Our Current Agricultural System is Not Sustainable

By Amaris Norwood

Over the last 15 years, the number of vegans in the United States increased from about 290,000 to 9.7 million. And in addition to people becoming vegan, interest in plant-based diets has been growing as well. A report from Google Trends found that interest in veganism in 2019 was 10 times higher than in 2004, and in 2017, 39% of American consumers were reported trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diet. People choose vegan diets for various reasons, including wanting to develop more ethical and environmentally friendly eating habits. Though going vegan helps eliminate the exploitation of animals and the massive environmental degradation of industrial animal agriculture, mainstream veganism doesn't come without ethical and ecological challenges, as crop farming is also part of the more extensive industrial farming system.  

Industrial Agriculture 101

Industrial Agriculture, for both crops animals, thrives off of exploitation. From both historical and modern contexts, we can see how it is a product of both colonialism and white supremacy. From policies determining who has a right over land and a lack of policies to effectively regulate inhumane working conditions, the industrial food system perpetuates the exploitation and marginalization of animals and people as well, especially people of color. Global land inequality has recently been reported to be more critical than estimated before. Around 10% of the rural population has 60% of valued land for agriculture, where the bottom 50% has control over only 3% of valued agricultural land. In addition to this, unsustainable farming practices that come with industrial-scale agriculture exploit the land for its nutrients and function. It's believed that the current rate of soil degradation will lead to the inability to feed our world, and the food we have today is reported to be less nutritious than it was 50 years ago. 

Global Land Inequality

In the early 20th century, through to the 1970s, the issuance of Agrarian policies focused on small producers, family farms, and land redistribution programs. However, from the 1980s to today, the increase in large industrial farming models, supported by policies, has shifted this trend. Latin America is reported to have the most land inequality. The top 10% of landowners regulate 75% of agricultural land, and the bottom 50% of landowners only own about 2% of the land. With that said, land inequalities in Asia and Africa have increased at a faster rate. The rise in financial and corporate investments in agriculture and weak regulation of growing control of land by a select few are important reasons why such inequality exists today. However, when presented with information like this, we can fall into the trap of thinking that inequality doesn't exist in Western nations, like the United States.

Farmers' Rights

The U.S has a history of discriminatory policies that exclude farm laborers from protections afforded to other workers. In the 1930s, Social Security legislation created the foundation for the National Labors Relations Act (1935) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938). However, two specific groups were left out of this legislation: domestic workers and agricultural workers. The National Labor Relations Act criminalizes employers from firing an employee for being a part of or supporting a union. The Fair Labor standards act guarantees protections like a minimum wage and overtime pay. During the time of their legislation, the majority of agricultural and domestic workers were African Americans. To this day, domestic and agricultural workers are predominantly people of color. In 1910, about 14% of farmer-owned-operations were Black, but by 2012, only about 1.5% of Blacks were farm owners. This decline in ownership mainly occurred in the 1950s, where the discriminatory practices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Farm Service mainly occurred the Farmers' Home Administration), which between 1950 and 1969 denied loans and federal support to farmers of color and Black farmers lost about 820 acres a day during this period. In the 1960s, as the white workers organized for improved working conditions, companies took advantage of employing Black workers at lower wages. Fast forward to the 1980s, companies began recruiting workers from indigenous refugee populations in Guatemala and other migrants from Central America and Mexico. By recruiting from a marginalized migratory workforce, recruiting the marginalized Black American people in the 1960s, employers could avoid meeting equitable working conditions.

On a federal level, despite the 1966 amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act, farmworkers are still excluded from some protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act and entirely from the National Labor Relations Act. Additionally, most protections given to farmers don't apply to those who work for small farms, further marginalizing small-scale farmers against industrial, agricultural companies. Suppose a farm has under 10 full-time employees. In that case, the farm isn't protected by wage, child labor, working week, and health provisions, which means they aren't protected from toxic exposure to pesticides, extreme weather conditions, or injuries. There has also been an increase in sexual harassment and violence coming to light. Agriculture is one of the dangerous top industries for workers, where the rate of work-related fatalities is 21.4 deaths per 100,000. In regards to protections under the National Labor Relations Act, though farmers are not prohibited from unionizing, withholding labor protections makes unionizing more difficult. Because of this, even if farmworkers decide to unionize, it gives employers more space to not support the union and even retaliate against the farmworkers. Farmworkers, in general, are marginalized due to a lack of legal protection. An estimated 75% of farmworkers are undocumented, making the risk of retaliation from employees more threatening, considering retaliation could lead to criminalization and deportation. According to USDA census data, 96% of farm owner-operations in the U.S. are represented by white Americans, and 98% of farm-related income is generated by white Americans. However, over 80% of farm laborers in the U.S. are Latines. A 2015-2016 National Agricultural Workers Survey estimates that one-third of farmworkers have a family income below the Federal Poverty Level. With this in mind, globally, it's estimated that 3.5 million agricultural workers are enslaved people, with about 530,000 workings in developed economies.

Indigenous Rights

When we discuss access to land, we can't eliminate the discussion around infringement on Indigenous land rights. Of course, we can trace such practices back to the beginning of colonization. In the 1880s alone, the U.S. instituted policies that resulted in Native Americans losing ownership and control of two-thirds of their land. The General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as the Dawes Act, resulted in the loss of 90 million acres of land from indigenous people. And from 1887 to 1934, 60 million acres of surplus indigenous American land were given to non-indigenous people. The Burke Act of 1906 resulted in the taking of another 30 million acres. With the General Allotment Act, in particular, the land was given to non-indigenous-Americans still remained within the boundaries of reservations. The mixing of these lands made it extremely difficult for native groups for economic activities, like farming which requires large amounts of connected land. Though the Indian Recognition Act of 1934 declared that Native nations have the right to govern themselves and manage their resources, infringement on Indigenous land rights continued and still exists. In the 50s and 60s, Congress ended federal recognition of 109 tribes, particularly in Oregon and California. This resulted in over 1.3 million acres of land being removed from trust status, and over 13,200 people lost their tribal affiliations. In the 1970s, the creation of the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1975 claimed to uphold Indigenous land sovereignty. The Nixon administration terminated the policy of ending the recognition of tribes. There are still threats of the recognition of tribes today.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that Indigenous people have the right to their land and manage their lands and resources. However, these rights are still infringed. When companies move into indigenous people's lands, their communities and resources they depend on for their livelihood instantly become threatened. The Indigenous Terra Madre network has emphasized: "land is identity. It is traditional culture and knowledge. If you take us away from our lands, you kill our identities and cultures and our food sovereignty, producing poverty, displacement, and conflicts." Today, access to using land is still a significant issue. The mixing of land ownership threatens indigenous land sovereignty and self-determination. Today, most reservation agricultural land is leased to non-Native American ranchers, often under its fair market value. Though billions of dollars generate off these isolated areas, money leaves the reservations rather than go to the reservations.

Food Sovereignty and Indigenous Models for Agriculture

Food sovereignty can be defined as the right to define one's own food and agricultural practices and the right to manage resources to produce one's food. In practice, it is an act of decolonization and shifting our relationship to food from the current industrial models of concentrated ownership from large agri-businesses. Food sovereignty also involves preserving traditional practices with food, which tend to be more sustainable and culturally significant than industrial models. With this in mind, we must recognize how many sustainable agriculture models are traditional and not newly created by modern regenerative agriculture models. Examples include intercropping and planting multiple crops together, which results in the different plants complementing each other in each others' growth. Intercropping can increase crop productivity and stability, improve soil health, boost biodiversity, sequester carbon, naturally manage pests, and even manage the disease. An example includes the "Three Sisters," the combination of growing beans, corn, and squash, a practice cultivated by Northeastern Iroquois. Agroforestry, silviculture, and permaculture are also examples of sustainable agricultural models with roots in indigenous cultures.

Much of the movement towards more sustainable agricultural examples that incorporate food and land sovereignty includes farmworker unions and Indigenous organizers. Perhaps the most known farmworker union, the United Farm Workers (UFW) founded by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Larry Itilion, had over 200 contracts covering around 70,000 members in California, Florida, Washington, Texas, and Arizona in the 1970s. In 1975, California issued the Agricultural Labor Retaliation Act, giving workers the right to negotiate wages and conditions without retaliation. However, the UFW membership has dropped by about 8,000 members and 33 contracts, most of which are in California. In 2017, the head of the board resigned, stating that the Act is "irrelevant" to farmworkers because most aren't aware of their rights outlined in the Act. Only about 1% of the agricultural laborers have union representation. With that said, many state-level policies to combat the marginalization of farmworkers in agriculture are thought to not have been possible without 3 large farmworker unions, including the United Farm Workers (UFW) in California. The other two unions are Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) in Oregon and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in North Carolina. Smaller decentralized unions in states like New York and Washington might play a more prominent role in the future.

Other groups advancing food sovereignty include La Via Campesina, an international movement bringing together groups like indigenous peoples, landless people, small to medium-sized farmworkers, and women farmers from around the globe; 

the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, a community based national organization "serving Native Americans and people in the recovery and control of their rightful homelands" with an 11 member board made up of Native landowners, tribal representatives, and those with lifelong commitments to Indigenous American land rights; 

Indigenous Terra Madre, a network of Indigenous communities, partners, and organizations to bring Indigenous voices to the front of food and culture conversations; and Farm Worker Justice, who created an interactive map available to the public of state labor laws, giving visibility to the denial of farm labor protections in many states.

Looking Forward

When thinking about solutions, we also have to be mindful of how large agricultural companies will continue to co-op words used in environmental and plant-based movements. For example, terms like "all natural" and "organic" aren't regulated by the FDA, so there isn't much clarity in what either of those words means in terms of sustainability and ethics. And now, with the increase in plant-based eating, large agricultural brands are creating vegan products as well. Though these brands might be shifting resources from animal agriculture to plant-based agriculture, this doesn't mean they aren't deviating from industrial, agricultural forms, resulting in human and environmental exploitation and marginalization. With this in mind, with a growing conversation around regenerative agricultural models, we have to be wary of if companies will use the term "regenerative" to greenwash their brands or to actually work towards a more sustainable future. 

Additionally, as we make an effort to more ethical forms of eating as plant-based dieters, we must keep in mind the limitations of advocating for plant-based diets without combating industrial and agricultural models. Without recognizing the ethical and environmental issues that still exist in mainstream plant-based diets, we shift the conversation from one colonial food system to another rather than advocating for changing these such models. At Veggie Mijas, we prioritize the intersectional issues in our modern global food systems and work towards the decolonization of our diets.























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