Updated: Jul 8
Systemic racism in agriculture is painfully obvious. Why has it taken a new Civil Rights movement to expose the sordid roots and present-day inequalities in food and farming as well?
In the last 155 years, there has been far less social progress than many people would like to believe, not only in the United States but in many European countries as well. In 2020, racism still seeps its way into every aspect of life; from unconscious bias and microaggressions in everyday interactions to domestic and international policy and enforcement.
Fighting injustice in all its forms equals fighting racism too – hunger, malnutrition, poverty, income inequality, climate change and gender inequity.
Agriculture sees barriers that prevent the inclusion and success of marginalized groups, even if only a few addresses this problematic. It’s imperative to address how synonymous the origins of our food system are with the battle currently being fought – how the success of global agriculture has been sown with the blood and sweat of people of colour.
In almost every country, modern agriculture was built on the backs of enslaved people who were used as property and valued only as production units. They produced cotton, tobacco, sugar, indigo, rice, sweet potato, peanuts, watermelon and okra. This unrelenting free labour, coupled with simultaneous extraction of farming knowledge, directly led to the motherlands’ economic domination of the 18th century and pervasive industrialized agricultural ascendancy that remains today — facilitating an empire of production, processing and trade. When slavery finally became illegal, the tradition of Black exploitation for food-flow gain continued in the form of tenant farming, sharecropping and land grabbing.
In the 1930s, as minimum wage and other legislation were enacted to protect labour rights, the agricultural industry remained exempt and farmworkers -at the time, predominately African Americans- were excluded. This loophole was not modified until the 1980s. For instance, the American designation as the ‘crop basket of the world’ would not have been possible without the unwilling sacrifice of Africans and African Americans.
But today, the Black community is disproportionately worldwide impacted by food insecurity, malnutrition, diet-related disease, lack of land ownership and large exclusion from agriculture as a whole. The Commonwealth agricultural foundation follows a tradition of forced labour spanning huge expanses of time and place. Most of our favourite grocery items are a product of colonialism, widely available thanks to the almost standardized practice of one powerful predominantly white nation dropping anchor onto a foreign land, conquering and brutally subjugating its indigenous people, ravaging the soil with the compulsory workforce of human ‘property,’ and sending resulting agricultural goods back to its own and other wealthy countries at an enormous profit.
The Dutch East Indies brought Arabica and sugar, British India produced tea and spices, German East Africa ushered in sesame and Robusta, French West Africa brought chocolate and peanuts and the Belgian Congo palm oil and sugar. When slavery was no longer condoned, oppressive conditions on stolen land remained. While each wave of colonialism has its nuanced narrative, they all propagated from the same seed – racism.
This subjugation continues to play out, under new names but similar practices, all over the world. In many countries, racial, indigenous, ethnic or caste groups are deemed ‘less than’ – less worthy of basic safety and human rights, of fair play and equal opportunity and dignity. Considering 70% of the world’s hungry are or used as food producers, it’s a statistical certainty that what is on our plates stems from one of these groups.
Poverty is not an accident. When entire groups of people experience similar forms of socio-economic marginalization, that is by design. It is intergenerational. It is systemic, born of racially and ethnically driven oppression. It is intolerable.
We cannot change the past, but we can actively acknowledge it. We must begin the more critical work of changing the course of the future, which means actively supporting communities of colour in our local and global food system. There’s much to be done. Governments must enact policies to ensure full, inclusive and healthy participation in agricultural livelihoods and access. Consumers can seek out black-owned agri-businesses and take a stand against corporations that source ingredients for unethical prices and in many cases, via actual forced and/or child labour.
The world is ripe for real change, and we as Urban Kapital are ready for it.