Our Legacies exchange is basically a response to what we see as a crisis (environmental, political, cultural, and epistemological) represented in the capitalist model of industrial agriculture and a global food system shaped in the last 60 years by corporate concentration, environmental destruction, dispossession of peasant and Indigenous land, distancing between producers and consumers, neoliberal trade policies, and increasing health issues.
Rather than dwell on what we were up against, we chose to focus on the more sustainable and healthy food system we are trying to recover or create, epitomized by the term food sovereignty.
The Legacies project started as an exchange among friends actively creating alternatives to the industrial food system. So our conversations about food sovereignty were grounded in people’s everyday lives. Chandra reflected on the concept while breastfeeding her baby:
“The first time that I heard the term ‘food sovereignty’…it took me awhile to wrap my head around that phrase. But the work that I do IS food sovereignty, it’s just living that food sovereignty.”
Like the Indigenous practice of passing a ‘talking stick’ so that everyone has a chance to speak their own truth, we asked each of the collaborators to define food sovereignty in their own words, related to their cultural context and food work. For example, Dianne who epitomizes the ‘Earth’ end of our ‘Earth to Tables’ metaphor, focuses on the work of growing food:
“Food sovereignty to me means that we have the ability to produce locally most of what we need to eat; to provide the population with good, nutritious, culturally-appropriate foods. It’s a human right to have food and water.”
While Chandra, representing the ‘Table’ in our conceptual framework emphasizes the eating end of the process:
“Food sovereignty is being in control of what is on the end of your fork. That includes knowledge about and access to what it is that should be on the end of your fork. It includes support while in recovery from food related trauma and trauma that is being played out through food.”
Likewise, the responses of our Mexican partners depended on their identities and contexts. So Mayan food activists brought their particular Indigenous perspective to the conversation. In fact, Valiana noted that “The word sovereignty doesn’t exist in our Mayan language, so we focus on Janaal, or eating, the broader act of recovering our traditional ancestral knowledge. It’s about weaving ourselves into a community, inhabiting the land in its living forms as the woods, the winds, the ocean, the fire around which we come together to eat, as a celebration of life.”
Angel contrasted this holistic perspective with a narrow dominant view in the corporate food regime: “We view food sovereignty as a way of life; we call it “reclaiming the art of eating” without involving transnational corporations. It means facing the challenges of growing our own food, caring for seeds, watching our plants grow, sharing our passion with others.”
P’urepecha Maria and European-born Fulvio, raising their family in an autonomous village in Mexico, reflect their own positions within the food cycle. Maria grounds her definition in the home and community: “Food sovereignty is to take care of the food we have and that we can produce without buying it. Here in our village women grow food in pots around their homes which they can harvest and use with their families.”
While as a social justice advocate shaped by a global perspective, Fulvio sees “food sovereignty as the right of each person to eat well and to produce their own food, with a distribution system that is direct and has a short chain. What is important is to produce food for the majority who don’t have enough to eat.”
Fernando, a non-Indigenous food activist promoting urban agriculture in a large Mexican city, offers the perspective of urban consumers and potential producers:
“Food sovereignty is the right of people not only to eat a diverse diet but to have access to nutritious food and having access to land to grow our own food, and to produce the food in a way that respects nature. It’s a commitment we make to take care of the Earth.”
Back in Canada, on the Atlantic Coast of Quebec, settlers Anna and Adam reflect the perspective of a young family trying to be self-sufficient in food: “Food sovereignty for us means having choices and we feel very lucky to have so many. We work hard for it but growing, raising, processing, and preserving our own food lets us not only decide what we eat but how it is grown. Gardening and gathering from the forest is our work, our entertainment, our exercise, and our children’s classroom for the summer and fall.
As an African-Canadian immigrant living in Canada’s biggest city, Leticia brings a critical anti-racist and gender perspective to the discussion: “The food movement is based on the backs of black and brown people. Globally Indigenous people are putting their lives on the land to protect the land, to grow good healthy food for all the beings. So dismantling racism is a big piece of food sovereignty, as well as patriarchy; racialized women are dominant in farming, but they don’t own land.”
Two other Indigenous partners, of the Haudenosaunee confederacy, bring an historical perspective on the impact of colonialism and the current political process of recovering control of their food system. Rick recalls: “Years ago, I was surprised to find out about the wide variety of foods of my ancestors. A seed of thought was planted that maybe our foods are important. I learned the elemental nature of crop cultivation and animal harvesting within our culture. With John Mohawk and others, we got involved in communal farming, cultivating white corn as a defiant act against capitalism.”
Similarly, for Ryan, “food sovereignty is strictly political to me. It’s about control of land. As Indigenous people with distinct governments, we need to break free from the control of colonial governments, to feed ourselves and control our food system.“
While, perhaps not surprisingly, four members of our production and editorial team , settlers living in Canada’s largest city, Toronto, speak about the ideas that have influenced their local and global activism and allyship:
Co-director Alex focuses not only on food but on ways of being: “Ultimately, food sovereignty is based on good relationships: with your surroundings, with what you eat, and with the-non-human, promoting new modes of thinking and inhabiting the planet.”
For John, food sovereignty is “a worthy aspirational goal that seeks to provide food security, sufficient, even abundant, culturally relevant nutritional food for all, produced in ecologically sound and sustainable ways respecting the rights of consumers, farmers and their workers to define their own food and agricultural systems consistent with social justice.”
As a leader in local, national and global networks, Legacies co-editor Lauren notes that her “ideas about food sovereignty were deeply shaped by the People’s Food Policy Project. Inspired by La Via Campesina it was grassroots response to the crises in our food systems, which engaged 3,500 people over three years to come up with A People’s Food Policy for Canada.”
While co-editor and co-director Deborah offers the perspective of a settler activist from the Global North who has worked with and learned from Indigenous and peasant movements in the Global South: “Most of us urban dwellers have become disconnected from the land, from other living creatures, and thus from ourselves and each other. The reclaiming of this connection and of community control of food production has been initiated by millions of Indigenous peoples and peasants who remind us that food is not a commodity but is sacred medicine that can sustain and heal us physically, culturally and spiritually.”
Where do you stand? How does your location, identity, and engagement with the food system affect your perspective on food sovereignty?
In honouring these multiple definitions grounded in diverse local places, we are not denying the usefulness of other attempts to define this framing concept in more global contexts, by both international coalitions of activists and committed academics. Let’s put the Legacies voices in conversation with some of these.
Eric Holt-Gimenez offers a useful continuum for looking at these tensions. Under the banner of the “Corporate Food Regime,” he includes Food Enterprise that represents the market-driven neoliberal industrial model as well as Food Security, which he labels reformist, referring to the mainstreaming of organic alternatives that remain within the market. In contrast, he advocates for “Food Movements” that reject the neoliberal market-driven system and promote Food Justice and Food Sovereignty. He considers the latter more radical, represented by international coalitions like Via Campesina, which aim to dismantle the corporate agri-foods monopoly and democratize food systems.
An historical Forum on Food Sovereignty organized by an alliance of international social movements in 2007 that brought 500 representatives from 80 countries to Nyéléni village, Sélingué, Mali, crafted a definition of food sovereignty that has shaped the global movement:1
“Food sovereignty is 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.
“It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.
“It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation.
“It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers and consumers.
“Food sovereignty prioritizes local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal – fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumptions based on environmental, social and economic sustainability.
“Food sovereignty promotes transparent trade that guarantees just incomes to all peoples as well as the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition.
“It ensures that the rights to use and manage lands, territories, waters, seed, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food.
“Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social and economic classes and generations.”
While many themes in the Nyéléni declaration echo the words of Legacies collaborators, there are elements named here that not only challenge the politics of the current global food regime but propose its dismantling. And while it resonates with some of our Indigenous participants’ points about local control, culturally appropriate foods, and feeding the next generation, the language is still dominated by a Eurocentric productivist way of thinking; traditional practices of hunting and gathering are not included and an understanding of the spiritual values of food as sacred medicine is not acknowledged.
Nonetheless, this collectively framed definition has impacted food movements in Turtle Island (North America), and is echoed in statements by Food Secure Canada: “Food Sovereignty is 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.”
In analyzing any of these groups and their definitions, we need to bring a critical eye, and not fall into traps of homogenizing nations, organizations, and communities as monolithic. Power is always operating, and differences within abound. We need to create spaces for these differences to be acknowledged, shared, debated, and worked through. We are seeking honest conversations that embrace these differences.