‘We Need to Look at Food as a Global System’

Janine Jackson interviewed Beverly Bell about food sovereignty for the October 16 CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.


Fruit, Dallas farmer's market (cc photo: Allen Sheffield)

Janine Jackson: From keeping pink slime out of school lunches, to demanding labeling to show which of their foods are genetically modified, Americans are learning to raise their voices when it comes to what they eat. That activism generally focuses on the consumer end of things, where most of us mainly are, but there’s a growing awareness that food is not simply a product, it’s a system, and it starts for many foods at the farm.

If we want to talk about the right to have a say in what we eat, the conversation has to involve the rights of the people who grow it and our relationship to one another. That’s one of the ideas behind the US Food Sovereignty Prize, awarded by an alliance of food justice and food producer groups. One recipient this year is the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a group that works with family farmers, particularly African-American farmers, to develop self-supporting communities.

Joining us to talk about the work and what it means is Beverly Bell. She’s the coordinator of Other Worlds, the women-led education and movement-building collaborative. She joins us by phone from Oakland. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Beverly Bell.

Beverly Bell: Thank you.

Small-scale farmer, Tanzania (cc photo: Oxfam)

JJ: What I wanted to ask you first is how you introduce people to the idea of food sovereignty; how do you explain what that means?

BB: There are two concepts that your listeners will probably be aware of, and I’ll just state them briefly. The first concept is food security, which means that everyone has the right to adequate quantity of food, to quality of food and to have food on time, that is, when people are hungry and need it.

It’s a great concept in moments of dire emergency, but it is all too often used to justify what is, in fact, dumping of taxpayer-supported US agribusiness-grown foods. And I’m thinking particularly of rice growers, but also wheat and corn growers, who are then able to dump their food into low-income countries, creating situations of endless dependence, and putting farmers and local production completely out of business. So again, good concept, but how it is used is not helpful, and it’s often very, very harmful.

Then there is the concept of food justice that is increasingly growing, especially through youth- and people of color-led movements in the US, which looks at structural racism in the food system, and looks at the need for local community-controlled production for local consumption.

Food sovereignty takes both of those concepts at their core and builds upon it to say, we need to look at food as a global system, and we need to look at the structures behind it, which you referenced in your introduction, Janine.

Food sovereignty is about the right of all people and all nations to have access to their own food, grown domestically to support local production. Food that is agro-ecologically grown, that supports the environment – not undermines it, as industrial agriculture does. Food that looks at questions of inequity and ensures that small farmers and normally excluded communities actually have what they need to grow, which also means the right to land, the right to water, etc.

And looks even further at so-called free trade pacts. Looking at how the policies of the US and other industrialized nations, and the World Trade Organization, have undermined and destroyed local production all over the world.

I know that sounds like a lot; it could be stated very simply: It’s the right to grow, it is the right to live on the land by rural peoples, it is the right of everyone to be able to eat domestically grown food in a way that supports each nation’s economy and the sustenance of its culture. And it’s really, at its core, about citizens reclaiming food and agriculture system from the corporations.

JJ:  I remember learning about sub-Saharan African countries that grew cotton for export but couldn’t afford the shirts that were made from it, and I think the idea that farmers should ever be food insecure is almost iconic proof that something fundamental is wrong or is broken—that food producers should ever be hungry.

I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, one of the recipients of this year’s US Food Sovereignty Prize. Their reason for being and their work for some 40 years now really draws together the idea of civil and human rights with the rights of food producers. What is it that they do?

Ben Burkett of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, with grand-nephew.

BB: The Federation of Southern Cooperatives is one of my favorite groups in the US. They were started in 1967 by the five main civil rights groups, who understood that it’s not enough just to have political and social rights, one needs economic justice at the same time. So they started this economic arm for African-Americans in the Deep South.

Incidentally, I just want to underscore the incredible work of economist Jessica Gordon Nembhard, who has found that in every moment of African-American organizing in the US, there has been a very, very strong accompanying growth of co-ops, and it’s something that’s so important that we don’t often think about when we think about civil rights.

But here along came this fantastic organization to support African-American farmers who are victims of both racism at every level—especially in the USDA, which is often called the “last plantation”—and are also victims of the same thing that all farmers are, that is land being taken from their hands and being put into mega-industrial food production.

This coalition today represents more than 30 cooperatives of farmers across the Deep South, and about 95 percent of them are African-Americans, the remainder being Latino, Native and white. This is the way to pool power and to help each other grow and market and also to add legislative and judicial power behind the need to really change systems so that African-American farmers do not continue to be put out of business which is what has been happening.

I would just add one more thing, which is that today less than 1 percent of agricultural land is in the hands of black farmers, and the number is going down all the time. So the Federation of Southern Cooperatives is working hard to reverse that trend.

Garifuna protest against criminal land seizure in Honduras (photo: OFRANEH)

JJ: The Federation is sharing the food sovereignty prize with a group that advocates the rights of the Garifuna people of Honduras, whose traditional lands are being taken by oil palm plantations and by tourism developments. It might sound like it’s very far away, but it’s really all the same struggle, isn’t it?

BB: It’s all the same struggle. In the case of Honduras, actually, the US was involved in the coup d’etat against the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya few years back. And one of the main reasons for that coup d’etat was because there was a strong land reform movement of indigenous peoples and black people who had been pushed off their land.

So the group that you mentioned, Janine, is called the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, or OFRANEH by its Spanish acronym, and these are 46 communities of Afro-indigenous people called the Garifuna who, like the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, are working very, very hard to keep land in their hands, so they can live and farm, grow and in their case fish their own food and be left alone with what is theirs, so as to live a fully entitled life with rights of justice, democracy and community that they deserve.

JJ: The day after the awarding of the Food Sovereignty Prize, another prize was awarded that sounds similar, the World Food Prize. They sound similar, but they are different in significant ways. What can you tell us, finally, about the difference between the Food Sovereignty Prize and what is known as the World Food Prize?

BB: The Food Sovereignty Prize was conceived as a counterpoint to the World Food Prize. The World Food Prize is a corporate-backed operation that basically promotes the idea of tech fixes to hunger. It has given awards to even Monsanto, who we know to be the great monster in opposition to food sovereignty. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives and OFRANEH, the Afro-Indigenous rural farmers in Honduras, know, as do so many other groups around the world, what is the real answer to hunger. It is not technological fixes, it is not individual initiatives; it is creating a system of global economics that is more just, whereby everyone has the resources to access the food that they need.

JJ:   We’ve been speaking with Beverly Bell of Other Worlds. They are online at OtherWorldsArePossible.org. You can learn more about the Federation of Southern Cooperatives at FederationSouthernCoOp.com, and more about the US Food Sovereignty Prize at USFoodSovereigntyAlliance.org. Thank you very much, Beverly Bell, for joining us on CounterSpin.

BB: Janine, thank you so much. It was great to speak with you.


This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.