“It’s Time to Make Salt!” Says the People’s Movement Assembly on Food Sovereignty

Elizabeth Smythe

The first Peoples Movement Assembly dealing with food was held on Wednesday afternoon in the Food Justice canopy. Close to 100 activists from across the United States and as far away as Haiti, India, and Palestine joined representatives of the Navajo and other indigenous nations to discuss ideas and strategies for advancing food sovereignty.

The people’s movement assemblies (PMA) have roots in the World Social Forum’s Social Movement’s Assemblies, which were formed as a way of addressing the tension between the Forum’s goal of providing an open space for discussion and debate about alternatives to neoliberal globalization versus the desire of many to engage in collective action on a broader scale.

Movement assemblies convened usually at the end of the forum to allow groups to unite around specific actions and proposals. At the WSF in Nairobi and the USSF in Atlanta, these assemblies became more formalized and integrated into the forum process. The People’s Movement Assemblies organized as part of the second USSF offer an experiment in new methods for expanding popular participation in deliberations about ways of responding to pressing social problems.

Wednesday’s PMA on food sovereignty thus began to formulate proposals and actions that will be further refined at smaller caucuses each morning at the food justice tent. A small group will then bring these proposals to a cross-sector PMA meeting on Friday night to organize proposals to be put forward at the national PMA on Saturday afternoon.

The food sovereignty PMA demonstrates the huge growth of movements challenging the global food system at all levels across the US and North America. The range and complexity of these groups and movements, from urban gardens to advocacy around US agriculture and international trade policies, mean that there is both great opportunity and a need to move forward. In the words of Food First researcher Eric Holt Gimenez, “its time to make salt.” Gimenez was referring to India’s national liberation movement against the British, and Ghandi’s famous act of resistance to the British monopoly on salt. The “march to the sea” inspired millions to join together, and the liberation struggles became more unified and successful. So too, the time has come for the food justice movement to find new ways to forge unity and direct action aimed at achieving food sovereignty.

The notion of “food sovereignty” as a goal challenges the top-down and elite-driven United Nations discourse of “food security,” and it emerges from the peasant movement Via Campesina. Food sovereignty, according to Via Campesina, involves much more than access to food and food supply. Rather it involves “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.” In short, it is a much more revolutionary and transformative concept which challenges all aspects of the corporate agri-business and trade intensive food system.

The PMA wrestled with this issues and questions of food justice by breaking into ten small groups for intensive discussion. The groups included labor rights in all places of the food chain, urban-rural connections, smashing corporate control of the food system, trade policy and a solidarity economy, land access, climate change and resources, the role of youth, issues of racism and classism in the food system. Proposals emerging from the groups were wide ranging and reflected the complex array of organizations working at various levels from the neighborhood to the global. Discussions reflected the challenges of bringing together those who came primarily to share experiences and alternatives and the need in limited time to come forward with specific proposals.

The resulting proposals included endorsing the indigenous seventh generation constitutional amendment, expressing solidarity with the Haitian representatives of Via Campesina in opposing GM crops and food in post-earthquake aid from the US.

It was in the area of climate change that several activists identified some common ground with other PMAs dealing with environmental justice. US agricultural production is the number one producer of greenhouse gases. A decentralized, locally controlled sustainable food system clearly was a shared value. As one activist noted our humanity means “we all need food and water or we die.” The current global food system as a representative of the Coalition of Imokalee Farm workers commented earlier in the day is non-discriminatory…it exploits everyone in the system equally.”

Elizabeth Smythe teaches at Concordia University in Alberta, Canada. Her research focuses on international trade policy and food sovereignty and citizen activism in these areas.