What Does a Legacy of Colonization and Enslavement Mean for Today’s Food and Farm Systems?

Despite being denied access to land and resources, and historically left out of policy decisions, BIPOC communities retain a deep connection to land and agriculture. For many BIPOC communities, working together has been critical to surviving systems that were designed to work against them. For BIPOC producers, finding alternatives to private land ownership, as well as utilizing traditional agricultural practices that rely on ecological knowledge has been crucial to surviving a capitalist food system. Indigenous practices, BIPOC led food sovereignty, climate justice, and civil rights movements also spearheaded practices that are essential to contemporary food movements such as regenerative agriculture, cooperative ownership, and community-stewardship of land and water. However, increasing consolidation in the food and farming industry and a host of other barriers including a race-based wealth gap, institutional discrimination, and lack of market access has made it increasingly difficult for BIPOC farmers and fishers to continue these practices.

If the legacy of US agriculture is colonization and enslavement, it’s contemporary realities are rooted in capitalism. The current political and legal infrastructure of the food and farming sector is skewed heavily in favor of large corporations, whose profits hinge on the exploitation of workers and extraction from the land and oceans, and manipulation of democratic decision-making processes. As a result, the farming and fishing sectors are becoming increasingly consolidated. The majority of food production comes from farms that are larger than 2000 acres, and the largest 4 percent of farms make up 60% of all farmland.

From the Green Revolution of the late 1950s, the “Go big or get out” policies brought in by USDA Secretary Earl Butz in the 1970s large-scale farms, to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the nineties, government intervention in the agricultural sector has served the purposes of agribusiness, and not small and medium-scale farmers. In the past decades, large operations were able to leverage their scale to take advantage of technology, globalization, and a lack of antitrust enforcement to consolidate operations and push small farmers out.

A 2019 article from Time magazine captures the grim reality facing small farmers across the country: an unprecedented number of farm closures (100,000 farms closed between 2011 and 2018), farm debt at an all-time high of $418 billion, and declining mental health. At the same time our ocean commons – much like with land – is transforming into a private property asset, displacing community-based fishers and undermining conservation goals. In July 2020, the first batch of Genetically Modified Salmon produced by a biotechnology company entered the market despite warnings from conservationists, climate justice groups, and indigenous communities.

READ: A reflection on the lasting legacy of 1970s USDA Secretary Earl Butz

WATCH: Salmon People: The Risks of Genetically Engineered Fish for the Pacific Northwest