From St Paul's to St Hilda's, food sovereignty in action

25th October 2011 by

What is it that links an international gathering of peasant activists at the House of Commons, the tent city of the ‘Occupy the London Stock Exchange’ protest at St Paul’s Cathedral and a modest, local community food co-op event in Tower Hamlets, east London?

At first glance it’s hard to see a common theme. But I was lucky enough to attend all three in the last two weeks, and I can’t shake the thought that there were common threads linking these unusual and sometimes wonderful assemblies.

The parliamentary gathering was held by War on Want to mark Food Sovereignty Day. I wrote about the concept of food sovereignty in my first Otesha blog post: as a movement it aims to return control over and access to land, seeds, water and other inputs to smallholder farmers and away from corporations, so benefiting peasants, the environment, consumers’ health and sense of connection to their food, and local cultures.

Deeply impressive leaders and farmers from peasants’ and landless people’s movements, from Mozambique, Brazil, Cuba and Sri Lanka, spoke powerfully about their efforts to rescue their livelihoods, dignity and prosperity from the grasp of profit-focused agribusiness. But while these struggles, and the concept of food sovereignty, are often seen as issues of the global South, many at the meeting made the case, too, for a food sovereignty movement in countries like the UK.

And so Reclaim the Fields, an offshoot of the peasants’ organisation La Via Campesina, has plans not only to make connections with Young Farmers organisations in this country in a bid to engage with them about access to land and the future of food-growing, but also, more radically, to stage land occupations next year, echoing the invasions of unused, privately owned land by Brazilian peasants thrown off their own land to make way for corporate plantations.

So what on earth has this debate got to do with the Occupy LSX encampment? It’s not a link I crowbarred into being by myself. In the meeting in Parliament one speaker made the point:

“The Occupy movement and food sovereignty are both all about revolting against a particular kind of capitalism.”

Luis Muchanga, a peasants’ leader from Mozambique, made a similar point:

“The neoliberal model deciding how we produce our food has failed.”

Graciela Romero of War on Want:

“Food sovereignty is about economics, politics, democratic control.”

John Hilary, director of War on Want:

“We need a change to the system. It’s political. It’s about where the money goes and where the political classes put their money. And why the organic and natural movements are marginalised. The globalised food system revolves around increasing trade in agricultural products, and so food is reduced to a commodity, like a car. A commodity whose production is controlled by the major corporations who have benefited so much from this system. … Food sovereignty puts trade back in its proper place: people’s needs before capital’s needs and profit’s needs.”

With this ringing in my ears, I was excited by the connections being made between the food sovereignty and Occupy movements. But would the Occupy protesters in turn see any importance to their own agenda of the issue of control over food and land?

I decided after I left the Palace of Westminster to cycle up to St Paul’s and see for myself what was happening there. And I was impressed to see the links to food and land also being made explicitly in the shadow of St Paul’s.

'In the UK, 1% of the population owns 70% of the land. We, the 99%, own less than half the land owned by the 1%.'

This flyposted image made the point directly: here, in the UK, there is staggering inequality in land ownership and therefore in access to land (the basis of all life and all prosperity).

This feels like a time for sometimes surprising connections and alliances to be made. People from top to bottom have had their faith in our current systems shaken, and this makes fertile ground for new ideas and creative challenges to a system that appears to have lost much of its legitimacy.

But where is the relevance of the Tower Hamlets community food co-op I visited the week before last? Well, a food sovereignty movement for the UK would not only look like confrontation, land occupations or high-level policy debates. It would have to be rooted in every community, at the truly grassroots level, and be expressed through a whole constellation of community-level initiatives. It has been dawning on me that the Tower Hamlets event at St Hilda’s East Community Centre was a brilliant example of this.

A weekly food co-op was showcasing its work enabling local people to buy fresh, affordable vegetables without having to visit the supermarkets, a boost to their health but also to the community, bringing people together who might not otherwise talk to their near neighbours.

The Women’s Environmental Network had a stall, and were proudly showing off their new seed library, from which local people will be able to take and contribute fruit and vegetable seeds, again putting control of food directly into ordinary people’s hands.

A wall display encouraged people to use post-it notes to mark their community food initiatives on a map of the borough. In this inner-city area, the map was filled up.

Here, at St Hilda’s, in its modest way, without protests or occupations, but with an equally powerful message, was food sovereignty in action.

Food, glorious food sovereignty

6th October 2011 by

My cycle ride to work takes me through Greenwich Park, and at this time of year, even just after dawn, you can hardly move for (mostly older) people scanning the ground intently and filling bulging bags of sweet chestnuts.

Extremely local food: Greenwich Park chestnuts

I’m a sucker for foraging, too, and have to resist the urge to leap off my bike and join in, because if I started I’d lose track of time and never make it in to the Otesha office that day. But to me these foragers make a beautiful sight, and I’ve been pondering why.

It’s not just the setting of Greenwich Park, with its ancient trees, autumn colour and long shadows, though of course that helps. It’s something beautiful that foraging shares with ‘growing your own’ and with truly locally produced and sold food: knowing your food from field (or tree, or hedgerow) to plate, having control and influence over how what you eat is grown or gathered, transported, prepared and cooked.

That idea of local control over food production is at the heart of the ‘food sovereignty’ movement, which is taking an important place in the debate about how food, social justice and the environment are interconnected.

The concept arose out of the landless peasants’ movements of South America, particularly La Via Campesina, and focuses on the need to return control over and access to land, seeds, water and finance to local, independent producers. That’s a big challenge in the face of a food system dominated and controlled by agribusiness and mega-retailers, but many see it as crucial to building a truly sustainable food system.

A few of us from Otesha went to a fantastic night of films and talks on food sovereignty recently, organised by 6 Billion Ways – you can still watch the films online here.

Much of the debate about food sovereignty focuses on so-called ‘developing world’, and deals with poorer countries’ struggle against unfair trade rules imposed by the rich countries. But could the concept take off here, too?

Is there a need for a UK food sovereignty movement?

Why not? Agribusiness and the supermarkets dominate here just as they do elsewhere. Small farmers are going bust and being swallowed up into corporate-owned megafarms at alarming rates. Young people who want to make a go of working the land find it is priced way out of their reach. A new survey says 9 out of 10 Europeans see buying local as a good thing, but half say it’s too hard to figure out what’s local and what is not.

So why is ‘food sovereignty’ not on the agenda in a big way here? Well, perhaps it will be before long. Later this month we’ll be at the Houses of Parliament (they do let tree-huggers like us in sometimes) for ‘Food Sovereignty Day’, hearing how to “build the food sovereignty movement in the UK” and learning about what is already going on in this country to “challenge the dominant, corporate agribusiness model”.

Will anything come of it? I hope so. How we produce, distribute and eat food, and who controls those actions, is crucial to our environment, health and the bottom line, so the food sovereignty movement is looking like a really important development in the wider debate about sustainability and justice.

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