Food Sovereignty

October 7, 2012

Food sovereignty is one of the key buzzwords in food ethics, and I’m trying to work it into my vocabulary a little more systematically. The phrase comes out of Via Campesina—an international movement in support of small-scale peasant farmers. Via Campesina has their root in Latin America, where the struggle between large hacienda-style agricultural production systems and smallholding farmers is an old one. I’m not entirely sure how the idea of globalizing this movement took hold, though I know some of its leading academic theorists personally. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that it has taken hold. I ask you dear blog reader, is this an idea that was familiar before you opened the Thornapple page just now?

Food sovereignty is a political ideal: people should have secure access to food that is nutritious, culturally appropriate and sustainably produced. Now I’ve been down with the “secure access” bit ever since I started doing food ethics back as young whippersnapper in the early 1980s. It’s the idea behind the “right to food” in the International Declaration of Human Rights. Unpacking secure access is not as straightforward as you might think, but I’ve hit that theme in the Thornapple blog before. But one might say that Americans have “secure access” in the sense that we have government entitlement programs (like the bridge card) that give people with little or no income the wherewithal to purchase food. Though if they don’t have someplace to cook it, they may wind up eating Cheetos for every meal. But even in that event, we have a pretty good network of soup kitchens where the indigent can get a hot meal. People do go hungry in the U.S., but one could say that it’s not because they have a total lack of access.

One can quibble over the exact sense in which one could say this, but I’m going straight for the next part: Maybe our problem resides in the “nutritious, culturally appropriate and sustainably produced” part. The whole point of food sovereignty was to “go beyond” food security, in any case. But I’m going to ignore the “sustainably produced” for the time being, because as we’ve discussed many times in the blog, it’s not all that likely much of the food any of us are eating in the U.S. is sustainably produced. And here I include the Thornapple CSA. We’re having a devil of time sustaining our farmer, you know. But noble and important topic as this is, we’re word limited in the Thornapple blog and this is just not the time to head down that rabbit hole for 3,748th time.

So we’re moving ahead to nutritious and culturally appropriate. And of course the “nutritious” piece will also be depressingly familiar to both of my regular readers. Sure, you have access to a steady diet of greasy French-fries and high-fructose sweetened energy drinks in most U.S. cities, and they are affordable, to boot! Why not just put on the leather flight jacket and declare this food ethics thing “Mission Accomplished”? So let’s push on to the last little piece, that “culturally appropriate” thing. This is an interesting way to highlight the fact that if you are a refugee from the strife in Africa or Afghanistan, you can certainly get some calories from the local Subway or from a can of Chef Boyardee once you’ve arrived at any American city, but it’s not going to be all that familiar to you. It’s not going to give you a sense of belonging or comfort, and arguably, that’s something that food can and should do. And maybe it’s even worse when the global food system comes in and rips up a local community’s ability to maintain their food traditions.

All of which suggests that food sovereignty would be problematic if it were interpreted to mean that I should have access to a Big Mac when I’m traveling in some distant corner of the world. After all, that’s what would be culturally appropriate (remember, we’ve dropped nutritious and sustainably produced) for me. So food sovereignty is going to turn out to be a little bit complicated—not a universal political ideal that is applicable to all people at all times and places. Of course, it turns out that I generally do have secure access to a Big Mac at almost every place I’ve found myself traveling over the last few years (Burlington, VT would be the exception). Beans and rice would be tougher to find, and that’s what “resistance to the global food system” is mainly about.

I think.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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