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February 2007
Breaking the Food Chains: Liberating the World Through the Power of Our Plate
By Lauren Ornelas


Last January, I had the privilege of speaking at the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela. With all the changes taking place under President Hugo Chavez, it was incredible to see a revolution for the people in progress.

One of the most amazing things was how the nation had begun using food as a tool to empower people.

In this Latin American city, organic gardens have sprung up everywhere, from the heart of the city to the outskirts in cooperatives.

In one area of Caracas, at the crossroads between two highways, there had been a plot of land full of trash. It took an estimated 14 truckloads to remove the garbage, but the government transformed that space into a garden maintained by homeless people. Another area that was once an oil refinery was converted into two cooperative factories, a free clinic and an organic garden maintained by senior citizens. The food grown was fed to the workers and the rest was sold in a local market.

My talk at the forum was geared towards reminding people of the connection their food has to the animals, the land and, of course, politics. But attending the conference pushed me to reflect on these issues more deeply than I ever had before. As I met activists from many other countries, I realized that our food choices shape nearly every aspect of our world—the oppression of animals, workers’ lives, immigration issues, and the purity of our water and air.

Many people reading this article know how horrible life is for animals in industrial agriculture. I have spent a number of years investigating factory farms and have come face to face with the suffering and the despair of these animals, from mother pigs in crates so small they can’t even turn around to hens in cages who will never experience fresh air just so people can eat their eggs.

The environmental consequences of this cruel system are becoming increasingly known. Treating animals like food factories has a negative impact on the water and air. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), dairy farms have caused an environmental crisis in California, the number one dairy-producing state. Each dairy cow produces 120 pounds of wet manure per day—that’s equivalent to the daily amount of waste generated by 20 to 40 humans.

Some of the injustices surrounding factory farming are not as obvious. One of the most serious is environmental racism. Farms run by corporations are more concentrated in poor and non-white areas than those run by independent farms. These communities bear a disproportionate share of the environmental impact of these facilities. And disturbingly, U.S. corporations have also exported this cruel and destructive system of farming to other countries. It’s just one more way that our corporations are exploiting other countries’ natural and human resources.

This trend is likely to accelerate as tighter environmental regulations in the U.S. may force companies to look elsewhere to build industrialized farms.

Those of us who want to save the planet from corporate exploitation and injustice sometimes overlook two very simple steps we can take to stand apart from this cruel system—stop eating animals and examine where our food comes from.

The Politics of Food at Work
Recently, a Los Angeles community garden was destroyed by developers, and the farmers were evicted. This 14-acre community farm was believed to be one of the largest in the U.S. Approximately 350 families were using this land to grow their food. According to the South Central Farmer’s website, “The families using the plots are low income and depend heavily upon the food they grow to feed themselves.”

There is much more to this story and the fight that took place. But the beauty of it was how people were willing to fight to grow their own food. They wanted to take control over their livelihood.

I think we would find more communities willing to be more self-sufficient if they were given the opportunity.

At last year’s World Social Forum, there were tens of thousands of people and hundreds of panels taking place all over the large city. My talk was attended by people from places such as Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico and even the U.S.

After my talk, a number of people went with us to a local vegetarian restaurant. For some, it was their first time. I don’t know if they will embrace a vegan lifestyle, the diet most free of the oppression, but I know that I made an impact based on the number of people who asked questions afterwards on how they could work to stop these abuses from taking place in their country.

What hit me hardest as I left this conference is the devastation that many U.S. corporations are causing all over the world. The connections between these issues require more attention.

That’s certainly the case for those of us in the animal rights movement. We can only become stronger when we stick with our consistent beliefs and work against all injustice and embrace exposing the other issues related to our food.

Work to buy more local produce from farmers markets, support community gardens, and maybe even grow your own food! Being vegan is just the first step if you are interested in helping to eliminate oppression.

No one is perfect, but we can all strive to find out how workers are treated and not buy exploitive food items such as chocolate unless they are organic and free of slavery. If anyone can help push the food supply to be kinder, it is us.

We must see every purchase we make as a vote and a reflection of who we are.

More than anything, we need to see a rebirth in how we all see food and the power it holds.

It’s time to take the power back.

¡Ya Basta!

Lauren Ornelas is the former director of Viva!USA. If you’d like to discuss the concepts in her article, you can reach her at


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