Contextualizing Food Sovereignty: The politics of convergence among movements in the US

Alberto Alonso-Fradejas, Christina Schiavoni and Zoe Brent | 04.27.2015

Abstract: As food sovereignty spreads to new realms that dramatically diverge from the agrarian context in which it was originally conceived, this raises new challenges, as well as opportunities, for already complex transnational agrarian movements. In the face of such challenges, calls for convergence have increasingly been put forward as a strategy for building political power. Looking at the US case, we argue that historically rooted resistance efforts for agrarian justice, food justice and immigrant labor justice across the food system are not only drawing inspiration from food sovereignty, but helping to shape what food sovereignty means in the US. By digging into the histories of these resistance efforts, we can better understand the divides that exist as well as the potential for and politics of convergence. The US case thus offers important insights, especially into the roles of race and immigration in the politics of convergence that might strengthen the global movement for food sovereignty as it expands to new contexts and seeks to engage with new constituencies.

KEYWORDS Food sovereignty; agrarian justice; food justice; immigrant labor justice; politics of convergence; US

Introduction

In fall 2008, as volatile food prices combined with financial recession rapidly drove up hunger rates, food movement leaders from across the US converged in New York for an event entitled “Step Up to the Plate: Ending the Food Crisis.” Standing on the stage together, were, among others, urban food justice activist LaDonna Redmond, farmer leaders Ben Burkett and John Kinsman, farmworker activist Gerardo Reyes, and food worker union leader Pat Purcell. While the event brought attention to the pressing challenges of the food crisis, what made it historic on a number of levels was the message of unity it conveyed in the context of a food system marred by deep historic divides.  Tackling the food crisis, starting at home, would mean doing the hard work to overcome these divides, and this would require understanding how they had come to be. Redmond captured this sentiment, emphasizing that achieving a just food system was not about returning to some idyllic past. The US food system had been anything but just, as it had been built on the exploitation of Indigenous peoples, slaves, and others, and continued to function through exploitation and oppression. Achieving a just food system, she explained, would involve building something radically different from what had existed in the past and at present.

Little did the organizers and participants know at that time, this event was an initial step in a process of convergence that would lead to the founding of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance (USFSA) two years later. The founding of the USFSA was an attempt both to unify food and farm groups in the US in a more cohesive and powerful movement, and to situate this domestic movement within the broader global struggle for food sovereignty—defined as “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.” While originally popularized in the 1990s by the global peasant movement La Via Campesina, the concept of food sovereignty has increasingly become a rallying cry, strategy, and proposal by social movements across the globe, now spanning well beyond La Via Campesina and its farming base.

As resistance to the advance of a corporate dominated global agri-food system continues to grow, reaching into new geographic areas and new social groups, the increasing diversity of actors who have taken up the banner of food sovereignty poses additional challenges, as well as opportunities, for already complex transnational agrarian movements. In the face of such challenges, calls for convergence have increasingly been put forward as a strategy for building political power. Desmarais emphasizes the importance of “unity in diversity” to understand this convergence, and Martínez-Torres and Rosset[v] explain the practice of “diálogo de saberes” (“dialogue among knowledges”) within La Vía Campesina as a means of navigating sensitive points of tension. Of course, attempts at convergence are not without their challenges, and Edelman et al. ask if such practices will “allow for a constructive interchange between the various social groups differentiated by their actually existing practices of food sovereignty? The answers to these questions are not obvious and will require careful empirical research and conceptual soul-searching”. This is particularly the case as food sovereignty expands into new settings that dramatically diverge from the agrarian context in which it was originally conceived.

Below, we will explore the case of the US, where despite its small farming population, there is a diverse array of movements comprised of many different actors across the food system. These include movements for agrarian justice, food justice, and immigrant labor justice, among others. As each increasingly engages with food sovereignty, this opens up new possibilities for dialogue and convergence, while also raising challenging questions.  The US case thus provides the chance to explore how food sovereignty is both shaping and being shaped by other food and agrarian movements. With this analysis, we offer preliminary insights into some of the ways that convergence among movements is already taking place, and some of the barriers that exist.

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Citation:

Zoe W. Brent, Christina M. Schiavoni and Alberto Alonso-Fradejas (2015) Contextualizing Food Sovereignty: The politics of convergence among movements in the US, Third World Quarterly, 36:3, 618-635, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2015.1023570