Food Sovereignty, Agroecology, and Exploring the Role of a White-Led Non-Profit

Food sovereignty is “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”

-Declaration of the Forum for Food Sovereignty, Nyéléni 2007

Agroecology Ven Diagram. Source: https://communityfoodforests.com/agroecology/

groecology has been presented as an alternative model to industrial agriculture that incorporates social justice and food sovereignty into its framework. Agroecology does not have pre-packaged rules, equations, specific inputs and outcomes, or rigid frameworks for ecological implementation. It is community/weather/land/region specific. Unlike industrial agriculture, agroecology prioritizes ecological, social, and cultural factors rather than profits and markets. Agroecology is about preserving all systems of agricultural knowledge from small-scale food producers around the world, especially indigenous populations. Agroecology allows us to provide income for small farmers while connecting us together, empowering communities, and going beyond singular farms towards the ability for collective action. Moreover, collective action is a crucial social apparatus to combat climate change that is currently missing from international food systems. My first introduction to agroecology was from my supervisor at 21 Acres Farm. I immediately searched on YouTube (because I am a visual learner), and found this video that perfectly summarizes Agroecology:

Additionally, Dan Barber’s TedTalk How I Fell in Love With a Fish is a fantastic introduction to the concept of farming that emphasizes environmental ecology rather than “efficiency”, which is truly just a euphemism for short term profit.

Interestingly, Cuba is a great example of how food sovereignty can be sustainable on a national level. Although, Cuba’s subsistence farming network was born through international political force rather than domestic sociopolitical will. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuban oil prices sky-rocketed, the United States imposed strict sugar trade embargoes on Cuba. The island became suffocated from international food trade and aid, including funds from the IMF and World Bank. In short, Cuba had to learn how to stop depending on agricultural trade and start cultivating the means to produce its own food. Today, Cuba has one of the most sustainable agricultural models in the world and is less vulnerable to volatile international markets. Additionally, due to the lack of access to synthetic fertilizers and chemical herbicides, Cuban produce is mostly organic. Cubans were forced into a situation where they had to be ecologically resourceful. Their success is a testament to agroecology’s feasibility world-wide. If you’re interested in learning more about Cuba’s food system response after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I highly recommend watching the documentary How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.

Lastly, I want to acknowledge that the fight for food sovereignty and agroecology also means confronting neoliberal policies, capitalism, and racism. The radicalization of agroecology means understanding how there is the organic and food security model on one hand and agroecology and food sovereignty on the other. Something that I noticed while doing research on farms and non-profits touting regenerative agriculture is that they all seem to pretend that organic farming and agroecology are new concepts. However, indigenous populations and peasant farmers around the world practice regenerative agriculture as the norm. We’ve been so accustomed to the industrial food model that “organic” and “non-GMO” seem novel. Additionally, when we recognize the fact that agriculture and farming is a predominantly white space in America, we can begin to see how white farming has erased the BIPOC agricultural footprint and historically excluded BIPOC farmers from the conversation. We must embed agroecology in the social struggle for food sovereignty that is being led by peasant farming communities across the globe. Leaders of the international food sovereignty movement are La Via Campesina, an organization fighting against harmful trade liberalization policies, the patriarchy, and agribusiness. La Via Campesina acknowledges that to fight for food sovereignty also means fighting for agroecology, climate justice, environmental justice, peasants’ rights, and land rights.

As the Food Access and Distribution Intern for 21 Acres, a white-led non-profit, I believe it’s necessary for me to recognize our positionality in the agricultural space. Already, farmers at 21 Acres have begun discussing how to incorporate agroecology into their regenerative farming practices and donate their produce to organizations pursuing equity. These are fantastic goals, but I worry that in an attempt to help communities with good intention, our impact on those communities might be harmful. Agroecology and food sovereignty solutions need to come from the bottom-up, and even non-profit community partnerships can have unintended negative consequences. After chatting with a farmer , who wishes to remain anonymous, from the U-District Food Bank, it was clear to me that sometimes “help” can be harmful to BIPOC communities. They explained to me that during the Summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, a lot of BIPOC organizations were receiving support that actually placed more burden on them. The influx of outside support was not actually completely beneficial because many organizations were unintentionally imposing upon BIPOC communities. They said that it was a very clear example of white guilt. At 21 Acres, we need to be especially cognizant not to step on the toes of activists already doing empowering work for themselves.

Clean Greens Farm, for example, is a BIOPOC-led non-profit dedicated to providing affordable and locally grown produce to Central Seattle. Clean Greens Farm was founded by Rev. Dr. Robert Jeffrey, Sr. when he was diagnosed with an intestinal disease and told that his diet was the cause. Rev. Dr. Jeffrey realized that his poor diet was representative of Central Seattle food access and culture. He took it upon himself to ensure that his community had access to fresh and local produce, thus, creating Clean Greens Farm. Clean Greens Farm is a bottom-up movement sourced from the community it aims to help. This empowering work exemplified by Clean Greens Farm is something that 21 Acres simply cannot provide for outside communities.

21 Acres must learn how to accept when our help is being rightfully rejected from organizations and communities. The fact of the matter is, communities know what they need, and all we need to do is support them when they request it. 21 Acres should aim to create long-lasting mutual partnerships with all the communities it serves in order to strengthen solidarity. Food sovereignty comes from the bottom-up, so although we can provide resources and donations when requested, “ultimately BIPOC organizations want to work for themselves because it’s the most empowering and self-sustaining.” The conclusion of my conversation with this farmers was that agroecology and food sovereignty need to be seeded in the communities that they will ultimately help. Maybe during the dry season 21 Acres can offer up extra water so that the roots of the movement can continue to grow, but we cannot claim the seeds, soil, or sunlight that will bloom change.

Public Health-Global Health B.S. candidate at the University of Washington. Diving into topics of food systems and climate change for my honors Ad Hoc project.