Building a food system grounded in justice



Union of Concerned Scientists

Ricardo Salvador addresses the audience at Light Up the Redd. Photo credit: Naim Hasan

At Light Up the Redd, keynote speaker Ricardo Salvador of the Union of Concerned Scientists challenged us to consider the colonial, racist, and extractive underpinnings of our current food system. And to do something about it. Read his full remarks below.


We’re going to talk about some difficult ideas, so let me just preface this by clarifying the following, so that we can all hear and participate in this. Our ancestors did what they did. We can’t do anything about that. However, it is up to all of us here to determine what the future of the food system is going to be like.

The future of the food system is intimately tied to the times in which we’re living. It isn’t incidental that we live in a very unjust, inequitable society, and that the brunt of the inequity is felt through the food system. That’s the core of the idea that I want to address this evening. Let me do it this way. There’s unresolved issues in the history of this nation. They go to the core of the food system itself. Probably the easiest way to describe this to you is that agriculture in and of itself requires inequity. You know this. You just need to go back to some of the very first lessons that you ever heard in perhaps geography, perhaps the humanities.

You all will remember the social pyramid of the very first agricultural societies. You can call it up. You can visualize it. You know that initial societies, particularly the initial organized civilizations, were set up so that there was a base of people who were the slaves, and then there were the crafts people, and then there were warriors, and then up at the apex you have the rulers. Do you remember that pyramid? You’ve seen it many times. That pyramid describes what agriculture actually is. From its inception, agriculture has been a mode of social organization where there is specialization. Archeologists and ethnologists actually recognize when a “civilization” has emerged because that specialization is evident through the creation of pottery, through the fact that there are entire neighborhoods that are devoted to a particular craft or a particular economic activity.

It isn’t incidental that we live in a very unjust, inequitable society, and that the brunt of the inequity is felt through the food system.

Inequity, in other words who gets to do the work or who is obligated to do the work and who benefits from that work, is baked into the way that agricultural societies have developed from the time that you’ve been agriculturists, roughly about 10,000 years. The question is, after 10,000 years of practicing this, do we now know enough that we can create an agricultural inclusiveness that does not depend on exploitation of both nature and of people?

Now, let’s talk about how this played out here in the United States and gives us the environment that we’re all experiencing right now. This may seem like a little bit of a radical departure from that setup. I’m sure all of you are familiar with Stephen Hawking, probably one of the greatest astrophysicists in this past century after Einstein. He is firm in his belief that the crisis of humanity is so large that unless within 100 years we figure out a way to leave our home planet, go to some other planet, and to settle it, that the species is doomed. He’s thinking about such crises as global warming and others.

I can see the rationale, but I have this question. The basic premise of that argument is that if we go to another planet, we already know enough that we’ll be able to manage that planet better than we managed this one rather than creating a mess someplace else. The key question I have is why don’t we just take better care of this planet and flourish on the one that we know already has all the resources required to sustain us?

That’s why the question I asked you is a very important one for us to come back to, which is, do we know enough to create that kind of a food system? Up until now, we require exploitation through the food system to exist. I’m going to claim that what we need to develop, above all, are social skills, the ability to work well with one another. This place, the Redd on Salmon Street, is actually a monument already to doing better. I’ve seen enough to understand that well enough.

I don’t want you to believe that I want to appeal for this better food system on the basis of being a food justice activist. I actually want us to look at this through the lens of standard, orthodox economics. We can all do it. I’ll just walk through it with you.

From the standpoint of an economist, the way you generate wealth is that you have access to at least one of the factors of production: Land, labor, and rent. If you have access to at least one of those factors of production, you can express your entrepreneurship, you can create wealth. I want to walk through the ways that that actually played out in the development of the United States food system. Many of you are familiar with the question asked about people who are hungry. Remember this definition that I just gave you. If you are hungry, almost by algorithm, you can predict you don’t have access to land, labor, or rent, at least one of those. As a matter of fact, if you wanted to manufacture hungry people, you would deprive people of access to land, labor, and rent.

That has actually been the American project, as you realize from the history of this nation. As a matter of fact, the United States is not unique in this way. Every major civilization on this planet has basically pursued the same route. In a state where the map is dotted with names like Tillamook, Umpqua, Siskiyou, Klamath, Wanema, Wallowa, Umatilla, you know who was here. You know who learned to live in this place for about 14,000 years. You know that the history of the early settlement and colonization really has been described to most of us in very cosmetic terms, but when we see those very same processes take place across the planet, we call them what they are: Land grabbing and genocide.

It is up to all of us here to determine what the future of the food system is going to be like.

Remember, land is a factor of production. The very first order of business of the monopolies, because these were corporations, the East India Company for instance that began to finance the settlement of this continent, had the purpose of appropriating the land, which they did by removing and liquidating people that were here to begin with.

This is a matter of U.S. policy. There were specific policies and initiatives that were put into place. I’ll give you just one example that you will all recognize, the 1830 Indian Removal Act. That Congress, as opposed to today’s Congress, was very plain about what they intended to do. It’s a very helpfully named act. It tells you exactly what the purpose was. It was a project that lasted 50 years, from the 1830s until the 1880s, when the so-called Indian Wars were consummated, a project of genocide. What was then called the War Department recorded over 250 incidents of battles, wars, and skirmishes, the majority of them actually out-and-out massacres.

As you know, the area which we’re in was right at the heart of all of that. As a matter of fact, I’ll quote you from an Oregon paper of 1855:

“The Indians are ignorant, abject, and debased by nature, whose minds are as incapable of instruction as their bodies are of labor. They have nothing in common with humanity but the form, and God has sent us to destroy them as he did to the Israelites of old to similar tribes.”

There is very little confusion in that statement about what the intention was in terms of the original inhabitants of this area. Remember the purpose was to appropriate land.

Remember that formula for creating poverty. If you want to find some of the most immiserated human beings on the planet, not just in the United States, you would go to some of the concentration camps that we call reservations in the United States, where you will find people whose land was taken from them, and therefore their food ways, their ways of accessing the natural resources upon which they based their entire cultures and the way that they nourished themselves. As the algorithm predicts, you will find people whose purpose in life we have removed, and we have made poor and miserable. There is no mystery about why some of the poorest, hungriest people, suffering some of the greatest inequities in the food system, are actually found in those places, where we literally dribble the dregs and the junk that our food system generates.

Let me leave that aside, the formula continues to play out. What is the second factor of production? Labor. Again, those very same companies that I describe had a global system at the time. The known world had already been discovered, and it was being contested by various European powers. The English set up a system whereby they systematically abducted people from the western coast of Africa, transported them across the Atlantic, enslaved them, treated them as property, treated them brutally, generated the wealth that enabled the industrial development of the United States, and after that mode of appropriating their labor was no longer defensible after Emancipation, we as a nation, by a matter of policy, continued to systematically exclude their descendants from participating in the wealth that their labor helped to create.

You just need to recognize what the headlines mean that you read every day. The fact that our state power, municipal and state police, can wantonly shoot African-American men and women without any legal reprisal tells you exactly the station in life that we all adjudicate to them. That is not history. You can’t get over things that aren’t over. They are still playing out.

Now, I want to come back, when I’m done with this, to talk to you about things that we need to do in order to address that systemic inequity in our society, but you can see already the broad outlines of what I’m describing. What those people were enslaved to do was actually to drive the beginning of what today we would have called “Big Ag.” These were big operations who were intended to exploit the tropical environment in the southeastern United States and export those products to Europe. It was a plain mercantile economy extracting wealth from one part and concentrating it in another.

You recognize the products that they were responsible for, so initially sugar, becoming tobacco, becoming cotton, becoming rice. It generated massive amounts of wealth. The entire country participated in that, because even though that was grown in the South, the processing, the merchandising, all of that involved the economy of the North. The shipping of it across to England and Europe all involved the North. The entire country was implicated in the slave trade.

Just as we did with the case of the First Peoples, let me make clear that there was intentionality. There can be no doubt about that. Let me quote Senator Stephen Douglas, whom you remember famously contested Lincoln for the presidency:

“In my opinion, this government of ours is founded on the white basis. It was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men. I am opposed to taking any step that recognizes the Negro man or the Indian as the equal of the white man.”

This is not a confused person about his social theory. Let me connect to the very first concept. This has not gone away. This has been uncovered.

Now, slavery has evolved. It has not disappeared. Today’s slavery is manifest in the way that the food system extracts wealth from its exploited farm labor. I am including, by the way, the farmer class. The farmer class may not feel particularly exploited, but the farmer class are in a way basically the chumps of the agricultural system, those that have very few choices within the system. I know that in this room tonight, this audience here, we have many farmers. You may feel like you have a whole lot of agency. I am seeing that in fact you are taking charge of that. It’s mostly by rejecting the way that the system works and creating your own pattern, which is what we’re actually here to celebrate.

I’m including farmers together with the farmed laborers, and let me tell you the way that this system has evolved. There are probably about 3.5 million farm laborers in the United States right now who are the key to the food system. The key. I know this is a sophisticated audience, but sometimes we find it too easy to believe that in the modern era, agriculture is about bits and machines, and satellites that feed information into automated machinery, and biotech, and very high technology. All of that blinking light stuff does not matter when it comes to the fact that raw, brute, menial labor is still required, matched with knowledge, expertise, and skills to recognize how the Earth and plants and animals work, and that that knowledge is concentrated in that farmer class and in the farm laborers. There is no farmer who will not make that point to you about the expertise, the actual knowledge that is required in a good farm worker.

Think about it this way. You extract biotech from modern agriculture. Extract the satellite information systems. Is that agricultural system possible? Now extract farm labor from that system. Without farm labor, vegetables are not picked, fruits and vegetables are not processed, meat is not packed, grocery stores are not stocked, your food is not processed, served to you, or somebody doesn’t clean up after you. Without that food chain worker, our food system does not work, period. They are the most essential, the most important part of that system, and the most undervalued. Therefore, they are exploited.

We’re all fully conscious of this, but here’s some explicit ways in which this happens. We actually systematically exclude farm workers from legal protections that all the rest of us expect. This is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. Farming is the whitest occupation in the United States, and farm workers, the brownest occupation in the United States, so it’s very clear what the division of labor there is. You’re exposed to all kinds of hazards out there, and we specifically exempt farm workers from many OSHA protections that the rest of us would expect in our workplace.

More than that, we actually do not pay overtime. We exclude the farm workers from the expectation, or the requirement, that we provide benefits that accrue according to how long you’ve worked, medical benefits for instance. If you catch yourself thinking, “Wait a minute, why would they want that? They’re only …” That’s where you need to catch yourself. They’re the essential component, the backbone of the way that the food system works. They’re the component that we squeeze in order to make the whole system work. 

We systematically exclude farm workers from legal protections that all the rest of us expect. This is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States.

Here’s a statistic that is often cited in a way completely different to what I am going to ask of you. It is that somewhere between as little as 6 to 12 percent of our disposable income is spent on our food. That usually is quoted as something that we should be proud of. If you compare that with what I’ve just described, it should be a national shame that we only pay 6 to 12 percent of our disposable income for our food — as if it were something to be minimized, and as if the workers involved in it and the nature that is required to produce that food were costs to be minimized, when in fact they’re the basic resource that’s required for the system to operate. We need to find a way in which we actually value all of those resources, the land and the people that are involved.

You may be familiar with the Norman Rockwell painting which is called Freedom from Want. We don’t have time this evening to explain the whole background of it, but Norman Rockwell painted one portrait each for the four freedoms that President Franklin Roosevelt famously appealed to in one of his fireside chats. One, freedom from want, obviously the freedom not to be hungry, is the famous Thanksgiving picture. That’s the way that you may remember it.

A typical white family over a very plump turkey. It is a very emotive drawing. I just want to use that picture actually to imagine the present society of the United States and factor the reality, against the reality that I just described to you. Without the land that was appropriated from people who were killed for their land or removed to concentration camps, without the exploitation of 3.5 million enslaved people who were treated as property, and without the current exploitation of farm labor in order to make the whole system work, we don’t have the food system that everybody brags about today in the United States. That family that I’m asking you to imagine, if you’ve seen that picture, is often seen as the reference family.

All the rest of us are here to serve that up, to make that possible. We’re here to serve everybody else, the Native Americans, the African-Americans. The original Asian-American population in this part of the country was instrumental in building the railroads that made it possible to make distance and time disappear so you could transport agricultural merchandise from this end to the other end of the country. When you talk about the fact that there is this disparity in economic outcomes that is tied to the demographics of the country, that’s not accidental. That isn’t a reflection of the entrepreneurship that’s in each one of those populations, or the lack of ambition in each one of those populations. That is actually the history that this country made as a result of colonists settling and exploiting and appropriating the benefits to themselves, actually written right before our noses, and into the founding documents of this nation. A particular class of people were to benefit from the political system that was set up.

I don’t want to carry on with that, because I think I’m making the point for you, and this is a very specific thing that I want us to land on in order to talk about some of the things that we can do to address this. The very first thing that is going to be required to address such a battery of issues that we have set up structurally is not necessarily going to be things that you can do individually, as much as I do not want to dissuade you from doing that. We need system shift. It’s the systemic nature of the system that creates the disparities that I’ve just described to you. There is no central office in the food system that any of us can go to and ask for redress or re-engineering of the way that all of this works.

I want to talk to you about those systemic shifts. I started to tell you, when we talk about hunger, we can often go into a misbegotten frame. It’s summarized neatly by a question that all of you are familiar with when we’re trying to address the emergency of hunger that exists in many pockets across the world. I think we are all equipped to actually ask ourselves, in those pockets of hunger around the world where you know they exist, what is it that’s actually causing that hunger?

The question, when you just want to address that and you are feeling empathy for people that are hungry and don’t have access to things that you take for granted, is this one. You’ll recognize it the minute I start to say it to you. Is it better to give a man a fish or to teach a man to fish? Many of you are fans, just like I am, of Frances Moore Lappe. Among one of the many fabulous books that she’s written is 10 Myths of World Hunger. That book is all about the fact that wherever you find hunger, it isn’t because there’s lack of food. It’s because there’s lack of democracy and equality.

If I could summarize all of that in just one passage from that book, it’s this: “It’s not about whether you give a man a fish or teach a man to fish. It’s about who owns the damn pond.” Talk about that aspect of the food system. I’ve described to you a real, live game of Serpents and Ladders that explains why each of us are where we are. It’s not divisive to talk about these things. Land grabbing, genocide, enslavement, exploitation of labor, that’s what’s divisive. The only way that we actually overcome that is name them and then know that those are the things that we don’t want and that we want to improve upon, so system shift. Here are some things that we can do.

Ultimately, we have to reverse just about everything that I’ve enumerated for you this evening. The first factor of production, land. Through such official government programs such as the Homestead Act, there are many families now who believe that they’re totally self-made by their entrepreneurship who began by essentially being given land that was appropriated from Natives. The system shift is to reverse, first, the evil of the genocide and the displacement of people, and the injustice that’s associated with that.

Let me give you just one example of how this is played out and then how we might address it. The descendants of enslaved people are with us today, over 30 million of them now. Many of them wanted to remain in farming. They were actually given promises, some of them, around northern Virginia and down to North Carolina area, that if they fought alongside the Confederate Army, that they would receive better treatment from their slave masters, but if they fought on the Northern side, that they would actually be given land, which was a promise that was reneged upon.

At that time, the Homestead Act had not been signed. 1862 is when that law was signed. Therefore, think about who was doing the agricultural labor at that time. It was the nation’s African-American population. That whole Midwestern population of farmers had not developed. This part of the world had not been settled and had not been developed for agricultural purposes yet.

Furthermore, do you know that those plantation owners were not producing their own food? Leave aside the plantation crops that I’ve listed for you. The single most expert population in the United States in terms of how you conduct agriculture and how you produce your own food at that time was the nation’s African-American population. Instead of giving vent to that energy, that knowledge, that expertise, we reneged on promises to the descendants of enslaved people and continued to diminish their human potential.

To this day, those that wanted to be farmers actually continued to be exposed to systemic discrimination that showed up in lots of different ways, but let me just say to you the one. You need land, and because white southern farmers wanted the land that those black farmers began to farm, the United States Department of Agriculture worked in cahoots in order to completely take away the land that those farmers had through a number of different devices. One example was claiming that taxes owed on the land were higher than they actually were, driving those farmers into debt, and eventually when they had to default on their loans, there was a supposed legal cause to take their land from them.

That explains why many folks who had both the desire and clearly the expertise to do the farming are not able to do that right now throughout the South. A systemic shift, if you can imagine this, if it doesn’t blow your mind that this nation is big enough to do it, to reverse all of that, is reparations to the descendants of slaves. It should take nothing less than that. In addition to that, systems of loan forgiveness and assistance so that these people who want to do the farming actually receive exactly the same treatment that the reference farmer, the white farmer, gets when they go to apply for loans, when they go to the Department of Agriculture or Farm Service Agency for technical advice.

You’re already doing a great thing by supporting a place like this, which is committed to equity in the food system. Keep doing that. I want to tell you that I work with an alliance that is called the HEAL Food Alliance, which is premised on the issues that I’ve just described to you, an accurate assessment of the history and the way that the agricultural system formed as a path to what needs to be reversed.

I’ve already made a very big point of the fact that access to land and labor is an important thing, so it won’t surprise you, then, that those are key features of our strategy to reverse the illness of our food system.

In whatever way that you can, you need to support the reform of labor and immigration laws that are the systemic reforms that we need in order to appropriately value the contribution of labor to our food system. One way of summarizing the story that I’ve just told you, is those of us who are beneficiaries of that system always have mental software that will justify why we can exploit other people. It’s either they’re savages, or the justification for enslavement was that those were not full humans. They weren’t fully people. They were not quite animals, but they weren’t fully people, so you could enslave them.

Today, the justification is … Do you know what it is? They’re not people. I started out by giving you an economic analysis. Let me just summarize this for you. We made those laws up. The laws of thermodynamics are there whether human beings are here to discover them and describe them or not. That’s a physical law of the universe. Economics we make up out of thin air. It’s a social science. We’ve seen it happen since the 1700s. 

We know enough to produce our food without exploiting nature, and we definitely know enough to produce our food without exploiting people. The question is not, do we know enough to be better? The question is, will we?

Right now, the current version of economics that we believe in is that products can move across borders. We’ve removed the barriers to that. Materials can move across borders. Capital can flow across borders, as well. That’s just a recent rule change, within the last 30 or 40, which makes it possible for someone very rich in the United States to own a banana plantation in Costa Rica, or a very rich person in Brazil can actually own a large field of corn in Tanzania. Capital and material can move freely across borders.

In the United States, we will not do the menial labor of agriculture. We will not do it, so there is demand for farm labor that we do not meet internally. According to orthodox economics, then by supply and demand, labor is coming to where the demand is, but we make it so that’s illegal. That’s the puzzle that we use to exploit those laborers, because when we steal their wages, when the women workers are sexually exploited, when we don’t actually give them the same housing and the same protections that I’ve described to you that all of the rest of us would expect, what are they going to do? Are they going to sue? They’re not citizens. They can’t.

In addition to the fact that that population is terrorized, and you all have been reading those headlines, that’s something that needs to be redressed in every way that you can. Work for immigration reform, because that is actually the justice that will be reflected in the kind of food system that you all want for the future.

With that, I want to go back to the question that I told you that I’d return to at the very beginning. I want your food to taste differently to you. They are fabulous cooks. There are great farms behind all of that. I want it to be a different experience for you than it might have been 30 minutes ago.

I asked you a question, do we know enough to create a food system that does not rely on exploitation? Yes, we know enough to produce our food without exploiting nature, and we definitely know enough to produce our food without exploiting people, so I’m asking that question and I’m answering that question. Let me just put it very sharply to you, and then I’ll be quiet. The question is not really, do we know enough to be better? The question is, will we?

Ricardo Salvador is an internationally renowned agronomist with more than 20 years of experience working to build a healthier food system. Dr. Salvador directs Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program. See Ricardo’s full bio.


Man in orange jacket stands on a stage delivering a speech on food justice


Director, Food & Environment Program 

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