Food Security and Food Sovereignty

As part of the Semillas Tzucacab project, we asked about farming families’ experiences with hunger, and especially, about the ways that rural households use to reduce their risk of going hungry.  People told us about many strategies to ensure that their household had enough to eat, even during droughts, hurricanes, sudden changes in the price of food, and other disturbances to their farms and livelihoods.  Poverty puts many people in Tzucacab at risk of going hungry, and for most households, achieving food security in a changing climate and changing economy requires ingenuity and constant adjustment of strategies for mitigating risk.  Even then, hunger is often close at hand.

Food Security is the opposite of hunger.  Since 1996, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has defined food security as:

A situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life

For many farmers’  movements though, this definition of food security this way seems an insufficient description of what they want.  By this definition, farmers, fishers, and other food producers play an uncertain role in reaching food security.  The consumer-centric goal of food security does little to address farmers’ struggles for land tenure, water rights, the right to save seeds, market access, and other means of production. In 1996, the Via Campesina, an organization of smallholder farmers’ movements, proposed a new term that reflected their demand for not only enough, good food, but some power within the food system.  They demanded food sovereignty.  It is difficult to pin down a standard definition of food sovereignty, since one of the central claims is the right of communities to define for themselves the kinds of food systems that they want, but here is a definition that emerged from Nyéléni, a conference of peasant movements from around the world held in Mali in 2007:

Food sovereignty is 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. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers. Food sovereignty prioritises local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability. Food sovereignty promotes transparent trade that guarantees just income to all peoples and the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition. It ensures that the rights to use and manage our lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food. Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social classes and generations.

In Tzucacab there are not obvious, organized movements for food sovereignty, and when we brought it up in focus groups and  workshops with the youth researchers, it was often the first time people from Tzucacab had heard the term (the same is true of food security).  But the concept did make sense: a place and a voice for campesinos in food systems, a movement of solidarity between people intimately involved in food.  It reflected large and small acts of creativity and resistance that many campesinos engage here every day.

In Semillas Tzucacab, we engaged both food security and food sovereignty.  Food security is measurable and the idea engages well with policy, from local and regional governments to nongovernmental organizations to intergovernmental agencies.  Food sovereignty, meanwhile, engages in the work of community organizing.  It implies creativity and solidarity.

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