Food Sovereignty as Government Intervention

Subtitle:  The Views of La Via Campesina and U.S. Family Farmers

Dominant Interpretations of Food Sovereignty

I find that, in the US, “food sovereignty” is often defined as having increased local and regional control over food systems, and politically this often includes national control for small countries, such as Least Developed Countries.  Along with this, small-scaled, even pre-industrial systems are often praised for having features of ecological, social and economic sustainability.  These virtues then compare favorably to the mega-industrial farm and food systems that are pushed by mega-corporations and the major mega-industrialized countries (that these corporations dominate) and the major international institutions (ie. WTO, IMF). This praise has been confirmed by recent international studies.

Second, I find that advocacy for this view is typically represented in advocacy for general “principles.”  I have seen little in the way of specific policies and programs for specific decisions made by specific decision-makers  (ie. geared to US activists, with specific US decisions and decision makers to be influenced).

In this view, then, the essence of food sovereignty is defined by general principles of local sustainability.

Alternate Views of Via Campesina and the US National Family Farm Coalition

While the dominant view is big on general principles and local, self-initiated sustainability, I find it to be weak on justice, especially farm justice, and weak on the kind of “issue” specificity that is needed for authentic organizing.

In contrast, Via Campesina and the National Family Farm Coalition focus on farm justice (“farm sovereignty”?) in ways that focus directly on key, macro level decisions and decision-makers.  A good illustration of this can be found in the 2003 Via Campesina document, “It is urgent to re-orient the debate on agriculture and initiate a policy of food sovereignty,” which was a “Post-Cancún Release.”1

This document emphasizes that food sovereignty is “urgent” and states:  “The first important step: we must centre the debate on food sovereignty and production rather than trade.”  General principles are then given:  “To engage in agricultural production that ensures food needs, respects the environment and provides peasants with a life of dignity, . . .”

Significantly, the principles sentence ends as follows:  “an active intervention by the government is indispensable.”  In other words “the first important step” is not about local things that we, or peasants or farmers, do ourselves.  It’s about government action at the macro level to achieve the principles of “food sovereignty.”  For the sake of US farmers and Via Campesina, it is crucial that this emphasis is not missed in discussions of food sovereignty inside the US as the US government is the most important one where “active intervention” is needed.  The next words are:  “This intervention must ensure:” which is followed by a list of 6 items.  Items 2-4 (half) are:

” • control of imports in order to stabilize the internal price to a level that covers the costs of production, 
    • control of production (i.e. supply management) in order to avoid surpluses, 
    • international commodity agreements to control supply and guarantee fair prices to peasant producers for export products such as coffee, cotton, etc.”

We see then that Via Campesina quickly moves from the general principles a list of specific actions that are needed by various government decision makers (ie. “supply management” and “fair prices”).

Though not specified, the specific decision-makers (for US advocates) behind these decisions include the following:

• US Congress and presidents, who decide whether or not we have price floors (and whether they’re set at fair trade levels,) plus supply management in the farm bill
• US presidential administrations and their trade negotiators, to favor allowing countries to prevent the dumping of imports and to develop methods of international supply management and price support.

The peasants of Via Campesina know the importance of farm prices, and of managing supply to help obtain them, but they have very little influence on the US Congress and President.  It’s essential that we properly understand Via Campesina on these specifics of what food sovereignty means, and mobilize the rest of the new US food movement, and bring in the broader (beyond family farm justice advocates) farm movement.

The US is the dominant global exporter of major farm commodities, and has often been about as big as OPEC in oil (cotton, wheat), or much bigger, (corn, soybeans), or otherwise the dominant price-setting force (rice).  Food Sovereignty advocates here must lead on these issues.  Via Campesina members who live in other countries must rely on US organizing to win justice in the US farm bill and in our highly influencial approach to trade.

A key place to start is with the Food from Family Farms Act of the US National Family Farm Coalition.2  This is the key farm bill policy alternative in the US that supports the kind of farm justice described by Via Campesina above.  My web sites are designed to do support these policies of justice.  I’ve collected the key resources to bridge the gap between farm justice peasants and farmers, on one hand, and those who think food sovereignty doesn’t emphasize government intervention, or who think farm justice is about subsidies, on the other.  (Note:  peasants from the global South often also do accurately understand US farm bill issues.)
The Farm Subsidy Myth 

Food sovereignty advocates and potential advocates in the US especially need to understand that farm subsidies, though part of WTO are not the relevant policies that need to be addressed here.  It is very widely believed that farm subsidies are the key policies (in the farm bill and in trade agreements) that help to achieve the price goals of Via Campesina.  WTO documents strongly affirms that perception.  Unfortunately at least 4 kinds of data prove this hypothesis is false.4  WTO and  most US conservatives and progressives are wrong.  The subsidy hypothesis is not supported by the relevant data.

Again, the US farm bill achieves Via Campesina’s global goals of food sovereignty only when it includes supply management and price floors set at fair trade levels, as we had 1942-1952.  With these policies there is no need for any farm commodity subsidies, and there were none when we had fair trade price floors in the past.

Issue Specificity and Authentic Organizing 

The specific US farm bill decisions and decision makers related to the Via Campesina document (described above) lend themselves well to authentic grassroots organizing inside of the US on behalf of Via Campesina and US family farmers.

At the recent “Assembly” of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, in Oakland California, the family farm sub-group (ie. representatives of member organizations of the National Family Farm Coalition,) emphasized their direct experiences of injustice, with terms like “survival,” “despair” and “divorce.”  Another popular term heard from this group at the accompanying conference in California is “suicide.”  This emphasis reflects their long history of concretely fighting agribusiness and the current severe “dairy crisis” These terms were also big themes during the 1980s farm crisis, when large numbers of farms went quickly out of business, or were threatened with foreclosure.   The same applied during the CAFO crisis that was raging during 1990s, for example, as most diversified US farms lost their livestock value-added to CAFOs, due to huge, even multibillion dollar “implicit” (off the government books) subsidies from cheap feed (low grain prices,) to individual CAFO corporations.

US food and food sovereignty advocates wanting to focus on justice can learn from these groups to move quickly into pragmatic action.

Supply management and price floors are key food sovereignty issueds as define in grassroots organizing.  The late organizer behind National Peoples’ Action, Shel Trapp, for example, approaches the question of issues as follows:4

“When you find what appears to be an issue, three questions must be asked:

1. Can people be mobilized around this? 
2. Is it specific? 
3. Can something be done to change this situation?

If people cannot be mobilized around an issue, then you do not have an issue. A good way to “test” an issue is to call several people in your organization, talk about the situation and then ask:
Would you be interested in getting a few folks together to talk about this and see what can be done?”

An issue is something that people can get right to work on, with a potential to win concrete changes.  It involves a specific decision from specific decision makers. As we approach the 2012 farm bill, it is essential that food sovereignty advocates inside the US focus directly on the key “issues” of justice,  identified by Via Campesina, for example, in the 2003 document identied above.


1. Via Campesina, “Statement On Agriculture After Cancun,” 9/2/03, http://viacampesina.org/en/index.php/actions-and-events-mainmenu-26/10-years-of-wto-is-enough-mainmenu-35/368-statement-on-agriculture-after-cancun. Cf. http://viacampesina.org/downloads/pdf/en/EN-policy-document.pdf.
2. “Food from Family Farms Act:  A Proposal for the 2007 U.S. Farm Bill,” National Family Farm Coalition, http://nffc.net/Learn/Fact%20Sheets/FFFA2007.pdf.
3. See my “Michael Pollan Rebuttal,” (including 2 linked videos at YouTube) for the 4 proofs:  http://zcomm.org/zblogs/michael-pollan-rebuttal-four-proofs-against-pollans-corn-subsidy-argument-by-brad-wilson/
4.  Shel Trapp, Basics of Organizing, NTIC, 1986, http://tenant.net/Organize/orgbas.html.
For further reading: 

Brad’s “Farm Bill Primer,” “Food Crisis Primer” (lists of links), zspace, (http://zcomm.org/zblogs/food-crisis-primer/); My “Issue Organizing Primer” info is no longer available online, but see:  Brad Wilson, How to Win: My Organizers Checklist, ZSpace, http://zcomm.org/zblogs/how-to-win-my-organizers-checklist-by-brad-wilson/;  Brad Wilson, “Listen, Learn, Leverage, Lead: Our Most Pragmatic Strategy Has Yet to be Seriously Tried,” ZSpace, 11/5/08, http://zcomm.org/zblogs/listen-learn-leverage-lead-our-most-pragmatic-strategy-has-yet-to-be-seriously-tried-by-brad-wilson/
Brad’s YouTube Channel & “Farm Bill & Food Bill” playlist: (http://www.youtube.com/user/FireweedFarm#p/c/A1E706EFA90D1767).
Brad Wilson, “Via Campesina with NFFC: Support for Fair Farm Prices,” zspace, http://zcomm.org/zblogs/via-campesina-with-nffc-support-for-fair-farm-prices-by-brad-wilson/.
Brad Wilson, “WTO Africa Group with NFFC, Not EWG,” zspace, http://zcomm.org/zblogs/wto-africa-group-with-nffc-not-ewg-by-brad-wilson/.
Brad Wilson, “Most EWG Subsidy ‘Recipients’ Are Too Tiny to Be ‘Farmers,’” zspace, http://zcomm.org/zblogs/most-ewg-subsidy-recipients-are-too-tiny-to-be-farmers-by-brad-wilson/.

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