The food sovereignty movement aiming to put food security in our own hands

The COVID-19 pandemic has many people interested in growing their own food again. The desire to gain control over our food supply has deeper roots.
Photo: Zoe Schaeffer/Unsplash

By Georgia Morelli

Where does our food come from and who controls it?

For some people, this question entered their minds for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic. For those of us who usually enjoy easy access to food, it was a realisation that anyone can be vulnerable to food shortages and how reliant we are on major supermarkets. We also became aware of how little we knew about the food supply chain.

From this realisation came a resurging interest in growing our own food, as people turned to community gardens and their own backyards. But this desire to gain back control over the food we eat has much deeper roots and began with a farmer’s movement in the 1990s. It’s called food sovereignty, and it is now more relevant than ever.

Why food sovereignty, not food security?

When discussing the future of our planet and population, the term ‘food security’ is often used to represent both the concern for our dwindling environmental resources and our need for intensified agriculture.

It is also the term commonly used in discussions about the human rights related to food access. For the 821 million people who are malnourished, food security is an essential target that seeks to eradicate hunger and ensure people have regular access to nutritious food. The concept underpins global agendas like the Sustainable Development Goals and the World Food Programme.

By definition, food security is about stabilising the global food supply by monitoring things like grain reserves and weather patterns. The term originated after the 1984 global food crisis, and focused on how to provide food aid to the Global South.

Today, food security has come to encompass the fight against global hunger and a way to ensure everyone has access to nutritious food. And this just isn’t an issue for developing countries – one in five Australians experienced food insecurity in the last 12 months, according to FoodBank Australia.

But food security is not concerned with how or from where food is sourced. It often relies upon environmentally-destructive, exploitative conditions to meet food demands, as well as subsidies that benefit agribusiness but destroy local producers. Chronic food insecurity in developing countries and sustained rural poverty tell us that clearly, this model is failing.

In comparison, food sovereignty empowers people to choose how they receive food security – how food is grown and where it comes from. It encompasses people’s right to define their own agricultural systems and reclaim control over food production, including Indigenous forms of agriculture, family-based farms and sustainable ‘agroecology.’

The food sovereignty movement was initiated by La Via Campesina groups (“the peasants’ way”) across Latin America in the 1990s, who realised that there is more to the issue than simply the availability of food. They pushed for a more ecologically-friendly and localised food system to tackle hunger, rather than the commercial agricultural system relied upon for decades. Now, we are seeing initiatives in the Global North that use food sovereignty to frame their political goals and community efforts.

Food sovereignty addresses the root causes of global hunger – primarily, the commercialisation of food – through a bottom-up, grassroots approach. By placing control in the hands of people, those people can ensure they do not lose the ability to feed themselves. As many realised during COVID-19, reliance makes us vulnerable, while sovereignty and ownership over food can truly ensure food security.

Examples of initiatives

Australia’s food system is one of the most industrialised and corporatised in the world. The Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance was formed to create an alternative. Founded by food activists, academics and farmers, the Alliance envisions systemic change where local producers and regenerative farms thrive. They published The People’s Food Plan, which seeks to “put the voice and decision-making power in the hands of small-scale agro-ecological farmers”. More than 500 individuals, organisations, businesses and farmers are members of the Alliance, including the City of Melbourne.

Alongside the Alliance is a growing coalition of businesses and organisations incorporating food sovereignty principles:

  • Feather and Bone is an ethical and sustainable butchery based in Sydney. Part of the Slow Meat movement, they encourage a shift to meat sourced from regenerative, small-scale farmers and enshrine the food sovereignty principles of welfare and local ownership.

  • Open Food Network is a virtual farmers’ market for ethical, resilient, transparent and short food supply chains. Established in response to vulnerable and unsustainable supply chains, it says, “sometimes the best way to fix the system is to start a new one.”

  • FoodLab Sydney is a food business incubator run by the University of Sydney that is looking to create a network of local small food entrepreneurs. It shares business mentoring, kitchen spaces and retail opportunities in order to make new models of food business more sustainable and equitable.

Where to next?

COVID-19 has allowed the population to appreciate the volatility of the current food system. Now that supermarket shelves have returned to normal, how can we maintain direct relationships with farmers and local markets? Finding new and convenient ways to connect buyers to ethical producers, like the Open Food Network, as well as strengthening community food co-ops, will sustain the movement towards change.

In Australia, there has been considerable difficulty securing interest from agricultural departments in alternative food systems, as funding is solely provided by health departments that understand the importance of fresh produce. In the US and Canada, there is enormous funding for short supply chains and building local food economies, but this is not the case in Australia. There is now an opportunity for government to support the establishment of local and regional economies.

It is clear that maintaining the old single-minded focus on increased production will only continue to reinforce the environmental and social impacts of our current food system. Shifting away from the language of food security, which focuses on production, and towards food sovereignty acknowledges that people have greater access to their human right to food when they have control over their food systems.

Georgia Morelli is a final year student in the Bachelor of Laws and Arts at UNSW Sydney and was the Student Editor for the Human Rights Defender magazine, Term 3, 2020.

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