A Common Ground found through Food Justice

Written by Planting Justice

On November 1, 2019

A Common Ground found through Food Justice: Growing Coalitions between Environmental, Human Rights, Anti-Imperialism, and Labor Movements

By Haleh Zandi

March 2009


            This paper seeks to build alliances by drawing connections between seemingly disparate social movements through exploring different practices in agriculture. Using the case study of Cuba’s urban food systems, tracing the effects of a federally supported industrial agriculture in the United States, situating food systems through the power dynamics of race, class, gender, and national privilege, and pointing out the benefits of more localized, democratized, and bio-diverse food systems, this paper evidences how rising global crises may be simultaneously addressed through advocacy for the food justice movement.


            Through the framework of environmental justice, this paper examines the violences currently dominating industrial agricultural practices and looks at the possibilities for justice through small-scale, organic food systems. First, through the case study of Cuba’s dramatic agricultural shift away from the “Green Revolution”, which relies heavily upon fossil-fuels, and towards a socialized, local, and organic food system, I evidence the ways in which urban agricultural practices enable environmental justice through food security. Then, I engage in a critical analysis of Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America (1977) to trace the ways in which agriculture linked to federal power in the U.S. created inequitable living conditions for United States urban residents as well as for small farmers around the world, particularly through the dynamics of race, class, and national privilege. Lastly, through Vandana Shiva’s critical analysis of industrial agriculture and globalized food systems in Soil not Oil (2008), I evidence the ways in which food justice addresses the overlapping crises located within the economy, the use of energy, and the health of bodies and the land. Ultimately, I propose that various grassroots social movements, predominately working separately under the divisions of the environment, labor rights, Civil Rights, or anti-war, may find ways to build alliances through the frameworks of the food justice movement.

“Si, se puede!”: “How Cuba Survived Peak Oil”

               The United States embargo against Cuba, first enacted in 1962 and then codified into law in 1992, served to isolate this island from the globalized, capitalist economy; yet, the Cuban agricultural system hadn’t escaped the policies of neo-colonialism in the ways that high-yield varieties of cash crops were grown for export, never to directly feed the basic needs of the people. These cash crops, mainly sugar cane and tobacco, required the massive use of oil-based pesticides, natural gas-based fertilizers, and gasoline-based transportation (Morgan 2006). As Cuba relied upon foreign finite resources and technologies governed by relations of market power, the people lacked food sovereignty, which is the right to make one’s own agricultural and food policies (Patel 2009).

            As the dissolution of the Soviet Union occurred in the early 1990’s, Cuba experienced what they refer to as the “Special Period” in which the economy collapsed, food imports were reduced by 80%, and the fossil fuel-based agricultural system failed (Morgan 2006). By 1994, the average Cuban citizen had lost 20 pounds from malnutrition (Morgan 2006). The chemical fertilizers and pesticides had de-mineralized the land, turning soils into sand, and tractors sat idle on large agricultural plots. As it typically takes three to four years to rebuild and maintain organic, nutrient-rich soil through diversifying crop rotations and implementing composting systems and animal husbandry, the Cuban government invested in scientific research centers studying sustainable agriculture and organic farming methods which didn’t depend on fossil fuels (Morgan 2006). As small farms became necessary through the shifts towards appropriate-technology, the numbers of farmers increased by means of educational cooperatives and training schools (Morgan 2006). The large, idle farms were re-distributed by the government as a usufruct land system in which farmers were given the legal right to use the land, tax-free, in order to increase local food production (Morgan 2006). Through a diversified and decentralized food system, including private farms, cooperative farms, roof-top gardening in urban areas, and large government farms, people were encouraged to participate in growing their own food and a sense of ownership over a local economy led to greater productivity of foods. Cuban’s view of agriculture changed dramatically as farming was recognized as one of the most vital and dignified professions and farmers became one of the highest paid workers in the country (Morgan 2006).

            In Cuba, the rise of urban agriculture was promoted by the highest levels of government in response to the convergence of economic, health, and ecological crises. But, it was the power of community, of cooperatives, and of human relationships which enabled the ability for Cubans to sustain themselves with at least 80% of their own local food production (Morgan 2006). Within the current context of the United States, as economic, energy, climate, and health crises expand as complex configurations of capitalist exploitation, a dependence on fossil fuels, mass consumption and waste, and the centralization of power, reliance upon the federal government seems dismal. An example is H.R. 875, the “Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009”, which is of concern to small and organic farmers because of the ways in which it could criminalize organic farming by listing them as sources of seed contamination and by forcing farmers to buy chemical fertilizers and pesticides, or else face up to $500,000 in penalties. Though environmental justice has been recognized by the federal government as an issue of concern since the 1990’s (See The First National People of Color Environmental Justice Summit in 1991 and the Environmental Protection Agency Office of Environmental Justice started 1992), this “safety bill” introduced into the 111 th Congress is a deal with agribusiness giants such as Monsanto, Cargill, Tyson, and ADM as the pursuit of corporate profit and power imposes upon the health and livelihood of global citizens. In order for agricultural practices to enable environmental justice, United States citizens need to question relations of power determining dominant food systems and participate in their own relations of food production, whether through consumer responsibility, knowledge and skill acquisition in growing food, or building stronger relationships between rural and urban communities. These practices may facilitate an ethics of care toward just labor practices, sustainable resource management, and growing healthy bodies.

Building Alliances between Urban Residents, Small Farmers, Communities of Color, and the Working Class

               In the inner cities of the U.S. and on small farms around the world, historical oppressions linked to dynamics of race, class, and national privileges continue to function through the relations of power structured within the industrialized, globalized food system. As a history of the present understood by subaltern experiences, this section critically examines the intersections of nation-making and globalization through a reframing of the processes of industrial agriculture. By empowering strategic alliances, the food justice movement challenges the roles, identities, and relations between national institutions, globalized corporations, and local communities of both small farms and urban areas. What are urban relationships to the environment? How might urban agriculture intervene on individualized and commodified understandings of nature? Within the structures of the ruling capitalist democracy, how might urban/rural and local/global populations become blurred towards an understanding of mutual dependence and ethical commitments to the other? As urban areas predominantly rely upon resources extracted from the environment of the Global South, links between ecology and culture must be cultivated through a global civic participation which intervenes upon divisions of racial, class, and national inequities.

            Writing from a farm in Kentucky within a post-9/11 context, Wendell Berry urges United States citizens to ask, what does real security and freedom require of us (Berry 2003). As people experience processes of violence which have nothing directly to do with warfare, but are accepted as normal to the capitalist economy of life (such as poverty, toxic pollution, soil erosion, and the destruction of biological diversity), these “externalized costs” are located through dynamics of race, class, gender, and national privilege.  In The Unsettling of America (1977), Wendell Berry describes the plight of small farmers in the United States under the industrialized agricultural practices codified into law through the federal policies of Earl L. Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture from 1971-1976. Though I am critical of the ways in which Berry’s analysis is situated within a Christian discourse of morality under the national structure, so that patriotism is privileged as the civic means for interrupting the violences of industrial agriculture, I find his description of the struggles of small farmers to be useful in examining the problematics of food systems linked to centralized power under the rubric of “progress” and “efficiency”.

            These pledges of progress and efficiency situated within a discourse of modernity disguise an officially sanctioned and federally subsidized exploitation of labor, land, and the basic nutrients of life. Under the partnership of the United States Department of Agriculture and corporate agribusiness, the industrialization and standardization of food systems expanded (Berry 1977). Recognizing the devastating effects notions of modernity have upon the knowledge of the indigenous Americans, upon the values of small farming communities, and upon the self-sufficiency of urban populations, “they (the colonial order) have always said that what they destroyed was outdated, provincial, and contemptible” (Berry 1977: 4). When Earl L. Butz declared that “food is a weapon,” he was officially calling for more production under the rubric of progress and efficiency “to be used to bait or bribe foreign countries (Berry 1977: 9). Berry points out that the “mechanization and chemicalization of farming, increase in the price of land, increase in overhead and operating costs, and the diminishment of farm populations” (1977: 10) was promoted by the highest levels of government while the “problems of overcrowding and unemployment increase in the cities” (1977: 11) and “soil erosion rates are worse now than during the Dust Bowl” (1977: VIII). Within a complex web of correlations, modern agricultural is an ecological crisis and a crisis of human security. The correlating effects of industrial agriculture are too broad, too complex, and too diverse to be effectively resisted within a singular solution. The industrial revolution “deprived the mass of consumers of any independent access to the staples of life: clothing, shelter, food, even water” (1977: 6), and Berry warns that “a mere consumer is by definition dependent, at the mercy of the manufacturer, the salesmen, and the agency that enforces the law” (1977: 23). As small farmers are pressured into the consumption of chemicals and fossil-fuels, as urban populations exist within consumptive relations to subsistence, as the land is perceived as an infinite resource to be exploited without means of regenerating natural cycles, an environmental justice approach to shifting ways of living becomes urgent.

            Missing from Wendell Berry’s critical analysis of industrial agriculture are the ways in which structures of racial inequalities function at the expense of African American farmers in the United States. According to the 1997 Census of Agriculture, there are 18,000 African American farmers in the United States, which is a decline of 98% since 1920 (Wood and Gilbert 2000). The Pigford settlement, brought forth in 1999, evidences the ways in which 94,000 African American farmers, predominately in the South, experienced federal discrimination by the United States Department of Agriculture (GAO 2006). In the Pigford settlement, the court recognized decades of USDA discrimination against African Americans by denying, delaying, or otherwise obstructing African American farmers’ applications for farm loans and other credit and benefit programs (Holmes 2009).

            During the decades in which African American farmers experienced economic and racial oppression in the South, Mexican and Central American farmers in California also endured structures of oppression in the dangerous working conditions of agricultural fields, inhumane housing conditions, unjust labor contracts, sexual harassment of female farm workers by the foremen and growers, and fear of retribution from government and immigration authorities (Araiza 2006: vi). In her dissertation published in 2006, Lauren Araiza describes the alliances made in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s between the Mexican and Central American United Farm Workers, led by Cesar Chavez, and various Civil Rights groups, such as the Black Panther Party, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, NAACP, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. These alliances drawn between grassroots movements are critical in empowering resistance against oppression. Many communities of color and working class communities struggle against similar systems of oppression through overlapping structures of capitalism, the nation-state, and colonial discourse. Through tracing the alliances built through the United Farm Workers movement, Araiza points out how cooperation, solidarity, the mobilization of different communities, and a commitment to multi-racial equality enables processes of justice to be realized (Araiza 2006).

            Alliance building is, in fact, a necessary means for achieving social change towards justice and human rights, and within the food justice movement in the United States, addressing white, middle-class privilege is one of the keys to building alliances between grassroots organizations working for sovereignty over affordable, nutritious food sources. Failure to confront social and cultural differences within liberal social movements and the ways in which the community food movement reproduces white privilege undermines the efforts of social change (Slocum 2006). As evidenced above, racism is an organizing process in the industrialized and globalized food system: people of color disproportionately experience food insecurity, lose their farms, and face the dangerous work of food processing and agricultural labor. Between 1990 and 1998, the total number of young Indigenous Americans who deal with diabetes increased by 71% (Acton et al 2002), and Indigenous Americans are 2.6 times more likely than European Americans to have diabetes, which has a direct correlation with one’s diet. Likewise, African American and Latino American households experienced food insecurity at double the national average in 2003 (Weil 2004; or see Shields 1995). Indeed, the United States’ food system was built upon a foundation of genocide, slavery, and racist institutions which have dispossessed racialized groups of cultural pride, land use, and the right to a dignified livelihood through the overlapping dynamics of race, class, and gender disparities.

            These disparities must be understood in relation to white privilege lived and experienced as dominant white land ownership, greater food security, and lesser vulnerability to malnutrition and disease, and also in relation to overlapping structures of class and gender inequities located within systems of domination (Slocum 2006). Non-profit, grassroots, and community organizations participating in the food justice movement must remain attentive to the ways in which race remains invisibilized within liberal understandings of the environment and of cultural differences in relation to food, both within organizations, through community-based work, and while participating in advocacy and alliance building. White allies in the movement for food justice must remain self-reflexive and work towards understanding pressures of assimilation, differences in gender, histories of slavery and exploitation, and neo-colonial relations of domination. Through focusing on issues such as land tenure, food sovereignty, labor rights, resistance to exploitation, political inequities, and the cultural politics of hunger and obesity, the food justice movement may speak to communities of difference towards the social realization that the others’ freedom and security is linked to one’s own. Alliance is not just for a people, but for a movement towards the ongoing process of freedom and justice.

A Coalition of Environmental, Human Rights, Anti-Imperialism, and Labor Movements

            In her text Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis (2008)Vandana Shiva links correlations between the food crisis, the climate crisis, and the oil crisis through evidencing the problematics of industrialized and globalized agricultural systems. Shiva’s most convincing arguments are located in her critical analysis of the current dominant food system’s reliance upon gross amounts of fossil fuels. She describes that “industrialized, globalized agriculture is a recipe for eating oil. Oil is used for the chemical fertilizers that go to pollute the soil and water. Oil is used to displace small farmers with giant tractors and combine harvesters. Oil is used to industrially process food. Oil is used for the plastic in packaging. And finally, more and more oil is used to transport food farther and father away from where it is produced” (2008: 96). Shiva demonstrates how solutions to these ecological, economic, and human rights disasters are addressed simultaneously through practices in biodiverse, localized, and democratized food systems, which are more resistant to disease, droughts, and floods; provide much needed jobs for small farmers and landless laborers; create nutritious food sources for more people; lessen environmental impacts on the earth; protect workers from harmful chemicals and pesticides; regenerate soils for future seasons of growing; expand local economies; reduce greenhouse gas emissions; lessen dependency on foreign oils; and ultimately work towards processes of freedom and justice (Shiva 2008).

            As the United States, as well as every place on earth, continues to face depleting oil resources, rising food prices, an unpredictable climate crisis, and an economic collapse, solutions based upon centralized, corporatized, mechanized, and standardized food systems will never adequately deal with the needs of the people. The path that Cuba took in response to the “Special Period” evidences the multiple ways in which urban agricultural practices address economic, energy, health, and food crises, and there is still much more to be learned through the remembering of different cultural practices in relation to food and in ways of living. As movements for environmental justice, human rights, anti-imperialism, and labor rights struggle to address the needs of their constituents, a broader understanding of the complexities and confluences between their issues of concern may serve to build coalitions and strengthen their power to intervene upon systems of domination and violence. For citizens of the United States, as the inner-cities struggle for survival, as aggressive wars in the Middle East continue, as workers are laid off by the thousands, and as the earth responds to exploitation with increasing force, new understandings of a global civic responsibility must emerge towards sustainability and security for all.


Acton K. J., Burrows N. R., Moore K., Querec L., Geiss L. S., and Engelgau M. M.

2002 Trends in Diabetes Prevalence among American Indian and Alaska Native children,

Adolescents, and Young Adults. In American Journal of Public Health 92(9): 1485–1490.

Araiza, Lauren Ashley

2006 For Freedom of Other Men: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the United Farm Workers, 1965-1973. PhD Dissertation in History, University of California Berkeley.

Berry, Wendell

1977 The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

2003 Citizenship Papers. Washington DC: Shoemaker and Hoard.

Environmental Protection Agency Office of Environmental Justice

1992 http://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/ . Established under the Presidency of Bill Clinton.

Holmes, Tamara

2009 Black Farmers Sue USDA for $20.5 billion: Mismanaged 1999 Settlement Sparks Class Action Lawsuit. InBlack Enterprise.

Morgan, Faith, dir.

2006 The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil (film). The Community Solution.

Patel, Raj

2009 You Are More Than What You Eat. Interview by E.B. Boyd, Common Ground Magazine, March.

Shields, D. L. L., ed.

1995 The Color of Hunger: Race and Hunger in National and International Perspective. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Shiva, Vandana

2008 Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in a Time of Climate Crisis. Cambridge: South End Press.

Slocum, Rachel

2006 Anti-racist Practice and the Work of Community Food Organizations. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

The First National People of Color Environmental Justice Summit

1991 http://www.ejrc.cau.edu/princej.html. Washington DC, October 27th.

United States Congress

2009 HR 875: “Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009”. Threatens the rights of small farmers against the expansion of federal powers.

United States Government Accountability Office (GAO)

2006 The Pigford Settlement. Washington DC, March 17th.

Weil, J.

2004 New USDA Food Insecurity Numbers Released. Food Research and Action Center, Washington, DC.

Wood, Spencer D., and Jess Gilbert

2000 Returning African American Farmers to the Land: Recent Trends and a Policy Rationale. In The Review of Black Political Economy, Spring publication.

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