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Rethinking the right to food: how the Food Sovereignty Movement (Via Campesina) challenges the human rights system

Author: Valeria Faraoni (2023)

Valeria Faraoni is a recent graduate from the master’s degree in Human Rights and Multilevel Governance. This In Focus article is an excerpt from her master thesis discussed in October 2022 under the supervision of Prof. Paolo De Stefani. She keeps working and researching on the topics of her thesis through her volunteering with Altromercato and the Organic District of Fiesole.



The article explores the efforts of the Food Sovereignty Movement (FSM) to recognize a new human right to food sovereignty and peasants’ rights in the UN human rights system, as an alternative to existing human rights standards and food security strategies. The movement obtained a major success in 2018 when the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP), which recognized food sovereignty and peasants’ rights in international law. By comparing documents elaborated by the FSM with instruments of international human rights law protecting the right to food and other rights related to agriculture, the article tries to understand whether the human rights framework, once reviewed and expanded according to food sovereignty principles, is sufficient to achieve food security and the right to food or whether a more radical approach, as proposed by the FSM, is necessary.

What is food sovereignty?

The idea of food sovereignty emerged in the 1980s among rural communities in Latin America, hit by structural adjustment programs of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and by trade agreements of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Presented as an alternative to an economic system based on neoliberalism, food sovereignty condemned a globalized food system tightly controlled by international institutions, developed countries and transnational corporations. Food sovereignty was firstly presented on the international scene at the NGO Forum to the World Food Summit (Rome, 1996) and it soon became the framework used by different actors across the world fighting for a change of the food system.

The most famous definition of food sovereignty is contained in the Nyéléni Declaration (2007) which defines it 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”. A key word to understand food sovereignty is ‘sovereignty’. In Rosset’s words, “feeding a nation’s people is an issue of national security – of sovereignty. If the people of a country must depend for their next meal on the vagaries of the global economy, on the goodwill of a superpower not to use food as a weapon, or on the unpredictability and high cost of long-distance shipping, that country is not secure in the sense of either national security or food security”. This is why the FSM have always opposed the inclusion of agriculture into WTO trade negotiations. The position of the FSM towards international trade exposed the movement to many critics. However, the FSM is not against international trade tout court. Instead, it points out that in a neoliberal context, States cannot regulate food markets. Although only 6-15% of agricultural goods are sold internationally, price volatility of international markets influences domestic markets, with only a few enterprises benefiting from this condition. Therefore, the FSM advocates to transform “the exclusive market-driven agenda” of the WTO into “a human rights-driven set of international trade regulations”, under the auspices of the UN.

This position distances food sovereignty from food security. According to FAO, “food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. Scholars, like Claeys, explain that UN food security strategies see “hunger as a technical problem that is best addressed by productivist, market and trade focused solutions” reinforcing the “corporate food regime”. There is little or no attention to where, how and by whom food is produced. Conversely, food sovereignty promotes a process of democratization of the food system that goes well beyond achieving food security and protecting the right to food. It includes an element of social transformation where the right to food and peasants’ rights are protected.

The existing human rights framework

The UN human rights system protects several rights related to food and agriculture. The starting point is the right to food. The right to food is protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, 1966) that in Article 11 recognizes the right to an adequate standard of living, including food, and the right to be free from hunger. General Comment No.12 (1999) of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) further expands the meaning of Article 11 explaining that food should be economically and physically accessible, available in sufficient quantity and quality, adequate to the context where it is consumed and sustainable. Moreover, States should address all aspects of the food system and adopt parallel measures in the field of health, education, employment, and social security. FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines to support the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security (2004) provided States with additional guidance. Next to the promotion of economic and rural development, sustainable and small-scale agriculture, FAO stressed that agricultural trade policies had to be in line with WTO trade agreements. This point has been contested not only by the FSM but also by the former Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, arguing that hunger and malnutrition cannot be solved without addressing some structural elements of the existing food system such as the existence of big and powerful agribusinesses, trade liberalization and property rights.

The right to food is inextricably linked to other human rights. General Comment No.36 of the Human Rights Committee (2019) links the right to food to the right to life, affirming that states must “address the general conditions in society that may give rise to direct threats to life” such as environmental degradation, deprivation of land, hunger, malnutrition, and poverty. The right to food is also correlated to the right to natural resources, which in turn is an essential component of the right to self-determination and of the right to development. The right to natural resources is also protected by FAO International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (2001) and UNDROP and it has been further elaborated to include the right to water, land, and seeds. The right to water is the subject of General Comment No.15 of CESCR (2002), explaining that, although not explicitly mentioned in Article 11 ICESCR, water is essential to the realization of the right to an adequate standard of living. The first mention of the right to water in a treaty is in UNDROP. The right to land is protected in instruments related to Indigenous Peoples and in UNDROP. Furthermore, the right is currently under discussion with the Draft General Comment on Land and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of CESCR. At present, the only human rights instrument protecting the right to seeds is UNDROP.

This brief overview shows that the human rights system has continuously evolved to better protect human rights. However, it also shows that before UNDROP there was a significant gap in protecting rights related to agriculture.

The right to food sovereignty and peasants’ rights

One of the key actors of the FSM is La Via Campesina (LVC), a global social movement of peasants founded in 1993 by 46 farm leaders from Central America, the Caribbean, North America, and Europe. Today, LVC counts 182 organizations in 81 countries with over 200 “millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, women farmers, landless people, Indigenous People, migrants and agricultural workers and youth”. In the early 2000, LVC started campaigning to recognize food sovereignty and peasants’ rights in human rights law. LVC feared that the UN, dominated by a liberal, state-centered, and individualist conception of rights, could hinder “the subversive potential” of the FSM. However, it still believed it was important to advance its claim in this forum. LVC developed a new conception of rights that emphasizes collective over individual rights and targets “the various decision-making levels where food and agricultural governance issues ought to be deliberated”. Therefore, the ‘sovereign’ or right-holder of the right to food sovereignty can be peasants, people, Indigenous People, or States. Duty-bearers can be States or private actors. The identification of right-holders and duty-bearers depends on where the right is negotiated and in which legal framework.

In 2012, LVC presented a draft declaration to the UNHRC and an open-ended intergovernmental working group was created to continue the work. After years of negotiation, in December 2018 the UN General Assembly adopted UNDROP with 121 votes in favor, 8 against and 54 abstentions. Given the worsening conditions experienced by peasants in developed and developing countries, the declaration recognized them as a vulnerable group in international law. According to UNDROP, peasants are entitled to existing and new human rights, such as the right to natural resources, land, seeds, biodiversity, water, food, and food sovereignty. In UNDROP, food sovereignty is intended as “a means to realize a conception of the right to adequate food that encompasses the respect of other peasants’ rights whilst pursuing food security”. It “consists of a duty for States to develop their food and agriculture policies in collaboration with peasants and other people working in rural areas, providing participative mechanisms for their inclusion in the decision-making processes”.

The adoption of UNDROP has been defined as a “unique exercise in law-making from below”. Since LVC did not have a consultative status in the UNHRC, the support of actors inside the Council, like FIAN International and former Special Rapporteurs on the right to food, was pivotal. LVC considers UNDROP only the starting point of its fight to change the food system. However, since 2018 food sovereignty and peasants’ rights are officially part of international human rights law and “can be considered a reference point with regards to the standards that are discussed and the policies to develop”.


The debate is now open on whether the right to food sovereignty should be viewed as a new conceptualization of the right to adequate food or as a new human right. Scholars supporting the first view argue that there are significant overlaps between the right to food and the right to food sovereignty. Hence, they suggest purging food sovereignty of some radical elements, and considering it as a new conceptualization of the right to adequate food. Since the right to adequate food has been long recognized in the human rights system, by including elements of food sovereignty in the right to food, for instance through a new general comment, food sovereignty could really make its way before international bodies.

Those who support the second view argue that considering the right to food sovereignty as a new conceptualization of the right to adequate food, would imply to significantly dilute its meaning. As the food crisis that hit the world since the 1970s showed, the existing food system based on industrial agriculture and free trade, is too fragile and unequal and food security strategies did not solve nor improve hunger and malnutrition. On the contrary, according to the latest data by FAO, the number of hungry and malnourished people in the world has continuously grown reaching “828 million in 2021, an increase of about 46 million since 2020”. Maybe it is time to try with a different and more radical model. The road ahead may be still long. However, the concept of food sovereignty is clearly entering into the human rights discourse and LVC is ready to continue the struggle and to overcome the non-legally binding nature of UNDROP.

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