Advancing Food Sovereignty to Transform Economies

Photo: Mamadou Goïta

Edited by Simone Adler and Beverly Bell

From an Interview with Mamadou Goïta

Mamadou Goïta is a development socio-economist from Mali and Executive Director of Institute for Research and Promotion of Alternatives in Development (IRPAD), a member of the regional coordinating group of the Coalition to Protect African Genetic Heritage (COPAGEN), and a local advisor for the New Field Foundation.

Food sovereignty can transform local, national, and regional markets to support countries’ domestic economies and allow us to create wealth, both in production and knowledge.

Building Global Food Sovereignty

Current international debates on feeding the world center on financial viability and making global agriculture profitable. Production is oriented towards international markets, which compromise the food sovereignty of many countries.

No country can survive orienting itself towards international markets because producers don’t decide the price. States give money to banks to support agroindustry, which is exploiting the population. As soon as fragile countries like those of the Sahel in West Africa are disconnected from the local and national market, they no longer have the right to exist. The international market is not made for us.

We [in the food sovereignty movement] are in the midst of developing the food web, a concept that local products should let the population of that area feed itself first. These local food systems are linked with local markets. When local markets are well-provisioned, they’ll feed national markets, which will feed regional markets in places like West Africa. This doesn’t exclude the international market, but it does not prioritize it.

Seventy percent of the food in the world comes from family farms, from local herders, from artisanal fishers. We ask the authorities to support the organization of local food systems as food webs, and help us create a local to national to regional market ladder. Public investment needs to be oriented toward local systems for access to food and equipment. Small producers also need social infrastructure such as health, education, clean water, as well as different modes of production.

The international market can be useful for industrial products, when production in the country is given first priority and jobs are created. But when we speak of grains and providing food security, we have to prioritize local food systems. Instead of worrying about what the United States wants, we concern ourselves with what the population wants first.

Food sovereignty addresses the question of the market through age-old agricultural exchange. There is interdependence between the producer of millet, sorghum, and corn; the herder; the small fisherman. They all use the same resources, the same land for agriculture, grazing, or fishery. This creates interactions between [social] movements of herders, small peasant producers, fishermen, agricultural workers, and movements of those who want fair trade. The relations and communications between movements play an important role in building a strong global coalition for food sovereignty.

Farmer-Led Participatory Research

We are conserving biodiversity and soil fertility. We are practicing agroecology with important scientific knowledge like agroforestry and water distribution, which allows us to diversify and produce much more than we could before. This form of agriculture has economic, social, and cultural viability.

The concept of food sovereignty was declared for the first time by La Via Campesina at a summit [in 1996]. [But] the work had to emerge from participation, reflection, and formulation from the movement on the ground. We have established the principles and a declaration for food sovereignty, but there’s a lot of research to do on the conditions required to make food sovereignty a reality.

This research can’t be done in the classical form. It must [integrate] peasant knowledge. It must allow herders, farmers, and small fisherman to identify alternatives in terms of access to land, means of production, and relationships between farmers and buyers. It’s necessary for researchers from the lab to allow [peasant farmers] to be the primary researchers in the field, because they have developed the tools, such as improved seeds for food crops. We orient research toward the conservation of peasant seeds, so they don’t have to buy products from a multinational corporation like Monsanto or Syngenta. As soon as they [peasant farmers] have a problem, [these corporations] completely destabilize their production. [Therefore,] peasant farmers themselves become researchers at the heart of the system, determining where to go with the practices of food sovereignty.

Women: The Heart of Food Sovereignty

Women are the heart of the food sovereignty movement. Supporting women means supporting the national seed system and valuing local food processing and products. The local economy is concentrated on women, who play a fundamental role in agronomy, processing food into powders, flour, dried fruit, juice, etc. Eighty to ninety percent of those making these products are women. Women also have an essential role as herders; milking animals and helping the animal give birth.

Women are the first to suffer if there are local problems related to food. Very often, men can run off to the city and survive, but women generally stay with the children. Therefore, equity for women is a fundamental dimension of the movement. We organize, create schools, and advance food sovereignty with serious consideration for women to have greater or equal representation. Youth, our future, are also key actors.

At the foundation of food sovereignty is access to resources such as seeds. In my culture, seeds are managed much more by women than by men. This is because the seed is the symbol of the continuity of life, of the beliefs and knowledge held by women. It’s from the sowing of seeds that the order of the field takes shape, that everything is well aligned. We value this local knowledge maintained by women.

As we organize, we are transforming small peasant organizations into a global social movement that defends food sovereignty and its principles, integrating wealth creation with sustainability.

This is the third article in a series which features interviews with grassroots African leaders working for seed and food sovereignty, the decolonization of Africa’s food system, and the preservation of traditional farming practices. This series is made possible with support from New Field Foundation and Grassroots International. Many thanks to Emily Reisman for translation of the interview.