Food Sovereignty, Food as Community
Written onJune 01 , 2012
Every year my wife and I get inquiries from people who want us to provide them with products that are raised and processed the way we do it for ourselves on our farm in Bethel. They want raw food, unadulterated food, food that comes in its natural form, its most basic form, or that is processed in traditional ways—the kind of food people have been providing to each other for eons. They also want to take part in our farm, to participate in the story of our farm—and to become characters in their own food story. Food that has a story that people want to be a part of connects them to life, land, and their community.
I understand why people want these kinds of products. In 1986, I decided that I wanted to have access to food that didn’t compromise my principles about health, the environment, economics, and society. I didn’t want to take part in a food system that deprived farmers of fair wages, robbed land of nutrients, destroyed ecosystems, denatured food through processing, degraded animals to undignified widgets, and limited, through regulation, my choices for how I sourced food.
For me the answer was to grow and raise my own. For more than 25 years, my wife and I have made an annual habit of filling our freezers, pantry, and root cellar, and, in turn, our plates, with fresh home-raised food grown with limited inputs on a small farm powered with draft animals. The milk at our farm is squeezed by hand from our cows tethered at pasture’s edge, and we use it, unpasteurized, to drink and to make cheese, butter, and yogurt. We eat meat from animals that we have handled since birth, raised with dignity, and slaughtered with our own hands, right where they lived. We grow our vegetables in soil that has been cultivated using hand and horse power only, and we cycle a variety of excess organic matter into animal feed and compost it with manure for our primary nutrient inputs.
But the direct sale of farm-fresh products such as these, to people who long for them, can be complicated. Due to many layers of regulation, the production and sale of traditional foods can be limiting. All transactions of commerce, including food sales, are regulated to prevent competitive disadvantage and to ensure that consumers are not harmed by faulty, unsafe, or fraudulent products. In the case of farming and food production, these laws vary from rules on how animals are raised to how a product is processed and packaged.
With the current surge of interest in local food, discussions about policies, regulations, and rights associated with the production of, and access to, farm-fresh food have come to the surface in venues from local stores to the halls of the Statehouse. Concerns have been raised about the possibility that regulation may eventually prohibit people from having the security to find food that is produced traditionally.
For the purposes of this article, I will keep the discussion of regulations general, because I think it is important to explore a distinction between buying food through the modern food distribution system and buying traditional food directly from the farm.
The problem with regulatory attempts to equalize the playing field is that additional expenses are often required to meet governmental standards, such as building facilities, hiring outside services, and investing in costly technology. For large-scale enterprises, these costs are absorbed through economies of scale and other cost-cutting measures, which in turn lead to the production of the very food I chose to stop buying a quarter century ago.
For people who want to grow their own food in age-old ways for their own consumption, there are exemptions, but these don’t legally extend to community members who want to buy that food. We are on the verge of regulating ourselves into a situation where access to food on a community scale will be limited to industrial food distribution systems. You can’t buy the food I eat, because if I sold it, I would be required to take steps that would add to the cost of, or denature, the product, such as pasteurizing milk.
These issues have given rise to Food Sovereignty campaigns in Vermont and several other states. At the core of the Food Sovereignty movement is a conviction that humans have inalienable rights to produce, process, and exchange food and farm products, regardless of regulations that may dictate otherwise. These insightful initiatives are motivating people to validate, through legal means, food-related rights. They are also awakening people to just how limited our rights are pertaining to food choice.
In Vermont, two organizations working on such campaigns are Rural Vermont (of which I am a board member) and the Vermont Coalition for Food Sovereignty. Each group has a slightly different emphasis, but there is a sense of unity in the common belief that traditional rights are being denied through governmental regulation.
In simple terms, sovereignty is defined as self-governance—independence from outside authority. But sovereignty is not simply about living without restrictions and rules. It doesn’t allow for anarchy, for irresponsible freedom from others, but gives authority to measures that cultivate and protect us as individuals and as communities. It is also about not needing those measures to be validated by governmental decree.
While Food Sovereignty supports practices related to food and food production, it also has to be about freedom to develop community food systems that are free from government regulation. Declaring sovereignty over feeding ourselves as communities requires consensus about the role food plays in defining the communities, and in turn how that definition relates to sovereignty.
Our commodity-based industrial food system has diminished our ability to think of our food in ways that relate to how it is raised, where it is raised, and who is raising it. This has turned our food into commodity groups, reduced farming to industry, and has led to regulation of production and access to certain food. We have allowed industry to define how we relate to our food, to the land where it is raised, and to the community that interacts around it. We have been misled to believe that economics are more valuable than relationships with other people, more important than a meaningful relationship with food and land.
Yet food is arguably our most basic need, one that sustains us in many ways. Relationships that facilitate access to food are the underpinning of human existence. When we think of food in these terms it takes on deep meaning. Food is not only a source of energy and well-being for individuals, but it is fundamental to human social traditions. Food is at once the foundation, and the adhesive, for our communities.
By connecting producers, processors, and consumers to food-based communities by way of shared relationships to food, then the food under consideration is not so much food, as it is the primary factor that defines the community. In this sense food isn’t a commodity. It is not an item of commerce. Food under these terms is the very fabric of the community and a conduit that connects its members in ancient ways that supersede regulation.
Food Sovereignty is about reaffirming our rights to produce, process, and exchange food because our innate connection to it is too valuable to be defined in commercial terms.
Some of the strategies endorsed by Food Sovereignty efforts are targeted at town governments. The Rural Vermont Food Sovereignty campaign has been working with people to reclaim their rural heritage and to declare sovereign rights through the cultivation of local rules embracing existing local food systems. The Vermont Coalition for Food Sovereignty has also been working with towns, passing resolutions declaring residents’ inalienable rights to save seed and grow, process, consume, and exchange food and farm products.
As important as the legal ramifications are, the long-term benefits to our society would go much deeper. Vibrant functional local food systems that encourage ecologically sound farming practices, low-cost food production methods, food-craft skills, and the perpetuation of traditional relationships between individuals facilitating access to healthy, unadulterated food will provide the foundation for truly sustainable communities.
It isn’t just “Local Food” that people are looking for, it is a story that they can be part of. This is a part of the human food story that we are not telling enough of these days. We have allowed ourselves to be socialized away from doing so on a large scale, and we run the risk of regulating it out of our reach, to never regain it, if we don’t work together to declare our rights to feed ourselves as communities.