2013 Just Food Conference: Who Owns the Food

Food Justice: Who owns the food?

Food justice is an incredibly complex social issue. At every step along the food chain, moral choices are being made—from who controls seed patents, to which crops are subsidized, to the conditions of workers who serve, process, and harvest the food we eat. When we separate the health of land and sea from these issues, we do a disservice to the interconnectedness of environmental justice, human rights, food access, and poverty. More and more, activists are beginning to form alliances to address food insecurity in a comprehensive way.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Just Food Conference, which took place March 29-30. One speaker at a workshop I attended indicated that ten years ago the event was drawing around 75 people—whereas this year’s conference was attended by 2,000. No matter what your interest—growing on your rooftop, insuring food-worker justice, starting a food pantry or even just learning how to make your own cheese—there was something to learn.
I attended one particularly eye-opening workshop called Resource Grabs: Taking Back Our Rights to the Land & the Sea. Representatives of two organizations helped frame the resource grab issue, the Northwest Marine Alliance, and the National Coalition of Family Farmers. For both farmers and fisherman, the issue is consolidation. Large pension funds, such as TIAA-CREF, the largest pension fund for teachers and non-profit sector workers, are now in the business of buying farming land as an investment. In the wake of the recent recession, farmland is increasingly seen as a safer, longer-term prospect for wealth consolidation. While this may be good for pensions, it negatively impacts food distribution, because it aggregates farmland in fewer and fewer hands, pricing it away from the individual family farmer and putting it into the control of corporate investors. A March 18th article in the New York Times by Julie Creswell details the plight of smaller farmers, saddled with debt, forced to sell their family businesses in light of the new prices being offered for farmland. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/19/business/as-crop-prices-surge-investment-firms-and-farmers-vie-for-land.html?smid=fb-share.

Who Fishes Matters?
A Parallel issue is fish catch shares. Catch shares were originally put into place by local fishing authorities to insure that eco-systems are not depleted. This video from the Center for Investigative Reporting, however, puts the issue in stark relief: http://cironline.org/reports/who-owns-fish-4251. By consolidating fishing rights into the hands of larger consolidating corporations, individual fisherman no longer own their own boats. In effect, they are becoming share croppers in the oceans.
Larger boats often use methods and gear that aggravate fish stocks, and do not have to provide fair wages for their fisherman. Moreover, the cost of going into the industry for an individual fisherman is prohibitively expensive, meaning that coastal communities and the fishing way of life are rapidly dying out. Nowadays, Community Supported Fisheries—the ocean’s version of a Community Supported Agriculture program—are offering consumers a choice in how they get their seafood – and providing important outlets for family-owned businesses.
It is easy to become overwhelmed by choices along the food supply chain. Should I buy this strawberry? What is in the cereal? Is organic better for the earth, and can I afford it? What are the conditions in this restaurant? Is fish right to eat anyway? In the end, justice for food producers, consumers, and for the earth and its waters are not isolated issues. Food production is just as much a social justice issue as it is an environmental issue; progress demands that we weave these issues together.

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