Agriculture: Rooted in Racism

Systemic racism in agriculture is painfully obvious. Why has it taken a new Civil Rights movement to clearly expose the sordid roots and present-day inequalities in food and farming?

By Pierre Ferrari and Cory Gilman

June 19, 2020

Picture of a corn field

In This Article

  • Modern agriculture systems in the U.S. and around the world were built on the backs of enslaved people.
  • The Black community is disproportionately impacted by food insecurity, malnutrition, diet-related disease, and exclusion from both land ownership and agriculture as a whole.
  • Poverty is not an accident. When entire groups of people experience similar forms of socioeconomic marginalization, that is by design.
  • Organizations like Heifer International need to commit even more deeply to social, economic and environmental justice on every level of work.

Addressing systems of social, economic and environmental oppression is intrinsic to Heifer International’s work. As an organization, we strive to end hunger and poverty while caring for the Earth. But we must remember that poverty is not an accident. When specific groups of people experience similar forms of socio-economic marginalization, that is by design.

In this series, we are exploring the intersection of historical racism and agricultural development, examining the impact on Black, Indigenous and People of Color to contextualize how hundreds of years horrors continue to shape and influence the lives of the families with whom we work.

Note: This article was updated on July 20, 2020.

The United States has not achieved as much social progress in the last 155 years as many people believe. In 2020, racism still seeps its way into every aspect of life, from unconscious bias and microaggressions to domestic and international policy and enforcement.

A farmer who participated in the Heifer International and Prentiss Institute 30-year partnership in Mississippi
The Prentiss Institute and Heifer International worked together for 30 years to support Black farmers in Mississippi. Photo from the Heifer archives.

As an organization with 76 years of history supporting small-scale producers, we have a responsibility to use our experience to name and break the barriers that have plagued Black, Indigenous and People of Color farmers. Fighting injustice in all its forms – hunger, malnutrition, poverty, income inequality, climate change and gender inequity – has long been a tenet of our work.

We have worked to break down barriers that prevent the inclusion and success of marginalized groups in agriculture. Heifer International initiatives have assisted with land rights, helped farmers organize, provided technical assistance to increase production and productivity, and improved access to capital and markets. But good intentions do not equal positive impact. It is not enough to mean well. We have to do well.

Our mission cannot be fulfilled without recognizing how deeply agriculture is rooted in racism. It’s imperative to address how the origins of our food system are interwoven with the battle currently being fought, how the success of global agriculture has been sown with the blood and sweat of people of color.

In the United States, modern agriculture was built on the backs of enslaved people who were used as property and valued only as production units. They produced cotton, tobacco, sugar, indigo, rice, sweet potato, peanuts, watermelon and okra. This unrelenting system of free labor, coupled with simultaneous extraction of farming knowledge, directly led to America’s economic domination of the 18th century and the pervasive industrialized agricultural ascendancy that remains today. When slavery finally became illegal, the tradition of Black exploitation for agricultural and financial gain continued in the form of tenant farming, sharecropping and land grabbing.

Farmer works in her peanut field in Zambia
Rose Nambi works in her peanut field in Zambia. Photo by Olivier Asselin.

In the 1930s, as minimum wage and other labor rights protections were enacted, the agricultural industry remained exempt. Farmworkers, at the time predominately Black, were excluded, and this loophole was not modified until the 1980s. Simply put, our country’s designation as the “breadbasket of the world” would not have been possible without the unwilling sacrifice of Africans and Black Americans.

Farmer works in her familys sweet potato field in Malawi.
Elizabeth Nkosi works in her sweet potato field in Malawi. Photo by Olivier Asselin.

Today, the Black community is disproportionately impacted by food insecurity, malnutrition, diet-related disease, and exclusion from both land ownership and agriculture as a whole.

The agricultural foundation of the U.S. follows a tradition of forced labor spanning huge expanses of time and place. Most of our favorite grocery items are a product of colonialism. These goods are widely available thanks to the almost standardized practice of a powerful, predominantly white nation dropping anchor onto a foreign land, conquering and brutally subjugating its Indigenous people, ravaging the soil with the compulsory workforce of human “property,” and sending the resulting agricultural goods back home and to other wealthy countries at an enormous profit.

The Dutch East Indies brought Arabica coffee and sugar, British India produced tea and spices, German East Africa ushered in sesame and Robusta coffee, French West Africa brought chocolate and peanuts, and the Belgian Congo palm oil and sugar. When slavery was no longer condoned, oppressive conditions on stolen land remained. While each wave of colonialism has its own nuanced narrative, they all propagated from the same seed: racism.

This subjugation continues to play out, under new names but similar practices, all over the world. In many countries, racial, Indigenous, ethnic or caste groups are deemed “less than” – less worthy of basic safety and human rights, of fair pay and equal opportunity, and of dignity. Considering 70% of the world’s hungry are food producers, it’s a statistical certainty that much of what is on our plates stems from one of these groups.

Poverty is not an accident. When entire groups of people experience similar forms of socioeconomic marginalization, that is by design. It is intergenerational. It is systemic racial and ethnic oppression. It is intolerable.

Farmer and farm worker Sevia Matinanga harvest sugar cane in Zambia.
Edward Zulu (left) and Sevia Matinanga (right) harvest sugar cane in Zambia. Photo by Olivier Asselin.

We cannot change the past, but we can actively acknowledge it. We must begin the critical work of changing the course of the future, which means actively supporting communities of color in our local and global food systems. There’s much to be done. Governments must enact policies to ensure full, inclusive and healthy participation for Black, Indigenous and people of color in agriculture. Organizations like Heifer International need to commit even more deeply to social, economic and environmental justice on every level of work by saying “no” to complicit systems and “absolutely” to accelerating the visions marginalized small-scale farmers build for their futures. Consumers can seek out black-owned agribusinesses and take a stand against corporations that source ingredients that are unethically priced or that use forced or child labor. The world is ripe for real change, and we are ready for it.