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Framing transformation: the counter-hegemonic potential of food sovereignty in the US context


Originally created by the international peasant movement La Vía Campesina, the concept of “food sovereignty” is being used with increasing frequency by agrifood activists and others in the Global North. Using the analytical lens of framing, I explore the effects of this diffusion on the transformative potential of food sovereignty. US agrifood initiatives have recently been the subject of criticism for their lack of transformative potential, whether because they offer market-based solutions rather than demanding political ones or because they fail to adequately address existing social injustice. In this paper, I consider how food sovereignty measures up to this critique both as it was originally framed by Vía Campesina and as it is being reframed for the US context. First I briefly compare food sovereignty to community food security (CFS), which was developed more explicitly for the North American context and has been criticized for its lack of transformative potential. I then explore how the potential of food sovereignty has been affected as it is reframed to resonate with US audiences through an examination of its use on the web sites of US-based organizations. I find that, while some reframing of the concept to highlight consumer choice does seem to be occurring, it remains a primarily political concept. It may not, however, be fulfilling its potential for addressing social injustice in the US agrifood system because it tends to be used either in reference to international issues or, when applied to the US context, treated as a rough synonym for local control. I conclude that, if advocates can successfully guide the reframing process, food sovereignty could serve as a valuable counter-hegemonic vision to complement the more pragmatic and locally-grounded work of CFS advocates.

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  1. The organizations included in my sample were: ActionAid USA, Africa Action, Agricultural Missions, Americas Program, Bioneers, Center of Concern, Dane County Food Council, Drumlin Garden, Equal Exchange, Family Farm Defenders, Fellowship of Reconciliation, First Nations Development Institute, Food and Water Watch, Food First, Food for Maine’s Future, Food Systems Network NYC, Global Envision, Global Exchange, Global Governance Watch, Grassroots International, Headwaters Food Sovereignty Council, Heifer International, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), International Indian Treaty Council, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Kitchen Gardeners International, Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative, National Catholic Rural Life Conference, National Family Farms Coalition (NFFC), North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), Oakland Institute, Ohio State University Students for Food Sovereignty, Organic Consumers Association, Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), Policy Innovations, Presbyterian Church USA (PC USA), Public Citizen, Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Slow Food USA, South Central Farmers, Tribal Connections, Vermont Commons, Vermont Compost Company, White Dog Café, World Hunger Year.

    This sample did not capture every single U.S. organization which has mentioned “food sovereignty” on their web sites. In subsequent searches I have found isolated references on the web sites of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Local Harvest, and Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-Vt). However, it seems to represent the vast majority of the organizations of interest.

  2. The Boarder Agricultural Workers Project, for instance, falls into the category of groups which have participated in framing activities but did not actually reference the concept on their web site.

  3. Vía Campesina’s original definition of food sovereignty, released during the World Food Summit (WFS) in 1996, reads:

    Food sovereignty is the right of each nation to maintain and develop its own capacity to produce its basic foods respecting cultural and productive diversity. We have the right to produce our own food in our own territory. (Vía Campesina 1996: 1)

    More frequently cited, however, is the definition produced by the NGO/CSO Forum for Food Sovereignty at the World Food Summit: Five Years Later (WFS:fyl) in 2002.

    Food Sovereignty is the RIGHT of peoples, communities, and countries to define their own agricultural, labor, fishing, food and land policies which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances. It includes the true right to food and to produce food, which means that all people have the right to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food and to food-producing resources and the ability to sustain themselves and their societies. (NGO/CSO Forum for Food Sovereignty 2002: 2)


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Correspondence to Madeleine Fairbairn.

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Fairbairn, M. Framing transformation: the counter-hegemonic potential of food sovereignty in the US context. Agric Hum Values 29, 217–230 (2012).

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  • Food sovereignty
  • Alternative agriculture
  • Community food security
  • Food movements