The organic movement must help dismantle racism in the food system

Image from Soul Fire Farm CSA newsletter, 2012

The entire food system is built on the foundation of free labor.

This statement was made by Leah Penniman, founder of Soul Fire Farm, in her inspiring keynote address at the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) annual summer conference in Amherst, MA on August 12th. It has continued to resonate in my mind, and encapsulates so much of what any advocate of sanity in the food system must understand.

Leah made many other important statements, some that affirmed my own understanding of the racist and elitist underpinnings of the organic movement as it exists today, and some that shook me out of my own comfort zone and made me think more deeply about what I could do as a priveleged white activist to confront those implicit and sometimes unacknowledged tendencies in myself and my colleagues. I thought I was already doing what I could, but Leah-- and her compatriots in the next morning’s panel--helped me see that I was wrong.

Certainly I knew that our national shame of slavery formed the foundation of our food system as well as our entire economic system, and that the institutionalized racism devised to justify this abomination continues in toxic if more restrained fashion throughout American society. It has been exported throughout the world as corporate colonialism has come to dominate international trade. This knowledge forms a subtext running through much of Organic Revolutionary, particularly the “Epilogue: Advice to a young food system activist,” in which I link the demand for food purity with the valuing of racial purity:

As impurities have been refined out, the social status of foods such as white sugar, white flour and white rice has been elevated, while at the same time their life-giving qualities have been diminished. The addictive qualities of both refined carbohydrates and refined hydrocarbons is not a coincidence. That the production, processing, and manufacture of foods and textiles from these now lifelessly pure products is predicated on an exceptionally vicious dehumanization of brown and black people by those of euro-caucasian descent is a shameful and sordid chapter of our history that lives on at the very core of our so-called civilization."

A large part of my motivation for writing this book has been my ongoing concern about the elitism and, with few notable exceptions, domination by white folks of the organic and “good food” movements. I believe that the fixation on organic purity by many well-meaning organic advocates, and the marketing of organic products as “pure and natural” by the heavily white dominated organic industry, have contributed not only to the marginalization of organic producers, but to the limitation of access by low income people to their products. My omission of any explicit discussion earlier in the book of the racist underpinnings of our food system is a gap that I intend to correct in a future update, along with the inclusion of more information about the indigenous roots of organic agriculture, and the contributions of African slaves and African-American farmers and scientists such as George Washington Carver to our food system. There is more I can do, to be sure--this is just one small step I can take right away.

As Leah discussed her list of ten things we as privileged activists could do to end racism in farming and food, the problem of access to land stood out for me. When she said simply “Share your land” I recognized a piece of my own dream that had long been deferred, and resolved to begin a process that could make that happen. A few more of Leah’s statements also resonated with me:

To free ourselves we must feed ourselves.

Quoting Malccolm X: "Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality."

The second conference keynote, held on Saturday night, was by IFOAM President Andre Leu. His science-based presentation on the urgent threat posed by climate chaos, and the value of organic farming in mitigating it, highlighted another prime motivation for writing Organic Revolutionary. The connections between the economic system that has both exploited the planet and exploited non-white populations in doing so are clear to many of us. The primary victims of climate-change related disasters are also those Global South populations who have contributed the least to causing them. Climate justice and food justice are both necessary for a real solution. What will it take, as I asked Andre that evening, to get us from less than 1% of US farmland under organic management to the magic number of 25% that he told us can begin to reverse currently disastrous levels of atmospheric CO2?

It is heartening to learn about so many new initiatives to bring more people of color into the “real food” movement, and gain skills in organic/regenerative farming. I believe that we must look to a younger generation of leaders drawn from the marginalized “front line” populations who are most affected by climate chaos, environmental pollution, and racial injustice to change the story of our food system. The organic revolution is already in full bloom, thanks in part to the increasing availability of organic products of all kinds made possible by an expanding organic industry. People like Leah Penniman, Diana Robinson, Karen Washington, and many of the young researchers I met in South Korea last year are the leaders we need to carry it forward to fruition.

The organic revolution is not just about the food system. It is also about a doorway into the political, social, and economic revolution that is needed to dismantle systemic oppression and violence that is diminishing the lives of all of us along with the future of our children and grandchildren. Human liberation and planetary healing are indivisible.


Search by Topic