Review in Journal of Peasant Studies

Food Sovereignty in Canada
Creating Just and Sustainable Food Systems

Edited by Annette Aurélie Desmarais, Nettie Wiebe and Hannah Wittman  

Food sovereignty is a concept embedded in the theory and practice of an alternative to the neoliberal market-driven agenda of the corporate food regime. The book Food Sovereignty in Canada presents a series of Canadian case studies outlining the ways individuals, communities, organizations and social movements are adopting food sovereignty as a framework for participatory democracy from below and establishing strategic alliances to transform the food system and the broader society. While there is some consensus around the basic premise of food sovereignty, an introduction by Nettie Wiebe and Kevin Wipf asserts the requirement for localized strategies since ‘[n]o single global food sovereignty model can be designed and imposed from elsewhere… Food sovereignty must be, by definition, ”home-grown”’ (5). The book’s multiple authors draw on food sovereignty to (re)imagine social relations as well as human relationships with food, agriculture, and the natural environment.

Over the past decade, discussions about food sovereignty have become more prominent in a wide range of literatures (Windfuhr and Jonse´n 2005, McMichael 2006, Pimbert 2009, Wittman et al. 2010) and among farm leaders, policy makers, and activists critical of the dominant food system. Food Sovereignty in Canada joins a number of recent publications examining the radicalization of grassroots initiatives (see for example Gottlieb and Joshi 2010, Holt-Gime´nez 2011) and contributes to this evolving conversation through a Canadian perspective using an explicit food sovereignty framework.

The concept of food sovereignty evolved as a critical reaction to the experiences of peasant farmers around the world affected by shifts in national and international agricultural policy throughout the 1980s and 1990s. It was proposed as a response to the global discourse and practices of food security, which had been used to justify the priorities of the global corporate food economy (Koc 2011). In contrast, food security, as conceptualized through subsequent UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) meetings, describes the core problem of the global food system as scarcity and proposes technical solutions to feed increasing populations. This uncritical approach has done little to identify and address the underlying structures contributing to global hunger and has failed to shift government policy towards system-wide solutions. Those in power have used the concept of food security to encourage a neoliberal, free trade agenda and to pursue a global, industrialized model for agriculture. This has resulted in efforts to maximize production and increase trade with little concern for how or by whom food is produced, distributed or consumed.

Food sovereignty was developed through collaborative dialogue among global peasant organizations to challenge political and economic power in the dominant model of food and agriculture. It focuses on the rights of those who produce and consume food to reclaim control of the food system from corporate interests and global financial institutions. Food sovereignty asserts the principle that food is a basic human right and that participatory democracy is fundamental to its realization. As Patel (2009) notes, egalitarianism is a consequence of the politics of food sovereignty and a prerequisite to the democratic conversation about food policy. In this way, food sovereignty is a necessary precondition for food security.

Food Sovereignty in Canada is a collection of essays by prominent academics and activists and is the second volume from Wittman, Desmarais, and Wiebe. In the first volume, Food Sovereignty: Reconnecting Food Nature and Community (Wittman et al. 2010), the authors focused broadly on food sovereignty, addressing the global challenges and responses to the dominant food system. In this second volume, these discussions are brought into a Canadian context. Both books originated from a 2008 workshop that brought together an international group of researchers, activists, and farm leaders with the aim to understand the context and components of food sovereignty and to deepen the theory and practice. The papers that eventually became the book’s content were circulated prior to the meeting and each participant had the opportunity to contribute based on their lived experiences. Readers of Food Sovereignty in Canada are challenged “not only to grapple with the destruction that our menus are visiting on communities, our environments, Canadian farming families, and our physical and cultural health, but also to actively engage in the exploration of food sovereignty as a viable and sustainable lifegiving alternative.” (3)

The introductory chapter by Wiebe and Wipf begins by situating Canada’s food system within the global context. Examining the history of Canadian agriculture, the authors explore a range of challenges to achieving food sovereignty including an export-oriented agricultural system, a history of rapid industrialization, the displacement of farm families, mass urbanization and the ingrained image of being the ‘breadbasket of the world’. The subsequent three chapters show how farm families are facing the worst environmental, financial and social crisis in history. Discussing the inequality inherent in the neoliberal policy arena in Chapter Three, National Farmers’ Union (NFU) president Terry Boehm comments: ‘The power imbalances are so out of proportion from a farmer to a grain company, a seed or herbicide company, a fertilizer company, or an oil company - it’s unbelievable the scale and the differentials in power and influence’ (46). In the second chapter, Darrin Qualman outlines the ways that policies have been used to pursue aggressive export expansion and the maximization of technology, energy and purchased inputs. While farmers’ net income has been near or below zero for more than two decades, government farm-support programs serve as a subsidy to agribusiness transnationals, who have recorded record profits. The introductory chapters use detailed statistics and interviews with NFU leaders, to illustrate the way that Canada’s agricultural policies enable the transfer of wealth away from farmers while corporations have captured the complete value of the sector.

The following seven chapters focus on the highly contested nature of the

Canadian food system, reflecting the idea that transformation requires not only understanding the imminent challenges, but also an engagement with the politics of the possible. It has been argued elsewhere (Levkoe 2011) that keeping the values of social justice, ecological sustainability, and democratic decision-making at the forefront of food-related organizing enhances the potential of these activities to contribute to a broader and more meaningful transformation of the food system. In Canada, most food movement initiatives have embraced community food security (CFS) as a theoretical and practical approach. By adapting institutionalized definitions of food security, CFS has been an attempt to build a more comprehensive approach by integrating social justice and ecological sustainability through a mix of grassroots initiatives, entrepreneurial activities and local policy change. While CFS initiatives hold the potential to play an important role in the broader food movement, critics have argued that strategic alliances with more radical initiatives adopting a food sovereignty framework could provide a powerful complement to the work (Holt-Gime´nez and Shattuck 2011). The case studies presented in Food Sovereignty in Canada draw on the idea of the food system as a web of interconnections, pointing to the ways that food sovereignty can be and is being implemented, along with the potential for new alliances based on transformative action.

Chapter Five draws on these types of alliances, telling the story of Food Secure Canada (FSC), a non-profit organization aiming to create a coherent food movement by bringing together diverse actors and multiple perspectives from across the country. Cathleen Kneen, long-time activist and past FSC Chair, explains how food sovereignty became the basis for the People’s Food Policy Project (PFP), launched through FSC in 2008. Through the PFP, a coalition of organizations and over 3500 individuals proposed a radical and democratic vision of a different kind of food system in the first, and only, federal-level policy based on food sovereignty principles (PFP 2011). Endorsed and adopted by FSC, the PFP effectively introduced food sovereignty as a basis for grassroots mobilization in Canada and has become the core of a national civil society agenda.

In the subsequent chapters, Dawn Morrison addresses the issue of food sovereignty as a living reality that has been practiced for centuries in indigenous communities. In Chapter Seven, Andre Magnan addresses the timely issue of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) which was established by an act of government in 1935 as a farmer-controlled, collective marketing agency for Western Canadian wheat and barley. The CWB’s purpose was to protect farmers from powerful private interests, but it has faced ongoing attacks from commodity organizations and political parties under neoliberal restructuring models. In Chapter Eight, Rachel Engler-Stringer draws on the practice of community nutrition and discusses ways that food sovereignty can engage with intersecting issues of hunger, ecological agriculture and social justice. In Chapter Nine, Yolanda Hanson uses community gardens in Saskatchewan as a case study to examine the localized practice of food sovereignty through creating empowering spaces for community building and participatory decision-making. Chapter ten turns to Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe, an urban region where the success of food sovereignty is described as the rebuilding of relations between the countryside and the city. Here, Harriet Friedmann traces emerging potentials for reconnecting urban and rural lands.

Chapter Eleven addresses the potential for food sovereignty in British Columbia, home to Canada’s most diverse agricultural landscape. Hannah Wittman and Herb Barbolet discuss ways that export-oriented production and trade liberalization have had adverse local impacts, as well as some of the grassroots initiatives active in the province.

While the contributions are well written, academic audiences may find the content somewhat lacking since few authors offer substantial descriptions of their methods, extensive references, or detailed evidence for their claims. While this format seems a deliberate choice by the editors and clearly adds to the overall accessibility of the book, there is a stark differentiation between some of the chapters with varied styles and formats. Further, while the book offers perspectives on a number of issues that constitute food sovereignty in Canada, there are a number of issues missing from the analysis. One of the main gaps is the experience of marginalized populations in urban centers. While a number of the authors touch briefly on these issues, none of the contributions directly addresses issues of urban poverty, ethic diversity and food access. Further, there is a geographic gap that misses perspectives from Canada’s North and from Eastern Canada. There is also no contribution from French-speaking Canada, which has its own history and culture around food sovereignty.

Food Sovereignty in Canada is an engaging and dynamic addition to the critical literature on food and agriculture. It is the first collection to explicitly use the food sovereignty framework to examine the Canadian food system, and presents a challenge to radicalize the food movement beyond consumption-based solutions to address power dynamics at all levels. The chapters are written from an interdisciplinary perspective, use a variety of methodologies and address a wide range of issues at different scales. For Canadian academics and practitioners, Food

Sovereignty in Canada highlights the demand for a more comprehensive and integrated approach towards food system transformation. For those outside of Canada or unfamiliar with its context, the book offers insight into some of the inspiring work taking place as part of a broader food sovereignty dialogue. - Charles Levkoe, University of Toronto

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