Buen Vivir and Food Sovereignty: A Radical Future Beyond Food Insecurity?

In our masters blog, Matthew discusses the commodification of food and looks at international solutions to food insecurity.

Masters student blog series: Ideas and practice in International Development

By Matthew Rees

Matthew is currently a student on our MA International Development. Follow Matthew on Twitter.

For decades, rampant economic growth has been at the centre of the neo-colonialist development agenda. Under the guise of ‘modernisation’, powerful Western actors have continually implemented profit-maximising programmes of development in the Global South. In the hunt to produce constant growth, basic human needs have been commodified. 

Food exemplifies this. 

Agricultural sectors in Global South nations have been subject to ‘uneven subsidies and trade policies’ by Western corporations and governments (Clendenning, Dressler and Richards, 2016, p.167). By reconstructing domestic agricultural industries to being export-led, international markets are prioritised over creating sustainable systems of production for peasant farmers – thus affecting food security. The shift to monoculture has meant the prices of certain foods, like quinoa, have risen domestically to unaffordable levels for the same rural communities growing it. 

Yet, exploiting land for mass production has created other food related insecurities. Ecologically sustainable ways of living have been side-lined. Cultural identities have been lost. Human relations have been altered to focus on individualism, rather than cooperation. 

Fallen trees in a forest showing the effects of deforestation
"Deforestation in Ecuador" by A.Davey is marked with CC BY 2.0.

However, deriving from Latin America is an alternative to this hegemonic development discourse. Its name? Buen Vivir. 

Rejecting capitalism and individualism, Buen Vivir promotes ‘harmony between human beings and nature’. Guided by indigenous traditions, it reconceptualises human relations around the achievement of a happy and sustainable coexistence. Communitarianism is advocated, enabling healthy friendships and relationships with others to be maintained. Nature is treated as an essential part of the social world, thus ensuring its protection from exploitation (Gudynas, 2011). 

This rejection of mass production and intense competition can combat food insecurity. After all, Buen Vivir has an answer: food sovereignty

Protestors hold up a banner
"Representantes de la Via Campesina" by FAMSI is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

By empowering rural people to have autonomy over their food systems, food sovereignty equips communities in tackling poverty and hunger. It defends the right for communities to ‘produce and consume before trading the surplus’, as well as advocating international trade that is fair and cooperative, rather than coercive and growth-oriented. Fundamentally, food is rejected as a commodity and treated instead as a right (Huambachano, 2018). Recognising this revitalises traditional food practices, rejects exploitation from Western actors and advocates a biocentric set of social relations free from “oppression and inequality”. In decolonising the food system, food sovereignty ensures equity and sustainability - equally considering the interests of humans, animals and nature in the production process. 

However, is the localised nature of food sovereignty suited to providing global food security solutions? Can a universal strategy be implemented without a concrete framework in place (Villalba-Eguiluz, 2013)? At the domestic level, translating theory into policy has proved troublesome, with contradictory neo-extractivist policies being justified as ‘achieving’ Buen Vivir in Ecuador and Bolivia. 

Yet, this should not reduce Buen Vivir’s value. As a holistic development theory, it imagines radical futures beyond the norm that seem unattainable. However, food sovereignty is already global in reach. For example, La Via Campesina, the international peasant movement fighting for food sovereignty, has over 200 million members across 82 countries. Therefore, a popular decolonial movement that challenges the current food regime has already emerged. 

Ultimately, with ecological breakdown and food insecurity increasing, Buen Vivir is a hopeful alternative to the destructive status quo. 


Clendenning, J., Dressler, H. and Richards, C. (2016) ‘Food justice or food sovereignty? Understanding the rise of urban food movements in the USA,’ Agriculture Human Values, 33, pp.165-177. 

Gudynas, E. (2016) ‘Buen Vivir: Today’s Tomorrow’, Development, 54(4), pp.441-447. 

Huambachano, M. (2018) ‘Enacting food sovereignty in Aotearoa New Zealand and Peru: revitalizing Indigenous knowledge, food practices and ecological philosophies’, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 42(9), pp.1003-1028.

Villalba-Eguiluz, U. (2017) ‘Buen Vivir vs Development (II): The Limits of (Neo-)Extractivism’, Ecological Economics, 138, pp.1–11.

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