“Creativity and feeding the world” / Irmi Salzer

Rethinking food systems

— Irmi Salzer

How can we succeed in developing an agriculture and food system that offers a fair, autonomous opportunity to people in all regions of the world? What concepts and ideas are already available, and what role do creative approaches play here at the local and global level?

The global movement for food sovereignty is working to create fundamental change in our agrarian and food system. Food production and distribution must be democratised and re-organised.

Our agricultural and food system is currently facing a multifaceted crisis. This crisis, which can only be understood in connection with many other crises (the financial market, energy, climate, raw material, economic, democracy crisis, etc.) is manifest on the one hand in that globally, around 900 million people are starving – and not only in developing and threshold countries. On the other, it is reflected in the fact that in industrial countries, too, and even particularly there, an increasing number of people have no access to varied, high-quality food that is appropriate to the culture. The fact that in the EU and the US, both of which contribute to the problem of hunger in countries in the southern hemisphere through their exports there, are also suffering from food poverty, is a result of decreasing loans, rising unemployment and the erosion of welfare state systems, as well as an expression of an agrarian and food system that is aligned towards profit interests to a profound degree.

Food sovereignty – for a different agrarian and food system worldwide!

The concept of food sovereignty was presented by La Via Campesina, the global alliance of small farmers, land workers, fishermen, landless and indigenous peoples, at the World Food Summit of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) in 1996. Since then, it has been the political leitmotif of a growing number of actors from a range of different sectors in society: movements, initiatives and organisations from farming, environmental protection, human rights organisations, consumer and women’s movements and urban movements are fighting worldwide for a fundamental reorganisation of our agrarian and food system.

Food sovereignty is a pioneering concept that must be constantly adapted and democratically further developed to meet the respective social, economic and spatial challenges. It came about following criticism of the technical term of food security, which is used by institutions such as the FAO or the World Bank and which ignores production conditions, power and mechanisms of authority within the agrarian and food system. Agriculture which is based on monocultures and industrial-scale livestock farming, which pollutes the soil and water and damages the climate, and which requires migrants as poorly paid labourers living in precarious conditions is, according to the food security approach, just as capable of guaranteeing food security as a sustainable, cycle-based form of land management that is based on the sensitive use of resources.

By contrast, food sovereignty is the right among all people to good-quality, culturally appropriate food which has been produced using sustainable production methods, and the right of all people, nations and state communities to determine their food and agrarian policy themselves. Food sovereignty is based on the establishment of local and regional production systems which are interlinked in many different ways, the strengthening of local control, involvement in designing the systems, and international solidarity – and thus on grassroots democratisation of the social, ecological and economic conditions that characterise the agricultural and food system.

Food sovereignty in practice – tradition, innovation and creativity

The purpose of initiatives and movements that aim to generate and anchor food sovereignty as a day-to-day practice is the assumption of responsibility – for the basis of our existence, for future generations, and also and above all for the current state of our agrarian and food system. By (further) developing alternative practices, they work on an emancipatory social model that is aligned to a supportive way of living together.

Food sovereignty practices exist at the local, regional and global level. In the field of production, adaptable (resilient) agroecological methods of production are tested which use seedfast, regionally appropriate, seeds that are not genetically modified, and adapted technologies that reduce dependence on oil in agricultural production and are based on recycling.

Progress in productivity, which is of great importance in the southern hemisphere in particular, is based on the promotion and development of farming agriculture. Innovative and participative training and further education offers, which include traditional knowledge as an equally valid component, play a key role here. Not least, the focus is on building up and further developing urban agriculture concepts.

In the area of food supply and distribution, producerconsumer networks are being established, whereby the standard markets are replaced e.g. by supportive relationships. In this way, for example, in CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture¹) projects, products and prices are decoupled from each other, and the risk (such as crop failure) is borne jointly by the producers and the members of the initiative. Purchasing communities, known as food cooperatives, are based on the voluntary commitment of their members, and aim to guarantee a basic income for the producers. In many such initiatives, surpluses are processed jointly and are distributed among those who need them. In order to enable everyone to participate and to facilitate inclusion, prices are set in a supportive environment, membership fees are staggered, or the initiatives function overall according to the principle of “everyone gives what they can (and takes what they need)”. Community certification systems (Participatory Guarantee Systems, PGS²) based on mutual consultation replace state control, creative direct marketing concepts such as share models (“sheep shares”³, animal sponsorships, “cheese not interest”, square-meter purchasing) guarantee that small operations, too, can continue their existence, and involve the consumers in taking on responsibility.

In order to interrupt the race for land and soil, and to make the land accessible to everyone who wants to manage it, models are being developed that take land away from the capitalist usage cycle and promote common usage forms (“commons”). In order to guarantee access to resources and try out alternative social organisation models in practice, intercultural gardens and people’s kitchens (“Volxküchen”) are being set up, community courtyards and cooperation between farmers are being established, community planting campaigns and land occupation are being organised, and so on.

By facilitating emancipatory processes, the aim is to enable citizens to participate actively and with equal rights in the design of the political framework conditions of the agrarian and food system. Base-oriented political education work, learning together and collective political action, as well as alternative education networks, are ensuring the knowledge is passed on “at eye level”, and create spaces for all those involved in the agrarian and food system to meet. Despite their inventiveness, their level of commitment and the fact that they are growing in number, the initiatives and movements for food sovereignty are not yet in a position to stop the capitalist agrarian and food system and its mechanisms of exclusion and repression. Learning from each other, sharing experiences, implementing exchange mechanisms, showing solidarity and courage, a willingness to act and creativity – these are the main challenges facing a movement that has not only set itself the goal of achieving “good-quality food”, but “a good life for all”. Or, as the delegates at the first European forum for food sovereignty, “Nyéléni Europe 2011” in Krems, put it: “We are convinced that food sovereignty is not only a step towards a change in our food and agricultural systems, but it is also a first step towards a broader change in our societies.” (declaration of Nyéléni Europe, August 2011).


The author

DIin Irmi Salzer studied landscape architecture at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna. Since 2002, she has run a small organic farm with her partner and three children in the Südburgenland region; since 2006, she has lectured in press and publicity work at the ÖBV-Via Campesina Austria. In this role, she is a member of the “Stop TTIP” and “Wir haben es satt!” (“We’ve had enough!”) platforms, and  is working towards a socially just and environmental reorientation of the agrarian and food system.

1 CSA= Community Supported Agriculture, Online URL: www.solidarische-landwirtschaft.org/ (Stand: 01.09.2016).
2 Online URL: http://www.ifoam.bio/en/organic-policy-guarantee/participatory-guarantee-systems-pgs 
(Stand: 01.09.2016).
3 Online URL: http://bioschaf.at/schaf-aktie/ (Stand: 01.09.2016). 
4 Online URL: http://kaslabn.at/ (Stand: 01.09.2016).
5 Online URL: http://www.labonca.at/genussscheine/ (Stand: 01.09.2016).
6 Online URL: http://www.nyelenieurope.net/publications/nyeleni-europe-declaration-2011 (Stand: 01.09.2016).