How Do We Return to a Resilient Food System?
How Do We Return to a Resilient Food System?
Looking at our food and how it gets to our plate, it’s not a leap to say we’ve innovated ourselves into a hole. Our climate is suffering, local ecosystems are collapsing, our shared health has taken a drastic turn, and millions of Americans lack steady access to food. One way out is to listen to the original stewards of the land: Indigenous people, who for thousands of years lived in healthy and sustainable relationships with the environments we now exploit.
“We have to know that there are different ways to grow food than our current industrial system—and that those ways already exist,” says Janet MacGillivray, the founder and executive director of the Indigenous-led climate collective Seeding Sovereignty. MacGillivray is an advocate for Indigenous food sovereignty, a shift in culture that offers a path toward solving our climate, food, and health crises. It is simple in theory: establishing a culture of self-determination for all human beings, respect for all living things, and reverence for the ground we stand on.
A Q&A with Janet MacGillivray, JD, LLM
Indigenous wisdom respects the balances of the seasons and the ability of the land to carry the capacity that’s being requested. Modern American agriculture takes that land and uses it as a site for what is essentially a factory that crams workers or animals into a facility to generate food for surplus. It games the system for profit so that very few will experience exponential wealth while many others experience scarcity and cascading health harms. There’s no regard for the lives of those held within those systems. And there’s no regard for the quality of the food that is being exported to all of us. We have been lulled into complacency based on convenience—which leads us to purchase foods generated by a system that impacts us, our health, and the health of our planet negatively in the long term.
Food sovereignty is the right of people to control their own food and decide their own systems of agriculture. Food sovereignty is food sufficiency for people, as opposed to food efficiency for a surplus that translates to profits for others. It asks the questions: Who is part of the decision-making? Whose land do we grow on? What seeds do we use? Where does the food go? Whom is it for?
We are wildly out of balance with our connection to what we put in our bodies and how we relate to the land. Rebalancing these relationships with food sovereignty is revolutionary; it reprioritizes the land, water, and air, as well as our cultures. It breaks the chain of dependency on shortsighted, convenient, overly processed foods produced in unethical, oppressive, and violent ways. And growing food in a way that respects the land means that the land herself isn’t violated with toxic chemicals that harm both the health of the land and the health of people. Resilient land can lead to resilience at a time of climate change.
Conditions for workers in slaughterhouses and packaging plants—many of whom are Black, Latinx, and undocumented—are hazardous. There are huge rates of injury. Meatpacking plants are rife with amputations1
and the spread of illness, which would not be tolerated in other work environments. Much of the time, workers are afraid to speak up because of immigration or financial status and because they rely on keeping these jobs. During COVID, this violence extends to entire communities. Community members were forced back to work by the president despite high rates of COVID infection and death in meat processing and packing plants, and they were made to put their families at risk if they were to carry the virus home.
In this country, colonizers moved into Indigenous people’s lands for cattle ranching and other agricultural activities. This expansion into territories that were not their own displaced people and removed them from their lifeways and regenerative ways of food production. Left landless, these Indigenous people are without an ability to grow their own foods, forcing them to rely on the very systems that displace and oppress them.
When the motivation is profit, companies come in to modify nature’s seed—and by extension, that seed’s wisdom—to benefit their bottom line, genetically engineering it to create more efficiency, to boost profit margins, and to work in ways that are out of balance with nature and the seasons.
This motivates these companies to take land that isn’t theirs from original peoples. They’ll often offer them money or genetically modified seeds without sharing the strings attached: ongoing reliance on the modified seeds as well as on the herbicides they’ve made to maximize yields. The companies impose prohibitions on seed saving and take up plots of land to test new products in pristine places, where the impacts of growing these foods outside of a laboratory have not been properly assessed.
We can think of these modified plants as invasive species, not only on the land but in the food systems those lands are part of. The intention is surplus; these companies use modified plants to overtake the lands that would normally be shared by several crops. (Original peoples plant with balance in mind, to regenerate the soil and produce a diversity of crops.) The new pattern of monocropping depletes the soil and diminishes the biodiversity of that place. Over time, the modified crops—once again, grown for surplus—become an aggressor in food systems that were previously in balance. The local community can no longer rely on that land for what they need.
This is not a uniquely American problem. It is an issue of colonization and industrialization. We see a global land grab for food production. Right now, in Brazil, there is an increase in the incidence of violence against Indigenous people under a president who is cattle-industry-friendly. Indigenous people of pristine forests are being intimidated and pushed off their land, often with threats and violence and murder. It’s heartbreaking.
Food sovereignty is a process. Asking that question—what does it look like?—is a good first step. We have to know that there are different ways to grow food than our current industrial system and that those ways must already exist. The second step is to look for teachers—those who grow food for health and community—and listen to and learn from them.
Third, we can ask ourselves how many steps we are away from our food. Do you know where it is from? You can support food sovereignty systems by honoring the people who contributed along the way, the hands that touched that food. Look to your local economies and farms that are offering alternatives to big-box stores and corporate grocery outlets, and support people who are trying, despite all odds and with very few resources, to partner with the land to create healthy food.
Plant a garden. Support policy measures affording greater protections to food-system workers. And vote with your dollar: Reject products from harmful and oppressive companies whose mission it is to turn the capitalist wheel, and instead invest in local companies that are leading with intention and involving the community in decision-making.
Honoring the original peoples of the land where we stand is a step toward food sovereignty systems. This means simply finding out who were the original peoples of the land that you are standing on, becoming curious about those who remain, until now, unknown to you, and acknowledging that where you live and work and travel and call home are lands stolen from others.
Start supporting Indigenous land rights movements (also called land back movements or land reparations). Just a few months ago, the Esalen tribe in California repurchased land it had lost to colonizers. For the first time in 250 years, they’ll be returning as the stewards of their land, and they will be able to go back to their lifeways and their own systems of food production.
It can start small. Getting away from small and moving to big is how we got into this mess in the first place. If everyone did small, we would ripple out a wonderful wave of support for not only local communities and workers but also for our planet. The land is asking for us to step back into stewardship with her and to make decisions collaboratively—decisions that have the wellness of a larger population of people at heart rather than the financial success of very few who seek to profit from the labor of people and the labor of the land.
Janet MacGillivray, JD, LLM, is an environmental attorney and the founder and executive director of Seeding Sovereignty, where she works to stop chronic environmental, cultural, economic, and social injustices and to seed pathways towards thriving communities and a more livable planet. Previously, MacGillivray has worked in legal and leadership positions at the Environmental Protection Agency as well as in national and international nongovernmental organizations. She is of Muscogee (Creek) heritage.