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In the 2015 movie The Martian, Astronaut Mark Watney, is left behind by his crew on Mars. As he struggles to find a way to survive, he discovers, through a stroke of genius, that he can grow potatoes. Mark becomes ecstatic when he recalls what a former professor had said, “They say once you grow crops somewhere you have officially colonized it.” In many ways that is also story of the colonization of North America. Stories are important. They often tell us who we are, and they shape how we view and respond to the world. In June 2008 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established to listen to the stories told by Indigenous peoples about residential schools in Canada. One of the results of the Truth and Reconciliation process is the recognition that the story Canada has told about its beginnings needs to be rewritten.

The deeper we dig into the stories told by Indigenous peoples about settlers coming to the land, the more we must face the fact that Canada’s origin story is not only a grand story of exploration, discovery, and settlement, but also a story of betrayal, dispossession, and genocide. Today, settler colonialism in Canada continues to eliminate Indigenous identity, presence, and self-determination.[1] At the heart of this story, for both Indigenous and settler[2] peoples, is land.[3] Land gained by settler people, and land lost to Indigenous peoples. Land is also an essential element in our food systems. Food production and many food procurement practices require, at the very least, access to land. As scholars and practitioners seek to grow a socially just and environmentally sustainable food system, it is important to consider the land lost to Indigenous peoples through colonialism, and the ways the food system is implicated in the ongoing project of settler colonialism.[4]

This article examines the connections between agriculture, alternative food movements, and settler colonialism. In particular I examine how settler agriculture and control of food throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been used as a tool of colonization, and how food sovereignty offers a corrective to the imposition of Western, colonial, gendered, and racialized foodways. I also explore Indigenous food sovereignty in North America as a model that honours and reclaims Indigenous foodways and self-determination, and addresses the alarming rates of food insecurity and diet-related health issues among Indigenous populations. Following in the footsteps of feminist and decolonial scholars, I seek to analyse critically the discourses of alternative food movements to discover how alternative food movements can transform the colonial system rather than unconsciously perpetuate it. I argue that as settlers working to create equitable and sustainable food systems, we do well to recognize complicity in settler colonialism, center Indigenous perspectives and narratives, and work to support Indigenous communities seeking Indigenous food sovereignty and self-determination. To do so requires creating alliances based on learning from and with each other about our differences, and embracing settler discomfort as a motivation for change.


Agriculture and colonization are intimately connected. Frieda Knobloch goes so far as to say, “Colonization is an agricultural act. It is also an agricultural idea.”[5] To be fair, there are other ways that colonization is enacted. Although agriculture is responsible for more than its colonial past, understanding the ways that agriculture and colonization are connected helps to explain how the modern food system in North America continues to be tied to settler colonialism.

To understand the connections between agriculture and colonization it is helpful to understand the prevailing worldview at the time of the “discovery” of North America. When Columbus reached North America in 1492, the Doctrine of Discovery guided European exploration and expansion. That doctrine, set out by the Catholic Church, decreed that any land not occupied by Christians could be discovered, and its occupants subjugated and exploited.[6] Jennifer Reid describes how early English and French settlers and explorers also believed that the wilderness land they had “discovered” was terra nullius, meaning empty land. Land could be legally claimed empty if previous occupants were “failing to make use of it in accordance with European expectations or if they had migratory subsistence patterns.”[7] Glen Coulthard, a Yellowknives Dene author, writes, “Because Indigenous societies were considered so low on the natural scale of social and cultural evolution, settler authorities felt justified in claiming North America legally vacant...and sovereignty was acquired by the mere act of settlement itself.”[8]

Naturally, settlement included converting land to the same kind of agricultural use that was common across Europe. Knobloch explains that the word “colony” comes from the latin word colonus meaning “farmer.”[9] To the Europeans, converting the land meant improving it, and improving it required cultivation, or tilling the land.[10] The Indigenous peoples who inhabited the land were seen as lesser beings because settler peoples believed they were wasting the land. They were not, in the eyes of the Europeans, improving or cultivating the land. Sam Grey and Raj Patel suggest, “Indigenous subsistence activity was barely recognized…. Forests, coastlines, steppes, and deserts were cultivated systems, even if governments could not see the human activity therein as ‘agriculture.’”[11] Such denial of Indigenous practices initiated over five centuries of policies dedicated to eradicating Indigenous peoples from the land in order that settler peoples could take their places.[12]

I will explore several examples of policies to illustrate this point. In Canada, eleven Numbered Treaties were signed between government officials and First Nations between 1871 and 1921.[13] These treaties allocated reserve land for Indigenous peoples along with the promise of farm implements and instruction.[14] Many Indigenous peoples were eager to take up farming on their reserves; in fact agriculture was already a common practice in many Indigenous communities across the Americas. The land that was allocated to each First Nation, however, was often less fertile than land allocated for settlers. In spite of that, farming on reserves in the Prairies became quite successful. In 1889 Hayter Reed, the Indian Commissioner at the time, passed a “peasant farming policy” in line with the evolutionist perceptions of the era in which it was believed that humans traversed from savages, to barbarians, to civilized people. Rather than allow Indigenous peoples to use the farm equipment many had already acquired, Reed thought it best to confiscate and forbid the use of modern equipment so that Indigenous peoples had to traverse the progression of the peasant farmer, beginning by using only rudimentary farm tools.[15]

Settler authorities had calculated motivations for imposing such constrictive policies on Indigenous communities on the prairies. Officials were convinced that the regulation of foodways would streamline the colonization process. Michael Wise states that on Blackfeet land, for example, it was believed that regulating access to meat “could transform the Blackfeet from hunters to herders, from barbaric predators preying on the plains' ownerless stocks of animal capital, to civilized producers subject to Anglo-American standards of labor, property, and land tenure.”[16] Sarah Carter suggests the government believed “Agriculture would teach an appreciation of private property and impart a will to own and master nature.”[17] Carter argues that reserve farming was threatening to settler farmers because it created unwanted competition.[18] Reserve farming also tended to be more communal, which disrupted the settler notion that private property was the only pathway to productivity and prosperity. The land allotment policy that went hand in hand with peasant farm policy addressed that concern. According to Carter, authorities believed “individual tenure was the best means of undermining the tribal system, as it would implant a spirit of individualism and self-reliance, thus creating self-supporting farmers.”[19] It would also free up excess reserve land for settler use. Those policies, along with the pass system, which required First Nations peoples to obtain a pass to leave the reserve with harvested crops, for example, devastated reserve farming on the prairies, dispossessed Indigenous peoples of land, and broke down complex social structures within First Nations. In the United States, the long-term results of similar policies are striking. Today, non-indigenous people control 60 percent of the land and collect 84.5 percent of agricultural income on South Dakota reservations.[20] The USDA 2012 Agriculture Census reports non-native people as the largest beneficiaries of resources from reservations across the United States.[21]

Colonialism within the Food System Today

Many food systems scholars agree that the global industrial food system is deeply embedded in unsustainable, oppressive, and even violent practices that place the majority of power and privilege in the hands of white people, men, and landowners.[22] Food systems scholar Patricia Allen believes that within the current food system, gender, race, and class oppression “have functioned as primary organizing principles, and labor exploitation is the rule.”[23] Allen suggests that changing the historical and cultural distributions of power and privilege is not an easy or a quick task, but a necessary one if we would like to see an equitable and sustainable food system.

Going back as far as the 1800s, issues such as hunger, food safety, the viability of family farms, and working conditions for agricultural workers have inspired social organization around food and agriculture.[24] In the last forty years, social organizing around food and agriculture has focused on sustainability and social justice in the food system. The movement for sustainable agriculture has aimed to resist the rise of industrialized agriculture and provide an alternative to the food that system has produced, while movements such as community food security, food justice, and food sovereignty “advocate greater control over food production and consumption by people who have been marginalized by mainstream agri-food regimes."[25] In the last twenty years, authors such as Michael Pollen have popularized the alternative food movement among primarily white and middle class people.[26] This movement is defined by its advocacy for “more ecologically sound and socially just farming methods, food marketing and distribution, and healthier food options.”[27] Proponents emphasize eating locally, growing your own food, and “voting with your fork.” While this movement is contributing to many improvements in the food system, such as greater supports for small farms and increased access to sustainably produced food, it has been criticized for being economically and socially exclusive, and for making invisible the foodways and histories of low-income people and people of colour. The movement’s often expensive or time consuming directives tend to shrug off the realities and challenges of food insecurity and encourage shame or guilt in those who cannot follow its suggestions.[28]

Often the alternative food movement takes the position that the industrial food system promotes a lack of connection to the land and to the food that North Americans eat, by obscuring the process of getting food from farm to fork. This narrative assumes that eating locally, participating in growing one’s own food, and forging a relationship to the land will overcome that separation. While that position is very valuable in today’s disconnected culture, I have encountered few times when this narrative is also accompanied by an acknowledgement that settler desires for land and connection to land continue to play a role in the dispossession of Indigenous land and culture. Allen argues that in alternative food movements corporate agriculture and land ownership is seen as problematic, but there is little within the discourse “that suggests a critique of private property as a fundamental economic relation or seeks redress for historically inequitable land acquisition patterns.”[29] Lauren Kepkiewicz asks an important question that gets at the heart of the tensions between Indigenous and settler relationships: How do settlers, especially those involved in agriculture, relate to or understand land?[30]

Developing sustainable models of agriculture, including permaculture and agroecology, is extremely important in a world where climate change, increasing populations, and environmental degradation place extra pressures on people and the planet. Yet there is a tension with alternative food movements that is often ignored. Settler-run local farms, community gardens, and urban agriculture projects on unused land are often located on unceded (stolen), or contested land. On June 25, 2014, the city of Vancouver, for example, acknowledged that since treaties were never signed with First Nations in the area, the city is located on “unceded traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.”[31] Coulthard argues that the concept of terra nullius can be seen through the gradual gentrification of inner city neighbourhoods where marginalized and Indigenous peoples are disproportionately located and subsequently displaced.[32] Development projects are often defended “as a form of ‘improvement,’ where previously ‘wasted’ land or property…and lives… are made more socially and economically productive.”[33] McClintock asserts that along with food security goals, many urban greening strategies, which include gardens, contribute “to the increase of property values, while ultimately creating spaces of exclusion.”[34] Kepkiewicz argues, “Without attention to and intervention in how food and food production intersects with the appropriation of land and a history of settler agriculture, food movement actors, whether intentionally or not, engage in colonial processes of erasure by further invisibilising the ways that dispossession occurs.”[35] As settlers working to rebuild connections to land and to the food we eat in order to counteract the distancing nature of the industrial food system, it matters how we think, write, and talk about our disconnection and reconnection.

Teresa M. Mares and Devon G. Peña ask two important questions that call settlers to interrogate the ways we think about land and food systems: First, “should we not… consider how a call to eat locally invokes spaces that have been settled, colonized, ruptured, and remade through complex processes of human movement and environmental history making?” And second, “is it not necessary to stand in solidarity with those communities that are disallowed from celebrating their local food because of forced displacement at the hands of… settler-led or corporate-engineered takeover of rural lands, seeds, and livelihoods?”[36] Justice Murray Sinclair, in his speech at the closing ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, begins to give an answer to those questions. He reported, “Reconciliation is not an aboriginal problem — it is a Canadian problem. It involves all of us.”[37] Similarly, Dawn Morisson, director of the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty, agrees: “‘everyone is to blame, and everyone is responsible’ for reconciling past social and environmental injustices that have impacted Indigenous peoples and the land and food systems.”[38]

As a first step in mitigating the impact, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada final report calls Canadians to adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a framework for reconciliation.[39] Article 26 of the UNDRIP establishes the right of Indigenous peoples “to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.”[40] Land is an essential and inseparable aspect of Indigenous food systems. The Indigenous Food Systems Network (IFSN) defines Indigenous food systems as “including all of the land, air, water, soil and culturally important plant, animal and fungi species that have sustained Indigenous peoples over thousands of years.”[41] Settler colonialism has disrupted those systems, resulting in drastic declines in the health and vitality of Indigenous social, ecological, cultural, and knowledge systems. It has been recognized that Indigenous knowledge and practices are crucial to the preservation of the world’s biodiversity.[42] Lauren Kepkiewicz writes, “Not only do indigenous food systems form the basis of indigenous peoples' ability to sustain and nourish themselves, but indigenous food systems form the basis of all people's food systems on Turtle Island.”[43] Indigenous food systems are important because they “support both directly and indirectly, the transfer of energy through the present day agriculture based economy that has been developed and industrialized by settlers through the process of colonization.”[44] Morrison points to Indigenous food sovereignty as a restorative framework for food systems transformation to which all people and cultures can relate.[45] As Secwepemc Elder Jones Ignace says, “Food will be what brings the people together.”[46]

In a broad sense, food sovereignty is defined as “the right of nations and peoples to control their own food systems, including their own markets, production modes, food cultures and environments.”[47] The rhetoric of food sovereignty originated among peasant and Indigenous movements for lands and livelihoods in the global south. Since 2007, when the Nyéléni Forum for Food Sovereignty developed the six principles of food sovereignty, the concept has been increasingly used in the North American context.[48] The six guiding principles of food sovereignty are: focuses on food for people, values food providers, localizes food systems, puts control locally, builds knowledge and skills, and works with nature.[49] One of food sovereignty’s key strengths is its ability to be defined differently across cultures and geographies. In fact, in Canada, after consultation with Indigenous peoples across the country, a seventh food sovereignty principle was added to the original six: “food sovereignty understands food as sacred, part of the web of relationships with the natural world that define culture and community.”[50] The addition of the seventh pillar emphasizes that Indigenous perspectives are integral to creating sustainable and equitable food systems in Canada, such as the idea that land is not a commodity but a source of life, culture and relationship.[51]

Grey and Patel argue that a key theme within the food sovereignty framework “is the continuation of anti-colonial struggles in ostensibly postcolonial contexts.”[52] For a country such as Canada that has historically claimed to have “no history of colonialism,”[53] or claims that colonialism is finished business, food sovereignty counters these claims. Tabitha Martens argues, “The language of food sovereignty is deliberately political.”[54] Food sovereignty argues that colonialism is ongoing; it offers not only a corrective, but also an alternative based on human rights, land reform, and self-determination.

Indigenous Food Sovereignty (IFS) has emerged as an Indigenous mode of resistance that approaches the food sovereignty framework from the particular perspective of Indigenous peoples. IFS provides a critique of the often agriculture-centric discourses of global food sovereignty by adding that food provisioning practices such as hunting, fishing, gathering, and tending the environment must be engaged. For IFS “a ‘right to define agricultural policy’ is indistinguishable from a right to be Indigenous, in any substantive sense of the term.”[55] Morrison contends that Indigenous eco-philosophy is opposed to the Eurocentric idea that nature or land should be dominated or managed by humans. Rather, humans “can only manage our behaviours in relation to it.”[56] IFS is a model for social learning that provides a “restorative framework for health and community development and appreciates the ways in which we can work together cross-culturally to heal our relationship with one another and the land, plants and animals that provide us with our food.”[57]

As a model of social learning, IFS recognizes the unpredictability of growing food and adapts strategies to fit this dynamic system. Grey and Patel suggest, “food sovereignty is (and should be) a… radical anti-colonial project.”[58] Settlers have written relatively little on this issue, though Grey and Patel contend that “(re)asserting” food sovereignty for Indigenous peoples “implicates non-Indigenous people… if for no other reason than because it challenges us to make good on our longstanding legal and intellectual concern for freedom and agency. It also calls attention to the tremendous economic and ecological debt owed Indigenous Peoples, which remains unacknowledged (never mind unpaid).”[59]

Food sovereignty, as described and practiced by settlers and Indigenous peoples, is well positioned to do decolonizing work in North America and around world. Its ability to be defined by local people in many different geographies, along with its emphasis on self-determination, gives it radical potential to disrupt and dismantle the settler colonial capitalist nation state, although with one caveat: that these local definitions also include support for Indigenous food sovereignty and self-determination. The People’s Food Policy Project of Canada on Indigenous Food Sovereignty has four priority recommendations to guide future food sovereignty work: a return to the agreements made in treaties, along with land reform and redistribution; an integration of the Indigenous concept of harmony with nature into resource-based policy; addressing the socioeconomic determinants of health that are negatively affecting Indigenous peoples; and rebuilding relationships between Indigenous peoples and stakeholders.[60]

It is important recognize that as settlers we can never fully understand the experiences of Indigenous peoples. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang write, “opportunities for solidarity lie in what is incommensurable rather than what is common across [social justice] efforts.”[61] Incommensurability acknowledges that struggles for decolonization across the globe “are not parallel, not shared equally, nor do they bring neat closure to the concerns of all involved - particularly not for settlers.”[62] Acknowledging the tensions that arise when addressing colonialism and decolonization is an unsettling process for settler peoples. Kepkiewicz argues that it will be necessary to embrace a “pedagogy of discomfort” that allows us to acknowledge our emotional ties to dominant ideologies and the privileges we bear, and to move beyond them. Embracing a pedagogy of discomfort for settlers in food systems work means examining our own “emotional investment in settler futurity and land” and recognizing “how these emotions define settlers' inability as well as ability to challenge deeply entrenched norms and ideologies that allow for and reproduce settler colonialism.”[63] For settlers engaged in conversations about land, sovereignty, and food, embracing discomfort can lead to more fruitful solidarities.

Abra Brynne, director of engagement and policy at the British Columbia Food System Network, writes, “I find that I can no longer simply write about how food systems policy can be influenced by the food movement. Because I have become intensely uncomfortable with my status as a squatter on Indigenous Land.”[64] While this may seem counterintuitive to some, Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred writes, “If the goals of decolonization are justice and peace, then the process to achieve these goals must reflect a basic covenant on the part of both Indigenous peoples and settlers to honour each other’s existence.”[65] Settler peoples do well to enter the uncomfortable position of discomfort that Brynne confesses, and let this discomfort inform food policy, movements, and culture.

As a white settler engaged in alternative food systems work I am learning how, as Paulette Regan puts it, to “unsettle the settler within,”[66] to discover how alternative food movements can transform the colonial system rather than unconsciously perpetuate it. In other words, I am discovering ways in which food movements can more effectively be accomplices in the work of decolonization.[67] According to Grey and Patel, decolonization in light of the food system is not a concept or a field of study, but “a daily mode of resistance—a form of food systems practice informed, in equal measure, by a vision of democratic engagement and historical experiences of resistance.”[68] We are at an important crossroads in history. Future food systems scholarship does well to be aware of the connections between food and colonialism especially in conversations about land and food. At the latest Food Secure Canada (FSC) assembly, FSC board member Joseph LeBlanc stated “At this time in Canada’s history, we cannot try to fix our food system without tackling the legacy of colonialism and residential schools, and acknowledging the urgency of Indigenous food sovereignty.”[69]  It is my hope that food movements, through working towards food sovereignty and Indigenous food sovereignty, can create a more just and equitable world based on reciprocal relationships between Indigenous and settler, and between people, the land, and all its communities.


This article has explored the connections between agriculture, alternative food movements, and settler colonialism. I have explained the ways that agriculture and regulation of foodways were used as tools of colonization to disrupt and ultimately erase Indigenous culture and lives. The modern food system bears many of the same colonial and imperial tendencies, which has prompted the emergence food sovereignty as a response that offers a corrective to the imposition of Western, gendered, and racialized foodways. Indigenous food sovereignty calls settler scholars and practitioners in food systems to reconsider our conceptions of land, examine colonized spaces in the food movement, and to dismantle settler colonial structures and systems that prevent Indigenous people from achieving self-determination. While this may be an unsettling and uncomfortable process for settlers, it is a necessary one if we are interested in creating just and sustainable food systems. [70]