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Building Local Food Pathways: Food Sovereignty and Climate Justice


Antonia Eliason (@AntoniaEliason) is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

This post is part of an ongoing series on Just Transitions.


“In the fluorescent void of the grocery store,

 we examine the bunches of collards,

 the bags of okra.

  Grown in Honduras.

  Grown in California.

   Do they eat okra in Honduras?

   Do they eat collards in California?

    We double-check the price.

    They must have flown them over first class.

     The farmers’ market,

      the locally grown section,

       the organic superstore,

        all worse.”

Lee Bains, Meat-And-Threes

There are two things that are undeniably true about climate change: first, we cannot mitigate climate change without divesting from fossil fuels; and second, our current globalized system of food production creates inefficiencies and vulnerabilities in food supply chains, which pose significant risks to populations, particularly in regions most susceptible to climate change. This is not sustainable. Any just transition from fossil fuels must radically rethink current systems of food production and work towards reaching food sovereignty.

Industrial agriculture is responsible for most of the food we find in the grocery store: our all-year strawberries whose pallor is only matched by their lack of flavor, the bunches of Peruvian asparagus that are draining the aquifers in Peru, the Mexican avocados that drug cartels are profiting from, the intensive monocultures of corn and soybeans that cover the United States, and the heavily subsidized beef and dairy industry. It is also responsible for up to one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Fossil fuels are used to transport produce to far-flung places, sometimes only to be processed and then transported to yet another far-flung locale. Consider, for instance, this plastic container of pears, which were grown in Argentina, packaged in Thailand, and sold in the United States—crossing the Pacific twice before being eaten. Indeed, the system of underregulated ocean transport on which our global food system relies is one of the central culprits of climate change: if it were a country, global maritime transport would rank sixth in terms of CO2 emissions. Beyond transport, agribusiness is intensely dependent on fossil fuels throughout the process of production—from machinery to fertilizers to packaging. Economically, the industry is supported by a combination of agricultural and fossil fuel subsidies.

Industrial agriculture also exacerbates systems of exploitation, with farm laborers experiencing horrific working conditions, and the land being leeched of nutrients and intensively, destructively planted until nothing more can grow. Industrial agriculture is uninterested in local communities and the effects that its practices have on the people in those communities. Fertilizers, pesticides, and carbon emissions operate together to undermine the conditions of life necessary for the people and the land to thrive–a destructive relationship between capitalist production and the land that was already recognized by Karl Marx in the 1860s.

To see how this capitalist system of food production plays out on the local level, consider one of the most agriculturally fertile areas in the world: the Mississippi Delta. This region remains one of the poorest and most racially segregated parts of the country, where the primarily Black population faces a lack of jobs, healthcare, and nutritious food. Food apartheid is rampant. At the same time, the people are surrounded by industrial agriculture. Giant machines grow and harvest cotton and soybeans, work once done by Black slaves and later by exploited Black sharecroppers. The New Deal deliberately excluded agricultural and domestic workers from its protections, which, as Juan Perea has pointed out, was well understood as being “a race-neutral proxy for excluding blacks from statutory benefits and protections made available to most whites.” Today, some of the few Black workers that remain are being replaced by white laborers from South Africa. This tension between industrial agriculture and individual livelihoods is part of the legal and political architecture of white supremacy and colonialism.

Food access, in particular, has long been weaponized by white people in power. In 1962, in response to the growing impact of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Greenwood, MS, the White Citizen’s Council and the white leadership of LeFlore County voted to discontinue the federal food program, resulting in the Greenwood Food Blockade. Black sharecroppers and farmworkers in the Delta relied on federal food assistance to survive the winter months, with sharecroppers often prevented from producing food in favor of planting cotton. With the rise of mechanization and the consequent decrease in the need for farm labor, many sharecroppers became day-laboring farmworkers who were even more dependent on federal food aid. As the historian Bobby Smith has written, the White Citizen’s Council “used food as a weapon to maintain white authority, disrupt black food access, and impede civil rights activism.” In response to the food blockade, SNCC and other civil rights organizations worked to create an alternative campaign to distribute food to Black residents of the Greenwood area.

Residents of the Delta today continue to be prevented from accessing and farming the land that they live on. Black farmers lost much of their land (often involuntarily) in the second half of the 20th century, with remaining property often becoming fractionated over generations. In this way, the cycles of exploitation of the land that began with the displacement of indigenous communities and slavery continue.

The rise of industrial agriculture was not accidental. By weaponizing access to food and limiting opportunities for employment, the white power structure was able to control portions of the population that were deemed to be dangerous to the status quo. By operating a production-based agricultural policy, with subsidies incentivizing overproduction, the United States has also played a role in displacing small farmers outside the United States, particularly in the Global South. As industrial agriculture grew, fertilizers and pesticides became necessary to keep land fertile that, in many cases, had already been over-farmed through intensive plantation-style agriculture. As a result, waterways and groundwater have become contaminated by nitrates and other chemicals. Industrial agriculture negatively impacts the viability of rural communities across the globe, through its effects on health, nutrition, the environment, and local economies.

As they currently stand, international legal solutions to the problems posed by industrial agriculture are woefully inadequate. The international trading system is not designed to encourage or enable food sovereignty, and the WTO rules on agriculture give little room for flexibility. The Agreement on Agriculture focuses on eliminating export subsidies, which in principle would encourage food sovereignty by reducing low-cost dumping of artificially competitive agricultural products onto world markets. However, in practice, this agreement has been limited by the exception permitting such subsidies when specified in a member’s list of commitments. While in 2015, developed country Members pledged to immediately eliminate their remaining scheduled export subsidy entitlements, the focus of these efforts has been to encourage even more trade in agriculture—to level the playing field for developing country exporters of agricultural goods. More trade in agricultural products is fundamentally incompatible with climate justice and will only result in shifting industrial agriculture to countries in the Global South. Such shifts would result in dangerous specialization, with a focus on monocultures, exacerbating supply chain vulnerabilities. As Carmen Gonzalez has argued, small farmers will benefit the least.

There are models of how food sovereignty can be achieved. Nicaragua has spent a decade focusing on building food sovereignty through an increased focus on agroecology, which looks to both contemporary knowledge and indigenous practices to develop sustainable ways of cultivating food. While Nicaragua has yet to achieve full food sovereignty, it has made significant inroads in reducing hunger—developing an alternative model to industrial agriculture, while operating in tandem with it. Nicaragua is a relatively small country, but local food pathways can be similarly nurtured in communities worldwide.

Food sovereignty is a necessary component for climate justice, because it empowers local communities to produce their own food while reducing emissions from agriculture. Until people can reclaim agricultural land from industrial agriculture and turn production to crops necessary for local nutrition, food apartheid will continue, and people will remain reliant on increasingly precarious and environmentally detrimental global supply chains. Rather than continue to subsidize industrial agriculture and fossil fuels, governments across the world should redirect these funds toward encouraging the production and distribution of locally produced food and making sure that such food is affordable. While food sovereignty may mean that we can no longer eat strawberries year-round, that is a small price to pay for protecting our climate, and for rectifying injustices in how food access is structured.