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Food Systems Change Through Collective Action

By Katherine Grace Golfinopoulos

What happens when you take a pioneering thought leader astrophysicist, a medical doctor musician activist, and a cultural heirloom seed stewarding farmer, and mix them together in a room with two hundred and twenty other people? You get a scintillating discussion by panelists Dr. Vandana Shiva, Dr. Rupa Marya, and Farmer Kristyn Leach at EcoFarm’s 2020 workshop, “Collective Action for Food Systems Change,” where ideas around reclaiming the commons, drawing from plant wisdom, and the parallels between the human microbiome and soil health were among some of the provocative interwoven themes.

“Changing the food system is changing the human system."

In addressing food system change, there was discussion as to what comprises the food system, how it got to be the way it is, who is a part of it, and who has the power to change it. The distilled version: colonial forces of extraction and exploitation created our current food-as-commodity-based system, and it’s now up to each and everyone one of us to take action to change that and put the power and agency to grow and eat healthy food back into our own hands, and back into the commons. The food system was portrayed as emblematic of larger systems of both relation and power. As workshop moderator Dr. Samir K. Doshi pointed out, “Changing the food system is changing the human system. We are trying to do that through food. And so it’s not just about how we change our diets, or how we change our production schemes, it’s how are we changing culture in so many ways. And I think that’s what this conference is about.”

Dr. Shiva explained why she was motivated to specialize in agriculture over 30 years ago: it was the “ecological orphan” at that time, and the “environment movement wasn’t bothered about it,” she explained. She noted how the environmental movement had “decided that nature is out there, not in our gut, not in our bodies, not in our communities, not in our food. So they had basically externalized nature from life, especially from human life.” Now more people doing food systems work are recognizing the critical connections between human health and environmental health. As Dr. Shiva put it, “100 trillion fellow beings walk with us, transform our food, make our brains, make our cells, make our health.” [But] we’ve desertified the soil the way we’ve desertified the gut.”

The connections between the health and vitality of the land and soil with that of human health has been foundational to Dr. Marya’s public health activism work. She started looking at connections between human population and landscape health when she began noticing how the inflamed colons of her patients from the Central Valley looked like depleted soils. From there, she started her “inquiry into the connection between gut microbiome and soil microbiome.” Dr. Marya now works to “move our whole state to prioritizing soil health as human health,” advocating state financial support for “every farmer in California to develop a plan to move to regenerative practices that will build soil health and to specifically outlaw any substance that will damage the vitality and biodiversity of our soils.”

"You should listen to your plants more."

As a seed steward, Farmer Kristyn also addresses the interrelationship between the health of her human community and broader biodiversity, viewing the two as inextricably linked. On her farm, she helps develop more resilient seed resources for the Korean American community, noting how the impacts of the last 50 years of war and neoliberalism have affected small famers from South Korea where she was born. She sees herself on a mission to help provide culturally relevant food to her community. "You should listen to your plants more," she says, "because they have a much more elegant way for us to move forward. As a small tenant farmer, my safety in [confronting] climate change is not going to be linked to just having the best soil or most resilient land or deepest well, but it’s going to come in the way that seeds reproduce, though duplication, and being just one of very many, and practicing those relationships.”

How is this important work achieved? The panelists did not disappoint in sharing some of their own concrete strategies for food systems change through collective action.

“Reclaim every enclosure of the commons, including knowledge, software, on land, and water.”

Dr. Shiva espoused the idea of reclaiming the land and the earth as a commons for the common good. She spoke of how privatization is a myth brought to this country by the colonizers for the purpose of furthering a system to divide and conquer. Her directive on how we reclaim and heal what had previously been conquered is by reclaiming the commons. She urged attendees to “reclaim every enclosure of the commons, including knowledge, software, on land, and water.” Dr. Shiva shared that in her home country of India, she fought against privatization of water and won every time, as well as successfully fought against the patenting of indigenous knowledge through biopiracy. 

“Find something in the commons you love, pick a corporation who’s claiming to own it, find a good lawyer willing to work for free, and sue them.”

After Dr. Marya recounted her own personal story of successfully taking on a corporation to return a collectively held resource back to the commons (in her instance, it was the song “Happy Birthday”!). She asked of the audience, “can we work collectively to dismantle the structures that put us in indentured servitude? Can we work collectively to insist on health care for every single person on planet earth? Can we work collectively to uplift ourselves together? We can. It’s our inaction which is a tacit agreement with this violent system.” She acknowledged that it's “overwhelming and it can leave us wondering what we do.” Still, Dr. Marya says that there is one thing that everyone can do: “find something in the commons you love, pick a corporation who’s claiming to own it, find a good lawyer willing to work for free, and sue them.”

Farmer Kristyn expanded further on the close connections between community health and resilience. She told the audience about a harvest festival held each year at her farm, and how “the seed saving class is always taught by people who are 6 years old and younger. And it's real, it's not novel or cute, they will correct you about winnowing, or you're using the wrong screen, or you're doing a sloppy job. They’re really incredible. [Seeing] that cadre of young people is really hopeful, because they’re not unlearning like some of us have had to unlearn in our lives. There’s just a different starting point where vegetables are delicious, and plants are our kin, and recognizing that we have a huge responsibility to the places we occupy, and that we’re part of something, and not the dominators of it.”

It can be noted, as Dr. Doshi did in his opening remarks, that this amazing group of speakers are some of the most qualified in their fields. And all three of them are women, and all three are people of color. He made clear the significance that this was not a diversity panel; that “that is not the only time you bring people of color onto a stage.” As Dr. Doshi stated, “The speakers on this panel are the best at what they do. And that is informed by their identities and their cultural diversity.”

“Real change,” he adds, is moving “towards when we can have a plurality and a diversity and really recognize the beauty in all of it and it’s not just skin color.” And on this afternoon at EcoFarm Conference 2020, Dr. Shiva, Dr. Marya, and Farmer Kristyn shared their voices on their unique work and experiences, and in doing so, offered inspiration and ideas for everyone interested in changing the food system.

To hear this EcoFarm 2020 workshop in its entirety, download the audio recording