From Seattle to Rome, Food Sovereignty Movement Pushes for Reforms


Two dozen United States and African organizations came together for a summit in Seattle on October 10-14 to strengthen the food sovereignty movement, showing solidarity in denouncing corporate control over the food system. Just days later in Rome, civil society groups at the World Committee on Food Security—many of them holding the same vision as the activists who met in Seattle--rejected a new set of guidelines that appear only to legitimize external private investment in agriculture.

Global governance institutions, this suggests, are falling short of realizing the ideas of the global food sovereignty movement.

The African and U.S. Food Sovereignty Summit, convened by the Community Alliance for Global Justice’s (CAGJ) AGRA Watch campaign, issued a statement against the displacement of smallholder farmers and highly technological fixes, promising to support the work of people on the ground pushing for a fundamentally different model based on agro-ecology and respect for local knowledge.

The significance of the meeting was to cement a relationship between two sizable food sovereignty alliances, said CAGJ co-founder Phil Bereano, professor emeritus of Technology and Public Policy at University of Washington. Organizations in the United States have a role to play here because it is their own government that is pushing policies and development models that are inconsistent with autonomous control over food systems, according to Bereano.

“The U.S. is the origin of most of the agricultural initiatives that threaten food sovereignty--high-tech ag, including GMOs, imposition of market approaches to community problems and ‘land mobility,’” Bereano said. “Africa is currently the site of their most fierce application.”

Civil society has often been placed in an unfair situation when attempting to show the merits of agro-ecological farming, according to Mariam Mayet, director of the South Africa-based African Centre for Biosafety. It often works with highly vulnerable farmers in marginal areas, yet without the government support necessary to make agro-ecology viable on a wider scale. Yet this neglect of agro-ecology is beginning to change, she said.

“Great strides have already been made by, for example, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, who has been an ardent champion of agro-ecology and the building of local food systems; and most recently the FAO hosted an historic summit on agro-ecology,” Mayet said. “Agro-ecology, as an integral part of food sovereignty and the farming system of choice, is firmly on the international agriculture agenda and is an integral component of current discourses.”

For all the gains made in Seattle, however, the Principles on Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems—finalized in Rome at the annual CFS meetings--proved discouraging to civil society groups that had been hoping their engagement would spur a more progressive outcome. In 2009 the CFS created the Civil Society Mechanism to offer an autonomous space for such groups to have their voice heard.  

The new principles were negotiated in response to the heavy criticism directed at the World Bank’s Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment, which were developed without an inclusive consultative process and were perceived as merely condoning large-scale land acquisitions.

Yet, civil society opted not to participate in the consensus adopted by the CFS. They took issue with the absence of language demanding state responsibility and accountability toward smallholder farmers, said Matt Canfield, a member of the CSM’s North American delegation. The text also narrowly frames private investment as coming from outside, and overlooks how small-scale farmers themselves can be considered investors in food systems, he said. These issues reflect the way that the private sector is increasingly viewing the CFS as a forum with which to engage and solidify its agenda.

The final statement released by the CSM indicates concern with the lack of emphasis on a rights-based approach. “Unjust trade rules have removed from governments the resources and policy space needed for responsible investment which can help achieve the Right to Food,” it said.

If the formal text is still a far cry from the ideals of the Right to Food and social movements, it is worth considering how the CFS’ inclusion of such groups may indirectly promote the sort of coalition-building that can contribute to their cause.

“There are important exchanges and social ties made by participation among activists,” Canfield said. “It has important implications in developing a vision for global food sovereignty. The CFS is an important space in setting precedent for civil society participation in normative processes; even if they aren’t perfect, they will be better than without civil society’s presence.”