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Can Food Sovereignty Laws Protect Local Farms from Annihilation?

“For all the foodie fluff and eco-local buzz, in the final analysis the imbedded, heritage, transparent, truthful food system is in danger of annihilation.”
-Joel Salatin, author of Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal! War Stories from the Local Food Front

When it comes to food, especially locally produced food, you might think the last thing we need are more laws. After all, laws targeting local farms and farmers are what’s led to headlines like “Farmers vs. Feds: Raw-Milk Fight,” and “Michigan Government Unleashes Armed Raids on Small Pig Farmers, Forces Farmer to Shoot All his Own Pigs.”

And we all know that the corporations that control our seeds and food also control many of our lawmakers.

But there’s a growing, grassroots food sovereignty movement that’s changing local laws to benefit local food and agriculture systems. That movement may hold the answer to preventing what Salatin refers to as the annihilation of the transparent and truthful food system.

And the best part? The resources exist for you to start your own food sovereignty movement in your community.

At the heart of food sovereignty: Who controls food and agriculture?

La Via Campesina is credited with first articulating the concept of food sovereignty in a 1996 declaration of the “right to produce our own food in our own territory.” Unlike the food security movement, aimed at ensuring that people have enough to eat, food sovereignty focuses on the question of who controls local food and agriculture policy. Who holds the power to determine those policies? Politicians? Corporations? Or the people?

Annette Aurelie Desmaraiso, author of La Via Campesina: Globalization and the Power of Peasants, quoting from the final declaration of the Forum for Food Sovereignty held in 2007 in Sélingué, Mali, describes food sovereignty this way:

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social classes and generations.

Since its inception, La Via Campesina has not only survived, it has exploded into a formidable global movement, led by farmers who have organized opposition to "land grabs," to the influence of corporations on food systems and agricultural policies, to the rise of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and to free-trade agreements. Over the past 20 years, 200 million small-scale growers, fishermen, farm and land-workers worldwide have come together under the banner of La Via Campesina, according to the Guardian.

Here in the U.S., food sovereignty movements are protecting organic and non-GMO farmers and their seed supplies from genetic contamination, and protecting local farmers and citizens from draconian laws designed to restrict citizens from to producing, selling, purchasing, and consuming local foods.

Taking back local control by writing local laws
U.S. citizens who want to join the food sovereignty movement have a great resource they can turn to for guidance. The Community Environmental Defense Fund (CELDF) helps citizens and communities tackle issues like factory farming, mining, sewage sludge and other corporation-driven activities that threaten communities.

In this video, Thomas Linzey, CELDF’s executive director, makes the case for working to change a legal system that left unchecked, could annihilate local food systems.

Here’s a rough transcript:

When we want to support local agriculture we think first to plant a garden or organize a farmers market. But rarely do we take the next logical step, which is to use local law to protect that sustainable agriculture system that we’re trying to build.

When we don’t take that step, agribusiness corporations step into the vacuum that’s created. For example, we know the types of sustainable livestock production systems that we want and need in our communities: direct sales from farmers to the community. Agribusiness corporations understand that those types of relationships are a threat to their market-share. So they use state and federal law to step in and actually interfere with our ability to build those types of agricultural systems by doing things like using food safety laws to interfere with farmers selling milk directly from the farm to consumers, or blocking on-farm processing.

When we don’t take the step of passing local laws to codify our vision into reality, the agribusiness corporations are more than willing to do so. The food bills of rights that are being adopted by communities across the United States are about taking that next step, recognizing that it’s our right to access, produce and consume foods produced by sustainable farming systems, and, in addition to creating that right, putting provisions into place that prohibit activities which would violate those rights. Things like corporate farming, the ability of corporations to put in these large-scale hog factory farms, for example. That’s the step that communities are taking because they’ve given up hope that the state or federal government is actually going to come in on their side to support their vision of what sustainable agriculture should be.

Food sovereignty laws in action

In the U.S., states, counties and cities have passed, or are working to pass, local food sovereignty laws to protect their communities from contamination by GMO crops, and to free local farmers and food producers and retailers from the constraints of federal and state food regulation.

On the GMO ban front:

Four counties, Mendicino, Marin, Trinity, and Santa Cruz successfully banned genetically engineered crops.

Hawaii: Kaua'i County's Kaua'i Rising is gathering support for a food bill of rights to change the relationship between the people of Kaua’i and the companies that experiment with agricultural chemicals and GMOs on the island. The bill would give Kaua’i the authority to ban all GMO testing from the island by replacing existing laws that enable companies to pollute and prevent the people from stopping them with new laws that elevate the rights of citizens over the rights of corporations, and recognize nature’s right to exist and flourish.

On Sunday, September 8, 2013, thousands joined Kaua’i’s anti-GMO Mana March in support of Bill 2491. Introduced by Kauai County Councilmen Gary Hooser and Tim Bynum, the measure requires Syngenta, DuPont-Pioneer, Dow and BASF to disclose what pesticides they are spraying, where and in what quantities. The bill also requires buffer zones between fields where agricultural chemicals are being sprayed and public areas, including schools, parks, roads and waterways.
Hawaii: Hawaii County is weighing legislation to ban GMOs. Councilwoman Margaret Wille will reintroduce a new version of Bill 79, which would have banned new GM crops on the Big Island and placed restrictions on growing already existing papaya crops that are engineered to resist the ringspot virus. Council member Brenda Ford is working on a new bill that would ban GMO papayas.

Oregon: GMO Free Jackson County has placed Measure 15-119, a bill to ban the planting of GMOs, on the May 2014 ballot.

Oregon: Lane County-based Support Local Food Rights is working on an ordinance that would ban GMOs while establishing a local food bill of rights that asserts Lane County’s authority to do so. The ordinance, planned for a May 2014 vote, states that Lane County’s right to local self-governance is superior to state or federal regulations as well as the rights of any agricultural corporation. This is a direct challenge to Oregon’s “Right to Farm” law that protects all generally accepted farm practices from being infringed upon by local governments.

Oregon: The Benton County Community Rights Coalition (BCCRC) in Corvallis, Ore., is also aiming for the May 2014 election with a food bill of rights similar to Lane County’s. BCCC’s bill of rights ordinance was kept off the 2013 ballot for violating the state’s rule that ballot measures may contain only a single subject. BCCC has revised the language of its ordinance to acknowledge that they understand that any attempt to ban GMOs “may run afoul of claimed corporate ‘rights’” and that “failure to legislatively challenge those ‘rights’ and laws guarantees that a sustainable food system will never exist.” The new wording concludes by asserting that the people of Benton County have an “inherent and inalienable right … to govern their own county for their own health, safety, and welfare.”

Washington: San Juan County in Washington State, had banned GMO crops.

Other food sovereignty plans and successes:

El Dorado County passed a Local Food and Self-Governance Ordinance designed to protect El Dorado County citizens’ “right to produce, process, sell, purchase and consume Local Foods of their choosing.”

Maine: Sedgwick, Blue Hill, Penobscot, Trenton, Brooksville, Plymouth, Livermore, Hope, Appleton and Isle au Haut have all passed Local Food & Community Self-Governance Ordinances that state:

We the People of [the municipality] have the right to produce, process, sell, purchase and consume local foods thus promoting self-reliance, the preservation of family farms, and local food traditions. We recognize that family farms, sustainable agricultural practices, and food processing by individuals, families and non-corporate entities offers stability to our rural way of life by enhancing the economic, environmental, and social wealth of our community. . . . We hold that federal and state regulations impede local food production and constitute a usurpation of our citizens' right to food of their choice."

In 2011, the Maine legislature passed a Joint Resolution Expressing the Sentiment of the Legislature for Food Sovereignty. The Joint Resolution establishes that because “food is human sustenance and is the fundamental prerequisite to life,” the elected representatives of Maine have the right to protect that fundamental freedom and “in recognition of the state’s proud agricultural heritage, take this opportunity to oppose any federal statute, law or regulation that attempts to threaten our basic human right to save seed and grow, process, consume and exchange food and farm products within the State of Maine.” The Joint Resolution was not signed by the Governor and is non-binding, but it does suggest that the local food ordinances passed by several towns in Maine have garnered some support from the state.

Massachusetts: The town of Sandisfield adopted a resolution in support of “the right to produce, process, sell, purchase and consume local foods thus promoting self-reliance, the preservation of family farms and local food traditions.”

Vermont: Two municipalities, the Town of Barre and Barre City, passed food sovereignty initiatives that express the “right to save seed, grow, process, consume and exchange food and farm products.” Barre City voters said yes to food sovereignty in a 686 to 220 vote. Barre Town’s yes vote was 673 to 200.

Alexis Baden-Mayer is political director for the Organic Consumers Association.

Katherine Paul is director of communications and development for the Organic Consumers Association.

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