What is Food Sovereignty?
Many people in the U.S., even activists involved in food/farm issues, are unfamiliar with the concept of food sovereignty. Food security is a much more common term, invoked in the interest of providing food to the poor and hungry. Unfortunately, food security has also become a “Trojan Horse” for creeping corporatization of the global food system. In fact, the term emerged in the 1970s when food was used as a Cold War weapon during the super power struggle across the global south. As a watered down technical issue of how best to get food to those who need it, food security conveniently avoids the deeper political debate about why hunger exists at all in a world that has plenty of food – just not for the impoverished, landless, and powerless. According to the USDA, there are officially no longer any hungry people in the U.S., just those who are “food insecure.”
Outside this country, one seldom hears the term food security unless one comes across western trained technocrats, academic researchers, and disaster relief managers. Local people in agrarian societies are much more likely to have conversations about food sovereignty. That is because they still believe food is a basic human right, not just another market commodity, and they treat peasant farmers with respect and dignity, rather than dismissing them as backward and anachronistic. Twenty countries even have the right to healthy, nutritious, culturally appropriate food guaranteed as part of their constitutions!
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of the world’s hungry actually dwell in rural areas once known for their agricultural expertise. This reversal of human history has not been an inevitable consequence of the “Green Revolution” – rather it is due to deliberate policies that have violently transformed local food/farm economies. To paraphrase the global “free trade” apologist, Thomas Friedman, one can’t have McDonalds without McDonnell Douglas. During the 19th century Irish potato famine, food was still being forcibly exported and this catastrophe has been repeated time and again. Under the New World Order of the 21st century, only those willing to play the game and pay the going price can escape hunger.
One thus finds powerful institutions (World Bank, USAID, Rockefeller Foundation, Gates Foundation) compelling farmers to abandon native subsistence crops (millet, taro, quinoa, sorghum, maize) in favor of monocultures that are often privately patented and genetically engineered (cotton, soy, oil palm, sugar cane), while at the same time forcing communities to privatize their common property resources (seed, land, water, wildlife), and convincing consumers to “enjoy” dubious synthetic food byproducts (high fructose corn syrup, antibiotic-laden meat, milk protein concentrate, irradiated spinach, hydrogenated margarine) – all in the name of competitive advantage and economic efficiency.
Food sovereignty, on the other hand, valorizes common sense principles of community autonomy, cultural integrity, and environmental stewardship – ie. people determining for themselves just what seeds they plant, which animals they raise, how they farm, and ultimately what they will eat for dinner. In fact, some would argue that genuine food security is impossible without first achieving food sovereignty. As early as 1996 Via Campesina set forth its seven principles of food sovereignty (see reverse) and these prompted much discussion at the Jan. 2001 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil leading to a Sept. 2001 World Forum on Food Sovereignty held in Cuba, as well as the Nyeleni Food Sovereignty Conference in Selingue, Mali in Feb. 2007
Adopting food sovereignty would have sweeping implications in a political setting such as the U.S., which is probably why they have been so strongly resisted by corporate agribusiness and their political supporters. Worse yet, food sovereignty is a “barrier” to trade and is thus “illegal” in the eyes of the World Trade Organization (WTO). For instance, preemptive legislation that takes away local control over the regulation of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs – aka factory farms) undermines food sovereignty, as does White House and Congressional reluctance to implement comprehensive country of origin labeling (COOL) that would allow U.S. consumers to actually know where ALL their food comes from. Similarly, the corporate patenting of lifeforms, the expropriation of indigenous knowledge, and the exploitation suffered by family farmers and farm workers when they are denied fair trade prices, unions, and living wages are all other flagrant violations of food sovereignty.
For years, Family Farm Defenders has sought to spread and popularize the concept of food sovereignty in hopes of bringing U.S. food/farm activists into a closer solidarity relationship with their allies overseas. To find out more about how you can get involved, please contact:
Family Farm Defenders, 1019 Williamson St. #B, Madison, WI 53703 tel./fax. #608-260-0900
25 Things You Can Do To Promote Local Food Sovereignty!
1.) Create a food policy council! Agriculture is too important to be left in the hands of faraway officials (elected or not). Through a state or local food policy council, you can directly help determine the future of what you grow and eat in your own community. For a directory of links to current food councils, visit: http://www.law.drake.edu/academics/agLaw/?pageID=agFoodPolicy
2.) Promote socially responsible food procurement policies for your school, church, or hospital which give preference to fresh local produce and fair trade products! Back in 1995 Northland College in Ashland, WI became one of the pioneers in this area. To find out more: www.northland.edu/sustainability-campus-initiatives-food-systems Over 40 hospitals in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington DC now have policies to purchase more local fruits and vegetables – to find out more, visit: http://mdh2e.org/
3.) Patronize your local farmers’ market! Between 1994 and 2009 the number of farmers markets in the U.S. nearly tripled to over 5200. Not only will you get the freshest produce possible, but you can also put your hard earned money right into the hands of a hard working farmer. To find the market nearest you, check out the USDA’s national directory at: www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/farmersmarkets
4.) Invest in a community landtrust! Over 1700 landtrusts now protect 37 million acres across the U.S. from urban sprawl and reckless development. That is a land area equal to the size of the state of Michigan. Family farmers benefit when land is set aside for agriculture and not subject to the whims of speculation. For more info, visit: http://www.landtrustalliance.org/
5.) Implement local policies encouraging conversion to sustainable organic agriculture! Woodbury County, IA recently passed a property tax rebate program to encourage farmers to covert to organic. Conventional farmers often cite the expense of the three year transition period as a reason to not switch, but this policy addresses that. To find out more: www.woodbury-ia.com/departments/EconomicDevelopment
6. ) Compile a farm fresh atlas to help connect local consumers with family farmers! There are now five different such atlases just in Wisconsin – for an example check out the one for southern WI compiled by REAP available at: www.reapfoodgroup.org A national local food directory organized by zip code can also be found at: www.foodroutes.org
7. ) Cultivate a garden! During WWII over 40% of U.S. produce was grown in Victory Gardens, and according to the National Gardening Association over $18 billion worth of food is now grown in U.S. gardens each year. In 2008 alone seed sales were up 30%, meaning more people are discovering gardening as a survival strategy in the face of the global economic crisis. If you don’t know how to garden, talk to your neighbor down the street who does. They will be happy to teach you and maybe even give you some seeds!
8.) Organize a local food fair trade holiday fair! When it comes to celebrating the true spirit of the season, no gift can compare with one that embodies good karma. Community Action in Latin America (CALA) has hosted such local food fair trade holiday fairs in Madison the first Sat. of Dec. for over decade now, attracting thousands of people annually. Info? www.calamadison.org
9.) Launch a local food fair trade fundraising project for your school, non-profit, or faith community! Just Coffee and Family Farm Defenders both began such an effort a decade and a half ago. Does it make sense to have children selling junk food or sweatshop products for their marching band or extracurricular activity? – no, it doesn’t! To find out more, visit: www.justcoffee.coop/fundraising or http://familyfarmers.org/?page_id=244
10.) Purchase development rights (PDR) to protect farmland! Between 1999 and 2004 alone there were over 600 local and state ballot measures passed, dedicating $18+ billion towards land conservation efforts. All told, over 400,000 acres of farmland has now been protected through PDR efforts. Some especially successful initiatives include Lancaster County, PA (http://www.co.lancaster.pa.us/lanco/cwp/view.asp?a=371&Q=384772) and the Town of Dunn in Dane County, WI (http://town.dunn.wi.us/townofdunn/land+use/purchase+of+development+rights/default.asp).
11.) Join community supported agriculture (CSA)! Originating from Japan, CSAs enable consumers to buy a share upfront in a local farm and in exchange get a basket of produce each week during the growing season. According to the USDA there are now over 12,000 farms marketing through CSAs across the U.S, supplying food to over a quarter a million families. This is a great way to put a face behind your food by building a direct relationship with a family farmer in your community. To find a CSA near you, check out the listings at: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/csa/csa.shtml
12.) Encourage urban agriculture! According to the U.N., over 15% of the world’s food is now grown in cities (three times the amount that is traded across borders). The notion that family farming should be relegated to rural areas is not true or even practical. Cuba is a world leader when it comes to urban farming (see the video: www.powerofcommunity.org). For encouraging U.S. examples, check out: www.growingpower.org, www.intervale.org, www.greeningofdetroit.com or read the new book by Robin Shulman – Eat the City (Crown 2012)
13.) Take the100 mile diet challenge! If not for an entire year, then for at least a few months or for a single day like Thanksgiving. The objective: to only eat food grown or raised within a 100 radius of your home. What better way to meet local family farmers! For more details, visit: www.100milediet.org
14.) Learn how to freeze, pickle, jam, and preserve your own food – like your grandparents did! Only about a third of people in the U.S. now put up food at home, so you can be at the cutting edge of the latest do it yourself (DIY) trend. If you need help, there often local extension “how to” classes and great canning/freezing books at your public library!
15.) Talk to your healthcare provider about local food as a form of preventative medicine! Physicians Plus, Group Health Cooperative, Dean Care and Unity Plus in Madison, WI all offer a “Eat Healthy” rebate for any member (up to $100 per individual or $200 for families) that get a CSA share. For more details, visit: http://www.csacoalition.org/our-work/csa-insurance-rebate/
16.) Implement comprehensive Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for all food! Consumers in over 40 other countries, including the European Union and Japan, have the right to know where their food comes, but not consumers in the U.S. Several versions of the Farm Bill have included COOL, but it only applies to seafood, meat, and a limited range of fruits and vegetables. To find out more about what is wrong with “mystery” food, check out the Poisoned Fruit of American Trade Policy report from Food and Water Watch: http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/reports/the-poisoned-fruit-of-american-trade-policy/
17.) Help raise the market profile of local food! Back in the 1980s MN farmers created their own label to help consumers find their homegrown produce in the marketplace. Today, MN Grown is an official state program, issuing a trademarked logo to qualified farmers and producing a popular directory available at every state highway rest stop. Other states have now started similar buy local efforts. More info: www.mda.state.mn.us/MNGROWN
18.) Support farmworkers rights! The largest and lowest paid workforce in the U.S. is in the farm/food sector. This is due in part to the fact that farmworkers were specifically excluded from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, and thus do not have the federal right to organize a union. Nonetheless, grassroots pressure campaigns such as that by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) on behalf of immigrant tomato pickers in FL have forced fast food giants like Taco Bell to raise wages and respect workers rights. More info: www.ciw-online.org
19.) Get healthy local food into school cafeterias! There are an estimated 2500 farm to school programs in the U.S., providing an important institutional marketing opportunity for family farmers. Children deserve the healthiest food possible and that is exactly what family farmers provide. For more info on the National Farm to School Network: http://www.farmtoschool.org/
20.) Support community gardens! There are now an estimated 18,000 community gardens throughout the U.S. and Canada. Community gardens not only provide people with nutritious produce, but have many other spin-off benefits such as higher property values, lower crime rates, and a better overall quality of life in often stressful urban settings. For in inspiring history of community gardening in the U.S., check out: City Bountiful by Laura Lawson (Univ. of CA Press 2005).
21.) Support smart growth development! One of the greatest threats to family farmers relentless urban sprawl and speculative land grabbing. Smart growth helps set an urban growth boundary, promotes in-fill and clustered development, and helps preserve open space, wildlife habitat, and productive farmland in the process. For more details: http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/
22.) Use tax increment financing (TIF) for local food/farm projects! Contrary to some assumptions, sustainable agriculture is a form of economic development and should enjoy the same incentives that other projects receive. For example, the Plant in Chicago – an innovative vertical farming/agro-processing project was able to leverage TIF funding and other public support – along with private “green” capital – to transform an abandoned meat processing warehouse into a multi-use production space and retail outlet that will create 125 jobs. For more info: http://www.plantchicago.com/
23.) Create an urban garden district! Many city residents and urban planners are familiar with the idea of a historic district or a business improvement district, but how about an urban garden district? Cleveland, OH just created such a zone, allowing urban farmers to have greenhouses, chicken coops, composting toilets, even off street parking and roadside market stands. For more details, visit: http://planning.city.cleveland.oh.us/cwp/opp_oview.php
24.) Oppose global “free” trade deals that hurt family farmers! Family farmers should have the right to grow food at a fair price for their own people first – yet that food sovereignty idea is illegal under global “free” trade deals that literally force countries to open their borders to food imports they often don’t even want. Worse yet, it is not family farmers (or consumers) that benefit from this trade, but a handful of agribusiness corporations who dominate and manipulate global commodity markets. Fair trade should be the hallmark of all economic activity, whether domestic or international. To find out more: http://www.citizenstrade.org/ctc/, http://www.fairtradefederation.org/, http://www.thedfta.org/
25.) Celebrate local food when gathered with your family, friends, and community! Think back to when you were growing up… What were some of your fondest memories of such holidays as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, Fourth of July, Labor Day? Chances are they included food – a special family recipe, a unique ethnic dish, fish caught by an elder, corn grown by a relative. Generic fast food cannot replicate this unique experience. We’ll all eat better (and respect family farmers more) if we put the culture back into agri-culture.