Food Sovereignty

How a new worldview can help us feed our communities and grow a better future


Everyday, when we read the headlines or watch the news, we can be sure about one thing: it’s mostly going to be bad. Bad news about the planet, or poverty, or the economy, or about the future in general. We don’t often see what regular people and community groups are doing to try to solve those problems.

So you hold in your hands a rare thing: a newspaper with plenty of good news.

Much of the good news in this paper ties into the idea of food sovereignty, an important new concept that has been gaining traction across Canada and around the world. Food sovereignty is more than just an idea – it’s a framework that can help us build sustainable communities that offer healthy food, meaningful jobs, and genuine democracy.

At its core, the idea of food sovereignty is simple: communities should have a say in where and how their food is grown. You might say this idea is common sense, simply because food is so central to daily human life. After all, food keeps us alive, good food nourishes our bodies and gives us pleasure, and the sharing of food is a cornerstone of both family life and cultural identity.

The idea of food sovereignty has become popular because communities around the world have, especially in recent decades, lost so much of their say over their own food. This has put at risk not only their access to good healthy food, but their cultural continuity, and in some cases their very survival.

The term food sovereignty was coined by La Via Campesina, a global movement of peasants and small-scale food producers. (The National Farmers Union is an active and founding member of La Via Campesina.) First used in 1996, the food sovereignty framework was a response to international market forces – mostly corporations and international banks – which undermine the ability of small producers to make a living and feed their communities.

La Via Campesina defined seven underlying principles of food sovereignty, including the belief that food is a human right, that agrarian reform is needed, and that the food system must be democratically controlled.

What food sovereignty means

That’s what food sovereignty is and where the concept comes from. But what does it really mean? What does it mean for our community right  here in Kingston and countryside, and what does it mean for the way we eat and the way we think about food?

First of all, if you eat then you have a stake in our community’s food system. We created this newspaper because we – farmers, food processors, small grocers, community members – want you to know that there are serious problems with the industrial food system. Many people can’t afford healthy food. Farmers are not being paid a living wage and so their numbers are shrinking and skills are being lost. The ability of this system to provide our community with safe food into the future is in serious doubt. These are major problems, but they are also problems we can solve with political and community involvement. This newspaper is about solutions, and about action.

Among the actions needed is a general revitalization of our local food infrastructure. We must rebuild the rural economies and facilities (like local processors and distributors) that have been lost in the rush for “cheap” food – food that is only cheap when we ignore its broader social, ecological, and health costs. Rebuilding this infrastructure will make sustainable food more accessible year-round, more varied, and more available for institutional use (like in schools or hospitals).

So food sovereignty means building up our community’s food system. But it also means protecting our food system from bad government policies or predatory corporate practices. Some in government have shown – through the debacle of the prison farm closure, among other things – that they don’t care about the ability of communities to feed themselves. They don’t understand what makes for a sustainable or healthy community, and they don’t want to understand.

When a community’s food system is under threat, those who eat must stand up for it. This may look like signing a petition against GMO alfalfa. It may look like planting a community garden. It may look like sitting down in front of cattle trucks. It may look like buying a CSA share  or pasture-raised pork from a local farm.

Food sovereignty also means changing the way we think about what we eat; it means seeing food not as a collection of products on a grocery store shelf, but as a system. An entire community – of microorganisms, plants, animals and farmers – lives and works every day to produce our food. In the long term, we can only be as healthy as the community that feeds us.

If we – and the farmers who feed us – show reverence for the land and an ability to work with nature to grow food, then we can rely on having a healthy community for a long time. On the other hand, if the food we buy destroys the land rather than healing it – or if we as a community refuse to pay what it costs to grow food that is healthy for both people and the land – then we will not have fertile land in the future.

We aren’t telling you to swear off bananas and oranges. But understand that just as some foods in the grocery store aren’t grown locally, there are many exciting things grown locally that you can’t find in the grocery store. Our growing area has its own unique characteristics and soils (an individuality sometimes called “terroir”). Exploring the diversity of local varieties is both exciting and flavourful. (And local varieties even include wild plants, see page 19.)

Food sovereignty also means food security – a safe, reliable, and abundant food supply for all. The inability to access and afford basic foods is not just something that happens on television or in far-off places. It is a real and serious issue in our community. Since 2008, food bank usage in Ontario has risen by 28%. In one of three households that access food banks, at least one person skips three or more meals each week because they cannot afford enough food. These numbers are fundamentally shameful, especially given that we live in one of the most affluent societies in the world.

Healthy food needs to be accessible to everyone. Some of the people in this newspaper offer ways of making that happen. We must, as a community, find ways to address the on-going hunger and malnourishment in our community, and we must do it soon.
Perhaps above all, food sovereignty means choice. Not just the choice of which can of pasta sauce to buy, but something more profound; the reclaiming of our decision-making power in the food system. Do we want a food system that offers convenience to those who can afford it, but fails to feed so many, even as it funnels huge profits into the hands of a few seed and agrichemical companies? That offers temporarily “cheap” food by depleting the soil and drawing down aquifers, undermining the ability of the land to grow food at all? Or do we want a food system that feeds nourishing food to everyone, equitably, and long into the future?

With those choices, of course, comes the responsibility to take action. Food sovereignty will not be won by personal efforts alone – it requires community action.

Taking action

The skyrocketing of food and oil prices in recent years have made it increasingly clear that the global food system is not stable or sustainable. Industrial agriculture’s dependence on cheap energy and long-distance shipping is increasingly at odds with a world of climate change, water shortages, international food riots and dwindling oil supplies. If we fail to heed these warnings then the future is indeed grim.

So here’s the final question: are we just spectators in history? Or are we engaged participants in our food system and in the making of our own future?

Some people have already decided. The moment a many growing organizations for makes it clear that our area is full of people who are serious, brave, and dedicated.

These are people who understand that food is the basis of any community. You can’t have real democracy without food sovereignty, and vice versa.

As Greg Williams writes in “Food and Oil,” the national political establishment in Canada has been largely unable or unwilling to respond to fundamental changes like peak oil and climate change – especially when it comes to food. If we want to see real action – if we want to stop climate change and ensure that our communities can feed themselves – we need to take action here, in our own kitchens, shopping carts, workplaces, schools,  neighbourhoods, and backyards.

And people are doing just that. Some farmers are saving seed to ensure the continuity of plant varieties suited to our area. Parents and teachers are showing children – and families – the benefits of healthy local food. Community members and entrepreneurs are building the infrastructure we need. Non-profit organizations and individuals are working to overcome hunger and food injustice.

You can be part of all that. You can join us. It’s easy to get started. Eating local food is one of the first steps, and our centerfold directory shows many sources. Yes, there are challenges, but as Karen Holmes writes those challenges can be overcome (and they might not be as big as you think). Many people are getting engaged by growing food in their yards, apartment balconies, and community gardens. They are preserving their harvest in the summer and fall, and enjoying it through the winter. They are helping to get local food served in the places they work or learn or go out for dinner.

The rewards are immediate and real. Local foods are gaining popularity in part because their freshness can offer unparalleled flavour. Such nutrient-dense foods are especially beneficial for children. And no value can be put on the sense of community that develops when neighbours grow food together, or when city people become friends with the farmers who grow their foods. Many other rewards are discussed in these pages.

We can have all that, and a livable future, if we work together.

—Aric McBay on behalf of the Food Down the Road Committee.

Aric McBay is a small-scale organic farmer, community activist, and author of three books about ecological and social justice issues.

Sidebar: Principles of Food Sovereignty


La Via Campesina’s seven principles of Food Sovereignty (from www.viacampesina.org):

1. Food: A Basic Human Right
2. Agrarian Reform
3. Protecting Natural Resources
4. Reorganizing Food Trade
5. Ending the Globalization of Hunger
6. Social Peace
7. Democratic Control

Several towns in New England have recently put food   sovereignty principles into law.

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