Food Sovereignty: Changing the Food System by Changing Everything

Eric Holt-Giménez | 06.19.2017

A recent article by the Southern Foodways Alliance writer John T. Edge in the New York Times entitled The Hidden Radicalism of Southern Food profiled the legacy of African-American farmer and civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. The informative piece ends with a call to action:

In the South, America has identified food-system problems and developed solutions. Today, as Americans agitate for food sovereignty, the bold agricultural ideas conceived in the late 1960s by Fannie Lou Hamer and other radical Southerners suggest paths for us to follow out of our food deserts.

What is remarkable about this piece is not just Fannie Lou Hamer’s inspiring story of courage and social ingenuity in the face of racism, violence, and oppression, but that it describes the practice of food sovereignty as radical food politics. Radical in that food sovereignty “goes to the root,” using the food system as a platform for resisting social injustice and constructing the community relationships for dignified rural livelihoods.

Food sovereignty is not just about access to good, healthy food, or about sustainable forms of food production: it is about transforming society.

That the notion of food sovereignty would make it into a paper like the New York Times is a credit to the food sovereignty movement. It will be no surprise to many in the US food movement that the African American experience of rural struggle is a beacon in popularizing the concept.

Food First began writing about food sovereignty in 2001, when La Vía Campesina released the Final Declaration of the World Forum on Food Sovereignty in Havana, Cuba, September 7, 2001. In Food Sovereignty: Global Rallying Cry of Farmer’s Movements, Food First’s Peter Rosset wrote that that “food sovereignty goes beyond the concept of food security… [Food security] means that… [everyone] must have the certainty of having enough to eat each day … but says nothing about where that food comes from or how it is produced.”

As La Vía Campesina grew in organization and numbers, it applied the concept of food sovereignty to global trade regimes, seeds, and land access. Food First followed these developments closely, putting out books and reports that amplified the insights and experiences of the food sovereignty movement. Soon, urban gardeners and food activists began adopting food sovereignty as a framework for their work. By addressing the structural aspects of malnutrition, hunger, poverty, and dispossession in the countryside, as well as the opportunities for strategic alliances between social movements, food sovereignty introduced deep political meaning into the food movement. In 2011 Food First intern Yi Wang and I researched the radical roots of the U.S. food justice movement, its linkages with food sovereignty, and the political potential of these movements to transform the corporate food regime in “Reform or Transformation? The Pivotal Role of Food Justice in the U.S. Food Movement.”

Throughout the development and spread of the Food Sovereignty movement—now spanning over 20 years— Food First has been learning, sharing, and applying the concept analytically and practically. We co-organized Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue at Yale University in June of 2013, helped found the US Food Sovereignty Alliance in 2010 and have led dozens of Food Sovereignty Tours to countries such as Cuba, Mexico, Italy, South Korea and Hawaii.

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The job of a think tank is to help frame the paradigms and dialogues that influence the way we do things. Food First has been able to frame food issues and shift the food paradigm for over 40 years, thanks to the support of thousands of individuals and organizations who support this work. They have helped take food sovereignty from farm to plate.