The History of Food Sovereignty and the Path to a Caring Society

Tractors in DC 1979

Farmers bring tractors to protest in Washington DC (see Capitol building through exhaust fumes) in 1979.
AAM refers to the American Agricultural Movement.

Major concerns about the direction of “organic” must be on the minds of organic farmers day by day. Success as an organic farmer is not guaranteed in the best of times, but what kind of decisions by USDA and the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will make success more or less likely? Recent decisions regarding hydroponic production and livestock welfare standards clearly threaten the chances for family farmers to pursue one of the few remaining opportunities for success as family farmers. Without rules preventing fake organic or vertical integration—or whatever destructive market forces result from “free markets”—the vision and fulfillment of that vision are at risk. How can we create a movement to motivate our society and government to respect farmers, not only for producing healthy food, but also caring for the land and caring for the consumer?

Let me say right off the bat, we need a historical and philosophical background offered by Wendell Berry’s foundational book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. I’m no historian or philosopher and thus very limited in historic detail of relevance. Nevertheless, I believe Berry’s deep analysis is accessible, though also very sobering. I believe his message is that, no matter how powerless we feel in this globalized corporate conveyor belt to hell, we have no choice but to be grounded in reality, in the truth, and we have no choice but to make every effort possible to establish new rules and values for an international caring society.

Fortunately, we are not alone in this quest. This philosophy is championed by the grassroots international movement of peasants, family farmers, farm workers, and fishers, La Via Campesina, a movement that includes 164 organizations in 73 countries and over 200 million producers of all genders and races. The movement’s themes are Food Sovereignty and Agroecology. These may seem unfamiliar terms, but I believe they relate to almost every farm struggle from time immemorial. Agroecology is simply the principle of farming with nature that we know is the foundation of the modern commercial notion of “organic,” but La Via Campesina also states unequivocally that “peasant’s agroecology” is something special: it “is political; it requires us to challenge and transform structures of power in society.” It stresses that ancestral knowledge is to be valued, too. Food Sovereignty encompasses new rules, laws, and culture that can save us from the valueless forces of Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the all-powerful free market—supply and demand—which is now cast as the global norm of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is also referred to as the “Washington Consensus,” a corporate capitalism on steroids where national and regional governments must submit to unregulated trade regardless of the damage to their domestic agricultural system and heritage or the protection of the environment.

To care for the land and be a first class citizen—or to even have land at all—has always been a struggle. Wendell Berry refers to the ancient Greek stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey and the biblical Book of Isaiah to contrast the different values inherent in societies that value war and material wealth versus those of caring peasants and families that know that good work is necessary and fulfilling, a sacred responsibility of human beings.

Many of the peasant members of La Via Campesina are from indigenous cultures that do, in fact, make these values and the land sacred. Is it wise for our modern society to forever forget that, from the beginning, our country was founded on making war on American Indians to steal their land to produce commodities for new industries and lucrative export? Isn’t the evidence of our dominant industrialized agriculture and even foreign policy enough to realize that the same mindset—the same world view—rules our political and economic leaders while often twisting our personal values for short sighted gain?

But in the years beyond the valiant efforts of American Indians to save their way of life so connected to nurturing the land, the new American society and government showed little mercy for the plight of family farmers except by conquering more Indian territory with encouragement to MOVE WEST! This was despite Thomas Jefferson’s belief that, “ . . . it is not too soon to provide by every means possible that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of the state . . . “ (Thomas Jefferson letter to Reverend James Madison, October 28, 1785).

I once visited with a member of a Nebraska Indian tribe over 20 years ago about the woes of family farmers in the 1980’s farm crisis. He simply said, “Well, you’re next.” I didn’t really understand what he meant at the time. I was still too white, so to speak. He meant that white family farmers would succumb to the same violent extraction economy that his people had— the internalizing of wealth to the greedy few (like today’s giant multinational corporations), while externalizing the costs to farm communities and the environment. I hate to admit that it has really taken these many years to totally understand what he meant and the implications.

Just before the Civil War, organized farmers, free labor, and small business owners became important members of the political coalition that became President Lincoln’s Republican Party. Family farmers believed they were a free society’s answer to the plantation system of exploiting slave labor. The family farmers all knew they were truly fighting for their future.

Tractors in dc

Farmers brought trailers to live in during protests.

Nevertheless, the political tradition of minimal government in economic affairs and the concerted effort to destroy the reforms of Reconstruction prevented addressing the injustices experienced by family farmers, black or white. “Move west, young man, move west,” ran its course. After the Civil War, growth of the industrial trusts and the long reach of their speculative and political tentacles along with serious “panics” and depressions gave rise to many organized grassroots farm movements that grew like prairie fires. The railroad, petroleum, and milling and packing trusts were all targets of these movements. The farm movements joined in coalitions with labor, former slaves, and even temperance groups to reestablish a society based on what was seen as the original promise that “All men are created equal” along with “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and devoid of farm foreclosures and unemployment.

The rich history of rural grassroots movements like the Grange, the Farmers’ Alliance, the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union, the Non-partisan League, the Socialist Party, The Farmers’ Holiday movement, and many more less prominent movements illustrate that farmers can coalesce to change the course of history. Their many contributions would take a book for each movement, but much of what they worked for culminated in the Parity legislation of the New Deal. The principles of the Parity program were intended to assure farmers fair prices adjusted for inflation with supply management to avoid wasteful overproduction. It tended to keep livestock production associated with the land that produced the feed and allowed extended crop rotations and recycling of nutrients. The New Deal Resettlement Administration aimed to fulfill Jefferson’s vision of many small landholders. Finally, society benefited not only from the conservation of the land and dispersed economic opportunity, also from the assurance of supplies of food from a national food reserve.

The rich history of these movements could possibly open our modern minds and hearts for organizing a victorious movement today for all farms being family-scale organic farms providing all our citizens with healthful organic food. This kind of farming system would also combat climate change rather than fueling and accelerating this dreadful phenomenon. For this to happen we need to popularize the democratic and regenerative principles of Food Sovereignty and Agroecology. We need to recognize that “we’re all in this together” locally, nationally, and internationally. We need to ask ourselves what will it really take to get from here to the promised land? I believe it will take precise thinking to avoid being led to nowhere by political slogans or other dead end roads that speak to the symptoms of our problems and not the root causes. With today’s many injustices and our ineffective corporate-bound government and media, the public experiences what I’ve seen called “generalized discontent.” Our movement needs to illuminate the path to a clearly democratic, participative, and caring society, or this “generalized discontent” can create the threat of racist and xenophobic politics that doesn’t address the many injustices associated with the unlimited power of multinational corporations. Understanding the mistakes of previous farm movements can help us avoid repeating them. It’s pretty clear that we can’t afford to fail this time.

Professor James Youngdale, in his book Populism: A Psychohistorical Perspective, analyzes the thinking, the motivations, and the paradigms of populist movements in our history like the farmer protest movements mentioned above. He explores various themes that can lead us astray. First of all, Youngdale would not agree with some recent media characterizations that movements based on racism and xenophobia should be called populist. Secondly, it is a mistake to view our problems as being rooted in unfair treatment of our nation in the international economy. For instance, contrary to President Trump’s view that the United States got the short end of the stick in trade agreement negotiations, the truth is that United States multinational corporations were dictating the terms of free trade agreements to all the other countries of the world. Another pitfall is to blame “monopolies.” These monopolies are all too apparent and too powerful, but this begs the question as to whether breaking them up would really change anything. How much would they need to break up, and isn’t it true that many of our problems existed when such big monopolies didn’t exist? Such proposed analyses fail to strike at the heart of why we don’t have a truly democratic and caring society and the government to go with it. Might not our efforts require changing the “world view” of our fellow citizens, what might be termed a spiritual revolution?

Twenty-first century problems require twenty-first century visions and movements. We don’t have to run around the country on horseback or bouncing on dirt roads in Model T’s or talking on party telephone lines to educate and focus our efforts. Hopefully we have so many more educated scientists and professors to help us work out the details, without them coopting our terms. The failings of industrial agriculture, our food system, and the economy on all accounts cannot be ignored. Most alarming, scientists warn of a possible precipitous collapse of OUR world’s ecosystem itself. Shouldn’t the insights of organic family farmers and the wisdom of peasants around the world lead to caring and hopeful change? I think they can.