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Reclaiming Our Food Systems From Corporate Control: An Interview with A Growing Culture's Justin Sardo
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Reclaiming Our Food Systems From Corporate Control: An Interview with A Growing Culture's Justin Sardo

Vivian Kanchian
Vivian Kanchian
July 08, 2024
20 min

In today’s age, it only takes the click of a button to get all kinds of exotic supplements and foods delivered right to our doors. But could you imagine if the reishi supplement you’ve been relying on to balance your immunity, or the chamomile tea your mom drinks to help her sleep, suddenly became unavailable – only to be replaced with a prescription pill? 

Over the last few years, attempts to promote patented foods and drugs in the name of a changing climate have exploded onto the global scene – often at the expense of disregarding (and even criminalizing) natural solutions. 

In the US, intellectual property laws prevent any plant that is discovered in the wild from being patented. This means that the real money can be found in creating new food-like substances (like Beyond Burgers) and medicines that, by definition, are not naturally found in nature. But when there are huge profits to be made, the science can get seriously skewed. 

I recently sat down with Justin Sardo, Creative Director at A Growing Culture, to discuss the origins of the movement to take food sovereignty away from the people and put it into the hands of big corporations – and what his organization is doing to support the local food systems truly responsible for feeding the world.

It is estimated that 80% of the world’s food is supplied by family farms


VK: 

First, I just want to start off by asking how and when you got into this area of work (food sovereignty).

JS:

The more direct journey to the work started when I first began farming. Something about it just called to me, and with a little experience, I realized that I wanted it to be more of a focal point in my life. I wanted to focus on really understanding the world through the lens of food, and to be  part of an ecosystem, figure out how to nourish that ecosystem, and to connect with all the humility that comes through that process. 

I started to learn more about the history of US agriculture and everything that has transpired over multiple centuries to lead us to where we are now. I began to recognize that it’s these systems of power that are making it impossible for farmers to make decisions that are in line with a concept of sustainability – especially a long-term concept that can sustain future generations. So, it was an eye-opening moment for me, arriving at the realization that maybe my path wasn’t, at least at this point in time, going to be through direct farming – although I miss it every day. 

Since I grew up in a storytelling family, I was always interested in conveying meaning and narrative in a compelling way. I also had some knowledge of design, anthropology, and sociology, and was always interested in this confluence of knowledge that people carry within, and how they transmit that to other people in order to break through an information landscape that’s increasingly filled with noise, distraction and polarization. At the time, I didn’t know what that connection was going to be, and just happened to come across A Growing Culture three and a half years ago. The organization was just coming into its new form through the launch of what we then called our ‘Hunger for Justice’ series. And since then, it’s been a defining feature of my life. 

I never thought I would be where I am now, but it’s been a journey both of learning and unlearning along the way.

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VK:

And when was A Growing Culture originally founded?

JS:

We’ve been around for over a decade, in different forms. A lot of it was very loosely structured at first.

Loren, the founder of the organization, was traveling around the world building relationships with communities and movements that we now work to support.

We were more focused on farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchange in our earlier years, trying to facilitate the conditions under which farmers could share the knowledge that they held with each other. It wasn’t until COVID locked everything down that there was a rebirth and reconceptualization of the organization that focused more on how to shift the narratives and the power and politics within food systems… these things that aren’t getting discussed as much.


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VK:

So, looking back on COVID and now post-COVID, what would you say you’ve learned as it pertains to our food system? I know that personally, I’ve made a 180 degree shift.

JS:

Being locked down, I think redefined what security and safety meant to people – especially in those early times.

It’s really in line with the distinction that we draw between food security, versus food sovereignty. Food security is really about centralization most of the time, and top down mechanisms of trying to make sure that people have enough to survive. That system has really failed and has been a mechanism for the consolidation of corporate power – a means for countries like the US to generate immense surpluses through crazy subsidies and programs that usually don’t end up helping farmers all that much, but certainly help big corporations. And then just dumping on other countries and collapsing production in those countries, and running farmers out of business.

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That whole system clearly failed early on in COVID because it relies on these long distance supply chains operated by these big actors, before finally getting into people’s hands. During COVID, there was this momentary collective recognition that these systems that we thought were there to support us aren’t actually there for that reason. They’re a means for profit generation. And when those systems fail, people are really left to their own devices. And without the power to build from the ground up, without the autonomy and the means for self-determination which really comes with access to land, it’s very hard to know that your family is going to be okay.

So, I think we’ve now seen that many different sectors are bound up in each other, that things aren’t isolated. They exist in these giant global interconnected systems that can be very hard to disentangle.


VK:

Speaking of food security versus food sovereignty, I read somewhere that says your average supermarket stocks only a week’s worth of food. So, if there’s a break in the supply chain, that’s not good.

How much land would you say somebody needs to grow their own food for a small family?

JS:

I think it’s totally context-dependent on the kind of system that communities decide is relevant for them to grow food on their own terms.

The main narrative we try to dispel is the false claim that most of the world is getting fed by these massive industrial agriculture systems with thousands of acres of mono-crops. That’s not actually the case. We partner closely with a lot of research and policy-based organizations that are working to validate the knowledge of the food sovereignty movement, and what they’ve shown is that the vast majority of the world is fed not by large-scale operations, but actually by small-scale farmers, peasants and indigenous communities who are feeding closer to home through these very complex webs. 

There’s some disagreement around what constitutes small-scale. So, we try to weave that thread with grace. At the end of the day, there’s just a huge difference between small parcels of farmland on a handful of acres, compared to thousands of acres – the difference between functioning as a corporate entity where profit is the central motivation instead of a community-connected land relationship. That may look like a single actor managing the land or a communal management of land, which is what we see in a lot of the communities and movements we work with around the world – this push towards re-commoning so communities can have the kind of management that they used to have before vast processes of enclosure around the world privatized those means in the 18th and 19th centuries.

We are constantly given examples like the tragedy of the commons to illustrate that this communal model of land management is not feasible – and we fundamentally disagree. That narrative is full of holes and simply not true, because we see evidence around the world of communities finding ways to come together and understand how they can manage mutual resources in a way that nourishes them. And really, it’s about rebuilding a culture of care and deciding that this is how they want to be supported.

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VK:

Is that where the name, A Growing Culture, comes from?

JS:

I would say so. I think culture comes from having intentional conversations with the people you live around about values and beliefs, instead of letting large institutions who don’t have your interest in mind design or define them by default. 


VK:

It’s interesting that after COVID so many of us are not connecting as much with each other,  and citizens the world over are losing their ability to own land, while farmers continue losing farmland at a dizzying pace. 

I wanted to ask you about a recent study that claims the carbon footprint of homegrown food is six times higher than conventionally grown produce. I actually didn’t read it because I only needed to look at the headline to decide, “I’m not reading this sh*t”!

What are your thoughts on this kind of junk science that we’re starting to see more of?

JS:

Our approach to trying to change the narrative and to confront systems change is that, if the solution was primarily in presenting credible information, we would have been on our way to fixing these problems a long time ago.

There’s every academic article that you could possibly need to justify the kind of transitions that are needed. We already produce enough food globally to feed 1.5 times the world’s population (10 billion people), which is the highest possible estimate for 2050. So, that’s not the problem at all. And still, every push we see is about how we can produce more food.

And so, I wish it was as simple as finding and presenting the sources. But that’s not how we engage with meaning-making most of the time because it’s hard [to change our minds], once we get a certain idea locked in. So, we use narratives to tell stories, or we have narrative frames that transform how we view all kinds of stories – and we look at everything through that lens. 

The folks who are in positions of power to push narratives related to industrial agriculture have done an amazing job of stoking our fears and feeding into our apathy or complacency by telling us, “We have your back, and you just have to trust us.” The message is: “You don’t have to radically alter your life or your consumption patterns; just give us more resources, and we’ll solve the problem for you”.

So, the study you mention sounds in keeping with a long line of ads. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that we’ve seen science co-opted in the interest of corporate consolidation and power.


VK: 

That is slightly comforting. At the same time, there seems to be an increased boldness in some of the studies that are being pitched to us as fact.

Before our interview, I sent you a little summary about how a paper called the Flexner Report transformed Western medicine from a prevention-focused model, to disease-focused – creating a whole new system of business around medicine. 

I started thinking about it a lot when COVID happened. I thought, wow – it really feels like a similar thing is happening all over again. A new system that involves patented foods and medicines, this time. 

At Shroomer, we have an audience who are very much into functional mushrooms, who are connected to nature and want to heal themselves using food as medicine. Until now, we’ve kind of been able to take our access to nature for granted. I think that many people don’t realize that that access can be taken away and that there are efforts underway to make that happen.

I wonder if you have any thoughts on any of this. Were you able to read the report, and have you heard of it before?

JS:

No, I never heard about it before this.

As a disclaimer, I only briefly skimmed the recap of the Flexner Report, but it sounds familiar to everything that we’re seeing across the board. There is no profit incentive in everyone being healthy, in everyone having the things they need and the means to sustain themselves on their own. We’ve seen this throughout time. 

The history of the seed industry is very similar to this. For 10,000 years, communities have been saving seeds on their own behalf. And those seeds are the reason we have any crop we have today, and the reason they have nutritional value, that they can yield, and they can survive under different climatic conditions. Without this, we have nothing. We wouldn’t be able to exist.

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In the early days, US presidents all made sure that there was free federal seed distribution. The offices who are now in charge of spearheading the effort to curtail communities’ access to seed, (like the patent office) used to be in charge of free seed distribution. They were mailing out millions of seeds to farmers all over the country. They recognized that farmers are the most connected to food production and that they are the ones who need to have direct access to seeds so they can create this amazingly biodiverse cyclical system that’s self-sustaining.

At that time, different public institutions and extension offices had started doing seed research, but they were all still in service to communities and to farmers. They existed to say, “What do you need support with?” When seed companies, who were just distributors at the time, started getting greedy, they decided to introduce corporate-owned hybrid seeds, and [these public institutions] began to serve a much different role. 

In 1883, after 40 years of lobbying, the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) put an end to free federal seed distribution to communities because they wanted a cut of the profits. As soon as hybrid corn came to be in the 1930s, we started to see the rise of a formal private seed industry and the agrochemical industry. During World War I, corporations began to realize that you could filter all these chemical ammunition byproducts into fertilizers and agrochemicals, which created this toxic (and profitable) relationship around privatized seeds.

And with every step, the development of the private seed industry has worked to cut off  people’s means to access diversity, while promising the opposite. They’re always promising incredible innovation and development. But then when you look at the statistics, we’ve seen a 75% loss in the genetic diversity of agricultural crops in the last century because when you cut off community access to seeds, you cut off the ability for seeds to thrive. 

And I think similarly, what you’re flagging with healthcare is that there’s no incentive for people to be healed now. If you create a whole profitable system around something like, say, dialysis, you reduce the incentive to solve the root problem. You would just think that we would have enough advanced research to be able to reduce the prevalence of kidney failure. But instead, what you have is the expansion of massive corporations around the treatment of the symptom.

So, there’s no means to be able to bring holistic health to communities when profit is the driving principle.

Click here to learn more about the latest technologies being applied to our food systems and why everyone who eats food should care.


VK:

I have a good friend who’s a dialysis dietician. And there’s definitely a whole business built around diabetes.

We’ve stopped telling people that, in most instances, that lifestyle and nutrition can be powerful tools to reverse or improve this condition.

A while back, I worked for a nonprofit that brought medically tailored meals to people who were already really sick. I would see people in their 30s, in low-income communities, living in small spaces with no access to a decent supermarket with fresh produce. And by the time we reached them, they had had multiple bypass surgeries and amputations.

Our food system seems to leave so many casualties along the way.

JS:

We tend to only think of violence when there is a gun involved. But we absolutely think that there’s incredible violence in the way that these systems are set up. Entire communities are being deprived of their right to support themselves and their own health – which is intentional. 

People know that it’s causing suffering, but the institutions that put and keep these systems in place have the power to prevent this train from being stopped. 

Until we [collectively] decide that we want to change the rules of that system, we’re not going to see something different.

VK:

My mom was telling me a great story involving health sovereignty that happened 70+ years ago. A family friend’s son was dealing with a horrible abscess in his leg. The hospital had said, “We’re going to have to amputate.” And they didn’t want to do that. They took him to this indigenous healer in Iran who said, “OK, you’re going to need to show up with four men who will have to hold him down while I clean up the area using different botanicals. In a few weeks, you will return to me, again with four men to hold him down so I can apply an herbal poultice to the wound to clear the infection.” And in the end, he got to keep his leg.

So, I think we’ve really been conditioned to believe that the person in the white coat always knows best, when folk medicine has been around gathering wisdom for so much longer than that. Not too long ago, we used to take these matters into our own hands.

JS:

Right, and everything is coming from the land. 

I think the tech industry is a perfect example of this. The suggestion that digital is not material, that the tech industry’s power could be built without having access to land on which data servers are housed – or where the raw materials are mined to create microchips and all the physical things that actually house all this storage – it’s just not true.

Same thing with the medical sphere. We neglect to acknowledge the fact that, ultimately, all these chemicals are being synthesized and derived from the land.

And there’s so much knowledge that we used to hold ancestrally and communally to understand how to relate to that land, to live in balance, and to derive what we needed to care for ourselves and our communities that has been lost. We’ve just completely been de-skilled and are taught that we need to entrust everything to the “experts” in all these different areas, versus trying to re-equip ourselves. 

It’s true that building systems that allow us to have that direct hands-on relationship with nature can be a challenging process. But it doesn’t get better than having that pure access to land, which heals us in so many ways – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

VK:

You mentioned the resources that it takes to support the tech industry. The truth is that everything, including the tech industry itself was inspired by nature. The internet that we’re chatting on right now is inspired by mycelium (the wood wide web) – the original internet!

JS:

There’s an amazing book that outlines the evolution of the internet from its start to what it has become today.

I think this can be seen as an example of initially tapping into nature’s power, but with very different intentions that are really about the consolidation of control – which we don’t see in nature.


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VK:

So, I’ve been working my way up to asking you about the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). I looked into it, and it seems that it all starts with the World IP Property Organization (WIPO) – a UN agency. Is that right?

JS:

UPOV is both an institution and a private treaty formed in 1961.

It started with the UPOV convention, which was a gathering of six European countries. They were inspired by the US’ new plant patent laws and came together to figure out how they could implement similar patent protections in Europe. They could see that US seed companies were starting to gain a foothold and wanted to figure out how they could set the foundation for the kind of vast intellectual property control mechanisms we have today. With the growth of the corporate seed industry, seed breeding was becoming more and more expensive. They were looking for a way to protect corporate plant breeders so that their investment would be justified,

but they knew that if they pitched the same thing in Europe (where people are a lot more wary of these kinds of centralized systems of power), that people would push back out of fear that plant patents would lead to higher food prices. So, they pitched this other system (plant variety protection through the UPOV convention). And gradually, UPOV has just gotten closer and closer to a patent system. 

The 1961 convention also created a formal intergovernmental body by the same name (UPOV), which is housed at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

UPOV has become weaponized through the World Trade Organization (WTO) through their TRIPS agreements (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights). That system is a requirement for any country that wants to be a part of the WTO. In order to fulfill your requirement under TRIPS related to plant variety protection, you have to adopt one of three things: a patent system, a sui generis system (a unique system that each country can outline on their own), or UPOV. The issue is that countries are being led to believe that they can only meet this requirement by signing onto the UPOV convention. If they don’t sign on, they face ongoing pressure until they do.

VK:

I see a lot of similarities with what US patent laws and UPOV have done over the past decades to take away health sovereignty and access to diverse foods, and what is happening with the ramped-up attempts at globalizing healthcare – always in the name of safety. UPOV claims that member countries are free to make independent decisions based on what is good for their nation, but actually, they tie their hands with regulations that force them to eventually comply.

So, what is happening to farmers in the US as a result of these patent laws?

JS:

The interesting thing is that there’s a lot less happening to farmers in the US than anywhere else. Partly, because we’re the main drivers of big agriculture – we’re at the center of the show. And we’re creating these large scale consolidated systems that are being imposed elsewhere, but we haven’t really turned the heat of it on US farmers yet.

So, the US still has the capacity to have pretty robust heirloom or small-scale seed breeding and saving systems without the criminalization that we’re seeing in other countries. It might come in the future, once all resources have been tapped elsewhere. But it’s also important to note that most of the seeds that have built agricultural success in the U.S. were brought from other parts of the world. A lot of energy has been invested in how we can gain control over what exists elsewhere.

Most of the folks who have suffered because of UPOV are far outside the borders of the U.S. We’re seeing a big push across Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. 

VK:

Here in the US, I understand there is a lot happening with farmland and patented seeds.

For example, let’s say an organic farmer owns land next to a farm that uses patented seeds. If the patented seed jumps to the organic farm next door, the corporate-owned farm can sue and take his land. Is that right?

JS:

This can happen with seeds, particularly genetically modified seeds, from some of the biggest agribusiness companies (like Bayer-Monsanto) under plant patent laws.

But UPOV, too, has stipulations that can be incredibly aggressive. Just to clarify, UPOV is a treaty, but once it gets approved, each country then passes its own laws in accordance with it, and those laws can vary from country to country. So, it doesn’t necessarily look the same everywhere. 

Ultimately, a farmer who is accused of violating plant protection laws is potentially subject to having their harvest, equipment, and even land seized by the seed corporations who are accusing them of misuse. These corporations claim that the value of what they’re generating for humanity is so great that any perceived threat to their protected product must be eliminated. Often, though, these are just really fear-mongering tactics. To the degree they’re actually playing out, and resulting in communities having their land seized, is less clear. But, the fact is that communities are being given this clear sign that “You need to stay in your place, and if you try to assert your rights to be able to do the things you previously could, you’re potentially gonna face some severe consequences.”

VK:

Right. And I would imagine, in places like Africa that have been kept poor because of our extraction and export of their resources, that it would be very easy to find a handful of people

to implement the changes needed to favor industrializing agriculture.

So, with regard to Mexico and corn – the US has been ramping up efforts to push GMO corn on Mexico. Is this right?

JS:

In the case of Mexico, the GMO corn that the US is pushing is bound up in the US system of plant patents. But the storyline is effectively the same. The US is doing everything they can to try to make sure that Mexico lets go of the struggle, which has been very alive for a long time now.

To learn more about the latest developments on Mexico’s fight to protect its corn varietes, click here.


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VK:

What is something people can do, on an individual (and collective) level, to maintain their food and health sovereignty? 

JS:

The first priority is to get people to care about seeds in the first place. There’s been an intentional push to separate us from the land, from the means of production, and from the things that sustain us – and seeds play a major role in our sustenance. But we don’t think about them. Most of us have never touched or planted seeds. 

But I think that people are waking up to the fact that this is something that might be worth

caring about. Ultimately, this requires thinking about what the means are that sustain you in your own community – how you get access to food, what your local foodshed looks like, and how secure it is. Reflecting on how we’re being fed and nourished each day and then connecting and forming relationships with the folks who are doing that work as locally as possible is an important start. Our food is everything, and without it, we can’t survive. As Thomas Sankara said, ”He who feeds you controls you.” 

There are movements mobilizing around these ideas. They may not know exactly what the right move is, they just know the system that we currently have needs to change. And that means that we have to be in dialogue with each other, and align on the fact that this is not a desirable system. Then, we can begin to envision a system that’s more in line with our collective values.

VK:

I agree. 

And sometimes, when very passionate people get together to make big changes, they wind up quibbling over little differences to the point that they get nothing done. What are your thoughts on that?

JS:

Right. We’re weak when we’re divided. 

In that sense, I think we have so much to learn from seeds. They give of themselves abundantly. They’re freely accessible. And once you have access to one seed, you potentially have all the seeds you could ever need for the rest of your life. What other thing exists like that, with so much potential to support us?

I think something we really need to consider in a place like the US, where we’re so obsessed

with privatizing everything and needing things to be bound up in profit and control… is whether we should be able to own seeds at all. This is a question that’s hotly debated, and one that everyone needs to be engaged with. We need to ask ourselves what reality we create when we impose these systems of ownership over things that sustain us, and what it could look like to have a system where ownership and profit doesn’t factor in anymore.

VK:

Definitely. That’s why mushroom people are so generous in sharing their knowledge – it’s an effort to democratize access to mushrooms by teaching each other how to grow our own, and to know which mushrooms are safe to eat, etc.

Are there any more actionable steps you’d like to share with our readers who want to know how they can get more active in advocating for food sovereignty? 

JS:

Oftentimes, when I tell people about the work that my organization does to support social movements around the world that are made up of farmers advocating to reclaim their land rights, their seeds, and their means of life… they assume that the work is about bringing the “advanced” knowledge of the U.S. to the rest of the world.

It’s important we take a step back, and check that instinct a bit, because most of the problems we’re seeing around the world exist because countries like the US have imposed their version of truth around the world. I think that Europe is much better off in terms of how they deal with hunger and food, though still so far from where we collectively need to be.

If we look more to the so-called Global South, these countries that have been preyed upon, colonized and extracted from for so long, we see this incredible network of communities finding creative and sustainable ways to support themselves with very little means and in the face of constant threats. We have so much to learn from them. So, I think one of the most significant things we can do is to look outside of the U.S. for solutions because the communities who are having to actively resist the pressures brought on by giant industrial food systems are so full of hope and unbridled ingenuity. 

Our role is to be that bridge and to provide more resources and visibility to issues around global food sovereignty. But we must remember to look for inspiration elsewhere in the world, and not be exceptional about the US, I think that’s a big one.

VK:

Sound advice. 

Can you share with us some of the ways you stay balanced in an area of work that can sometimes be so intense?

JS:

I think it’s always a process. Balance tends to happen over a longer timeframe than I maybe used to think. 

I’m so grateful to work with an organization, and with partners around the world who bring such a diversity of perspectives, and who are willing to show up honestly – that’s just such a gift. So, I encourage people who are craving some balance in this work to similarly seek out spaces that offer a diversity of perspectives so that it doesn’t feel like they’re in it alone or that they’re in an echo chamber. 

I also think a spiritual practice is necessary. Learning to make peace with what is outside of our control, while at the same time continuing to push for the changes we’re looking to make in the long run. They may not happen in my lifetime, but we’ll plant the seeds for the next generation.


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interview
Vivian Kanchian

Vivian Kanchian

Content Writer

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