On British Pop & Food Sovereignty

headshot.jpgBy Neil Thapar, Food & Farm Attorney

The holidays are by far my favorite time of year. I see family and friends, take time to reflect on the year behind me, and continuously listen to carols on the radio. Unfortunately, the way we celebrate the holidays in the United States also highlights some of the scariest characteristics of American society - mass consumerism, perpetuating national origin myths, and instantaneously combustible trees in our homes. Really, be careful with those Christmas trees!

I turned on the radio the other day to listen to some holiday music and a song came on, maybe you’ve heard it, called “Do They Know It's Christmas?” by Band Aid, a supergroup of 1980s British pop stars including groups like U2, Duran Duran, and Kool & the Gang – real heavy hitters at the time. For all the good intentions behind it, the song speaks volumes about the flawed approach that industrialized nations take to global development and why our industrial food system is a major culprit.

One of the most common refrains that many just accept as a truth at this point is that “we” need to feed the world. I’ve heard and seen that statement so many times now, I think it’s past time to challenge that notion. Who are “we” anyway? “We” are the multinational food and agricultural companies of the world whose profits depend on continually expanding markets. “We” are the policymakers that continue to see the rest of the world as dependent on American benevolence. “We” are the hoodwinked citizens who rest a little easier at night if we can at least tell ourselves that others are benefitting from our overproduction.

Well, I think it’s time that we, as in the American agricultural system, stopped trying to feed the world. In fact, this system hasn’t really done a good job anyways. Less than one percent of our food exports go to countries with the highest levels of undernourishment, while the vast majority of our food exports go to generally well-nourished countries. And most of our food exports aren’t even food at all, at least not for humans. Animal feed, mostly corn and soy, accounted for 40 percent of the total value of agricultural exports in 2015. This system doesn’t even feed people in this country well. Our agricultural system, as mechanized and efficient as we’re lead to believe it to be, still leaves over 40 million Americans food insecure.

Instead, let us ask: what can we do to support community food sovereignty, so people everywhere can feed themselves?

This is the question that guides our approach to transforming the legal system’s relationship to our food and farming economy. With farmland overwhelmingly controlled by just one group of people – white men – we are researching models of land ownership that increase access and control for farmers of color, women, farmworkers, and beginning farmers. We are offering education on legal tools for communities to start small-scale, democratically-managed food enterprises. And we’re rethinking the role of farmers not just as business owners, but as stewards of the health of land and people in our communities.

At the Sustainable Economies Law Center, we’re not interested in Band Aids or "feeding the world," we’re trying to heal wounds as deep as our economy’s foundation so we, the people, can feed ourselves.

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