Deep Democracy: Can it Help Solve the 'Wicked Problems We Face Today'?

La Via Campesina's 20 year anniversary conference in Jakarta, Indonesia in 2013. (Photo: Global Justice Now/flickr/cc)

Deep Democracy: Can it Help Solve the 'Wicked Problems We Face Today'?

New report says an empowered citizenry could help make food sovereignty—a food system of, for, and by the people—practical and real

Citizens and communities engaged in "deep democracy" have the potential to counteract the ills plaguing society, such as historically low voter turn-out, ideological extremism, rampant inequality, and expanding corporate influence, according to a report issued this week by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

In particular, the report's authors argue, "the efforts underway to make food systems more resilient and sustainable can be supported and facilitated through deep democratic processes."

Food advocates face a system with insufficient access to affordable food, huge amounts of food waste, and obesity all at the same time. "How can we simultaneously counter trends in hunger, obesity, widening socioeconomic disparity, an aging farm population being squeezed out of sustainable livelihoods and environmental damage?" wonder M. Jahi Chappell and Jill Carlson, co-authors of "Deepening Food Democracy" (pdf).

With deep democracy, that's how.

"Deep democracy blurs the lines between the government and citizen in order to make both more effective at solving tough problems," they write. "Deep democracy takes 'We the People' seriously, understanding that democracy is something that can always be improved, not somewhere we've already arrived. This is particularly true in the case of food and agriculture, where we increasingly have a system that 'as individuals none of us would choose'--a system with insufficient access to affordable food, huge amounts of food waste and obesity all at the same time. Deep democracy offers the potential to turn things around by creating new spaces and ways for us to solve our problems, by talking directly to each other, and coming up with common-sense solutions together."

Citing the successes of international groups like La Via Campesina as well as smaller scale efforts in communities across the U.S., Chappell and Carlson explore how empowering the citizenry, integrating marginalized voices into decision-making processes, minimizing barriers to participation, and enabling cooperation across dividing lines--all core tenets of deep democracy--in turn leads to stronger local economies and food systems.

In North Carolina, for example, a boom of food policy councils has increased transparency and communication among relevant local, state, and non-profit entities. "Councils are encouraged to rethink the way they communicate, the way they structure agendas, where and when they meet to better include marginalized voices," the authors describe. "They are encouraged to go beyond including the one 'token' farmer."

And the benefits don't stop there, states the report. In fact, "the gamut of wicked problems we face today--worldwide hunger and poverty, rising rates of obesity and preventable diseases, stagnating economy, issues of land, water, and resource vulnerability and scarcity, biodiversity loss, global climate change--can all be connected to the way we grow, exchange and eat food."

Of the push for food sovereignty, Chappell and Carlson write: "This burgeoning food movement is as much about putting power back into the hands of communities, food workers, farmers and farm workers as it is about producing and distributing healthy, sustainably-grown food. And what's more, even as we are having these conversations in the United States, there are active social movements and a whole international conversation working very much in parallel."

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