Tracing Back the Roots of the Food Sovereignty Movement

This post is the first in a two-part food sovereignty series by Leila Alhemali. This piece covers the history of food the food sovereignty movement. In part two, learn how to take action. 

In our day, being climate-conscious is inextricable from being aware of the carbon footprint of the food we eat. Oftentimes, removing animal products, eating organic, or buying local food are given as personal lifestyle changes someone can make to help mitigate the worst impacts of human-caused climate change. While these are well-intentioned and beneficial considerations, they must happen in parallel with the global food sovereignty movement, which calls for large-scale reform of the current Industrial Agriculture system in favor of farm workers and consumers. 

The Advent Of Industrial Agriculture

The Industrial Agriculture system is a relatively recent introduction to humanity. In an article titled Industrial Agriculture 101, the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) defines our current way of producing food as: 

“the large-scale, intensive production of crops and animals, often involving chemical fertilizers on crops or the routine, harmful use of antibiotics in animals. Consolidation in the industry has intensified as agriculture has undergone a transition from small, diverse farms producing a variety of crops and livestock to an industrialized system dominated by big multinational corporations”. 

Much of this industrialization was spurred by synthetic chemical pesticides becoming widespread in the 1930s after World War I. Only thirty years later, in 1962, Rachel Carson published her book “Silent Spring,” which detailed the devastating effects on biodiversity and the human health effects of these new products. Despite early advocates against Industrial Agriculture, there has been a mind-boggling consolidation of land and other natural resources in the following years. Alongside this, the generational knowledge of how to produce food for oneself has been lost. While there are no available statistics that measure what percent of Americans produce some of their own food, I believe it is currently very low and much lower than it was a hundred years ago. 

Ancestral Relationships to Farming

If you trace back your family tree a few generations, you'll probably find a relative who produced food for themselves and/or their town. European colonizers in the Americas farmed for sustenance, most of them with the unpaid labor of black slaves. For most of us, our great-great-grandparents were alive when slavery was a major US institution. 

Many former slaves in the South became tenant farmers or sharecroppers, trading a portion of their crops for the use of land and equipment. Indigenous people knew the land extremely well and farmed/hunted/gathered food until the United States government brutally removed them from their land mostly from the late 1800s throughout the early 1900s. 

In that same time period, California became the U.S.’s major agricultural center. The immigrant labor force was largely Asian until the Japanese Internment camps of World War II. With that self-imposed labor shortage, the U.S. initiated the Bracero Program with Mexico in 1942 which gave short-term visas to Mexicans to work temporarily on U.S. farms. That program ended in 1964, however, the majority of the U.S.’s agricultural workforce continues to be Latino immigrants and citizens. 

From this short history, you can see that many ethnic groups in America have been oppressed through farm labor and cutting communities from natural resources. I hope for more community-led programs that can help people who have been oppressed by the agricultural industry in America heal so they can reclaim their ancestral relationships to land. It has barely been two human generations since the agricultural system changed so dramatically, and it can take less time to reclaim our connections to land if we take action now. 

Agrarian Reform is central to Food Sovereignty

Agrarian reform is a cornerstone of the food sovereignty movement. The movement embodies a commitment to reimagining the way we cultivate and distribute sustenance. The U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance has six fundamental principles:

  1. Focus on food for people: By prioritizing nourishment over profit, food sovereignty shifts the narrative from food as a commodity to a human right.
  1. Value food providers: Agrarian reform recognizes the pivotal role of farmers and laborers, championing fair wages, safe working conditions, and respect for those who feed our communities.
  1. Localized food systems: Building resilient local food systems reduces dependence on global supply chains and minimizes carbon emissions associated with long-distance transportation.
  1. Reject privatization of natural resources: Preserving communal access to resources like land, water, and forests ensures their sustainable management and equitable distribution.
  1. Build knowledge and skills intergenerationally: Passing down traditional agricultural wisdom and practices helps cultivate a strong connection between generations and the land.
  1. Work with nature: Embracing sustainable and regenerative farming practices fosters harmony between human activities and the natural world.

The food sovereignty movement revolves around placing both farm workers and consumers at the core of the food system. Addressing the challenges posed by global climate change necessitates a profound reevaluation of our relationship with the planet and our role within it.

La Via Campesina, one of the most prominent movements advocating for food sovereignty, directs its focus towards the global repercussions of the Industrial Agriculture movement and the rights of those grappling with hunger and poverty. 

As La Via Campesina puts it, we live in a time of “the privatization and commodification of communal and public land, water, fishing grounds, and forests.”  For example, commercial fishing licenses push fisheries to the brink of collapse, leaving individuals who fish for sustenance at risk. Disentangling oneself from the grip of the globalized food system is nearly impossible unless one possesses land ownership with an independent and reliable water source plus the skills and time to produce food. La Via Campesina's efforts encompass challenging prevailing trade tariffs to allow farmers to make a living wage. 

Critics of the food sovereignty movement argue that returning to a more pastoral existence requires many more hours of human labor to be invested in producing food for our species. The fact that in the time of Industrial Agriculture global malnutrition has seriously decreased cannot be wholly ignored. The Food Sovereignty movement asks Industrial Agriculture to reckon with the oppressive parts of the industry and seek new technologies and advancements to increase human and environmental wellness. 

Ready to take action? Read part two: Food Sovereignty in Practice and Policy.


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Commons team hiking
Thrive Market
Wholesaler of healthy food from leading organic brands
Leila Al-Hemali Ayad
September 11, 2023
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