Twenty-five years ago, world leaders converged in Rome for the World Food Summit. Though the summit was meant to address rising global hunger, key voices were conspicuously missing – those of the small-scale food producers who provided most of the world’s food while also making up a majority of the world’s hungry. Their conditions did not stem from a lack of production or of technical know-how, but from models of development and trade that were leaving them impoverished. This was increasingly the case in the dawn of the World Trade Organization (WTO), as neoliberal policies were progressively transferring power in the food system to multinational corporations. These were the very same policies that would inevitably be backed by many of those present at the World Food Summit, toward vague promises of food security that sidestepped fundamental questions of power.
United by the conviction “not about us without us,” peasant farmers from far reaches of the globe converged in Rome uninvited. Under the banner of La Via Campesina, they gathered outside the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization where the summit was being held, asserting that there could be no food security without food sovereignty, or the right of the people to control their own food systems.
In the years since, food sovereignty and the movements around it have grown in visibility, power and impact. A key moment was the Nyéléni Global Forum for Food Sovereignty held in Mali in 2007. There, an assemblage of movements even more diverse than a decade earlier, including urban, consumer, and labor movements alongside agrarian movements, articulated both a common definition and framework for food sovereignty. Through the Nyéléni process, food sovereignty is understood as “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,” guided by the following six principles, or pillars of food sovereignty:
- focuses on food for people
- values food providers
- localizes food systems
- puts control locally
- builds knowledge and skills
- works with nature
This collective articulation has helped to unite movements in struggle across the globe, in all of their diversity, toward a shared vision of social and ecological transformation.
Twenty-five years into this global struggle, there is much to celebrate. Movements succeeded in taking the wind out of the sails of the WTO, an early target, and have generated extensive public debate over free trade, industrial agriculture, GMOs, and other corporate-driven approaches. Simultaneously, they have built inspiring alternatives such as thriving territorial markets based on agroecological production by peasants, fishers, and other small-scale food producers. And they have demonstrated the ability of such alternatives to be scaled both upward and outward, with society-wide impacts. In some cases, this has been achieved through bolstering grassroots efforts with supportive policy. Food sovereignty is increasingly making its way into policy spaces, with numerous examples of food sovereignty legislation from the local to global levels. In the process, it is reshaping global debates around food and agriculture.
At the same time, the issues that food sovereignty movements are up against today are increasingly complex and intertwined, as is the web of actors involved. And together with increased recognition of food sovereignty come new attempts at both cooptation and weakening of it. A striking example is the recent UN Food Systems Summit held on September 23, which was boycotted and protested by social movements numbering in the millions. Despite being touted as a “people’s summit,” the UNFSS was none other than the latest attempt at the corporate takeover of the world’s food systems. This partnership between the UN and World Economic Forum very intentionally bypassed and subverted the more democratic mechanisms such as the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) that social movements fought long and hard to open up and democratize toward the advancement of food sovereignty.
In many ways, the UNFSS harkened back to the World Food Summit of 1996 in its exclusion of those with the most at stake in the debates that took place. But this time food sovereignty movements are larger, stronger, more diverse, and more intersectional, with decades of experience to draw from. And they are not about to be coopted or to give up the hard-fought ground that they have gained. As they look to the horizon, including a new Nyéléni convergence to equip themselves for the road ahead, Grassroots International is honored to stand with them.