Review of Translating Food Sovereignty: Cultivating Justice in an Age of Transnational Governance By Matthew C. Canfield, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 2022. 264 pp.

Reviewed Book

Translating Food Sovereignty: Cultivating Justice in an Age of Transnational Governance By Matthew C. Canfield, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 2022. 264 pp.

Cover of Translating Food Sovereignty (2022)

Ash McLeod

University of Connecticut

In my experiences as an ethnographer, largely working with Indigenous food workers and activists in the US, the priorities of those most intimately involved in hands-on food sovereignty work involve care for the land, valuing Indigenous knowledge, spreading nutritional health, and empowering historically marginalized communities through food education, access, and overall autonomy over their food systems. Translating Food Sovereignty: Cultivating Justice in an Age of Transnational Governance demonstrates that these desires are felt not only by Native food producers but by food sovereignty activists trans locally and transnationally. Largely centered on Matthew Canfield’s research in Seattle, the book draws on his experiences at protests, strategy meetings, farms, and food sovereignty summits, observing and documenting processes of translation. In the context of food sovereignty movements and transnational governance, Canfield uses the metaphor of translation here to refer to “the way that activists mediate meanings across arenas and institutions transnationally” (49).

The books introductory chapter, a useful section for students of anthropology, food studies, or human rights, sets the stage for the history of food sovereignty on a global scale, detailing the growth of the movement and evolution of the definition of food sovereignty. Scholars entering the field may also benefit from the chapters exploration of sovereignty verses rights-based approaches to advocating for food justice and the shortcomings or utilities of each.

Chapter 2 examines how food sovereignty activists are reconceptualizing what it means to “buy local” and the values associated with doing so. As other social scientists have also begun to explore, buying local and “voting with your dollar or fork” are common Green Economy narratives promoted by the market. Yet, individualist and consumer-centered approaches to food justice threaten to reproduce economic inequalities by denying how structural inequalities associated with race, class, or gender may affect one’s ability to buy their way to social change. Canfield responds to these approaches and notes that by largely focusing on white, middle-class consumers and ignoring the working class and people of color, consumer-centered solutions deny the ways these communities have been historically vital in bringing about social change in different ways.

By drawing on participatory work with farm workers and activists, Chapters 3 and 4 were especially successful in showcasing the importance of self-representation and revaluing agricultural labor and Indigenous knowledge, particularly as they relate to agroecology. Translating explains that agroecology networks, which allow food sovereignty activists to horizontally share food systems knowledge through co-learning, exchange, and communal governance, stand in contrast to the “innovations” of biotechnology networks which prioritize “improvement” and “modernization” while privileging the neoliberal state and private property (150). Food sovereignty activists all over the world have united to oppose these views and other aspects of the Green Revolution, as evidenced in the book’s examination of the Super Banana, a genetically modified product developed by the Gates Foundation.

Translating Food Sovereignty ultimately advocates for a bottom-up approach to rebuilding food systems, which Canfield calls “governance from below,” that fosters decentralized and democratic networks that center relationships between food producers, their communities, markets, and the land (7). The book notes how food sovereignty activists in a variety of spaces have been able to use the language of law, policy, and even human rights in a variety of ways to achieve common ends. That is not to say that doing so is smooth sailing. My own research within food systems has shown that situations in which activists have similar goals yet competing views on how those goals should be accomplished produces friction. Translating Food Sovereignty does not shy away from the reality of these points of friction, acknowledging the existence of overlapping and often competing sovereignties and how activists have endeavored to work with or past these tensions.

The book’s strength largely rests is in its meticulous research and the depth of its holistic exploration of food sovereignty. It particularly appealed to me as a text that would be relevant to many of those involved in grassroots movements and decolonial food activism, although some readers may find the book heavy with the language of law, policy, and theory in a way that may not be as approachable to young scholars or those outside of academia or policymaking. As I reflect on this book, I am reminded that the project of food sovereignty is not over, and that it is not the work of academics but the labor of food producers, the storytelling of knowledge holders, and the efforts of organizers that will make this movement successful. The contents of Translating Food Sovereignty, though a trove of information for academics studying food policy, ecology, human rights, and Indigenous studies, are presented in a way that may not be the most accessible to many of those most directly involved in changing our food systems from below, such as small family farmers, migrant workers, chefs, Indigenous communities, and organizations addressing urban food insecurity. Nonetheless, the foundations of food sovereignty research presented in this text are valuable to those in the discipline and add to the existing body of literature on food justice, human rights, and transnational law.

The book itself is also unexpectedly hopeful. I have found that we as social scientists often lament a lack of concrete solutions in texts, and yet, Canfield’s suggestion that we embrace Anna Tsing’s “precarity” (Tsing, 2015, 20) and the metaphor of “patchy hope” feels to me like a solution of sorts, albeit one that challenges us to become more comfortable with the uncomfortable. Patchy hope is described as “hope’s condition of possibility and its limit at the same time,” operating on the “acute awareness of its own limitation” (Tsing et al., 2019, S193). We are encouraged in Translating to ponder how patchiness might provide us with a framework for thinking about future possibilities for transnational governance. This could be a useful exercise for any anthropologist researching in spaces of precarity, which in this day and age, I imagine we all are.