Food Democracy

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Indian woman farming

What happens when we view people as citizens rather than consumers and treat food as a human right? Food democracy. 

"Food democracy" may sound lofty, but it is in fact a very practical idea emerging from communities in places like Michigan and Oklahoma struggling to feed themselves without starving future generations.

Simply put, food democracy emphasizes fulfillment of the human right to safe, nutritious food that has been justly produced. It means ordinary people getting together to establish rules that encourage safeguarding the soil, water and wildlife on which we all depend. It is also a pragmatic politics built around the difficult lesson that food is too important to leave to market forces — that we all have a right and responsibility to participate in decisions that determine our access to safe, nutritious food.

This push to re-localize control over food and farming in the U.S. has an international equivalent in the "food sovereignty" movement. Both were born in the late 1990s in response to the increasing corporate control over the global food system. As an international network, PAN works to advance and link these two movements, which hold a shared vision of the future of food and farming. That vision is rooted in regenerating autonomous food systems with, for and by the people.

Food Democracy Experiments

Examples of how to feed people by re-localizing control over food and farming are as variable as the communities in which these food democracy experiments take place.

  • Belo Horizonte, Brazil, "the city that ended hunger." Their award-winning participatory Food Security Program (PDF) links urban consumers to small-scale farmers through municipal procurement of food for public schools, daycares and a large network of the traditional Brazilian “Popular Restaurants.”
  • The U.S.-based Farm to School Network likewise connects schools to local and regional farmers, improving K-12 kids' access to healthy food while supporting small-scale farming.
  • Local and regional Food Policy Councils are springing up all over the world.
  • People's Grocery in West Oakland, CA, is re-weaving community through urban agriculture, economic development and health outreach.

What unites these efforts is a shared set of priorities: feed people first, and let farmers work the land. What results is democratic decision-making about food and agriculture, less hunger and a revitalization of self-reliant communities. 

When "Free Trade" Fails & Food Is on the Line

Food democracy and food sovereignty both emerged as frameworks for action and policymaking in response to failures of trade liberalization and the free market ideology that characterized much of the 1990s. In the name of "free trade," agricultural markets were globalized in ways never before heard of: strategic grain reserves were eliminated, price floors and ceilings were dismantled and a variety of other public supports for farmers were rendered illegal under the World Trade Organization and the World Bank's structural adjustment policies.

The result: farmers and communities in the U.S. and around the world were exposed to market forces that, despite promises to the contrary, took jobs and fair wages from farmers and workers, and made poverty and hunger worse. Haiti, a country that was once self-sufficient with a strong rice sector, now has some of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world and is thoroughly dependent on food imports — spending around 80% of its export income on food imports. Mexico and The Philippines offer similar examples.

For 30 years we all blew it. We were wrong to believe that food is like some other product in international trade. - Bill Clinton

Thirty years out and the jury is in. Even key proponents of agricultural trade liberalization have now admitted that the idea was "wrong-headed." As President Bill Clinton puts it, "For 30 years we all blew it. Including me, when I was president..We blew it. We were wrong to believe that food is like some other product in international trade."

In the wake of these misguided trade, aid and agricultural policies, the world's food supply is less secure and less resilient than it has been in many decades, perhaps ever. Food is now a commodity subject to financial speculation, rendering food prices extremely unstable. More than one billion people cannot afford to buy food — more than ever before. And the world food crisis of 2007-2009, while under the radar, has not been addressed. In September 2010, people took to the streets in Mozambique protesting a 30% hike in bread prices to remind us.