Food, Land and Slavery in British Columbia

It is time to talk about slavery. This form of violence takes many forms. Some are slavery of people to other people, which is terrible, slavery of people to the settler state, which is insidious, and slavery of the Earth to people, which is destructive of the planet, which is really no good to any living thing. There is also red orach. It is a gift.

I can’t take on all of slavery all at once, because I’d explode with rage. It happens.

I can, however, bring some real experience to one part of it. This:

Slavery by Another Name

As long ago as 1862, Henry David Thoreau argued that industrial agriculture was slavery. He wrote that just after the horrific Battle of Shilo in the U.S. Civil War, in an age in which all industrial agriculture was powered by slavery. Nearly 160 years later, his arguments about the negative relationship of industrial agriculture to indigenous peoples and the cost of the lack of indigeneity remain prescient.

All three forms of slavery are present in this slick document: slavery of people to other people, slavery of people to the settler state, and slavery of the Earth to people. After all, this is British Columbia…

… which is a colony laid down over indigenous land, with a few peculiar characteristics: 1. it never purchased the land or gained sovereignty by any kind of treaty with its original peoples, peoples who identify themselves with the land and the water; instead, it placed them on tiny land reserves incapable of supporting them, so they would form an industrial working class to support industrial farming and fishing, 2. 94% of this land is held as property of the government and used to generate funds to support urban economies, which is to say that the concentration of Indigenous people on reservations is used to create wealth, this wealth:

Wine Tourism Ad in the Okanagan Valley, in Syilx Territory

3. most of the population of this vast area lives in one metropolitan area …

Vancouver, a Squatter’s Camp on Halkomen, Squamish and Musqueam Land and Water

… removed from all but the tiniest portion of that land…

… and much of this population has no connection with that land except through the income derived from it. It does, however, have political and economic control over it, which it exercises to create recreational activities, tourism opportunities, highways and industrial farms. This is what is commonly called entitlement. Others call it “settler culture,” but that’s not very helpful. It divides people and ensures the continuation of our political and social problems. Problems like the image attached to this propaganda:

In an Argument for Robotic Agriculture, Gene Sequencing and Hydroponic Farming, this farmer on a small Ontario farm (a continent away) is used to humanize industrialization. By any other name, this is identity theft, on many levels.

Revolutions have been fought over this. The principles of English democracy were developed to end this kind of thing. It is also what the British Food Sustainability report is all about, which brings me back to this:


Sometimes red orach is green. Why orach? Ah, for that we need to go to the Food Sustainability report, so put on your personal safety gear and let’s go:

Diver Preparing to Descend into the Columbia River to Kill It By Laying the Foundations for Grand Coulee Dam Back in the 1930s

Ready? OK, down we go:

This image from the food sustainability report is attractive. It shows bright red cherries in quaint, traditional boxes, in an argument for innovation during climate change. That there is more that can be done to combat climate change in the Okanagan Valley mentioned in the text than passively reacting to changing weather patterns due to atmospheric carbon, is not mentioned. That these cherries are immature and picked in haste is not mentioned. That cherries are largely grown in huge industrial plantations today, pumped up with hormones to make them extra firm to go over graders and extra large to demand a luxury price in Asia, picked into plastic crates and sorted in large packing plants, is not mentioned, and what, in the end, is the message of the text attached to this image? Food waste! So, look at those cherries. The carelessness of this picking, and the poor agricultural and marketing practices behind it …

… is the real food waste here. It’s not just food waste, either. It’s a waste of land, money, labour and a total insult to the indigenous people whose land these cherries are grown on. The dark-coloured cherries in that box, perhaps 10% or less, are mature, sweet and nutritious. The rest are sugarless, watery, sour, unsaleable, inedible and useless. Whatever problems lie behind this crime against the earth, industrial agriculture is not going to solve it. As for industrial agriculture’s promise to solve the problems of climate change, for the love of the Earth, plant orach. I did. Here it is a month ago, after the first pick.

You could plant a lot more than orach, but it provides a useful example. Orach grows on alkaline soils (which are everywhere here, and make the growing of many crops difficult), it is an Indigenous North American crop (from Montana, this one; the local one only turns red in the fall), it grows without irrigation (and because of its adaptability to salty land on land that has been ruined by irrigation under industrial agriculture), and it grows well on land unsuited to industrial agriculture. It is also flavourful and nutritious. It is just one of many crops that could solve every single problem that the “sustainability” document promises to solve with computerized agriculture, plus many that it ignores, such as high capitalization costs, high land costs, removal of Indigenous cultures from the land production process and gentrification, to name a few. In other words, it cancels out slavery. Not only that, but it is a gift. In spring, the gold finches come and eat its leaves. In August, they bring their young from their nests to eat its seeds before they fly south late in the month. In this way, it supports a vital Indigenous value: food for all from a shared land. The sustainability document’s answer to ignoring the agricultural potential of that 94% of land that is in government possession is this:

It proposes that the nutrient deficit of farming in water can be offset by careful electronic monitoring of fertilizers, to provide what it calls food with a nutrient content equal to that of conventionally grown food. Setting aside the observation that I have never experienced this equality in quality, with conventional organic food always, in my experience, higher in quality, durability and flavour, there is an issue missing here: the social dimension of agriculture. Arguing in this fashion is, essentially, arguing to reduce the Earth and its life forms to industrial commodities and to give participation in their manipulation to one social class, over others, and to predetermine that these will not be spiritual experiences. Now, that might all be popular in the scientific-technical class, but it’s not popular among human beings, and it is, essentially, slavery. In place of these discussions, the paper presents this romantic image of the cruelty of fruit picked by piece work:

Apart from the fact that whoever has built this ladder is most probably not in British Columbia, or, if they are, is having fun building a heavy, modernized traditional ladder for the spiritual joy of it (our ladders here are lightweight aluminum, and that apple variety is largely abandoned in order to reduce hormone spraying and food waste), piece work in an apple orchard is no longer the common practice, as the fruit is largely graded on the tree and workers are encouraged to take care.  There are huge social costs to that, but that’s a discussion for another day (and I’ve mentioned it on this blog many times already.) Under these conditions, workers are paid minimum wage, with long work days and work weeks, plus accommodation, plus benefits, plus airfare to and from their homes in Mexico. This is a higher income than a huge number of British Columbians, but setting that aside, piece work pays far more than minimum wage. It’s hard work, but its remunerative. What’s more, there’s nothing wrong with climbing a ladder. It is, actually, an efficient use of land and water. That aside, the document also reveals its profound bias and weakness in this image:

Whatever the problems Africa has with food supply, they are not problems with industrialization. Industrialization is collapsing in Zimbabwe due to political, not technical, issues, and experiments with industrializing agriculture in Ethiopia are abject political failures, which include failures of supply chains. It is not so much different here. The entire argument of this document is that food sustainability is tied to reducing transportation costs and minimizing the effect of climate change on current agricultural practices, by altering the climate and genetically-altering crops, in order to maintain contemporary forms of distribution and contemporary crops in contemporary locations.  That is like a drunk downing a bottle of vodka to get over a drunken stupor. We don’t have to grow grapes here, to provide elite tourism opportunities.

We don’t have to place vineyards on ancient village sites to provide those opportunities.

We don’t have to grow apples in the heat of the valley, where 35% of water applied to them evaporates, and we don’t have to subsidize agriculture in order to make it more efficient. This young orchard below was subsidized. At three years of age, these trees are junk. They should be torn out. Farming is about skill, but the entry level into farming is only money. The skill might be lacking, as it is below.

This is a waste. What’s more, we can grow apples in other zones, where water loss is not an issue, we can grow other products than grapes to make alcohol, and as for the genetic manipulation of foodstuffs to support sustainability, that is not only slavery and theft of the great indigenous crops of the entire northern hemisphere. It also supports the continuation of settler culture by supporting industrial packing, distribution and sale of fruit, with the huge costs that it entails. Tomorrow, I will bring together the posts on this blog which have already addressed these issues, and after that I will compile a compendium of my posts on alternate forms of sustainability, ones that will allow sustainability in food and betterment of human and social relationships, without all this slavery and bondage. We are not helpless in the face of documents like this. We can champion the Earth without fear. Right, orach. Here’s my second harvest from 45 feet of row. If packaged and sold in a store, it would fetch $120 in net wholesale profit, after labour, packaging, seed and water are paid for. There are other costs, of course, but, still.

If sold at a socially acceptable price, even half of that, a $60 profit for a half hour’s labour is not shabby. It’s either that or short-life, rot-in-the-plastic-tub hydroponically-grown “organic” baby greens that taste like water and green straw.

So, while we are all working hard to try to change conditions for oppressed peoples among us, let’s remember Thoreau, and that this story envelops us all in complex ways, and let’s get started at changing not only the systematic suppression of Black, Coloured and Indigenous people, in this country or in our neighbour country to the South, but the very deep systematic suppressions that ensure the continuation of the destructive power relationships behind it. If we want food sustainability, we need social sustainability. This pack of distortions and manipulations is not it:

Sustainability Will Not Come from Following This Path

5 replies »

  1. The report you mentioned is a product of some companies/businesses, not the farmers. I refer you to the short comments and photos by Paul Zeegers in Just Farmers ( about the kind of agriculture that The Netherlands has produce in Westland. It seems that the report would like us to go this way. I say (and wrote to the appropriate parties), “No, we don’t want this way.”


    • You’re welcome. It astounds me how these issues go under the radar, even though the issues of slavery, privilege and land rights have been in the news daily for years.



  2. Thank you for letting me know that Red Orach is an indigenous species! I have been growing & spreading it here in Kelowna for 30 years. I read something recently that made me think it was from Eastern Europe…Ukraine even. Maybe they have their own orachs. I grew green & “golden” orach last year but few re-seeded so I’m back to the trusty, ever-abundant Red Orach. I’m going to try making Red (Orach) pesto next spring. Any recipe suggestions? Maybe make it with hazelnuts?


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