Food Sovereignty is a term that refers to both a movement and an idea (Wittman et al., 2010) however, as with most political concepts, it is essentially contested. This contested nature stems partly from the conviction of many of its transnational advocates that food sovereignty needs to be defined ‘from the bottom-up’ and as such it evades a precise single definition. While there is merit in such an approach given the diverse political and agro-ecological settings in which food sovereignty has emerged as a rallying cry for change, it also raises the question of whether food sovereignty can be relational without bounds .
Whilst the lack of distinction of the food sovereignty concept continues to form a theoretical problem, which according to some prevents the further development of the debate, in practice the issue areas that food sovereignty advocates concern themselves with are very clear. The primary documentation issued by organisations like La Via Campesina and the declarations issued at the two Nyéléni meetings, include calls for the democratisation of the food system and the protection of the rights of small farmers. It also expresses a commitment to address the multiple inequalities reproduced within the current corporate-dominated food system. As such, food sovereignty builds upon a rights-based approach to food, but adds a qualifier to such rights. Human beings do not merely have a right to food, but rather ‘a right to food that is healthy and culturally appropriate, produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods’, which are defined by people instead of corporations or unaccountable governments . In this manner, food sovereignty represents a radical alternative to the food security paradigm, which holds central the benefits of free food markets and seeks to solve the problem of world hunger through scientific innovation and increased market liberalisation.
Whilst the precise origins of food sovereignty remain somewhat unclear, Edelman (2014) has put forward a strong case that it was first articulated in Mexico . Additionally, as a result of Latin American peasant farmer organisation La Via Campesina’s use of the term and the fact that some of the movement’s key international meetings were deliberately held in the global South (at Nyéléni in Mali) so as to make a statement, food sovereignty itself is often seen as a ‘southern’ rallying cry. In part this is because it is associated with smallholder farming which is exercised more extensively within the global South. This is not to say that smallholder farmers do not exist within Europe or the United States, or that the aspirations of small holder producers in Latin America, East Asia or elsewhere may not align with the food export-oriented framework that is conventionally understood as driven by ‘northern’ actors . Nor is it to suggest that food sovereignty – where it pertains to democratisation and exercising ownership over a given food system – has no place in American and European societies. The geographic dimensions of food sovereignty, however, do serve to communicate that the negative socio-economic impacts resulting from the proliferation of large-scale industrialised food production elsewhere has been predominantly felt in the global South.
Reflecting on the structure of the global food economy, it has been suggested that the fundamental interests of geographically differently located actors may be at odds with one another, even if they collectively mobilise behind the banner of food sovereignty . Food sovereignty activists stand accused of taking a ‘big bag fits all’ approach (Patel) and brushing over the contradictions inherent in the movement. As already indicated above, however, whilst the broad geographic delineations may help to explain existing inequalities, the reproduction of binary North-South oppositions is not always conducive to better understanding the mechanisms through which such inequalities are reproduced. For example, factors such as the interaction between local elites and transnational capital or the role of food culture and dietary change are not easily captured through territorial markers such as ‘North’ and ‘South’.
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