Food Security and Food Sovereignty in the Global South. Key Problematics in the Pursuit of Food Sovereignty Visions

Essay, 2019

10 Seiten, Note: 1,3



1. Introduction and critiques to the concept of food sovereignty

2. Key problematics and contradictions
2.1. Traditional family farm vs. gender equality
2.2. Food sufficiency national vs. local level
2.3. Food sovereignty vs. international trade
2.4. Democratic individual freedom vs. the global aim of the movement

3. Conclusion

4. References

1. Introduction and critiques to the concept of food sovereignty

The definition of the concept of food sovereignty has been confronted to change since the beginning of its existence. During the 90s, La Via Campesina1 was the pioneer movement to formulate the fight for food sovereignty. The movement was created in response to the observation that large peasant groups have been excluded from the decision-making and development process of the international food system, especially from the Uruguayan rounds of GATT2 negotiations on agriculture. Hence, that was an explicit reaction against the neo-liberal agricultural policies (Desmarais, 2002). At that time, national independence in terms of food security was set as a prior goal of La Via Campesina’s agenda. Therefore, they mostly focused on food sufficiency because they understood this goal as one substantial right of each nation to foster and evolve its agricultural production system. In this sense, every nation should be capable to produce the necessary food amount to feed its population within its respective territory (Agarwal, 2014, pág. 1247).

However, years later, the vision of food sovereignty was spread throughout the globe and became a much broader political concept. It grew into an alternative policy framework and an issue to the conventional liberal trade-based food security paradigm. 2007 during the Nyéléni, Mali forum, representants of La Via Campesina started to strongly accentuate the language of rights to support concrete political demands. At that time the definition became more extensive and adopted new aspects, for example, that food sovereignty should be understood as the right of people to acquire healthy and culturally appropriate food which is produced through ecological methods. In that sense, food sovereignty should empower local and national economies, peasant and family-driven agriculture, foster gender equality and new social relations without oppression of women. Besides, people should maintain their right to determine their agriculture system in every country. Since, the 2007 Nyéléni Declaration, the movement sustained that those who produce, distribute and consume food should be seen as the core of the food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations (Nyéléni Declaration, 2007).

All these key words mention in this broader definition might sound genuinely desirable and encompassing. However, exactly in this broader definition lay fundamental pieces of the problem in reaching this sustainable food-chain system. Many contradictions inside the Nyéléni declaration itself are almost effortless recognizable. Precisely that is one obstacle in placing La Via Campesina into a strong enough negotiation position. Not only the problems among the members of La Via Campesina are heterogeneous but also the contextualities where they live into. All in all, these contradictions in the definition of the concept themselves and the different individual situations and necessities directly convey to key problematics for the pursuit of food sovereignty in the global south. In the following discussion, these contradictions and other debatable viewpoints of the vision of food sovereignty will be assessed.

2. Key problematics and contradictions

As it was mention before, the focuses of the movement changed over time. At the beginning self-reliance of nations was the fundamental premise. But now the movement attempts to embrace all people involved in the food chain and it adopts a more profound language of rights. The first aspect this paper will discuss is the contradiction regarding the support for the traditional family-driven farms and the gender equality issue, which are both loudly addressed in the declaration of 2007. Secondly, it will address the constrains small farmers face at a local level and discuss why this goes against a national self-sufficiency objective. Thirdly, some arguments will be provided regarding potential disadvantages for the food supply chain in case that international trade is dismantled. Finally, an aspect regarding democratic choices and individual freedom and their potential incompatibility with a common global goal will be pointed out. For all these points, the paper will be following La Via Campesina as a main focus and as an example for the whole movement.

2.1. Traditional family farm vs. gender equality

The international food sovereignty movement, spearheaded by La Via Campesina,has developed six defining principles of food sovereignty.One of them is theappreciation of food providers and especially the growing number of women working in food production (Now, 2019). The empowerment of these women and the fight for equal rights is part of La Via Campesina‘s fight and one of its evident goals (Nyéléni Declaration, 2007). Ona different note, theNyéléni declaration states that it is desirable to prioritize local and national markets while empowering "family-farmer-driven agriculture" (Nyéléni Declaration, 2007). At first, these two statements and ideas seem to fit the agenda of the global food sovereignty movement perfectly and both seem just in this context. After a closer look, however, it is not hard to see the contradiction.While there is no arguing against the empowerment of women in agriculture, particularly considering the large feminization the world is experiencing in food production, the concept of the "family farm" is representing something different. In many countries of the Global South, a "normal" family has as its head a man and not a woman. These farms rely heavily on the unpaid labor the women do for their family and its male leader. Statistics show, that much more women than men are dependent on agriculture as their livelihood in the Global South (2008 in Asia 57% female, 48% male). But although they also provide 60% to 70% of the total labor needed for food production in this area, only very little of them own land themselves (e.g. in India, in 2010-2011, 12,8%) (Aerni, 2011). The reason for the grooving number of farms under female lead is the equal number of men going to the cities to look for more profitable job opportunities. Being in charge and leading the farm does a lot more for the empowerment of women than supporting the traditional model of them "family-farm", which is supposed to keep the men from moving to the cities. While having the men stay is, in itself, not a bad thing, it also upholds structures and roles in society, which make it much harder for women to live as equals. It seems much wiser to choose a converse approach. The productivity of a female-led farm is lower than a male-led farm, because of the numerous disadvantages women face in a traditionally male industry like farming. As a result, of their difficult social standing, it is for example much harder for them to procure input and know-how, which is traditionally provided by men. Their ability to get labor or tools is just as limited as the possibilities to sell their products profitable. It is no wonder, that studies show lower productivity among female-led farms for instance in Sub-Saharan Africa. This also means and is shown by studies, that if women had the same possibilities as men, all their farms would heavily improve their productivity (Aerni, 2011). Concluding, it is a key problem for the success of the food sovereignty-concept, that the growing number of women taking over farms, is enabled to lead them equal to their male counterparts. This would increase the total food production significantly, especially in regions that are the focus of La Via Campesina. The current plan of supporting the traditional family-farms does not only contradict the empowerment of women, but also the overall productivity in food production in the Global South (Aerni, 2011).

2.2. Food sufficiency national vs. local level

Analyzing the whole discussion about food sovereignty, one could recognize two apparently opposite visions. One favors the large food producing companies and the other enhances the small farmer and family-farm model. La Via Campesina privileges the second model over the first one. But at the same time, the food sovereignty movement accentuates the importance of national self-sufficiency. However, many difficulties appear while trying to base the whole food system on small farmers and trying to be self-determinant as a nation at the same time. Especially in countries located in the Global South, we can observe many supply-side constraints which make it difficult for small farms to raise productivity. Self-sufficiency, as claimed by La Via Campesina would mean that the nation will be generating almost no gains from production and only consume what was produced in the territory. It is, however, desirable to have an overproduction which can be commercialized. Since many developing countries suffer from structural deficits in infrastructure in the agricultural sector, these extra profits could be highly beneficial (OECD, 2012). Nevertheless, targeting national self-sufficiency demands taking a closer look at the local level first. The mere contentment with sufficiency visions cannot be directly transferred to the local or individual level. There is not enough evidence to assume that the vast majority of small farmers around the world wants to maintain a subsistence level their entire life. Empirical works prove that many farmers do not want to be farmers and they do not want their children to be farmers, rather get a good education and lead a different, more secure lifestyle (Agarwal, 2014). La Via Campesina tends to romanticize life as a farmer and, many farmers just do not have another possibility than to work on the field. Certainty, farmers would act according to their situation and possibilities not to the ones which an international movement foresee. They might even act contrary if it benefits them. When they have the choice, they would rather grow commercially viable crops than subsistence crops. Food self-sufficiency means for many of them not to grow but to have money to buy food. Many do not hesitate to buy chemicals of pesticides if they can afford them. Consequently, many small farmers around the globe rather wish to be introduced in bigger markets to escape the subsistence agriculture level. Does the movement consider them?

2.3. Food sovereignty vs. international trade

Reasons, why the goal regarding self-reliance might be illusory, were pointed out in the previous section by having a look at the constraints faced by farmers at the local level, which does not always go in hand with a national self-sufficiency goal. However, there are still some other, more technical, reasons why international trade is important even though La Via Campesina opposes it. Many countries in the Global South face clear geographical constraints, for example, limited arable land, irrigation water, and other resources besides a lack of monetary resources (OECD, 2012). Especially, small and locked countries are in a difficult position (Snow, Faye, McArthur, & Jeffrey, 2003). Even, for those remote countries, it would not be desirable that trade was eliminated. Given specific ecological and climate conditions in the crop-producing countries, international crop division is very beneficial also for less developed countries specially to ensure their food security in the future. A focus on local sustenance and the abandonment of trade makes people much more dependent on fewer food sources and a bad harvest could lead to starvation. Globally speaking the biggest part of people suffering from hunger live in remote areas with bad infrastructure and without trade-possibilities (Aerni, 2011). Food sovereignty without food security cannot be in anyone’s interests.

The food sovereignty movement aims to protect the rights of everyone who produces food, but this would also include the “rights” and “interests” of larger corporations (Aerni, 2011). At the same time, those are seen as an obstacle and a constant thread for food sovereignty from La Via Campesina ’s point of view In the words of Moyo and Yeros, authors who loudly position themselves against “neoliberalism”: “Capitalism has subordinated agriculture to its logic worldwide, but without creating by necessity, home markets capable of sustaining industrialization or fulfilling the sovereignty of decolonized states” (Moyo & Yeros, 2005). Here we can see the contradiction between the anti-trade position and the reliance on its elements. Arguing for sustain home markets and industrialization is, in fact, a key aspect of the capitalist system. Authors contradict themselves while implementing similar rhetoric to La Via Campesina. Such claims are highly ideological. The movement intends to find a new model in contrast to the neo-liberal model and is thereby characterized by socialist conceptions. Their position ideologically and rhetorically is however so inflexible and without any other alternative which prevents them from looking for the possibilities they could have within the existing system. The food sovereignty movement may be right about the mistakes of neoliberal economic system, but it is silent about the fact that many famines occurred under socialist and communist regimes that pursued the goal of food self-sufficiency (Aerni, 2011). La Via Campesina sees “trade” and “markets” as a bad thing, but in reality, it is a way for many people to improve their lives and a way that could help their cause as well(Aerni, 2011). Small farmers in a specific region could perhaps create clusters and try to raise supply-side constraints focusing on infrastructural deficits, improving agricultural policies and the institutional environment for agricultural and rural development (Binswanger-Mkhize, 2009). The deciding question is, whether the food sovereignty movement proposes a realistic and feasible alternative new model or if their representatives merely want to delegitimize the preexisting ”neo-liberal” one? Clearly the existing international trade system could be seen as ”unjust” from the point of view of subsistence food producers who have to compete in a world full of European and US-American dumping prices, but is probably more efficient to bundle force in order to make profits from the existing economic system than to lose effect trying to impose a new one with severe ideological discourses?


1 Global movement that brings together organizations of peasants, small and medium-scale farmers, rural women, farm workers and indigenous agrarian communities advocating family-farm-based sustainable agriculture. The organization was found in Mons, Belgium in 1993 (Desmarais, 2002)

2 General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. The predecessor of WTO (World Trade Organization).

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Food Security and Food Sovereignty in the Global South. Key Problematics in the Pursuit of Food Sovereignty Visions
Universität Bayreuth
Geographies of Environment and Development
ISBN (eBook)
Food Sovereignty, Food Security, Global South, Via Campesina
Arbeit zitieren
María Belén Ortíz Torres (Autor), 2019, Food Security and Food Sovereignty in the Global South. Key Problematics in the Pursuit of Food Sovereignty Visions, München, GRIN Verlag,


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