Public Comment

Food Sovereignty

by R.G. Davis
Wednesday March 31, 2010 - 05:30:00 PM

In this short thought piece I repeat the phrase “food sovereignty“ a few times to see if it can replace “food security,” “food choice,” “slow food,” “gourmet food,” and “sustainable agriculture.” 

Food sovereignty is used by the international peasant organization La Via Campesina to define its objectives. One has to read the book – one copy in the UC system library -- by Annette Desmarais La Via Campesina, Pluto, 2007, or the on-line articles on Food Sovereignty by Peter Rosset, former director of Food First, to obtain a full explanation: “Food sovereignty starts with the concept of economic and social human rights, which include the right to food, but it goes further, arguing that there is a corollary right to land and a ‘right to produce’ for rural peoples.” (MR July Aug. 2009:116)  

When you walk into the UC Moffitt undergrad library there is a smiling face and large display of the newest book by Michael Pollan. Shaved head, big teeth—he is a tall guy, who has a young person’s cracked voice delivery and thus presents as if he were just a regular college graduate. He is the Chair of the Journalism Department, has an agent and marketing devices to sell all the books, and no doubt has editors, researchers and fact checkers to be able to produce a plethora of platitudes on food.  

When I first heard and saw him it was years ago at a Journalism School presentation. He introduced a newfound friend, the farmer Joel Salatin. Pollan introduced Salatin as the “last radical organic farmer” in the US. The exaggeration was something like that – the “last” or the “only” or the “unique.” This was the startling opener that filled the room, mostly with Slow Food, gourmet friends of chic restaurants and liberals.  

To define the liberal from a left position, which is to say a Marxist perspective, is hardly clear enough. In current parlance I view this subject from an ecological socialist vantage point. (See the Journal Capitalism Nature Socialism for a complete explanation of ecosocialism). 

When Salatin finished his one-man show of his exploits and unique organic chicken and farming practice I asked him if he had heard about Rudolph Steiner? “Yes,” Monatouba Fukouka? “Yes,” Allan Chadwick? “Yes,” John Jevans? “Yes,” Bill Mollison? “Yes.” He said: “I learned something from every one of them.” I responded: “So why didn’t you mention them?”  

Pollan presented the unique individual as if all the other organic farmers that I knew were dead. In 2004 I had finished an MA Thesis having interviewed 35 farmers and people associated with organic farming in the Bay Area, way down to Watsonville & Corallitos and up to areas north of San Francisco. There were many more organic farmers who did as much and more than Salatin who were less peculiar or less photogenic. The inventive Warren Weber in Bolinas, Phil Foster in San Juan Bautista, and most influential Amigo Bob Cantisano farmer, organic consultant, and moderator at the annual Eco Farm Conference at Asilomar: a 1200 plus event with at least three hundred farmers besides the retailers, opportunists and apprentices. 

When liberals address a movement they tend to do a few things that apply to both political and cultural affairs. In the food movement Slow Food, journalists, restauranteurs, and in the cultural sectors puff adders and P.R. persons, engage a current (fashionable) topic that is also socially important – health, diabetes, cancer, food, medical care, mortgages, banks – first addressing the subject with an inflated title “Omnivore’s Dilemma” or “Too Big to Fail”—and then directing attention for the masses to a trivial issue wherein individuals can avoid being suckered by commercial advertising. 

Liberals divest the socially important subject of its connections and focus on the narrowest and eventually irrelevant details, winding up with a trope of warm air: the ever-present Vote! Nevertheless liberal critics, in print, can be insightful and revelatory. Eric Schlosser for example, details the monstrosity of the meat & food processing industry, but ends up with Vote! Similarly Christopher Cook Diet for a Dead Planet, 2004: Vote! Consumerism equals Vote!  

Then there is the extraction process, for example: the Slow Food movement in Italy begun by Carlo Petrini – who came out of ARCI, the cultural arm of the Italian Communist Party—is represented in the US by four chic restaurants. There are nevertheless a few radicals in Europe like Jose Bove and Confederation Paysanne, who has entered the political real to protect small farmers, organic food production and oppose junk food distributors.  

Meanwhile in the US the emphasis for some is on ‘choice’ that ignores the maintenance of the mass junk food system, where everyone who is not an individual has to eat. Outside the areas of choice, alternatives to fast junk food are rare and difficult to find. Choice is like a shopping guide, protecting one’s self, not necessarily one’s family, certainly not society, the water, air, soil or the ecology.  

Current food fashion arguments are an easy read: You as an individual can avoid poisoning the planet and yourself by eating locally. Most egregious is the notion that consumerism can change the world. “Change the world with what you eat,” “Vote with your dollars.” Such nostrums appear in DVDs like Food ,2000, or Rob Kenner's Food Inc. 2009, Kevin Danaher & The Green Festival, The Bioneers, as well as the books of Schlosser, Pollan, and Cook.  

When I read through tracts on the disaster of industrial processing and the consumption of junk food I wonder why they don’t state eat organic, buy it, grow it, support it, cook it yourself, pay for it, ask for it, search it out, learn about it, study it, go to classes and help others learn about it, find organic CSAs, & farmers’ markets (not all are organic) snap up those little paper instructions at the Ecology Center, read them, become a master gardener, a producer, and then see if there is a non-liberal group and invite others to grow and cook/eat organic food. Plus join an international organization: La Via Campesina also supported by Jose Bove and the French Confederation Paysanne (see Food for Thought, Pluto 2002)  

Food Sovereignty chops the whole matter of choice into quarters. Peasants should own their land and become producers, not farm workers (not farm worker unions either). Peasants organized to grow organic food (‘sustainable’ is a flatulent obfuscating phrase like ‘choice’) control the markets distribution system, agriculture out of WTO, and—necessarily—stop the dumping of cheap GMO foods by US and Brazilian agribusiness. La Via Campesina has international relations with hundreds of similar organizations in South America Asia, Europe, Africa and a few in North America. This replaces individualistic liberal consumerism with peasant producers thereby turning the recent food manipulation by international corporate Mongols, and their liberal cohorts towards a structural change called food sovereignty. Walden Bello introduces Desmarais’ La Via Campesina: “La Via Campesina not only fights for farmers rights and for land reform, it is also fighting for a way of life that has proved its worth for eons. It is fighting for a relationship between people and their environment that was snapped by short sighted industry first strategies, whether these came in socialist guise or in that of neoliberal capitalist.”  

So food sovereignty also addresses the international culture of capitalism, while the liberals talk about choice (oh, and vote!)  


R.G.Davis received a PhD from UC Davis in 2009,with a dissertation on “Ecological Aesthetics.”