Is Food Sovereignty an alternative to our dysfunctional food systems?

6 November 2015

The UK’s food systems are in dysfunction – rates of child obesity and diabetes are soaring, food poverty is growing, small-scale farmers are in decline, and bird and bee populations are threatened by agrichemicals and low levels of biodiversity. To make matters worse, we appear to be exporting the principles which underpin our food systems in the name of poverty reduction and food security. Does the Food Sovereignty Movement offer an option which is both inclusive and sustainable? 

Incredible Edible Todmorden. Credit: M. Geh - Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

I recently attended the UK Food Sovereignty Gathering which brought together a mix of food growers, community workers, organic farmers, activists, academics and ‘critical friends,’ amongst others. Discussions highlighted many of the challenges ahead of the movement, not least around finding common ground and engaging with wider stakeholders. The gathering also showcased some great new initiatives and indicated an impressive level of commitment to changing our food systems.

What is Food Sovereignty? (and the need to dispel common misperceptions)

Food sovereignty as a concept was first introduced in the 1990s by farmer networks in Latin America, who expressed the need for decision-making about food to be primarily in the hands of producers and consumers. 

Since then, the movement has grown and changed shape, and today approximately 180 organisations representing approximately 200 million small-scale producers have signed up to the movement through La Via Campesina

A common misperception is that Food Sovereignty is about each community or state producing its own food, or achieving food autonomy.  

In reality, the movement is about the right of communities to define their own food and farming systems. It is about changing our food systems so that they are nourishing and fair to both people and the planet.

The movement is currently guided by six interconnected principles (PDF):

  1. the right to (sufficient, healthy and culturally appropriate) food for all people
  2. valuing and supporting the rights and livelihoods of food providers
  3. localising food systems
  4. putting control over land, water, seeds, livestock and fish populations, locally
  5. building on (traditional and local) knowledge and skills
  6. working with nature and ecosystems, rather than against them.  

These principles represent an attempt to address the problems in our food systems in an integrated way rather than the current predominant approach of addressing problems in isolation which often has a knock-on effect elsewhere; for example, increasing yields at the expense of ecosystems, increasing incomes at the expense of nutrition or safeguarding ecosystems at the expense of livelihoods. 

While the movement originated in the global South, in 2011 it was adopted in Europe and in 2012 the first UK Food Sovereignty gathering was held.

Why are changes in the UK food system needed?

Despite being the seventh wealthiest country in the world, we have surprisingly high and rising rates of food poverty or rather, food and poverty in the UK (PDF). At the same time, people are experiencing increasing rates of obesity - a staggering 33 per cent of 10-11 year olds in the UK are either overweight  or obese - and diabetes rates have doubled since 1996

The majority of people working in kitchens, catering or waiter/ressing earn less than the living wage, while the number of small-scale farmers continues to decline, contributing to increasing consolidation of land in a country with one of the highest concentrations of land ownership: one per cent of the population owns 70 per cent of the land.

Add to this critically deteriorating soils and the use of agrichemicals which are threatening bee and bird populations, low and decreasing rates of biodiversity due to farming practices and a strong dependence on nonrenewable fossil fuels for both producing and transporting our food.

There is, undeniably, a need for change to the UK food system. 

Celebrating the bright spots – three exciting new initiatives

During the gathering, I heard about and visited a number of inspiring projects and initiatives – here are three of them.

  1. Incredible Edible Todmorden, a project nearby the gathering, grows food in an ecological way for local consumption while also educating local communities, particularly young people, about growing and cooking food. They proudly claim they are changing perceptions of farming and educating tomorrow’s farmers. They have done some truly incredible things with a small piece of land that many might have mistakenly dismissed as unsuitable for growing.
  2. One of the meals for the event was provided by Bristol-based Skipchen, a mobile café which is part of the Real Junk Food Project. The project makes nutritious meals out of food that would otherwise be binned to both mitigate food waste and alleviate food poverty. It is a stop gap while we work out longer-term solutions that address the roots of these problems.
  3. Meanwhile, the Land Workers’ Alliance (LWA) is working towards exactly these types of longer-term solutions. LWA is a coalition of small-scale producers and family farmers who use sustainable methods to produce food, fuel, fibre and flowers, and was formed following the 2012 Food Sovereignty Gathering. In addition to establishing farmer-to-farmer networks for knowledge exchange, it is also working to influence land policy, the European Central Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform and European and International seed policies. The need to act local and act global.

According to the UK Food Sovereignty movement, "One country or one part of the population of a country cannot achieve food sovereignty on their own if their food system marginalises and starves other people."

We have inherited a global food system with roots in colonialism, slavery and exploitation

While discussing issues ranging from policy to soil health, participants in the UK gathering struggled with the complexities and shades of grey inherent in our everyday decisions such as whether (and how) to consume products such as tea, coffee and sugar, which were available throughout the weekend.

On the one hand, when sourced transparently and fairly, such purchases can support the livelihoods of small scale producers in developing countries.On the other hand, it can be argued that these commodities have been produced at the expense of nutritious foods for local consumption and have exposed farmers and local economies to the volatility of global food markets amongst other complications.

While we work on local improvements and changes to policies, we also vote with our stomachs, but it isn’t very straightforward what exactly we should be voting for.

The UK and other countries are actively influencing the trajectory of food systems in developing countries to follow their own

One thing that is clear is that despite the very apparent dysfunction of our food systems, the UK along with other countries is actively influencing the trajectories of food systems in developing countries to follow its own.

International aid initiatives in the name of poverty reduction and food security promote certain seeds and seed systems, push agrichemical-based growing techniques in partnership with agrichemical giants such as Syngenta, the world’s largest crop chemical producer, and promote certain crops to integrate into corporate value chains.Corporate land grabs by companies with their roots in developed countries, including the UK are becoming increasingly widespread.

Thus, a UK Food Sovereignty movement cannot be simply about growing our own or producing more ecologically on these soils, though these changes are obviously critical.

It must also be about engaging with issues which affect the realisation of food sovereignty in other countries which are linked to ours.

Challenges and practical ways forward for the Food Sovereignty Movement

The movement, in its inclusive and grassroots nature, faces challenges of harmonisation across disparate groups and individuals who have a range of values and ways of perceiving the issues and how to deal with them. This is not surprising or unique, and is an issue faced by any movement trying to change complex issues.

At the same time, there was an acknowledgement that the people in the room, while diverse, did not fully include or represent the range of people who might support or be affected by the food sovereignty movement.

At the Gathering, discussions surfaced a number of tensions and contradictions. Many of these are still to be resolved, and those present acknowledged that we did not have all the answers. Continual reflection and learning as well as the involvement of ‘critical friends’ such as members of the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience can help. There is also potential to learn from other movements which have similarly needed to bring together disparate actors to work towards a common goal, such as the Sustainable Services at Scale water initiative spearheaded by IRC and the efforts of countries such as Malawi to develop and implement a national nutrition policy.

More could be done to raise awareness about Food Sovereignty and include more relevant stakeholders

The overall concept of Food Sovereignty, and the term ‘sovereignty’ itself, is not a simple one, and people in the movement tend to talk to themselves, Again, not unique.

I frequently received quizzical looks when I mentioned the Food Sovereignty Gathering to others, from fellow development researchers and practitioners to fellow food growers to the woman who made me a burrito in Leeds on my way back from the gathering.  

Overall, it is clear that there is an urgent need to change the course of our food systems. Judging by the energy, innovation and thoughtfulness I experienced during the gathering, the potential for the Food Sovereignty movement to contribute to these needed changes is not to be dismissed.  

Image: M. Geh - Flickr

Share this:

comments powered by Disqus