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Resistance against Agropoly
by Tina Goethe
Monday Jan 25th, 2021 12:20 PM
Food sovereignty remains the most important political program of the strongest international movement to date for a transformation of the food system: away from the agropoly of a few corporations.
Resistance to Agropoly

Why food sovereignty is a political program

Tina Goethe in iz3w - 3rd world information center (01/18/2021).

"Food sovereignty is the best approach to produce food, but also to generate jobs and wealth for the region. And to avoid expropriating producers* and cutting their link to the means of production." Mamadou Goïta, director of the Institute for Research and Promotion of Development Alternatives (IRPAD) in Mali, has been working for food sovereignty in West Africa for decades. In a conversation to mark World Food Day on October 16, 2020, Goïta explains how farmers' organizations and their allies succeeded in getting the concept of food sovereignty enshrined in Mali's agricultural law in 2006.

Since then, they have been working persistently to implement it. Since 2017, this has included a new agricultural land law that ensures local food producers access to arable and pasture land, as well as urban land. A revised seed law, which protects farmers' right to seed and thus the survival of peasant seed systems, is expected to be passed soon.

Goïta also reports on the importance of local and regional markets. Producers, processors, traders and consumers negotiate directly with each other in these markets. For Goïta, these markets, some of which cross borders, are the counterpart to global value chains, which are controlled by international companies. While global value creation removes the products from their geographical, social and cultural context and turns them into an arbitrarily tradable commodity, food sovereignty places the diverse local economic spaces at the center. Food sovereignty, as is clear from Goïta's remarks, is as much a political program as a social process that must be based on the democratic participation of all those who produce, process, market, prepare, and ultimately eat food.

Democratically deciding on food

Food sovereignty means "the right of all people to democratically determine the way food is produced, distributed and consumed," according to the definition of the international smallholder movement La Via Campesina. Launched at the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, food sovereignty was from the outset also a declaration of war against the World Trade Organization (WTO), founded a year earlier, with its "Agreement on Agriculture". In this agreement, the major agricultural exporters had stipulated the liberalization of agricultural markets, which had been promoted since the 1980s by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in cooperation with local elites.

Through "structural adjustment programs," many countries in the Global South had been induced to gear their agricultural production to exports, to the detriment of the cultivation of staple foods. The scope for national agricultural and food policies, whether through tariffs on certain agricultural imports or subsidies for domestic products, was massively restricted. The goal: to simplify and thus increase international trade in agricultural goods. To this end, an open world market was created - at least in theory - in which all producers compete with each other.

In the real world market, however, powerful countries such as the USA and the EU protect their agricultural production through subsidies and tariffs. In countries of the South, however, borders have been opened for imports and exports, and their economies have been integrated into the world market. With numerous bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements that go far beyond the WTO agreements, the EU and the USA continue this policy. In this way, the large agricultural nations and the local companies of the agricultural and food industry succeed in playing producers off against each other worldwide. They produce where costs are low and sell where purchasing power is high. And they are constantly opening up new markets: Bayer, Syngenta and Corteva now control two-thirds of the world's commercial seed market, four companies share three-quarters of global trade in grains and oilseeds, and Nestlé is present in 187 countries with its industrially processed foods.

Ideologically, this model is packaged as the most efficient way to achieve global food security. First officially launched at the 1975 World Food Summit, the definition of what is meant by "food security" has been expanded several times. Most recently in 2001: "Food security exists when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient and safe food, and dietary needs and preferences for a healthy and active life can be assured." But the term remains purely technical and leaves out both the producers of food and the power relations within food systems. The questions of who, how and under which conditions food is produced, processed and distributed cannot be discussed with it.

With the concept of food sovereignty La Via Campesina started exactly here and explained that democratically legitimized politics on the national level is indispensable for real food security. In addition to the interests of the peasant producers, ecology and the human right to food must be taken into account. After all, "long-term food security depends on those who produce food and care for the environment."

Originally, then, food sovereignty was seen as a political program to achieve food security. However, over the past two decades, the two concepts have increasingly been understood as fundamentally opposed approaches - as "eat and be silent" versus "food systems self-determination." This polarization owes much to the discourse of agribusiness and food corporations, which like to portray food security as their mission. In so-called multi-stakeholder initiatives such as the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa, the corporations have succeeded in portraying themselves as the real world feeders, using the latest technology such as high-tech seeds and efficiency on large-scale monocultures entirely in the service of global food security.

Corporate propaganda

A look at the figures shows that this is little more than propaganda. The international NGO ETC Group, for example, estimates that 70 percent of food is produced by smallholder producer networks. Industrial value chains produce food for only 30 percent of the world's population. Most of their production, such as animal feed and agrofuels, is not for human consumption.

Putting food producers at the center of policy, as the Food Sovereignty approach does, is therefore more than justified. Since its launch, the concept has not only evolved, it has also found its way into government programs and constitutions. At the first World Forum for Food Sovereignty, attended by 500 food producers from 80 countries in Mali in 2007, the Nyéléni Declaration detailed what the food sovereignty movement would work for and against. And with the adoption of the 2018 UN Declaration on the Rights of Small Farmers*, La Via Campesina and allied organizations succeeded in establishing the right to food sovereignty alongside the right to land, water, seeds and other fundamental human rights.

Who is sovereign?

A critical debate about what exactly is meant by sovereignty remains important. To be sure, food sovereignty has been understood from the beginning as a transnational movement. The "right to determine one's own food and agricultural systems" has always been linked to the duty not to harm other countries with one's own policies. But where exactly the limits of these "own systems" lie and what limits the "self-determining" group sets for itself must always be negotiated from a solidarity and human rights perspective. For local agricultural systems are also built on patriarchal and other relations of exploitation.

Overcoming these is, after all, the claim of the food sovereignty approach. And at least on the international level, women, farm workers, migrants and young people are organized as their own stakeholder groups. Locally and nationally, however, this claim is much more difficult to realize. And also the demarcation from right-wing nationalist circles, which also strive for "sovereignty", needs political clarity. Nevertheless, food sovereignty remains the most important political program of the strongest international movement to date for a transformation of the food system: away from the agropoly of a few corporations.


Tina Goethe is a sociologist and responsible for the area of the right to food at the Swiss organization Bread for All. The participation in the World Forum for Food Sovereignty "Nyéléni" of 2007 was one of the most impressive experiences in her professional life.

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