The Law and Politics of Food Sovereignty

15 April, 2022
Small farm­ers and food pro­duc­ers protest for food sov­er­eign­ty (pho­to cour­tesy La Vía Campesina).


Food sovereignty activists are fighting for more just and sustainable food systems the world over.

Excerpt­ed from Trans­lat­ing Food Sov­er­eign­ty: Cul­ti­vat­ing Jus­tice in an Age of Transna­tion­al Gov­er­nance, by Matthew C. Can­field, pub­lished by Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, ©2021 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stan­ford Junior Uni­ver­si­ty. All Rights Reserved.


Matthew Canfield


In 2011, I crowd­ed into the base­ment of a small church in down­town Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, with activists from across the coun­try for the first US Food Sov­er­eign­ty Assem­bly. It was just three years after a glob­al food and finan­cial cri­sis had upend­ed the glob­al econ­o­my. In a polit­i­cal mo­ment gripped with con­cern over eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty, food was becom­ing a pow­er­ful sym­bol and site of social change. As peo­ple began to arrive at the church, I was imme­di­ate­ly struck by those who had been invit­ed. They did not resem­ble the hip­pies, hip­sters, and afflu­ent white con­sumers I had come to asso­ciate with “food activism.” They includ­ed the peo­ple most mar­ginalized and exploit­ed by the indus­tri­al food sys­tem: migrant sea­son­al farm­work­ers, Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, orga­ni­za­tions of the urban food inse­cure, and small fam­i­ly farm­ers. These were not groups that had typ­i­cal­ly been polit­i­cal­ly aligned. In fact, they had often been pit­ted against one an­other as com­pet­ing inter­est groups in US food and agri­cul­tur­al pol­i­cy. Yet in the pre­vi­ous three years a small group of US-based activists with links to bur­geon­ing glob­al peas­ant move­ments had assem­bled these groups with the hope of unit­ing them over their shared griev­ances. Sit­ting in the back of the room as a vol­un­teer note­tak­er, I watched with curios­i­ty, won­der­ing what it would mean for these groups to claim “food sovereignty.”

translating food sovereignty cover - matthew canfield - the markaz review - stanford university press
Trans­lat­ing Food Sov­er­eign­ty is avail­able from Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press

Over the past two decades, mil­lions of peo­ple across the world have tak­en up the claim of food sov­er­eign­ty. The claim was first artic­u­lat­ed in the 1990s by small-scale food pro­duc­ers in the transna­tion­al social move­ment La Vía Campesina, the Inter­na­tion­al Peas­ants’ Move­ment. Food pro­duc­ers ini­tial­ly unit­ed to oppose the threats to their lands, liveli­hoods, and diets posed by the lib­er­al­iza­tion of food and agri­cul­tur­al mar­kets through the World Trade Orga­ni­za­tion. Almost imme­di­ate­ly after it was artic­u­lat­ed, how­ev­er, the claim of food sov­er­eign­ty quick­ly spread. By the mid-2000s, when sky­rock­et­ing food prices caused a glob­al food cri­sis, oth­er constitu­encies of food sys­tems, includ­ing food-chain work­ers, fish­er­folk, and poor urban con­sumers, also began to claim food sov­er­eign­ty to demand local con­trol over their food sys­tems. Food sov­er­eign­ty alliances now exist in almost every region of the world, mak­ing food sov­er­eign­ty one of the most wide­ly mobi­lized con­tem­po­rary social jus­tice claims.

The pre­cip­i­tous rise of move­ments claim­ing food sov­er­eign­ty reflects the state of con­tem­po­rary food sys­tems. Today there is wide­spread agree­ment that our cur­rent glob­al food sys­tem is social­ly and eco­log­i­cal­ly unsustain­able. Despite the con­sis­tent glob­al con­sen­sus of the need to end glob­al hun­ger, more than 2 bil­lion peo­ple in the world lack access to ade­quate food, includ­ing 37 mil­lion peo­ple in the Unit­ed States. Beyond food inse­cu­ri­ty, mal­nu­tri­tion is also surg­ing. If one com­bines both of its forms (over-and under­con­sump­tion), mal­nu­tri­tion now con­sti­tutes the world’s num­ber one cause of ill health. Although pow­er­ful nations and cor­po­ra­tions have con­sistently pushed the expan­sion of indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture, it is clear that this sys­tem has not only failed to address hunger but is also respon­si­ble for vast eco­log­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion. The glob­al food sys­tem is one of the largest contrib­utor to glob­al green­house gas emis­sions, defor­esta­tion, and the destruc­tion of glob­al biodiversity.

These prob­lems were made even more man­i­fest dur­ing the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic. Dur­ing the worst of the cri­sis, news­pa­pers in the Unit­ed States print­ed sto­ries of farm­ers dump­ing milk and euth­a­niz­ing live­stock along­side pic­tures of snaking lines of cars wait­ing out­side food banks and work­ers jammed togeth­er at meat pro­cess­ing plants suf­fer­ing from high infec­tion rates. The US food system—once cel­e­brat­ed as the apoth­e­o­sis of abun­dance and efficiency—was revealed to be a shaky struc­ture crip­pled by cor­po­rate con­sol­i­da­tion. In the Unit­ed States we are wit­ness­ing grow­ing monop­o­lis­tic con­trol over the food and farm­ing sec­tor. Four or few­er firms con­trol the mar­ket for agro-inputs, beef and grain pro­cess­ing, and many major food com­mod­i­ty chains. Glob­al­ly, four or few­er firms also con­trol almost all com­mer­cial agri­cul­tur­al inputs. Just four com­pa­nies con­trol 60% of the glob­al com­mer­cial seed indus­try and 90% of the glob­al grain trade, and three com­pa­nies con­trol 70% of the agro­chem­i­cal indus­try. This centraliza­tion of con­trol over food sys­tems in the hands of so few is a dri­ving fac­tor in many of the prob­lems that we are see­ing today. As the Inter­na­tion­al Pan­el of Experts on Sus­tain­able Food Sys­tems puts it, the indus­tri­al food sys­tem is just “too big to feed.”

The activists gath­ered in Oak­land were all orga­niz­ing in response to these issues. Many of them shared these same griev­ances. But over the course of the day-long meet­ing it became clear that they also had dif­fer­ent pri­or­i­ties. Farm­work­ers on the West Coast were fight­ing for fair work­ing con­di­tions in the indus­tri­al food sys­tem, where­as Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties were seek­ing to rebuild their tra­di­tion­al food sys­tems after cen­turies of set­tler colo­nial­ism and unhealthy dona­tions from the com­mod­i­ty food sys­tem. Oth­er groups, such as the Detroit Black Com­mu­ni­ty Food Secu­ri­ty Net­work, were work­ing to dis­man­tle racism in the food sys­tem and cre­ate con­sumer coop­er­a­tives and urban farms to pro­mote urban food secu­ri­ty. Even though the par­tic­i­pants of the assem­bly came up with a long list of rights—from the rights of Moth­er Earth to the right to access land—none of these claims cap­tured their dis­parate strug­gles. In a coun­try in which the lan­guage of rights has served as the dom­i­nant gram­mar for social jus­tice move­ments, the activists par­tic­i­pat­ing in the US Food Sov­er­eign­ty Assem­bly wres­tled to con­sol­i­date their demands into a sin­gle claim that simul­ta­ne­ous­ly respect­ed their diver­si­ty and unit­ed them into a movement.

As the debate unfold­ed, it was clear that they faced pro­found strate­gic ques­tions: What would it mean to claim sov­er­eign­ty rather than rights? How could they trans­late food sov­er­eign­ty across their diver­gent con­texts? And how could a claim that was devel­oped in the glob­al South be adopt­ed and mobi­lized by activists in the very dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and agrar­i­an con­text of the Unit­ed States?



Par­tic­i­pants’ strug­gle to rec­on­cile their reper­toires of rights claim­ing with the lan­guage of food sov­er­eign­ty is a prod­uct of the way that social move­ments have con­sti­tut­ed social jus­tice claims for the past few gener­ations. In the 1950s and 1960s, rights mobi­liza­tion became the dom­i­nant approach through which indi­vid­u­als and groups artic­u­lat­ed claims on soci­ety and the state in lib­er­al democ­ra­cies. The civ­il rights move­ment, the women’s move­ment, the LGBTQ move­ment, and the dis­abil­i­ty rights move­ment, among oth­ers, all drew on rights-based strate­gies to seek in­clusion into soci­ety and demand eco­nom­ic redis­tri­b­u­tion. By claim­ing rights, move­ments con­sol­i­dat­ed not only their demands but also their col­lective iden­ti­ties. This “rights rev­o­lu­tion” spread glob­al­ly with the prolif­eration of human rights as a shared glob­al lan­guage of social jus­tice begin­ning in the 1970s.

Today, how­ev­er, both schol­ars and social move­ments are increas­ing­ly rec­og­niz­ing the lim­its of social and eco­nom­ic rights claims in the face of neolib­er­al inequal­i­ties. Rights-based approach­es to social change are con­strained by the shift­ing geo­gra­phies of pow­er pro­duced by neolib­er­al glob­al­iza­tion. Rights are premised on a vision of the world in which nation-states oper­ate the pri­ma­ry reg­u­la­to­ry author­i­ty. Since the 1970s, how­ev­er, the state-cen­tered hier­ar­chi­cal frame­work of pub­lic inter­na­tion­al law and nation­al eco­nom­ic reg­u­la­tion has been rolled back through dereg­u­la­tion, pri­va­ti­za­tion, and the lib­er­al­iza­tion of glob­al mar­kets. As Sask­ia Sassen describes, neolib­er­al­ism reor­ga­nized the rela­tion­ship between ter­ri­to­ry, author­i­ty, and rights on a glob­al scale by part­ly dena­tion­al­iz­ing some state capac­i­ties. Today, as inter­na­tion­al law grows increas­ing­ly frag­ment­ed, rights oper­ate as just one nor­ma­tive form through which pow­er oper­ates, amid pro­lif­er­at­ing forms of governance.

As a result, crit­i­cal voic­es are increas­ing­ly ques­tion­ing the emancipa­tory pos­si­bil­i­ties inher­ent in rights dis­course. A recent wave of schol­ar­ship has revealed how human rights ascend­ed as the pri­ma­ry frame­work for imag­in­ing social jus­tice just as the archi­tects of neolib­er­al­ism were insti­tutionalizing the mar­ket econ­o­my as the prin­ci­pal and gov­ern­ing log­ic at the nation­al and inter­na­tion­al lev­el. Analy­ses trac­ing the con­cur­rent rise of human rights dis­course and neolib­er­al­ism build on a long cor­pus of crit­ical the­o­ry that has been skep­ti­cal of rights. Fem­i­nist and Marx­ist analy­ses have con­sis­tent­ly argued that rights offer a nar­row frame for social jus­tice claims because they remain root­ed in “lib­er­al legal­ism,” an ide­ol­o­gy of law premised on indi­vid­ual rather than col­lec­tive rights, pri­vate prop­er­ty, and for­mal equal­i­ty. Lib­er­al legalism’s endeav­or to sep­a­rate the “pub­lic” sphere of polit­i­cal equal­i­ty and the “pri­vate” sphere of liberty—the domain of the econ­o­my and family—has con­sis­tent­ly served as a stum­bling block for gen­erations of social move­ments seek­ing egal­i­tar­i­an social change.

Post­colo­nial crit­ics also chal­lenge the transna­tion­al cul­ture of moder­ni­ty that human rights lan­guage often repro­duces. Rights dis­cours­es emerged from the Euro­pean Enlight­en­ment and colo­nial project and today still car­ry the val­ues of Euro­cen­tric moder­ni­ty. They remain premised on a uni­ver­sal, sec­u­lar vision of human nature and atom­istic world­view that sep­a­rates humans from non­hu­man nature and priv­i­leges the indi­vid­ual as the pri­mary legal sub­ject. Human rights have con­sis­tent­ly been mobi­lized by pow­er­ful states in the glob­al North to dis­tin­guish between “tra­di­tion­al” and “mod­ern,” “sav­age” and “sav­ior,” there­by repro­duc­ing a North­ern-cen­tered world order that main­tains colo­nial hier­ar­chies of pow­er. Although rights remain an impor­tant legal and sym­bol­ic resource, both social move­ments and soci­ole­gal schol­ars are learn­ing that rights are “not enough,” as Samuel Moyn puts it, to chal­lenge the over­lap­ping inequal­i­ties pro­duced through cen­turies of colo­nial­ism, cap­i­tal­ism, and neoliberalism.

The orga­niz­ers of the first US Food Sov­er­eign­ty Assem­bly seemed to intu­itive­ly under­stand these con­straints. Just as the assem­bly drew to a close and the par­tic­i­pants became embroiled in a debate over their pri­or­i­ties, a hand­ful of the assembly’s orga­niz­ers who had more con­tact with food sov­er­eign­ty move­ments out­side the Unit­ed States inter­vened. One activist who had exten­sive expe­ri­ence orga­niz­ing with La Vía Campesina in Latin Amer­i­ca explained that food sov­er­eign­ty did not take what she called a top-down “com­mand and con­trol” approach to polit­i­cal change but rather sought to decen­tral­ize con­trol over food and agri­cul­ture. Anoth­er grass­roots activist explained that food sov­er­eign­ty was best under­stood through the “three P’s”—people, places, and plat­forms. She said that food sov­er­eign­ty was mobi­lized by mar­gin­al­ized peo­ples, was root­ed in spe­cif­ic places and con­texts, and offered a shared plat­form for strug­gle. At the time, I did not quite com­pre­hend these activists’ inter­ven­tions. Yet over the next sev­en years, I began to under­stand that these activists were rad­i­cal­ly recal­i­brat­ing their hori­zons of social jus­tice and devel­op­ing new prac­tices of mobi­liza­tion in response to the meta­mor­pho­sis of cap­i­tal­ism and reg­u­la­tion in an era of neolib­er­al globalization.



…Crit­i­cal observers have described how the rise of transna­tion­al gov­ernance is reorder­ing pow­er and author­i­ty through the eco­nom­ic log­ics of the mar­ket and pro­duc­ing a new era of cor­po­rate rule, but few have at­tended to the ways that activists are respond­ing to the chang­ing cul­tur­al and sym­bol­ic pol­i­tics of this reg­u­la­to­ry order by pro­duc­ing new social jus­tice claims and con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­i­ty. Indeed, as transna­tion­al gov­er­nance blurs the bound­aries once estab­lished by lib­er­al legal­ism to estab­lish con­straints on pow­er, it offers both new oppor­tu­ni­ties and con­straints. On the one hand, transna­tion­al gov­er­nance draws on sym­bols that appeal to social move­ments. The net­worked form of transna­tion­al gov­er­nance implies hor­i­zon­tal rela­tions and social ties. It relies on col­lab­o­ra­tion, par­tic­i­pa­tion, and inclu­sion of actors beyond the state. By con­sti­tut­ing claims in rela­tion to transna­tion­al gov­er­nance, food sov­er­eign­ty activists demand the inclu­sion of those most mar­gin­al­ized in pub­lic pol­i­cy­mak­ing. More­over, they are able to artic­u­late food sov­er­eign­ty as a holis­tic social jus­tice claim that tran­scends the divi­sions between pub­lic and pri­vate imposed by lib­er­al le­galism and Euro-mod­ernism. On the oth­er hand, how­ev­er, transna­tion­al gov­er­nance is often ini­ti­at­ed from the top down, by elites who seek to extend mar­ket log­ics and man­age their “exter­nal­i­ties,” not rad­i­cal­ly upend them. For neolib­er­als the net­worked form of transna­tion­al gov­er­nance pro­vides a frame­work for the dis­sem­i­na­tion of neolib­er­al rea­son and mar­ket val­ues. As a result, transna­tion­al gov­er­nance also enables the deep­er dom­i­na­tion by pow­er­ful mar­ket actors by dis­man­tling pre­vi­ous insti­tu­tion­al and sym­bol­ic forms of reg­u­la­tion that have endeav­ored to set lim­its on power.

Food sov­er­eign­ty activists are well aware of this para­dox. They encounter it con­tin­u­ous­ly as they engage in mul­ti­stake­hold­er and col­lab­o­ra­tive are­nas of gov­er­nance that pro­duce the vol­un­tary guide­lines, pri­vate cer­ti­fi­ca­tions, and codes of con­duct through which transna­tion­al gov­er­nance operates—all of which they are deeply skep­ti­cal of. Yet by dialec­ti­cal­ly con­sti­tut­ing claims for food sov­er­eign­ty in rela­tion to these emerg­ing forms of gov­er­nance, I argue that they are cul­ti­vat­ing decen­tral­ized, demo­c­ra­t­ic net­works through which they are recon­fig­ur­ing rela­tions between com­mu­ni­ties, nature, and mar­kets. In doing so, they are pro­duc­ing what I call gov­er­nance from below.


food justicepeasant farmerssmall famerssocial justiceWorld Trade Organization

Matthew Canfield is a cultural anthropologist with a background in socio-legal studies. He earned a BA in Anthropology and International Studies from the Johns Hopkins University, an MA from the Institute of Law and Society at New York University, and a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from New York University. Drawing on ethnographic methods, his research examines the law and governance of food security. Located at the intersection of human rights, transnational governance, and agro-environmental politics, he is interested in the ways that social movements are forming new claims and engaging in participatory governance to challenge economic and ecological inequalities. His book, Translating Food Sovereignty: Cultivating Justice in an Age of Transnational Governance, examines how transnational activists based in the United States are mobilizing the claim of food sovereignty. 


Inline Feedbacks
View all comments