When “Grow Your Own Food” Is a Tool of Oppression
If you’ve ever said true facts about agriculture in public, you’ve probably come up against some version of this argument”
Of course, the boiled down version of this “argument” is captured in one of my favorite memes.
But I want to take some time to really dig into the “grow your own food” challenge, because it’s not just high and mighty farmers, who are unwilling to participate in productive public discussion, that love this line. In fact, *a lot* of people who focus on environmental outcomes and social justice also lean heavily on self-sufficiency arguments.
First, let’s consider Alan. When a farmer, who likely owns millions in agricultural-related assets and who’s received at least $200k in direct, taxpayer-funded payments in the last decade, suggests that consumers “do it themselves,” that is a transparent invitation to fail, but one that we are conditioned to accept.
That’s in part because American media is over-saturated with under-dog stories. There are few narratives more universally appealing in this country than a classic rags-to-riches case (it is much less common for us to publicly discuss the fact that a person is more likely to fall victim to a shark attack or win the lottery than to experience significant socio-economic mobility). Pair that with our culture of defiance — the idea of being motivated to prove someone wrong, and a lot of us get incredibly geared up to prove that by sheer grit and extraordinary effort, each of us are capable of achieving the impossible, including nutritional self-sufficiency.
This is common in the food and agriculture worlds. I hear a lot of voices suggesting that, because the system is so broken, the work of feeding the community can only be done by communities themselves. “We’ll do it ourselves,” feels like a power move, a way to reclaim agency where it has been eroded. A major urban agriculture trend was founded around ideas like this — that communities could come together in their free time, reclaim community spaces, and participate in feeding themselves.
There is undoubtedly community-building value in this work. But it can also be problematic. Because the thing is, impossibly few communities have the land resources they need to actually feed themselves in a meaningful, safe, and affordable way, let alone the financial resources. And to saddle low-income people in particular (those most likely to be excluded through food apartheid) with physical gardening labor that they must do in their outside-of-work hours seems like an impossible-to-sustain demand, even if it is, at times, enjoyable.
This is the exact reason why “grow it yourself” is used as a tool to discourage criticism of mainstream agriculture. Because the people who offer it as a “solution” know it will fail. They’re planning on it. That’s the whole point. They know that when a relatively poor individual or community attempts to feed themselves, whether on half an acre of lead-laden dirt on a vacant lot or on a hard-to-access rooftop or in a minuscule window box, they’ll eventually run out of time, money, or energy to keep going. And when that moment comes, these wealth-holders plan to feel vindicated and to demand subservience. They know that a community fighting for their own survival not only nutritionally, but in terms of safety, healthcare, employment protections, education, and on countless other fronts, will never be able to match the staying power of thousands of acres of low-taxed, privately-held agricultural land, significant publicly-funded benefits, and the amassed stolen and exploited wealth of generations.
At a deeper level, many of these calls to self-sufficiency are really just demands that we play by the rules invented by the people who are already winning. Self-sufficiency, especially at the personal or family level, is a settler-colonial ideal. When farmers like Alan say, “I’d like to see you try,” they are saying “I get to do whatever I want with what I have, if you want it done differently, then you have to gain what I have.” It encodes the idea that it’s only possible for a person to serve their own, private needs, so to get your needs served, you’ll have to do it yourself. That premise is false. These people want private-land, private-wealth, capitalistic markets, because that’s how they’ve become “self-sufficient,” i.e. rich. Actually trying to do it ourselves, accepting that challenge, is just agreeing to play by those rules. But winning at the settler-colonial game will not change the system, in fact, it reinforces it.
In other words, when someone with all the resources tells critics who have no resources to do the work that requires resources, we should not listen. If someone wants to build a wall around their farm, their wealth, or their lives, and they call on us to do the same, our answer should be no. We want no walls. We want transparency, accountability, and participation on all sides, that must be the social price of owning land in this country.
In many ways, self-sufficiency is an anti-social concept, and that is not what we’re striving for. We live in a society, not an anti-society, and from my perspective, we’re aiming to live in a society where the people without access to immense wealth and land resources must still have a voice in how those resources (especially when backed by public support, as agriculture is) are used.
So the next time you hear someone with much wealth or other food-growing resources (be it a farmer, a non-profit, or a thought-leader on a speaking tour) tells someone with significantly fewer that “growing their own” is a vital part of changing the food system, remember that a plan that requires self-sufficiency among the poor while the rich do what they please is the standard that oppressors fight for. Remember that staying publicly engaged, fighting to get more real resources (land, knowledge, land, equipment, land, wealth, and have I mentioned, land?) into the hands of oppressed people is *way* more impactful work. We should not feel motivated to prove that we can be self-sufficient individuals, we should fight back against the cop-out inherent in that challenge and insist that those who hold resources and benefits are responsible for making improvements, not those who don’t.
If you garden, grow food, or work in urban agriculture, I think it’s important to keep these realities in mind. I’ve met many people who insist that they are passionate about transforming the food system, but the main action they take to do so is growing their own food. In terms of an enjoyable life experience or a meaningful stop-gap for the food insecure, this can be good work. But all the urban gardens and window boxes on this continent will do nothing to change the bigger issues in agriculture, which absolutely must be addressed. And by focusing on self-sufficiency, we let the wealthy farm community off the hook. Because every bushel of tomatoes or lettuce grown in a vacant lot is 10 more bushels of commodity corn that some farmer like Alan grows while our attention is focused elsewhere, with all the environmental consequences. By providing what we can for ourselves, we relieve the pressure that they should be feeling to grow more food, better, and to make it more accessible and affordable.
We must keep the pressure on. We must hold farming and food businesses accountable to our expectations. We must not allow them to use calls for us to be self-sufficient to excuse them from their duties to our communities.
And if you don’t garden or if you’ve never felt compelled to grow food, know that you are still well-placed to demand a more just food system. The more we participate, the more opportunities we have to force change. Not all of us want to garden or cook, aren’t good at it, and don’t need to do it. The good news is, humans are more than capable of working in one another’s interests.
So remember; no one can tell you what you can and can’t fight for, and certainly not the people who are withholding from us the things we need to survive. Don’t let anyone tell you how to fight, either, don’t let threats or bad-faith negotiating tactics derail your passion. The roots of injustice in the farm system are wrapped around unjust distribution of resources. Don’t let anyone tell you that the way that is is a feature, not a bug.
We know that’s not the truth.
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