Racial Injustice in Food Systems: History and What’s Next
This is part two of a two-part series on the injustices and racial disparity in food systems, how that disparity feeds into racial disparity in other systems, and the history of food consumption and waste in the U.S. Read part one here.
Food waste is a deeply entrenched issue that persists at each stage of the food system and is a leading contributor to climate change. As someone who works in the food waste sector, I recognize that food waste is a symptom of our globally engineered food system. According to the United Nations, about a third of the world’s food produced every year is lost in production or tossed by consumers. The United States ranks highest in the world for throwing out the most food per capita. Food waste is the top material in U.S. landfills. Food waste in landfills accounts for 17% of human-induced methane emissions in the U.S., making it the third largest source of methane emissions.
Food waste brings forward concerns about the sustainability of our food system, however environmental impact is not the only factor affecting the sustainability of our food system. Food insecurity is a problem plaguing our country affecting 1 in 7 Americans who are struggling to put food on their table. People of color are the most severely affected by hunger, poor food access, diet-related illnesses, and other problems with the food system.
On the production side, approximately 75% of farm workers in the U.S. are immigrants, both documented and undocumented, or migrant workers. Additionally, because a large percentage of farm workers are migrant workers or undocumented immigrants, these workers are unable to defend their rights in the way that American citizens can. As a result, these workers are subject to abuse, unjust treatment, and unfair wages.
Like how food waste is profoundly rooted in our food system, so is systemic racism and social inequity. It is up to all of us working in the food system to determine what the future of the food system is going to be like. This requires looking at sustainability and justice as connected solutions so that we can create impactful change that treats not only the Earth better but people better too.
The future of the food system is intimately tied to the times in which we are living. It is not a coincidence that we live in an unjust and wasteful society, and that much of the injustice is felt through the food system. To understand how justice and sustainability are intertwined in our food system, it is important to take a closer look at the origin of our food system.
A Historical View
As I go deeper into the work I do, it becomes increasingly clear how the legacy and long-term consequences of the atrocities caused by the colonization of America. The modern food system was built, in large part, by forcing Indigenous groups, enslaved Africans, Chinese and Mexican immigrants, and many more, to carry the brunt of arduous work and suffering. A missing part of this narrative is how the cruel mistreatment of humans is also a story of changing land use.
When Europeans came to North America, they stole land away from diverse Indigenous groups who had developed an ecological relationship to the land for over 10,000 years. These Indigenous groups learned to grow food, manage landscapes, and support their needs, all while preserving the health of the soils, rivers, and forests they depended on. The Europeans relied on the labor and knowledge of Indigenous people to build their lives in the United States. For example, Wampanoag people kept early settlers from starving by generously sharing their locally adapted crops and farming techniques.
European colonization of the Americas displaced Indigenous communities and replaced their land management with European agriculture that created unprecedented forest clearance and soil erosion. In the early 1600s, colonies were agricultural economies that depended on international trade from Britain. The destruction was motivated by the desire for land and acquiring resources for maximized profit in trade, instead of for intentional use and proper care.
Furthermore, ongoing expansion of the U.S. was powered by back breaking labor from enslaved Africans. Successful commodity crops, such as tobacco and cotton, spread throughout the 1800s, as the influx of slave labor increased profits for plantation owners. Following the abolition of slavery in 1865, sharecropping kept profits flowing while prolonging the enslavement of Africans. As a sector of the population built the wealth, the other sector extracted the wealth, leaving nothing for the people who built it.
As this continued, so did the footprint of colonial agriculture and the displacement of Indigenous people in the West. The expansion and massive genocide of Indigenous people was estimated to have decreased from 12 million in 1500 to around 237,000 in 1900, and subsequent loss of land totaling more than 1.5 billion acres.
The agricultural economy was used to push Indigenous people off their land and import enslaved Africans, which in turn set the foundation of industrialized agriculture. Over the course of the 1900s, small and medium-sized farms were competing with well-subsidized industrial farms who benefited from government policies favoring specialization who incentivized these larger farms.
Industrial agriculture further removed people from traditional methods of the land and to high-intensity land use that uses heavy machinery, fertilizers, and pesticides. As a result, mosaics of annual crops, perennial crops, and wild plants were replaced with uniform homogeneous annual crops that depleted the soil. As wild landscapes and biologically diverse agriculture disappear, so did the critical environmental services on which agriculture and our food supply depends, such as water filtration, wildlife habitat, flood mitigation, and carbon sequestration.
Competition from large farms fell heavily on small and medium-sized farms, but racism also posed barriers for farmers who were not white. In 1920, 14% of all farms were Black owned. Today however, Black ownership of farms is less than 2%. The causes of that decline are rooted in the structural racism that has been part of the development of modern American agriculture. Not only were Native Americans often violently removed from their homelands, but a series of federal policies gave mainly white male farmers and corporations subsidized land.
The Modern Food System
Although I have primarily focused on the agricultural end of the food system, the linkages between sustainability and justice are present throughout the entire food system. By displacing forms of agriculture, we have also displaced food cultures—of distribution, preparation, and consumption. The segregation of under served communities and communities of color from affluent and white communities has resulted in what is known as a food apartheid. This food segregation results in a loss of culinary and nutritional knowledge and the staggering rise of diet related health problems. These are all symptoms of the food system that is designed for profit rather than care.
Similarly, food waste is disposed in landfills, which are historically located near communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. While landfills disproportionately fill space in low income communities and communities of color, financial profit falls into the pockets of landfill owners.
As I dug into this topic, I was once again overwhelmed by the complexity of our food system with the understanding that I have merely skimmed the surface. If anything, this complexity exemplifies how related problems from the food system are, but that so are the solutions. To achieve justice and sustainability in the food system, our strategies need to be multi-faceted and create inclusive and multiracial alliances that bring everyone to the table while prioritizing the voices of those who have been historically marginalized in the food system.
For those of us working in the food system, we need to center the perspectives of communities who have been pushed to the margins of the food system, and to uplift the voices of people on the front lines. We need to lift the voices of People of Color, Indigenous communities, small farm owners, farm workers, and workers from across the food system. And for those of us who, like me, have never had to face the daily struggle of poverty, nor have been targeted by white supremacy, we will have to work hard to do better and to do the vital listening and learning that is needed to remove racial injustices from the food system.