Food Democracy Now!
has been a rallying cry for Food Policy Councils, but the question remains:
Food Democracy How?
Food Policy Councils: The emergence of Food Sovereignty in cities
Food Policy Councils (FPCs) continue to emerge as the ‘connective tissue’ between the local practices of initiatives and the global discourses of Food Sovereignty and Food Democracy as they seek to build networks and alliances of individuals, communities and cities to compete with large agro-chemical corporations to influence policy and decision making. As such, FPCs are much more than groups committed to supporting good consumer behavior and promoting urban gardening – they increasingly represent new attempts for citizens to access the levers of democracy with food as a point of convergence, while challenging our fundamental conceptions of socio-economic well-being. In doing so, citizens are not only trying to feed and nourish their cities in a sustainable and just way – they are creating alternative methods of political citizenship and new spaces of political deliberation in the process.
As these new spaces continue to develop, it is useful for us to track their emergence in real time. Who is involved and what motivates individuals to commit their personal time and resources to creating and advancing a political dialogue around food policy? What innovative and exciting projects are initiatives undertaking? What struggles and problems do citizen groups encounter, and how could their efforts begin to be empowered by new or existing institutions? These questions will continue to be of interest for my research going forward for the next few years. For now, let’s zoom our focus into Berlin.
Food Democracy: The ‘few’ standing in for the ‘many’?
Organizing around a motto of “Food Democracy Now!”, the leaders of the Berlin Food Policy Council (BFPC) are strongly driven by democratic principles. Therefore, one of the major concerns at the meeting – and in general for the group – is how a more diverse variety of perspectives can be incoporated into the BFPC in order to uphold representation of all citizens. The organizational structure of the BFPC is led by twelve members of a “Speaker Circle”, which is elected at meetings by fellow members and attempts to appoint representatives from a variety of backgrounds. The BFPC is also focused on trying to get higher numbers from immigrant communities and refugees to participate as a source of both integration and diverse knowledge perspectives. Although fostering a diverse and far-reaching membership has proven to be difficult in the first few years (attendance at the meeting drew about fifty citizens), BFPC leaders remain committed to ambitious goals of representation for all.
In casual conversation with some members at the meeting, it became clear to me that the extent of individual efforts displayed by these citizen leaders in the mobilization and founding of the BFPC have been exceptional. As these individuals go above and beyond to protect ideals of representation, and serve unmet community needs, it remains to be seen if personal donations of time, energy and capital can sustain longevity. It can be assumed that these individual motivations must eventually gain institutional support and access to resources. Although BFPC has received funding and support from Berlin’s municipal senate for a certain handful of projects – like the recent project Regiowoche (Regional Week) which arranged a week of regionally produced (and mostly organic) lunches to educate Berlin’s school children about sustainable food systems – the lasting transformative potential will likely remain restricted without political engagement of institutions. In other words, groups must also engage with the established arrangements and rules that inhibit these needs from being formally met, and lobby for multi-scalar governance structures that incentivize sustainable behaviors and deter harmful ones. Institutionalizing these sorts of changes could make projects like Regiowoche permanent fixtures rather than fleeting events which aim to raise awareness.
As with other social movements in the past, the ‘performance’ of individuals can go a long way towards exposing what is seen and felt as a ‘wrong’ by many. A famous example is when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in the racially-segregated American south. This leads me to the question: will groups like the BFPC remain the ‘performative’ few, staging and exposing the ‘wrongs’ experienced by the many? Or can they actually begin to form the organizational groundwork for durable governance bodies that have a truly transformative impact on practices of food production, distribution and consumption? What kinds of support would such a transformation require – just finances? New legislation or legal enforcement mechanisms? To what extent can the local state act as an empowering agent to enable citizen leaders, or take on risks for transformative change? Or will the efforts of exceptional individuals be continuously called upon as more needs not valued by the market are unmet? Whatever the answers may be, it seems their pursuit will be fundamentally political.
Leaders of the Berlin Food Policy Council (BFPC) made it clear at the meeting that their sights for change are set beyond food, and towards a transformation of politics. For philosopher Chantal Mouffe, a transformation of politics would involve establishing a new ‘common sense’. In other words, a true transformation would shift the spectrum of what is considered acceptable or reasoned political debate, and delineate new possibilities for both citizens and policy makers. This would include, for example, stepping outside of financialization logics that have become second-nature to institutions in recent decades, or challenging the generalized identification of the ‘common good’ with national Gross Domestic Product. With an eye on transformation, a large part of the BFPC efforts attempt to demand a seat at the table (or at least to meaningfully influence those sitting there) when choices are made and values and priorities are determined.
Most recently in 2017, leaders of the BFPC published a set of demands for Berlin’s muncipal senate calling for foundational changes – beyond ‘band-aid’ fixes – in the political arenas that shape the functioning of food systems. Included in these demands are clearly and formally defined plans for adaptation and frameworks for implementation of coordinated change at national and European Union levels. It is only through such multi-scalar coordination and networking that impact can spread beyond ‘just locality’.
Berlin is not an island: searching for durability and far-reaching impact
Another emphasis of the BFPC at the meeting was that “Berlin is not an island”. This marks the embeddedness of the city into both the region and wider global market, and broadens perspectives of consideration to the entire food supply chain. Although things in Western Europe are prosperous at historically unprecedented levels, localized prosperity cannot be detached from its wider social and environmental consequences of an increasingly unaccountable market. Following sociologist Ulrich Beck, this requires institutionally recognizing that our old conceptions of territorial, political, economic, social and cultural borders are not fixed, but transforming rapidly, and that risks and those affected by them are increasingly spatially and temporally disconnected. The implications of Beck’s observations require us to be creative in an evolutionary sense, and look towards new and innovative solutions that may seem radical to a political system of nation-state-based institutions that continues to grasp 20th century perceptions. They further indicate that although the ‘invisible hand’ can provide brilliant utility, market failures must be approached as global problems, without clinging to ideological Left-Right commitments over the roles of ‘the State’ and ‘the Market’.
Keeping in mind that Berlin is not an island, strategies for a durable and lasting impact should look towards the evolution of institutions to support Food Sovereignty. This means navigating towards the building of alliances and coalitions throughout Europe and the world to influence policy at a wider scale. This could lead to the introduction of different logics into agricultural and food policy that place more concern on mitigating instances of market failure, and centering concerns around environmental and social justice – not only locally and regionally, but globally. At the end of November, I will be traveling to the Food Policy Congress in Frankfurt – where over forty different German FPCs will meet – to explore how these alliances and coalitions are being formed.
 Beck, U. (2010). Remapping social inequalities in an age of climate change: for a cosmopolitan renewal of sociology. Global Networks, 10(2), 165–181.