John Ikerd

Food Sovereignty: A New Agenda for the 2023 Farm Bill

The historical justification for farm policy and other public policies related to agriculture has been food security. Contrary to current indications, farm policies should serve the common interests of the public rather than the individual interest of farmers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life”. Unfortunately, the emphasis of both farm and food policy in the U.S. has been providing enough “calories” to support active lifestyles, while placing little emphasis on nutritional health.

Agricultural industrialization succeeded in reducing production costs [and food costs] but failed in its fundamental purpose of providing food security. The percentage of “food insecure” people in the U.S. today is greater today than during the 1960s, when the shift in farm policies began. The 1968 CBS video documentary, Hunger in America, referred to 10 million hungry American. The U.S. population in 1968 was 200 million, meaning about 5 percent of Americans were food insecure. The public outrage resulting from the documentary led to dramatic changes in food assistance programs, which virtually eliminated hunger within a decade. Forty-five years later, in 2013, 15% of adults were food insecure, and more than 20% of American children lived in food insecure homes.

Furthermore, the industrial food system is linked to a different kind of food security problem: unhealthy foods. A recent global report by 500 scientists from 50 countries suggested that “obesity is [now] a bigger health crisis than hunger”. The U.S. obesity rates in 2012 were 27% for adults, 18% for children, and 21% for adolescents. More than one-third of children and adolescents were either overweight or obese. Furthermore, obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents over the past 30 years — the era of agricultural industrialization. It’s clearly time for a new mandate for farm and food policy.

Food sovereignty is a term coined in 1996 by Via Campesina, an organization of 148 international organizations advocating family farm–based, sustainable agriculture. Food sovereignty is defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies.” It offers a strategy to resist, dismantle, and replace the current corporate trade and food regime. It promotes transparent trade and prioritizes local markets over national and global markets.

Food sovereignty also calls for “new social relations, free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social and economic classes and generations”. It “empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal-fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability”. Finally, “it defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation”.

Agricultural industrialization has failed to provide food security either in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world. It’s time for a new public policy mandate, domestically and internationally. Farm policies to ensure food sovereignty support self-determination, relocalization, beneficial trade, environmental protection, land stewardship, social justice, and intergenerational equity. Food sovereignty is the logical public policy mandate to support agricultural sustainability and a sustainable future for humanity.

Ikerd, J. (2015). THE ECONOMIC PAMPHLETEER: Food Sovereignty: New Mandate for Food and Farm Policy. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 5(2), 11-14.