Rowman and Littlefield International

Eating the Fruits of Settler-Colonial Violence

Published on Thursday 16 May 2019 by Christopher Mayes, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University, Australia

The food we eat is intimately connected to the stories and lives of those who produce it. These stories may be gastronomic feel-good tales of carefully foraged truffles, artisanal cheeses, and delicately dry-cured jamón ibérico. Often, however, they are stories of exploitation.

Food spikes, agrochemical pollution, free-trade agreements, structural adjustment programs, droughts, floods, and land grabs are some of the challenges faced by approximately 500 million smallholder farmers around the world today. The slightest economic, environmental, or political changes can have drastic effects on these farmers and the communities that depend on them.

Many of us only occasionally notice the vulnerabilities and insecurities experienced by these farmers. However, global networks of activists, NGOs, and scholars argue that the global food system needs to be more just, stable, and attentive to the challenges faced by smallholder farmers.

Creating a just global food system that gives control to small scale producers and provides nutritious and affordable food for all people is an important goal. However, in talking about global food justice we must be careful not to erase specific local histories and contingencies. Food justice in Ecuador will not be identical to food justice in Ghana.


Food and Settler-Colonialism in Australia


Food justice in settler colonial societies  - such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States - not only needs to address the present-day injustices, but also attend to injustices from the past that have set the conditions for injustices today.

Food has been vital to the settler-colonial project, not only as a necessary means of survival, but also an avenue through which the land was possessed and a culture cultivated. In Australia, vast stretches of “vacant” grasslands were occupied by the sheep and shepherds of the early settlers. However, these were not merely grasslands. As the work of Bruce Pascoe and others shows, these were fields that produced vegetables, fruits, and attracted small game, all of which had been carefully managed by the first inhabitants. The hard-hooved sheep compressed, transformed, and possessed the land for the British. It was with the spread of sheep that some of the most violent massacres and bloody cycles of reprisals occurred. 

In a letter to Governor La Trobe in 1853, John Robertson describes how 50 sheep were taken from the Whyte Brothers’ flocks. With a group of seven men, they located the sheep on an open plain with people from the Konongwootong Gunditj clan in the Western Districts of Victoria, Australia. Robertson recounts how the armed men ‘surrounded, and shot them all but one. Fifty-one men were killed, and the bones of the men and sheep lay mingled together bleaching in the sun at the Fighting Hills’. This was not an isolated case.


Destruction of Indigenous Food Ways


The entanglement of agriculture with settler-colonial violence is largely forgotten or actively ignored in the popular re-telling of Australian agricultural history. Instead, the focus has been on the resilience of the farmer-figure, who battled against a harsh environment to build a home and create a nation. In recent years, however, questions have been asked regarding the sustainability of European agricultural techniques in the Australian environment, especially in a climate that is changing.

In his critique of agriculture in Australia, Cameron Muir asks: ‘What does it mean to live at a time when the way we feed ourselves threatens the social and ecological fabric of the planet?’ This is a profound question on which to meditate. However, the focus on the planetary or global can mask insights at the local level. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are best placed to give an answer to Muir’s question. They have already experienced the British-Australian settlers’ tearing apart of social and ecological fabric to feed themselves and export produce.

The theft of country and destruction of food ways contributed to a death of self, irrevocably altering the material reality such that the spiritual and moral norms of indigenous communities could not be lived. As Galarrwuy Yunupingu says, ‘[w]ithout land we will be the lowest people in the world, because you have broken down our backbone, took away my arts, history and foundation. You have left me with nothing’.


Historians of Loam


The way that we – inheritors and beneficiaries of colonisation – fed ourselves, not only threatened but decimated the social and ecological fabric of the world in which Indigenous Australians had lived for 60 000 years. Both large scale or small-scale farming contributed to the eradication of Indigenous food ways, and both continue on stolen lands.

How are we supposed to respond and live with this history? How is the politics of food justice to be understood in this place, with this history? The dominant view is that we should praise the farmer and, in the words of former Prime Minister John Howard, be ‘comfortable and relaxed’ about this history.

In contrast, prominent food scholar Raj Patel addresses aspects of the moral problem of settler-colonialism for new farmers seeking to restore the land as well as social relations. He urges ‘younger farmers’ to listen to the ancestors of the stolen lands that they now plough, to ‘look for the iron of their spilled blood in your soil; turn yourself into a historian of loam’. Patel suggests that this is one more skill to add to the long list of a farmer’s talents. But this skill, as a historian of the soil, is one that ‘should make you uncomfortable’.


If You Eat, You are Involved in Settler-Colonialism


It is not just the farmer that needs to be unsettled and discomforted by the history of the soil. “If you eat, you are involved in agriculture” is a popular saying among agrarian and alternative food advocates that is often attributed to Wendell Berry. According to Berry, eaters are kept ignorant of the agricultural processes that go into producing their food. He contends that in thinking of eating as an agricultural act, eaters will make more responsible decisions that respect the environment, farmers, and animal welfare.

Eaters are also kept ignorant of the entanglement of agriculture and settler-colonial violence. As such, this adage can be pushed further: If eating implicates one in agriculture, and agriculture is implicated in colonial violence, then eaters, not just farmers, are implicated in this history. “If you eat, you are involved in settler-colonialism”.

What are we to do with knowledge that eating implicates us in agricultural and colonial history? Many will deny that this relationship places any great moral burden on contemporary eaters. They will declare that they played no role in frontier violence, clearing of land, establishment of protectorates, or removal of children and are therefore guilty of nothing.

In contrast, Tony Barta argues that ‘all white people in Australia do have [relationships with Aboriginal peoples]; that in the key relation, the appropriation of the land, it is fundamental to the history of the society in which they live; and that implicitly rather than explicitly, in ways which were inevitable rather than intentional, it is a relationship of genocide’. To be historians of loam, as Patel puts it, farmers and eaters need to remember the blood spilled in the past, which has allowed for benefits to be gained and enjoyed in the present.


Towards a Food Justice that Addresses Settler-Colonialism


Eaters and farmers who seek food justice and progressive politics in Australia need to seriously and sincerely reckon with this history. As moral philosopher Raimond Gaita observes, ‘[t]he claim that one understands the wrong one has done to another while not being seriously affected by it is as suspect, I believe, as the claim that one loves someone even though one is untroubled by their death or loss’. Indigenous-settler relations are plagued by insincere claims made by non-indigenous Australians that we do understand and acknowledge past wrongs. However, rarely is there sufficient evidence that this understanding troubles, disturbs, or inconveniences the normal order of things.

While the unsettling effect of acknowledging these relations to colonial violence can trigger defensive responses, it can also open up space for what Michel Foucault calls “local critique”. This critique is tied to a return or recognition of knowledges that have been submerged by domination histories and discourses. Indigenous elders, scholars and activists have resisted invasion and articulated ways of righting these wrongs since 1788. Yet their voices, ideas, and knowledge have repeatedly been silenced. The rejection of the Uluru Statement is the most recent example.

The return of knowledge about Indigenous food ways and violent dispossession can destabilise present understanding of ourselves and the social reality. Such a critique should move beyond symbolic acknowledgement of country and the past, to create possibilities for the complex work of allowing Indigenous ontologies and epistemologies to set the terms and conditions of food justice in Australia.



Christopher Mayes is a DECRA Research Fellow in the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University and Research Affiliate with Sydney Health Ethics at the University of Sydney. Unsettling Food Politics: Agriculture, Dispossession and Sovereignty in Australia, published by Rowman & Littlefield International, is available now.