by Julianna Fehlinger

The food sovereignty movement is one of the largest and most diverse social movements in the world. It addresses the immediate needs of people for locally adapted, healthy and adequate food and places agriculture in the hands of those who actually produce the food. Resistance to neoliberal agricultural and trade policies and grassroots alternatives play a central role. The movement has numerous lessons to offer to other social movements seeking to work outside the narrow framework of EU policy or to transcend the futile dichotomy of reform versus exit.

How the food sovereignty movement came about

Since the 1970s, critically-minded farmers have been joining together in Europe to combat the supremacy of the agricultural industry and to fight for peasant agriculture. They are committed to promoting locally adapted production methods and opposing the liberalisation of agriculture. At the beginning of the 1990s, (peasant) farmers’ organisations around the world formed an alliance with land workers, landless people, women’s movements, pastoralists, fisherfolk and Indigenous peoples. Together, they founded the movement La Via Campesina (English: The Peasants’ Way). Today, this is one of the largest social movements in the world, with over 200 million members. The common political goal amongst all members of La Via Campesina is that of food sovereignty. It was first presented in 1996 at the UN’s World Food Summit and is a response to the technical concept of “food security”.

Food sovereignty is not an “off-the-peg” solution, but a framework that is required to be elaborated on an ongoing basis by concrete local initiatives and measures. It cannot be ordained from the top down, but must be moulded using collective processes. It is grounded in the diverse realities of life experienced by farmers and consumers and their local struggles for the right to locally adapted, healthy food. Food sovereignty prioritises the nutrition of the population above production for export. It means acknowledging the value of those who produce food and supporting locally adapted production systems. These systems should, in turn, be overseen by local structures and safeguard the capacity of nature to replenish itself.

Today, the majority of producers are excluded from any say in the political framework that determines how food is produced, processed and distributed. International trade agreements, subsidy systems, genetic engineering legislation and hygiene regulations are all adopted without democratic involvement. Democratic control of food production is a prerequisite for asserting other rights, such as the right to food or education. Food sovereignty builds on transnational solidarity and networking. It enables the “losers” of global agribusiness to support each other and resist the threat of hierarchical power structures. It consciously and deliberately breaks down internalised structures of power such as racism and sexism, while local resistance and alternatives are complemented by a global perspective.

Exposing where the real conflicts of interests lie

Competitive pressure in agriculture has led to the decimation of farms on a massive scale and forced them to “grow or perish”. Though, in many European countries, the agricultural industry was subject to these developments prior to EU accession, they were significantly accelerated afterwards.

EU agricultural policy is strongly oriented towards the interests of agribusiness, large farms, food processors and retailers. Farmers and consumers alike lack the right to participate in the legislation process and therefore in the representation of their interests. Farming communities in Austria and other Western European countries are withdrawing their loyalty to traditional farmers’ representatives only very slowly, though these representatives have long been acting solely in the interest of large farms and agribusiness. La Via Campesina consistently demonstrates how this approach is wrong. Instead of working with the big farmers within a particular country, they build solidarity with peasants in other European countries and in the Global South.

This problematic false equation of interests also exists in other policy areas. Employees are taught that they must work together with “their” companies against those of other countries. During the crisis, we were led to believe that there was a conflict between “us” and the people of Greece – though the real fault line was between the general population and the elites. The movement for food sovereignty has consistently been successful in breaking up these false conflicts of interests, since it makes tangible the contradictions between the actual experience of the farmers and the official narratives.

Building broad alliances

La Via Campesina soon realised that the transformation of agricultural and food systems could only be achieved through alliances with other movements. This realisation provoked the birth of the Nyéléni food sovereignty movement, which takes its name from a Malian peasant woman who became a symbol of peasant resistance. In 2007, the first international Nyéléni Forum brought together environmental organisations, human rights organisations, consumer networks, women’s movements and urban movements. Together, they developed and defined principles of food sovereignty, goals and demands. An essential feature of the Nyéléni process is the active participation of marginalised social groups, including farmers, who typically find it difficult to access political processes. It also includes those affected by poverty and social exclusion.

8The forum ensures the participation of an equal number of men and women, with at least one third of its participants being young people and another third producers. As part of the movement’s work at European level, more than 500 people from 42 European countries met in Krems, Austria in 2011 and in Cluj, Romania in 2016 to discuss their vision of food sovereignty and develop joint courses of action. Environmental movements were joined by human rights organisations, women’s rights organisations, anti-globalisation movements, trade unionists, local projects and grassroots initiatives. The choice of Romania as the location of the second European forum was a very deliberate one, since the number of farms there has fallen sharply since EU accession. The decision was aimed at strengthening the movement in Eastern Europe.

Such broad alliances are possible within the Nyéléni movement because they are centred around the needs and concerns of those affected. They allow politically excluded people to formulate their interests as a joint force and practise an approach of practical solidarity. We must emulate this approach in other areas, too, providing a common vehicle of expression to marginalised voices. Capitalism and neoliberal EU policies are never harmful to one social group alone.

Acting local, building global solidarity

A central goal of the Nyéléni movement is to establish transnational solidarity amongst all the groups fighting for food sovereignty and developing grassroots alternatives. In so doing, the movement opposes the forces that play off the Global North against the Global South and blame migrants for impoverishment and crisis. Despite sharing massive criticisms of the neoliberal EU agricultural policy, there are only a few actors in the Nyéléni movement who believe that food sovereignty can be easily implemented at national level. Instead, the movement’s shared visions focus on a transformation of consumption and production methods as well as of the political framework conditions – at European, national and regional level.

The Nyéléni movement is contributing to global solidarity through local action and transnational coordination. Though it may sometimes appear that international cooperation is only possible as part of jointly coordinated campaigns or international institutions, we can work and fight where we live and still be connected internationally. The resistance of smallholder farmers in Europe is largely fuelled by solidarity with colleagues in the Global South, who are being suppressed by exports at dumping prices.

Cultivating resistance and alternatives from below

“We are convinced that food sovereignty is not only a step forward towards a change in our food and agricultural systems, but it is also a first step towards a broader change in our societies,” says the Declaration of the European Nyéléni Forum. Food sovereignty is a shared vision – one that is being fought for on different levels and encompasses a complete redesign of the food system. Under the umbrella of food sovereignty, we see movements resisting the agricultural industry, campaigns to transform neoliberal policies and grassroots alternatives supporting small-scale farming. Food sovereignty is the struggle between the peasant agriculture and agribusiness production models. The following part of the chapter gives an overview of the various fields of action the food sovereignty movement must engage in.

Solidarity-based production methods

For millennia, organic farming was the normal way of doing things. It was only with the introduction of chemical fertilisers and pesticides that agriculture was made dependent on external resources. Although farmer-consumer cooperation eventually enabled organic farming to be successfully reintroduced, supermarkets soon appropriated the hard-won achievement as a marketing strategy. This weakened fundamental criticism of the agricultural industry and rendered the concept of organic farming a part of capitalist logic. Fortunately, struggles for solidarity-based forms of production continue. They aim to strengthen small-scale farming systems and place resources back in the hands of peasants. They make use of heirloom varieties and GM-free seed, improve composting processes and reduce the oil dependence of agriculture through small-scale structures and manual work.

Cooperation within small-scale agriculture and the ability of farmers to process their own products is enabling peasants to escape their dependence on supermarkets. On this basis, “doing something different” in the field of agricultural production becomes a form of political resistance. The disruptive force of this resistance is made clear by the headwind faced by alternative processing structures in the dairy sector. Despite the existing monopoly, dairy farmers are slowly succeeding in setting up independent, small-scale processing plants or organising strikes. In a similar vein, peasant farmers are practising civil disobedience by defying vaccination or hygiene regulations laid out for factory farming and industrial processing. In doing so, they are opening up discussions about agricultural framework conditions (like the agricultural policies of the EU) or other national policies they need to improve their production, such as legalising slaughter at the farm.

There is no future in industrial agriculture. As we progress towards the transformation of agriculture, the development and trialling of practical alternatives will be an essential step. Grassroots alternatives are not only helping peasant farmers in the here and now, but also contributing to the development of a political vision. The same applies to collectives and the solidarity economy. Collective takeovers can protect companies from bankruptcy and workers from unemployment. The formation of clear alternatives inspires others to do the same, empowers people to act and builds a solid power base from below.

Placing food distribution back in the hand of the people
At the beginning of the organic movement, traditional forms of direct marketing such as farmers’ markets and farm shops were hugely important. They made it possible for peasants to carry out their own processing and marketing and gave them independence. As the organic sector grew, the marketing and sale of products was increasingly given over to supermarket chains, and the relative power of peasant agriculture was weakened. Today, producer-consumer networks are experiencing a resurgence, enabling peasant farmers to earn a living income and guaranteeing a regional food supply. Food co-ops and farms participating in community-supported agriculture (CSA) are booming in many places in Europe, creating alternatives to the supermarkets, which are the world’s most powerful corporations. At the same time, these initiatives are enabling consumers to engage with the topic of agriculture and are carrying out vital and accessible educational work.

These alliances have the power to dismantle the artificial characterisation of producers and consumers as groups with disparate interests. Only once this has been accomplished will it be possible to overcome the current ostensible lack of alternatives to neoliberal agricultural policy. Such producer-consumer alliances are also a vital requirement for bolstering peasant agriculture. Developing new methods for production, e.g. through extensification, would be virtually impossible without this support.

Social rights and good working conditions for all

Farms are subject to high economic pressure. Because of this, there are ongoing struggles for producers to be paid fair prices and for agricultural subsidies to be distributed in line with the work carried out. Currently, subsidies are awarded solely on the basis of the farmed area. Creative campaigns and publicity work are frequently carried out to shed light on the scandalous nature of the decimation of farming. Women, who are particularly affected by the precarious situation, are additionally challenged by being trapped in traditional roles. Despite this, they succeed in using creative methods to draw attention to their situation, thereby defying patriarchal structures of power.

Creating good working conditions for all also means fighting for better commercial conditions and better conditions for land workers and employees in the processing industry (e.g. in slaughterhouses). Most of these workers are migrants. Campaigns promoting the rights of migrant land workers in different European countries provide information about workers’ labour rights and offer advice and assistance in legal disputes. Two such campaigns, SOC/SAT in Spain and Campagne en Lotta in Italy, support migrant workers in defending their rights and provide an infrastructure for political expression. In Italy, workers even blocked a potato processing factory in Italy in order to fight for better payment. Human rights organisations such as FIAN are committed to improving the enforceability of human rights and supporting a declaration on the rights of peasants at the UN level. The purpose of this is to enable people worldwide to rely on certain rights, such as access to land.

Within other social movements, too, it is crucial to acknowledge the existence of conflicts and to approach hierarchical power structures in a critical manner. Even as members of the same movement, we still occupy different social positions. It is particularly important to give due consideration to the experiences of women and migrants – and creative methods often play a role in achieving this. Members of Via Campesina Austria, for example, have created a cabaret that allows them to humorously portray the constraints facing women in agriculture.

Reclaiming the right to our Commons

New models of ownership are withdrawing land from the treadmill of capitalist recycling. It is only by doing so that can we disrupt the race for land and provide access for those who wish to farm it. Within such models, farms and land are acquired through direct loans and then handed over to legal entities such as foundations or cooperatives, which are then not permitted to resell them on the market. The farms can be used by people seeking access to land.

In addition to the reclaiming of land, seed and livestock varieties are being cultivated as a common good in the aim of adapting the characteristics of plants and animals to peasant production methods. Resisting genetic modification and patents on livestock and plants is vital if we want to make it difficult for seed and pesticide companies to implement these things. Small victories have already been achieved in this regard, most recently the decision of the European Court of Justice on new GMOs following a suit by Via Campesina in France. It states clearly that techniques such CRISPR do, in fact, produce GMOs and must therefore be regulated under the terms of existing European legislation on GMOs.

The fight for common goods and resistance to politics that serves corporations are two sides of the same coin. Thanks to various forms of political work, the vision of a society that enables a good life for all can be made palpable and imaginable. The use of common goods (e.g. seeds) in community gardens makes it possible to mobilise people politically and gain broad support for opposing patent rights.

Democratic food policy

The European Nyéléni movement is attempting to build visions of a democratic food policy based on food sovereignty. These ideas are being incorporated into the political stances and processes adopted around EU agricultural policy and other areas of policy, like trade and health. Unfortunately, the intensification of neoliberal, capitalist policies – which are forcefully excluding ever greater numbers of people and destroying our natural resources – has made it difficult not only to form resistance movements, but also to develop common visions of how a solidarity-based world should look. Despite these challenges, the movement is attempting to develop such visions and take initial steps towards achieving them. Food sovereignty focuses on the real life situations of affected people and fights for a decent life in the here and now.

Three lessons

  1. We must build resistance to neoliberal policies such as the European agricultural policy and neoliberal trade agreements.
  2. We must build broad alliances of social movements that enable a transformation of agricultural policy in the direction of democratic food policy and food sovereignty.
  3. We must build alternatives to the current ways of producing, processing and distributing food and to other related aspects of our economy, making the vision of another type of agriculture a tangible one.


Nyéléni declaration (2011)

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