The important position of indigenous food systems in the struggle for food sovereignty cannot be over emphasized. We understand this by reminding ourselves of what the concepts ‘colonial’ and ‘colonialism’ mean. The dictionary defines colonialism as “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.” As telling as this definition is, it leaves wide swathes untouched. While it is true that colonialism is hugely built around political and economic planks, it also significantly impacts socio-cultural, environmental, agricultural, and other spheres. It impacts all these spheres by controlling and subverting what existed before the conquest. We need to emphasize these approaches: control and subversion.
The subversion of food systems was intentionally constructed through the colonization of thought, a phenomenon that persists as coloniality. Why subvert a food system? The reasons for this are many. The colonizers needed to displace labour invested for local needs while expanding and consolidating labour to meet the needs of the colonizers. By emphasizing a cash economy, farmers were forced to neglect their own needs, derided as subsistence farmers, and were made to offer their labour in exchange for wages. The colonial powers scored double on this count by introducing plantation agriculture and bringing in the locals as farm hands.
Plantation agriculture encapsulates the core practice of colonialism. It entailed land use conversion — often through massive deforestation and land grabbing. It also promoted monoculture by growing specific crops to meet specific needs of industry and colonial appetites. Monocultures damage soils as well as labour. In Nigeria, predominant plantations included those of oil palm, cocoa, rubber, and coffee. These crops were termed cash crops, meaning that they were cultivated for cash rather than for food. This approach persists today as our governments see useful agriculture as the one that earns foreign exchange, irrespective of the state of food insecurity in the nations.
Colonial agriculture thrived not only by producing crops for export, but it also benefited from altering the appetites of the colonized. These changes did not happen only through advertisements, the indigenous foods were denigrated as uncivilized and sometimes simply forgotten due to a chronic absence of the crops or ingredients for preparing the foods. Today, the erosion of varieties is exacerbated by many related factors including the prevalence of junk foods, hybridization of crop varieties, genetic manipulations, and hostile seed laws.
Farming for cash relegated diverse crop varieties needed to maintain nutritious food systems. The centrality of agriculture and food in our cultures got dramatically eroded through colonial plantation agriculture and the fixation on cash rather than seeing agriculture as a pattern of living. Industrial agriculture has led to the capture of the sector by corporations who care for profit more than the planet. They don’t only muddy the waters in our countries but also do much harm in multilateral spaces where they lobby to erode regulations and safety measures.
When it is said that farmers are poor and are not making a living from farming due to lack of value addition, we should examine the underlying factors to that state of affairs. And unless those factors are addressed, labelling farmers as resisting change or as lazy misses the point. When farmers become landless, that is a big problem. When farmers’ seeds are criminalized while seeds of doubtful value are promoted, those are debilitating factors.
Our farmers have selected and preserved seeds, crops, and animal varieties over the centuries. They have kept a stock of varieties that both provide food and meet our medicinal and other needs. They kept the norms that preserved biodiversity. They practiced rotational farming, mixed cropping, and seasonal fishing. They understood the rhythms of nature and maintained the natural equilibrium by being respectful of the Earth. Colonial agricultural production for industrial and external markets led to the promotion of monoculture plantations. The prevalence of investment in industrial agriculture has given rise to monocultures of the mind, to use the title of a book by Vandana Shiva. This mentality elevated the measuring of agricultural productivity per hectare without considering whether the land has been cultivated with a monocrop or with a multiplicity of crops.
Liberating our Tongues, reviving our culture
Without doubt, the decolonization of agriculture is the way towards the preservation of crop and animal varieties, rebuilding our food systems, thereby, recovering our culture. A decolonized agriculture invests on support systems for farmers, including by providing extension services and providing/upgrading rural infrastructure. It also means preserving local varieties, ensuring that farmers have access to land and, funding research institutions to build a knowledge base on healthy soils and resilient indigenous crops. It would also mean putting farmers on the driving seat of agricultural policy, elevating the precautionary principle in biosafety issues, and outlawing harmful pesticides. It would again mean placing a moratorium on all types of agricultural modern biotechnology as this is a key means of eroding species varieties besides threatening outright extinctions.
Decolonizing our food system will liberate our tongues and bring back forgotten tastes. It is the way to revive our cultures and bring back vibrancy into the lives of our rural communities. Species harmed by chemical inputs in industrial agriculture would recover and play their roles in pollination, assuring farmers of bumper harvests and breaking the chains of import dependence. A decolonized food system uncovers the falsehood of genetically engineered crops presented as climate smart agriculture whereas, if anything, they are truly climate stupid.
Food and culture are inseparable. Food is at the centre of our festivals and ceremonies. Food sovereignty is achievable only in a decolonized food system. In such systems, we know where and how our foods are produced and our farmers are true knowledge holders and cannot be deceived to plant varieties they don’t know or want. A colonized food and agriculture system enslaves farmers, disconnects people from the soil and exposes citizens to great harm.
It is our duty to demand safe food, support our farmers, reject monoculture, and decolonize our foods and minds.
Opening words at the My Food is African media training hosted by Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) on Wednesday, 25 January 2023 in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
 Vandana Shiva (1993). Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology. Zeb books.