Environment and Governance Research Group, UNSW
Subject: Anthropology, Area Studies, Arts & Humanities, Communication Studies, Cultural Studies, Ethics, History, Humanities, Multidisciplinary, International Relations, Law, Literature, Philosophy, Planning & Development, Political Science, Social Sciences, Philosophy & Law, Sociology, Theatre, Urban Studies, Women's Studies
SEARCH WITHIN CONTENT
Citation Information : Borderlands journal. Volume 20, Issue 1, Pages 207-235, DOI: https://doi.org/10.21307/borderlands-2021-008
License : (CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0)
Published Online: 02-November-2021
Since colonisation began in Australia, it has transformed the ecological, social, cultural, and economic bases of the biggest estate on earth, with outcomes driving the disruption of Indigenous food sovereignty, foodways and food knowledges alongside the reproduction of Whiteness. This article critically examines the place of White food, including the case of nanotechnologies, in the expansion of the settler colonial frontier, and its impacts for Indigenous health and relationships with food. To do this, we consider a widely commercialised nano-food application: the addition of nano-scale titanium dioxide to make foods White. Nano White food provides a unique lens to examine White authority and control across settler colonial food systems. We consider some of the impacts arising from this global colonial power matrix—to which Whiteness is organising principle for domination—for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, justice, and rights. We argue that unsettling Whiteness is vital to redressing the violence wrought by settler colonial agri-food systems, and for re-centring living ecologies and interconnected systems across foodways.
And I always asked my mother, I said “mother, how come everything is white? … White House Cigars. White Swan Soap. King White Soap, White Cloud Tissue Paper, White Rain Hair Rinse, White Tornado Floor Wax. Everything was white. And the angel food cake was the white cake, and the devil food cake was the chocolate cake. … I always wondered you know. I was always curious, you know. This is when I knew something was wrong (Muhammad Ali, 1971).
Extractivist and settler colonial agriculture and food systems have ruptured Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander connections to Country and culture and continue to shape contemporary experiences of food and health. The profound consequences of this include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ constrained access to, and rights over, land and Country, racialized experiences of food access, a disproportionate burden of food-related health issues, and the rendering invisible of Indigenous foodways. Settler colonial agriculture and food systems are also driving biodiversity loss and other planetary scale impacts, with agriculture, forestry and other land uses responsible for an estimated 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC, 2019). Given these impacts, there are urgent calls to transform and decarbonise contemporary agriculture and food systems. Despite the substantive work of food justice and sovereignty movements (see for example Wittman et al, 2010), these often fail to grapple with a broader decolonising agenda, and thereby remain constrained in supporting both an ecological and social justice agenda (Lyons et al, 2021).
Our article contributes to the growing body of literature that examines the impacts colonisation has on Australian food and agriculture systems. We argue that identifying colonisation as a continuing regime of power is vital to redressing the injustices upon which Australian (and global) food and agriculture systems are grounded. To do this, we critically examine Whiteness as an organising principle of domination in settler colonial agri-food systems. Through our analysis of White food, we argue that White authority and control render both land, people, and diets as empty. This lays the foundations for their re-inscription through colonial power relations and the reproduction of Whiteness. To do this, we take the case of nanotechnologies1, one of a number of technological applications being applied across the agriculture and food industries.
Nano-food industries have experienced significant expansion over the last two decades, with most of the world’s largest agri-food corporations now investing in nanotechnology-related research. While it is difficult to know exactly how many nano-food products are on the market due to different labelling and registration requirements in different countries, in 2010 economists estimated that at least 40% of all businesses in the food industry would be working with nanotechnology by 2015 (see Lyons and Smith, 2018). Nanotechnologies are applied to food for a range of purposes, with claims they are able to change the nutrient composition, as well as the flavour, texture and other aesthetic attributes of food. Many food processing companies claim the inclusion of nano-scale ingredients provides nutritional and health benefits, including by lowering cholesterol, strengthening the immune system, and delivering anti-ageing effects (Shafiq et al, 2020). In so doing, marketing and promotion of nano-foods aligns with other ‘pure’ and ‘healthy’ foods. There are also a range of applications that claim to ‘improve’ the aesthetics of food, including colour, texture, and taste (see Lyons et al, 2011).
In this article we explore the case of nano-scale titanium dioxide, a widely commercialised nanotechnological application being added to a range of processed foods, including lollies, ice cream, chewing gum and other products, with the expressed purpose of making them White (Lyons and Smith, 2018). Nano White food provides a unique case to consider the ways contemporary agri-food systems—quite literally—reproduce Whiteness. In doing so, they further entrench settler colonial power relations, at the same time as they sideline natural systems and ecologies against the interests of industry and profits. This global colonial power matrix structurally disadvantages Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in relation to food, health, and land. Unsettling Whiteness is therefore a vital part in opening the possibilities to reimagine ecologically and socially just food systems.
This article begins by situating our discussion within the context of settler colonial agri-food systems and the reproduction of Whiteness, before examining corporate techno-science and the making of nano White food. We then turn to consider how the reproduction of Whiteness impacts Indigenous health and relationships with food. We conclude by reflecting upon how unsettling Whiteness may provide possibilities for redressing the violence of settler colonial agri-food systems.
Colonisation, as process, continues to structure settler colonial societies, including Australia (Wolfe, 2006). Its structuring effect enables, and indeed depends upon, dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from Country. It has instigated the violent rupture of people and Country connections, and in many instances, the destruction of Indigenous foodways. While mining and other extractive industries contribute to processes of accumulation by dispossession, the slow-moving violence of agriculture has, by contrast, been more pervasive and widespread (Nixon, 2011; Mayes 2018, 2020). This is demonstrated in the unquestionable way agriculture and the rural idyll is woven into the settler colonial psyche.
The notion that agriculture is a civilising activity that controls and seeks to improve land while establishing property rights is reflected in the diaries and reports of early colonisers, and continues today, including as shown via agribusiness, conservative governments and some rural landholder’s opposition to Native Title legislation (Lockie and Burke, 2001). The rhetoric of ‘modernisation’, ‘improvement’, ‘progress’, and ‘efficiency’ via agriculture have been used to justify possession of ‘vacant’ and ‘waste’ lands (Gascoigne, 2002). Today, tropes of improvement and purity continue to be recoded via ideals of ‘feeding the world’ through the creation of ‘safe’ and ‘pure’ food stuffs in food-technology laboratories. These activities—and the discourses that underpin them—have extended capital and technological intensive relations across both land and food. They have additionally sought to justify Australia’s participation in increasingly globalised systems of agricultural production, food processing, manufacturing, and distribution.
A new frontier of technological innovations that further extends ‘control’ across land and food includes a suite of so-called emerging technologies, including bio, nano, and genomic technologies. These are being applied from ‘farm to fork’ and are embedded within agricultural practices as well as food processing, manufacturing, distribution, and packaging (Scrinis and Lyons, 2007). Emerging technologies promise to ‘transform’ agri-food systems—and the living systems and natural cycles upon which they depend—at the atomic scale. In so doing, nanotechnologies are part of a broader suite of technologies that are frequently positioned as techno-utopian; by providing interventions able to address contemporary social, health, environmental and economic issues and problems (see Scrinis and Lyons, 2007). Nanotechnologies can be understood as a further form of (techno) corporate colonial power that overshadows Aboriginal histories and food practices (see Watson, in Koerner, 2015).
An alliance of settler colonial interests—including global agri-food corporations, as well as industrial and academic science, and with strong backing by governments—is driving the corporate takeover of agri-food systems at the nano-scale. The application of nanotechnologies across food and farming ruptures the systems-based inter-connections between land, bodies, animals, plants, and nutrients. Instead, it refashions nature by dismembering the building blocks of life (Goodman and Redclift, 2015). In this way, nanotechnologies are part of a continuum of technological interventions connected to a broader global colonial power that dominates both people and the planet (see Campbell, 2020).
Attempts to ‘improve’ agri-food systems through the use of nanotechnologies provides one of a number of examples of a continuing and ongoing colonial regime that seeks to legitimise White knowledge systems. Following the influential work of scholars such as Moreton-Robinson (2004), we take Whiteness as an—albeit contested—analytical frame through which new technologies, including nanotechnologies, can be understood. We argue Whiteness, as compelling organising frame, enables us to critically explore the ways nano-food—and White food more broadly—is part of settler colonial agri-food systems that reproduce White colonial and colonising spaces. The outcomes of this include profound food and land related injustices for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
Colonisation is based on establishing and maintaining White authority and superiority—often through violent means—yet White Australia has continued to deny European arrival as a form of ‘occupation’ or ‘invasion’. Nicolacopoulos and Vassilacopoulos (2014) describe this as kenosis; whereby colonising regimes ‘empty’ themselves of the circumstances and devastating impact caused by their arrival. As part of such an emptying process, narratives naturalising White Australian sovereignty are deployed to justify and normalise White occupation, colonial expansion, and claims to Country. For Nicolacopoulos and Vassilacopoulos (2014) the foundation of such logic can be traced through a genealogy of the Western subject as portrayed in ancient Greek philosophy, through scholars such as Socrates and Plato. Characterised by historic events that shaped Western collective ontology—such as establishment of the Greek polis, Christian collectives, the French Revolution, and the so-called age of ‘enlightenment’—a new subjectivity was constructed that in turn informed commonly held ideas and praxis, such as those pertaining to private property ownership.
Through western notions of property ownership, the owner is seen to enter into a relationship with an indifferent and unspecified object. The act of possession turns an object into something named, naturalised, and a representation of the owner’s being and socio-cultural understandings. Notions such as kenosis help us envision colonisation as an ongoing attempt to fill an ‘ontological emptiness’ through legitimising and naturalising White sovereignty and possession of land—ultimately naming it as something White. Whiteness, therefore, serves to render invisible the tens of thousands of years that Indigenous populations have lived upon and managed the very land colonisers forcefully possessed. As a reality that disrupts and disproves the falsity of naturalised and uncontested White sovereignty and possession of the land, the colonial violence underpinning definitions of the white Australian self equally had to be emptied.
Western ontological understandings of private ownership became the predominant means through which colonisation was understood and justified. In order for White occupation to be rationalised however, the Indigenous populations were designated as ‘other’, an unnamed object that, like the land itself, stood as something to be claimed, dominated and possessed. Thus, the white colonial possessors supplanted Indigenous peoples, and Country with new legal systems that weaponised racialized laws of land ownership usurped for the white subject who saw themselves as entitled possessor and mythologised their occupier status as by mere accident. White colonisers claimed to be settlers, and not in occupation of stolen lands.
Western epistemologies have continuously reinforced notions of White dominance over foreign environments and ‘wild’ landscapes, which colonisers envisioned as existing in a domain separated from ‘civilised’ human culture (Pickerill, 2008). That which was ‘non-white’ was seen as an unknown stranger (Koerner, 2015) and hence something to avoid, eradicate, control, or transform into the familiar. National narratives that mythologise Australia’s White ‘pioneers’—whose interventions converted a so-called barren landscape into fertile and productive agricultural land—reflect such colonial agendas. The land and all its bounties had to be assimilated into European knowledge systems that reinforced White superiority and the colonies’ right to claim uninhabited land in name of God and Crown.
Indigenous peoples were similarly seen as objects to dominate and control. When efforts to avoid or eradicate Indigenous populations through colonial violence and acts of genocide failed, efforts turned towards assimilationist policies that sought to maintain White dominance and superiority by controlling all facets of Indigenous people’s lives. Colonisation became a project known as ‘the White man’s burden’; transforming the unfamiliar non-White body into something recognisable, non-threatening, and manageable—i.e., something White, or as close to White as achievable for a peoples considered of inferior race. Whilst assimilationist rhetoric is not as prevalent as it once was, its foundational claim of normalising Whiteness as means of securing and justifying white hegemony continues (Haggis, 2004; Koerner 2021).
Whiteness was further entrenched in 1901 with the federation of the colonies to form the modern nation-state of Australia. Alfred Deakin, second prime minister of Australia, was central in drafting the Australian constitution and chief architect of the White Australia Policy.2 Deakin was an adherent to the idea of the ‘white man under-siege’ and sought to defend the idea of Australia as a home for the white man (Lake, 2004). In 1901, Deakin (cited in Anderson, 2002, p. 90) argued in parliament that the ‘unity of Australia is nothing if it does not imply a united race’. He further predicted that
in another century the probability is that Australia will be a White Continent with not a black or even dark skin among its inhabitants. The Aboriginal race has died out in the South and is dying fast in the North and West even where most gently treated. Other races are to be excluded by legislation if they are tinted to any degree. The yellow, the brown, and the copper-coloured are to be forbidden to land anywhere.
Whiteness has, thus, become co-extensively embedded with how Australia is envisioned, defining itself as the norm. In doing so, it also shapes who and what is considered ‘deficient’, ‘abnormal’, and in need of intervention and education. Whilst not recognised as assimilation per se, everyday habits of thought and praxis, as well as the socio-political structures that shape daily interactions, reflect and reproduce Whiteness (Bradfield, 2019). As something normalised, Whiteness remains ‘invisible, unnamed, and unmarked. Omnipresent, it is an invisible regime of power that secures hegemony through discourse and has material effects in everyday life’ (Moreton-Robinson, 2004, p.75). Following Moreton-Robinson, we seek to undertake the task of naming and analysing Whiteness in relation to agri-food systems, including via the deployment of nanotechnologies as part of a broader reification of White food.
Whilst Whiteness is connected to knowledge production and representation (Moreton-Robinson, 2004, p.87) arising out of colonisation and imperialism, it remains fluid, continuous, and adaptive across local and global settings. Colonisation is often presented within postcolonial studies as having gone through a process of ‘decolonisation’ or ‘dismantlement’ throughout the 20th Century (Wolfe, 2006). Despite the physical departure of ruling European empires in parts of Africa, Asia, and other former colonies, the paradigms of imperial power that disproportionately prioritise Eurocentric outlooks have been maintained, often under the guise of modernity, progress, and nation-building (Escobar, 2004, 2007). Foreign occupancy continues in many countries such as those belonging to Indigenous peoples in Australia, First Nations in North American, and Maori in Aotearoa/New Zealand, where colonisation continues as an ongoing regime of power (Smith, 2012).
Whilst physical occupation of foreign lands became less prevalent—signifying the mirage of ‘post coloniality’—colonialism was further enshrined as structural, ontological, and epistemic (Wolfe, 2006). Colonisation produced knowledge systems based on White racial superiority, and in doing so determined whose voices were considered legitimate and whose were inferior (Rigney, 1999). Such knowledge systems continue through global governance structures, determining the ‘terms of conversation’ (Mignolo, 2011, p.275) and the socio-cultural positioning from which discourses, actions and decisions are based. Whilst former colonies may have acquired a degree of autonomy through colonial handbacks, the global settings, structures, and terms under which such autonomy could be enacted continues to be controlled by economic and political superpowers, many of whom have acquired their wealth and dominance on the back of colonial exploitation.
Colonialism, therefore, continues to shape the organisation of peoples, resources, and social, cultural, and economic capital into categories that influence the degree to which a particular nation, ethnicity, gender, or other social group is able to participate in, and contribute to, global processes. Grosfoguel 2006, p.173) calls this the ‘global colonial power matrix’, which he describes as ‘an organizing principle involving exploitation and domination exercised in multiple dimensions of social life, from economic, sexual, or gender relations, to political organizations, structures of knowledge, state institutions, and households’. The matrix is intrinsically linked to Whiteness, and alongside processes pertaining to global capital, the division of labour, production, access, as well as the allocation of resources.
Turning to food in particular, food corporations (including those who produce, trade, and distribute nanotechnologies) as well as socio-political structures, organisations and governments that fund and regulate food practices; the people who participate (knowingly or otherwise) in its consumption; and those whose voices and interests are overlooked, are each situated within this colonial power matrix. Liberal agri-food capitalist projects—such as agri-food nanotechnologies—are motivated by the drive to re-affirm ‘conformity with the (on)tologic of nature’s indifference’ (Nicoolopoulos and Vassilopoulos, 2014, p.35) and in doing so, reinforce colonial power structures. In this sense, indifference refers to how techno-scientific projects unnaturally bifurcate the White Australian subject from the land and all life within it, rendering everything as ‘other’ and something to be owned, possessed and named. Hence, both nature and food can be seen as products of White ingenuity and White technological advancement. Whiteness not only communicates what foods are considered ‘pure’, ‘healthy’, ‘normal’ or ‘nutritious’, but also produces a body of knowledge that legitimises White omnipotence. In other words, White foods are considered to have positive attributes because they are backed by systems of knowledge that continuously reinforce Eurocentric knowledge systems and representations.
The manufacture of White food is facilitated via the extension of European science and technology across agriculture and food systems. While the uptake of science and technological inputs expanded rapidly during the twentieth century, their roots are tied to settler colonial and enlightenment projects, both of which have become increasingly entangled with extractivist corporate capital and techno-science. In combination, these forces continue to rupture Indigenous connections to Country and disavow Indigenous foodways.
The hegemony of science and technology is evident in the enduring rhetoric of modernity that shapes agri-food development and transformations (Shotwell, 2016). Starting with agriculture, modernity tropes are grounded in notions of biological determinism, reductionism and a mechanical world view. Ideologies such as these have propelled the uptake of technological interventions via a treadmill of production that secures human control over biological systems and cycles. Champions of modernity contend that so-called ‘modern’ agriculture will deliver improvements in productivity (see Goodman et al, 1987). Science and technology are also positioned as vital to control unpredictable and unproductive, biological, and reproductive cycles (Merchant, 1990).
Modernist rhetoric has permeated settler colonial agri-food systems. This is as evidenced in Australian Government reports that champion science and technological innovation as central pillars to address food security and environmental challenges such as climate change (see for example Lawrence et al, 2013). The Federal Government’s National Enabling Technologies Strategy has, for example, described nanotechnologies as one of a number of so-called ‘enabling technologies’ that can solve problems as diverse as poverty, climate change and the global financial crisis (see Lyons et al, 2011).
After World War 2, modern food production, processing, and manufacture became the poster child for delivering nutritious and safe foods. The expansion of a so-called ‘modern diet’ was also tied to the rise of convenience, efficiency and other modern ideals, targeted towards an increasingly time poor and mobile modern consumer. Manufacturing and industrial mass production delivered a supply of denatured foods that promised safety and purity; values that would increasingly come to resonate with many women, in particular, as primary food providers and carers (Lupton, 1997; Poulain, 2017). While an imagined purity could never really exist, modernist rhetoric of ‘pure food’ reflected the same ideologies that drove purification practices including the eugenics movement and sterilisation of women of colour in the pursuit of White perfection (Biss, 2014).
Modernist settler colonial agri-food science and technology demonstrates the entanglement of corporate capital with industrial and academic science. This convergence of actors has centred corporatisation, scientisation and industrialisation in the global colonial power matrix. This, in turn, has entrenched a White, and we argue, techno-utopian, gaze. This plays out clearly in relation to nano White food, the case to which we now turn.
White food provides a unique lens to render explicit the power relations that reproduce Whiteness, both materially and discursively. Milk is well-documented as synonymous with White food. In Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink, Melanie DuPuis (2012) describes the expansion of milk production and consumption as tied to modernist rhetoric and White authority, including claims to universalism, industrialism and enlightenment. With backing from the US Government, White milk was constructed as ‘nature’s perfect food’ and championed by nutritionists as tied to both strength and purity (Freeman, 2013). Such claims, however, stand in stark contrast to the poor hygiene and animal husbandry practices that persisted throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, with outcomes that directly linked milk consumption with high rates of infant mortality (Currier and Widness, 2018).
While pasteurisation addressed these dangers, the intensification and massification of the modern dairy industry continues to present health risks and other concerns (Kleinman and Kinchy, 2003). Industrial livestock inputs, as example, such as the highly controversial recombinant bovine growth hormone now banned from use in EU, demonstrates the efforts placed to protect the dairy industry and narratives of its so-called purity. Despite evidence of the falsity of some of the health claims associated with milk consumption, governments and the private sector continue to advocate its benefits. On this basis, milk can be seen as an exemplar of White authority and control. The reproduction of Whiteness via milk is further demarcated via pathologizing of those who are lactose intolerant—a condition that affects more African Americans and Latinx—as a deviation from the norm (Freeman, 2013). Here, Whiteness defines the norm—in this case, lactose in White milk—and in so doing, positions non-White as ‘deficient’ and ‘abnormal’. The normalisation of White milk exposes how Whiteness persists, as Moreton-Robinson (2004) describes, as ‘an invisible regime of power’.
Contemporary milk advertising campaigns have responded to the critique milk is a signifier of Whiteness and, more broadly, what Freeman (2013) describes as nutritional racism. In doing so, however, they continue to reproduce the same relations of power. Take as example the recent US-based ‘Got Milk?’ campaign, which featured high profile African American and Latinx sports stars, singers, actors, and politicians. Despite a marketing and promotions campaign that centres on people of colour wearing milk moustaches and drinking milk, it asserts that responsibility for health lies in individual food choices, thereby evading structural determinants of health and culture. In so doing, the campaign constructs White milk as ontologically empty, extracting it from the western knowledges that define its use, value, and benefit. By presenting individual African American and Latinx celebrities as able to ‘choose’ milk (as a superior product), it conversely represents those who do not make similar choices through a deficit discourse. The structural racism and oppression that shapes contemporary food injustice is thereby subverted (Freeman, 2013). The outcome of this forgetting ensures the story of food—including its cultivation on stolen lands and grounded in histories of stolen wages—remains unscrutinised.
The reproduction of Whiteness also plays out in relation to nano White foods where the dominance of private sector food processing and science driving nano industry expansion provides a lens to critique global colonial power relations. One common nano-food application—widely available in Australia and elsewhere—is the addition of nano-scale titanium dioxide to make foods ‘whiter and brighter’. Titanium dioxide (TiO2) has been used for many years as a pigment to brighten paints, enamels, plastics, paper, fibres, foods, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and toothpastes, with millions of tonnes used globally each year. There is now growing interest in the use of titanium dioxide as a nanomaterial. Global production of nanoscale titanium dioxide increased from 2000 to 5000 tonnes between 2005 and 2010, with global manufacture and applications continuing to grow (Weir et al, 2012). Expansion in the use of titanium dioxide—and more recently, nano-scale titanium dioxide—is undertaken to physically render objects ‘white’. It is part of the broader commodity racism, evident across a diverse range of objects and industries, including the cosmetics industry via the reproduction of a heightened desire for Whiteness (Mire, 2020).
Despite the pervasiveness of Whiteness across a range of commodities and industries, we argue that food industries have a special commitment to its reproduction. This is tied to the actual ingestion of food, ensuring embodiment of the history of food both physically, and symbolically. The global colonial power matrix ensures nano White food is palatable by emptying out the social, ecological, cultural and technological stories of food, providing the space for new stories to be reinscribed. The inclusion of tiny, and invisible, nano-scale titanium dioxide particles to make foods white provides a platform further extending Whiteness and its ingestion.
There are a range of foods available for sale in Australia that contain nano-scale titanium dioxide to make them white. In response to this paucity of labelling laws and limited health and safety testing, Friends of the Earth Australia commissioned independent food testing to better understand the extent of nano-foods in Australia (Friends of the Earth, 2016, 2017a). All foods included in testing contained nano-ingredients, with around half containing nano-scale titanium dioxide. These nano White foods included lollies, such as well-known brands Allen’s Kool Mints, Eclipse Mints, M&Ms, Mentos Gum, Sour Straps and Skittles. It also included a range of processed food products, including Caesar Dressing, Coffee Mate Creamer, Duncan Hines Frosting, Moccona Cappuccino, Roast meat gravy, taco mix and white sauce (see Lyons and Smith, 2018).
These nano White foods represent one of the latest in a long line of highly processed ‘modern’ foods that have increasingly come to occupy supermarket shelves. They are part of a techno-utopian foodscape that promises never ending ‘improvements’—including increased nutritional content and aesthetic appeal—available to consumers. By championing these attributes, food manufacturers further normalise individual’s as responsible for navigating food claims in making healthy food choices.
Similarly, claims that nano-derived foods are associated with ‘purity’, ‘safety’ and ‘cleanliness’—via the manufacture of white nano-foods, as well as more broadly via marketing of nano-derived foods—is also associated with other nano agri-food applications. The addition of nano-scale silver into food packaging materials and kitchen equipment—from refrigerators, chopping boards, baby crockery and cutlery—as example, is based on claims it has anti-bacterial qualities. In this way, nano-technological intervention is presented as rendering food making spaces safe.
In promising safety, purity, Whiteness and more, nanotechnologies rely upon the replacement of biological processes and living ecologies with scientific techniques and processes. That most nano-science is produced in European-based science laboratories, owned by European agri-food corporations, and protected via intellectual property regimes, provides the structural ordering for extending White control (Maclurcan, 2010). The corporate controlled nano-industries provide the on-going frontier for settler colonial capital accumulation.
In sum, White—and including nano White—food further entangles corporate science and colonial power in the settler colonial agri-food system. This is driving ongoing profound impacts for Indigenous food access, rights and choices, as well as having ecological impacts.
Socio-economic factors, geographic location, and an outright neglect to ensure adequate service delivery and food security in remote and discrete Aboriginal communities are all contributing factors that shape Indigenous peoples’ food choices and subsequent high consumption of processed foods (Brimblecombe et al, 2014). Many of these foods are also likely to contain nanotechnologies (see Friends of the Earth, 2016). A recent study found that on average, Indigenous people consume 50% in excess of the recommended amount of sugar as set by the World Health Organisation (Lee and Ride, 2018). This accounts for 14% of a person’s daily dietary intake.
In many remote locations throughout Australia, fresh produce is expensive and hard to source (Ferguson et al, 2016). It is often poor quality, and in some cases ridden with mold (Allam, 2020) due to inadequate transportation and storage facilities (Pollard et al, 2014, p.709). Whilst public awareness campaigns communicate the importance of healthy diets, the structural and socio-economic conditions that shape Indigenous lived realities prevent them from putting such lessons into practice. The highly inflated price of fresh produce also makes nutritious diets inaccessible and unaffordable to many lower income earners. Lettuce, for example, can sell for $10 a head in remote communities, while essential items like baby formula3 can sell for upwards of $50. This undoubtably has a significant impact on what Indigenous peoples are able to access, shaping the reality that only 8% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people meet the recommended daily intake of fresh vegetables, whilst 54% eat the recommended amount of fruit (Lee and Ride, 2018). These issues were exacerbated when coronavirus began to spread in Australia in early 2020 resulting in even greater food insecurity (Fredericks and Bradfield, 2021a&b).
Indigenous people’s high consumption of ‘white’ processed foods can be seen as a continuation of the same measures of colonial control employed at Ration Depots throughout the 19th century (Brock, 2008). During this time, external factors such as environmental degradation, drought, and colonial violence significantly affected Aboriginal people’s ability to access food and water on Country, pushing greater numbers towards settlements and missions. Amidst growing public and administrative concern towards Aboriginal malnourishment and increasing deaths, Ration Depots distributed what authorities envisioned as the staples to a hearty diet—flour, sugar, and tea. Many have noted the addictive-like nature of such foods, as well as their contribution to the prevalence of diseases such as gestational diabetes, which continues to be one of the greatest health concerns for Indigenous peoples today. That 7.9% of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have reported having, or having had, diabetes at some point in their lives demonstrates its scale of impact (Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet, 2020, p.39).
Within precolonial society, accessing sugars such as honey was labour intensive, seasonal, and infrequent. Through the rations distributed by White authorities, however, Indigenous peoples had increased access to highly prized foods not commonly consumed. Whilst lifestyle and personal accountability are contributing factors to high consumption of discretionary foods today, one cannot ignore the parallels between the foods that authorities distributed to Indigenous peoples, the dietary habits passed from generation to generation, and the foods readily accessible and affordable in communities. Diet is not a simple matter of choice and lifestyle—despite the utopian ‘Got Milk?’ campaign, or marketing of nano-foods—but is often a product of external factors and socioeconomic determinants. Although not as visible or overt as the image of White authorities distributing rations on government run missions and settlements, the food industry operates within similar overarching White governing structures where decisions, directives and funding are predominantly overseen by non-Indigenous authorities.
Many have written of Whiteness in relation to place and as a determining factor in whether Aboriginal people feel safe, welcomed, or threatened within a certain setting (Fredericks, 2009). Hospitals are commonly critiqued as White clinical spaces that through their policies, practices, and physical layouts have the potential to alienate and exclude Indigenous peoples (Vance et al, 2016), as are education institutions and other purpose specific environments (Fredericks, 2020). Similarly, the ‘food lab’—where nanotechnologies are produced and patented—represents a literal, structural, and figurative White space. Supermarkets also communicate similar messages of Whiteness through their physical layouts and the very foods they sell. Whilst supermarkets offer what may appear to be a smorgasbord of choice and variety, the underlying thread connecting many of the products displayed is that the food industry remains embedded within a White capitalist and globalised system. Demonstrating this, the food industry is dominated by 10 major companies, seven of which are based in Australia, the United Kingdom, USA (x2), New Zealand, Switzerland and France (Vidler et al, 2018).
As previously discussed, processed (including nano-food), non-perishable, fresh produce and health foods are commonly sold by emphasising their scientific innovation that is said to enhance a product’s purity, nutrition, safety or ethical responsibility. Whilst a product’s so-called benefits are emphasised, the means of production—including the use of nanotechnologies—often remain hidden. Somewhat similarly, traditional bush foods are marketed as an ethical, healthier, and more sustainable alternative to mass-produced foods. Whilst traditional bush foods are known to have numerous nutritional benefits (Ferguson et al, 2017), the industry itself remains mostly under the directive of non-Indigenous peoples who control its production, sale, regulation, marketing and distribution. This reproduces and enforces Whiteness in similar ways to the use of new technologies. A recent study showed that Indigenous people control and run just 1% of the entire Bush Food industry (Mitchell and Becker, 2019) with access and ownership of land playing a significant factor (Lingard, 2016).
Whilst the industry uses traditional knowledge to source and market such foods, Indigenous peoples are excluded from participating, regulating, and benefiting from its sale, as well as controlling its Intellectual Property. The current state of the Bush Food industry points to how White ownership of Indigenous knowledges feeds colonial fantasies where Aboriginal cultures are embraced and celebrated as long as they do not threaten one’s own position of power and authority. As with other social domains—whether art or sport—the Bush Food market provides non-Indigenous people with opportunities to figuratively and literally consume Indigenous cultures, while excluding their peoples from financial, social, and cultural gain (Fredericks and Bradfield, 2021a). In this instance, Whiteness is maintained through biopiracy (Robinson and Raven, 2017); the theft of traditional knowledges, and the marketing of traditional foods by non-Indigenous peoples.
Severing Aboriginal knowledge and control of traditional foods can also be seen as part of an on-going rupture and disruption of human/nature connections and kincentric ecologies (Salmón, 2000). Within western ontological thought, agri-food is often presented as something ‘produced’ in an act of creation and mastery over land, water, the environment, elements, and crops/livestock. Whilst the increased prevalence of artificial technologies may appear to signal a shift from ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ modes of food production, it nonetheless maintains the same Eurocentric underpinning that presents ‘nature’ as something to dominate, control and bend to one’s will. Just as agriculture and its accompanying mythologies played a significant role in dispossessing Indigenous peoples from Country and culture (Pascoe, 2014), nanotechnologies continue to propagate Western human-centric understandings of the land and food. In some instances, the factory or food laboratory has replaced the farm, at the same time as propagating similar narratives of White epistemic privilege and superiority.
Whiteness within the food industry is intrinsically connected to power, control, voice, regulation, distribution, and re-contextualisation. Muhammad Ali’s reflection quoted at the beginning of this article points to the overt nature of White aesthetics within the material world. Whiteness is used to market an array of products; with White often envisioned as normal, natural, beneficial, legitimate, honest, and pure. The racialised language used to market milk in the 1930s epitomizes such connotations, as asserted by an agricultural history of New York written at the time (in DuPuis, 2002, p.112):
A casual look at the races of people seems to show that those using much milk are the strongest physically and mentally, and the most enduring of the people of the world. Of all races, the Aryans seem to have been the heaviest drinkers of milk and the greatest users of butter and cheese, a fact that may in part account for the quick and high development of this division of human beings.
Ali’s comparison of the White Angel food cake and the Black Devil food cake indicates that we are not simply talking about aesthetics alone, but rather deeper notions of value and worth embedded within racial theories and hierarchies pertaining to both purity and danger. Whilst claims that Aryans are the ‘strongest physically and mentally’ because they drink the most milk is reflective of such notions of racial purity; we suggest that the opposite is just as telling. Milk is associated with strength, vitality, and intelligence because White people are its biggest consumers. White food cake is angelic because it reflects and maintains the notion of White supremacy. Whilst many may enjoy black food cake, it remains devilish and something consumed in a manner that feeds into White fantasies of control and dominance of something transgressive or “other”—both however, remain constructs of Whiteness.
In Australia, as with other colonised spaces, human life and ecologies are entangled in violent settler colonial pasts and presents. An ever-expanding settler colonial frontier continues to shape agriculture and food systems, with outcomes that reimagine human and nature relationships. At the same time, settler colonial agri-food systems are intimately tied to the disruption and destruction of Australian landscapes. The corporatisation and scientisation of agriculture and food systems—and backed by corporations, academic science, governments, and the wider food industry—are complicit in such destruction. As Tsing (2015, p.181) poignantly describes, we live within and amongst these ‘blasted landscapes’, where the world fluctuates between states of ‘imagined stability’ and ‘great cataclysms’ of destruction.
This article has taken Whiteness as both a system of ordering and a set of power relations to explain this disruption and destruction. In particular, we applied Whiteness as framework to examine the expansion of settler colonial agri-food systems, including application of new technologies, such as nanotechnologies, across food and agriculture. Our case of nano-food technologies demonstrates its entanglements in modernist and enlightenment thinking, and its part in driving further expansion of a capital intensive and corporate controlled agri-food system.
The normalisation of Whiteness in shaping the order of agri-food systems has profound impacts for the wider public in general, and Indigenous peoples in particular. By embedding agri-food systems—including land, labour, seeds and more—in a global colonial power matrix, Whiteness as an organising principle of domination drives profound adverse impacts and injustices for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, especially in relation to health and relationships with food and Country. Our analysis has demonstrated how Whiteness renders land, people and diets as ‘empty objects’ to name, define, own, and consume. Whiteness, in turn, enables the re-inscription of colonial power relations.
White food, with specific reference to nano-technologies, also exposes how commitments to purity, safety and so-called ‘perfection’ of denatured foods are each part of a system that extends corporate control across the entire agri-food system. In doing so, narratives of ‘imagined stability’—which is often presented as coming from the hands of White authorities and the innovation of ‘modern’ technologies—are maintained. Such stability and authority however, remains ‘imagined’ for Indigenous populations, who are neither passive nor empty objects upon which colonising populations simply assert their power and authority. Indigenous peoples are active, responsive, and innovative thinkers whose knowledge extends tens of thousands of years. Addressing the profound food and land injustices Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders face requires us all to confront the enduring legacies of settler colonial violence and the institutionalisation of Whiteness. Each of these has, and continues to shape, contemporary agri-food systems. In so doing, we may begin to find a way of living in the ruins of blasted landscapes and transcend the illusion of an imagined stability rooted in Whiteness.
We give our thanks to an anonymous reviewer for engagement with the ideas presented in this paper, and for sparking on-going reflection and refinement of our ideas. We also wish to thank the editors of this special issue, and value the opportunity to be part of a broad writing project committed to critical exploration of the intersections of—and responsibilities towards creating the conditions that centre—ecology, Indigeneity, and justice.
Nanotechnology commonly refers to engineered materials, structures and systems that operate at a scale of 100 nanometres or less (one nanometre is one billionth of a metre) (Moraru et al, 2003).
The White Australia Policy comprised a variety of acts, namely the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901.
Of significance to this article, illegal and potentially toxic nanoparticles have also been found in baby formulas for sale in Australia (Friends of the Earth, 2017b).