About 200 intellectuals from around the world united Thursday and Friday in the Dana Building to discuss food sovereignty — a progressive approach to food systems.

Funded by a Rackham Graduate School Michigan Meetings grant, the Food Sovereignty Conference, subtitled “Local Struggles, Global Movement,” was steered by faculty members and graduate students of the School of Natural Resources and Environment, Taubman School of Architecture, School of Public Health and College of Literature, Science and the Arts.

Organizer John Vandermeer, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University, said
organizers of the conference had two objectives in mind: to educate interested members of the public and to give academics the opportunity to unite and communicate. Food sovereignty is what Vandermeer calls “a new conceptualization” of the food and agricultural system.

“What it means is that local communities have the right to decide what to produce and how to produce it, how to distribute it and how to consume it,” he said.

Contrary to many concepts like it, food sovereignty did not originate in academia. Peasant farmers in Latin America coined the term, by way of an organization called La Via Campesina. “La Via Campesina” means “The Peasant Way” in English. It’s an umbrella organization of international small-scale farming groups, each of which focuses on issues dealing with food and agriculture.

Vandermeer said food sovereignty was La Via Campesina’s response to large capitalist takeovers of farmland, market inequality, loan unavailability and more.

“They were struggling with all sorts of things that peasant people, poor people, around the world struggle with,” he said.

An additional goal of conference organizers was to bridge the movement between places of its origin, like Mexico and Brazil in the global south, with the global north and academic institutions.

Karla Peña, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University and graduate of the School of Natural Resources and Environment master’s program, was one of the conference speakers.

She presented on a case study done in Ecuador and Brazil. The case study focused on how social movements interact with government organizations to implement food sovereignty strategies.

“I think it’s important because it’s a sense of empowerment — so being self-sufficient, being autonomous, having the right to decide how you want to grow your food, what you should eat, etcetera,” she said.

Vandermeer said many intellectuals in attendance at the conference hope to figure out if there is a role academia can play in this peasant-farmer-driven movement.

“Conferences like this are really designed to try and come to grips with the fact that we’re being led from the bottom,” he said. “That there’s this real, honest to God, international grassroots movement that’s pushing this idea.”

While many food-sovereignty-driven scholars were in attendance at the conference, several were also newer to the concept.

Theresa Ong, a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, attended. She said she just finished a class entitled “Food Sovereignty” last semester.

“We read a lot of the papers that were written by the presenters here at the conference, so I’m really excited to hear what they have to say in person,” she said.

Mariana Valencia, a graduate student at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, was also in attendance.

“This is a great opportunity to learn more about food sovereignty and what it is, and how to join the movement,” she said.

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