Centralizing Anti-Colonial Theory in The Vegan and Food Justice Movements
By Nicole Davis
I’m a white settler on stolen land, and I am a direct beneficiary of the systems of injustice and oppression I will go on to explore in this piece. I think it is incredibly important to make this assertion, because it is important to remember that whiteness is not ‘neutral.’ I believe any attempt to discuss issues such as food justice, food sovereignty, or equity, without acknowledging and attempting to grapple with my white, settler identity, would be dangerous—and wholly irresponsible. Acknowledging my whiteness is crucial to understanding my implication in systems that have destroyed—and continue to destroy—the food systems of Indigenous populations across the world. This piece should be read with the understanding that I am a white settler. This piece is largely about grappling with the violence inherent in this identity, and the importance of understanding this for all white folks engaged in food justice work.
Having been calling myself a vegan for the past six years, and trying to submerse myself in the food movement since then, my relationship to food has been central to a fair chunk of my adult life thus far. Recently, I have been grappling with the question of how I was able to have such a severe eating disorder for nearly ten years while I was trying so hard to connect my eating to its implications on a larger scale.
While making those connections has been central to my recovery, I have also come to realize how actively both the food justice and vegan movements were feeding into my disordered eating.
The food justice movement to which I am referring is that of Michael Pollan and Jamie Oliver. I am talking about the ‘local’ and ‘foodie’ food movement—whose spokespeople claim that everything from climate change to urban poverty to health issues can be solved by ‘voting with your dollar.’ This food movement encourages non-profit models, social enterprises, and ‘conscious consumerism’ to address social issues through food. Ultimately, the food movement encourages people to throw money at structural issues in order for individuals to feel absolved of the everyday structural violence with which they engage and from which they benefit.
The vegan movement I am referring to is the mainstream vegan movement. It is the ‘single issue’ vegan movement of individuals and organizations who decry subsistence hunting by Indigenous populations. It is that of white vegans who protest and shame Black and Brown factory farm workers, displaced from their lands by extractive industries which ultimately work to make white vegans wealthier and more powerful. I am also addressing the ‘no excuses’ vegans, who maintain the wholly classist and ableist argument that if a vegan diet is easy for them to maintain, then it must be simple and accessible for everyone.
Both the food justice and vegan movements rely on healthist rhetoric to try and recruit new members into these ideologies. One of the first reasons I went vegan was because it was supposed to help me to lose weight. Ditto eating ‘local’ and ‘organic’. There is so much more to focus on with these movements, shaming people’s bodies and lifestyles is not something they should have to resort to for finally coming to understand how these movements that I thought were helping me improve my relationship with food, were simultaneously enacting a form of violence on my psyche, was truly central to my recovery. And once I first became critical of these movements, I came to understand just how deep the holes of these movements truly are. The extreme violence they enact upon other people, specifically people of marginalized identities. And I began to understand the ways these movements simultaneously justify all kinds of violence, while invisiblizing their own participation in violence.
Much of the food movement’s rhetoric around eating ‘local,’ ‘organic,’ and GMO-free, is about cleansing and absolving consumers of any guilt. Sure the produce you buy at your farmers market might be organic and local, but it was grown on stolen land, and most likely by white settlers of European descent. Sure the vegan chocolate chips you’re buying don’t have cow’s milk in them, but the palm oil used likely displaced hundreds of orangutans and Indigenous people from their Malaysian jungle homes, and the cocoa was most likely produced by child slaves in the Ivory Coast. As Judith Butler says, “We are all mired in violence.” It is not a principle, it is a claim. We cannot have a non-violent food justice movement, and it is impossible to have a non-violent vegan movement. We can only strive for an anti-violent one. A movement that centers inclusivity and marginalized voices and identities. One that is self-reflexive. One that aims to understand our implication as colonizers and settlers on stolen Native land.
What would it mean to have a vegan movement that does not only call for animal liberation, but the liberation of all oppressed bodies? What would it mean to have a vegan movement, and a food justice movement, to which prison abolition and Palestinian solidarity were centralized? We must all work to understand that all animal lives matter, but what possibilities could be opened up if the mandate that Black Lives Matter became centralized in the vegan and food justice movements?
It is fundamental to understand how all oppressions are interconnected. It is fundamental that any movement towards justice—be it animal liberation, food justice, or environmental justice—fundamentally grapple with the violence in which we are implicated through our everyday actions of being in the different bodies and lives we occupy. The fundamental violence of colonialism, the rupturing and apocalypse that came with it, and the foundational shuddering our world has been grappling with since needs to be understood as central to any discussion of land, environment, and bodies.
How do we understand food justice if the legitimacy of farmers of European descent are called into question? How do we understand food justice if we question the land we occupy, from which many have been nourished, and from which many been displaced, and on which so much violence has been inflicted? For many involved in these movements, these questions are incredibly unsettling to ask—and they need to be. We need to be unsettled, to expose ourselves to these wholly unsettling questions and sit with our discomfort. How can we move forward with the food justice and vegan movements if they are founded on colonial, capitalist, patriarchal, and racist practices?
There is no simple or succinct answer for how to fix the problems embedded in these movements, but it most certainly involves reworking the frameworks and ideologies at their very foundation. And for white settlers (like myself) involved food justice and veganism, this must include unsettling ourselves. We must sit with unsettling thoughts and ideas, and notice how they make us feel, and try to ask why they might make us feel this way.
Our work within these movements must include a lot of actively listening to people of marginalized identities, and striving to center these people and their life experiences in these movement in any opportunity we have. The food and vegan movements already center the stories of middle class white folks. It is time to pass the microphone. White people—the most important and effective thing we can do right now is shut up and listen.
There is no such thing as a non-violent diet. The food produced in a colonial- capitalist food system is inevitably implicated in the suffering humans, non-human animals, and land. Recognizing this fact is fundamental for truly moving forward with our relationships with our food system, with non-human animals, the land, and each other. I think that a food justice movement, and a vegan movement, that could understand this and work towards fighting colonial, racist violence at their root, could be incredibly powerful and effective in creating truly meaningful change.
Nicole Davis is a white anti-zionist Jewish settler on Turtle Island, hailing from NYC and studying and living as a human bean in Toronto. Nicole is passionate about creating a more intersectional and holistic food justice movement, cooking cheap rad vegan food for people, eating, learning, and talking about food and plant magic, and doodling glittery piggies. She has previously been involved in organizing food justice-centered panels at the University of Toronto, has co-authored the zine ‘Complicating Veganism,’ and is currently an organizer for the UofT Food Policy Council.