What if there was a prize for food sovereignty?

There is—and it’s an emerging alternative to the far better known, lucrative, and contentious World Food Prize.

On Sunday evening, a group of over 100 food activists, farmers, artists, and community members from across the world gathered in downtown Bellingham, Washington to honor the recipients of this year’s Food Sovereignty Prize.

The awards were were founded in 2009 with the stated mission of celebrating grassroots efforts to promote food sovereignty—defined as a community’s ability to feed itself culturally appropriate cuisine while maintaining control over the means of food production.

But it’s the Food Sovereignty Prize’s anti-imperialist ethos—highlighting women, migrants, people of color, and farmworkers who are historically marginalized in the global food system, and often in awards ceremonies honoring efforts to change it—that stands in sharp contrast with a far better known, lucrative, and contentious accolade: the World Food Prize.

First awarded in 1987, the World Food Prize is meant to honor “individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.” It has been called the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture” and it comes with $250,000 in cash, sponsored by over 80 companies, individuals, and philanthropic organizations.

At the heart of the tension between the World Food Prize and the Food Sovereignty Prize is a tale of competing visions for the future of farming.
In part due to these sponsorships, the World Food Prize has become a lightning rod for criticism by food justice activists. In addition to counting agriculture multinationals among its donors, the World Food Prize lists the former president of agrochemical giant DuPont’s seed subsidiary as one of its advisors. To top that off, in 2013, the prize was controversially awarded to Monsanto’s chief technology officer.

The World Food Prize’s focus on large food and pesticide companies is the antithesis of the Food Sovereignty Prize, said Julianna Fischer, a coordinator for the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, a network of food justice groups across the country that oversees and awards the prize.

“The larger issue is corporate control of our food system,” she told me by phone. “We have a food system right now that doesn’t honor the hands that feed us and doesn’t provide dignity to a lot of the food workers along the food chain.”

The domestic Food Sovereignty Prize was awarded this year to Black Mesa Water Coalition, which promotes ancestral cuisine and farming methods in Navajo and Hopi communities. And the international prize went to Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico, which works to strengthen local and environmentally-sound food production on the island.

Yes, by the way, the awards are aware that Puerto Rico is technically a territory of the U.S. The choice to designate Organización Boricuá “international” was political, a statement declaring Puerto Rico’s autonomy from colonial forces, like the United States.

“Organización Boricuá believes in sovereignty for Puerto Rico—they don’t want it to be a colony of the United States,” said Fischer. “We wanted to honor that [….] We, as an alliance, support them and we’re in solidarity with their struggle for sovereignty.”

At the heart of the tension between the World Food Prize and the Food Sovereignty Prize is a tale of competing visions for the future of farming.

“We can feed the world in a few different ways, but we believe that we need to feed the world through food sovereignty, local control, local decision making, [and] local access, rather than by large corporations that are really just trying to make money off of our ability to survive and thrive,” Fischer said.

Meanwhile, Occupy the World Food Prize, a group of activists and organizers, has for more than six years protested that award’s coziness with big agricultural companies. In 2016, William Talen, also known as “Reverend Billy,” was arrested while demonstrating against it. (Charges were later dropped.)

This year, the World Food Prize ceremony will be held on Thursday, October 18, and an Occupy corresponding protest has likewise been set.

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.