The Power of Food

Destructive legacies & regenerative futures

by Olivia Oldham

"So I offer, in its place, a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the world… an intertwining of science, spirit, and story—old stories and new ones that can be medicine for our broken relationship with earth, a pharmacopoeia of healing stories that allow us to imagine a different relationship, in which people and land are good medicine for each other." – Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass


If there's one thing that the powerful movement for Black Lives made clear in 2020, it is that we are, in many ways, still living out the long-tailed consequences of our histories. In Britain, and elsewhere around the world, the legacies of empire, colonisation, and slavery are still very much alive: legacies which many of us have never before thought to question.

'Food—its production, processing, transportation and consumption—is filled with echoes of this violence.'

These legacies are often profoundly violent, and they are threaded through almost every aspect of modern life, from the clothes we wear, to the names of our streets, to the museums we visit—and the food we eat. Food—its production, processing, transportation and consumption—is filled with echoes of this violence. We are all caught up in these echoes each time we pick up our forks—whether we hear them or not.

But what can we, the shoppers and the eaters, do? The past can’t be unwritten—the violence can’t be undone. Today is however, another question, and each day, the choices we make can help put us on a path away from violence and destruction, and toward renewal and regeneration. But before we can look ahead with clarity, we first must understand what lies behind us.

The violent histories of food

Much, if not most, of the Industrial Revolution was driven by the profits of conquest and exploitation. Fuelled by sugar and rum, it was founded on the genocide of Indigenous peoples, built on the backs of slave labourers in the plantations of the Caribbean and the United States, and woven together by the hands of an underclass of factory workers in Britain.

Even before the British Empire was a mere dream in the minds of the wealthy men (and they have, it must be said, almost invariably been men), people were being exploited for the sake of claiming land and producing food. In 1066, the colonisation of Britain by the Normans led to wave after wave of land enclosures, privatising vast tracts of what had once been land held in common. Later, in the 16th century, the 'plantation' was born, a series of land seizures in Ireland conceived as a tool for controlling the local population and teaching them the 'correct' way to farm. In separating the people from the land, the nobility also separated them from the ability—the power—to grow their own food.

Today, many of us still lack that power—and it shows. Levels of food insecurity in the UK are skyrocketing. In 2008/9, fewer than 26,000 people needed emergency food aid from the Trussell Trust (which accounts for about 2/3 of food aid in the UK); in the year ending March 2020 that figure had increased to a staggering 1.9 million. And, since the beginning of the outbreak of Covid-19, food poverty has only got worse.

'the world’s soils only have an average of 60 harvests’ (i.e. 60 years’ worth of food) left in them, if practices don’t change.'

It's not only people who have suffered at the hands of violent farming practices. The world around us has also fallen victim. In colonial plantations, diverse indigenous ecosystems were replaced by brutal monocrops of sugarcane and cotton. Vast tracts of land have been ploughed up and turned over to the service of a single plant and a pre-existing wealth of knowledge, flora, culture and fauna, has been lost.

According to Leah Penniman, farmer and author of Farming While Black, the displacement of Indigenous peoples in mid-western North America allowed European settlers to plough up the Great Plains, releasing a full 50% of its organic matter into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, reducing the soil's ability to produce food by over 60% in under 3 decades. The consequences of these actions can still be felt today, playing a part in the global climate crisis, and contributing to a decline in soil fertility. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the world’s soils only have an average of 60 harvests’ (i.e. 60 years’ worth) of food left in them, if practices don’t change. Is it any wonder that some social scientists are now arguing that the Anthropocene should be renamed the Plantationocene?

This history of violence towards people and the planet has bled into the modern day. In the United States, for example, migrant workers make up the bulk of all farm labourers, and they are often harshly exploited. This is something activist geographer Julie Guthman writes about in her work on California’s strawberry fields. With nearly half of all farm workers in the US having no legal right to work there, immigration status is used as a tool of oppression, and workers are disposable.

These issues are not just confined to foreign shores, though. With the recent passage of the Agriculture Act 2020, we in the UK may soon become complicit. This new law has opened the door to trade deals which allow the importation of lower-standard foodstuffs from around the world. The tables of British shoppers and eaters might soon be laden not only with chlorinated chicken, but also with strawberries picked using a form of modern-day slavery. Here in the UK, migrant agricultural workers, mostly from Eastern Europe, are also often exploited, working long shifts, paid below the minimum wage, and forced to live in crowded and unsafe—particularly in a time of Covid—conditions.

'just because we can't see the often dark and violent underbelly of our food, it doesn't mean we aren't connected to it.'

The tie that binds us

Eating is something we can't avoid. Like breathing, it is a necessary part of life. There is much that is beautiful in this tie that binds us all—a profound connection to the land and the seas, to those who cultivated the food on our tables, and the companions with whom we break bread. But much of that connection has been extracted from the act of eating, hidden under layers of marketing and lost in a sea of anonymous commodities. But just because we can't see the often dark and violent underbelly of our food, it doesn't mean we aren't connected to it.

Every day when we buy food we are entering into a web of relationships that stretches from the cashier, to the miller and the butcher, to the fruit picker and the farmer. From the ancient king who stole the land from the people and gave it to his cousins, to the modern investor who funds the deforestation of the rainforest. Yes, violence persists within our food systems from corporate production of seeds to chemical pesticides and the spread of disease. It degrades and undermines the soil that feeds us, and it frays the connections that sustain our societies.

But what if, rather than degenerating and degrading the land and each other, we were to turn towards a regenerative paradigm? That’s exactly what a new wave of farmers, landworkers, and food producers are working to do.

The revolution will be regenerative

Regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming that uses "methods that manage land holistically for carbon sequestration, crop resilience, soil health and nutrient density," according to climate researcher Holly Jean Buck. It is often characterised by the use of certain practices, such as rotational grazing (keeping animals moving), diverse cropping systems (growing lots of different plants at the same time), and reducing or eliminating the use of the plough (to avoid destroying vital networks of underground fungi and releasing carbon into the atmosphere). While it is often presented as a new approach, much of what characterises regenerative agriculture is in fact very, very old, tracing its roots back to Indigenous food cultivation methods around the globe.

New or old, by encouraging us to look at the world as an extension of ourselves, rather than something separate to be tamed, we are beginning to learn (or remember) that nothing happens in isolation, that we are rooted in the land, and that we are less in control than we might once have thought—and that this is a good thing! As Penniman says, "in healing our relationship with soil, we heal the climate, and we heal ourselves."

'it's not enough to regenerate our relationship with the land alone: we must also regenerate our relationships with each other.'

The thing is, it's not enough to regenerate our relationship with the land alone: we must also regenerate our relationships with each other. For those of us who hold relative social power—due to our class, the colour of our skin, or our gender—it can be easy to overlook the ways in which our work in one space can accidentally reinforce harmful and oppressive social structures of power in others. Just like with food, just because these forms of oppression are less visible, this doesn't mean they aren't there, and that they aren't deeply harmful.

For example, a well-intentioned recent documentary, Kiss The Ground, did a wonderful job of bringing the importance of soil, and the potential of regenerative agriculture, into the mainstream. But what it failed to do was to critically examine the social side of regeneration. By giving an almost exclusively white perspective, and by presenting most of the few non-white faces as either background props or grateful beneficiaries of white saviours, it played out a tired neo-colonial narrative which erased the voices and power of Black, Brown & Indigenous farmers and food producers in the United States and beyond.

If we fail to implement a holistic vision of regeneration, one that encompasses both environmental and social regeneration, we are unlikely to be able to effectively challenge the violent social dynamics that haunt our food. While those of us who are privileged enough to hold positions of relative social power might get by alright, we will leave many others in chains.

Growing a regenerative food future

So, how can we work together toward anti-oppressive forms of living together? How can those of us who are not farmers, growers, fishers, cheesemakers, or vintners; policymakers or powerful CEOs—how can we grow a future that is regenerative, in all senses of the word?

The first step, I think, is to speak up. We need to acknowledge and recognise where the violence of the past is continuing to play out. A lot of this work requires us to move past our ideological boundaries so we can work together towards shared goals. We have to move beyond just critiquing and tearing each other down, and instead find an approach that centres on listening and collaborating. In conversation, both in person and online with our friends, neighbours and colleagues, we have to find the courage to open the door to a deeper consideration of our complicity with our pasts—and presents.

Once we've learned to start talking about the violence that exists on our tables, we can start acting as food citizens. A food citizen is someone who is not just a consumer "at the end of the food chain, but [a participant] in the food system as a whole," and it’s more than just 'voting with our wallets' (though that can still be helpful!). True food citizenship spans a whole range of activities: from joining a food cooperative or a community supported agriculture scheme, to campaigning for policy changes, from investing in organisations which seek to enhance the ability for new farmers to access land to learning more about compassionate, collaborative food production.

It can also involve amplifying the work of those already campaigning for and practicing alternative ways of producing and eating food, here and now. From organisations like LION, which aims to disrupt oppressive, race-related land dynamics in Britain and to address land injustice as the nexus for issues of food, health and environmental injustices, to Granville Community Kitchen, which seeks to empower its community through food; from community land buyouts in Scotland to community seed banks in London – the alternatives we seek often already exist, and it is up to us to help them flourish and grow.

'By claiming the right to shape our food worlds, (...) we can work towards creating the future we want to see.'

So, next time you sit down at the dinner table, next time you’re speaking with your friends or voting in an election, remember: we are what we eat. By claiming the right to shape our food worlds, by stepping into our power, we can work towards creating the future we want to see.

As food activist, scientist and seed-saver Vandana Shiva once said, “[w]e have an ecological and social duty to ensure that the food that nourishes us is not a stolen harvest.” Ultimately, it’s up to people like you and me—people who aren’t necessarily farmers, but who may have some degree of social power—to do what we can to make sure the future is one that regenerates both the land and the people—together.

Olivia is a freelance writer, activist and aspiring farmer who is passionate about regenerative agriculture and helping to nourish just and joyful food futures. She is the Community Lead for Farmerama Radio an award-winning podcast sharing the voices behind regenerative farming, and the Storytelling Editor & Projects Manager for Farms to Feed Us, where she helps to share the stories of sustainable producers around the UK. Find more of her work on her blog, Yellow Wood, or over on Instagram or Twitter.