"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 agricultural 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."
Why Food Sovereignty?
Food security is defined by the UN in terms of “all people, at all times, having physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life”
While the progressive framework of food justice focuses more on localizing production and improving access to healthy food, the radical framework of food sovereignty asks for whole systems/regime change, Food sovereignty encompasses food justice and food security.
Food sovereignty as a policy framework is aimed at dismantling the negative impacts of colonization and the unbridled globalization of the economy, particularly in agriculture, and by changing regime structures and creating equitable and sustainable food systems controlled by the people. The Food Sovereignty movement is lead by indigenous peoples all over the world and has its roots in indigenous liberation.
By Ezra Sassaman
Food sovereignty is necessary because there is a food scarcity in our state, country, and worldwide. However, food scarcity did not always exist.
Before colonization, the natural resources and foods of the land mass known today as the United States were used to their full potential. As described by Dina Gilio-Whitaker in As Long as Grass Grows:
“The mixed terrain of verdant mountain forests and dry, open steppe plains of the Upper Columbia River basin near what is today the Colville Indian Reservation was a land, rich in food sources that produced some of the healthiest people on the North American continent prior to European invasion. Plants such as bitterroot, hazelnuts, soap berries, chokecherries, and numerous varieties of camas bulbs, combined with protein sources like deer, elk, and other smaller game to form a balanced and highly nutritious diet. The imposition of the reservation system disrupted our ancestors’ access to these original foods, which were gradually replaced with the high-starch, high-fat foods characteristic of the European diet.” (p. 73)
Access to and knowledge of these diverse foods resulted in Native Americans being among the healthiest people in the world, especially compared to Europeans. However, colonization forced tribes away from their homelands and European-centric understanding of nature and agriculture resulted in unhealthy and unsustainable practices. These are some of the factors that lead to food insecurity today.
For example, the Salish (tribes in the Pacific Northwest) ate over three hundred different kinds of foods before colonization began, compared to twenty or fewer today.
Divorcing Native Americans from the food sources they relied upon and were most adapted to is one of the many environmental injustices resulting from colonization. As described by Dina Gilio-Whitaker in As Long as Grass Grows:
“If we understand settler colonialism as a genocidal structure, the health disparities… can clearly be linked as elements of environmental injustice. All over the world food is a defining characteristic of cultures, and for Native people whose roots have been established in particular geographical regions for thousands of years, physical bodies became adapted to those places from where their food derives.” (p. 75)
If you are interested in learning more, you can check out these resources:
How does the Attempted Extinction of the Buffalo Relate to This?
The attempted extinction of buffalo did not happen by accident. Rather, it was purposeful tool of attempted genocide to force Native Americans onto reservations.
During the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman’s used a brutally effective ”scorched earth” policy to defeat the Confederate Army and decimate the infrastructure of the South.
In the 1860s, Sherman and other military and government officials decided to apply the same strategy to Natives Americans during the Plains Indian Wars. The U.S. government realized that as long as the buffalo existed as a food source, the Army would have difficulty getting Native Americans onto reservations. In 1867, a U.S. Army officer spelled out the plan explicitly: “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”
While it wasn’t feasible for the U.S. Army to kill tens of millions of bison, they let hunters use their forts as bases of operation and stood by as the hunters slaughtered the animals in staggering numbers. This mass killing ignored treaty obligations forbidding non-Natives from hunting on Native lands. While this attempted extinction took place a few hundred years ago, settler industrialism continues today. Kyle Powys Whyte describes settler industrialism as when
“settler societies inscribe themselves on top of Indigenous homelands by means of industrial processes “from military technologies to large-scale mineral and fossil fuel extraction operations to sweeping landscape-transforming regimes of commodity agriculture.” (As Long as Grass Grows, Dina Gilio-Whitaker, p. 75, quoting MSU’s Kyle Powys Whyte)
If you are interested in learning more, you can check out this resource:
Tribal Sovereignty and Food Sovereignty
Through different tools of attempted genocide - the disposition of land from indigenous people, the creation of private property, and subsequent forcing of indigenous people onto reservations - the State created a system where people became dependent on food rations from the government, leading to significant decline in health outcomes. But the knowledge of traditional foodways was preserved as best as possible, despite the attempts to erase that knowledge, and in the past few decades, there has been a strong push for organized Indigenous food sovereignty projects to take hold around the world. There are a number of organizations in Maine working on food sovereignty such as:
Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project
Established in 2010 to promote a return to traditional foods and food practices. To support their food sovereignty efforts, the Muckleshoot Tribe has bought back over 93,000 acres of ancestral land. Harvest and berry festivals, cultural-sovereignty classes, salmon-filleting demonstrations, sheep- and elk-processing presentations, and workshops that teach traditional food preparations are some of the many initiatives that result from this project.
Food sovereignty: Valerie Segrest at TEDxRainier (director of this project)
Here’s an article about the ways that various tribal nations have reclaimed their land and foodways!
A large part of the Land Back movement is about Food Sovereignty.
Exercising Food Sovereignty:
Subsistence Hunting, Fishing, Foraging & Gardening by Tony Antoine
For the vast majority of the history of humankind we have been omnivores. We have fished, hunted, and foraged for a range of species, both animal and plant alike, to survive. Our generalist approach to food acquisition and our seasonal and highly variable diets is part of the reason why the human population has exploded and why we have become the “dominant” species on the planet. Across the globe throughout time and in every culture of the world you will find a history of peoples that hunted, fished, and or foraged. Despite the differences in the foods (plants, mushrooms, animals, etc) that were available and the climates in which food was obtained, you will find these similarities that unite us all, past and present, as human beings. Until gardening and farming (in their contemporary contexts) became a thing, people across time and geographical locations each self-determined the foods that they used to feed themselves, their families, their communities and to generally survive. We are all the descendants of those who hunted, foraged, and fished. We all come from people that exercised the full ranges of their food sovereignty to make our current existences a reality.
Hunting is a means of exercising our food sovereignty because we have more of a say in the meat we consume. As a hunter you contribute significantly less to the problems of the meat industrial complex. The animals harvested from nature lived wild and free lives. They were not pumped full of hormones or antibiotics to make them as big as fast as possible for eventual sale in a market or restaurant. Hunting is one of many anti-capitalists means of feeding yourself. Outside of the barriers put in place by federal and state governments (license fees, permit fees, registration fees, required class fees, land access fees, additional tax on firearms and gear, etc) hunting is still the more economically feasible. The amount of money spent on meat by those able to procure their own meat is significantly less than what has now become the average consumer that purchases meat from the grocery. Nobody has to hoard water to feed the deer, moose, groundhogs, squirrels, ducks, turkeys, bear, etc. Because these animals live wild lives and are able to take care of themselves, hunters have a significantly smaller water-consumption footprint than the average grocery store shopper. Wild animals also do not require human-made pastures. The animals that hunters rely on do not rely on the destruction of forests and clearing of trees. Subsistence hunters therefore have a smaller carbon footprint than the average consumer. Hunting is something that many indigenous peoples across the world have done since time immemorial. Hunting is a way to connect with and learn about the land as well as commune with our ancestors and historical practices.
Fishing is similar to hunting. You have more self-determination in the food that you consume. Fishermen, particularly freshwater and inland fishermen in contemporary contexts, have a lower carbon footprint. In contemporary contexts, to fish from saltwater usually means having a lot of money and access to big CO2-emitting machines but not all saltwater fishing is like this. Like hunting there are various governmental barriers to fishing (annual license fees for children and all people aged 16 and up, shore/land access fees, regulations limiting the use of free bait like worms, etc). Despite the economic barriers, subsistence fishing is still cheaper than buying fish at the store. Fishing for oneself means less of a reliance on the various amphibious and land-based fossil-fuel consuming machines to get food from the ocean, to the shores, across land and in the stores. Subsistence fishing is therefore more environmentally friendly and yet another anti-capitalist way to support yourself and community. The majority of life on the planet lives in the water. The Earth’s waters contain more biomass and it is arguably more sustainable to harvest from the ocean, streams, lakes, etc because of their immense “holding capacity” for life. Because water is essential to life, all humans, throughout the span of our existence in its entirety have had close relationships with water. Again, harvesting from the Earth’s waters puts us in close proximity to our ancestral practices.
Foraging is another important way to exercise your right to decide what you eat. Foraging is more than just a simple hunt for mushrooms. Live animals (like mussels and oysters for example) can be foraged. Wild plants can also be foraged. There are even fewer financial barriers to accessing this method of exercising one’s food sovereignty. The biggest barrier, though, is land access. The privatization of land and the creation of the idea of trespassing historically has been used to prevent many marginalized folks from exercising their food sovereignty in this way. There is no governmental licensing fee for this activity, but a high level of education and community participation is advised.
Food & Climate Change
The global food system is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, yet agriculture is highly sensitive to climate change. Thankfully, agriculture can be used to help mitigate climate change. Integrating agroforestry, regenerative agriculture and other methods of sustainable agriculture all help sequester more carbon from the atmosphere, along with revitalizing small local farms to reduce transportation costs and strengthen local economies. A change in climate in Maine could extend the growing season and the diversity of crops we can grow here, while also bringing new challenges like higher temperatures, wind storms, winter whiplash, drought, and storms. We also know that food waste contributes to climate change. In a 2021 report on the environmental impacts of food waste by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. food loss and waste embodies 170 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions - excluding landfill emissions - each year. This is equal to the emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants. So changing our food system to be more resilient to climate change means addressing societal inequities and poverty to increase access to food and reduce food waste. Addressing our food system from every angle is integral to finding local solutions to mitigate climate change and build resilience to the climate crisis.
By Nell Houde
In creating just and resilient food systems, we have to look both at human well being, and the well-being of all living parts of the system, including the soil, plants, fungi, bugs, birds, decomposers, omnivores, and anything else that participates in and thus creates the ecosystem. Colonialist, separatist thinking, acting, and taking created the multi-layered crisis we are in now. Whole-systems, relational thinking is a way to re-establish resilient ecosystems in which all forms of life, including humans, can thrive. There are many ways to do this work, and people and organizations to look to for inspiration and guidance in what reimagining our relationship to non-human life can look like.
Habitat Fragmentation and Species Loss
Our world is facing a crisis of extinction. Every day, many hundreds of species spend their last moments as a unique and adapted presence on planet earth. We call this continued, compounding extinction “biodiversity loss.” Those animals, insects, plants and fungi all filled niches in our environments that are now absent, and in filling those niches they supported many other animals (humans, included, especially), insects, plants, and fungi. Our environments, which are incredibly interconnected, rely on diversity of species to fill all the niches, and we are losing the individuals that build all of the relationships that hold our ecosystems together. This is a scary fact, but there are actions we can take within this to remediate this harm and build back strong, diverse, life-supporting ecosystems.
Diversity in habitats creates self-sustaining ecosystems that perform all the functions necessary for life like: cleaning the water, absorbing rainfall, storing carbon, producing food, producing oxygen, pollination, refuge for animals, and more. To rebuild the networks of life that support all of us we must both steward the places that are already supporting diverse populations and make sure they are not threatened, and reintroduce diversity into places where life has violently and systemically been removed. By reintroducing and stewarding life-supporting habitats, we can create resilient landscapes that will be able to respond to changes and actually generate their own inputs, instead of relying on external inputs. This can look like many different actions, and both individuals and communities have taken on this challenge by…
returning land back to Indigenous stewardship;
putting different easements on land;
on farms, using agroecology principles to guide how farmers steward a diverse array of plants, which builds soil health, revives insect populations, and produces abundant food;
reestablishing native plants into both the food growing and non food growing spaces in communities, like lawns, parks, roadways, fields, farms, and more to support the organisms we share space with.
These efforts look different in each place they are enacted, because they are created in response to the local conditions, and the needs of the local community. See more information below about groups that are building resilient landscapes.
More information here
Indigenous stewardship of biodiversity
There are many groups working to decolonize and rebuild relationships to the landscape through Land Back efforts, increased biodiversity, stewarding resilient plant communities, planting native flowers, trees, and shrubs, education, and more. Learn more about these groups and the work they are doing here:
Labor & Social Justice
By Josh Caldwell
Labor and Food Sovereignty
Food production is one of the world’s oldest trades, but colonialism and the resultant globalization of food systems has resulted in highly inequitable production and distribution practices. Producers are largely underpaid for their work and food resources flow toward the wealthy, often at the expense of those who produce it. The U.S. food system has always been reliant upon the exploitation of workers, from plantation agriculture that profited on the labor of enslaved people to today’s corporations that maximize profit at the expense of low-wage workers. The food systems that have arisen from corporate production are not only perpetrators of great human injustices, but also major contributors to climate change and global biodiversity loss (UN Climate Issues - Food).
Disparities in the food system could not have been more clear during the pandemic as essential food service workers and laborers in large food production plants were some of the most exposed and impacted by the health and economic impacts caused by COVID-19. As happens during crisis, the most vulnerable communities are the most greatly impacted, and it was often people of color and immigrant laborers that faced the brunt of pandemic distress.
Immigrant farmworkers make up an estimated 73% of the agricultural workers in the U.S., powering a $1.053 trillion industry while reaping very little of the reward (fwd.us - Immigrant Farmworkers & American Food Production). Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and other immigrant labor organizers have fought to improve labor standards for immigrant farmworkers over the years, but the fact remains that the U.S. remains dependent upon underpaid laborers that do not have adequate legal protections and rights. Here in Maine, a state with a food network largely comprised of small farms, it is estimated that 18% of hired workers are migrant farmworkers, defined as someone who works seasonally and is not able to return home at the end of the day (maine.gov - migrant worker labor law). The fight for food sovereignty must also be a fight for fair labor standards.
Social Justice and Food Sovereignty
Food sovereignty is rooted in social justice. Barring access to nutritious food and to the ownership of the production of food has been a primary tool employed by colonial states to repress minority populations on national and global scales. Only through ownership of food production can communities achieve self determination, particularly as climate change continues to amplify social vulnerability. From the Black Panther’s fight to establish nutritious breakfast programs in Oakland public schools to revolts against the United Fruit Company in Guatemala during America’s political interventions in South America, the fight for food sovereignty has been central to social justice movements across the globe.
The original conception of food sovereignty as defined and popularized by La Via Campesina was based in the understanding that food sovereignty is an essential tool of anticolonialism and must be an element of any fight for justice. Here in Maine, that fight continues across a landscape of organic producers, migrant workers, and communities challenged by food insecurity. Maine has the highest rate of food insecurity in New England, with 1 in 5 children deemed food insecure (Maine Legislature Roadmap to Ending Hunger by 2030). Ninety percent of the calories consumed in Maine are imported, meaning that Mainers are largely dependent upon a globalized food system that has recently experienced compounding interruptions and fluctuations (Maine Monitor, 2021). Combating poverty, racism, and wealth inequality all directly relate to the fight for food sovereignty here in Maine.
There are many organizations here in Maine working actively to advance food sovereignty efforts on the ground. Here are a few that we know and trust:
There are also many resources on the intersections of labor, social justice, and food sovereignty. These are a few that we’ve found to be particularly helpful:
MYCJ is a proud Network Partner of
The Maine Food Convergence
The goal of the 2023 Convergence Event is to co-create a space for the Convergence Community to explore how shifts in the food system can advance social and racial equity while also increasing climate resilience. The event will facilitate conversations, most of which will center voices of those who have experienced inequities within our food system. It will help participants connect, deepen relationships, explore collaborations, and celebrate each other while working towards an equitable climate and food future. To read session descriptions and learn more about the Convergence click here!
Legislation & Political Representation
By Elise Hartill & Josh Caldwell
Let's take a moment to review Maine’s current food system. Maine has 1.3 million acres currently in agricultural use, but unlike much of the US, over 95% of that land is comprised of small farms. Maine has a strong local and organic agricultural base, and yet it is the #1 food insecure state in New England, with 1/5th of Maine children identified as food insecure. There are several factors that play into this reality, including race and class disparities, ineffective market solutions, and the widespread problem of food waste. Maine imports 90% of the calories consumed in the state despite having enough water and nutritional resources to service the food needs of all 1.3 million residents, which speaks to a distribution problem. In the US, 40% of food that is produced is never consumed, which leads us into the waste portion of this broken system.
Full Plates Full Potential
Ending Hunger 2030
Food waste is a huge problem in Maine and the US. 133 billion pounds of food waste is produced per year, with almost all of that going directly to landfill. When uneaten food goes to landfill, not only does it not get to the mouths of hungry people in need, it also contributes to climate change by generating methane during the decomposition process. This is clearly a broken system, but there are steps we can take to piece it together. By focusing on reducing the surplus and distributing food more equitably to those who actually need it, we can begin to tackle a widespread problem.
Successful Food Solutions
We should also be looking to the ways that Maine has found success in localized food production and equitable distribution. Maine is the first state to have passed a food sovereignty law: LD 725, An Act to Recognize Local Control Regarding Food Systems, was passed in 2017, enabling producers to sell directly from the point of production (farms, homesteads, etc). Then in 2021, Maine amended our constitution to include a right to food, which reads: All individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to food, including the right to save and exchange seeds and the right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well‐being, as long as an individual does not commit trespassing, theft, poaching or other abuses of private property rights, public lands or natural resources in the harvesting, production or acquisition of food.
While not particularly enforceable on its own, this sets a precedent for future work to establish a more just food system that ensures food security for all in Maine.
Maine also has a thriving system of farmers markets for local producers to get their goods to communities around the state, with over 110 active food markets. We also have 7 food co-operatives, which use a member-owner model to enable community support of local production.
Inequality in Maine’s Food Networks
We can’t talk about Maine’s food network without addressing the systemic racial inequalities imbedded therein. You can see here that people of color in Maine are over twice as likely as white residents to be food insecure, with black residents experiencing a 40% food insecurity rate. This is entirely unacceptable, and the disparities have only been exacerbated by a pandemic that has been twice as deadly for black Mainers. Food insecurity is also a major issue in Maine’s tribal communities, but a lack of data, particularly during the pandemic, has prevented organizations like Wabanaki Health and Wellness from getting a firm grasp on the extent of the problem. Here are some other great organizations like Wabanaki Health and Wellness that are focused on providing for underserved and historically marginalized groups in Maine:
Presente Maine: an indigenous and latinex mutual aid program supporting thousands of families in Portland and Lewiston,
In Her Presence is an organization that supports immigrant women in the state, and
New Roots Cooperative Farm is the first New Mainer agricultural cooperative in the state, servicing the Somali Bantu community in Lewiston Auburn