Food sovereignty: New challenges


Hannah Wittman speaks at CUSLAR’s 50th Anniversary. Photo: Rebecca Dearden

by Michelle Valentin

At CUSLAR’S 50th Anniversary celebration at Cornell University on September 25, 2015, several guest speakers focused on the pressing challenges facing the hemisphere in the coming decades. Hannah Wittman, in particular, discussed the challenge of institutionalizing food sovereignty and the role of social movements in developing just and equitable food-related policies.

Wittman, a professor at the University of British Columbia and former CUSLAR Coordinator, began her discussion with several questions. “What is food sovereignty? Is it food self-sufficiency? Is it just caring about what my family eats? Is it just caring about what my country can produce? Is it food security and making sure everyone has enough food to eat at the household, community, national or global level?”

First, it is important to distinguish between food security and food sovereignty. According to Wittman, food security is the idea that everyone should have access to healthy and culturally appropriate food. Food sovereignty takes this definition further. Developed by members of La Vía Campesina in 1996, the concept of food sovereignty requires that the people who produce, distribute and consume food should also be in charge of controlling the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution rather than the corporations and market institutions that have come to dominate the global food system. Food sovereignty is the right of people to healthy and culturally appropriate food, produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, as well as their right to define their own food and agriculture systems since they are the ones who produce it.

Food sovereignty is a movement born in Latin America, and is centered on three principles: ecological sustainability, distributive justice and procedural justice. La Vía Campesina is a global coalition of farmers, peasants and indigenous people from the Americas, Africa, Europe and Asia, who realized they were facing the same challenges of survival in the face of free trade negotiations and loss of national agricultural support. This diverse group overcame cultural barriers, and came together looking for a new way to survive while working the land, in a way that involves larger sustainability, social justice and solidarity.

There are several ways in which communities and states are putting food sovereignty into practice, mainly as a collection of demands of governments by peasant and indigenous movements, to resist the advances of agribusiness and its profit-making logic in the countryside. Latin America has been a global leader in this respect, with Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela having the concept of food sovereignty engrained in their constitution. Ecuador has taken on the responsibility of enacting policies and programs that will provide foundation food sovereignty in the state.

The 2008 constitution in Ecuador strives to take into account the historical values of indigenous communities. This constitution stresses the idea that community groups have the right to safe and permanent access of healthy and nutritional food, preferably produced locally, and in line with their personal identities. Wittman explained that despite this constitutional commitment to improve food security for Ecuadorians, social movements struggling to see these words put into action. Another mechanism by which food sovereignty is starting to be tested in practice is by redistributive land reform and reconstruction of markets to improve food distribution and access, especially in Brazil.

In addition, the Fome Zero, or Zero Hunger, social welfare program in Brazil has created innovative links between public nutrition and food security programs and rural development initiatives through mediated market support for the family farm sector. Through this program, foods coming from settlements are redistributed to schools, hospitals and day care centers. This program has been given high marks by participants, since social movements were involved in the design of these policies. It has proven crucial for the users of the policy to be involved in their design. However, despite the program’s potential, only 5 percent of family farmers in Brazil are able to practice it due to the country’s financial crisis. Although food sovereignty has been transformed into policy, by social movements themselves in many instances, the challenge now is making that policy a reality.

Hannah Wittman is the co-editor of three volumes on food sovereignty and citizenship in Canada and Latin America.

Environment and Citizenship in
Latin America: Natures, Subjects and Struggles.
Edited with Latta, 2012.

Food Sovereignty in Canada: Creating Just and Sustainable Food Systems. Edited with Desmarais and Wiebe, 2011.

Food Sovereignty: Reconnecting Food, Nature and Community.
Edited with Desmarais and Wiebe, 2010


Michelle Valentin is a senior at Cornell University studying Human Biology, Health and Society with a minor in Global Health.


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