proposals discussed are:
the establishment of global or regional basic commodity reserves in relation to
GMOs in food aid; a Global Food Security Convention; and
WTO commitments to phase out dumping of agricultural products.
Considering the global food security convention, Suppan argues that such a con-
vention would evidently meet great resistance since it implies that food security
would have the highest priority within international food policy. The interests of
governments in using agricultural export revenues to pay international creditors,
the financial interests of international trading countries with minimum market
access guaranteed by the AoA, and the interests of governments to use food as part
of their diplomatic arsenals, would all be affected by the realisation of such a con-
vention, Suppan maintains. When it comes to how the WTO might contribute to
Food Sovereignty by phasing out dumping of agricultural commodities, Suppan
suggests that agricultural dumping by states should be determined by comparing
the export price to the exporting countries' full cost of production. An annual
report by the major exporting countries could therefore facilitate the phasing-out
of dumping. Even though agriculture dumping is by no means the only cause of
the difficult situation the rural poor are facing, governments would seriously have
to consider the effects of these policies, Suppan concludes.
Sustaining Agricultural Biodiversity
`Sustaining Agricultural Biodiversity' (2002), written by the ETC Group, GRAIN, and
ITDG, is another document that was prepared for the WFS:fyl NGO/CSO Forum for
Food Sovereignty. These organizations focus more on agricultural biodiversity and
the question of access to genetic resources for food and agriculture. With that paper
they highlight an additional aspect of the Food Sovereignty debate, which is of
central importance to the definition and the conceptual background, namely the
agricultural model of production. In this background paper the organizations chal-
lenge the industrial model of agriculture because of its negative impact on
`Since the dawn of agriculture 12,000 years ago, humans have nurtured plants and
animals to provide food. Careful selection of the traits, tastes and textures that make
good food resulted in a myriad diversity of genetic resources, varieties, breeds and sub-
species of the relatively few plants and animals humans use for food and agriculture
agricultural biodiversity. Agricultural biodiversity also includes the diversity of
species that support production soil biota, pollinators, predators and so on and
those species in the wider environment that support diverse agroecosystems agricul-
tural, pastoral, forest and aquatic ecosystems. These diverse varieties, breeds and sys-
tems underpin food security and provide insurance against future threats, adversity
and ecological changes.
Agricultural biodiversity is the first link in the food chain, developed and safeguarded
by indigenous peoples, and women and men farmers, forest dwellers, livestock keepers
and fisherfolk throughout the world. It has developed as a result of the free flow of
genetic resources between food producers.
Agricultural biodiversity is now under threat. Animal breeds, plant varieties and the
genetic resources they contain are being eroded at an alarming rate. More than 90%
of crop varieties have been lost from farmers' fields in the past century and livestock
breeds are disappearing at the rate of 5% per year and aquatic life is similarly threat-
ened. Soil biodiversity including microbial diversity and the diversity of pollinators
and predators are also under serious threat. Urgent actions are needed to reverse these
trends in situ and on-farm. Also there is a need to implement actions to protect the
genetic resources stored in ex situ public genebanks, which are often poorly main-
tained. Threats to these resources, both in situ and ex situ, also include pollution by
genetically modified material and the increasing use of intellectual property rights
(IPRs) to claim sole ownership over varieties, breeds and genes, which thereby restricts
access for farmers and other food producers. This loss of diversity is exacerbating food
insecurity that today sends more than 1.2 billion people to bed hungry. The discourse
on Access to Genetic Resources is thus wider than concerns at a genetic level. It should
be widened to include all of agricultural biodiversity, for it is the whole interdepend-
ent complex, developed through human activity in natural resource management for
food and agricultural, livestock and fisheries production, that is under threat.'
In order to preserve agricultural biodiversity and guarantee Food Sovereignty three
international agreements in particular were seen as important. The first is the FAO
International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (IT PGRFA).
Such an agreement should, for example, ensure the right to save, sell and exchange
seeds. It would require the implementation of a clause that prohibits claims of
intellectual property rights, outlawing biopiracy of these resources, and ensuring
rights and rewards to farmers.
The second agreement is the Leipzig Global Plan Action on Plant Genetic Resources
for Food and Agriculture that could facilitate the implementation of existing FAO
agreements, decisions and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This
would include the Agricultural Biodiversity Decisions of the CBD, relevant FAO
Conference decisions, and Commitment 3 of the WFS's Plan of Action on sustain-
able agriculture. These agreements would, according to the authors, enable
improved conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and
agriculture and contribute to reversing the decline in agricultural biodiversity.
Thirdly, it is argued that genetic resources could be given some protection by
mandatory decisions of the CBD, which would include the implementation of the
Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety that would oblige owners of the intellectual property
rights of GMOs to provide compensation for any damaging outcomes resulting
from GMOs in food, seeds and livestock breeds, grains or the environment.(29)
How TRIPs threatens biodiversity and Food Sovereignty
Another paper that deals particularly with biodiversity as a means to Food
Sovereignty is `How TRIPs threatens biodiversity and Food Sovereignty'. The paper is an
outcome of the NGO/CSO meeting in Hyderabad, India in June 2003. The paper
gives a number of concrete proposals for policy changes on how to guarantee bio-
diversity and calls upon national governments to introduce and enforce an
alternative national/international legal framework outside the WTO setting that
would safeguard the communities' rights and control over resources. Moreover, it
suggests ensuring that WTO rules do not undermine national/international legal
frameworks outside the WTO setting.
Towards Food Sovereignty: Constructing an Alternative to the World Trade
Organization's Agreement on Agriculture
Another document published in 2003 was `Towards Food Sovereignty: Constructing an
Alternative to the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Agriculture', which
emanated from a working group of civil society smallholder farmers' groups par-
ticipating at a Farmers, Food and Trade International Workshop on the review of
the AoA in Geneva in February, 2003. This document benefited from a number of
statements and declarations already made by NGOs and CSOs, and therefore
offered a thorough overview of civil society positions. The paper outlined four
articles in constructing an alternative agreement on agriculture. Among measures
to end dumping of agricultural commodities, the establishment of import control
and price bands were discussed. It stated that countries should be encouraged to
implement price band systems or variable import levels to stabilize internal prices
for agricultural commodities. These measures would stabilize rural economies by
regulating the volatility of import entry prices and prevent unfair undercutting of
domestic agricultural prices caused by dumping, the authors argued. Moreover,
measures to curtail the practice of food aid being used as a dumping mechanism
were discussed. In addition to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Inter-
national Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the impor-
tance of the implementation of international marine agreements and conventions
such as the UN Fish Stocks Agreement were highlighted. The efficient
implementation of these conventions would help countries to protect national
and international agricultural and aquatic resources from both land-based and
sea-based threats, such as pollution, mineral extraction, and degradation, the
Other documents that were published in 2003 were `What is Food Sovereignty?',
where Via Campesina reaffirmed its position and `Trade and people's Food Sover-
eignty' published in April by Friends of the Earth. In preparation for the WTO meet-
ing in Cancun in September, a number of position papers were published by
different civil society groups. Among these, the article `A Constructive Approach
towards Agriculture, Food and Water in Cancun', written by Mark Ritchie of IATP,
offered a set of policy objectives that were representative of a broad majority of
civil society groups. The article presented five specific trade policy objectives that
he suggested would form the basis for civil society groups. The policies outlined
were ending dumping, and defending Fair Trade, (i.e. ensuring the prices paid to
farmers and charged to consumers were fair and reflected the full cost of produc-
tion, including environmental protection and social justice). Ritchie emphasized
the importance of promoting international commodity agreements as a way to
structure and balance the supply and demand at the global level, particularly in the
light of record low prices in commodities like coffee and cotton. Moreover, Ritchie
stressed the importance of preventing the monopolization and control over food
supplies and maintaining public control over water in order to achieve Food
Sovereignty. According to Ritchie, the most efficient way to achieve these five
objectives would be to build on a partnership between civil society and supportive
Peoples' Convention on Food Sovereignty
Asian civil society organizations published a draft of a `Peoples' Convention on Food
Sovereignty' (30) in July 2004. In the second paragraph of the preamble it says: `By this
Convention, Food Sovereignty becomes the right of people and communities to decide and
implement their agricultural and food policies and strategies for sustainable production and
distribution of food. It is the right to adequate, safe, nutritional and culturally appropriate
food and to produce food sustainably and ecologically. It is the right to access of productive
resources such as land, water, seeds and biodiversity for sustainable utilization'.
The draft was released at the time of the People's Caravan for Food Sovereignty. It
was meant to be an advocacy manifesto for all the people's movements, and to result
in a concerted demands for governmental policy changes. The draft has 15 articles,
which cover issues such as access to food, genuine agrarian reform, food safety, etc.
The structure is quite similar to that of the Voluntary Guidelines for the implemen-
tation of the right to adequate food, which were adopted by FAO member states in
This literature overview indicates that the underlying concern about the need for
the principles of Food Sovereignty remains unchanged, irrespective of author or
text. What changes are the elements that are highlighted or which issues are the
focus of each of the texts. They all start with the recognition that substantive pol-
icy changes are needed in order to overcome the problems of hunger and poverty.
Five issues are covered in all the texts:
1. The term Food Sovereignty refers to a combination of national and interna-
tional policies that need to be changed. Even if the term sovereignty seems to
focus on the international dimension of the problem, and most authors do
the same, all definitions also refer, nevertheless, to necessary national
changes, particularly concerning access to land.
2. Most of the concept papers focus on trade policy instruments. The need for
substantial changes here is crucial.
3. Linked to this is a third focus that can be found in nearly all the texts, and
that is access to agricultural inputs, particularly the sovereignty over seeds and
livestock breeds. The commercialization of the core and starting point of all
kinds of agriculture, particularly through intellectual property rights, is an
issue that concerns different NGOs/CSOs and is strongly rejected in all papers.
4. A fourth focus in almost all the texts is a rejection of all forms of monopolisation.
5. Privatization is also condemned, and described as leading to a process in
which public resources such as drinking water can be monopolized.
To address these issues, all texts contain policy proposals that differ a lot more
than the analyses of the problems in those texts; analyses converge, while pro-
posed corrective measures diverge. Some texts propose far-reaching changes in
international agreements (`agriculture out of WTO', for example), others propose
new international legal instruments for the governance of food and agriculture,
while still others suggest using the existing instruments but making them more
responsive to the needs of the poor and hungry.