Food Sovereignty

Raymond Aquino Macapagal

Food sovereignty is a term that refers to the right of a people to manage their own food systems and foodways.

Raymond Aquino Macapagal is an Assistant Professor who teaches Gastronomy and Cultural Heritage at the University of the Philippines – Diliman. He has a Master in Food Culture and Communication degree from the University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo and a Master in World Heritage at Work from the University of Turin. He is currently a PhD student in Indigenous Studies at the University of the Philippines – Baguio, and is working with indigenous Ifugao farmers to develop community-based tourism in the UNESCO World Heritage Batad Rice Terraces Cluster Cultural Landscape.

Heirloom Tinawon Rice Farming in the Philippine Cordilleras: Resisting Commercialized Seeds

Sovereignty is a political concept usually used in reference to states, countries, or territories. It refers to how a ruler, a group of persons, or governments have supreme governing power over the affairs of a particular place. For example, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei is an absolute monarch who has sovereign power over the affairs of his country. The term is also important in international relations. An independent country, for example, must respect the sovereignty of another independent country by not invading it or meddling in its affairs.

In the same way that political sovereignty denotes control over the affairs of a country, food sovereignty is about “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems” (World Forum for Food Sovereignty, 2007). The drive for food sovereignty came about as the World Trade Organization pushed for the liberalization of agriculture around the world, and control over food production started being concentrated in the hands of a few powerful conglomerates aimed at maximizing profit. The term was coined by the international peasants’ movement, La Via Campesina, in 1996. Prior to this date, however, manifestations of the aspirations of food sovereignty advocates have been found in small pockets of the world, in the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples.

In the Philippines, productivity-oriented agricultural policies beginning in the late 1960s forced generations of lowland farmers to abandon their traditional/heirloom seeds and planting practices in favor of hybrid seeds that supposedly give higher yields. However, the farmers must also spend a lot more for farm inputs, such as inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, to achieve the promised yields. Furthermore, they must buy new seeds for the next cropping season, because saving and replanting hybrid seeds results in lower-quality produce, as this second generation of plants displays a more varied assortment of genes that express both desirable and undesirable qualities (Burrows, 2019). As a result, farmers have become dependent on big agribusiness companies for their seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. Coupled with unfavorable market conditions (abusive middlemen, cartels that restrict competition, and dumped imported products), widespread poverty in the agricultural sector has ensued. The lowland farmers have lost much of their agricultural heritage together with their food sovereignty.

However, in the Cordillera Mountains of the Philippines, many Indigenous farmers asserted the principles of food sovereignty with their rice crop, the tinawon. In response to colonial efforts to control them (when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century), these erstwhile plains farmers fled to the mountains. They then constructed flooded terraces on the mountainsides to continue their rice planting. The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras became a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Landscape in 1995. The variances of ecology and microclimates in these mountains resulted in a great diversity of tinawon (once-a-year) rice varieties. Each farmer-family would plant several cultivars of rice in various locations of the village. Different types of rice were used for everyday eating, desserts, wine-making, gifting, and ritual offerings. These rice varieties were specially selected and saved by knowledgeable women, and passed on from generation to generation. They were also freely shared with people who needed seeds for planting. Figure 2, below, shows cooperative hand-harvesting of rice in the UNESCO World Heritage Batad Rice Terrace Cluster. Women work together in harvesting the crop from each other’s paddies.


terraced hillsides in the Philippines with figures bending over stands of rice stalks
Figure 1: Women harvesting tinawon rice in the village of Batad, Banaue, Ifugao
stalks of rice in a basket with terraced hillsides in the background
Figure 2: Short-grain Tinawon rice placed in a basket in preparation for bundling and sun-drying

As the Philippine government and other private companies tried to introduce high-yielding hybrid rice varieties throughout the country, many Cordilleran farmers shunned these campaigns. They rejected the idea of needing to purchase rice seeds; their subsistence farming did not generate the cash necessary to purchase manufactured agricultural inputs. They also knew that these hybrid rice varieties would not thrive in their climate. Unlike their counterparts in the lowlands, they maintained ownership and control over their rice crops—they freely planted their heirloom seeds on their own terraces, adopting nature-friendly, traditional methods (e.g., using locally sourced organic fertilizers, avoiding chemical pesticides, and doing multi-crop farming). The indigenous Ifugao farmers also continued to perform their ancient rituals, which are centered upon these traditional cultivars. Their seed-saving efforts helped to safeguard agricultural biodiversity in the country. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations subsequently names these rice terraces Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Sites. Elsewhere around the country, more contemporary progressive agricultural organizations like MASIPAG (Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura, or in English, Farmers and Scientists for the Development of Agriculture) mirror the efforts of the Ifugao through projects such as training farmers to be rice breeders, and establishing living community seed banks.

The Indigenous Ifugao people of the UNESCO World Heritage Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras have a long history of struggle against outside forces that aimed to colonize them, and their resistance to commercial rice seeds perfectly demonstrate the goals of food sovereignty advocates. By continuing their traditional rice culture and opposing efforts to ‘modernize’ their agricultural production, they effectively safeguard their plant biodiversity, mountain ecology, food culture, ancient rituals, and way of life.


Discussion Questions

  • Aside from seed saving by farmers, how have other people worked towards food sovereignty in other places
  • What are some of the signs that a community exercises food sovereignty?
  • How might you work towards greater food sovereignty in your own community?

Additional Resources

Burrows, R. (2019). Saving Seed: Will the seed produce plants similar to the plant it was collected from? Available from [Accessed 20 September 2021].

Kuyek, D., et al. (2000). Hybrid Rice in Asia: An unfolding threat. Available from [Accessed 24 June 2021].

Patel, R. (2009). Food Sovereignty. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 36:3, 663-706, DOI: 10.1080/03066150903143079.

World Forum for Food Sovereignty (2007) Nyéléni Declaration. Sélingué, Mali: Forum for Food Sovereignty. Available from: [Accessed 24 June 2021].


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