De-developing Food Systems Under Occupation

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By Dr Mehroosh Tak, Senior Lecturer in Agribusiness at The Royal Veterinary College, University of London

Knowledge on food system in protracted crises is important, as almost half a billion people across the world live in areas affected by conflict. The IMMANA Evidence and Gap map, a review of literature on food systems and linkages between agriculture and nutrition produced in the last ten years found that little to no evidence exists on food systems research in the context of long-term vulnerability & fragility. Therefore, the case for food systems research in protracted crises is urgent and critical to better understand how food systems under settler colonialism are de-developed.

My research aims to understand the drivers of food systems change in protracted crises. I focus particularly on territories affected by settler colonialism, such as Kashmir and Palestine. The CBRL research grant supports the research I have conducted in Palestine. The aim of the CBRL funded project was to conceptualise, document and provide evidence on how settler colonialism transforms local Palestinian food and agriculture systems by changing traditional production and consumption practices. I also draw comparison between Palestinian and Kashmiri food systems to capture how food systems under occupation are impacted by the ongoing onslaught of militarisation and resource extraction.

I define protracted crises, as multifaceted crises, where political conflict leads to marginalisation of a significant proportion of a population, through the use of violence, environmental change and socioeconomic fragility over a prolonged period of time (See figure 1). The multifaceted nature of the crises can be experienced by the affected population through a combination of short-term shocks and/or longer-term stressors that together compound food and nutritional insecurity. Scholarship and methods to evidence the impact of short-term shocks on food and nutritional security is well documented, however, methods and analytical approaches to capture longer-term stressors on food systems has received little attention, so far.

Figure 1: Multiple Dimensions of Crises

I ask, who invests in food and agricultural infrastructure protracted conflict economies and why? How are these investments and state led projects used to justify occupations under the guise of economic development through the use of techno-economic language? And how do neoliberal economic policies of settler state dispossess agricultural communities from production reducing their food and nutritional security?

Similarities between Kashmiri and Palestinian food sovereignty struggles

Land dispossession is critical mechanism through which settler colonial operations disrupt the food system. Land dispossession with or without accumulation, are not a by-product of the settler colonial paradigm but rather an intentional way to extract resources from occupied lands to disrupt food sovereignty. In limiting Palestinians access to their land, Israel enforces an agricultural hierarchy, leading farmers to shift away from cultivating vegetables and fruits in favour of cash crops such as olive trees and date palms which require much less tending to in comparison to vegetable production. The limited labour required on plantations relative to food crops, is a way to disassociate people from their land. Under normal circumstances, a shift to commercialised crops would be welcomed. In settler colonial contexts, the increased reliance on markets, allows the settler operations to disrupt agricultural value chains as they the settler state has control over critical infrastructure such as highways, seaports, and railways, allowing it to strategically engineers market disruptions to suppress and weaken occupied food systems. This heightens livelihood vulnerability, disallowing the local population from procuring food from markets.

An Israeli fortified road and wall separates Om Sleiman organic farm from Modi’in Illit settlement near Bil’in village in West Bank, Palestine, September 2, 2023. Palestinians are banned from many Israeli roads cutting through native Palestinian land and causing severe disruption to their movement and access to critical infrastructure. Martin Dudek.

Limiting access to land – private or commons- also reduces the role of own production in food and nutritional security under settler colonialism. Both Kashmiri and Palestinian food traditions are highly reliant on own food production in kitchen gardens. These kitchen gardens are crucial during curfews and movement restrictions as people often cannot access markets. Land grabs and control by the settler operations are limiting the role this coping mechanism can play during curfews and market disruptions.

Limiting access to commons, such as pastures, has been documented in both Palestine and Kashmir. Disrupting movement of pastoral communities herding goats and sheep in both Kashmir and Palestine is an age-old tactic. The movie, Foragers describes a poignant story of disrupting the tradition of foraging wild edible plants in Palestine in the face of prohibitive Israeli laws than ban these customs. Similarly, in upcoming work, my co-authors and I find that Kashmiris have reduced their reliance of wild foods as militarisation further entrenches itself into the foodscapes in the valley and beyond.

Olive trees are very much part of the symbolism of the resistance, but their cultivation is also moving the Palestinian people away from producing their own food. Area under olive cultivation is increasing annually partly due to its income earning potential but also avoid confiscation of land under the Article 78 of the Ottoman Land Code 1858 that the Israeli state interprets as claiming uncultivated lands as ‘unowned’ and, therefore, state land. As olive cultivation is less labour intensive than vegetable and fruit production, olive tends to be cultivated. It is known amongst Palestinians that this production, whilst bringing more cash into the family, will destroy their ability to resist against the occupation in the long run because they are not producing food. Similar tactics are used in Kashmir, where the military destroyed decades old apple orchards. Apples are to Kashmiris, what olives are to Palestinians. A cultural tradition, form of resistance and a key source of livelihoods. Whilst apples and olives are important to the economic resilience, they also contribute to reducing the capacity to produce food as more the limited cultivable land is shifted away from food production to cash crops.

Adnan Abed Asad Yasin sits under an olive tree on his olive farm in Kafr Dan village near Jenin, West Bank, Palestine, August 28, 2023. Cultivating olive trees is increasingly contentious since it can compete with growing on food on limited Palestinian farm land. Martin Dudek.


Kashmir and Palestine share many similarities and may act as term of reference for other contexts around the world due to the decades long conflicts entwined in repression, marginalisation and violence against indigenous populations, strong cultural-ethnic farming and food practices and ongoing challenges of changing food systems to strengthen indigenous food security from the bottom-up. This is particularly relevant in relation to the controversial United Nations Food Systems Summit, which has been criticised by a large group of indigenous organisations, including the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), to privilege corporate and violent food regimes that often contribute to diet related non-communicable diseases amongst indigenous people.

The project findings support our understanding of human rights violations made through the food systems. It documents human right violations beyond physical violence to make a case for economic self-determination of the occupied people on food systems through the use political economy theories of state formation, theories of public and private investments during “uncertain times”, power structures in protracted conflict and systems thinking to identify upstream and downstream impact of occupations on agrarian change.


Mehroosh Tak is a Kashmiri political economist based at The Royal Veterinary College in London. Her research enquires the limits of neoliberal policymaking in settler colonial contexts with special focus on food systems. As such her research contributes to the limited understanding of food systems in protracted crises. This blog is based on research conducted by Mehroosh in the West Bank, Palestine with Anan Quzmar and Martin Dudek.

The views expressed by our authors on the CBRL blog are not necessarily endorsed by CBRL but are commended as contributing to public debate.