Cultivating race: how the science and technology of agriculture preserves race in the global economy.

Author:Mandell, Bekah
Position:Symposium: Defining Race

In 2008, nearly one-sixth of the world's population went hungry. (1) The vast majority of the world's hungry live in the developing world; only a fraction of the under-fed are residents of the global North. (2) The burden of hunger falls disproportionately on the world's people of color who make up the majority of the population of the global south. (3) This inequitable distribution of hunger is not a geographic accident, but rather the result of the systems that have reified race and reinforced its construction through the centuries and across the continents.

This Article will demonstrate that the way in which race developed and continues to be deployed is closely tied to how the world feeds itself and distributes its harvest, drawing links between the evolution of agricultural systems and technologies and the inequitable distribution of hunger and plenty along racial lines. The first Part of this Article focuses on the development of the historical relationship between race and agriculture. Part II demonstrates how race is currently deployed and supported by our global economic and agricultural food delivery system and the technologies we use to feed our planet's population. Part III draws conclusions about how agricultural technologies contribute to the evolving definition of race in the global system.

Despite the hunger of nearly one-sixth of the world's population, there is no food production crisis in the world today. (4) Even as riots over grain and cereal shortages killed half a dozen people in Haiti during the summer of 2008, and riots over bread and cereal shortages roiled Egypt, Bolivia, and the Ivory Coast throughout last year, (5) the UN Food and Agricultural Organization reports that globally, 2008 marked the largest harvest ever recorded--5.3% more food was produced last year than ever before. (6) At the same time the UN is reporting a 5.3% increase in food production, it is also warning that forty-seven countries across the globe, twenty-seven of them in Africa, face severe food crises which will require immediate international attention. (7)

If there is no food production crisis, how do we explain the chronic hunger and potential starvation of a sixth of the world's population? The answer lies in the way that access to food is controlled in the global economic and agricultural system. According to Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, famine and hunger occur when people lack the ability to "establish ... ownership and command" over their own food and food supply. (8) While there is no food production crisis, nearly a billion hungry people leave little doubt that too few people in the global south have ownership and command over their own food supply. In this Article I will illustrate how ownership and command of food is racialized. One racial group, whites in the global north, has ownership and command of the world's food supply while the subordinate group, people of color in the global south, are denied ownership and command of their food supply. (9) This racial hierarchy is built on historic racial constructions and reinforces evolving ideas of race and racial hierarchy.


    Both in peacetime and in times of war, food has been used as a weapon to control and disempower particular populations. In wartime, scorched-earth campaigns and sieges are used to defeat enemies and control the outcome of battles through control of the food supply. (10) More subtle forms of this kind of control are present in times of peace through the construction of complex social and economic relationships that use ownership and command of food to control groups. Outside of the context of war, complex social and legal relationships are created which allow command and ownership of food to become an effective tool for economic and social control of subordinate groups by dominant groups. Commanding access and ownership of food makes it possible to create a powerful imbalance of power between those with command of food, the feeders, and those who are denied ownership and command of their food, the fed. The feeder can create a complete dependency in the fed, effectively controlling the fed population in the same way that the dominant army in wartime controls the vanquished. As in war, this feeder/fed hierarchy is actually rooted in violence--the violence of threatened starvation, the violence of fear, and the violence of subordination.

    The feeder/fed dichotomy initially became racialized during the conquest of the "New World" and African slavery, as the idea of race itself was beginning to develop. The concept of race--that certain groups of people belong to distinct races and that certain of those races are inferior to the white race--gained currency to support the enslavement of Africans in the Western Hemisphere. (11) Race is a socially, economically, and legally constructed concept. (12) Race is not a scientific or biological fact, but rather an idea that was constructed and developed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to explain and justify the enslavement and economic exploitation of Africans by Europeans. (13) As a new slave-dependent economic system developed, a system of divine or natural racial order was constructed to explain away the inhumanity of slavery. (14) Black racial inferiority became a religious, economic, and social "truth" during slavery, and as a result, the idea of race and white racial superiority did not disappear when slavery ended several centuries later. (15) Race continues to organize social, economic, and legal relationships today, including those related to the production and distribution of agricultural commodities. (16)

    Race was constructed through a variety of control mechanisms which worked to essentialize the idea of race by equating dominance with fair skin and subordination with dark skin. (17) Ownership and command of the supply of food in the master-slave relationship became an important element of control during slavery--just as the masters' control over his slaves' most personal acts, including reproduction and romantic relationships, was a necessary element of institutionalizing black subordination. (18) Command and ownership of the food supply served as one of the powerful methods of social control used to reinforce racial power hierarchies between master and slave.

    In both North and South America--particularly in the Southern region of what would become the United States, the Caribbean, and what would become Brazil--prime agricultural soil was dedicated to the production of lucrative products for trade in the international market. (19) Cultivating these cash crops was extremely labor intensive, requiring legions of slaves and indentured servants to harvest and process. (20) Sugar cane, cotton, and tobacco, as well as coffee, replaced traditional crops and traditional agricultural systems, occupying prime agricultural lands. (21) With all arable land dedicated to cash crops, small-scale subsistence agricultural practices were eradicated as inefficient and wasteful. (22) Land for sugar and other cash crop cultivation was so dear that plantation owners imported grain and animal protein from other regions to feed their slaves, rather than waste land and resources on growing calories to feed their enslaved workforce. (23) As a result, black slaves exerted little ownership and control over their food supply, relying instead on imported calories supplied by their masters.

    As the master/slave relationship became racially essentialized during slavery, so too did the feeder/fed relationship. The master's control over the slave, including his command over her self-determination in the most personal areas of her life, reproduction and eating, became essentialized--to be subject to the command of the master in all areas of your life became a characteristic of blackness. (24) To be the feeder in the feeder/fed...

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