Food systems have become global, multinational businesses, and food sovereignty has to address the scale of this global problem. However, the situation in each country and region is different, and the battle must be fought in different ways appropriate to the local context.
In the UK, we are fortunate to be experiencing something of a ‘food renaissance’. In recent years there has been a blossoming of interest in recipe books, cookery programmes, and of course, celebrity chefs! We are all familiar with the government’s ’5-a-day’ recommendation and the concept of ‘super-foods’, and schools and businesses are under pressure to overhaul their canteens. A nation of animal lovers, public interest has been sparked by campaigns concerning battery hens and the welfare of other livestock, and in the UK – unlike many of our neighbouring European countries – it is neither difficult nor unusual to be a vegetarian. Retailers are finding that labelling British produce increases sales, as people are keen to buy local and support British farmers. This is an exciting time for food in the UK, with hundreds of individual projects – food co-ops, veg-box schemes, farmers’ markets, organic cafes, allotment initiatives and more – going on in all parts of the country, and a growing awareness that a better food system is possible.
These are the assets the UK food sovereignty movement is inheriting. However, the UK has its own set of challenges to face too. In so-called ‘under developed’ countries, the majority of farming is still small scale with little or no chemical input. Not so in Britain – here the fields have long since been turned over to industrialised farming, and chemical fertilisers are the norm. This status quo will be difficult to overturn. The first growing of GM in the UK has gone ahead this year, and the EU has just ruled to allow GM in animal feed, meaning it is in our food chain too.
The coming months and years will be critical in the fight for food, people and planet, and the UK could have a big part to play. The organic and environmental movement have a long history in this country, as do agriculture and food production. Today, more and more people are recognising that we have gone down the wrong path with our food system. The role of Food Sovereignty UK will be to harness that energy and unite those concerned about local food, organics, producers’ rights, animal rights, land rights, health, etc, in bringing about the changes we need.
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The concept of food sovereignty was developed in the early 1990s, born out of a mobilisation of groups of smallscale farmers all around the globe who were finding they could no longer make a living from farming. The concept was presented by an alliance of smallscale farmers and other food producers, La Vía Campesina, at the 1996 World Food Summit. Much of the initial impetus came from farmers networks in Latin America, and ‘food sovereignty’ is a direct translation of the Spanish ‘soberanía alimentaría’ which emphasises the decision making power of the people.
The concept of food sovereignty has evolved and grown since then as it has been embraced by people all around the world. In 2007 more than 500 representatives of farmers’ networks, unions, social movements and other civil society groups gathered in Mali for the Nyéléni World Forum for Food Sovereignty. The outcome of the forum was a call for a radical restructuring of the global food and agriculture system to replace the current system which is largely dominated by the powerful interests of transnational corporations (TNCs). They instead advocated for local and national food systems that empower peasants and small scale farmers. The forum also defined six pillars of food sovereignty, above, providing a framework for future work.
In Mali, European groups committed to a similar forum to build food sovereignty in Europe. This happened in Austria in 2011, with the Nyéléni Europe forum, which led to a call to us all to transform our food systems in Europe and realise food sovereignty here.