Issue 260: November 2008


 Reclaim the Food System!

by Cathleen Kneen

The theme for Food Secure Canada’s National Assembly, held in Ottawa November 7-10th, was “Reclaiming Our Food System: A Call to Action”. The implication was that the globalized food system is beyond the control of either producers or eaters; recognizing that it is also ecologically unsustainable and unjust, we need to get together to figure out how to take it back. This thinking echoes the principles behind the concept of “food sovereignty” developed by the global peasant movement La Via Campesina, that emphasize local control of both food production and markets, ecological sustainability, and respect for traditional knowledge and foodways. As the key organizer, I had hoped that we would find ways to articulate these principles in a Canadian context and to share stories of what people are doing in all corners of this country to reclaim their piece of the food system.

Of course, when you gather 300 people together with very different backgrounds from all over Canada and when you ensure that most of them are from the ‘front lines’ (farming, fishing, working in community food organizations in Canada and overseas, defending Indigenous territories and traditions), nothing turns out quite the way you planned. In the event, it became clear that reclaiming the food system requires a total transformation of the way we think about it.

In this regard, the keynote session on Friday night did indeed strike the key note. Olivier de Schutter, the UN Rapporteur on the Human Right to Food, addressing the topic The Food Crisis and Climate Change, pointed out that from his perspective of promoting human rights, climate change hits hardest on those who are already marginalized (and hungry).

Clearly, business as usual is no longer an option; we cannot continue with a global food system which is dependent on shrinking supplies of fossil fuel, which emits increasing amounts of ‘greenhouse gases’, and which fails to feed the world’s population. Food sovereignty, he concluded, is the best strategy. In his response, René Segbenou from Mali, West Africa, commented that the first step in such a strategy is to move away from the place where we are now standing, in order to see from a different perspective. Colleen Ross, as a Canadian organic farmer, made this very concrete in terms of a local food production for the local community.

The human impact on the environment, including the effects of carbon emissions on the environment, hits Indigenous peoples hardest, as their traditional foods are contaminated or disappear altogether. In session after session at the Assembly, Indigenous leaders from BC, Yukon, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Labrador repeated the same theme, describing powerfully the loss of their traditional foods, the caribou, the salmon, which have nourished their spirits and defined their communities. They drew tears and standing ovations from participants – and in the case of Henry Lickers from Akwasasne, laughter. In one of the most powerful presentations of the weekend, Henry addressed the plenary on Resilience as a storyteller, telling how as a teenager fresh off the Reserve he ran a lucrative trap-line (raccoons and skunks) in Toronto – and emphasizing the importance of respect for seeds and for women, the traditional seed-keepers. The call to action, Henry told us, is really a call to consciousness.

dead canary

This approach was demonstrated from the first plenary session of the Assembly, where people working in programs to feed the hungry described what they are doing to respect and enhance the autonomy of the people who come to their programs and to treat them as citizens rather than clients – food sovereignty within the charitable sector. It was summed up by Nick Saul’s description of a Community Food Centre as “burying the food bank within a web of participatory and non-stigmatizing food programs” to make the food bank a site for community engagement, health promotion, social and food justice advocacy. Basically, he said, they unlock the positive side of food, so even though they continue to provide food, it is no longer seen as a food bank, but as a place where people can engage – including engaging in advocacy for both decent incomes and housing and advocacy for a sustainable food system with a fair return to the farmer – which can be done by groups working together, it doesn’t all have to be only one agency. This was echoed by Jean-Paul Faniel, one of the many Québec participants (all the plenary sessions and 5 of the workshops had simultaneous translation) who emphasized the need to work in collaboration among organizations and across other borders as well.

Speaking in the third plenary session, on Living With Risk: Healthy and Safe Food, David Waltner-Toews said we have to think about food less as fuel for our bodies and more as the way in which we are intimate with our environment, so we have to ask our food, as we would ask a sexual partner, ‘who were you with before you came to me?’

My sense of the conference as I moved from session to session, and listened to the conversations in the hallways and over (local, organic) meals, was that people were indeed inspired to think differently and were excited and energised by the ideas and examples that were evident throughout the conference. To give just a few examples: to think of livestock as an integral part of the farm ecology; to think of land in terms of stewardship rather than ownership; to think with young people about the power of food. From the workshop on Agrofuels: “not to reduce energy consumption but to seek alternatives, we must work together and rethink the way we have become a consumer society”; from the workshop on Community Economic Development: “if you need grants to get started that’s not the way to make it happen – investment by the community is the most important step”.

Success is, of course, only 1% inspiration. The other 99% is plain hard work, and the Assembly gave plenty of evidence of that, not only in the stories of what is happening to reclaim, and transform, our food system but also in the 67 different policy and action proposals which were posted on the wall and the twelve Working Groups that were affirmed or established. For me the most exciting new initiative is the People’s Food Policy Project. This project will follow up on the Assembly, working to bring the concepts of food sovereignty into the Canadian context and find appropriate language to develop them here. The perspective of the project is that when we think in terms of food sovereignty we are able to appropriate the authority – rather than to ask for the right – to do what needs to be done. Certainly part of that is to demand policy changes at every level of government; but another and critically important part is to change the political climate and context through citizen action.

As I write this, the media are obsessed with the global financial system, which is mimicking the meltdown of the polar ice, and the forces which are largely responsible for both crises are loudly trumpeting the solution as more of the same: more technology, more ‘free trade’.

Meanwhile, however, the good news is that people across Canada – and around the world – are thoughtfully, respectfully, and stubbornly working to create a food system based on a very different vision.

– More information at


#260: November 2008 TOC
Reclaim the Food System! - Cathleen reports on the National Assembly of Food Secure Canada The Hunger Count - Food Banks Canada reports steady numbers at food banks, more groups serving hot meals
Corporate Moves: Updates on Saputo Monsanto Syngenta Big Beef
On the biotech front - Transposons ("jumping genes") don't fit the reductionist model
- If it's GE, is it Ayurvedic? - not according to the traditional Ayurvedic practitioners
- Nontarget Effects: Strong Stalks - BT cornstalks provide overwintering for borers, need to be destroyed
- Argentina: Full of Earth - a local organizing newspaper to publicize landowner abuses
- Markets and Labels (or not) - reports from Korea, Poland, South Africa, and Brazil on GMO approvals and labelling
- On the one hand
- ... and the other - a new GM purple tomato no better than natural alternatives
My two-day field trip with Germany's BASF Plant Science - condensed from a report by Jocelyn Zuckerman in Gourmet Magazine