Taking Utopian Thinking Seriously in a Food Systems Context

This guest post was first published as “Taking Utopian Thinking Seriously” on FoodFirst.org. Read the original article, posted on Nov. 4, 2019, here.

“Utopia lies at the horizon.
When I draw nearer by two steps,
it retreats two steps.
If I proceed ten steps forward, it
swiftly slips ten steps ahead.
No matter how far I go, I can never reach it.
What, then, is the purpose of utopia?
It is to cause us to advance.”

-Eduardo Galeano

In many peoples’ minds, the idea of “utopia” means an idyllic, paradisiacal place; an escape rather than a viable alternative that could be attained in the future. But utopian ideas and movements can exist to serve as powerful motivation and guidance for political change. As a panel showed at the WERN conference in San Francisco this past May (“Planetary Utopias, Capitalist Dystopias: Justice, Nature, & the Liberation of Life”), the food sovereignty movement is grounded by utopian proposals for how to reorganize our food system around justice.

Many social movements in the 19th and 20th centuries, which were guided by utopian politics and radical imagination, attempted to build a more just world beyond capitalism. But the political and economic crises of the 1970s lead to the rise of a new movement which saw leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher advance many policies that ushered in mass privatization, deregulation of markets, structural adjustment programs, and a full-fledged war on labor. These neoliberal policies, which weakened—and even directly attacked—social supports and social movements, dashed hopes for an alternative world. It seemed as if Thatcher’s famous phrase, “there is no alternative,” won the day (though it surely helps to “win the day” when you have the forces of two of the world’s imperial powers behind you to beat down alternatives, too).

Today, neoliberal capitalism as an idea and way of organizing society is so pervasive that one may still believe “there is no alternative,” or, as literary critic Frederic Jameson put it, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” But utopian politics are still alive and well, and they’re here to suggest otherwise. Late sociologist Erik Olin Wright suggests the idea of “‘real utopias’ [as] a way of thinking about alternatives and transformation,” and references the motto of the World Social Forum (which began in the 2000s as an alternative to the World Economic Forum): “Another world is possible.”

Our existing capitalist food system seems downright dystopian. It acts, as Food First Fellow Annie Shattuck said in her opening remarks at the WERN panel, as “a spearhead of global capitalism,” opening up new frontiers for capital accumulation and ravaging the planet in its wake. It seems fitting that a utopian proposal such as food sovereignty – emphasizing the food system as an important vehicle for positive change in our society – would emerge to offer an alternative to a capitalist food system.

Food Sovereignty is more than a critique; it is a proposal for an alternative way of organizing the food system.

It may not already be happening on a large scale anywhere—as has been historically true of any liberatory proposal—but there are pockets and fragments of food sovereignty in places around the world. In the Basque Country of the Iberian Peninsula, the Basque Farmer’s Union developed a network of community-supported agriculture that buffered farmers against risk and ensured customers their weekly vegetable basket.1 In Detroit, Michigan, the Oakland Avenue Farmer’s Market has transformed abandoned land into collectively organized food production that not only sells healthy foods in a neighborhood where they are not otherwise readily available, but also boosts the local economy by investing profits into the farm which employs 13 people and teaches residents to grow and cook their own food.2 And in Florida, the community-based labor group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has forced some of the nation’s largest tomato-buying enterprises to pay a premium for tomatoes picked by CIW members, helping assure a fair wage for the pickers and promoting the CIW’s Fair Food Program.3

Such examples motivate us to continue challenging the unfair and unequal way our food system and society are currently organized. When cynics continue to declare no other world is possible, these existing models, as small as they may appear, show us that prospects for a better future are already being lived right in front of us.4

During the panel, Maywa Montenegro, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University of California, Davis, told the story of the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), a project that works to bring back control of seeds to communities and farmers.

In the current seed governance regime, a few large companies and universities own many of the worlds’ seeds, maintaining enormous power over farmers and the food system. OSSI’s seeds, on the other hand, are part of what they call a “protected commons,” where seeds are not owned by a single individual, but are collectively shared. They include on their packaging a simple pledge that the seeds will remain open source and the owner will not restrict anyone’s use. This way of governing seeds “respects the sovereignty of local people” to develop their shared seeds in the way that is best for their own community. OSSI has carved out space within the capitalist agriculture system, challenging seed companies by showing a different, more egalitarian way of governing seeds. Rather than feel hopeless at the mercy of the seed giants, farmers can see that there is an alternative – one that is a more equitable, communal, and practical way of governing seeds.

Antonio Roman-Alcalá, a PhD student at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Netherlands, followed Maywa by emphasizing that our fight for food sovereignty and justice must use tactics “that correspond to the world we want to live in.” As an example, Antonio referenced Food First Fellow Monica White’s Freedom Farmers, which tells of collective agency and community resilience among black farmers in the south. By living in solidarity with one another, in non-hierarchical communities that center shared food and farming, these groups demonstrate alternative possibilities within a sea of capitalism. Living out an embodiment of a more just and resilient community—though perhaps initially out of necessity— exemplifies a food sovereign world, guided by utopian ideas.

Finally, Food First’s Eric Holt-Giménez spoke about his experiences with Nicaraguan farmers who had been bankrupted and had their livelihoods degraded by the Green Revolution. They worked to develop their own food sovereign communities through resistance to the large land owners and oppressive plantations. Many peasant farmers, like other Nicaraguans outside of agriculture, were already set on breaking from the status quo and shifting to a new, more utopian world, so Campesino-a-Campesino, the farmer-to-farmer movement Eric has supported and worked with for decades, fit into the larger Sandinista revolution.

In Nicaragua, there was a movement rooted in a universal vision of a just future. But in the US and elsewhere today, absent of a universalizing vision, we have a multitude of small utopian projects fragmented across the landscape, with the radical Right filling the void in the political imagination. But perhaps food sovereignty can help bridge the urban-rural divide, and give us the guiding purpose we need to keep fighting for a new food system. And perhaps the Green New Deal could be the platform that finally develops political will and cohesion among these fractured movements. Specific structural changes like parity, anti-trust laws, soil conservation, and supply management could help create the foundation for food sovereignty in the US.

Eric finished the panel by saying, “utopias are what lead us from wrong thinking and lead us to much more clarity about the solutions at hand.” In our political moment, where everything on the horizon feels increasingly dystopian, utopian political visions of what we want the world to look like, such as food sovereignty, are necessary to both ground us and cause us to advance. Hopefully, we can string together our scattered utopian projects into a mass movement that could build a world that is better for all. In fact, one might even say that joining our collective struggles for a better world is the only—or at least, the best—alternative.

Cover image by Vaibhavkankal (CC BY-SA 4.0)

  1. Eric Holt-Giménez, Can We Feed the World Without Destroying It? (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Polity Press / Food First Books 2019).
  2. Michael D. Yates, Can the Working Class Change the World? (New York: Monthly Review Press 2018).
  3. Ibid.
  4. In a recent open access article, Food First Executive Director Jahi Chappell and colleagues point to how such food system “niches” may scale up to larger system transformation: C. R. Anderson, J. Bruil, M. J. Chappell, C. Kiss, J. Milgroom, and M. Pimbert. “Moving from transition to domains of transformation: Getting to sustainable and just food systems through agroecology.” Sustainability, 11(19): 5272.