Food Sovereignty: More than Just A Farmer’s Market

By Mary E. Croy

Family Farm Defenders, a Madison-based organization, has brought to North America the concept of Food Sovereignty, an idea pioneered in Latin America by Via Campesina, an international peasant farmer movement. They have been organizing for decades as an alternative to neoliberal agricultural policy. While neoliberals emphasize “food security,” their policies do not promote food security, but rather, international trade and exploitation of people, animals and the natural world. Via Campesina developed seven principles that center food sovereignty in local communities and emphasize the rights of our most vulnerable citizens.

  1. Food, a Human Right

We all need it to survive. With the idea of Food as a Human Right, Via Campesina acknowledges this fact. Yet even in the richest country in the world, we find neighbors who struggle to put nutritious food on the table. It’s important to support efforts such as food pantries, The Beacon, and other social service networks, which serve thousands of people in Dane County every month. 

Other programs, such as FoodShare Wisconsin, which provides food assistance, are in constant danger of being curtailed. As of this January, FoodShare Wisconsin served over 20,000 low income people in Dane County. And even in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the Trump Administration is working to cut SNAP (AKA food stamp) benefits for our poorest citizens.

When we regard food as a human right, we must re-examine our system of agriculture and delivery. Why are there food deserts and how can we eliminate this problem? Are there ways to promote consumption of healthy food? How can we show solidarity with the poor? 

  1. Agrarian Reform

Farm workers are a vital part of the food system. Yet they are among the most vulnerable laborers in our country, often working in harsh, dangerous conditions for low wages. 

Farm workers are often exposed to pesticides. They lack information to adequately protect themselves from these toxins. They can be exposed up to three times as much as ordinary workers. In addition, in other countries, peasant farmers are being killed and their land stolen. The most vulnerable include members of indigenous communities and women.

How can we help in the organization of farm workers? What is our role in advocating for immigrant labor who are held hostage by fear of deportation? 

  1. Protecting Natural Resources

A key part of building Food Sovereignty is protecting the land. Too often, industrial scale farming involves the use of chemicals which can cause long term harm to the health of workers, consumers and the natural world. By putting the land back in the hands of family farmers, enacting robust regulation, and putting a renewed emphasis on sustainable methods, we can eat healthy and help heal the earth. 

Already, there are sustainable options in agriculture. For example, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) grow food organically without the use of industrial pesticides. CSAs bring consumers and farmers together in partnership. Most are small farms, and it’s a great way of going local to support your neighbors while at the same time adopting a healthier diet. For our own gardens, we can learn about how to grow native plants, not use harsh pesticides and fertilize the soil through composting. Community gardens are being piloted in inner cities to allow these neighborhoods to enjoy more healthy food and build local resources and sustainability. By helping neighbors and healing the earth, we can put ourselves on a path to a better future. 

Yet even as we make choices as individuals, the role of community needs to be strengthened. How can we advocate for sane farm policies, which protect the rights of small farmers while protecting the land? How do we pressure our lawmakers into implementing policies which end CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and other industrial farm practices which destroy the land and accelerate climate change? Can we institute community gardens where we live and make these accessible to everyone?

  1. Reorganizing Food Trade

In large-scale industrial farming, food is seen as a commodity. Vital staples are traded on high risk markets with wealthy investors gambling on “futures.” Food Sovereignty seeks to put the priority back on the purpose of food—feeding people. 

When developing agricultural policy, the emphasis needs to be on self-sufficient farming and local solutions. When so much of our food production is in the hands of a few corporations, producers and consumers suffer. For example, 80% of the beef industry is controlled by four multinationals. Small ranchers, those interested in healthy diets, and advocates for a clean environment and the humane treatment of animals are held hostage by these huge firms. In fact, in some states, it is illegal to film or publicize the ongoing abuse of animals in agriculture.

We must reorganize our food trade by finding ways to re-establish local networks to make food delivery local and sustainable.

  1. Ending the Globalization of Hunger

People are becoming more aware of and concerned about high tech fixes to enhance the food supply. Many countries and states require that genetically modified foods be labeled, for example. But, our agricultural system is geared toward approaches that allow food to be produced on an industrial scale. Family farms, local knowledge and even seeds used to plant have been replaced by products created in a faraway laboratory, factory or company boardroom. 

Food sovereignty stresses the local. While continuing to promote research and better ways to grow healthy food, it recognizes that not every community has the same methods of agriculture. It values knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Governments need to listen to farmers and consumers when planning the fight against hunger and for a healthier world.

  1. Social Peace

In Wisconsin, small farmers have been forced to sell their family lands and give up farms at a devastating rate. This is part of a trend happening worldwide. In India, farmer suicides are a growing problem as more people go into debt. This problem has been exacerbated by the celebrated “micro loans,” which turned out to be another capitalist scam. In the Amazon, native people are forced off their land by mining companies or big agribusinesses– the pattern continues in every part of the globe. Rural areas, which hold the bounty of nature, are becoming more impoverished while residents flee to cities, which are becoming more polluted and less able to provide affordable housing.

How can we stop this downward spiral? This is especially important for vulnerable ethnic minorities and for those who have farmed for generations but are financially distressed due to industrial agriculture. Now is the time to come together to support family farmers. How do we best advocate for peasant farmers worldwide and family farmers here in Wisconsin?

  1. Food Sovereignty and Democracy

Food Sovereignty, means, above all, returning control of agriculture to local farmers and consumers. In our current system of industrial scale farming, decisions are made in corporate headquarters with an eye toward the “bottom line” rather than feeding people. Food Sovereignty empowers small farmers and their communities to take control of production and distribution. It is important to listen to farmers and the people they serve. This must include overlooked contributors such as farm laborers.    

We can support local agriculture and buy locally as much as our budget allows. But it is also important to advocate on this issue and form alliances with farm laborers, environmentalists and small farmers as we look to change our agricultural systems.

The current crisis with COVID-19 shows that it is absolutely essential to build up sustainability and resilience on a local level. We as socialists need to work in our communities to create networks which rely on community and support for the vulnerable. The principles of Food Sovereignty are vital to creating a new future which provides for all, rather than enriching a select few.