Food Sovereignty: Food Sustainability and the Balance to Feed the World

When it’s time to plan a meal, many of us in the developed world have abundant choices. Thanks in large part to trade, we enjoy low prices for food and have access to fresh produce year-round, regardless of where we live. Less than a century ago, many nations faced food scarcity and rationing, but food now seems to be an endlessly bountiful resource for some countries. As a result, a lot of us buy more than we need, leading to one-third of food produced across the globe winding up as waste.

 

While most people in nations with advanced economies don’t think twice about finding enough to eat, many people in other countries are not so fortunate. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 842 million people suffer from chronic hunger. In the wake of the recent supply chain disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, new attention has been given to the importance of local production and control of food. For some, the movement for food sovereignty is garnering awareness as the discussions around how to produce enough food for everyone have increased at both local and international levels.

 

The movement for food sovereignty began in 1996, when the term was coined. It is generally defined as the right of communities to control the foods that are available to them, and how those foods are produced and grown. While individual consumers can make their own choices, food sovereignty activists argue that, on a larger scale, many communities lack agency in how the foods they eat are produced, which can have an impact on their health, livelihoods, and environment. While the movement seeks reforms that support smallholder farmers, provide redress for those impacted by environmental damage, and ensure better conditions for agricultural workers, it’s important to note that producing food in a vacuum may not lead to food security success. Rather, as the movement gains ground, with seven nations incorporating food sovereignty into their constitutions, it is also equally important to identify how sharing resources through trade can lift a country’s ability to feed itself sufficiently.

 

Local activists in the US are working to protect themselves against what some see as overregulation. The issue is also being taken up on the state level: in 2021, Mainers will decide whether to embed an individual right to grow and produce food into their state constitution. This would protect every resident’s ability to farm, raise livestock, and harvest plants and animals, so long as they “do not commit trespassing, theft, poaching, or other abuses of private property rights.”

 

Food sovereignty proponents are focused on ensuring that regulations make it easier for local producers to sell goods to their neighbors. They believe that by easing some of the challenges faced by agricultural entrepreneurs, local consumers will have better access to fresh food produced sustainably. For example, food sovereignty laws have protected small producers from onerous regulations, like a law that required farmers to spend thousands of dollars on processing poultry, even to sell a single chicken.

 

Historically, food sovereignty has largely been the domain of farmers and activists, but the movement is now receiving more mainstream attention. The first-ever UN Food Systems Summit, set for the fall of 2021, aims to identify food system solutions, develop principles to help guide government leaders, and create a system to track progress.

crates of berries stacked up - view from above
crates of berries stacked up - view from above

When it’s time to plan a meal, many of us in the developed world have abundant choices. Thanks in large part to trade, we enjoy low prices for food and have access to fresh produce year-round, regardless of where we live. Less than a century ago, many nations faced food scarcity and rationing, but food now seems to be an endlessly bountiful resource for some countries. As a result, a lot of us buy more than we need, leading to one-third of food produced across the globe winding up as waste.

 

While most people in nations with advanced economies don’t think twice about finding enough to eat, many people in other countries are not so fortunate. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 842 million people suffer from chronic hunger. In the wake of the recent supply chain disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, new attention has been given to the importance of local production and control of food. For some, the movement for food sovereignty is garnering awareness as the discussions around how to produce enough food for everyone have increased at both local and international levels.

 

The movement for food sovereignty began in 1996, when the term was coined. It is generally defined as the right of communities to control the foods that are available to them, and how those foods are produced and grown. While individual consumers can make their own choices, food sovereignty activists argue that, on a larger scale, many communities lack agency in how the foods they eat are produced, which can have an impact on their health, livelihoods, and environment. While the movement seeks reforms that support smallholder farmers, provide redress for those impacted by environmental damage, and ensure better conditions for agricultural workers, it’s important to note that producing food in a vacuum may not lead to food security success. Rather, as the movement gains ground, with seven nations incorporating food sovereignty into their constitutions, it is also equally important to identify how sharing resources through trade can lift a country’s ability to feed itself sufficiently.

 

Local activists in the US are working to protect themselves against what some see as overregulation. The issue is also being taken up on the state level: in 2021, Mainers will decide whether to embed an individual right to grow and produce food into their state constitution. This would protect every resident’s ability to farm, raise livestock, and harvest plants and animals, so long as they “do not commit trespassing, theft, poaching, or other abuses of private property rights.”

 

Food sovereignty proponents are focused on ensuring that regulations make it easier for local producers to sell goods to their neighbors. They believe that by easing some of the challenges faced by agricultural entrepreneurs, local consumers will have better access to fresh food produced sustainably. For example, food sovereignty laws have protected small producers from onerous regulations, like a law that required farmers to spend thousands of dollars on processing poultry, even to sell a single chicken.

 

Historically, food sovereignty has largely been the domain of farmers and activists, but the movement is now receiving more mainstream attention. The first-ever UN Food Systems Summit, set for the fall of 2021, aims to identify food system solutions, develop principles to help guide government leaders, and create a system to track progress.

For many food sovereignty activists, there seems to be a desire to return to a more agrarian past, where smallholder farmers and kitchen gardens provided more of the world’s nutrition. And while this is an idyllic image, these small plots of land would be insufficient to feed the booming world population. Currently, smallholder farmers produce over one third of the world’s food—a component of the food supply that is without question, permanent and essential. The remaining two-thirds of the global need comes from medium and large-scale producers. The FAO estimates that the world will need 60 percent more food by 2050—and more nutritious food at that—so the demands on these farming systems will only become more acute.

 

The movement’s stated goal of “localized food systems” has another important consequence. If imported food is removed from many diets, it will become harder for some consumers to meet their nutritional needs, since trade allows for the year-round consumption of nutrient-rich products like fruits and vegetables. Likewise, if large-scale disruptions like disease or drought impact local industries, consumers’ diets will suffer unless there are imported options as well. And, with the average global price of protein up 23 percent in May 2021, as compared to just one year prior, consumers have a strong incentive to find consistent access to affordable nutrition, whatever the source.

 

Trading plays a large role in supporting small holder farmers as well. Access to a global market allows them to participate in higher-value export production which supports employment, their local economies, and provides educational opportunities in some of the more vulnerable regions of the world.

 

The FAO states that the food sovereignty movement “recognizes that control over the food system needs to remain in the hands of farmers, for whom farming is both a way of life and a means of producing food.” However, activists reject many of the new technologies that help smallholder farmers increase productivity and reduce risks from pests and disease, because they have been developed by corporations and originate in places outside of the areas where they’re used.

 

Taking all of this into account, Dr. David Nabarro, senior advisor for the UN Food Systems Summit, laid the groundwork for an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to addressing global nutrition needs. Nabarro acknowledged the spectrum of opinions, and disagreements, and asked, “Is there only one right answer when it comes to thinking about the future of food? Or can we find ways to accept that there is diversity of views...and be constructive despite the divergence?”

panoramic view of farm at sunrise
panoramic view of farm at sunrise

For many food sovereignty activists, there seems to be a desire to return to a more agrarian past, where smallholder farmers and kitchen gardens provided more of the world’s nutrition. And while this is an idyllic image, these small plots of land would be insufficient to feed the booming world population. Currently, smallholder farmers produce over one third of the world’s food—a component of the food supply that is without question, permanent and essential. The remaining two-thirds of the global need comes from medium and large-scale producers. The FAO estimates that the world will need 60 percent more food by 2050—and more nutritious food at that—so the demands on these farming systems will only become more acute.

 

The movement’s stated goal of “localized food systems” has another important consequence. If imported food is removed from many diets, it will become harder for some consumers to meet their nutritional needs, since trade allows for the year-round consumption of nutrient-rich products like fruits and vegetables. Likewise, if large-scale disruptions like disease or drought impact local industries, consumers’ diets will suffer unless there are imported options as well. And, with the average global price of protein up 23 percent in May 2021, as compared to just one year prior, consumers have a strong incentive to find consistent access to affordable nutrition, whatever the source.

 

Trading plays a large role in supporting small holder farmers as well. Access to a global market allows them to participate in higher-value export production which supports employment, their local economies, and provides educational opportunities in some of the more vulnerable regions of the world.

 

The FAO states that the food sovereignty movement “recognizes that control over the food system needs to remain in the hands of farmers, for whom farming is both a way of life and a means of producing food.” However, activists reject many of the new technologies that help smallholder farmers increase productivity and reduce risks from pests and disease, because they have been developed by corporations and originate in places outside of the areas where they’re used.

 

Taking all of this into account, Dr. David Nabarro, senior advisor for the UN Food Systems Summit, laid the groundwork for an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to addressing global nutrition needs. Nabarro acknowledged the spectrum of opinions, and disagreements, and asked, “Is there only one right answer when it comes to thinking about the future of food? Or can we find ways to accept that there is diversity of views...and be constructive despite the divergence?”

To this end, Professor Joachim von Braun, chair of the Food Systems Summit Scientific Group, laid out an ambitious set of goals. These included creating guidance on bioscience, plant breeding, and carbon capture, as well as exploring the use of blockchain to ensure land rights and access to credit.

 

The summit’s science group went into greater detail in a strategic paper, discussing a range of promising technologies, including “genetic engineering, genome editing, alternative protein (including more plant-based and insect-derived protein) sources, microbiome and soil and plant health technologies.” The group went on to note that, “These advances in science and technology have great potential to meet food system challenges such as restoring soil health and functionality [and] improving resource efficiency.”

 

While many in the food sovereignty movement reject technologies like genetic engineering wholesale, those who are working on food systems solutions with all stakeholders at the table find value in using a diverse set of tools.

 

Cherrie Atilano, a Filipina farmer and entrepreneur, found hope in the diverse ideas gathered in advance of the summit. “For me, [reading] through the game-changing solutions gave me a lot of inspiration and hope for humanity,” she said.

 

By working together, we can move towards equity, sustainability, and food security for all to meet the urgent challenges of our modern food system.

Man showing soil in his hand
Man showing soil in his hand

To this end, Professor Joachim von Braun, chair of the Food Systems Summit Scientific Group, laid out an ambitious set of goals. These included creating guidance on bioscience, plant breeding, and carbon capture, as well as exploring the use of blockchain to ensure land rights and access to credit.

 

The summit’s science group went into greater detail in a strategic paper, discussing a range of promising technologies, including “genetic engineering, genome editing, alternative protein (including more plant-based and insect-derived protein) sources, microbiome and soil and plant health technologies.” The group went on to note that, “These advances in science and technology have great potential to meet food system challenges such as restoring soil health and functionality [and] improving resource efficiency.”

 

While many in the food sovereignty movement reject technologies like genetic engineering wholesale, those who are working on food systems solutions with all stakeholders at the table find value in using a diverse set of tools.

 

Cherrie Atilano, a Filipina farmer and entrepreneur, found hope in the diverse ideas gathered in advance of the summit. “For me, [reading] through the game-changing solutions gave me a lot of inspiration and hope for humanity,” she said.

 

By working together, we can move towards equity, sustainability, and food security for all to meet the urgent challenges of our modern food system.