It’s an exciting time for the good food movement. Sometimes it can feel as though the efforts to make agriculture more sustainable are the most visible and active component of the broader environmental movement. This shouldn’t be surprising. Our relationship to food is visceral, emotional, and continues daily. Climate change, as important as it is, can feel abstract.
If you’ve seen Food Inc. or read any Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan, or Rachel Carson, you know that the sustainable food movement is trying to address the social and environmental problems created by an industrial farming system in which convenience and profit trump everything else. The responses to industrial farming have included critiques like Silent Spring, the back-to-the-land and organic farming spark of the late 1960s, the family farm movement that resisted bankruptcy and corporate consolidation in the 1980s, and now the urban farming movement that has burgeoned during the past 10 years.
photo by Hals - Leandro Bierhals (Flickr CC)
Many elements of the sustainable food movement have been organized by (or organized for) the two most obvious sectors of the food system: eaters and producers. Generally food activism has revolved around those who grow the food and those who eat it. In parts of the world where populations are still largely agrarian, eaters and producers are often the same people, but here in the United States (where the farming population hovers around 1 percent) consumers have been the dominant focus of food policy, at least for the past 40 years.
In the global North, much of the past 20 years of activism has been framed by the concept of “food security”: that is, the right of all people to have enough food to avoid hunger and malnutrition. While this consumer-focused concept has its benefits, some people have found it lacking. There is, then, a new effort underway to deepen food activism and to focus it on a more radical idea: the concept of food sovereignty. The global food sovereignty movement is making the case that reform of the food system will be insufficient if it does not democratize and make more transparent the means of food production. In short: we’ll never be able to resolve the environmental and social abuses of industrial agriculture without changing who controls the food system.
As Katherine Zavala, program manager of grassroots alliances at International Development Exchange (IDEX),a San Francisco-based organization that supports food justice in the Global South, explains it: “Food security might focus on hunger as a human rights issue, but it fails to consider many other facets of food like the ways it is produced, the social relationships it relies on, or the cultural importance it holds to communities.” Having enough to eat is important, certainly, but what about the quality of that food? What about the way that people are treated in the process of producing that food? What about the cultural traditions of food that are left aside in a purely calorie-counting concept of “food security”? Zavala says that perhaps the biggest inadequacy of the food security concept is that it fails to address “who decides what the food system is. It doesn't address who is driving or controlling the global food system or the lack of decision-making power among people to decide what food system they want.”
These deeper questions illustrate why the term “food sovereignty” – pioneered by the international peasant alliance La Via Campesina – is increasingly being adopted food movement activists across the globe. Ashoka Finley – who works for the Richmond, CA urban farming organization Urban Tilth and has been closely involved in the Occupy the Farm effort at the University of California’s Gill Tract – considers himself a food sovereignty activist. He says: “Food sovereignty, like food security, is about rights. But because food sovereignty as a concept argues that food systems are determined by political and economic conditions, it’s about the rights we as eaters, citizens, and communities should have to take part in effecting those conditions. It is also about how we can use food-based activism to transform the political and economic system we live in.”
That “taking part” is what distinguishes food security from food sovereignty, and what makes food sovereignty such a compelling and important idea. Yes, of course, providing food for people in need is essential; but a soup kitchen a food bank or a SNAP card is not enough to create food sovereignty. Even planting gardens in urban areas (full disclosure: my area of employment!) doesn’t amount to food sovereignty.
Direct action approaches like Occupy the Farm may not be enough, because, Zavala reminds us, “Those that are in positions of government and economic power are restricting these alternative food system models. They're not thinking about feeding people – they're mostly thinking about the bottom line. And if we all created our own food systems, how would they profit?"
The entrenched corporate opposition to food systems change has pushed food sovereignty activists beyond the direct action approach to address the institutions of power. After a long period of focusing effort outside the political system, activists are now looking to the government for change. In the mid-2000s, for example, the federal Farm Bill finally became a top priority for many sustainable agriculture advocates – long after the law was the main target of efforts to ensure food security (through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). But it has remained close-to-impossible to use the Farm Bill as a tool to promote food sovereignty. “The current political climate is an extreme difficult one, the legislative process is complex, and that process can often be quite corrupt, as we have seen numerous times,” Finley says. “However, if we want food sovereignty, we can’t shy away from tough political battles, because there are certain political issues that underpin or undermine food sovereignty, like land ownership or agribusiness subsidies.”
Recent lobbying over the Farm Bill provides a clear example of the complexity and difficulty transitioning from a food security movement to a food sovereignty movement. Food security activists (often representing low income urban constituents) have been pitted against farm sustainability activists (more often rural-minded) over the funding that the bill controls. In an era of austerity, this can lead to Sophie’s Choice-like dilemmas: either cut food stamp funding or cut programs that provide support to farmers transitioning to organic methods of production.
Luckily, there’s an alternative to this false choice. That choice is to develop democratic spaces at the local and state level to craft collaborative solutions that benefit both consumers and producers. Across the country, Food Policy Councils (FPCs) are bringing together diverse constituencies to determine how local policy can be leveraged to achieve positive food system change. These local groups identify problems as a community and then seek to solve them through a process of consensus-building and pressuring local governments. Food Policy Councils have worked on things like institutional food procurement, the use of urban open space for agriculture, nutrition education and funding for food banks. For example, in the past year, local FPCs in California have joined with Urban Agriculture Alliances and Food System Alliances (other local groups that bring together food system stakeholders) to form the California Food Policy Council (CAFPC).
The food movement’s shift from security to sovereignty can be instructive for the broader movements for environmental sanity and democratic governance. By asking the simple question, Who’s in charge here?, food sovereignty elevates the importance that power has in our food systems. The concept expands our critical capacity beyond consumer choice to consider that we are all “co-producers” of the food system.
If other environmental activists were to adopt a sovereignty mindset and began demanding that we have a right to decide how to have a healthy environment – not just the right to have one – it might reduce acceptance of solutions that are incomplete, or that pit one movement sector against another. It might also encourage connections between environmentalists of all stripes: those fighting for sovereignty over food might find common cause with those fighting for sovereignty over housing or energy or transportation.
Social movements focused on sovereignty can help build a more democratic and accountable political system. This, in turn, would allow for a more sustainable approach to natural resources, and a more egalitarian economic system. By talking “sovereignty” from the start, change-makers can pursue a mutual end goal from any number of individual struggles. When Paul Hawken described “the largest movement on Earth” in his book Blessed Unrest, he was clear that the millions of individual and NGO efforts to help were a movement, but just didn’t act like one.
Sovereignty, whether of food or fiber or healthcare, may the concept needed for these many struggles to become the movement that it could be.