Reflections on Nyeleni and European Food Sovereignty
By Christopher Yap
We recognise that land, food and labour are treated as commodities within the global capitalist system. Land and food have become means of mass-speculation in international markets, whilst labour is valued only in terms of efficiency, productivity, and output. Nowhere are these trends felt more acutely than in the day-to-day lives of peasant and small-scale farmers. In the past five years, international trade agreements have served to consolidate power in the hands of transnational agricultural corporations, whilst unsustainable agriculture and eating-practices are more prevalent than ever before. It is in this context, that we must grasp the significance of European food sovereignty.
Food sovereignty is the right of people to define their own food systems including where the food is produced, how, and by whom. Since 1992, Via Campesina, the global organisation for the food sovereignty movement, has been working to protect and realise the rights of small-scale farmers, peasants, pastoralists and fisherfolk around the world. The European Coordination of Via Campesina (ECVC) is a relative newcomer to the global food sovereignty movement, and the Nyeleni forum, first held in 2011, represents an unparalleled opportunity to build and strengthen the movement.
The second Nyeleni forum took place in Cluj-Napoca, Romania in October 2016. Seven-hundred peasants, small scale farmers, NGO representatives, and researchers met to share experiences, build a common understanding of food sovereignty, and develop a strategic action plan for strengthening food sovereignty in Europe. The forum was organised around five thematic axes: production and consumption; food distribution; work and social conditions; natural resources and commons; and public policies for food sovereignty. Discussions were far reaching and sessions covered a multitude of topics, including agroecology, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), marginalisation and inclusion, food waste, and the democratisation of agricultural research. Through these conversations, it felt as though a number of common ideas emerged.
The first is that while it is important to consider agricultural policy – and especially to mobilise around the CAP, still the overarching framework for European agriculture – it is critical to start to think in terms of a more holistic food policy. Whilst Via Campesina began predominantly as a movement for producers, today the movement includes diverse constituencies from the entire food chain, from production and processing, to distribution and consumption. In order to realise food sovereignty, food policy needs to be developed that recognises both the interconnectedness of food systems and the specificity of issues affecting each link in the food chain.
Another idea to emerge was the importance of understanding and communicating the true cost of food. This requires us not only to think more broadly about the environmental impacts of industrial versus agroecological food production, but also to think more holistically about the social value of food and food systems. Initiatives included better food labelling, support for Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), and the sharing of reflections and experiences across the food sovereignty movement where food is a right, and not a commodity.
Also to emerge from a number of discussions was the will and desire to connect, strategically and in solidarity, with other social movements across Europe, for whom food may be a significant, but not central issue. These might include land-rights groups, migrant and refugee networks, urban food justice coalitions, zero-waste movements, and trade unions. Such convergences represent critical opportunities to strengthen not only the food sovereignty movement, but also other groups marginalised or affected by the prevailing global economic logic.
Overall, the Nyeleni forum was remarkable both for the diversity of participants and perspectives, and for the scope and depth of discussions. However the forum was not entirely unproblematic. The vast majority of participants represented rural interests, and discussions reflected minimal critical engagement with urban processes. This is strategically significant as cities and urban inhabitants are increasing becoming the target of food sovereignty campaigns and advocacy, but it is also theoretically problematic, as the process of urbanisation (and uneven, unjust urban development) is driven by the same fundamental political and economic processes that affect small-scale rural farmers. To frame discussions in terms of rural-urban, producer-consumer, us and them, creates dichotomies that are not only false, but are potential barriers to the realisation of food sovereignty.
With this said, the European Food Sovereignty movement is beginning to articulate a vision of food sovereignty that reflects the diversity and magnitude of challenges facing European food systems. Based on the knowledge and experience of small-scale farmers and social movements, ECVC is challenging injustices in the food system and beyond. It is the responsibility of local and national governments, NGOs, policy-makers, and academic institutions to recognise and respond to their mission.
Christopher Yap is a PhD Candidate and Participatory Video-Maker at Coventry University Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience. His project, “Urban agriculture and the right to the city” explores how urban citizens self-organise to reclaim urban space, access land, and transform urban food systems. Christopher attended the Nyeleni Forum as a Junior Researcher with the Hands on the Land Alliance as part of a project exploring the role of urban policies for food sovereignty. Images by C Yap. Contact: email@example.com