Why We Can’t Achieve Sustainability Without Addressing Power

It’s time for the food movement to put justice at the forefront

Over the past year, we have heard from dozens of voices from around the world speaking out about the food system on our Hunger for Justice Series. Looking back on all of the episodes, certain themes have emerged; others have remained notably absent.

None of our speakers have said, for example, that the inefficiency of food waste is the problem plaguing the food system. None of them have pointed to the fact that more people don’t grow gardens or compost as the problem that needs to be solved. None of them have spoken about soil depletion as the most pressing issue. None of them have rallied around an ethical brand. Why?

Because these are all symptoms, not root causes. Instead, what each of them has spoken of, in different ways, is the systemic injustice that plagues the food system, and the need to dismantle the hegemonic structures that are embedded in its core. They spoke of the need for structural, radical change. They spoke of the need for a redistribution of power.

For so long, efforts to feed the world have been agnostic at best — willfully ignorant at worst — about the role of power in the food system. The dominant food security rhetoric has focused for decades on increasing yield through industrial agricultural methods, guided by an economic logic that focuses on the need to meet supply and — just like that — demand will be satisfied. This approach has not only wreaked havoc on the environment and failed to feed the world, but it also completely ignores the role of agency: as Raj Patel puts it, you can be food-secure in prison or under a dictatorship. We need to aim higher than that.

“You can be food-secure in prison or under a dictatorship” — Raj Patel

Further, the consolidation of power in our food system has reached untenable levels. This information is often hidden from us through the illusion of myriad brands to choose from at the supermarket, but the reality is that our entire food system is controlled by a small handful of companies. Imagine the food system as an hourglass: at one end, there are the millions of farmers around the world, and on the other, there are the millions of people who eat that food. But the process of getting the food from farmers to consumers is dominated by a tiny fraction of corporations. Just three corporations — Cargill, Bunge, and ADM — are responsible for the vast majority of grain trade worldwide. Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta control almost all commercial seed transactions around the world. The largest 100 firms control 77 percent of processed food sales worldwide (driving the move towards cheap, processed foods that ramp up obesity-related morbidity all over the world). The immense profits these corporations amass give them monopolistic power over the food system — from government lobbying and policy formation, to marketing, to what brands we see on supermarket shelves.

The Hourglass Visualization of the Food System (Image: A Growing Culture)

But perhaps the most insidious effect of this concentration of power is that it pits consumers and producers — who together make up the vast majority of the food system — against each other: if consumers want ethical food that supports farmers getting a living wage, it is unaffordable for everyone except the most wealthy. If consumers want cheap food, that exploitation gets moved on to the shoulders of farmers and laborers. And in every situation, the one group that’s benefiting is the corporations — everyone else loses.

That’s why the idea that we will dismantle this system by growing more gardens or composting is deeply misguided. We have to change this system from its roots so that the food system can be driven by the goal of nourishing human beings, not by lining the pockets of the richest members of society.

But we cannot forget that even in the face of this centralization, farmers and farmworkers are still the backbone of our food system — the peasant food web feeds 70 percent of the world’s population using roughly a quarter of the natural resources, while at the same time preserving the biodiversity that keeps the food system resilient. Without them, we don’t eat. The corporations do not profit. Farmers already hold immense power; it’s time to build a system that gives them agency instead of one that continues to oppress and exploit them. It’s time to build one that allows them to have a voice in shaping the system they are a part of — the system they are critical to.

We can’t just focus on consumer empowerment for those in the Minority World so that we can make more ‘ethical’ purchasing decisions or fund another empty certification. We need to change the system to finally tip the balance in the favor of producers. We need to shatter the hourglass and build something better.

When we ask how to move towards this systemic change, one of the first places to look is the language we use to describe the system. That’s why it’s so important for BIPOC communities and their contributions to be acknowledged and centered in movements like regenerative agriculture: because language is a source of power.

We use terms like the Peasant Food Web because it acknowledges the complexity and historical context of injustice while centering the very population that produces the world’s food.

We use the terms Majority World because it captures the irony that so much of the world’s power is concentrated in a tiny fraction of the Minority World, while the world’s majority is systematically denied agency and fair decision-making power.

We use terms like Food Sovereignty because it directly addresses the question of who gets the power to shape the food system. Who gets to choose. And the ability to choose is everything: the choice to set fair prices; the choice to farm under a new model; the choice to save and exchange seeds; the choice to move freely and to own the land one works; this choice is the root of diversity. We use food sovereignty because it captures the dimension of choice and diversity. We use it because it is the language created by the people whose choice has been taken away.

When we do not use the language of these communities; when we don’t learn the history and context behind words like ‘food security’ that have been weaponized against so many communities in the Majority World; when we rebrand and erase Indigenous land-use practices from modern agricultural movements, these are forms of aggression. We have to critically examine the language we use because this shapes how power is distributed in the system.

That’s why we hold other organizations accountable when they don’t center on these root causes, or when they decenter communities in the Majority World that actually hold the solutions to the problems facing the food system. Without the decentralization of power in the food system, we will not achieve true sustainability. These movements for environmentally-centered solutions may have good intentions, but when the situation is this critical, good intentions are no longer enough.

We are attracted to treating the symptoms because they are tractable; they satisfy our desire to create tangible change, to create something we can package and scale and rally around and feel as though we are solving the problem. But we aren’t. We cannot rally behind solutions that focus on treating symptoms, because they will not fix the food system.

We must ask more questions about the solutions put forth by the food movement. We must ask who truly benefits from the solution. We must ask whether it centralizes power or whether it distributes it. We must ask who is being centered. We must ask whether it targets root causes. We must ask whether farmers are treated as innovators or beneficiaries of aid. We must ask whether the solution takes into account the complexity of place and context. We must ask ourselves what role we are playing individually in the solution-making process; whether we are still centering ourselves, or whether we are ready to center the ones who can truly guide us towards the solutions.

Sovereignty is a hard concept to grasp for many of us. For the people who have never been kidnapped, for the folks who have never had their land taken, for the ones who have never not been in control or been objectified by a system designed to oppress, sovereignty may be a hard pill to swallow. They can understand pollution, however abstract it may be. They can understand the need to protect the oceans or to build soil. But it’s hard to see that everything they have ever purchased, everything they have ever consumed, and everything they have ever benefited from has been subsidized by the exploitation of others. Our food becomes bitter. Our possessions become painful reminders. And our privilege becomes guilt.

It is true that all of this can feel overwhelming at times. Systemic change can feel disempowering because the systems that we are up against seem so large and powerful that they may appear indestructible. We all want to feel like we’re doing something to help; the problem is that consumers in the Minority World have been told that the most they can do is change their purchasing habits; buy organic or fair-trade; go to the farmer’s market; buy local, grass-fed meat or start a garden. It’s not that these are bad or unhelpful things to do — if one has the means to access them.

But we have so much more power than that.

Power, although currently concentrated in the hands of a few actors, is not monolithic nor immovable. The movements standing up against the forces driving oppression in the food system have already taken off all over the world — all we have to do is look at organizations like La Via Campesina and the millions of peasants who belong to it, standing up to these structures all over the world and demanding food sovereignty. Through grassroots advocacy and organizing, they have managed to get seats at the table of the UN, passing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas in 2018. This is only the beginning. With strength in numbers, the potential of this movement is limitless.

Our liberation is tied up with theirs. If we want to break free of the shackles these oppressive systems have placed around us and build a food system that truly nourishes us all, we must get to work to support these movements where power dynamics are already being questioned, resisted, and contested all over the world.

That’s what we do as an organization. We hope you’ll join us.

Written by Thea Walmsley and Loren Cardeli

Confronting Unjust Power in the Food System

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store