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Let Them Eat Rights

Today is an international day of action for food sovereignty. As an approach to the problem of hunger, the concept of food sovereignty recognizes food as a human right and calls for the reform of agriculture and trade in order to address the structural causes of hunger. In a world where thousands of children die of hunger-related illness every day despite the fact that the farmers of the world produce more than enough food to feed everyone, attention to the structural causes of hunger — including the unconscionable waste of resources implicit in meat, dairy, and egg production — is urgently needed.

I was at the 2002 Forum for Food Sovereignty that ran parallel to the UN-FAO World Food Summit of that year. The Forum brought together activists from food, hunger, and agriculture organizations from all over the world. Strolling through the exhibit area amassing armloads of information, I was inspired by the plethora of local projects by which farmers and consumers in impoverished regions are taking back the means of subsistence from international agribusiness, shunning chemical fertilizers and genetically modified seeds in favor of locally-adapted plant varieties grown by traditional or innovative organic methods. At the culmination of the series of meetings by which Forum participants hammered out an action plan against hunger, I was thrilled that the plan included factory farming among the causes of hunger and specifically called for people in affluent countries to “reduce or eliminate” their meat consumption.

I was considerably less than thrilled by the fetishistic status that the concept of food sovereignty in general and the precept of the right to food in particular seemed to have achieved in the minds of activists. As Devinder Sharma wrote shortly thereafter, it was “as if the ‘right to food’ is a magical stick that makes the Supermen of the political hierarchy deliver food to the hungry.”

Of course, that’s not true. The right to food is recognized in the UN Declaration of Human Rights as well as in the constitutions of several countries in which hunger is an urgent problem. And yet I saw well-fed activists demanding that everyone drop everything in order to demand the right to food, condemning as counter-productive efforts to feed people who are hungry right now. This kind of either-or thinking prevents people from assessing the differences between hunger relief projects that really do help to maintain the inequitable status quo (such as projects that allow international agribusiness to offload surplus GMO “livestock” feed as food aid) and those that do not (such as projects that buy food aid from impoverished farmers in the same region as the recipients of the aid). Moreover, the fallacy that hunger relief must inevitably interfere with the long-term struggle for food sovereignty could prevent people from trying to coming up with projects that serve both goals, such as the Navdanya project in India, which employs farmers who might otherwise go hungry in the preservation of traditional seed varieties. Participants feed themselves while at the same time contributing to the long-term struggle against control of the world seed supply by multinational corporations.

Animal liberationists may recognize the shape of this problem. The word “abolitionism” has gained the same kind of totemic status for some animal activists as the phrase “food sovereignty” has for some anti-hunger activists. The fallacy that efforts to improve the welfare of actually existing animals must inevitably interfere with the long-term effort to gain freedom for future animals has led some activists to condemn any and all efforts to reduce animal suffering in the here and now. This either/or thinking condemns as “welfarism” both efforts that really do interfere with the long-term goal of animal liberation (such as the Animal Welfare Institute’s promotion of “humane meat” at the recent TAfA conference) and those that do not (such as efforts to ban battery cages, which no more promote egg production than efforts to ban torture of political prisoners promote the imprisonment of dissidents). Worse, the acrimonious state of the debate makes it impossible for us to have the kinds of careful and creative conversations that might lead us to think of new and heretofore unimagined projects that improve the welfare of actual animals while at the same time working toward the liberation of animals as a class.

So, today, for the sake of food sovereignty and of animal liberation, I urge everybody to remember that rights are just words that might or might not be respected or enforced by the inherently violent apparatuses of states and that either/or fallacies tend to inhibit us from coming up with plans for creative action that might relieve some suffering now while moving us closer to the day of liberation for everybody.

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