International Forum for U.S. Studies

Fellow Interview

An Interview with Dr. Zuzana Buchowska, Adam Mickiewicz University

Indigenous Knowledge Recovery and Food Sovereignty

Dr. Buchowska is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Studies in Culture, Faculty of English, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland.  Her scholarly interests focus on Native American and Australian Indigenous studies, in particular “Indigenous Knowledge Recovery”, and cultural and food sovereignty.  She is coordinator of the Australia and New Zealand MA Program at her Faculty. She has conducted research at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence Kansas in 2011 and at the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra in 2015. Dr. Buchowska was a visiting Research Fellow at the International Forum for U.S. Studies at the University of Illinois from February through May of 2016.

Dr. Zuzana Buchowska

Dr. David Schrag for IFUSS: Your research involves the indigenous food sovereignty movement in the United States. Could you tell us a bit about what is meant by the term “food sovereignty” and why it is important?

Dr. Zuzana Buchowska: The concept of food sovereignty was first introduced by the organization La Via Campesina – The Peasant's Way at the World Food Summit in Rome in 1996. They defined it as: “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems”. The organization itself was created three years before in Belgium as farmers had started to come together to combat the adverse effects of neoliberal agriculture on their lives and to voice their concerns with political decision-makers. It is an international movement which brings together millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world (La Via Campesina 2011). The aim of food sovereignty is to develop a model of small scale sustainable production benefiting communities and their environment. In contrast to food safety (which is a more widely used concept, and has been in use since the end of World War II), it emphasizes not only access to healthy food in a socially acceptable way as a human right, but also the cultural appropriateness of food, sustainable methods of production and the rights of particular groups of people to define which foods and food production methods are appropriate for them.

As large-scale neoliberal agriculture is able to produce food in large amounts cheaply, for decades, it has been considered to be the solution to feeding the growing world population and solving the increasing problem of food insecurity. However, it has proven to have a negative effect on many agricultural workers and even the populations and economies of whole countries, as well as on the environment. It has led to land grabs, e.g. in Brazil and Indonesia, and has deprived many subsistence farmers of the possibility to cultivate their own food. Small-scale farmers are often forced to rely on multinational agribusiness companies for patented seeds, and the fertilizers and pesticides that are sold along with them. They are often also forced to sell their products at “dumping” prices. Moreover, undocumented immigrants in developed countries, and agricultural laborers in developing countries are severely underpaid by agricultural multinationals and there exists a significant amount of slave labor in the industry (e.g., most of cocoa production involves slave labor as does a significant portion of the fishing industry in Southeast Asia). In terms of the environmental impact, the introduction of monocultures has not only lead to low agrobiodiversity, which constitutes a hazard in case of drought or flooding, but has also caused the cutting down of rainforests in Southeast Asia for palm tree plantations, and in South America for grazing cattle. These processes further disadvantage populations reliant on the surrounding environment for food. High intensity agriculture also depletes soils, contaminates the environment with pesticides and herbicides, and deprives wildlife of habitat, leading to the dying and extinction of many species of animals (in the past fifty years, forty per cent of animal species have gone extinct, i.e. more than since the end of the Ice Age). Moreover food on average travels about 160 miles before it reaches the consumer's table, which leaves a significant carbon imprint on the environment. Finally, from the perspective of the consumer, the cheapest food available is processed, high in fat, and calorie-dense, but low in nutrients, which leads to health issues especially among the poor.

This is why food sovereignty is important. Its proponents see it as a pre-condition to food security and are convinced that small farmers, who make up almost half the world's population, are capable of producing food for their communities and feeding the world in a sustainable and healthy way (La Via Campesina 2011).

IFUSS: Your work addresses global—that is, transnational and pan-indigenous—aspects of food sovereignty. At the same time your work also involves the study of more particular aspects of food sovereignty, including tribal knowledge and localized practices such as ceremonies and the production of specific foods. How do you see these global aspects and these particular aspects as being connected?

ZB: The two are connected as many Indigenous communities, including Native Americans in the US, have suffered from the effects of neoliberal agriculture, which is often seen as yet another instance of colonization and part of the larger dominant political system. They are statistically the unhealthiest ethnic group living in the United States with obesity, diabetes, and heart disease having reached alarming numbers among indigenous communities. This situation is caused by widespread food insecurity which affects almost a quarter of the indigenous population in the US (Healthy People Survey 2006-2008), which in turn is a result of decades of hegemonic policy toward Indigenous populations in the US – removal from their traditional lands, relocation to reservations, the continuing pollution of reservation lands and waters by oil and mining companies, intense agricultural production, and the resulting inability to farm traditional crops and hunt animals and reliance on governmental food subsidies. In response to this situation, many grass roots indigenous organizations have been created in the past several decades. They see tribal food sovereignty as the solution, and recovering tribal foodways is seen as crucial to achieving that goal. Together with the foods and agricultural practices themselves, language, ceremonies, and other cultural elements are recovered. Therefore, recovering foodways may be considered both as a means of recovering traditions connected to it, as well as a conscious effort and part of the larger process of fighting the heritage of colonial subordination. Moreover, as many Indigenous people assume a holistic approach to life, Native food systems are seen as necessary not only for the environmental balance and physical well-being of Native peoples, but also for the spiritual wellbeing of both. Food and nutrition are seen as supporting other aspects of life, such as, wellness, cultures, communities, languages, and families.

IFUSS: You are currently working on a book on the discourse of the indigenous food sovereignty movement in the United States. You have noted that the issue of epistemology is a key aspect of this movement. Is western science generally dismissive and resistant to Native ideas regarding food and in what ways is western science “ready for” the holistic approach that tribal knowledges have to offer in regard to food?

ZB: On the one hand, Native ideas about food, health, and environment (especially their spiritual aspect, such as the idea of the relationality of plants and animals) are mostly contested or discarded by mainstream science and policymakers altogether, unless it can be proven in a western scientific way that they hold true. For example, some tribes would pray for thunderstorms, as they believed that they had a positive effect on their crops, whereas it was only in the late 19th century that chemical nitrogen fixation in soils by lightning was confirmed by western science. On the other hand, a holistic approach to food, environment, health and well-being is shared by many scientists, e.g., environmentalists and psychologists, and is definitely in line with the ideas behind food sovereignty. However, agricultural production based on the premise of food sovereignty is still largely considered and described as alternative to the dominant neoliberal agriculture in both the larger scholarly and political discourse. At the same time, western science can be exploitative of Indigenous knowledge, which happens in the case of biopiracy – a practice in which Indigenous knowledge of nature is used for profit, without permission from and with little or no compensation or recognition to the people themselves (e.g., creating and patenting GMO varieties of wild rice). One may definitely state that the relation of Indigenous epistemologies to western science is underpinned by the issue of power. 

IFUSS: Related to the last question, does the recovery of tribal food knowledges involve a simultaneous challenge to translate that knowledge into the language of western science and what are pros and cons of such translation?

ZB: To some extent, it does. Unless tribal food knowledges are translated into the language of modern science or law, or unless Native Americans resort to modern science for evidence, it is hard for them to argue their case. For example: (1) in order to get financial support for their efforts to plant the numerous varieties of native heirloom corn (which many see as their relatives whom they have the responsibility of taking care of), Native Americans are testing them for nutritional value to prove that they are superior to sweet corn and are reaching for scientific evidence of the negative impact of monocrops on the environment; (2) to fight agribusiness attempts at the genetic modification of wild rice (which is believed by many to have a spirit that would be killed in the process of genetic modification), they resort to legal concepts of intellectual property and engage in courtroom battles over biopiracy. It would be hard for them to win those battles if they relied solely on the language of their tribal epistemologies (which is not to say that the arguments of both do not overlap). Therefore, scientific evidence can serve as a tool for obtaining support for their causes, but at the same time, lack of scientific support may render their causes futile. Again, the issue of power and sovereignty comes into play with Western science being the dominant framework to which one needs to adhere.

Dr. David Schrag is Program Coordinator for the International Forum for U.S. Studies (IFUSS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.