Commentary | Who’s hungry?

How food security solutions sustain colonialism and feed the rich

The second of a two-part series – read part one here.

By 2050, world population is expected to hit 10 billion. How are we going to feed all those people? And how can we do so without further impacting the environment?

In a 2011 paper published in Nature, “Solutions for a cultivated planet,” a host of scientists – including McGill professors Elena Bennett and Navin Ramankutty – attempt to provide the answer. The authors suggest stopping harmful agricultural expansion, while at the same time increasing agricultural productivity where possible, changing diets, and reducing waste.

On first read, this sounds great. But what doesn’t sit well with me is the idea that we must improve ‘underperforming’ land. It’s a way of continuing colonization, justifying the forced privatization and acquisition of people’s land.

The first great land grab

Wahéhshon Shiann Whitebean is a member of the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation, and practices Longhouse traditions. Whitebean has lived in Kahnawake, a First Nations reserve just southwest of Montreal, for most of her life. She is a mother of three, community organizer, gardener, and student at Concordia University.

During our discussion, I explain how corporations are currently buying up land, artificially raising its prices for profit, and evicting people who use the land to survive, in the name of food security and sustainability. Whitebean seems unsurprised. To her, this is exactly what happened on first contact in Canada, and demonstrates why colonization is still ongoing. “Any time you talk about land grabbing, it’s Native people’s land. […] There are other Indigenous people in the world who literally die to protect their land.”

“That’s the thing people don’t realize about colonialism. All the things that happened to us, happened to them first. The truth is that this was done already to non-native people.”
Wahéhshon Shiann Whitebean

Whitebean tells me how before European contact, her people had systems to manage land collectively. They lived in extended families in Longhouses, and “women managed food production and distribution. Those two things are key in societies where the women had high status. […] There was no burden on one woman or one man to raise a family. There was no hunger. Everyone took care of each other.”

“All of that was changed by colonization,” says Whitebean. In the 1800s, Europeans enforced conversion to Christianity, which stressed a husband’s control over his wife. In addition, only men were allowed to hold land titles. “Now, women were subject to male dominance, and land rights were no longer the women’s role.” To Whitebean, it was precisely the moment when land rights changed that her people could no longer continue their traditional way of life.

Whitebean also argues that they weren’t the first to have this happen to them. “That’s the thing people don’t realize about colonialism. All the things that happened to us, happened to them first. The truth is that this was done already to non-native people.”

I bring up Silvia Federici, a researcher and activist. Federici argues that the same type of land theft in America and Africa happened to Europeans first. During the enclosure movement in England and Wales starting in the 17th century, land that was used – mostly by women – for subsistence farming was bought up and fenced off by wealthy nobles and merchants. Peasants were pushed off their land, with no option but to seek low wage labour in the cities. According to Federici, this set in motion the witch hunts and later colonialism. As Whitebean says, what happened to her people happened to Europeans earlier.

Academics like Bennett and Ramankutty need to stop taking an apolitical perspective and recognize the role of violence on women, changes in land rights, and colonization in bringing about hunger globally.

Justifying dispossession

From the enclosures to colonization, land grabs were justified as ‘civilizing’ the locals. In the English enclosure movement, merchants and nobility argued that the commons were mismanaged ‘wastes’ – if wealthy merchants could show peasants how to farm, they could help them improve their lot. In America, Indigenous peoples’ lands were ‘wastelands’ and they needed to be taught to properly manage it.

The justifications for land grabbing today are very similar. ‘Under-performing’ land – in other words, subsistence farming, or self-sustaining farming – is not productive enough. Locals need to be taught better farming practices so they can enter the global food market. But what’s wrong with this? In the end, doesn’t privatization increase productivity?

In a 2009 interview, Federici points out how land grabbing harms primary caregivers the most. “Subsistence agriculture in particular, mostly done by women, enables millions to live who would otherwise have no means to purchase food on the market. […] In some parts of the world (Africa above all), 80 per cent of the food consumed is produced by them. […] Their ability to grow food is increasingly threatened by increasing land scarcity, the privatization of land and water, the commercialization of agriculture, and the shift in most Third World countries to export-oriented agricultural production.”

The new land grabs

Is the current spate of land grabbing – where companies buy up massive tracts of land for agricultural development or speculation on its future worth – really just colonialism? Claire Lagier, from her experience working for GRAIN (an activist group that tackles issues like land grabbing), claims otherwise.

“It’s not colonialism in the sense that we mean when we talk about, for example, colonization of Africa or the Americas.” She remarks that, in this case, it’s not just Europeans buying up land. “You have a lot of companies that are based in Malaysia, or in India, or in Singapore, or in Brazil, grabbing land. So it’s not so simple to say it’s a ‘North-South’ type of colonialism.”

However, new and old colonialisms seem to be compounded: “In Africa, [modern land grabbing] relies very heavily on structural oppression that already exists.” This structural oppression comes in the form of patriarchy, inequality, and violence rooted in a history of colonization at the hands of Europeans.

Land grabbing today is also driven by unique situations. Lagier adds, “The food crisis and the financial crisis made land and agricultural production a very strategic asset. If you invest money in farmland right now, you’re going to make more money than if you invest on the stock market, gold, or in real estate.”

“I’d like to focus more on effecting changes for the future, to improve the quality of our life. In my own life, I’ve learned that you can’t do everything all at once. You have to start with the small things.”
Wahéhshon Shiann Whitebean

Alternative solutions

So what are some viable solutions for a cultivated planet, where land is being speculated on, local farmers can no longer grow what they want, and people are being pushed off their land?

For one, there needs to be a land rights revolution, ending a legal system that drives ownership of land by the rich, for the rich. Food production needs to be taken out of the hands of those who seek profit, and be put in the hands of local people, specifically women. Indigenous peoples’ ways of life should be defended, not attacked. Finally, academics like Bennett and Ramankutty need to stop taking an apolitical perspective and recognize the role of violence on women, changes in land rights, and colonization in bringing about hunger globally.

The people I talked to all had their own solutions as well. Ella Haley, who is researching and engaging in activism around the land grab in Ontario, recommends that farmers establish land trusts and community bonds to protect their farmland. This is a legal framework where people can have control over what happens with the land, barring it from being sold to speculators and investors.

Lagier is now working on a campaign for Quebec pension funds to divest from land grabbing projects. She wants to highlight that Quebec labour unions are actually funding the dispossession of people from their land, through investment in the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec.

Whitebean is focusing on trying to build relationships in her own community, healing the wounds inflicted by ongoing colonialism. “I’d like to focus more on effecting changes for the future, to improve the quality of our life. In my own life, I’ve learned that you can’t do everything all at once. You have to start with the small things.”

Her hope in the long run, however, is to fundamentally change land rights for First Nations. “Women were traditionally seen as owners of the land. I’m trying to find a way to revert privatized land to collective women’s ownership. That’s why I’m studying now.”


A Bite of Food Justice is a column discussing inequity in the food system while critiquing contemporary ideals of sustainability. Aaron Vansintjan can be reached at foodjustice@mcgilldaily.com.


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