Poverty is not an accident. It’s imperative to address how the success of global agriculture has been sown with the blood and sweat of people of color.
In the United States, 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 labor, coupled with simultaneous extraction of farming knowledge, directly led to America’s 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 was enacted to protect labor rights, the agricultural industry remained exempt and farmworkers (at the time, predominately African American) were excluded; this loophole was not modified until the 1980s. Simply put, our country’s designation as the ‘crop basket of the world’ would not have been possible without the unwilling sacrifice of Africans and African Americans. Today, the Black community is disproportionately impacted by food insecurity, malnutrition, diet-related disease, lack of land ownership and largely exclusion from agriculture as a whole.
Most of our favorite 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 own 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 pay and equal opportunity and of 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.
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.