Pray with us for a fairer global food system where everyone has enough.
As part of our Fix the Food System campaign, CAFOD’s Head of Public Policy Graham Gordon looks at three ways colonialism has had a lasting negative impact on food production and land use in other countries.
1. Colonialism meant countries growing food to export instead of feeding their own populations
Before colonialism, farmers grew a diverse range of local food crops that provided balanced diets and enabled them to feed their families and manage risks. Surplus would be used for trade and investment in other needs.
But under colonial rule in Africa, Caribbean and Asia many farmers were coerced into growing a few crops for export – such as cotton, wheat, sugar, tobacco and groundnuts, for which they received low prices. Roads and railways were built – such as the Kenya-Uganda railway built by the East Africa Company that linked Mombasa at the coast with Lake Victoria. This enabled the export of these products to European countries, bringing economic benefits to the colonial powers.
This focus on a limited number of export crops resulted in serious food shortages as agricultural efforts were redirected away from diverse crops and meeting local needs.
2. The focus on food exports has meant hunger today in some countries
Prioritising the food needs of other countries has had an enduring legacy for many countries that were colonised. For example, in Ghana, Kenya and Senegal, export crops are now grown on more than 50% of arable land, while at the same time food to feed local people is imported.
With recent crop failures in East Africa due to the worst drought in 40 years, and a massive dependence on imported wheat – which has rocketed in price due to the impact of Covid and the war in Ukraine – millions are currently facing hunger in Kenya. This can be directly linked, in part, to the colonial legacy of focusing on exports of a few staple crops, while importing food to feed local people.
3. Meeting the tastes of colonial powers destroyed lands and livelihoods
Spanish colonisers arrived in Latin America and encountered indigenous populations such as the Mayas and Aztecs, with a rich fertile land and a variety of nutritious crops including beans, pumpkins, avocados, cassava, fruits, cocoa and cotton.
However, this food was different to the European staples of bread, meat and wine and was seen as substandard and unfit for the European colonisers’ consumption. Christopher Columbus himself was convinced the Europeans colonisers were dying due to the lack of healthy foods.
The colonisers started to import their own food and the first horses, sheep, cows and goats arrived with Columbus’s second voyage in 1493. The recently imported European animals were allowed to roam and often trampled indigenous lands, multiplying quickly and leading to the establishment of livestock ranches.
The legacy of these ranches is evident today when we see the extent of deforestation of the Amazon, hitting record levels in 2022, largely due to beef and soy production for export. The current food system, dominated by industrial scale production of food commodities such as meat, sugar and palm oil, is a major driver of climate change, with up to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions linked to the food system, mainly caused by deforestation for commercial agriculture.
This focus on intensified production of a few crops for export continues to undermine indigenous food systems that work in harmony with nature and can support diverse, nutritious crops and local markets that build people’s livelihoods.
CAFOD recognises the legacy of colonialism in creating poverty today and our Fix the Food System campaign is tackling some of these structural issues in the current food system as well as promoting local, diverse, resilient systems that our partners are supporting.