Gaining Control of Our Food: The “Radical” Underpinnings of Food Sovereignty


For the first time since it began quizzing Americans nearly two decades ago, Pew Research Center has found that a majority of Americans feel the federal government threatens their personal  rights and freedom. That finding begins to explain why increasing numbers of people are paying attention to the Food Sovereignty movement, which launched in Maine a couple years back, and has spread to all corners of the land, with its promise to give towns and cities control over how food is distributed within their boundaries. In this guest post, Heather Retberg, a Maine farmer and one of the founders of the movement for food sovereignty, explains the historical and political underpinnings of the concept.

By Heather Retberg

Do we have the authority to define ourselves?

That is the question at hand, in local proposals around the country about implementing food sovereignty ordinances and in the national struggle over food rights. Such proposals have been labeled as “radical” by opponents.
 Radical?  The word radical comes from the Latin word radix meaning root.  To be radical means to be rooted.    If you look it up you will find that it means to favor fundamental, far-reaching, thorough social change.  A radical is an advocate for thorough or complete social reform.   In towns in Maine that have passed local ordinances at the municipal level, we are standing up under this mantle of “radical”, because it is necessary.   We must be radical and work at the foundational level to retain common sense in our local food systems.   

Reclaiming authority back down to the local level, away from bureaucrats and agencies, is indeed “radical”—advocacy at the most fundamental level.  We have found that the radical approach has a lot of official backing.

For example, here is what the Maine Constitution’s Bill of Rights says in Article 1, Section 2: “all power is inherent in the people; all free governments are founded in their authority and instituted for their benefit, [and that] they have therefore an unalienable and indefeasible right to institute government and to alter, reform, or totally change the same when their safety and happiness require it.” 

This article says with three different words—“inherent”, “unalienable” and “indefeasible”—that we have the right that cannot be taken away from us to alter, reform or totally change the government when our safety and happiness require it.  An agency of our representative government can’t take   from us, by re-defining who we are and what we do—our right to alter, reform or totally change government when our safety and happiness require it.

Our bill of rights calls on us to be radical when our safety and happiness require it. When we asserted our right to self-governance of our food system in our towns in Maine, we fundamentally, foundationally, going back to our roots, rejected the right of governmental agencies to define us or what we do in a way that undermines our safety and happiness.

The Pennsylvania Constitution has similar provisions in its Bill of Rights, under Article I, Section 2, called ‘Political Powers’: “All power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their peace, safety and happiness. For the advancement of these ends they have at all times an inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper.”
So, that’s pretty radical, right? 

All the states in our country have in their constitutions words like these in various forms that echo the words from the Declaration of Independence.

Studying the revolutionary period of history, and particularly Thomas Jefferson’s writings, shines a great deal of light on our struggles today. Jefferson’s ideal of an agrarian society lost out during the constitutional convention and our country followed an economic and political model built on commerce and industry.  Much of the beautiful prose that we associate with our country based on liberty and justice for all comes not from our Constitution, but from the Declaration of Independence.  The Declaration at the time of its writing was a completely illegal document, treasonous.

About 100 years later, after the civil war, our country had a series of weak presidents, and the huge monopolies were increasing in strength and power.  These were the original corporate giants: the Rockefellers, Carnegie, the Vanderbilts, J.P Morgan: steel, oil, banks and railroads.  They said things that echo the Monsantos of today: Andrew Carnegie said, “The millionaires…are the bees that make the most honey, and contribute the most to the hive even after they have gorged themselves.”    We have been down this road before.

This time period laid the ground work for the corporate regimes enjoying such great power today, including the small dictum attached to a Supreme Court ruling that gave corporations the constitutional rights of personhood.   Out of this time period grew our present day political and social superweeds that, in settled law as precedence, and in the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution,   give corporations rights to determine what happens in our communities. 

Laws don’t ban CAFOs, GMOs or fracking (not yet ) so the corporations are well within the rights they’ve secured over time using the constitution to come into our communities and build and plant what they will so as to not disrupt interstate commerce.  As constitutionally recognized ‘persons’, they have the right to invoke rights intended only for natural persons. 

When the founders wrote the Constitution, little of the wording from the Declaration was included.   A country “of the people, by the people and for the people” didn’t emerge until Abraham Lincoln spoke those words in the Gettysburg Address almost 100 years later.  While many of us imagine that these words determine how our governmental structure works, they…don’t.  These words do not appear in the Constitution or in any structural framework of government.  They only exist in the speech of Abe Lincoln at Gettysburg and strongly in our American psyche.

After the civil war, these agrarian ideals were brought out in powerfully stark relief to the corporate exploitation of workers in the Pullman factories, in the coal mines, at the spinning machines in the textile mills.  By 1896, the People’s Party, led by farmers, put forth William Jennings Bryan as a candidate against William McKinley.  Bryan famously said, “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic.  But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” But,…he lost to William McKinley and that set into place the pendulum swing that has hopefully reached its highest point of corporate power these 100-plus years later. 

Now is the time that gravitational pull must bring that pendulum back down towards people over profit, natural persons over corporate persons and local communities over political parties. Corporations are the legal “children” of the state and the state derives its authority from the people.

If we the people are to maintain this authority, we are going to need to work in that direction and assert the “natural authority” Jefferson so nobly articulated in the Declaration of Independence.  We have begun with control over our food.

5 comments to Gaining Control of Our Food: The “Radical” Underpinnings of Food Sovereignty

  • Russ
    The clear imperative is to reject all alien hierarchies, whether they be nominally “public” (government) or “private” (corporations) – “public/private” is a scam distinction with no meaning; there’s only usurped, concentrated power – and rebuild natural economies and polities from the soil up. It does start and end with complete local/regional control (and “ownership”) of all food production, distribution, and the resources necessary for these. That’s the essence of Food Sovereignty, which cannot co-exist with alien power.

    The piece is right that this decentralization is inherent in the principles of the true American Revolution, was to a good extent preserved with the Articles of Confederation and in some state constitutions like that of Pennsylvania, and that the 1787 “federalist” (really anti-federalist, while the so-called “Anti-Federalists” were the true federalists, since federalism rises from the bottom up and conserves real power at the local/regional level) Constitution was a gambit to centralize power for imperial, tyrannical purposes. (The 1788 Bill of Rights was forced on the consitutionalists against their will; otherwise they might have been unable to get enough states to ratify it.)

    Any meaningful “constitutionalism” today, if people are interested in that, has to reject the main body of the 1787 counter-revolution (we can maintain the Bill of Rights) and reconstitute community from the soil up. The CELDF (Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund) has one possible formula for this.

    They help communities pass local sovereignty, anti-corporate laws to ban assaults like fracking and CAFOs. Anti-GMO ordinances and the local food sovereignty laws discussed here are similar. The CELDF recommends that the community action groups which form to accomplish this then convene themselves as local constitutional conventions and declare their principles. Some communities in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have done this. The eventual goal would be for a critical mass of such communities to form a confederation for mutual publicity, political support, and aid against tyrannical assaults.

    Imagine organizing the Community Food movement along these lines. Farmers and eaters would become more easily aware of one another across the land, aware of our burgeoning numbers and potential strength, we could coordinate every kind of publicity and action more effectively, and when one of us like Hershberger or Schlangen is under attack, there could be a whole movement to provide assistance, rather than just ad hoc local support which may or may not be sufficient (as David pointed out in his recent contrast of Hershberger and Morningland).

  • ingvar ingvar
    If it is true, as David J. Theroux states at [] on the occasion of philosopher Alvin Plantinga receiving the Rescher Prize, that among other works, Plantinga has “shown naturalism/atheism to be self-refuting and incoherent,” then this may be of interest to you Bill (Anderson). I can’t say that I follow your thoughts in detail but perhaps Plantinga’s work will be important to you. My obvious point w/o saying that it is applicable to you or anyone else in particular, but obvious and important generally, is that a structure resting on a self-refuting and incoherent foundation is an unworthy structure to inhabit.

    All the best to everybody here.

    Mr. J. Ingvar Odegaard

  • Sylvia Gibson Sylvia Gibson
    I have an ancestor who signed the Declaration. Carnegie was wrong, if not for the worker bees, the hive would not be in existence or die out. Carnegie, et al, made their millions off the backs of the workers. Unions were formed for many reasons, abuse of the workers being one of them.

    David, I believe that as more people see the results of the current food chain, it will only serve to increase the demand for local healthy foods and environment.

    I haven’t seen this show, so I don’t know if it will make the food movement look like nuts, as the prepper shows do.

    Everyone has a doctor in him or her; we just have to help it in its work. The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well. Our food should be our medicine. Our medicine should be our food. But to eat when you are sick, is to feed your sickness.

  • D. Smith
    Speaking of food – – don’t know if this will interest any of you or not, but thought I’d share anyhow. Seems to be good, up-to-date information, even though the article was written in 2012 (it’s been kept updated). I read through the “comment” section and most of the reader suggested organic seed dealers were added to the list if, or as, they qualified.

    This information originally came from this story: There are some good additional links in this article, too, so check them out.

    I think DH and I will order some stuff from the company at this link for our garden this year, just to check it out and lend support to the more local companies.

    It looks as though there are quite few organic seed providers from all over the place on the list and they should be able to serve the entire usa without much trouble, so wherever you live try to utilize them. There are some Canadian companies, but I don’t think they were able to list foreign companies. That may come later.

    If you garden, whether it’s veggies or flowers, be sure to save your seeds for next year.

  • Olivermose
    In an effort to build bridges between food justice and food sovereignty movements, and reach across rural-urban and local-global divides. Movements of people across the world are fighting for food sovereignty. La Via Campesina is the largest social movement in the world bringing together.
    pass a drug test

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>