What Is Food Sovereignty?

By Caroline Griffith


“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”

– Declaration of Nyéléni, the first global forum on food sovereignty, Mali, 2007

First presented in 1996 by La Via Campesina, an international peasant movement, the concept of food sovereignty arose out of the global struggle over land, water, food and livelihoods. In the wake of the coronavirus, many see that the need to provide local control over our food systems and produce healthy, environmentally and culturally appropriate food in a manner that serves people and the environment, not profits, is more important than ever. 

Food is fundamental to human survival and the way that food is grown and transported has a profound effect on our water, soil and air. The industrialization of farming worldwide has made it so our food travels an estimated 1500 miles on average from farm to table and many of us have no idea how the foods we are eating have been grown, where and by whom. Large farms control 65% of the world’s agricultural land. Agricultural pollution in the form of fertilizer and pesticide run-off from farms in Illinois, Ohio, Iowa and southwest Minnesota has led to an algal bloom and subsequent massive dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Water from our local rivers is diverted to irrigate ag land in the Central Valley, harming the fish that have been a food source for generations. Experts in public health, medicine and environmental science warn that factory farms and confined feeding operations pose an incredible risk to public health in the form of disease. An Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy study estimated that over half of the farm workers in the United States are undocumented, leaving them open to exploitation and underpayment for their vital service, and farm workers in the U.S. are exempt from many labor laws. 

The Principles of Food Sovereignty, as outlined at the 2007 Forum for Food Sovereignty in Mali, address these issues and lay out the path forward for healing the planet, so the planet can heal us.

Focuses on Food for People: Food sovereignty stresses the right to sufficient, healthy and culturally appropriate food for all people, especially those who are hungry or living under occupation, or who are marginalized. It rejects the idea that food is just another commodity to be capitalized on.

Values Food Providers: Food sovereignty values and supports the contributions, and respects the rights, of women and men, peasants and small scale family farmers, pastoralists, artisanal fishers, forest dwellers, indigenous peoples and agricultural and fisheries workers, including migrants, who cultivate, grow, harvest and process food; and rejects those policies, actions and programs that undervalue them, threaten their livelihoods and eliminate them.

Localizes Food Systems: Food sovereignty puts producers and consumers at the center of making food policy, protecting them from unhealthy food and farming practices and taking the power away from corporations who benefit from unsustainable practices and inequitable international trade. 

Puts Control Locally: Food sovereignty rejects the privatization of natural resources and seeks to share resources in socially and environmentally conscious ways which conserve diversity. It recognizes that territories often cross state and international boundaries and advances the right of local communities to inhabit and use their territories.

Builds Knowledge and Skills: Food sovereignty builds on the skills and knowledge of local food producers that have been passed down for generations, skills that conserve, develop and manage local food systems. It rejects technologies that undermine, threaten or contaminate these, i.e. genetic engineering. 

Works With Nature: Food sovereignty seeks to heal the planet so that the planet may heal us, and rejects methods that harm beneficial ecosystem functions, that depend on energy intensive monocultures and livestock factories, destructive fishing practices and other industrialized production methods, which damage the environment and contribute to global warming.

Locally, food sovereignty takes many forms, from the sustainable fishing and gathering of local tribes, to the 100 local farms that exist in Humboldt County. Working towards equitable food systems that are less damaging to the environment is the core of this movement, a side effect of which is protecting our food systems for years to come.