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.