Food Justice – Where Local Meets Global

The following guest post by Program Manager, Grassroots Alliances at IDEX Katherine Zavala originally appeared on IDEX (International Development Exchange.)

Food Justice – Where Local Meets Global

Growing up in a regular family in an urban environment in the Global South, the idea of where my food came from was not a question that came up often. I had always trusted that the supermarket was going to provide us with the best ingredients to eat delicious and nutritional home-cooked meals on a daily basis. It was not until I lived in rural Guatemala eight years ago, in a mostly indigenous community, that I started to build my own awareness of the relationship between humanity, the environment and food justice.

At the time, I was volunteering with IDEX’s Guatemalan Partner, AFEDES (Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez), an indigenous, women-led organization promoting economic empowerment and women’s rights. Almost all of the indigenous women AFEDES worked with were rural farmworkers, who were cultivating local vegetables on their own parcels of land. Over multiple visits with them, these women proudly shared their stories of successfully growing crops to both feed their families and earn extra income.

For the first time in my life I was living far from restaurants and fast food chains, so my only choice was to buy groceries at the local market and prepare my own meals with fresh produce. In the most basic way, I learned that I had surprisingly easy access to food and, in many cases, a personal relationship with people who produced it. My experience in Guatemala sowed the seed in my consciousness to care more about food; where it came from, who produced it and how.

After joining the IDEX team in 2006 I visited more rural organizations in other areas of Guatemala, as well as Mexico and South Africa. These community-led organizations extended my knowledge of seed-saving, agroecology and food sovereignty.

One of IDEX’s South African Partners, Biowatch—a grassroots organization working in the field of biodiversity, food sovereignty and social justice—gave me an analytical context of the global food system, as well as an appreciation of their courage and determination, in fighting for everyone’s right to food in a nine-year battle against the big seed company, Monsanto, and the South African State Department. A seemingly simple request by Biowatch for information from the National Department of Agriculture about the environmental releases of genetically modified (GM) crops in South Africa, led to a legal victory in which most of this information was granted. But there was an unexpected twist: a devastating order for Biowatch to pay all the legal costs, for both sides. This led, in 2009, to the case being heard – and the costs order overturned – by the highest court in South Africa, the Constitutional Court.

IDEX saw a powerful opportunity in 2010 to bring Biowatch to the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, to share how they mobilized their allies and strategized to win a case against Monsanto and the South African government. The inspiration of this victorious case was passed to residents of Detroit and Forum participants from across the U.S.

In cities like Detroit and Oakland, liquor stores, fast-food restaurants and gas stations are the nearest food-related establishments. Most city stores have a very limited variety of fresh vegetables and fruits, and most foods are canned, boxed, frozen and/or highly processed. These stores also lack food alternatives for persons with the chronic conditions, such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. These and other chronic health conditions exist and at alarming rates in the African-American community, and their prevalence is growing. As Biowatch shared their experience, Detroit residents started to express how valuable it was to them to learn that with perseverance and the support of peer allies, people like them could challenge these giant corporations to demand their right to non-GM foods and an alternative food system.

It was in this moment that I understood how interconnected we all were in this world. Essentially we all want the same thing: easily accessible, nutritional food, produced sustainably and without harming the environment, for this generation and future ones.

Katherine Zavala is the Program Manager, Grassroots Alliances at IDEX. She will be speaking at Food for Thought: In Conversation with Leaders of the Food Justice Movement on Friday, June 7th. Buy your tickets today to join Katherine, Ocean Robbins, Nikki Henderson and Armando Nieto for a rousing discussion on the intersection of food justice and agroecology.

The following is an article by Anders Riel Müller/ 송연준 Food First Research Fellow and Leader of the upcoming South Korea Food Sovereignty Tour, sponsored by Food First in partnership with Reality Tours.

Korea1I have been immersed in Korean food for so many years now I often forget how unknown and strange it can seem to the uninitiated, i.e. the majority of the world’s population. Korean food has not reached the global status and recognition of its neighboring Japanese and Chinese cuisines. However, the word is spreading through government initiatives, the popularity of Korean Pop Culture, YouTube chefs such as Maangchi, as well as dedicated TV shows like the Kimchi Chronicles on PBS.

Yet even with the growing popularity of Korean food around the world and the proliferation of gourmet restaurants in Seoul, very few foreigners manage to venture beyond the capital and other major cities to get a deeper sense of Korean food culture. Korean rural areas and the agricultural sector have not experienced the same level of breakneck industrialization as the rest of the country. The majority of food producers are still small-scale farmers and food processors. The average farm is still between 2.5 and 5 acres and most food producers are family operations. This is not the impression one gets when walking around in downtown Seoul, the world’s second largest metropolitan area. Here, chain stores and franchises dominate the cityscape. Most people visiting Korea never get beyond the flashing facades of the country’s high tech cities.

This is a shame, because my most amazing food experiences were not in Seoul or Busan; they were in small cities and villages no one outside Korea has ever heard of. I have been lucky through my work and family ties to have eaten at countless local restaurants where the vegetables were grown in the backyard, the kimchi was fermenting in clay pots on the terrace and the beef and pork came from the neighboring farm.

But life in the countryside is not a simple, uncomplicated life. Farmers and small-scale producers are struggling to survive as the onslaught of free trade agreements is threatening their livelihoods.

In Seoul, many restaurants will serve kimchi made in China, beef from the US, Chicken from Brazil and pork from Cambodia. Imported products are sold cheaper than domestic products; and making a living from agriculture and artisan food production is becoming increasingly difficult. Korean farmers have protested the liberalization of agriculture for decades—often at the forefront of demonstrations against the WTO—but the government is continuing to pursue further free trade agreements with large food exporting nations/regions such as Chile, the EU, Australia and the US. As a consequence, food self-sufficiency has dropped to the lowest level in Korean history. Even rice, the staple of all staples, has seen its level drop to the lowest level in modern history.

In addition to free trade agreements, a number of other factors have contributed to the country’s diminished self-sufficiency. Reduced agricultural subsidies, high debt and low food prices are putting farmers under intense pressure. Farmland is also decreasing at alarming rates as the government is incorporating more and more of the country’s already limited farmland into commercial and industrial mega-development projects and recreational “green spaces” for urban dwellers seeking to get away from the city on weekends. As a result, South Korean farmland has dwindled to the lowest levels since 1970.

Small farmers and producers have turned increasingly to promoting food sovereignty as their platform for radically changing the South Korean food system. The concept of food sovereignty provides producers with a comprehensive platform to address the multiple crises of health, environment and economy into one. Few places in the world have seen food sovereignty become such an integrated agenda for social change as in South Korea. The movement incorporates a broad range of social justice organizations seeking to counter the dominant development path that prioritizes the global competiveness of the big conglomerates like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai.

Farmers, producers and consumers organize in different ways, and in many different organizations, but the core of the movement(s) remains a commitment to producing good, healthy and environmentally friendly food at fair and stable prices for both producers and consumers. The movement also seeks to counter the fast-paced lifestyle of modern Korea. Korean food is at its core slow food. Essential Korean ingredients such as kimchi (fermented cabbage), ganjang (soy sauce) and doenjang (soy bean paste) take months of fermentation to mature. The majority of products sold in Korean supermarkets, however, are full of additives to give a “fermented” taste, but most of them have not had the time to ferment as they should. A slower lifestyle starts with letting one’s food mature.

Korean food has its roots in the countryside—far from the bustling megacities and their shopping malls—where family farmers and artisans maintain centuries-old traditions while at the same time building a contemporary movement based on environmentally sound practices, economic fairness and solidarity. In South Korea, food sovereignty is not only about restructuring the food system. It is about social justice, democracy and challenging the values of the materialistic, status-obsessed mainstream culture of Korea.

Thanks to Anders Riel Müller and Food First!

Take Action!

Take ActionTo experience and learn about food sovereignty issues in South Korea yourself, join the Food First Food Sovereignty delegation to South Korea, August 24- Sept 1, 2013.

Today is Blog Action Day, and Global Exchange is a proud Partner. Blog Action Day is an event that happens each year when bloggers from around the world blog about the same issue to raise awareness and hopefully generate a global discussion around that issue.

This Blog Action Day the issue is food, (today is also World Food Day) so Global Exchange’s Reality Tours Director Malia Everette takes you on a journey “From Sacred Seeds and Abundant Reads to Food Sovereignty Movement Building”…

Whether we know it or not, we transmit the presence of everyone we have ever known, as though by being in each other’s presence we exchange our cells, pass on some of our life force, and then we go on carrying that other person in our body, not unlike springtime, when certain plants in fields we walk through attach their seeds in the form of small burrs to our socks, our pants, our caps, as if to say, ‘Go on, take us with you, carry us to root in another place.’ This is how we survive long after we are dead.  This is why it is important who we become, because we pass it on. –Natalie Goldberg

I grew up with a back yard garden where it was normal to delight in picking berries and tomatoes off the vine after school as a child. Each bite, each harvest imparted an intrinsic learning about the cycles of the earth and about the complexity of each ecosystem. Little did I know  that saving my favorite pumpkin seed would symbolize so much to me later on in life. Today as a mother, educator and advocate I try to provide these opportunities to my sons. They know that food is sacred and that the seeds we choose are chosen with love…and cherished.

At times I am asked how I became active in social justice and why I have for decades worked in solidarity against the “Green” and now,  “Green Gene Revolution” and while there are a plethora of reasons, today on this global day to blog about FOOD I ‘d like to give credit where it is due and  honor two phenomenal food advocate heroines that remarkably influenced my knowledge and life patch path!

As a graduate student back in  the early 1990’s I heard Dr. Vandana Shiva speak at the Bioneers conference. I left totally  blown away by her intelligence, message and science. It in fact inspired me in my coursework and actually propelled me to dedicate my thesis, The Monoculturization of International Bio-relations: SocioEcological Implications of the WTO, SAPs and IPRs. I continue to read almost everything I can by her and truth be told her analysis on global politics, ecology and power relations has greatly contributed to the many programs I have been blessed to create here at Reality Tours since 1997.  In fact one of my personal Reality Tours highlights was spending January 1st, 2010 on Vandana’s farm, Naydanya. She spent the day educating and engaging with Dr. Arun Gandhi and the delegates on our annual Gandhian Legacy tour to India.

Today I encourage you to learn more about the vulnerability of the food system. As Vandana states in one article:

We are in a food emergency. Speculation and diversion of food to biofuel has contributed to an uncontrolled price rise, adding more to the billion already denied their right to food. Industrial agriculture is pushing species to extinction through the use of toxic chemicals that kill our bees and butterflies, our earthworms and soil organisms that create soil fertility. Plant and animal varieties are disappearing as monocultures displace biodiversity. Industrial, globalized agriculture is responsible for 40 percent of greenhouse gases, which then destabilize agriculture by causing climate chaos, creating new threats to food security. But the biggest threat we face is the control of seed and food moving out of the hands of farmers and communities and into a few corporate hands. Monopoly control of cottonseed and the introduction of genetically engineered Bt cotton has already given rise to an epidemic of farmers’ suicides in India. A quarter-million farmers have taken their lives because of debt induced by the high costs of nonrenewable seed, which spins billions of dollars of royalty for firms like Monsanto.  

After hearing the message of Vandana, I started researching. That is actually when I found out about an organization called Food First and the work of Frances “Frankie” Moore Lappé .  Frances “Frankie” Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins co-founded the Institute for Food and Development Policy, nicknamed Food First, in 1975.  Frankie’s book, Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity, opened my mind dramatically. I realized I was no longer a Malthusian. In fact food became something I never took for granted again and I gave up ‘fast food’.  This introduction to Food First actually has become life long. I serve on their Board of Directors and am so honored to be a part of  an organization that continues to be out front on issues such as genetically modified foods, agrofuels, labor rights and land grabs. The institute uses critical food justice and food sovereignty frameworks to offer analyses and transformative solutions for eliminating the injustices that cause hunger.

Thus today I want to thank Vandana and Francis, thank organizations like Bioneers, IFG, Global Exchange, Food First, Food and Water Watch and Slow Food that have inspired  (though they may not know it!) a collaborative  new form of alternative tourism….Food Sovereignty Tours.

First defined by Vía Campesina in 1996, Food Sovereignty is “People’s right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”

Food Sovereignty Tours offer you a way to explore the realities of today’s global food system and to connect with the global movement for food sovereignty. This travel program is a project of Food First/Institute for Food & Development Policy in partnership with Global Exchange’s Reality Tours. The combined expertise of these two organizations will get you to the front lines of the world’s food sovereignty frontiers, to meet local farmers, activists, policymakers, and local consumers. We are here to share with you our 35 years of knowledge and contacts, to facilitate powerful cultural exchange and learning, and to connect the global food movement.

Today as we celebrate that perfect biodynamic glass of wine, that fabulous organic strawberry or that ritual meal with loved ones at your table may we all reflect and embrace the domestic and global food sovereignty movement that celebrated the rights and the freedom to grow diverse and nutritious food. May you do one thing to protect and advocate for the right to have access to save healthy adequate and affordable food.

Interested in reading other food-themed blog posts? Check out our People to People blog post about food justice today called “Food Justice: The Nature of Farming and the Farming With Nature.” For more food-themed blog posts go the Blog Action Day website for a list of blogs taking part in Blog Action Day today.

Havana Farmers' Market

Though many people associate the island of Cuba with rum, tobacco and rumba, one Global Exchange Reality Tour participant discovered that Cubans are also enthusiastic and accomplished organic gardeners and growers.

Linda Slezak, a leader of the Slow Food movement in Glen Cove, New York recently returned from a Global Exchange/Food First research trip to Cuba. Linda described her experience as “the most memorable trip I have ever taken – I am still talking about it to everyone I know.”

We’ve got a similar Cuba trip planned…Global Exchange and Food First will team up again January 12 – 23, 2012 to examine sustainable agriculture practices in Cuba. This time, participants will travel by bus from Havana to the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba and will spend four days getting their hands dirty on Cuban organic farms. Learn more about the trip and how you can join the adventure here.

In the meantime, here’s an article written by Linda Slezak about her recent trip to Cuba, which originally appeared in the Slow Food East End newsletter:

“Local Slow Food Leader Visits Cuba on Food Sovereignty Tour

Linda Slezak, Slow Food East End treasurer, recently visited Cuba as part of a Global Exchange Reality Tour group of 17 people from all over the States.

The group spent 10 days learning about the major structural changes that have taken place in Cuban Agriculture since the advent of the “special period”, a euphemistic way of talking about the severe food shortages that took place after the fall of the Soviet Union. Linda provided the following observations about her experiences in Cuba.

Cuba is a case in point about the unsustainability of monoculture farming. During Colonial times, Cuba was a plantation island providing export crops such as sugar cane, tobacco and coffee. Food crops were largely imported and during the years between 1963 and 1989, chemical fertilizers and pesticides were heavily relied upon for agriculture. It was only due to the losses sustained by not having access to imported food and chemicals to grow their own, that Cuba “went green”.

Going green is another way of saying that Cuba’s agriculture underwent a major overhaul. Land has been redistributed and crops are being cultivated using natural and organic methods with sustainability as the goal. The farmers that we met at both large and small farms (urban and suburban plots are the newest form of community based agriculture) were so proud of their farms and their organic methods.

Most of these farmers have developed their own innovative solutions to their climate and terrain challenges. Raised-bed farming, digging wells for water, terracing and covering fragile crops with black, overhead netting to provide shade are just some of the many solutions the farmers have devised.

Farming cooperatives are another model that helps farmers to share equipment and help each other.   One of the major differences evident here is the support and participation of the government in training, providing land grants and economic incentives to prioritize sustainable agriculture as a country-wide goal.

A phrase that we heard many times was “political will”. The Cuban government displays the political will to create the changes needed for sustainable food production. While still in the beginning stages, people do have enough food and there is food security in the form of government rations for all. Certainly, there is a way to go as all of these changes are relatively new, but since returning from this tour, I have been thinking that with all of the resources that our own country has, the only thing lacking to create food security for our own population is “political will”.

So far, it seems that even in the most unlikely places I travel to, Slow Food has made its mark. There’s an “eco-restaurant” in the Cuban country side called El Romero whose chef and creator Tito Gudas’ wall proudly displays a beautiful hand-crafted snail and a photo of the 2010 Terra Madre Convivium in Turin, Italy. The food, of course, was marvelous.

–Linda Slezak

CUBA ORGANIC: Revolution & Evolution
January 11 – 22, 2012

This blog was written by Tanya Kerssen.  She will be traveling with Global Exchange and Food First on the upcoming Food and Farms delegation to Bolivia.

Drastic variations in climate and topography—ranging from tropical jungles and subtropical cloud forests to the vast arid plains of the Altiplano—make Bolivian agriculture a truly remarkable feat. Before the arrival of the Spanish in 1531, the communities of the Incan Empire developed sophisticated skills for producing food in this diverse environment, making the central Andes one of the most important centers of crop domestication in human history. Andean farmers maintained fields at different elevations, taking advantage of a wide range of microclimates. Collectively managed raised beds and terraces sustained over 15 million people with an abundance of grains, roots, legumes, vegetables, fruits and nuts. Despite their ecological resilience and high nutritional value, many native Andean food plants—such as oca, maca, tarwi and kañiwa—have been ignored in Bolivia’s agricultural development, and are virtually unknown outside the region. As hunger now looms over South America’s poorest country, peasant farmers, producer associations, NGOs, and government officials are working to reclaim Bolivia’s food sovereignty.

Following the Spanish conquest, Andean systems of land use and exchange were radically disrupted. Indigenous people were forced to work as miners or workers on Spanish-owned plantations, and native crops were displaced by crops preferred by the conquistadors, such as wheat and barley.Although a social revolution in 1952 put indigenous farmers back in control of their lands and communities, modern agricultural development has not favored native foods and peasant self-sufficiency. The governments that ruled Bolivia from the 1950s onward viewed Andean farming practices and foods as backward. With the help of U.S. Aid and other international funding sources, they launched a massive ‘modernization’ project to kick start industrial agriculture in the sparsely populated Eastern lowlands. Thousands of hectares of rainforest were bulldozed and replanted with sugar, cotton and soybean monocultures.

With little State support, many Andean farmers struggled on small plots of land or migrated to cities. With the decline of native crops, dependence on imported foods increased. In the mid-1950s, the U.S. began shipping its wheat surplus to Bolivia as “food aid”, creating a structural dependence on imported wheat that persists to this day. The cheap American wheat, subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, undercut producers of local criollo wheat varieties and out-competed other peasant-produced crops, such as potatoes and maize. The extreme free market policies applied in Bolivia in the 1980s further deteriorated markets for small farmers, who now had to compete with imported produce from rich farmers in neighboring Peru, Chile and Brazil. Some joined the swelling ranks of the urban poor, while others relocated to the tropics where they could plant coca, the last remaining smallholder crop with a viable market.

Despite hundreds of years of disrepute, many native crops have survived in the subsistence plots of highland farmers. Although they are unknown in commercial markets, they are consumed by farm families, shared in local festivals and treasured for their flavor, beauty or resilience. In several communities of the Yungas region, on the steep Eastern slopes of the Andes, technicians from the NGO Condesan identified nearly 40 varieties of racacha, a tasty yellow root that is botanically related to both carrots and celery. Other peasant-produced foods such as the llama—an Andean camelid uniquely suited to life at 10,000 to 13,000 feet above sealevel—have been part of a broader cultural revitalization. In 1979, a group of Aymara Indian professionals helped found the Camelid Association of the High Andes (AIGACAA), the country’s first organization of llama herders. Over time the association succeeded in overturning discriminatory laws, building the first llama slaughterhouses and improving sanitary standards for llama meat. Naturally low in fat and cholesterol, it has since become widely accepted by middle and upper-class urban consumers as a healthy alternative to beef or pork.  Llama steak or sausage is now available in many Bolivian restaurants and sold in markets as charque or llama jerky.

Quinoa, another Andean native, has also seen a resurgence in popularity. While it continues to be an important subsistence crop for peasants of the Altiplano, often in association with llamas, the “discovery” of its many nutritional benefits has propelled the grain-like plant[i]to international celebrity status. Global demand for quinoa as a ‘health food’ in the North has soared since the 1990s, sparking the emergence of a dynamic, peasant-led export sector. The well-organized producer associations have benefited from the increased demand, and rural out-migration from the Altiplano seems to have abated as a result. Nonetheless, the quinoa sector also demonstrates the limitations of a development strategy reliant on the global market. The market pull to increase production in the short-term through mechanization has eroded fragile highland soils, leading to lower yields in the long-term. The rising price of quinoa has also squeezed out many traditional consumers, who must turn to cheaper, often less nutritious, alternatives. With a government apparently committed to promoting food sovereignty, Bolivia’s development challenge will be to promote food first, and trade second.

From its chacras (fields) to its kitchens, dining halls and street vendors, Bolivia’s place-based food identity is expressed through countless varieties of potatoes and roots, peanuts, squash, corn, beans and hot peppers. Take for instance Bolivia’s signature pastry, the salteña—a plumper, juicier take on the empanada, consumed as a mid-morning snack. Each of Bolivia’s distinct regions, from the high Andes of Potosí to the temperate plains of Cochabamba, has a distinct recipe (often including potatoes, vegetables, raisins, meat and/orhard-boiled eggs) showcasing the local ingredients and culinary pride of its inhabitants. A necessary accompaniment to the salteña, and to most Bolivian meals, is a spicy salsa called llajua (pronounced ya-hua), made from native Andean peppers such as locotos. Indeed, the ancestors of all peppers are believed to have originated in Bolivia, before spreading to Central America and Mexico. The llajua (or llajwa) found in various regions of Bolivia is distinguished by different herbs: wakataya (which has a licorice aroma) is used in the Altiplano while quilquiña (a cilantro-like herb) is used in Cochabamba.

Llajua (Spicy Bolivian Salsa)

2 hot peppers (locoto, habanero or serrano)

1 large tomato (about 8 oz)

1 tablespoon fresh (or 1 tsp dried) herb such as quilquiña, cilantro or parsley

1 small onion, finely chopped

salt to taste

1) Remove seeds from peppers and discard. 2) Squeeze tomato juices and seeds into a small bowl. 3) Grind peppers, herbs and tomato on a mortar or in a food processor. 4) Add reserved tomato pulp to the mixture and salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate. Best when used on the same day.[ii]

Bolivian cuisine is a testament to the resilience of Andean farmers, who have fought to preserve the integrity of their agro-food systems for centuries. In January 2009, Bolivia became the fifth country to formally adopt the concept of “food sovereignty” into its national constitution[iii]. Although many challenges remain, this broad-ranging commitment to prioritize sustainable, local food production for local consumption bodes well for the health of the country’s rural and urban communities. Revaluing Bolivia’s neglected native foods for the benefit of local populations is a step in the right direction.

Explore Bolivia’s food and farms with Food First and Global Exchange

October 7 – October 19, 2010

During this 13-day tour, we will travel from the highland birthplace of the potato and quinoa in the Altiplano, to spectacular Lake Titicaca, to the likely center of origin of cocoa in Madidi National Park in the tropical lowlands of Bolivia. We will visit farms, markets, and agro-ecological projects to talk with farmers, consumers, agricultural development experts and food sovereignty activists. By learning first hand and sharing food—succulent salteñas, rich coffee and chocolate, and earthy coca tea—we will reflect upon this region’s remarkable agricultural and culinary heritage.

For more information, click here or contact Corina with any questions.

Further Reading

Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-known plants of the Andes with promise for worldwide cultivation. By the Office of International Affairs, National Research Council. Read online:

My Mother’s Bolivian Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections. By José Sanchez H. Hippocrene Books, 2005.

The South American Table: The flavor and soul of authentic home cooking from Patagonia to Rio de Janeiro. By Maria Baez Kijac. Harvard Common Press, 2003.

[i] Often assumed to be a grain, quinoa actually belongs to the chenopod family, along with beets and spinach. It is grown for its highly nutritious seeds, which are rich in protein, essential amino acids, dietary fiber, and minerals.

[ii] Adapted from The South American table…page 335

[iii] After Mali (2006), Nepal (2007), Venezuela (2008) and Ecuador  (2008).