Local Ordinances and Land Grabs: Democracy Convention Panels Discuss Food Sovereignty

Democracy ConventionAttendees of the Democracy Convention in Madison in late August were treated to panels on a host of different issues, from democratic media to racial inequality. The Center for Media and Democracy was one of the sponsors of the convention, and our own Lisa Graves and Brendan Fischer addressed democracy activists. At panels on food sovereignty, we heard from a range of experts, including local Wisconsin dairy farmer Jim Goodman, Massachusetts food and farming activist Barbara Clancy and Jim Tarbell of the Alliance for Democracy (publishers of Justice Rising), and Ronnie Cummins, leader of the Organic Consumers Association.

Food Sovereignty Defined

At a Friday morning panel on "Using Local Laws to Create Food Sovereignty," Jim Goodman defined the seven principles of food sovereignty (a term coined by members of Via Campesina, the "International Peasant Movement") as:

  1. Food as a Basic Human Right, that is, "safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food in sufficient quantity and quality to sustain a healthy life with full human dignity;"
  2. Agrarian Reform, or ensuring that "the land belongs to those who work it, especially women of color, who grow most of the world's food but rarely have ownership or control of the land;"
  3. Courtesy of Agrarian Reform for Food Sovereignty CampaignProtecting Natural Resources, "the sustainable care and use of natural resources, especially land, water, and seeds and livestock breeds;"
  4. Reorganizing Food Trade so that "food is first and foremost a source of nutrition and only secondarily an item of trade;"
  5. Ending the Globalization of Hunger "by multilateral institutions and by speculative capital ... facilitated by the economic policies of multilateral organizations such as the WTO, World Bank and the IMF;"
  6. Social Peace, that is, "freedom from violence, oppression of minorities and racism against peasant farmers," wherein "food is never used as a weapon;" and
  7. Democratic Control, where "everyone has the right to honest, accurate information and open and democratic decision-making."

(To learn more, ask the Family Farm Defenders.)

Reorganizing Food Trade: Local Food Ordinances

Courtesy of Happy Healthy BalanceBarbara Clancy described the successful fight for food sovereignty by several towns in Hancock County, Maine. They established local food governance by means of town ordinances. In this county where all the farms are family farms, and all but one sell all of their food in-state at an average of $20,000 of product a year, these farmers succeeded in passing the "Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance of 2011" in four towns.

Clancy stressed that Maine is a strong home rule state, with a strong tradition of self-reliance and attachment to local traditions and local governance. Residents feared that the federal "Food Safety Modernization Act," which President Obama signed into law on January 4th, 2011, could shut down cottage producers of jam and pickles made from backyard garden produce and church pot lucks without these local ordinances to protect them.

Towns that were considering or had passed the ordinance received letters from the state agricultural commissioner informing them that "the ordinance is preempted by state law." But farmers in Hancock County, Clancy said, are prepared to go to court should the ordinances be challenged.

Agrarian Reform: Overturning Land Grabs

Courtesy of FarmLandGrab.orgAt a Friday afternoon panel entitled "Land and Food vs. Corporate Rights and Dirty Fuels," Jim Goodman spoke again, accompanied by Jim Tarbell and Ronnie Cummins.

Goodman and Tarbell reminded us that just as the Commons were taken in the Scottish Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, corporations are now buying up land in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, which was farmed in common and often farmed to produce food for the community, in order to aid corporations' focusing on selling "biofuels," like ethanol. According to Tarbell, this "disrupts economies, taking the land away from the traditional landowners and pushing them out into starvation and poverty."

Tarbell told of a land lease that had been signed in 2008 in South Sudan, immediately prior to independence. Mukaya Payam leaders had supposedly made a deal granting "a 49-year lease of 600,000 hectares of land to US-based firm Nile Trading and Development Inc. ... For a sum equivalent to around US$25,000, NTD has full rights to exploit all natural resources in the leased land during this period." However, post-independence, Mukaya Payam leaders, upon becoming aware of the deal signed in their names and for their land, appealed to Members of Parliament and the president of South Sudan, in a letter that stated, according to the Guardian, "We the chiefs, elders, religious leaders and the youth of Mukaya Payam unanimously, with strong terms, condemn, disavow, or deny the land-lease agreement reached on 11 March 2008 between the two parties." Confirming the power of the people over corporations, President Salva Kiir responded: "This issue has to be addressed according to your will. You are the government and you have powers."

Reorganizing Food Trade: Food vs. Fuel

Corn EthanolRonnie Cummins, National Director of the Organic Consumers Union, discussed the problems of turning food-growing land over to the production of corn for ethanol, which because of inputs, he said, is twice as bad as burning diesel. "Now ethanol-ready corn has been approved by Obama. Even food corporations had urged him not to approve it, because it can get into food supply and has the chemical profile of an allergen. GMO ethanol-ready corn is a sum total of ten percent more efficient than regular corn, so basically, now it will only be 1.9 times as bad as diesel."

According to Cummins, "the United States is now using forty percent of our GMO, subsidized, energy intensive corn crop for fuel." That's 4.9 billion bushels, enough to feed 350 million people. But this only amounts to three percent of the total gasoline we use in our cars.

"Scientists tell us we'll have to reduce fossil fuel use by at least ninety percent by 2050," he said, but neither corn ethanol nor palm ethanol is an acceptable way to do it. As an alternative, however, Cummins told the story of Vermont organic farmer Will Allen (not to be confused with Wisconsin urban farmer Will Allen of Growing Power, Inc.), who grows sunflowers and uses their oil for fuel.

A major difference between these examples is that one is industrial and the other is small-scale. That's important, Cummins says, because "the number one cause of greenhouse gases in the world (around 35%) is industrialagriculture. ... But sustainably managed agriculture and forestry lands can sequester carbon and reduce carbon dioxide by fifty parts per million."

Protecting Natural Resources: Water

Courtesy of the U.S. Geological SurveyCummins also brought up the importance of water to the future of food sovereignty by telling the story of Saudi Arabia, which briefly grew all its own wheat and was self-sufficient in that area, until agricultural practices dried up an aquifer and they returned to importing wheat.

In India, Cummins said, the melting of the glaciers threatens the regular availability of glacial meltwater. The headwaters of the rivers that now bring this water seasonally are in Pakistan, threatening, he said, a new war over water, especially as India is currently mining its aquifers. What happens, he asked, when the hundreds of thousands depending on fossil aquifers (non-renewable, "with no appreciable modern recharge and which cannot discharge naturally") and over-pumped aquifers in India and China run out of water?

Because of unsustainable methods of food production by agricultural corporations, Cummins said, there are tremendous amounts of desertification in Mongolia and China. "Both China and India are economic and ecologic time bombs waiting to explode, and we're indebted to China. When will they come asking for wheat and other commodities?"

Democratic Control: Returning Growing Power to the People

In keeping with the themes of the Democracy Convention, the consensus of these panels was that the solution is to return the growing of food to the realm of real people (not corporate "people") on small farms and in gardens.

Tools like "Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinances" may help some communities fight one-size-fits-all regulations written to advance the bottom line of large corporate food producers and which sometimes criminalize home- and community-scale food producers.

If you grow food on a small scale (in your backyard, on your porch, or at a community garden), you can join Via Campesina, which "defends small-scale sustainable agriculture as a way to promote social justice and dignity. It strongly opposes corporate driven agriculture and transnational companies that are destroying people and nature."

The food panels at the Democracy Convention reminded all that the fight for food sovereignty is both local and global.