Review: Translating Food Sovereignty

Canfield, Matthew C.  Translating Food Sovereignty: Cultivating Justice in an Age of Transnational Governance. Stanford University Press. Stanford, Ca. 2022. pp.264. ISBN:978150363104.

Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)

Review of Matthew C. Canfield.  Translating Food Sovereignty: Cultivating Justice in an Age of Transnational Governance. Stanford University Press. Stanford, Ca. 2022. pp.264. ISBN:978150363104. Richard Zimmer, Sonoma State University.

Matthew Canfield has written an important book for students and activists in all aspects of the food world.  It is also important for students of work in general and economics as well. The best way to understand its importance is to start with Chapter 4, Protecting People’s Knowledge.  This chapter, published earlier and elsewhere, focuses on the Super Banana.  The Super Banana is a genetically modified product that is enriched (Reference 1) and can be produced commercially on a large scale.  It was developed by the Gates Foundation.  It is designed to solve nutritional problems and at the same time be amenable to being “understood” in modern, digital terms.

What Canfield explores as well as advocates as a participant-observer-activist is just the opposite—Food Sovereignty.  Food Sovereignty means egalitarian, localized, people-oriented production of food at every stage that is healthy, respects the knowledge of its local producers and rewards its producers with fair wages and safe working conditions.  Food Sovereignty is a bottoms-up approach, rejecting even philanthropic approaches such as the Gates Foundation.  Moreover, it is designed to create coalitions of peoples and groups working towards these goals—locally, nationally, and internationally.  Super Banana is antithetical because it erases all the above goals.

Each chapter is an exploration of a particular focus in the emerging Food Sovereignty Movement.  It is prefaced by a serious academic discussion of the very terms to understand this movement.  For a reader unfamiliar with these terms, and, as he does with other chapters, Canfield provides a useful summary.  Most important in the first chapter is finding the language the activists in the movement are developing.  The language is inclusive for all existing and potential stakeholders, it is populist, and it is new.  It is designed to organize people and groups who have often seen themselves before as at cross purposes before.

Furthermore, Canfield explores how he became involved with many of the key organizers in the movement.  He begins his story in Seattle.  Inspired by La Vida Campesina (LVC), out of Peru, Seattle and the Northwest became a hub for activists.  The LVC goal was/is paramount, as is the retranslation of the mobilizing  : “’…the right of peoples to define their own food and agricultural policies.’ “ (2022:12) Seattle became a focal point of protest against the World Trade Organization, because the World Trade Organization, as with other international groups, followed neoliberalism principles.  These principles were internalist, large-scale, hierarchical, and anti-regulatory. The emerging Food Sovereignty people were/are opposed to neoliberalism.  To re-emphasize, it is inclusive, seeking to extend connections from locally based groups through connecting arrangements worldwide when possible. 

In the Seattle area, where Canfield did much of his research, local groups under different leaders organized coalitions for consumers and farmers, including farmers’ markets.  One of the concerns with which they had to contend was commensuration, that is, finding a way to define different values in equivalent or acceptable terms so that everyone is included (2022:53.)  This can be difficult for certain groups whose interests may be different.  Farmers want to have higher returns and consumers want lower prices.  But small farmers may want more steady customers and consumers may want higher quality and fair-produced food.  Consequently, they may be able to meet in the middle.  Similarly, as in the case of berry production, for example, agricultural workers who felt exploited and marginalized in Washington State eventually got Sakura, the main producer,  and the larger middleman, Driscoll’s, to agree to healthier working conditions, housing, and adequate wages (see Chapter 3.)  Food Sovereignty here meant localized organizing for larger purposes. 

As outlined in Chapter 4, the Super Banana is the featured exemplar of the issues Canfield raises.  The Gates Foundation promoted this banana as the solution to childhood blindness and nutritional deficiency.  The foundation promoted and disseminated scientific research that showed its efficacy and safety.  The demonstration county was Uganda.  The Foundation and its allies worked with the government to introduce this plant.  But the program encountered local resistance.  Local activists said that young children did not eat bananas, that there were other options available to provide this nutrition, such as yams, that “scientific knowledge” was but one source of knowledge,  and that the Super Banana destroyed local farming and communities.  The Ugandan government had enacted some regulatory mechanisms.  The activists successfully pressured the Museveni Government to give equal status to indigenous knowledge and practices as well (2022:141 et seq.)  The Ugandan example, as presented by Canfield, goes further and is one prototype of food sovereignty. It is localized, egalitarian, indigenous based, horizontal, and distrustful of only one source of scientific knowledge (Western).  It reaches out across national boundaries with its own kind of regulation, its own kind of connections to other food sovereignty activists elsewhere.  These include anti-GMO people fighting similar battles and other centers of activism, such as Seattle.

Canfield then expands his study to the larger world of food sovereignty activism.  Setting this in historical context, the Nineteenth Century saw advances in food and other agricultural mechanization and production.  The United States was a “proud” leader in this area, whether it was cotton or wheat, as two examples.   Eventually, as with other countries and non-agricultural products, this blossomed into the concept and practice of neoliberalism—unregulated international free trade, in this case, often facilitated by organizations, such as the World  Trade Organization (22022:46.)  All of these left out large sectors of the population, including localized arrangements.  In Chapter 5, Canfield details the increasing opposition to this process by including relevant material from world economic struggles and from his own participant observation and activism in the Northwest.  Activists wanted and wanted to make sure, to use translation language, that any policies and practices are not hierarchical, are inclusionary, respectful of indigenous rights—and respect “human” rights, which meld all rights together.  Food is a people’s right that arises from the bottom up and should not be shunted off into a limited notion of human rights, which fragments the world. In other words, it is holistic.   As with other issues, Canfield provides an excellent history of the events and participants in these efforts for scholars and activists.

As he does throughout this work, Canfield situates food sovereignty in both simple and academic discourse (an important resource for those students dealing with these topics) about how to organize.  Food sovereignty activism is one of many movements that are transnational, democratic, and populist.  These movements see state-decided multi-stakeholder processes as marginalizing or disempowering them.   They similarly object to international organizations which allow large players to do the same kind of disempowerment.  As with similar movements, Food Sovereignty, in this case, the CFS (the Committee on World Food Sovereignty,) “…international institutions, states, and the private sector respond to the needs of those most affected by food security… they mobilize the right to food as a representative claim (2022:165.)” Furthermore:  CFS mobilizes food rights “…as a symbolic claim to represent food and agricultural systems as political systems that involve significant distributive consequences.  The institutional dimension is similarly mobilized as a legal claim to ensure meaningful participation in governance and as a symbolic claim through which food sovereignty activists seek to assert their own forms of representation. “  (2022:167-8)

This participation has several guiding philosophies.  One is: “’…that victims of hunger are also the bearers of solutions.’” (2022:168)  Another is strategic: organizations that come together represent constitutes and that these constituencies represent appropriate quotas for the peoples they include (2022:170.)  Participation is local, domestic, international, and adaptive.  The goal and process are to create movement and movements from the bottom up.  Consequently, organizations that are top-down and represent constituents, such as NGOs, are put in a secondary position to the bottom-up organizations themselves. 

Summarizing the program in brief, according to Canfield, the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM) proposes the following guidelines for the Committee on World Food Sovereignty (CFS): 

  1. Investment is not just capital investment for large entities.  It includes “’…labour [sic], knowledge and ecosystem regeneration and community development…’(2022:177.)”
  2. Policy should include the rights of small farmers and fisherfolk, as one example, as rights holders  [Canfield’s emphasis] alongside large producers as stakeholders.  That policy should aim for consensus and, to repeat, inclusion (2022:179.)
  3. There should be a clear recognition of different markets, as distinct from a generalized market.  Markets exist at all levels for different peoples.  (2022:182-3)

Canfield sees food sovereignty as a transitional challenge to neoliberalism and the present system of food production and organization.  Activists then encounter a significant dilemma.  On the one hand, they must organize on inclusionary grounds and on the local level, at the same time engage in activism on a national and international scale, facing off with large and powerful stakeholders.  There are risks and prospects may be grim.  But, following Nancy Fraser’s works on reimagining neoliberalism, persistent and growing national and world-wide economic inequalities, as well as external factors, such as climate change, may make it difficult to solving food and food-related problems (2022: 193.)  To sum up:  Canfield and the food sovereignty movement argue for an ecologically based perspective and new systems of regulation “…can serve to reconstitute more just and sustainable relations between communities, markets, and nature on a global scale.” (2022:202)

Canfield’s research and analysis were written before the advent of Covid, and the economic and social disruption caused by it.  It would be interesting to see how Food Sovereignty activism was shaped and continues to change during this period and its aftermath.  Neoliberalism itself, and not just in the world of food, is under serious challenge as governments and communities respond by promoting more local and national production (See, for example, California’s attempt to ensure the continuation of farmworker participation in agriculture, in Reference 1.)  Much of food production, for example, is aided and will be furthered by changes in methods, such as vertical farming in urban areas, which changes the nature of the labor force involved in growing and transporting the food.  Marketing changes, even among large stakeholders, are reducing the cost and promoting the attractiveness of healthy eating among less affluent consumers, as in supermarket ads (Reference 2.)

This work is extremely useful for community organizers and activists in this area and policymakers at all levels, local, national, and international.  In Anthropology and Sociology, it is of interest to food, work, indigenous studies, and gender studies.   It adds to the literature on international law, regulation, ecology, economics, and policy.  It is appropriate for upper division and graduate students. 


Reference 1:  (Accessed July 6, 2022.)

Reference 2:: (Accessed July 6, 2022) (Accessed July 22, 20222.)

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