Food Sovereignty and Permaculture: A Reply to David Holmgren

By Dr Nick Rose, National Coordinator, Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance

In the first issue of Pip, the co-originator of permaculture, David Holmgren wrote about food sovereignty, and the role permaculture can and does play in achieving it.

David’s vision of a permaculture-inspired food secure and food sovereign-future for Australia, made manifest in the abundance of food growing, gleaning, harvesting and sharing throughout our towns, cities and rural areas, is one I entirely embrace and fervently desire. Permaculture is a leading and essential element of the wider movement for food sovereignty in this country and beyond. Food sovereignty as a social and political movement now embraces in the order of 300 million people across 80 countries in every continent, led by the small farmers and indigenous peoples organisation La Via Campesina.

Food sovereignty, David writes, is about the ‘right to produce one’s own food in one’s own territory’; and hence the role of permaculture in providing a set of design principles and ethical practices that can make this right a reality. This partly captures what food sovereignty is about, but it doesn’t tell the full story.

The essence of food sovereignty is the assertion of the collective right of communities and peoples to democratically make and implement the key decisions about their food and farming systems. Those decisions include critical questions such as: Who owns the farmland? What types of food, fibre and livestock are to be grown? What types of production and land management methods should be used? Into what markets, and under what conditions, will those products be sold? What prices are the farmers entitled to?

These are structural and systemic questions that go well beyond the right of individuals to produce their own food, important though that is. They raise fundamental matters about who holds power in the food system, how it is exercised and for whose benefit.

In asking such questions, food sovereignty also makes the claim that it is an unacceptable outrage that close to a billion people continue to experience hunger and malnutrition in a world where as much as 40% of all food produced is wasted. Equally, it is an outrage that we are witnessing a pandemic of dietary-related ill-health linked to the rampant expansion of a processed and global junk food industry.

Food sovereignty asks why are these things happening, and what can be done about it. As to the first question, most democratic checks and balances have been abandoned in favour of letting the ‘free market’ make all the key decisions. In practice, this is a recipe for the unrestrained rule of a very small number of powerful corporations. The system’s overriding imperative is the making of money, not feeding all people well or stewardship of the land and ecosystems.

In terms of what can be done, food sovereignty claims that the power of these corporations must be named and confronted. At the same time, work must begin to take back increasing portions of the food and farming system into local control and ownership, and to support production systems that care for the land and enhance its fertility, rather than degrade it.

That is why food sovereignty, like permaculture, is about food localisation and agro-ecology. It is about protecting farmland for future generations, from competing land uses such as suburban sprawl and coal-seam gas fracking. It is about fair prices for farmers, and ensuring that everyone, regardless of their income, has access to good and healthy food at all times.

This is why the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) was formed in 2010. This is the agenda we have set forth in the Peoples Food Plan, developed in 40 forums with 600 people during September-December 2012. It is why we are now campaigning for Local Food Acts in Victoria, NSW, Tasmania and other states, learning from the experience of the local food and food sovereignty movement in North America and elsewhere.

There is, as David suggests, a natural affinity between permaculture and food sovereignty. The opportunity in Australia is to develop that affinity into a powerful and coherent narrative and movement for transformative change, which we all know is the challenge and calling of our times.

From October 10 -19 this year, AFSA is co-ordinating Australia’s second Fair Food Week. Like International Permaculture Day, this is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of individuals and communities who are engaged in so many ways in the necessary work of creating a fair and sustainable food system. Last year, 112 events were held around the country with more than 15,000 people participating. We encourage all permaculturalists to consider holding events and activities during that period, to let the country know that the new story of food is being written and lived.

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For those who are interested, I have discussed the issues that David raises in his Food for Thought article, as well as some related material from his earlier Crash on Demand paper, in a longer piece of writing that can be accessed here:

2 thoughts on “Food Sovereignty and Permaculture: A Reply to David Holmgren

  1. I believe there has been an important omission. You say “It is about fair prices for farmers”. Could this be altered to read “It is about fair prices for farmers and all labour involved in on-farm production and harvesting of food”. On-farm, workers have not always been paid fairly. Where people have to live on-farm, conditions have not always been wonderful. AFSA has to take care to speak for all involved int he food production. If AFSA supports only farmers in getting a fair price for their labours, then ignoring labour further down the food chain is a dubious prospect.

    1. Indeed Brigid, it is critical that labour is paid fairly. That is certainly part of the global food sovereignty movement, which includes landless workers organisations such as the Brazilian MST. Thank you for pointing it out here.

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