Research Papers

Food Sovereignty: From Urban Chicago to the Third World

If you were to stumble into the previously abandoned truck depot at 3333 s. Iron Street without knowing where you were, you might be in for quite a surprise.  First you’d notice giant carrots and tomatoes painted along the fence, and colorful murals at odds with the industrial landscape.  On the roof, you’d find six yellow beehives, and if you looked into the greenhouses made of recycled plastic sheeting, you’d see tiny shoots of arugula pushing their leaves up through the mulch.

Growing Power's Chicago Headquarters, Iron Street Farm

Despite its unusual location in a low-income neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, Iron Street Farm successfully produces fresh, sustainably grown fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, and honey all year-round.  Here at the Chicago headquarters of the Milwaukee-based organization Growing Power, the goal is not just food production, but “to grow food, to grow minds, and to grow community.”  Growing Power hires local residents to supply farm labor, runs youth development programs, and provides training for future farmers.  All growing methods are designed to be easily replicable and economically viable, in order to empower communities to create their own Community Food Systems that will simultaneously provide equal access to healthy affordable food, provide jobs to benefit the local economy, and take care of the environment [1].  In addition, Growing Power works to change the city’s zoning codes and composting laws to make it easier for people to start urban farms and community gardens.

Growing Power is just part of an international movement to change the world’s food systems and create social justice.  Despite food surpluses in countries such as the US, many people still lack adequate nutrition, and globally, the problem is even worse.  There are now more than one billion hungry people in the world, and still more who are unsure where their next meal will come from [2].  Many governments and international organizations such as the World Bank have pursued a neoliberal solution, which involves increasing agricultural production and opening up markets for global trade.  While the hope is that economic globalization and growth will help alleviate poverty, this strategy often fails to reach the poorest and hungriest people, who still can’t afford food [3].  Ironically, in rural areas the hungriest people are often the farmers themselves.  The “dumping” of exported surplus food on developing countries, often promoted by governmental organizations as a kind of food aid, proves disastrous to the livelihoods of local peoples who can’t compete with the artificially low prices [4].  Even among those who have plenty of money for groceries, growing numbers of people are concerned about the safety, nutrition, and origin of their food [5].  Additionally, industrial agriculture is a major cause of climate change and environmental degradation [6]. Clearly, the current global food system has many flaws.


In response to the growing problem of hunger and out of concern for the environment, La Via Campesina, also known as the International Peasant’s Movement, has offered a radical alternative that would require changing the structure of our society.  This alternative is known as food sovereignty, and is generally based on the concepts of self-sufficiency, a fundamental right to food, and peoples’ control over local food production methods.  La Via Campesina first presented the idea of food sovereignty at the World Food Summit in 1996, where they defined it as “the right of each nation to maintain and develop its own capacity to produce its basic foods respecting cultural and productive diversity,” [7].  The concept has since been adopted by organizations from around the world as they struggle with food issues specific to their region [8].  The definition of food sovereignty has expanded to accommodate their different needs, and its values now fall into roughly three categories: social, economic, and environmental.

Social Values of Food Sovereignty

The original 1996 Via Campesina statement outlines the fundamental values, starting with food as a basic human right: Everyone must have access to enough food at all times, and it must be safe, culturally acceptable, and nutritious [9].  The right to food supports a number of social ideals, including the right to land, women’s rights, and democratic principles.  Small-scale farmers, fishers, and indigenous people comprise nearly half of the world’s population, and proponents of food sovereignty believe it is essential that they maintain ownership of the land necessary to support themselves, [10].  Food sovereignty stresses land rights, and the right to manage resources, for the people who work the land.  In particular, women, who produce 70% of the world’s food, must not be excluded [11].  Women are generally in charge of procuring and preparing food in the household, so food sovereignty is impossible without gender equality and ending violence against women [12].  Food sovereignty also depends on a more democratic system, where farmers play a key role in the decision-making on food policies that affect their livelihoods.  Such policies include farm subsidies and import and export regulations [13].  Peasants want to have a say in both local government decisions and international discussions, such as the FAO World Food Summit [14].

Values Related to Economics

A foundational aspect of food sovereignty is the right of peoples and countries to define their own food policy [15].  This means they must have control over imports and exports, and can avoid dumping, when imported products are sold at prices that undercut local farmers [16]. The food sovereignty movement favors local production for local consumption, giving countries the right to be self-sufficient.  According to La Via Campesina, food should be seen “first and foremost [as] a source of nutrition and only secondarily an item of trade,” [17].  Rather than an abstract commodity, food has cultural and nutritional value that shouldn’t be stripped away.  Food should be healthy, not highly processed, and feeding hungry people should come before the goals of large agribusinesses and transnational corporations, who focus only on making a profit [18].

The relationship between farm size and total farm output in different countries (Rosset 1999)

Environmental Sustainability

Industrial agriculture often employs monoculture, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, genetically modified crops, irrigation, and large machinery in an attempt to increase crop yields and revenue.  All of these have been devastating to our environment: degrading soils, polluting our waters, reducing biodiversity, and contributing to global warming [19].  About 10 to 12 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agricultural sources, and this figure is expected to rise in the future [20].  Small-scale, organic farming, on the other hand, has proven more environmentally friendly and in fact more productive, when considering total farm output and not just the yield of one individual crop [21].  Food sovereignty supports agroecological methods, such as encouraging the natural predators of pests and maintaining a healthy soil ecosystem, to regenerate the land and protect it for use by future generations [22].  Local seed varieties, which have been developed and stored by rural communities for many years, must also be protected to ensure food sovereignty.  The patenting of seeds and the growth of a seed industry dominated by just a few companies decreases crop diversity and cultural diversity, with the loss of traditional customs of seed exchange [23]. (more on seed sovereignty…)

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La Via Campesina campaigns for policy change on the issues of food sovereignty, and has had a number of important successes.  Venezuela, Bolivia, Nepal, and Ecuador, for example, have all incorporated food sovereignty into their constitutions, with varying degrees of implementation, [24].  With support from La Via Campesina, Ecuador passed an Organic Law on Food Sovereignty, which bans genetically modified organisms, (although the law was partially vetoed by the president) [25].  More often, though, food sovereignty has been promoted from the grassroots. One of the most successful grassroots initiatives is La Movimiento Campesino a Campesino (farmer to farmer movement), which emerged in the dry highlands of Central America.  Eric Holt-Gimenez, now director of the organization Food First and the author of a book on Campesino a Campesino, tells a story from his time volunteering with an NGO in Mexico [26].  The organization tried to run farmer workshops to promote sustainable agriculture, but achieved only limited acceptance by the locals.  It seemed the farmers were remembering the last time foreigners had introduced new agricultural techniques: the high input Green Revolution methods that degraded their soils and failed to solve rural poverty.  Then Holt-Gimenez invited in a group of Guatemalan farmers, who taught sustainable techniques using stories and jokes, and encouraged the Mexicans to experiment and pass on their findings.  Coming from their fellow farmers, the Mexicans were much more willing to give it a try, and soon discovered the advantages of sustainable farming for themselves [27].

Farmers in the Campesino a Campesino movement teach each other to protect the environment and earn a living (Holt-Gimenez 2006)

This is how the Campesino a Campesino movement works.  Farmers organize informal gatherings, with food and music, where they share knowledge and create a strong sense of community.  At the larger exchanges, people often attend from several different countries.  By working together, instead of competing to produce the most food and make the most profit, they challenge “neoliberal notions of top-down agricultural management…and a purely economic notion of human relations,” [28].  The Campesino a Campesino movement embodies the concepts of food sovereignty because it gives the power back to the farmers, who learn to sustain themselves as a community, without outside help.

What is the future for food sovereignty? And can an organization like Growing Power, in Chicago, work alongside rural peasants in developing countries towards a common goal?

Growing Power and the Campesino a Campesino movement share many similarities.  Both focus on teaching sustainable agriculture techniques that protect the environment and that farmers can implement.  Both provide support from one community member to another, without the involvement of the government.

Growing Power also shares many of the same challenges faced by the food sovereignty movement as a whole.  The first is land access.  For several years, Growing Power has struggled with the city of Chicago to update zoning codes to allow for urban agriculture in more districts, and to permit the growing of food in vacant lots [29].  Rural peasants face the more drastic threat of the “global land grab,” where private investors buy large expanses of land overseas for industrial food production, forcing small farmers off the land [30].  In both the US and across the world, large agribusinesses are incredibly powerful, and often have influence over political decisions.  For example, Monsanto has close ties with the US government: several high-powered government officials have served on its board of directors, including a former U.S. secretary of agriculture and a Chairman of the House Agricultural Committee [31].   Corporations with interests in big agriculture will continue to oppose policies that detract from their markets or profits [32].  We live in a market-driven society where most transactions are based on profit.  It appears that food has become just another commodity to trade, and its price rarely reflects the true cost of production (because of subsidies), the cost on the environment, or the cost to peoples’ health [33].  What needs to happen next in order to create a new framework for the global food system?

("Stop Land Grabbing!" 2011)

The Future of Food Sovereignty

Based on the successes of many different organizations in diverse parts of the world and the recent growth in support for this movement, food sovereignty has potential to be successful.  Just a few years ago, the term “food sovereignty” hadn’t even been defined, and now it has entered the international political agenda, [34].  Evidence suggests that local sustainable production can produce food for the world and protect people’s livelihoods [35].  However, for a new framework to take hold, the food sovereignty movement needs to continue to increase in scale.  To use Growing Power’s term, the more Community Food Systems we create, the closer our global food system will come to a food sovereignty framework.  Working towards food sovereignty from a community level could start to alter the social and economic structure of our society from the bottom up, bypassing corporate interests and tipping the scales in favor of small farmers.  This effort could eventually build up enough support to bring about the needed policy changes.

Creating a sustainable food system from the grass-roots: Roquette (arugula) seedlings at Growing Power

The similarities between Growing Power, in urban Chicago, and the Campesino a Campesino movement in rural Central America, suggest they could have much to learn from each other.  Both organizations are already based on knowledge sharing and education within a community, but they could expand their communications globally and collaborate with each other and similar organizations to find the most effective ways of creating sustainable food systems.  Already, Growing Power hosts national conferences on food security, and receives visitors from abroad [36].  La Via Campesina also joins many groups across international boundaries.  Collaboration, instead of competition, is a key aspect of food sovereignty, so more networking between organizations across the world could accelerate progress towards the goals of the movement.

“What is motivating people to take on board food sovereignty? It is food insecurity, heating up of the planet, ecological crisis, longer food miles and the need for food quality and local economies.  These are citizens’ preoccupations, peoples’ preoccupations. La Via Campesina does not own food sovereignty.  Food sovereignty was not designed as a concept only for farmers, but for people—this is why we call it peoples’ food sovereignty.” 

- Paul Nicholson, International Coordinating Commission of La Via Campesina [37]

If food sovereignty is to become a reality, everyone must work together to bring it about.  One advantage to the broad definition of food sovereignty is that it allows for participation by many different groups, who can work together towards a common goal.  Poverty causes inequity in food access everywhere; everyone must buy food or grow it for themselves; and everyone is affected by changes in the environment [38].  Although success is far from certain, these powerful needs could join many people together and create the critical mass necessary to bring about change.

-Claire Wild



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2. “Number of World’s Hungry Tops a billion.” United Nations World Food Program. 19 June 2009. Web. 6 June 2012. <>.

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4. Schanbacher. 2010. 37.

5. Winne, Mark. Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2008. 185. Print.

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8. Patel, Raj. “Food Sovereignty.” Journal of Peasant Studies 36.3 2009. Print.

9. La Via Campesina. 1996.

10. “What is La Via Campesina?” La Via Campesina: International Peasant Movement. 2012. Web. 6 June, 2012. <>.

11. “What is La Via Campesina?” 2012.

12. “What is La Via Campesina?” 2012.

13. McMichael, Philip. “Food Sovereignty in Movement: Addressing the Triple Crisis.” Food Sovereignty: Reconnectiong Food, Nature and Community. Eds. Hannah Wittman, Annette A. Desmarais, and Nettie Wiebe. Oakland, CA: Food First Books, 2010. 168-181. Print.

14. La Via Campesina. 1996.

15. La Via Campesina. 1996.

16. Our World Is Not For Sale Coalition. Priority to Peoples’ Food Sovereignty. November 2001. Print.

17. La Via Campesina. 1996.

18. La Via Campesina. 1996.

19. Sustainable Peasant and Family Farm Agriculture can Feed the World. 2010. 3.

20. Smith, P., et al. “Agriculture.” Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Web.

21. Sustainable Peasant and Family Farm Agriculture can Feed the World. 2010. 8.

22. Schanbacher. 2010. 57.

23. Wittman, Hannah, Annette Desmarais, and Nettie Wiebe. “The Origins & Potential of Food Sovereignty.” Food Sovereignty: Reconnecting Food, Nature and Community. Oakland, CA: Food First Books, 2010. 11. Print.

24. Beauregard, Sadie. “Food Policy for People: Incorporating Food Sovereignty Principles into State Governance.” Urban and Environmental Policy, Occidental College, April 2009. 28. Print.

25. Wittman. 2010. 9.

26. Holt-Gimenez, Eric. Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America’s Farmer to Farmer Movement for Sustainable Agriculture. Oakland, CA: Food First Books, 2006. Print.

27. Holt-Ginenez. 2006.

28. Schanbaucher. 2010. 68.

29. Emanuel, Rahm. Amendment of Chapter 17-2 of Municipal Code regarding Urban Agriculture Uses. Office of the Mayor City of Chicago. Chicago: 2011. Web. Ordinance.

30. “Stop Land Grabbing! International Conference of Peasants and Farmers.” November 2011, Mali: La Via Campesina, April 2012. Print.

31. Schanbaucher. 2010. 47.

32. Wittman. 2010. 1-12.

33. Our World Is Not For Sale Coalition. 2001.

34. Wittman. 2010. 7.

35. Sustainable Peasant and Family Farm Agriculture can Feed the World. 2010. 8.

36. “Growing Power.” 2010.

37. Nicholson, Paul. “Food Sovereignty: Theory, Praxis and Power.” Workshop. Saskatoon: University of Saskatoon, November 2007.

38. Wittman. 2010. 1.