Food democracy: why eating is unavoidably political

Industrial agriculture has created a food system that is inherently undemocratic in its disregard for human need. Shutterstock/Todd Klassy

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


Calls for food democracy, which date back to the sustainable agriculture movement of the 1980s, have become more common with the increasing concentration of power in the global industrial food regime.

The current regime is inherently undemocratic. The intervention of democratic food publics – based on their shared experiences of the adverse effects of global foodways – is essential to transform a broken system.

This political project depends on recognition that this is a global public problem and that its solutions depend on new conceptions of citizenship.

Global regime requires citizens, not consumers

A London conference of elite donor groups and biotech corporations in March was denounced by openDemocracy as ‘secretive and seedy’. Flickr/Global Justice Now, CC BY

Corporate control of the global seed sector is one symptom of an undemocratic food system that favours transnational agribusinesses. Ten companies account for 55% of the seed market. Several dominate value chains from seed to supermarket shelf.

An endless array of processed, packaged and scentless products confronts us as consuming subjects, not citizens. We are forced to rely on the expert knowledge of food manufacturers, labellers and processors in our dietary choices.

In response, eaters concerned with “food from nowhere”, as Josè Bovè puts it, aspire to recreate authentic relationships built on trust between growers and consumers. Shortening food supply chains – by buying directly from producers or opting for Fair Trade products – may bring us closer to this goal.

In respecting local foodshed boundaries by buying at farmers’ markets, we express our dissatisfaction with corporate control through what Michele Micheletti calls “political consumerism”. But individual action cannot counter the overpowering influences of liberalised markets and their impacts on rural livelihoods in a global economy.

While consumers’ local micro-encounters may represent important attempts at communal autonomy, they do not address inequalities within and between communities. Privileged groups find it easier to participate. It is not simply that marginalised people lack the means to participate in farmers’ markets and buy Fair Trade or organic produce; they have limited input into these initiatives.

For one of the industrial food regime’s fiercest US critics, farmer-activist Wendell Berry, the revitalisation of local food economies is the strongest counter to a system that puts profit before human health, culture and the environment.

For Wendell Berry, local food economies are the key to putting the interests of humanity and the environment first.

Organising alternatives

Sites of resistance from Vermont in the US to Larzac in France reflect the desire to protect local lifestyles and livelihoods. Food cooperatives such as Nueva Segovia in Nicaragua and Mondragon in Spain, urban land committees in Venezuela and the Greening of Detroit provide models of community control of resources and participatory democracy.

Alternative food networks and community-supported agriculture aim to reconnect producers and consumers in local human, cultural and land ecologies. These schemes are increasing alongside civic food networks in which eaters practise “food citizenship”: food-related behaviours that help develop a democratic food system.

Multi-stakeholder structures such as food policy councils in the US and Canada and associations for the maintenance of smallholder agriculture (AMAPs) in Europe support many of these innovative models. They are creating and connecting new spaces for democratic debate on environmental sustainability, social justice and economic viability.

Steve Cohen from the Portland, Oregon, Office of Sustainable Development explains the roles of a food policy council.

Rather than seeking to maximise local consumption, critics of industrial agriculture should concentrate on creating democratic food publics to tackle structural problems with the food system. These include food deserts in poor neighbourhoods and rules that grant corporations property rights over seeds.

When the industrial food system is perceived as a public problem, rather than a personal responsibility, a greater diversity of experiences and perspectives can contribute to solutions. The vision of localised food systems is not sufficient to bring about food democracy for the one billion people most affected by poverty and hunger. This is particularly so when the intellectual property, free trade and investment agreements that govern food and agriculture transcend national borders.

Drawing on John Dewey, democratic publics are comprised of individuals who recognise the adverse impacts of the activities of others and act collectively to demand the state protect their interests. Globally, demands for an alternative food system must be made by a democratic food public that shares citizenship on a basis other than that of the nation-state.

Uniting in a fight for food sovereignty

One such public is the transnational peoples’ movement La Via Campesina. It represents small-scale producers, pastoralists, migrant workers, fisherfolk, landless peasants and indigenous peoples in 70 countries across the global north and south. For more than 20 years, members have embodied an “agrarian” citizenship that goes beyond class-based notions of political representation.

La Via Campesina provides a model of rural action based on common interests in the different struggles against policies that impact negatively on farmers worldwide. These impacts include low crop and livestock prices, exploitative temporary farm labour, distorting subsidies and the disappearance of family farms.

The question of food is fundamentally social. Who should provide food and how? Whose livelihoods should be protected?

La Via Campesina’s concept of food sovereignty proposes a radical social transformation to make food systems more democratic. Ian MacKenzie La Via Compesina/flickr, CC BY

La Via Campesina’s concept of food sovereignty, the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture policies, is a proposal for radical social transformation to make food systems more democratic. It has evolved from a catch-cry opposing trade liberalisation to a concept adopted by broader constituencies. Among these are food democracy advocates in the global north who share the view that the corporate food system actively contributes to global hunger, poverty and malnutrition.

The campaign for food sovereignty spans many issues including gender inequality, land reform, genetic modification, intellectual property, biodiversity, urban agriculture and labour migration. It has emerged as a political project that talks to power at venues including the United Nations Committee on World Food Security.

Hundreds of members of La Via Campesina and like-minded organisations met recently in a very different forum in Sèlinguè, a village in Mali, West Africa. The resulting Declaration of the International Forum of Agroecology presents the peoples’ alternative to conventional industrial agriculture and the destructive elements of international trade.

It states that traditional methods of food production such as intercropping, mobile pastoralism and composting play an integral role in creating equitable, sustainable and healthy food systems, as opposed to monocultures and biotech solutions.

The meeting declared:

Agroecology is the answer to how to transform and repair our material reality in a food system and rural world that has been devastated by industrial food production and its so-called Green and Blue Revolutions … [it is] a key form of resistance to an economic system that puts profit before life.

A revolution of a different colour, agroecology is based on farmers’ local innovation and peer-to-peer information sharing and diàlogo de saberes (ways of knowing through dialogue). It seeks to return power to communities, to:

… put the control of seeds, biodiversity, land and territories, waters, knowledge, culture and the commons in the hands of people who feed the world.

Relocating control of food production and distribution to growers and eaters rather than corporations requires the mobilisation of publics of citizens committed to resolving the public problem that is our food system. The building of coalitions between consumer-oriented initiatives and the more radical food sovereignty movement is essential to develop a long-term constructive agenda for widespread change.

While practising political consumerism and strengthening local food economies are important, only the emergence of democratic food publics based on new notions of citizenship can achieve such change.