Plant Your Seeds, Watch You Grow

black and white picture of book cover. It has a sketch of two black farm workers. It reads "Farming while black: Soul fire farm's practical guide to liberation on the land by Leah Penniman forward by Karen Washington

A book review of Farming While Black

by Ciana Hamilton

When I first got my hands on Farming While Black, I felt my soul rejoice. I have always felt a strong connection to land; whether it’s a long walk in the woods or growing a zillion tomatoes in my garden. Something in my soul sets on fire whenever I find myself intertwined with the earth. Even though this love of land comes naturally for me, I can’t help but feel misplaced, disconnected and even hurt whenever I attempt to foster a stronger bond with Mother Earth. From the moment you open Farming While Black you can feel the dedication, energy and love that Leah Penniman poured into this book. In its most practical form, Farming While Black is a hands-on how-to guide for everything to do with tending to the land. Once you begin to dive deeper though you realize it is so much more than a generic farmers guide. Farming While Black is 16 chapters of beauty, colour and testimony. It is as pragmatic as it is reflective of Black peoples’ history, connection and rehabilitation towards farming.

Penniman described Farming While Black as the book she wished she had growing up. Throughout the chapters, she seamlessly integrates her years of farming expertise with her personal journey of finding true liberation working on and with the land. Chapters such as, “Finding Land and Resources” explores different points of access to land, whether it is leased, communal, bought or through a land trust.  In chapter six, you can find vital information on crop planning, transplanting seedlings and days to maturity for a variety of herbs and vegetables. In each of these more practical chapters, Penniman includes UPLIFT subsections that draw connections to African ways of farming and present day uprising within Black communities. In one chapter, “Feeding the Soil”, one UPLIFT section speaks on African Dark Earth, a highly fertile and dark soil that was created 700 years ago by women in Ghana and Liberia. Farming While Black is easily the best book for Black (Indigenous, Brown, Latinx) folks who feel the duality of detachment and yet, the desire to build skills in farming.

For most of us, it doesn’t take much to get outside and get our hands dirty. There is nothing really stopping Black people from contributing to urban community gardens or being involved with farm internships. But where the work gets tricky is when it comes to repairing the internal damage that many Black people carry as a result of slavery. In short, slavery has destroyed our relationship with land. That pain I sometimes feel towards land, is a pain that is felt by most Black folks across Turtle Island. It is the same pain that is shared with our Indigenous cousins and others who have been displaced at the hands of colonialism. It is the pain we often try to bury; and in an attempt to forget, we sabotage ourselves from regaining identity through something that has been in our history for centuries. There is no question that even Leah Penniman felt this distorted disconnection when she first began her journey of farming. The history of Black connection to land has been greatly misconstrued to fit a narrative of white supremacy. We are perpetually told and reminded that our only real connection to farming was when our ancestors were enslaved, exploited and forced to endure hard labour. Rarely is there a discussion around Black farming prior to slavery or Black farming after slavery.  Rarely is there any discussion on African culture and how intertwined our African relatives were with nature, land and crops. The space that Penniman dedicates towards healing our land legacies in Farming While Black is what sets this book apart from any other farmer’s how-to guide.  Chapters such as: Honoring the Spirits of the Land, Plant Medicine, Cooking and Preserving and Healing from Trauma are the parts of this book that invite readers to dig deep within themselves and recognize where healing needs to begin. In “Healing from Trauma “ Penniman said, “Many of us have confused the terror our ancestors experienced on land with the land herself, naming her the oppressor and running toward paved streets without looking back. We do not stoop, sweat, harvest, or even get dirty, because we imagine that would revert us to bondage.” What makes Farming While Black a book of true deliverance, are the constant reminders from Penniman, and all those at Soul Fire Farm, that farming is in our blood. Whether it is through the UPLIFT sections throughout the book, the wealth of knowledge (old and new) or the beautiful photographs of Black, Brown, Indigenous and Latinx folks working harmoniously on the land, Farming While Black is the reminder that our history in slavery will not erase our history of land stewardship.

I am a descendant of African heritage. The women in my family were farmers, caretakers and keepers of the Earth. Farming While Black is my awakening to remember and honour my ancestors. With every shovel of dirt, every seed planted, every vegetable harvested, I vow to never forget that they were proud people of the land and today, so am I.

Ciana Hamilton is a happy nappy freelance creative writer & journalist. When she’s not writing she can be found doing fun shit with her kids.

Young and New Farmers in the Struggle for a Decolonial Food System

Black and white photo of cupped hands holding seedlings

Report Back on the National Farmers Union 2019 Youth Convergence

by Adabu B. Jefwa

From the 4th to the 7th of March 2019, nearly sixty young and new farmers gathered for the “National Farmers Union (NFU) 2019 Youth Convergence” in Parham, Ontario, 60 km North of Kingston on unceded Algonquin territory. The NFU is a farmer-led food sovereignty organization and a member of the global peasant movement, La Via Campesina. This convergence was, to my knowledge, the first time in a generation that young and beginning farmers had come together in such large numbers, from across the country, to talk about the issues that matter most to them.

There was a lot of excitement in the air. I personally did not know quite what to expect. After a long winter of school assignments, I’d almost forgotten all about farming. For many, as spring was approaching, the convergence interrupted very important farm planning and seed ordering work necessary for the upcoming season. Nonetheless, people were enthusiastic and everyone seemed to have an aura of eagerness to connect with and learn from each other.

The purpose of the convergence was to gather self-defined young and new farmers to come together to talk about the challenges we face within the food system, specifically in Canada, but across the globe as well. Discussion topics included ‘The Political Economy of Agriculture’ and ‘Farming in a Changing Climate’. There was a strong emphasis on ‘Building Solidarity to Decolonize the Food System,’ which was a workshop that focused on how Indigenous and non-Indigenous farmers, hunters, gatherers, and supporters can challenge settler-colonialism in the food system.

This is what drew me to attend the convergence. Not only was it organized to address farm production issues, it also focused the socio-political elements that shape production, and farmers’ lives and experiences. The challenges that arise out of political, environmental and social realms seem very distant from the everyday struggles faced by farmers working outside in the field. Although the economy and politics shape farmers experiences, these topics are rarely discussed within most mainstream food and agriculture organizations. For this reason, I felt the convergence was extremely important. It created a space for participants to talk about the systemic issues that impact farmers, the land and all people. At the same time, the convergence allocated time for folks to engage in farm specific details, such as farm management and growing practices.

The presentation by former Ardoch Algonquin Chief and professor, Bob Lovelace, was of particular importance to me given my commitments to decolonization. Prof. Lovelace spoke about building alliances between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. He invited us to ask questions and participate in small-group discussions about what actions we can take and how we envision making change to decolonize the food system. As settlers on colonized lands it is important for us to, first, understand and acknowledge the ongoing colonial history of Canada and second, put intention into seeking justice in partnership with Indigenous peoples. Prof. Lovelace outlined a five-pronged approach to building solidarity between settlers and indigenous peoples and emphasized that it all begins with Research. Without knowing the history of the land and people it is impossible to engage in effective actions for decolonization. He then spoke about the importance of the four other prongs: Community Education, Legal Action, Direct Action and Healing as a means of supporting Indigenous peoples struggles.

We had discussions about issues around young farmers access to farmland. From what I understood, Prof. Lovelace was against the whole system of privatized and commercial land because it constitutes a colonial relationship to land. Canada’s settler-colonial system of land ownership reinforces dispossession of Indigenous peoples. It is also bad for Canadians as many of us across the country, especially young people, struggle with land access due to the high cost of land.

In one especially dramatic moment, Lovelace asked the nearly 60 farmers in the room to raise their hands if they owned the land they farmed. Only three people indicated that they owned land. This is because of the huge barriers of cost, access to financing and lack of support for farming, especially organic farming. (And even when farmers ‘own’ land, it’s usually not ‘owned’ by them but by the bank!). Lovelace emphasized that alternative relationships to land are possible, and already exist within Indigenous systems. He also emphasized that cooperative relationships between Indigenous peoples and settlers requires building trust and meaningful, long-term relationships. Only then, through true solidarity based on personal connections, not based in a self-satisfying identity of allyship, can a strong foundation be established for developing alternative systems that center around land and food sovereignty for both Indigenous peoples and Canadians.

A major contributing factor which made the convergence possible was the funding allocated to covering each participant’s travel costs, accommodations and food. Those from Ontario travelled by car while others took trains and planes from across the country. But everyone was reimbursed for their travel costs and no one was required to pay for the amazing meals that were served during the convergence. This made the convergence accessible for the many young and new farmers who are, by and large, struggling financially. On top of that, all of the dinners were locally sourced from farms around the area, including kegs of beer from a local brewery. Well nourished, and well accommodated, we were able to maintain high spirits throughout the duration of the convergence. This enabled a very open, vulnerable and cooperative space for folks to discuss the heavy topics we addressed.

The title ‘convergence’ was intentionally used to differentiate the event from a conference. A conference usually implies a formal, academic, lecture-based style of learning. The organizers, however, wished to create a more lateral climate in which everyone was welcomed, and encouraged, to share their knowledge and skills. This was accomplished by dividing the large group into smaller groups of 8 to 10 people. The groups were prompted to discuss amongst themselves then reunite for a sharing session whereby everyone contributed to a large group discussion. This allowed for people to share their perspectives and ideas and made for a comfortable space for people to work through challenging concepts without the pressure of 60 people listening.

The structure of the convergence made for an open and inclusive space that overall made people feel inspired and empowered to move forward in continuing the fight for food justice within the agricultural and broader food system. This was one of the wonderful outcomes of the convergence and reflects the need for these types of gatherings to occur more frequently amongst farmers with an inclusion of people who understand the importance and value of land.

This is not to say that there was no room for improvement. The convergence would have benefitted from a more culturally and racially diverse range of speakers and attendees. For me, struggles within the food system center primarily around engaging racialized communities and including racialized people in the fight for food sovereignty. Within Canada, it is extremely important to recognize and engage in Indigenous movements and struggles for sovereignty, but as a country built on white supremacy, it is also important to consider the ways in which racialized people and immigrants are included in activism for food sovereignty. Moving forward I urge for organizers, not only in the NFU, but within agricultural and food organizations more broadly, to put intention into including the voices of racialized people and immigrants, and especially migrant agricultural workers, for they play a huge role in the current agricultural system and hold a lot of knowledge that can contribute to envisioning alternative farm and food systems.

Farming matters because we all eat and we all rely on the land. We all also rely on caretakers of the land to regenerate a healthy, balanced ecosystem and provide us with the nutrients necessary to survive. Ensuring the sustainability of agriculture means deconstructing the current agricultural system based so heavily on corporate industrialization. It also means shifting to a more diverse range of alternatives that are suited to work in favor of all people across the globe. The NFU, La Via Campesina and many food justice organizations are working to make this shift possible. Gatherings such as the Youth Convergence that intentionally create space for building relationships between people who understand the importance of farms and land and are committed to preserving knowledge related to the land are necessary, and make it possible, to continue the movement for food justice and food sovereignty.

Adabu is a black queer student, farmer and DJ. She is committed to building a sustainable food system that is inclusive of black, indigenous and racialized people across the globe. She also believes in decolonization and building relationships through sharing knowledge and celebrating diverse cultures through food and music.

When We Grow Together

by Jamie Holding Eagle

Food culture can be a road to health and healing. However, work cannot stop there.

Diabetes is a chronic health condition disproportionately affecting poor, of colour, and Indigenous communities. In the Upper Midwest of the US, the prevalence rate of Type II diabetes is almost twice as high in the Indigenous population (13%) than in the white population (7%). However, the death rate is six times higher (North Dakota Diabetes Report, 2014). The rates are similarly high among Canada’s First Nations (Diabetes- First Nations and Inuit Health Canada, 2013).

Type II diabetes is a preventable disorder. Type I diabetes is an autoimmune disorder, where the body destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. Type II occurs when the body cannot produce enough insulin to break down sugar in the body. Over time, the body produces less and less, leading to long-term issues like kidney, eye, and nerve damage (North Dakota Diabetes Report 2014). Type II is influenced by diet, whereas Type I is genetic. Diabetes was relatively rare among Indigenous populations. Satterfield et al. wrote, “Many elders remember a time when there was no word for diabetes in their language because the disease was almost unknown… A word pronounced SKOO yah wahzonkah, which links words for ‘sick’ and ‘sweet’ can be found in a Dakota dictionary published in 1976” (Satterfield, 2014).

The increase in diabetes is associated with a number of factors, including land displacement, boarding school trauma, and poverty. For generations, Indigenous communities hunted, fished, and gardened. The fresh food combined with the physical activity associated with such practices served to promote health. The shifts in community structure from villages to reservations, than reservations to urban areas disrupted family connections. Children sent to boarding schools returned to their families, speaking different languages and preferring different foods.

Food is another major factor, whether related to access, education, or resources. If you know you should eat better, is there an affordable source of fresh produce nearby? If you know how to cook, do you have the utensils and dishes to do so, as well as a refrigerator in which to store leftovers? Many people now live in what are called food deserts, which refers to an area with a lack of grocery sources.  Often, a convenience or liquor store may be the closest store, neither of which generally stock fresh produce beyond bananas or apples.

Food insecurity is the term used to refer to the issues impeding the ability to access affordable and healthy food. The World Health Organization defines the converse, food security, as “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. One step further than that is food sovereignty, which refers to culturally appropriate foods as determined by the community. Food sovereignty values the connection between community health and food. Food justice is an umbrella term that incorporates all levels of the food system, from farmers to chefs to families and servers.

It is estimated that food travels an average of 1500 miles, which can be an uncertain variable when oil prices fluctuate, as well as contributes to carbon emissions. Building a local food system can help assure that access is more reliable. It also reduces environmental impact.

 

Current food initiatives across Indian Country are focused on rebuilding food systems in a way that draws on culture. Dream of Wild Health, in Minnesota, teaches young people how to grow and culture traditional foods. The Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman, is a chef out of Minneapolis who cooks using pre-colonial foods. Rowen White, a Mohawk seed keeper, grows ancestral seeds through the Sierra Seed Cooperative and uses sustainable practices, which she passes on through a series of classes.

I have worked with a volunteer-run group dedicated to building community through gardening. Volunteers and New American families work together during weekly meetings. All work is done by hand, no chemicals are utilized, and it is an intergenerational effort, with whole families attending.

The families are refugees from various areas of strife around the world, from Iraq to Rwanda. The Upper Midwest, with its extreme winters, can offer a sort of culture shock. Just those two factors alone, let alone language barriers, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the very stress from displacement, can have a negative effect on mental health.

The gardening program has been successful. It has grown from one garden to four within the city. Thousands of pounds of produce are grown each year. Many families participate and more attend each year.

Access to land and access to gardening can do wonderful things for the health of a community. Gardening promotes physical health, it can help make new friendships, and can provide families with fresh food. With diabetes at epidemic levels, healthy food can make a major difference in health.

However, in the long-term, a major paradigm shift will need to occur. Community gardens cannot fill in the gaps left by violence, income inequality, and inadequate access to resources. A community garden can help bring a community together, but not if neighbors are afraid of police violence. A community garden can help a mother make new friends in her neighborhood, but what about the mothers fleeing their own community gardens?

And so, if you are a food justice advocate, we cannot separate ourselves from Black Lives Matter. If we care about how people eat for community health, we must care that they are dying. Similarly with the Syrian refugee crisis. As Native folks, we are living through the generational reverberations of land displacement, violence, and family disruption, as is reflected in our high rates of diabetes. We can help rebuild our own community’s health while not turning a blind eye to suffering elsewhere. It should never be one or the other. We know firsthand that crisis we experience impacts our grandchildren. My grandmas taught me that all elders were to be respected like grandparents, and so right now, there are children like our children in danger, and there are grandmas and grandpas in danger, too.

I will end on this note. I am from the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation of North Dakota. We have been through some interesting times, to say the least. We lived through several waves of smallpox in the 1800s, killing many, sometimes in hours. The accounts are nothing short of horrific. One of the things that haunted me the most was the isolation and sense of abandonment. I feel a sense of grief for them for having gone through that, as I do for other incidents. But, I don’t feel a sense of vengeance. The strongest feeling I get is the one that says, no one should ever go through that alone, ever again. When I see other people living through that violence right now, as their homes are destroyed and their children are dying, it’s the same feeling: no one should ever go through this alone, ever again. We all deserve to eat healthy food and we all have the right to be safe in our communities and to live free of fear.

References:

Diabetes- First Nations and Inuit Health Canada

North Dakota Diabetes Report

Satterfield, D., Debruyn, L., Francis, C., & Allen, A. (2014). A Stream Is Always Giving Life: Communities Reclaim Native Science and Traditional Ways to Prevent Diabetes and Promote Health. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 38(1), 157-190. doi:10.17953/aicr.38.1.hp318040258r7272

World Health Organization: Food Security 


 

Jamie Holding Eagle
Jamie Holding Eagle is an enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation of North Dakota. She is completing a Master’s of Public Health and is specializing in American Indian Health. She has worked in food science research and believes cultural connections are a vital part of food and public health.

The Inaccessibility of Food Accessibility

by Julie Nowak

I’ve wanted to get into foraging for a while. It’s a wonderful way to connect with nature, help eliminate edible invasive species, and, of course, provide me with free food to eat. This is very pertinent, as I am disabled and without much of an income. While I’ve known about a couple plants I can forage, I need more hands-on learning to be able to really make foraging a consistent part of my diet. There is a monthly foraging meet-up in Toronto I’ve wanted to check out for almost a year; I haven’t been able to attend because it takes place in the evening, when I am at my lowest energy. Plus my social anxiety often prevents me from attending group events. I finally made it out to the last meet-up, however, which I was very excited about. We learned about edible roots like burdock, dandelion and garlic mustard. I quickly realized how much physical effort was involved, as I spent about fifteen minutes of exhausting, vigorous digging to get a little piece of burdock. It was a tasty treat to eat, but I knew I would not have the physical energy to visit the forest and dig up these roots – or at least not regularly enough to actually make a dent in my food costs.

The food justice movement is supposedly centred on accessibility – specifically food accessibility – with much dialogue around ways for individuals and communities to have increased access to food. While the long-term goal is to create a more equitable and sustainable food system, the short-term goals often focus on ways individuals and communities can more immediately access food – financially, geographically, culturally, etc.

Various approaches and strategies are touted as creating radical change and food access. Activities such as gardening, foraging, dumpster diving, bartering/volunteering in exchange for food, serving free food, cooking from scratch, preserving and bulk buying are highly praised within my activist circles. While I support these approaches, and participate in many myself, I would not put them in the category of “radical change”. There are several reasons for this, but I would like to focus on one in particular: inaccessibility. These quick-fix approaches require a multitude of things that many folks do not have: certain abilities, skills, time, energy, flexibility, space, upfront money, safety, privilege.

For example, I used to dumpster dive and barter frequently before I became disabled. Now these activities are too time and energy-intensive for me to do regularly. Other folks may not have the time or energy because of life circumstances, such as working two full-time jobs, single parenting, or being sick. Cooking, preserving and bulk buying require access to a kitchen and storage space, which many do not have. Gardening and foraging usually involve bending and physical labour, and gardens and forests are often not wheelchair-accessible. Many individuals (myself included) cannot usually accept free prepared food because of dietary restrictions.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t promote and participate in these activities. But we need to stop presenting them as something everyone can do. We are also delusional if we think we are fundamentally changing the food system through these particular efforts. Thus, I propose three ways to reframe the movement. First, we need to focus more heavily on the mid and long-term goals of shifting structures, such as policy change, poverty reduction, improving food sourcing, eliminating food deserts and building local agriculture. Second, we can simultaneously be implementing short-term initiatives, but we should creatively find ways to make them more accessible. Third, we must bring more voices into the food justice movement in order to be more inclusive and properly address inaccessibility.

These three propositions are not easy tasks, so let’s start by breaking down how to make initiatives more accessible. Here are just a few specific ideas of how you can make changes in your organizing to increase accessibility:

  • In community gardens, create wheelchair-accessible pathways and include raised beds so those needing to sit can participate.
  • When serving prepared food, cater to dietary restrictions (i.e. vegan, Halal, gluten-free, nut-free, alcohol-free, etc.) and clearly label ingredients. Consider providing options, such as serving several dishes with differing ingredients or using a buffet/build-your-own meal set-up so individuals can choose their own ingredients.
  • To increase access to cooking, preserving and bulk buying, provide kitchen and storage space. Also consider doing these activities collectively in order to lessen the upfront financial cost.
  • When accepting bartering/volunteering in exchange for food, offer sliding scale options. For example, require fewer (or zero) hours of work from someone with limited ability/capacity/time.
  • Share the bounty from your various endeavours (e.g. gardening, foraging, cooking, preserving) with those who cannot access these activities.
  • Before and during the planning of events and projects, seek out input from a variety of folks in your community to find out what initiatives are desired and how best to implement them in an accessible way. If you don’t have marginalized folks involved in your planning, you need to figure out why you’re not accessible to them.
  • Work creatively to come up with alternative ways of doing something. Inaccessibility and ableism are, in part, the result of a lack of thinking outside of the status quo, so get creative!

Accessibility means different things in different contexts. I’ve touched on just a few aspects of what it can look like in the food justice movement. Remember, though, that accessibility is an ongoing process, not a clear set of laws. If you view these suggestions as annoying rules to follow, you are missing the point. The purpose should be focused on people, not checklists. I admit it can be overwhelming to be faced with requests and recommendations, and I often feel incapable of accommodating everyone. Keep in mind, however, that it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Attempting some (or even one) of these efforts is better than nothing. Of course, we need to strive to do more, be self-critical, and listen to feedback. That being said, don’t let the fear of imperfection prevent you from trying. It’s impossible to achieve one hundred percent accessibility, especially when there are conflicting needs. Yet we can continually work at it, doing our best to structurally make space for this evolving process.


 

Julie Nowak
Julie Nowak is a Toronto-based food justice organizer, educator and writer who focuses on the intersection of food issues, body image and disability. This stems from her personal experience of finding healing from disordered eating through therapeutic farming and involvement in food justice, as well as living as a disabled person after a brain injury. Julie enjoys gardening, vegan seasonal cooking, and walking in parks. You can follow her at www.seasonalbody.org

Is This (Capitalist Settler Colonial Violence) Vegan?

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
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.

Ten Questions for Vandana Shiva

by  Nadine Compton

I met Vandana Shiva in the airport. When the automatic sliding doors at the gate revealed her luggage cart and her orange sari, I half expected a beam of light to illuminate her, such is the legend that surrounds her. Of course none did because Vandana Shiva is just a human being and not a saint. But what a human being she is.

After studying physics in her undergrad she received her Master’s in philosophy and her Ph.D. in quantum physics. In 1982 she set up the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, where researchers work with local communities and social movements to address important ecological and social issues.

In 1991 she established Navdanya, a movement to protect the diversity of living resources, especially seeds, and to advocate for organic farming and fair trade. And like she does after every ten years or so, she founded yet another institution, Bija Vidyapeeth, a sustainable living college. She has taught at universities, written books, and serves on the board of a number of organizations concerned with women, organic farming, and international property rights, among other issues.

So why was she talking to me? Well, she wasn’t really. She had flown from New Delhi to Toronto to give a lecture at her alma mater on “The Right to Food – Women, Development, and the Global Economy.” I was lucky enough to have a discussion with her in the car on her way to Guelph.

Nadine: What do you think the University of Guelph’s role is in improving access to the right to food?

Vandana Shiva: Well interestingly you know I was invited to get an honorary doctorate here maybe two or three years ago, and the president said, “We’re giving this doctorate to Dr. Shiva to remind ourselves that the university is a public institution.” Because you know universities are becoming so privatized and as an agricultural university, Guelph is being absolutely hijacked by the Monsantos of the world. And it’s a typical example of how public institutions or goods get privatized even though society continues to bear all of the responsibility. So, what should Guelph be doing? I think Guelph should be addressing the challenges of our times instead of being an extension agent of corporate agendas. It should be making the new connections that are being made by those that are really working on this issue, the connections between sustainability and ecological issues, the issues of work and livelihoods, the issue of climate change, the issues of health and nutrition, the issues of women’s knowledge. That’s an issue that’s also been addressed in this past election – tuition fees that young Canadians have to pay, and ultimately get into debt for. It was particularly contentious in Québec a few years ago, where there were protests and demonstrations due to an increase in fees.

N: Do you believe that tuition should be free?

VS: I believe that tuition should definitely not be so costly that students begin their lives borrowing and in debt. Students should be absolutely free intellectually and mentally, so that they can concentrate on their learning, on their education because beginning with debt, you’re forced to make the kinds of choices that’ll help you pay off the debt, rather than those that would help you grow to your best potential. And it’s not that the society is poor. I mean Canada is a rich country. It’s wrong for Canada to subsidize fossil fuels and burden the students. It’s just morally an outrage.

N: How is your approach to these topics different than your peers? Non-environmental activists?

VS: First, because a lot of the work I do today… I haven’t been groomed in it in a linear, one-dimensional way. I’ve addressed as an issue in nature. I see an ecosystem collapse and try to get what’s really happening. And in reality things are connected. My Ph.D. thesis, which I did at Western, was on non-locality and non-separability in quantum theory, so even science tells you that everything is related and yet we have a reductionist paradigm that pretends that everything is separate. Sadly most trainings are in that one dimensional groove and then when you get into the academic track, you want your publications, you want your tenure, then you have to continue in that. So a lot gets left out. Reductionist approaches don’t look at interdisciplinarity, don’t look at interconnections.

N: How did you transition from physics to agriculture? Was there any backlash from your colleagues when you made that move?

VS: No, no. Even when I decided to come here to do my higher studies it was with the conscious choice that I didn’t want to be a mechanical physicist. And I didn’t want to just be a cog in a machine. For me, physics was about understanding how nature works. And that understanding was what I followed all the way, especially why I specialized in the foundations of quantum theory, already by that time I was walking alone. So my trajectory was a trajectory which I was carving out for myself. When I went back, I consciously chose to join an institute where I could look at interactions between science and society because I’ve always been very troubled by incongruent messages. We are all always told, “Science removes poverty.” And India has the world’s third largest scientific community and this point one of the highest rates of poverty and malnutrition. And it didn’t hang together. The Green Revolution was given the Nobel Prize for peace and in 1984, Punjab was a land of violence. And Canada’s connected to that because the Air India flight that was blown up over Ireland was part of that whole extremist action. It didn’t make sense to get a prize for peace, but then there is violence. I was working for the United Nations University at the time and I said, “You’ve got to look at this.” The pressure really came at two points – not from any peer groups. I was in Bangalore and every day I saw more eucalyptus planting on the farmland and I couldn’t figure it out. So I told the institute that I was working for that we must investigate. And of course we found out that the World Bank was behind it, funding the growth of eucalyptus for raw material for the pulp industry and calling it social forestry because we had come up with that phrase with Chipko [the organized resistance against the destruction of Indian forests]. The study made a huge impact and the farmer’s movement emerged around it and the regional parliament had huge discussions about it and rejected the plan. The director of my institute was very fond of me and respected me and he says, “I’m so proud of you, but the World Bank’s been putting the pressure on me saying, ‘we will cut of this funding and this funding and this funding’ if you ever do research like this.” His name was Dr. Ramasan. I said, “Dr. Ramasan I’m not going to change. Any research for me is to find the truth. And no power in the world can suppress that urge in me. And instead of you losing grants for the institute which you need, I will create a space where I can work independently.” Which is why I created the Research Foundation, I left the institute. The next round of intense pressure was not from peers, but from Monsanto and its lobbyists. They’re not fellow scientists, they’re journalists.

N: How can we all be sustainable in our food consumption practices?

VS: I think the way to be sustainable in food consumption practices is to be sustainable in food production. And non-sustainability is built right into the industrial agriculture model because it uses ten times more inputs than it produces, it uses ten times more energy that it produces as calories, it uses ten times more finances for purchase of internal inputs than what farmers can earn which is why farmers go under, get into debt, and leave the land or in the case of India commit suicide – three hundred thousand of them. So it’s not sustainable. But fortunately we have better ways to produce. And the three things that – and this is the work that I’ve been doing through Navdanya, the movement I’ve built over the last thirty years – is that we have to move from monocultures to diversity, we have to move from chemicals and external inputs to ecological processes, internal inputs, what is called agro-ecology, we’ve got to move from globalized trade to local distribution. So that wealth gets distributed and more nutritious, healthier, fresher systems improve.

N: Do you have any advice for any future agricultural activists?

VS: One is, you’ve got to do the work that will take care of the Earth and of food. Just because those who are destroying the planet and preventing our right to food have huge amounts of money, be guided by your conscience. And be resilient.


 

Nadine Compton
Nadine Compton is a freelance writer and blogger who started and curates Pop Culture Middle East (popcultureme.blogspot.com), where in an effort to maintain her connections to her home in that area of the world, she publishes posts on Arabic cuisine and her interviews with notable Arab figures in the fields of political cartooning, film, hip hop radio, online comedy, feminist lingerie, environmental activism, as well as with women living in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. She can be found on: Facebook, Twitter & Instagram