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‘Food sovereignty’ has become a mobilizing frame for social movements, a set of legal norms and practices aimed at transforming food and agriculture systems, and a free- floating signifier filled with varying kinds of content. Canonical accounts credit the Vía Campesina transnational agrarian movement with coining and elaborating the term, but its proximate origins are actually in an early 1980s Mexican government program. Central American activists nonetheless appropriated and redefined it in the late 1980s. Advocates typically suggest that ‘food sovereignty’ is diametrically opposed to ‘food security’, but historically there actually has been considerable slippage and overlap between these concepts. Food sovereignty theory has usually failed to indicate whether the ‘sovereign’ is the nation, region or locality, or ‘the people’. This lack of specificity about the sovereign feeds a reluctance to think concretely about the regulatory mechanisms necessary to consolidate and enforce food sovereignty, particularly limitations on long-distance and international trade and on firm and farm size. Several regulatory possibilities are mentioned and found wanting. Finally, entrenched consumer needs and desires related to internationally- traded products – from coffee to pineapples – imply additional obstacles to the localisation of production, distribution and consumption that many food sovereignty proponents support.


This work was originally published in the Journal of Peasant Studies.



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