Equity Tensions

Intersectional Identities and Power

Food sovereignty movements (originating in the global south) and food justice movements (originating in the global north) are closely allied with other movements for equity. Integral to food system transformation are struggles for equity, intersectional identities, and power, among all historically marginalized groups defending and claiming multiple racial and ethnic identities, rural-urban differences, gender and sexual diversities, religious practices, age-related and other diverse identities.

The concept of “all our relations” is an important metaphor for understanding intersectionality within and beyond the food system. A historical perspective positions different forms of oppression as part of ongoing cycles of injustice based on white supremacy and extractive economics. Colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, development and globalization draw on the logic of elimination and replacement, power, domination, settlement, expansion and control.

The Legacies project acknowledged different manifestations of oppression, the pervasive nature of social inequality woven through institutional and individual consciousness. Legacies collaborator Leticia Deawuo describes in detail the structural and material ways food injustice is perpetuated in the Black Creek neighbourhood. “For me, the word apartheid makes it clear that these are systemically constructed communities, in the way that food is distributed across the city and the way that people experience food. The fact that you have the Jane-Finch community (in Toronto) with fast food restaurants at every corner, and a community that pays more than other communities for fresh produce, a community where police are surveilling the grocery stores, this is food apartheid.” While, in Quebec, Anna outlines how food security is a structural privilege based on the services available and the way these services are made available.

“All our relations” helps us see that human and non-human communities are simultaneously marginalized by oppression.1 The degradation and abuse of land and people through industrial agriculture, the subjugation and enslavement of Indigenous People and racialized communities, the imposition of what is “human” and what is “other” in European knowledge, the exotification of some food cultures, racial exclusion in some alternative food spaces, are all linked and interconnected issues. These are all themes that arise over and over again in our discussions with Legacies collaborators.

Equity issues, as they are expressed by Legacies collaborators, echo global movements working on food system transformation, decolonization, dismantling white supremacy and equity. In their special report on Climate and Land the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) outlines the gender and equity dimensions related to food security and climate change, highlighting the central role women play in agriculture and how climate change impacts are uneven depending on age, ethnicity, gender, wealth, and class, with poor and vulnerable communities facing greater impacts. The IPCC states that a rights-based approach that explicitly recognizes women is critical is we want to improve food security, as well as achieve global climate adaptation and mitigation targets.

Using even stronger language, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in its Global Assessment Report states “the character and trajectories of transformation will vary across contexts, with challenges and needs differing, among others, in developing and developed countries. Risks related to the inevitable uncertainties and complexities in transformations towards sustainability can be reduced through governance approaches that are integrative, inclusive, informed and adaptive. Such approaches typically take into account the synergies and trade-offs between societal goals and alternative pathways and recognize a plurality of values, diverse economic conditions, inequity, power imbalances and vested interests in society.”2 

Globally, there is growing momentum for a “Just Transition.” This term has its roots in labour and environmental justice movements, and is being applied by climate and justice advocates. The Just Transition Alliance3  outlines that “Just Transition is a vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy. This means approaching production and consumption cycles holistically and waste-free. The transition itself must be just and equitable; redressing past harms and creating new relationships of power for the future through reparations. If the process of transition is not just, the outcome will never be. Just Transition describes both where we are going and how we get there.”4 

For food systems, the Just Transition concept is extended beyond organized labour to include agricultural, food processing and distribution workers who are often migrant, racialized, undocumented and working in vulnerable or informal contexts growing, processing, cooking and distributing food. In the past decade, there has been a burgeoning of organizing by racialized farmers,5 small and medium-sized farmers,6 migrant workers,7 and food chain workers.8 These vulnerabilities were exposed and laid bare during the COVID-19 crisis.

The experience of the environmental justice movement illustrates how communities of colour and low-income communities have been disproportionately impacted by pollution and industrial practices, including industrial food system practices like chemical intensive agriculture, confined animal feedlots, deregulated supply chains, and highly processed foods.9 The environmental justice movement emphasizes centering the voices, experience, and knowledge of those most impacted and engaging communities to “build thriving economies that provide dignified, productive and ecologically sustainable livelihoods; democratic governance and ecological resilience.”10

The world-wide uprising against anti-black racism and police violence that was sparked by the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, U.S. in the spring of 2020 revealed a convergence of movements against centuries of oppression against Indigenous, black, and people of colour. 

Many identified with the brutal action of the “knee on my neck.” Thousands took to the streets in the middle of a pandemic that had exposed a blatant disregard for racialized bodies, who were the majority of “essential” workers and a disproportionate number of deaths from the virus. COVID-19 also revealed the frailties and injustices of the global food system. Especially among youth protestors, there was a greater consciousness of the interconnectedness of all inequities. And of the necessity of alliances to work toward systemic change.

Digging In

Digging In: Facilitating Dialogue and Action
Key Themes and Terms
Catalyzing Connections

  • Description: What stories are told? How did you feel reading them?
  • Personal Connection: How can you connect this story to your personal experience or stories in your family?
  • Common Themes: What social issues/themes are raised in these stories? Is there a common issue shared across contexts?
  • Social Analysis: What are the historical and social processes that created this situation?
  • Planning for Action: What can be done? How does this inspire me to change my actions?

  • How would you describe the worldview of the P’urepecha? How do they understand nature and human relations with the natural world?
  • Maria says that the holistic vision of the P’urepecha is “based more on ecological exchanges (with nature) than on economic exchanges (with markets).” Discuss what you think she means.
  • What are the various ethnobotanical uses of the great diversity of plants in the territory?
  • Why did Maria stop doing the healing work with plants? What are the demands of this work?
  • What are some of the obstacles to the use of natural medicinal plants in your context?

Hands On Activities

Take a walk around your neighbourhood. After reading the examples of medicinal plants that Fulvio introduces, can you find any of the medicinal plants that he describes? Photograph some of the plants and research their uses through the online global inventory PlantNet, a plant identification review that can be downloaded as an app.

Intergenerational and Intercultural Dialogue

What are the different cultural training and practical skills that Fulvio and Maria bring to their joint work with plants?

What are the ways that Maria and Fulvio are passing on their knowledge to their children?

Maria talks about intercultural syncretism in their healing practices that are derived from the process of acculturation in colonial times. What are some of the ways that the rituals they describe combine both Catholic and P’urepecha symbols and practices?

Individual and Collective Action

Try making a tea from one of the plants you’ve learned can be used for ordinary illnesses such as colds, headaches, stress, etc.

Research the pharmaceutical industry in your country. Do corporate research on one company to find out the sources of their medicines and their earnings. 

The ETC group has long monitored the “Gene Giants” (who aggregate control over seeds, agrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, genomics and food processing and retailing). What relationships does this company have with other agricultural companies? 

What can you find out about any campaigns challenging the power of pharmaceuticals or the biopiracy of companies that exploit Indigenous knowledge of plants for their own profit?

Continuing the Conversation

Continuing the Conversation
Amber Meadow Adams

Amber Meadow Adams is a writer living and working at Six Nations Grand River Territory. She received a B.A. in Literature and Writing from Columbia University and her Ph.D. in Indigenous Studies from the University at Buffalo.

Starting with the invasive ‘medicinal plant’ broad plantain described by Fulvio in this essay, Haudenosaunee scholar Adams excavates the impact of colonial plants on women’s ‘illnesses’ also produced by colonization. She asks us to dig deeper into the destruction of the social fabric that supported women in childbirth.

“An Imported Medicine for an Imported Ill”

Plantago major

In 1938, Albert Jones, Onöndowa:’ga’ from Ohí:yo (Allegany), told newly-minted ethnographer William Fenton about some of the uses of plantain. Fenton recorded that it was “good for what whites call ‘nervous breakdown,’ or when [a] female overworks. When she has many children to look after … She feels badly, dizzy in the head”.11 Jones describes what Fenton identifies as both Plantago rugelii, a species indigenous to North America, and Plantago major, a Eurasian import. Whether Jones referred to one species or two, Plantago major — so aggressive in its spread it earned the name “Englishman’s foot” among some Indigenous nations — had eclipsed rugelii in many parts of the Haudenosaunee homelands by the twentieth century.

It was the imported medicine for an imported ill. Until the 1790s, the Haudenosaunee continued to live in houses designed for extended families, organized around one’s Clan. Children had not only ista, a Kanyen’kehaka term encompassing both mother and aunt in English, but also uncles, cousins, grandparents, siblings, and friends to share the responsibilities of feeding, teaching, and caring for them. Women typically spaced their pregnancies three or four years apart, avoiding the physical overtax of carrying and breastfeeding children, sometimes simultaneously, that their European contemporaries often faced. Haudenosaunee women in the 17th and 18th centuries had regular access to something many North American women in the 21st do not: reliable, economical, and effective care, not only for their children, but for themselves.

Breaking the longhouse into single-family homes — “single” counted as that proletarianized unit of production, the nuclear family — has taken centuries. Removed from the insulation of extended family, losing access to birth control as traditional herbalism was driven underground and habitat was urbanized, Haudenosaunee women were forced to meet greater responsibilities with fewer resources. European invasion transformed a rich biome into a state of poverty: land theft, disease, war, and internment in residential schools meant higher average rates of morbidity and mortality in Indigenous populations. As the primary caregivers in more isolated households sheltering poorer, sicker people, a Haudenosaunee woman in Albert Jones’s time could expect at least some periods of extreme overwork. The “dizz[iness]” he describes is a clinical presentation of dehydration, malnutrition, anemia, hypo- or hypertension, migraine, and panic disorder — all conditions associated with physio-neurological stressors. Even the menstrual retirement traditional to longhouse life was no longer possible, nor the period of care of the woman, self-given or offered by others, that privileged her health and wellbeing rather than her dependents’. Also, as capitalism overwhelmed the more matrifocal Haudenosaunee economy, women began to lose voice in Council, both within communities and between their nations and the Crown and its daughter states. This displacement, though never complete, further eroded the social space women’s kasha’tstenhsera — capacity and autonomy — had occupied for centuries, marginalizing them within their own eco-legal system and further increasing burdens of stress.

Jones’s reporting of Plantago spp. as treatment for an individual’s disease stands as a sign of pragmatism and defiance — uprooting and metabolising an invasive species as an act of resistance to being uprooted and metabolised. In that respect, a Haudenosaunee woman was not taking plantain to reverse the disease process, but to fortify herself by absorbing a form of life, no matter its origin, like her and her peers: tenacious, adaptable, and capable of surviving and growing under hard conditions. Yet I wonder if, in 1938 or a century later, the question, “What are your medicine plants?” drives healers toward answers that Western medical philosophy can only misinterpret. The Haudenosaunee woman having a “nervous breakdown” can swallow her Plantago privately, and privately return to all the things that made her sick. No public change, no structural disruption, no biomic recovery is needed.

The Haudenosaunee healers for whom I have greatest respect treat illness as systems reaching beyond the borders of any one body. Ka’nikòn:ra, the spirit, will, desire, and consciousness manifesting as physiological phenomena, exists only in relation to all other yoti’nikonhrashon’a. All parts touch, and all parts move. How would the work of rescue ethnobotany change if curiosity about medical systems, food systems, and even ecosystems became curiosity about the matrices of macro and microlife? What if the acknowledged treatment for one woman’s nervous breakdown were the regrowth of a forest, or a renaissance of the kind of equity-in-care that capitalist medicine cannot accommodate? A sick woman and the sick Earth, our Creation story tells us, are one body. Where do we look for the medicine and the respite care for our shared mother?

Digging Deeper

Digging Deeper: Resources for Further Research and Action
Books & Articles
  1. Freire, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.
  2. IPBES (2019): Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. S. Díaz, et al (eds.). IPBES secretariat, Bonn, Germany. p. 17.
  3. Just Transition Alliance (http://jtalliance.org/)
  4. Climate Justice Alliance (https://climatejusticealliance.org/just-transition/)
  5. National Black Food and Justice Alliance (https://www.blackfoodjustice.org/); Soul Fire Farm (http://www.soulfirefarm.org/). See also Leah Penniman. Farming While Black: Soul Fire’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. Hartford, VT: Chelsea Green, 2018.
  6. National Farmers Union in Canada (https://www.nfu.ca/); National Family Farm Coalition in the U.S. (https://nffc.net/); Via Campesina (https://viacampesina.org/en/).
  7. https://migrantworkersalliance.org/ in Canada; https://ciw-online.org/ - Coalition of Immokalee Workers in the U.S.
  8. Food Chain Workers (http://foodchainworkers.org/)
  9. IPES-Food. 2017. Unravelling the Food–Health Nexus: Addressing practices, political economy, and power relations to build healthier food systems. The Global Alliance for the Future of Food and IPES-Food.
  10. Just Transition (https://climatejusticealliance.org/just-transition/)
  11. James Herrick, Iroquois Medical Botany (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997), 61.