Control over food, and the resources necessary to produce food, has had a long and intimate relationship with the economic logic that currently rules our world.
When common lands were taken from commoners in England's "great enclosure movement" several hundred years ago, it was justified as a transformation of "waste" into "improved" land. To "improve" literally meant to do something for monetary profit. Peasant evictions and the commercialization of agriculture were claimed necessary to the process of modernization and increasing productivity, thus purportedly contributing to the common good. This historical moment of massive dispossession arguably marks the very origins of capitalism.
The same rationality that underlay England's enclosure movement vindicated colonial endeavors around the world. Imperial projects fathomed their legitimacy in particular and peculiar valuations of improvement and progress, constructing ideologies by which expropriating local populations was adding to the "common stock."
Such ideas persisted in 19th century Hawaiʻi, informing the Māhele enclosures and subsequent plantation development. Missionaries and business interests melded morality with the logic of profit, advising that land privatization would liberate innate human desires and build a strong and productive nation. As the sophisticated agricultural systems of Hawaiians were displaced and denigrated, plantation agriculture was advocated as the best, and only, way to "progress."
In many ways, endorsements of capitalism's enclosures and exploitations have not strayed far from their origins. Only slightly repackaged today, the restructuring of the food system towards increased privatization, corporatization, industrialization and financialization is proclaimed necessary to "feed the world" and advance social progress.
In contrast, social movements are asserting the possibility of an agricultural system designed to feed people rather than corporate profit. Resisting dominant ideas that have long justified extreme inequality and dispossession of indigenous and peasant producers, the food sovereignty movement is claiming alternative potentials in the commons, democracy, equitable distribution, respect for place and diversity, and agroecology. Rooted in their rights to land, water, seed, knowledge, culture, and livelihoods, some call the peasant-led food sovereignty movement the largest in the world. Organizations like La Via Campesina bring together 200 million small and medium-sized farmers, as well as landless people, migrants and agricultural workers. They are defending against land grabs, "free trade," enclosure of seed and genetic commons, corporate power, human rights violations, environmental degradation, and policies that create hunger. In their mobilizations, they are making systemic connections between what appear as singular and isolated injustices.
Women, who produce a majority of the world's food and bear the heaviest burdens of systemic oppressions, are leading food justice and food sovereignty movements. From January 15th to the 20th, women from Mexico, Nigeria, Malaysia, and Switzerland will be in Hawaiʻi to share stories alongside local activists and cultural practitioners, linking diverse but connected struggles.
Some of the discussion will focus on the agrochemical+seed oligopoly-- the six (soon potentially merging to 3 or 4) transnational conglomerates that dominate the global pesticide, seed, and agricultural biotechnology markets. This handful of mega-corporations have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo in the current food system. They work vigorously to deepen privatization, market liberalization, and monopoly property-rights, and against human health and environmental protections.
As we challenge and think beyond the corporate food system, we cannot separate the local from the global. To give just one example, the seeds being developed by Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, DuPont and BASF in Hawaiʻi are the foundation of the industrial-food-feed-fuel complex that is a primary driver of climate change. While these companies may donate to localized "ecological protection" programs, they are concurrently working at international and national policy levels to undermine the possibilities of a climate-sane food system.
At the same time it is critical to think beyond particular corporations, and to consider structural drives and the ideologies that sustain them. For instance, to the fact that many migrant laborers in the fields of Hawaiʻi's agrochemical+seed industry operations were themselves peasant producers, displaced from their lands and livelihoods by the corporate food system and its undergirding notions of productivity, progress, and economic development.
Perhaps more than at any other point in history it is upon us to think, and care, globally. While we engage in specific struggles for justice, our resistance must seek to understand structural links between oppressions. If we fail to see systemic connections, we will not address the depth of change necessary. Most importantly, the possibility of fundamentally different futures requires extending our concerns, compassion, and solidarity universally.
Speakers at the Food Justice Summit will also be honorary guests of the Martin Luther King Jr celebration. The wisdom of Dr King is as relevant as ever, especially in thinking about a food system (and world) beyond the compulsions of capitalism. As spoken in his last speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference:
We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?"
Let us ask such questions, imagining and fighting for a future where all live in dignity and peace, more equitably sharing the abundance of the global commons.