Coined by Via Campesina – a social justice oriented, international movement supporting agricultural workers and small-scale, sustainable agriculture in general - food sovereignty is best understood as a people’s right to define their food system. This has been especially difficult in countries such as Mexico, which got the short end of the stick during the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, for short). The United States currently dumps its leftover, subsidized corn into the Mexican market at prices so low that traditional Mexican corn farmers can’t compete. It’s eroding the health of the Mexican population and their economy; unraveling agricultural threads of their culture. Furthermore, Mexico can’t really do anything to stop the corn dumping process. The result? (Particularly low-income) individuals buy the much-cheaper option, leading to financial shortcomings for Mexican corn farmers. The “out of our hands” food system experience is exactly what food sovereignty addresses.
There’s a similar situation going on in India regarding “seed freedom,” which is currently championed by activist Vandana Shiva. The 1994 Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreeement made it illegal for Indian farmers to save seed (from one season to replant during the next) – a tradition that has lasted hundreds of years. Using this agreement as a vehicle for agricultural change in India, Monsanto (a biotech corporation) has flooded the fields with its patented seeds, which require corresponding herbicides and the like (a.k.a. more money that Indian farmers are unable to shell out). 60% of Indian people are directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture. As they are unable to “define their food system” by saving seeds and growing food the way they have traditionally, India is another prime example of a country deprived of food sovereignty.
There are quite a few grassroots organizations – such as the Latin American Coordination of Rural Organizations (CLOC; the Latin American branch of Via Campesina) – promoting food sovereignty. According to a 2013 truth-out.org article by Tory Field and Beverly Bell, “CLOC pursues its vision of a future without hunger through three primary campaigns: challenging free trade agreements (which are a root cause for the decline of local, vibrant farming communities), promoting agrarian reform, and creating food sovereignty.” These are big goals, with steps that can often seem indirect or abstract. But by simply bringing together the diverse groups of people who are affected by food sovereignty issues – landless people, indigenous farmers, migrant farmers, etc. – organizations such as Via Campesina are working to raise awareness and create a collective political base to address the policies such as NAFTA and TRIPS that have landed small-scale food production in hot water.