The movement to shift control of food systems to local governments and local communities, sometimes referred to as “food sovereignty,” has gained increased notoriety with the recent lawsuit filed against raw milk producer Dan Brown in Blue Hill, Maine.  “Food sovereignty,” as a concept and movement, is not new nor is it defined by local food movements such as the ones in Maine.

La Via Campesina’s “Food Sovereignty” Movement

La Via Campesina first defined the notion of food sovereignty at the World Food Summit in 1996.  La Via Campesina is “an international movement which brings together millions of peasants, small and medium-sized farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world.  It defends small-scale sustainable agriculture as a way to promote social justice and dignity.  It strongly opposes corporate driven agriculture and transnational companies that are destroying people and nature.”

La Via Campesina’s model of food sovereignty focuses on empowering the poor and other socially disadvantaged peoples to regain and maintain control over food systems.  Food sovereignty is a matter of food security and of fairness.  In 2003, La Via Campesina described food sovereignty as:


” … the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture; to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives; to determine the extent to which they want to be self reliant; to restrict the dumping of products in their markets … Food sovereignty does not negate trade, but rather, it promotes the formulation of trade policies and practices that serve the rights of peoples to safe, healthy and ecologically sustainable production.”

The document further asserts that it is the role of government to “uphold the rights of all peoples to food sovereignty and security, and adopt and implement policies that promote sustainable, family-based production rather than industry-led, high-input and export oriented production.”  In order to accomplish those goals, governments must address a number of issues, including food safety.

Food Safety as Part of Food Sovereignty

The food safety element of La Via Campesina’s food sovereignty declaration includes controlling pests and disease, protecting against environmental pollution, prohibiting the use of antibiotics and hormones in aquacultures, and banning irradiation of food.  Governments must establish food quality standards that reflect the culture and values of its people and establish quality control measures to comply with environmental, social and health quality standards.

Further, the declaration maintains that governments must “ensure that all food inspection functions are performed by appropriate and independent government bodies, and not by private corporations or contractors.”  La Via Campesina envisions governments having an active role in protecting and promoting food safety, and therefore food sovereignty.  

The Expansion of Food Sovereignty

The underlying problem La Via Campesina seeks to change is the degree of power and control that corporate interests have over food systems.  The focus is on localizing trade and providing local producers with access to their own markets.  In 2003, Peter Rosset, former Co-director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, wrote:

“… [w]hat Via Campesina and others say is that we face a clash of economic development models for the rural world.  The contrasts between the dominant model, based on agroexports, neoliberal economic policies, and free trade, versus the food sovereignty model, could not be more stark.  Where one model sees family farmers as an inefficient anachronism that should disappear with development, the other sees them as the basis of local economies and of national economic development.”

In 2011, in the face of continued corporate control and increasingly visible injustices within the food system, people around the world are taking action to regain control of their own food systems.  The original driving issues – land reform, ending harmful international trade agreements, removing corporate control of food systems, etc. – have remained the same.

How the food sovereignty movement manifests itself is shaped in large part by issues like the 2008 food riots and the Occupy Wall Street movement (called Occupy the Food System).  In the United States, this movement includes increased participation in urban gardening, farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, and school gardens, and through the promotion of sustainable, local economic development.

Maine’s “Food Sovereignty” Movement

The five towns in Maine that passed Local Food Ordinances in the past year are considered part of the food sovereignty movement in the United States.  These ordinances reject any state or federal involvement in the town’s local food production.  The ordinances are a response to allegedly over-burdensome regulations and a desire for the community to sell food to one another like they did one hundred years ago – without government interference.

One of the concerns driving these local food ordinances is fear that FDA will shut down things like church suppers and bake sales.  This is based on a misunderstanding of the law.  Setting aside the practicality of such action for FDA, the Food Safety Modernization Act exempts small local producers, farmers, and direct-to-consumer transactions from most federal regulations.  The FDA is not going to interfere with church suppers and bake sales.

However, what makes this lawsuit and the legality of these local food ordinances more complicated is that Dan Brown was selling raw milk.  Raw milk is a hot-button issue with passions running high on both sides.  Raw milk cannot be sold interstate, as per FDA rules, but each state has the authority to decide whether raw milk can be sold within its borders and how to regulate its production and sale.

Maine allows the sale of raw milk as long as certain licensing and inspection procedures are followed.  According to the State, Brown did not comply with those procedures and a sample of raw milk tested from his dairy was found to have levels of bacteria high above the state’s standards.  This is not only an issue
of government involvement i
n food but of food safety.

Reconciling “Food Sovereignty” with Maine’s Local Food Ordinances

The desire to place control over local food systems and transactions in the hands of local people is an important one.  The part of the Maine movement to empower, support, and grow local producers is something that should be pursued.  It is also something that falls squarely within the goals of the food sovereignty movement.

However, advocating for no government oversight of the food system is less aligned with food sovereignty and more aligned with something like a Libertarian perspective.  It is ok for these Maine towns to take that stance, but to call it “food sovereignty” is misleading.  

The food sovereignty movement as envisioned by La Via Campesina does not reject government involvement – especially in food safety.  It seeks thoughtful, smart, and necessary regulation that will not harm the development of local markets.  Ensuring a safe food supply – for example, by testing each batch of raw milk to ensure its safety – is something that La Via Campesina would likely support.

Whether you call the local food ordinances “food sovereignty” or something else, the issue of food safety must be taken into account.  The supporters of the local food ordinances need to identify the specific regulations that are too burdensome and come up with ways to lessen the burden, rather than reject outright all government involvement.  If what the supporters in Maine are seeking truly is no government regulation or no oversight of the food system, they need look no further than China to see the potential consequences.


Alli Condra is pursuing her LL.M. in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas. She is the 2011-12 recipient of the Marler Clark Graduate Assistantship.