You Are What You Eat: The Food Sovereignty Struggle within the Global Justice Movement

By Family Farm Defenders
John E. Peck
(get the PDF)

I have a button on my backpack that says: If You Are What You Eat, Then I’m Fast, Cheap, and Easy. Thankfully, this quip is sarcastic in my case, but for many people, including many activists, it is all too true. Whether due to marketing hype, or out of sheer convenience, lots of normally “smart” folks fall down when it comes to choosing what they put in their mouths. The personal is political, and this is reflected each time someone votes for “business as usual” by giving money to a fast-food chain or big box retailer. The result is a broken food/farm system that is now abusing animals, exploiting workers, perverting biodiversity, undermining democracy, jeopardizing health, and destroying the planet. If we believe another world is possible, then we need to radically transform how we eat, and this means incorporating food sovereignty into our thinking and organizing.

I grew up in central Minnesota, on a small farm in Lake Wobegone Country, surrounded by grazing dairy cows and century old farms populated by third and fourth generation immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia. Sadly, I’m no longer looking forward to my high school reunions since so many of my neighbors have now disappeared, victims of runaway urban sprawl and a “cheap” food policy. The unsettling of America, which Wendell Berry described so long ago, has actually been the order of the day for ruling elites for centuries. Whether it was the conquistadors outlawing quinoa and forcing the Inca to grow barley instead, the pioneers extirpating bison as a form of biowarfare against the Lakota, or the death squads in Colombia now liquidating peasants who stand in the way of agrofuel plantations, these policies always end up benefiting global agribusiness cartels and the current empire they sustain.

Since so few people are now physically connected with the land, it might be worth sharing some rude rural realities. The U.S. now has more prisoners than farmers. In fact, some of the prisoners are farmers! I know of at least one farm family that is behind bars for writing bad checks simply to keep the electricity on so they could milk their cows. Close to half of U.S. farmers do not even own the land they now farm. Despite their best efforts to be productive and efficient, the majority of farm families in the U.S. do not get a parity price (i.e. enough to cover their cost, plus receive a living wage) for what they produce; in turn they must send someone off-farm to earn enough income to make ends meet, and (with luck) leverage some healthcare benefits. This exploitative scenario is not just limited to the family farmer. It goes all the way up the food chain from the undocumented farmworker, to the non-unionized meatpacker, to the part-time minimum wage cashier. For every dollar spent on an apple at Walmart, only 4 cents goes to the apple picker and 7 cents to the apple farmer, compared to 68 cents for the big box retailer.

It was not always like this. Many of the European settlers who first came to the U.S. were landless peasants, fleeing exploitation and persecution by wealthy landlords. In their hope for a better life in the New World, they often found solidarity with indigenous hunters, gathers, and farmers who were already here. This is why the farsighted democratic principles of the Iroquois Confederacy resonated so well and were reflected in the drafting of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Like the Diggers defending the Commons from Enclosure in 17th century England, in early colonial America the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness also meant access to land, and the capacity to grow food. If the state violated this agreement, then it was the right of the people to alter or abolish it and institute a new government that would truly promote the general welfare.

Thus, one finds numerous episodes of popular rural resistance throughout U.S. history: the Whiskey Rebellion of the late 18th century in New England; the post Civil War Grange Movement followed by the Populists who took on the robber barons and railroad monopolies in the latter half of the 19th century; the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) Agricultural Workers Organization (AWO), who agitated amongst harvest stiffs across the Great Plains in the early 20th century; the founding of the United Farm Workers (UFW) under the leadership of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to fight slavery in the farm fields in California; and the creation of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to defend African American farmers in the South. All of these were integral parts of the broader 1960s U.S. Civil Rights Movement. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) are still waging this struggle today in their work with students, family farmers, and churches to win fair wages and human rights for Florida tomato pickers from fast food giants like Burger King.

Growing up in the Midwest during the 1970s farm crisis, I watched as many ‘tractorcades’ of family farmers departed for St. Paul and Washington DC. Even more inspirational was the work of the “Bolt Weevils,” an underground direct action formation that mobilized hundreds of family farmers against energy giants who were seizing their land and threatening their health for a high voltage line. When petitions and lawsuits proved useless, the midnight toppling of power lines and other sabotage promptly ensued. Despite dozens of arrests and a massive FBI manhunt, which was hindered by non-cooperation, no one ever went to jail. On one occasion when a couple of farmers were targeted by the state, the judge was forced to release them as a result of hundreds of angry neighbors literally surrounding the courthouse.

In the early 1990s I went to study agricultural economics at one of many land grant colleges originally established under the 1862 Morrill Act “in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.” Of course, this mandate has been long since forgotten as corporate agribusiness corrupted university curriculum and hijacked the public research agenda. I recall sitting in on a patenting seminar for graduate students and researchers where an administrator from the Office of University and Industry Relations bluntly told us that University of Wisconsin at Madison was no longer interested in the scientific value of our work, merely its commercial value. It was while struggling to get through my dissertation that I first met John Kinsman, an organic dairy farmer, who had been protesting the selling of experimental dairy products from campus test herds to unwitting students, staff, and visitors. This was years before the Food and Drug Administration’s controversial approval of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) as the first biotech food. Kinsman, who was hospitalized after toxic pesticide exposure, is one of the pioneers of sustainable agriculture and the founder and current president of Family Farm Defenders (FFD).

Farmer Resistance: National and International

Unlike many other “farm” organizations that are just a front for agribusiness giants and commodity groups, FFD welcomes anyone who cares about sustainable agriculture, farm worker rights, animal welfare, consumer safety, fair trade, and food sovereignty. This inclusive perception of who is part of the global food/farm system aligns well with that of Via Campesina, the largest umbrella organization for farmers, farmworkers, gatherers, hunters, fishers, herders, and foresters in the world. Due to FFD’s affiliation with Via Campesina we are often invited to send delegates to international conferences such as the February, 2007 Nyeleni Food Sovereignty Forum in Selingue, Mali (which drew over 600 participants from 90 countries).

FFD’s connections with Via Campesina also facilitated our recent 18-member solidarity delegation to Oaxaca, Mexico in January, 2008. The purpose of this delegation was to meet those involved with the popular resistance movement. Our experience is that when farmers see for themselves the horrible economic conditions that force others off their land and across the border, they are much less likely to scapegoat immigrants and, instead, focus their struggle on the real enemy: corporate globalization. Here in the U.S. we bear particular responsibility for this situation, since a small handful of elite commodity traders set world food prices to the detriment of farmers and consumers alike. This is why for years FFD and other allies have been demanding federal anti-trust enforcement and staging protests on the steps of the Chicago Board of Trade. These protests have included the dumping of biotech corn and soybeans to protest the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by farmers from Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.

Contrary to popular stereotypes, the U.S. is not feeding the world, and the typical farmer is not some old white guy on a tractor in the Dakotas. Three times as much food is grown in cities worldwide than ever crosses an international border, and the vast majority of the world’s farmers are actually women of color. The U.S. has been a ‘food deficit nation’ for many years now, with half of our cropland devoted to corn and soybeans for factory farms, junk food makers, and agrofuel refineries. The deaths of more than 20,000 dogs and cats in the U.S. from chronic liver failure— a result of ingesting pet food from China that contained toxic melamine— was just the tip of the iceberg. The recalled pet food was simply diverted into livestock feed for chickens, pigs, and fish, and the results ended up on consumers’ plates anyway. Even in a farm rich state like Wisconsin, over 90% of the food consumed is now imported from other states or overseas. Each morning I cycle past tanker trucks from as far away as Texas and Florida unloading taxpayer subsidized milk to be made into “Wisconsin” cheese.

When South Korean farmer Lee Kyung-Hae stabbed himself to death on September 10th, 2003 on the barricade outside the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Cancun, in protest of U.S. rice dumping, he was hardly the first victim of the corporate takeover of the world’s food/farm system. Indeed, many other names come to mind: Chico Mendes, Judi Bari, Ken Saro-Wiwa and others. On October 21, 2007 Valmir Mota de Oliveira was shot to death by security guards hired by Syngenta in the western Brazilian state of Paraná state. Hundreds of activists with the Movimiento de los Trabajadores Rurales Sin Tierra (MST) had been occupying Sygenta’s research facility for over a year in order to block illegal cultivation of biotech crops. In India, as a result of Monsanto’s promises of prosperity through adopting biotech cotton having proved false, thousands of farmers have committed suicide. Other farmers, from France to the Philippines, have burned and uprooted these noxious biotech weeds instead. Here in the U.S. such an action would be deemed a federal felony (as well as an act of ecoterrorism post 9/11), and Monsanto has a vast war chest and army of patent lawyers devoted to suing contaminated farmers for “theft” of their biotechnologies.1

“Food Security” versus Food Sovereignty

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are no longer any hungry people in the U.S., just those who are “food insecure.” “Food security” defines hunger as a simplistic technical problem of how to get food to those who need it. Accordingly, “food security” evades the deeper debate about why hunger exists at all in a world that has plenty of food. In reality, “food security” functions as a Trojan Horse for business-as-usual. While one might find “food security” invoked in reports from mainstream journalists, academic researchers, and disaster relief managers, most people in the world are more likely to talk about, and act upon, their local vision for food sovereignty.

First elaborated back in 1996 by Via Campesina, food sovereignty valorizes common sense principles of community autonomy, cultural integrity, and environmental stewardship (i.e. people determining for themselves just what seeds they plant, what animals they raise, what type of farming occurs, and what they will ultimately eat for dinner). Food sovereignty is a term used by many throughout the world who see food as a basic human right, not just another market commodity, and who treat farmers with respect and dignity, rather than dismissing them as backward and anachronistic.

Since the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, FFD has sought to popularize the concept of food sovereignty as a grassroots alternative to neoliberal globalization in the U.S. Through this we hope to bring food and farm activists into a closer relationship with their counterparts abroad. The National Family Farm Coalition, Grassroots International, Rural Coalition, and Food First, amongst others, have recently joined FFD in this effort. One of our major challenges has been trying to bring the often-disparate strands of fair trade, buy local, slow food, sustainable agriculture, and farm worker rights together into a broader food sovereignty movement.

Adopting internationally recognized principles of food sovereignty would have sweeping implications in a setting such as the U.S., which is most likely the reason corporate agribusiness and their political supporters have so fiercely resisted them. For instance, preemption legislation that takes away local control over the regulation of factory farms grossly undermines food sovereignty, as does White House refusal to implement country of origin labeling (COOL) that would allow consumers to actually know where their food comes from. This even applies to organic foods, as corporate agribusiness scours the planet for the cheapest suppliers. Similarly, the corporate patenting of life-forms, expropriation of indigenous knowledge, and subsidized dumping of commodity crops are all flagrant violations of food sovereignty. On the other hand, “food security” has nothing to say about the fact that those displaced by Hurricane Katrina were left to eat “donated” irradiated foods rejected by U.S. trading partners, or that toxic FEMA trailers now remain parked atop former community gardens.

The food sovereignty struggle is particularly relevant today, as a global food shortage spawned by agrofuel speculation and corporate greed triggers food rioting in the global south and food rationing in the global north. Predictably enough, the cheerleaders of “free trade” and the “green revolution” are ready to peddle their snake oil again, but many of us have already learned our lesson. If Monsanto will not even serve biotech food to its own employees in its corporate cafeterias, then why should the rest of us have to stomach it either?

Organizing for Food Sovereignty

There are positive examples of food sovereignty in action all around us. However, since these examples seldom make headlines many activists often ignore them. This is particularly regrettable since such examples demonstrate the best aspects of intentional community, mutual aid, reciprocity, and cross-cultural solidarity that we espouse. To give but a few U.S. examples: there are now more than 3,700 farmers’ markets, having doubled in number since 1994; over 9 million acres are protected from development through 1,500 landtrusts; there are over 1000 community supported agriculture (CSA) operations directly providing fresh food from farmers to eaters each week throughout the growing season; there are over 400 farm to school projects getting healthy local food back into cafeterias, as well as over 30 local food policy councils that are reasserting democratic control over agriculture. Indeed, from community gardens and local currencies to permaculture and seedsaving, there are countless opportunities to reclaim the food/farm system at the local level.

The Great Lakes bioregion has become a hotbed of such activity. For instance, the Oneida Tsyunhekwa Project near Green Bay, WI is reasserting indigenous food sovereignty through “Three Sisters” (squash, corn, beans) gardens, and a community-processing kitchen open to everyone. Similarly, the White Earth Land Recovery Project in northern Minnesota is defending the cultural integrity of “manoomin” (wild rice) from corporate biopirates, and promoting other traditional foods as a form of preventative medicine. Dane County boasts the largest farmers’ market in the U.S., with over 10,000 people converging each Saturday during the growing season around the State Capitol in Madison, WI, to support hundreds of vendors and keep millions of dollars in the local economy. Over a third of U.S. organic dairy products now come from Wisconsin, where the fastest growing farm sector is small-scale and grass-based. Thousands of Wisconsin farmers are now resisting creeping fascism by refusing to register as part of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Millions of U.S. consumers are also engaged in their own form of agricultural civil disobedience by purchasing fresh raw milk direct from family farmers. In Chicago, where there are ten times as many vacant lots as food banks (an estimated 6000 compared to 600). Growing Power is working to stem the tide of gentrification and spread the joy of agriculture in their own backyard.

Food Sovereignty – Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

While some activists find building coalitions with U.S. farmers and farmworkers to be daunting, the creative synergy that results makes the effort more than worthwhile. Just like in the global south, the “digital divide” is very real in rural America. Illustratively, mass emails garner few responses. Many farmers don’t have internet access and thousands of Amish folks in Wisconsin don’t even have telephones! When we try to reach folks it is often better to send an action alert around with the milk truck or to post fliers in small town cafes, feed mills, and libraries. Talk radio is another venue that is often underestimated by activists. One half hour radio interview on a consumer’s right to know and a farmer’s right to label can generate hundreds of phone calls to a governor who previously thought it would be easy to just make everyone drink rBGH. Depending upon the issue and publicity, be prepared for a diverse audience! We have hosted meetings with farmers and immigrant farmworkers from a dozen countries and speaking half a dozen languages, and this requires not only multilingual literature and volunteer translators, but also culturally respectful food and a family friendly format. Progressive faith-based communities are another good outreach mechanism, whether it is a Catholic parish rural justice committee or the eco-halal buying club for an urban Moslem center.

Food sovereignty work should be part of the standard toolkit for any global justice activist. If we wish to build a new world from the ashes of the old, as the slogan of the IWW suggests, then we cannot be trapped in purely reactive mode. No one needs to suffer from chronic hunger in a food desert. We have the right and the capacity to reclaim the land, the seeds, our health, and our food as a common treasury for all.

To paraphrase Anishinabe activist, Winona LaDuke, we don’t want a bigger slice, we want a whole new pie! Creating this reality is easier than most people realize, and– better yet– the process itself can be fun. Next time you have a meeting, why not invite everyone to a local food potluck? You will quickly see just how much an alternative community can flourish and grow once you rediscover the power behind putting culture back into agri-culture.


1 For a more detailed overview of this Orwellian situation, watch the film The Future of Food or the new documentary, The World According to Monsanto.


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