Food politics and the tyranny of rights

A profile of Brewster Kneen


Is rights-based activism a step in the wrong direction?

It’s the end of October in Montreal. About 20 of us have stepped away from what could be the year’s last sunny autumn evening for an opportunity to hear from one of Canada’s most important elder activists and thinkers. Brewster Kneen is in town to talk about his new book, The Tyranny of Rights (Ram’s Horn, 2009).

I remember gathering not far from this room on McGill’s campus nearly a decade ago when Brewster was on a road show for his previous book, Farmageddon. That book tore a strip off the overhyped biotech industry and laid plain how our government was colluding with companies like Monsanto to dramatically alter our food system for the sake of corporate profit. The room was packed that night — testimony to the mass food movement that had been building across the country — a movement which Brewster played a critical role in shaping.

But now, 10 years later, it’s a much smaller crowd. Those who are gathered are an eclectic bunch, and probably wouldn’t identify with any single movement. The topic this time isn’t food, and the familiar following of food activists is notably absent.

This time, Brewster’s book is about rights. The connection with his previous work is not obvious. Why would Brewster leave the comfort of a blossoming movement for a lonely struggle to take on what he calls “the tyranny of rights?”

A conversation between covers

About 40 years ago, Brewster and his wife and co-conspirator Cathleen left their friends and fellow activists in Toronto to take up sheep farming in Nova Scotia. He says they wanted to walk the talk and get some experience with “primary production.” Several years of hard work later, with a well-functioning farm to show for their efforts, the Kneens started once again to organize.

They began raising questions about the structure of the industry and working with other farmers to set up land trusts, co-operatives and other means of reclaiming some power in the food system. They were learning a lot from their experience on the farm and from conversations with fellow farmers and other actors in the food system. As was natural to them, they looked for ways to share this knowledge. Thus was born the Ram’s Horn (, a monthly newsletter on food and farming that the Kneens are still churning out today.

Brewster’s first book also emerged from this plunge into farming and food politics. From Land to Mouth remains perhaps the most succinct explanation of the logic of the industrial food system I’ve encountered. Brewster’s insight into how the system expands and creates profit for agribusiness by constantly creating distance between the various points along the food chain is still central to the current analysis of the industry. It also helped lay the groundwork for one of the most important responses to industrial food — the local food movement.

If Brewster was able to unpack the underlying logic of the corporate food system and provide its critics (and victims) with such enduring insights, it is perhaps because he did not do so alone. Brewster thrives in conversation with others. He talks to everyone. He asks tough questions. He regularly makes impromptu visits to corporate offices or the stalls of Ottawa bureaucrats. He’s not afraid to risk causing discomfort at neighbourhood potlucks by talking politics. And through these ongoing conversations Brewster gathers insights into the ways systems work.

Out of such conversations, Brewster also came to understand, long before the rest of us, that the new source of power in the food system and the broader economy is the corporation. This is why he immersed himself in the study of perhaps the world’s most important — and most opaque — food and agriculture company: Cargill. His book on Cargill has been translated into four languages and has taken Brewster around the globe, meeting with farmers and activists facing off against the huge behemoth — and leading Brewster into ever more conversations, some of which opened the path towards his latest book on rights.

The tyranny of rights

The organizer of the Montreal event was Aziz Choudry, a New Zealand activist and professor who first met Brewster in Kuala Lumpur during a forum held to protest a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Brewster had been invited to talk about Cargill and to build bridges between Canadian farmers and peasant movements in Asia. In the ensuing years, Brewster made many other stops around the planet, talking with farmers, activists, indigenous peoples, professors, religious leaders and even corporate and government types, jotting down ideas, insights and data in the various notebooks he takes everywhere with him.

The more he talked with people, the more he saw the connections between their various struggles, and the more he began to develop ideas about how these struggles could be brought together. But he also began to see how certain ways of thinking actually inhibited effective, collective action. For Brewster, the expansion of the use of the “rights” discourse, by both activists and corporations, was a central problem facing global struggles for social justice.

Food is Brewster’s entry point into talking about rights — and for good reason. Over the years the term “rights” has assumed a more and more prominent place on the agricultural landscape. The most glaring example of this is corporations claiming property rights over seeds and strands of plant DNA. The age-old and open systems of sharing and co-operation that characterize both farmers’ seed systems and public plant breeding have been largely destroyed to make way for a corporate seed system that criminalizes such practices in order to protect the “intellectual property rights” of corporations. One response to this attack has been to call for farmers’ rights.

Brewster has worked closely with those who call for farmers’ rights. He probably once argued for them himself. But after a decade or so of going nowhere with the concept, Brewster feels it is time to question whether we are on the right path. As he now sees it, such “reactive claims” for rights are never going to work because they are, necessarily, appeals to states that are interested in protecting corporations, not farmers.

Plus, if you get right down to it, why should farmers all of a sudden need the state to protect their seed saving? Sure, corporations need the state to stop farmers from saving seeds, but farmers have never needed the state to help them save seeds.

As Brewster points out, “Without the state there would be no Plant Breeders rights, no copyrights and no patents. Farmers who save, select and use their own seeds neither have nor require such state “˜protection’ to go about their work.”

The problem, for Brewster, is not a lack of rights. Farmers’ rights are a distraction that takes us away from the urgent matter of abolishing patents over seeds and re-establishing the conditions for farmers to be able to save seeds.

From individual rights to collective responsibilities

Brewster takes this same line of thinking into his discussion of the “right to food” — another rights claim emerging from the deep social inequities of the current food system. He likens it to an empty bowl: an abstract concept that avoids a clear political agenda for action. Like farmers’ rights, it is an appeal to the state, when what we need are concrete plans for how to feed ourselves.

“A direct moral appeal to the public for the construction of an equitable and ecological food system” he writes, “might, actually, be more politically effective and morally satisfying — though much harder — than appealing to governments for the right to food. Such a direct, public approach is captured by the term “˜food sovereignty’ which has rapidly gained usage around the world.”

But more is at stake here, and this is why Brewster has devoted a good year or two to his new book. In his eyes, all fights for rights are ultimately beholden to a narrow Western concept of human rights that feeds into today’s globalized capitalism. The rights framework privileges the individual over the collective and leads us away from other notions, like responsibility and gratitude, which are central to many non-Western societies and provide, in his view, a better footing for social transformation.

The rights framework also feeds into a more generalized proliferation of rights claims, which only favours corporations and the powerful. The global push for intellectual property rights, for example, is commodifying knowledge while strangling our capacity for collective work and creativity, whether we are farmers, writers, musicians or software developers.

Moreover, Brewster warns that the rights language provides a slippery slope towards military intervention. In one of the last chapters of his book, Brewster describes how rights, in this case the “right to intervene” inherent in the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, are being evoked to justify military invasions. He does not dispute that human rights violations are going on and need to be stopped, but for him the “right to intervene” creates a loose framework that is easily manipulated to serve the interests of powerful states, overriding the long-standing notion of state sovereignty in the process. He wants us to think hard about the dramatic implications of this trend.

Brewster stops short, however, of a blanket condemnation of all use of the “rights” language. He is sympathetic to struggles for social and collective rights, especially if they come not as appeals to the state but as declarations by communities or other collectives of what the state can and cannot do. And he is certainly supportive of many of the processes where “rights” are being defined, such as with the struggles against dictatorships in Latin America in the second half of the 20th century. But given all the problematic aspects of “rights” that he details, Brewster cannot help but conclude that it would be better if we avoided the term.

“My conclusion” Brewster writes, “is that social and individual justice is not furthered by the language of rights. Justice would be much better served not by making claims and demands, but by stating what is being done and what must be done by those that otherwise might be making a claim for the right to do something… . It is time to consider whether the language of rights actually serves the intents of social justice or has become just an illusion of intent — good intent, to be sure — behind which individualization and privatization are carried on unimpeded.”

If we are to form a strong global movement, convenient terms like “rights” cannot be used as shortcuts. We need to speak clearly and candidly about how we can meet our needs and the needs of others. Thanks to Brewster Kneen, the conversation is well underway.

Devlin Kuyek is a researcher with the international organization GRAIN and a special advisor to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network. He is the author of Good Crop/Bad Crop: Seed politics and the future of food in Canada (Between the Lines, 2007).

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