Unreading Colonial Food Systems

Maya Burke
An African holds a piece of lettuce.Like many people who went through U.S. public school systems, I am intimately familiar with institutional food; canned vegetables, square cut pizza, frozen & highly processed mystery meats, syrupy fruit cups, all of that. Institutional food is low-cost, low in nutritional value, and arguably pretty gross. I remember asking our school superintendent why our cafeteria wasn’t able to purchase food from the vibrant community of local farmers. He told me that our school was bound up in a large multi-year contract with a number of other schools, and that because of this contract we had to buy food from certain distribution companies.There were also a number of other financial and health code reasons that essentially prevented our school from sourcing our food from small local farmers. I heard this gesturing towards a world of contracts and laws and budgets that I did not understand, but I was still unconvinced. Seemed like a scam to me.

Eating at home and in restaurants have always been pretty weird experiences for me too, as these were usually just arenas for dysfunctional family dynamics to play themselves out. A lot of meals alone as well. All in all, my relationship with food and eating has been pretty terrible for most of my life. My eating started to become disordered in many ways, and things didn’t start to shift until I began gardening and learning more about the complexities of the industrial food system.

It started to confuse me that so much of our popular and mass media is silent on very concerning issues in food production and distribution in what is currently known as the “united states.” We all eat, we all engage with the intricate network of stores and distributors and growers and land holders in some way. While learning more about the industrial food system started to alleviate some of my previous confusion, it also brought its own heaviness. And, as I studied Indigenous and Black resistance to colonial violence, food sovereignty became increasingly central to my understanding of historical and contemporary social issues. I became presciently aware of these complex networks everytime I ate something that wasn’t grown or produced locally to me (which was pretty much all the time.) Often I’d gag or cry or get really anxious. I began to dread eating, or would binge eat easy to consume junk foods. It all felt so hard and horrible.

Fully engaging with historical and contemporary realities of industrial agriculture and colonial violence can be strenuous, painful, triggering, guilt inducing, and/or just plain exhausting. And making active connections to the food we eat every day can be a stressful and nauseating practice, but I believe that it is necessary to do this. I believe that it is necessary to not look away, that it is necessary to actively recover and heal our relationship to our food sources.


Our nourishment, food systems, and working lives are largely in the hands of white supremacist corporations and militarist governments. Our food production systems are mechanized, as well as toxic to our biology and to our environments. The majority of people living in urban, peri-urban, and suburban places in industrialized countries have little to no relationship with where their food originates. Most folks’ relationship with their food stops with the grocery store or restaurant. Behind the grocery store is a massively complicated system of food production and distribution that is violently extractive. This massive network of operations that make-up the globalized industrial agriculture system is disastrously damaging to planetary ecologies and is exploitative by design. Although there are more than 300,000 known edible plants on earth, most of the world’s population is largely reliant on twelve types of grains and twenty-three species of vegetables. This collapse in human dietary diversity is parallel to the mass extinction of the current epoch that is being rapidly intensified by corporate fossil fuel usage, pesticides, chemical fertilizer contamination of ecosystems, and clear-cutting forests for timber, monoculture operations, and highly concentrated livestock production.

To the dismay of life on Earth, intense investments in genetic engineering, globalized food distribution mechanisms, and ‘smart farming’ technology are central to the industrial food systems that bring food to an ever-increasing population of people who live in urban environments separated from “la via campesina” (the peasant way). Indigenous food systems and life ways are destroyed to make way for the expansion of western imperialist consumerism. Our labor systems and ways of life have been almost totally geared towards industrial means of production and capitalist profit accumulation. This profit-centered, industrial status quo is not sustainable, and was never designed to be sustainable. We need to reckon with this collectively and work to recover relationships with the ecosystems that have sustained us for thousands of years.


Enslaving plantation economies are the foundations of modern industrial agriculture, so the exploitation of workers is designed into the fabric of our labor structures. Systems with genocide and enslavement at their inception cannot be reformed, and industrial agriculture and colonial projects continue to exploit humans, non-human animals, plants, and entire ecosystems. Industrial agriculture systems are not only flawed and damaging to the environment, they are particularly exploitative of workers all along the industrial chain: field hands, food packers, truck drivers, gas station workers, grocery store workers, restaurant workers, factory workers that produce tools, chemicals, packaging etc. These are occupations that in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic have been deemed “essential,” but are otherwise relegated to low wage, “unskilled” and expendable occupations.

Food service workers are chronically under-paid and exploited. States have varying minimum wages for agricultural and food service workers with the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Agricultural workers in the “united states” are largely economic, political and climate refugees from Central and South America working within a U.S. agricultural framework that is founded on the history of African enslavement and forced labor. After the formal “end” of enslavement in the “united states,” there was a populist movement in the early 1900s for labor protections. Two classes of occupations were left out of these labor protections, forwarded by then President Woodrow Wilson. These occupational classes were domestic and agricultural labor. Agricultural workers found some labor protections as a result of the United Farm Workers movement, which still explicitly excluded undocumented workers from the movement, but resulted in a number of changes in federal jurisprudence. These protections, while still highly limited in scope with the continued capacity for labor exploitations, are at the very least extant. Occupational protections for Domestic Workers have yet to be formalized on the federal level.These occupational classes were strategically omitted from the original labor bills of the early 1900s, specifically because they were occupations mostly held by formerly enslaved Black people. This is just one of the persisting legacies of enslavement that are playing out in the contemporary material conditions of American society.


Industrial food systems were never designed to be sustainable, or even nourishing. They are designed for profit. The complex network of growers, distributors, and merchants is also seriously under-girded by the fossil fuel industry. Industrial agriculture demands immense fuel inputs for growing, for transportation of goods, and for the transportation it takes for you to get to the market or the grocery store. The “united states” is linked by a network of interstate highways, and strategically so. Numerous efforts of maintaining and establishing public transit networks have been intentionally sabotaged by vested interests in the fossil fuel industrial complex. The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act forwarded by president Dwight Eisenhower was signed into law in 1956. This was a huge action in tandem with the interests of the fossil fuel industry. Today the majority of households are dependent on individual vehicles for transport to and from places of work, education, and food and supply distribution centers. Concurrently, large truck-loads of food in bulk quantities are shipped between distribution centers all over the nation, hemisphere, and globe. The fuel inputs for this alone account for a large portion if not a majority of fossil fuel consumption.

At the agricultural sites themselves we see industrial, factory-like conditions with the rearing of crops and livestock. These industrial farms employ horrifically toxic practices to reap high yields at low fiscal costs, with sky high environmental and human health costs. These practices range from planting genetically modified crops, using toxic chemicals to deter weeds and pests, and keeping livestock animals in abhorrent conditions. Petroleum, gasoline, ethanol fuel, plastics, and petroleum based chemicals are used at almost every stop along the chain. As we observe increasingly drastic changes in the planetary system as a result of industrial waste, and the need for sustainable practices and products intensifies, it is imperative to critically disengage from the globalized industrial food system and re-localize our food webs as a way to reduce fossil fuel usage and dependency.

IV. “YOUR” PROPERTY ISN’T YOURS: native land is not a commodity

Anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence are complex processes of oppression that structure and actively perpetuate white supremacist domination of native lands. To discuss the importance of liberation from exploitative racialized capitalism and industrial agriculture, we must acknowledge the context of the western hemisphere as a system of anti-Black settler colonial structures on stolen indigenous land. This context must always be stated in any and all conversations about liberation from exploitative racial capitalism and industrial agriculture.

Throughout time, space, and ethnic background, native peoples have resisted and contested the commodification and privatization of land. We live trapped within systems centered on private property and exploitative profit making. While many landlords, homeowners, real estate magnates, and industrial farmers possess titles and deeds to plots of land, it is imperative to internalize the wisdom of indigenous and folk peoples that land cannot truly be possessed. The enforcement of commodifying logics onto the natural world is a manifestation of domination. Mountains, rivers, forests—the living ecosystems that sustain us—do not recognize man-made boundaries of property, or the desecration of life and land into commodities.

98% of all of the private rural land in amerikkka is owned by white people. One stereotypical image of a farmer in the amerikkkan public consciousness entails a white middle-aged man from the Midwest on a tractor. This is a false normative image perpetuated in white supremacist society, but is a realistic image of who is currently stewarding much of our food sources. This is a white-washing of food and land work on this continent, where Indigenous peoples have been stewarding ecosystems for tens of thousands of years, and Black and non-Black people of color have been farming and resisting displacement for generations. White supremacist industrialist society currently and almost totally determines the conditions of food access, security, and sovereignty. Most people now exist disconnected from their own food sources and, at the whim of big agriculture, are subsisting on the secretions of its mechanical churning.

The violence of settler colonial society has always been centrally about food systems, food sovereignty, and land sovereignty. And the failures of the colonial industrial food system have been apparent to those on the front lines for centuries. The COVID-19 pandemic is perhaps bringing these shortcomings to light in a way that is more accessible to the mainstream consumer public. Food insecurity is being experienced on extremely large scales, especially in low-income urban communities where people have little to no access to land and are disconnected from agricultural knowledge. The obstacles to nutrition access are exacerbated by unemployment and limited funds to purchase groceries.

With food and economic systems collapsing amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, state governments have implemented various levels of recommendations and directives for the halting of non-essential activities and occupations. How have food service and food service adjacent workers all of a sudden been deemed essential in a context that is actually degrading and materially exploitative of their labor? These markers of “essential” and “non-essential” are deeper than the contemporary COVID-19 context. To unpack these dynamics around food, food work, and service economies, it is helpful to take on land and food sovereignty as lenses with which to view “united states” history and liberation from exploitation.


Peasants, Black folk, Indigenous land stewards, migrant farm workers, and fisher folk are on the front lines of the struggle against state and corporate sponsored terrorism, natural resource extraction, environmental destruction, occupation, gentrification, and police/paramilitary violence. In many cases, comrades all over the world are winning these battles against their oppressors, but not without loss of life and almost constant struggle. Environmental activists, abolitionists, land and water protectors, and peasants are often surveilled, targeted, and murdered by government or corporate backed forces. Food sovereignty is at the center of these struggles, as healthy and financially accessible food nourishes global resistance movements.

We see the continual effects of colonial violence and extractive degradation as Indigenous folks experience and resist ongoing desecration of their ancestral homelands, and Black folks are continually displaced and struggle to access housing in urban hoods, and farmland in rural areas all over the country. As this plays out, there is an ever-increasing urgency for black reparations for the legacy of enslavement and land justice for Indigenous peoples.

There is also an ever-increasing urgency for revolutionaries inside of amerikkka to recognize and take direction from those Indigenous and Afro-descendant peasants struggling for land, food, housing and water within and beyond amerikkka. All over the globe, there are organized people and social movements actively resisting this system by constructing local food sovereignty in their communities. The formation of La Via Campesina in 1993 has unified peasants on a global scale. From the Union of Agricultural Work Committees in the ancient olive orchards of Palestine’s West Bank, westward to the autonomously governed socialist communes of Caracas Venezuela, southward to the Afro-Brazilian fishing favela of Gamboa De Baixo, eastward to the Indonesian Peasant Union.

Peasants produce 70% of the world’s food on 25% of the resources. 70% of peasants globally are women. As of now, 250 million peasants have been organized into the world’s largest non-secular social movement through the peasant federation of “La Via Campesina.” The peasant food web conserves much of the world’s biodiversity. Peasants also do this work with significantly less control and sovereignty over land than large private entities or state governments. Largely and unfortunately, this information is unknown to the general public in the so-called “united states.”


With the total collapse of capitalism on our horizon, community-based food sovereignty can be pursued  by the masses to sustain resistance movements, feed ourselves, and support  autonomy.

Food sovereignty can be explained as a people’s ability to produce, distribute, and consume their own food in an ecologically sound way under their own terms and conditions, thereby meeting the nutritional needs of everyone involved in the process. In order for this to happen, people need access to land, water, and housing. Globally, the food sovereignty process takes place on a small scale with small holder farmers on two hectares or less.

However, the capitalist industrial food system scaled-up food production to never-before-seen levels through mechanization, paramilitary death squads that target and murder peasant organizers, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, land grabs, femicide, and exploitative labor practices used to massify profits. This has made food sovereignty unachievable for the masses of people in amerikkka to actualize. People are forced to thoughtlessly consume food sold in grocery stores drenched in toxic pesticides, or heavily processed food sold in corner stores packed with poisonous preservatives, leading to diet related diseases and premature death.

There is an overarching public blame on individuals for not switching to healthier diets, but consumption of industrialized food is designed to be highly addictive. Also access to arable land and healthy food is strategically inaccessible. In this context, food and food access becomes weaponized by corporations to enact physiological and psychological violence onto the masses. As explained, this is the current state of the colonial food system.

Currently, large numbers of domestic farmers are disposing of food because of the shutdown of so much of the economy. Not to mention, 30% of all food produced by industrial agriculture is already wasted. Meanwhile, food banks are experiencing unprecedented levels of strain as millions of people are furloughed. Farm laborers and food service workers have historically been regarded as disposable and unskilled, when in fact, this type of work is highly skilled and is being devalued to ensure the extraction of this labor is profitable. If food work and land tending are and always have been essential, why are peasants and workers in food economies so often actively exploited?

All this is to say that the organizational systems of labor and food production are almost totally ineffectual, wasteful and violently exploitative. The contemporary pandemic moment is bringing many of these dangerous gaps to light, but the colonial food landscape has been scamming and poisoning millions of front line people for centuries. The front line of these unsustainable systems creeps closer and closer to the consumer classes, and even on to the doorsteps of oligarchical capitalists. As these structures and food systems enter new frontiers of collapse, it will be the peasant way that catches our communities, it will be communal and reciprocal relationships with land that hold the possibility of justice and liberation.

Originally published in the August 2021 Out of Print Newsletter by the Noname Reads Book Club