Food sovereignty is a comprehensive policy outline and theoretical framework designed to help redefine food systems. It strives to have producers and consumers be at the center of food policy decisions, and it embraces sustainable agriculture practices such as agroecology as effective means of environmental preservation and restoration. Yet it too often overlooks the power of distribution networks as mechanisms for reshaping food systems. And this is something that should change moving forward for these movements to have success in redefining how the world produces, distributes and consumes food.

The Food Sovereignty movement takes a rights-based approach to food, and it’s centered around ensuring quality, nutritious and culturally appropriate foods to all people at all times.

In institutional transformation, there are two dominant approaches: top-down and bottom-up. Top-down change relies on technocratic suggestions implemented by political leaders to reform institutional structure and performance, whereas bottom-up approaches depend on distilling institutional structure from cultural norms and practices, relying mainly on incentives and social movements to create change.

Both approaches are necessary for meaningful change, yet neither is sufficient. And although progress has been made, widespread food system reform is still a ways away, suggesting a need for a new, or different, approach. Instead of bottom-up or top-down, implementing an “inside-out” method would help magnify the efforts of food justice movements around the world to create meaningful and long-lasting change.

The inside-out approach consists of recognizing and fortifying existing market structures that embody food justice or Food Sovereignty principles so as to amplify their effect on food systems as a whole. It centers on helping these market structures mature to the point where they can exist independent from the dominant system, while still exerting influence on how it works. Direct selling agreements, farmers’ markets, localized contract farming, and increased institutional support for urban and local agriculture initiatives are all mechanisms that would support an inside-out approach.

These arrangements are known as “nested markets.” They exist within but separate from the dominant market, and they are often designed around implementing some sort of social change. Research from China, the European Union and Brazil has shown nested markets to be an effective tool for rural development.

Yet nested markets are not limited to this environment. They can be easily adapted to any setting where there is interest in food system change.

Nested markets are essentially pockets of socially-motivated producer/consumer relationships. Creating them to model the principles of food justice movements can produce an environment for these initiatives to thrive alongside the dominant market, something that must happen to make meaningful change in food systems.

Evidence from Barcelona, Spain shows a path forward for this approach. The municipality’s “Food Policy Impulse Strategy” is designed to correct the trade imbalance of Catalan food systems (Catalonia is the autonomous region of which Barcelona is the capital), and also to embrace and support agriculture as a viable means of environmental conservation and urban development. It seeks to identify and reinforce existing nested market structures, specifically consumer-driven direct seller institutions, sometimes referred to as Community Supported Agriculture.

Direct-selling arrangements allow farmers to pursue alternative forms of agriculture with considerably less risk. Expanding on these types of arrangements enhances their competitiveness against dominant food systems, creating change from the “inside-out,” instead of from the bottom or top.

This approach promises to be more effective since it’s less dependent on politics and is not concerned with changing what people do. Instead, the focus is on empowering existing efforts so that they can make more noise in the wider market. As this happens, these structures become more mainstream and better poised to influence the entire system.

Food Sovereignty and other food justice movements have an inspiring worldview and an acute understanding of the diverse obstacles faced by people around the world. Their “think global, act local” focus could be a way to help unify people from across the planet around something we all need, food, for something we all want, more harmony with nature.

Adapting the approach of these movements to better reflect an inside-out strategy would help support the many groups and individuals around the world already working hard to make food systems more just and environmentally responsible.

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