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  • Writer's pictureT Schwab

Foodspiracy: Unsustainability, Oppression, and the Global Food System

Updated: May 18, 2021

Fields of a green crop with mountains in the background.

Photo by Tim Mossholder

Documentaries such as “Seaspiracy” and its older sibling “Cowspiracy” continue the idea that sustainability can be achieved through individuals’ actions—and most of all through going vegan. While decreases in meat consumption and production would create a large positive impact on the planet, individual consumption will never truly be the answer to solving a systematic issue. The problem is not simply meat—it’s the global food system.

The global food system is a capitalist, colonial one, built by the oppression and exploitation of racialized peoples.

Beginnings of the Global Food System

During the time of trade, the Global South spices were a commodity that Europeans were willing to pay a lot for. Until the turn of the 15th century when Venice’s pepper prices increased and Europeans found a need to have their way to retrieve these spices. This marked the beginning of Europeans’ violent conquest to colonize the world and with it the destruction of traditional food systems to form our current global one. This degradation of food systems is said to have taken place in three stages. Firstly, through moving the world’s main sugar productions westward in the Middle Ages. Then through the development of trade routes, which Western peoples were given privileged accesses to, and finally through the European control over production through violence (See Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Food: A History for more).

During this time of colonization, French and English settlers entered so-called Canada. Colonizers ignored Indigenous ways of reciprocity with land and instead called it “empty land” (terra nullius) and something to be discovered. They considered Indigenous culture undeveloped, and the land underused. This began the process of colonization of so-called Canada and with it the erasure of traditional, local food systems with those of the European settlers. The impacts of this removal had destructive effects on Indigenous cultures, which are irremovable from relation to land. Colonizers believed that control over foodways would act as a way to streamline the colonial project and believed that “Agriculture would teach an appreciation of private property and impart a will to own and master nature” as Sarah Carter suggests. Foodways and agriculture are undeniably intertwined with colonialism.

Entering into the 16th century, America’s oppression of Black folk through the destructive system of slavery began. And with it, the tremendous wealth gained through this violence and exploitation became funding for the military, plantations, and the industrial revolution—meaning that the wealth gained through slavery funded the formation of the industrialized global food system (through the industrial revolution).

The violent acts of slavery and colonization are still deeply embedded in today’s global food systems and the gender, race, and class oppression that is formed by anti-Black racism “have functioned as primary organizing principles, [with] labour exploitation [as] the rule” as said by food systems scholar Patricia Allen.

Global Food Systems: Bad for Planet

The global food system, which has been built upon the ideologies of white supremacy, capitalism and the domination of nature, has created undeniable impacts on the planet’s current environmental crisis.

Firstly, before food production can begin land must be used—meaning land that is often already stolen must be cleared, habitats must be lost, and wildlife species must be disrupted to first begin to be used for agriculture. This has led to half of the world’s hospitable lands being used for agriculture which has large effects on biodiversity, putting 24,000 species at risk of extinction.

Once the land is ready to be used for food production chemical fertilizers are implemented to double the rates of production at the cost of nitrogen and other nutrients pollution, adding to the 78% of global freshwater and ocean eutrophication. Excess levels of nitrogen and phosphorus pollutants make their way into soil, air and water and accumulate. This causes eutrophication, harming ecosystems by overloading them with nutrients. In aquatic ecosystems, this has led to toxic algae blooms, which can be eaten by other organisms, leading to the buildup of these harmful nutrients as they move up the food pyramid (bioaccumulation) which can result in reduced fertility, cause genetic damage to species and eventually kill them. This nutrient runoff also plays a role in the formation of dead zones found in aquatic ecosystems, where nothing can survive.

During the production of food, many unsustainable practices contribute to the degradation of the planet. 70% of freshwater use is for the irrigation of agriculture, which creates a depletion of downstream groundwater and rivers, and can affect the soil of ecosystems causing harm to plant growth. Livestock production leads to large negative environmental effects and includes abusive practices towards the animals. Of the 50% of livable lands that agriculture takes up, 77% of it is livestock pastures and accounts for 31% of the food systems’ gas emissions, most notably being methane. Livestock farming also takes a large amount of water and produces extreme amounts of waste which can find its way into water systems, further polluting them.

After food production, the land where it was produced can become barren due to the damage of such unsustainable practices. Food waste is also seen, which accounts for 1/4 of food-related emissions. Food is also transported from where it’s grown to other regions, usually, ones much wealthier than where it was grown, so wealthy countries do not have to bear the impact of this unsustainable system.

Global Food Systems: Bad for People

Like most systems that rely on the domination of nature, the global food system proves to be detrimental for people as well because “dominating nature stems from the domination of human by human [due to] . . . institutionalized systems of coercion, command, and obedience” as American philosopher Murray Bookchin says.

Labour practises historically and presently in the food system rely on the marginalization of low-income and racialized people. The system calls for cheap food, which calls for cheap labour, and cheap labour will always be exploitative. Labour practises of the food systems are built from a history of enslavement, leading to what is now called “modern-day slavery”. Farmworkers, meat-packagers, those working in food-processing facilities, and even food retail are subject to atrocious, abusive working conditions, are often paid very low income, work long hours in bad conditions, and are subject to health problems due to antibiotic uses and unsafe working conditions.

This is an issue that has been highlighted due to the recent increased number of deaths of workers due to COVID-19 outbreaks in meat-packaging facilities that refused sick leave and allowed the facility to continue running. Labour practises in this industry are built off the ideas of human lives as expendable, with racialized and immigrant workers—who often have no other choice for work—being the ones impacted.

The agricultural industry is also predominantly made up of white farmers. Black farmers in the U.S. at one point owned 16 million acres of farmland and by 1997 owned just 2 million acres, because of decades of racial segregation and the government’s financial support of white farmers. Today BIPOC farmers make up less than 8% and only half own the land which they farm. The current agricultural system puts white people in leadership positions that are higher paid and safer while simultaneously exploiting BIPOC and low-income folks’ labour in low-paying, intensive labour roles.

These inequalities continue in affecting food by choosing who it goes to. Poverty resulting from low-paying jobs results in an inability to buy healthy food. This is also coupled with food apartheid—a term used to describe the “systematic destruction of Black self-determination to control one’s food, hyper-saturation of destructive foods and predatory marketing, and blatantly discriminatory corporate-controlled food system that results in [communities of colour] suffering from some of the highest rates of heart disease and diabetes of all time” as described by U.S. activist Dara Cooper.

Predominantly white neighbourhoods will have ample access to grocery stores, food markets and land, while communities of colour do not have this same access, and the impacts of this can be devastating. The food system is built on processed foods high in fats, sugars, and oils that carry detrimental effects on health, leading to increased rates of heart disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes and cancer—all of which are top causes of death.

The separation of Indigenous peoples from their food systems and land has been shown to have harmful effects on Indigenous communities in Canada. Food insecurity, malnutrition, and chronic disease are all issues faced by Indigenous communities. This is because healthy foods in remote and rural areas are too expensive to afford and the forced reliance on the unhealthy and cheap foods which make up the current global food system, through the removal of access to traditional food systems.

What’s Been Done About This

Efforts to find solutions to this large, complicated issue have been made, though the centring of white folk in it proved these efforts to further the problem. A large movement that highlights this is the alternative food movement’s calls to eat local, grow your food, and “vote with your fork”. While this movement has made improvements to the food system, it also practises social exclusion by ignoring the foodways of BIPOC and low-income folk, promoting time-consuming and expensive solutions, and ignoring the systematic oppression of the global food system. The alternative food movement instead takes the stance that people’s relationship to food has been removed and gaining that back is the key solution.

Disconnection from land is an important issue. However, we must be critical about how in an effort to feel a connection to land, settlers often harm and contribute to the removal of Indigenous peoples from their land and culture.

The urban-farming movement when co-opted by white folk doesn’t question what it means to have local farms on stolen land continuing to grow food that is not local to that land, nor does it ask who their farms and community gardens help. When a garden is developed in an area of a community that is seen as unused, it raises property values and creates an exclusive space, and really how different is it to the first colonizers?

Urban farming has long been initiated by BIPOC groups to benefit their communities with economic growth, food security, and improved health but when co-opted by white folk, it’s just a way to be white saviours. Author Leah Penniman says,

“Under the guise of colour-blindness, public and private sectors have facilitated gentrification, promoting a vision of low-income communities as the “urban frontier,” encouraging young, middle-class white people to act as urban “pioneers” and “homesteaders” by populating these communities building by building, block by block. These white “pioneers” have co-opted urban farming in many locations, attracting grants, media attention, and public influence denied to the Black founders of the movement.”

What Should Be Done

Action that is rooted in anti-racism and decolonization is the only action that does not promote white supremacy and colonialism. To transform our current global food system, we need to take the restorative framework of Indigenous food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is defined as “the right of nations and peoples to control their own food systems, including their own markets, production modes, food cultures and environments.”

Food sovereignty carries six guiding principles—focus on food for people, value food providers, localize food systems, promote local control, build knowledge and skills, and work with nature. In the further understanding of food sovereignty in Canada a seventh guiding principle was added, so that food sovereignty also “understands food as sacred, [as] part of the web of relationships with the natural world that define culture and community” as activist Cathleen Kneen puts it.

This framework is an Indigenous eco-philosophy. It accepts the facts that hunting and farming are all needed in the human relationship to land and survival, and highlights these practices with reciprocity to land and non-human relatives. It seeks not to control the land but to change human behaviour towards it. And puts agricultural policy in the hands of those Indigenous to the lands, an effort which cannot be made through Eurocentric action.

Dawn Morrison, the founder of B.C. Food Systems Networking Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty, describes Indigenous food sovereignty as

“a restorative framework for health and community development [that] appreciates the ways in which we can work together cross-culturally to heal our relationship with one another and the land, plants and animals that provide us with our food.”

It is rethinking our food systems with frameworks like this that will allow us to create sustainability through our food.

So yes, we can choose not to eat meat, we can choose to begin a community garden, and we can choose to “vote with our fork”, but who does that really help except our own guilt? Instead, we need to think systemically and support Indigenous food sovereignty.


About the Author

T wears circular glasses, a grey plaid blazer with a yellow blouse underneath.

T Schwab (they/them) is currently majoring in Psychology and Environmental Studies. They currently live on the unceded Coast Salish territories of the Lkwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples. Their passions lie in holistic care and sustainability.

Connect with them on LinkedIn or Instagram.

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