Archive for category: Food
Researchers warn land inequality is rising with farmland increasingly dominated by a few major companies
One per cent of the world’s farms operate 70% of crop fields, ranches and orchards, according to a report that highlights the impact of land inequality on the climate and nature crises.
Since the 1980s, researchers found control over the land has become far more concentrated both directly through ownership and indirectly through contract farming, which results in more destructive monocultures and fewer carefully tended smallholdings.
In response to the industrial, capitalist model of food production that has decimated rural lifeways and our mother earth, social movements around the world have identified agroecology as their alternative proposal for rural development. Grounded in peasant and indigenous knowledges, struggles for food sovereignty and agrarian reform, agroecology is understood by social movements as “a tool for the social, economic, cultural, political and ecological transformation of communities and territories.”
This interview that Black Rose conducted in the Summer of 2020 with a militant from The Anarchist Federation of Rio de Janeiro’s (FARJ) Peasant Struggle Front, explores their work with some of Brazil’s social movements struggling for agroecology and food sovereignty. Coming from a context with highly developed peasant social movements, FARJ shares important insights for anarchist militants to learn from.
BRRN: Can you first give an overview of the kind of social work that the militants of FARJ’s Peasant Struggle Front are involved in? What are the movements and organizations the FARJ’s militants participate in/collaborate with? Who are the protagonists of these movements & organizations?
FARJ: Initially the Front was called “Anarchism and Nature”. Some of the members were students from the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro. Starting from a university agroecology group, the GAE (Ecological Agriculture Group), they sought to do social work in Agrarian Reform settlements in the state of Rio de Janeiro and with families of small farmers. And the space that articulated these activities was the Rio de Janeiro Agroecology Articulation.
Starting from this process and frequent contact in the settlements, the MST (The Landless Rural Workers Movement) got to know the working style of our militants, until one of them was invited to join the movement, contributing mainly to the processes of organizing cooperative work in the Baixada Fluminense region. One of the results of this work was the contribution to the organization of a sales and distribution cooperative for an MST settlement in the metropolitan region of the state of Rio, around 2008. As time went on, more militants joined the Front; some from rural areas, from the MST, or students in the field of agronomy.
Around 2012 the MPA (Small Farmers Movement) arrived in Rio, and we have militants from our front contributing also to the movement and its development in the state. We also have a comrade who works in the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT).
Our work in rural movements and spaces is related to themes such as rural education, political training [formação1], communication, production, sales and distribution, and human rights. We always seek to maintain a link with the bases of the movements, even those militants who live in the state capital or in the city. We seek to contribute to the accumulated knowledge of FARJ and the historical experiences of organized anarchism in peasant struggles, with our concept of social work and militant style, pursuing the development of popular power. We stimulate the political participation and the protagonism of the grassroots in the processes of movements’ daily struggle. We also seek to encourage alliances and joint actions between rural and urban movements where we also operate or which we support, such as solidarity actions, actions for exchanging experiences between the movements’ bases, visits, and campaigns, among others that enable contacts between the bases.
Today we have militants in the MST, MPA and CPT. The protagonists are landless workers, small farmers, and quilombola [maroon descendant] communities. Many in the settlements, for example, come from the sugar cane industry, from work analogous to slavery, from slums, or were precarious workers. A good part of the movements’ bases are black folks, youth, and women.
BRRN: Can you talk about how you personally came to be involved in peasant movements and movements for food sovereignty & agroecology? Why do you think it is important for anarchists to be engaged in these struggles? What is the importance of these struggles in this moment of the global Covid-19 pandemic in particular?
FARJ: My militancy was in the Community Front, in the Base Organization Movement (MOB), which currently works in the Center of Social Culture and in the Morro dos Macacos community. Since 2013 I supported the MST with graphic design for the Cícero Guedes Agrarian Reform State Fair, a 3-day annual fair in the center of the city of Rio de Janeiro with the produce from the state, the southeastern region, and partners in the city and other movements. Around 2014, MPA and MST started a biweekly farmers market on the Praia Vermelha campus of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, which I also support with communication and other activities. So from these relationships and contacts presented the possibilities of contributing from the capital, either with the tasks of communication and propaganda, or contributing to the organization of spaces for the sales and distribution of products of the movements in the city and always trying to maintain the connection with their bases.
MST members sell their products at a farmers market.
Historically, anarchism has been, and still is, present in peasant struggles: China, Ukraine, Spain, Perú and other examples. Anarchism must be a part of struggles from below, and wherever we have space to contribute with our proposals and build popular power. The agrarian, land (access to land and land concentration), peasant, indigenous, black, and quilombola questions are central in Latin america, in spite of the demographic concentration in big cities. In large part we are agricultural export countries, where natural resources are tremendously exploited by capital, who have a very strong base of people of indigenous, black, and peasant origin, with an extreme concentration of land in the hands of capitalists, latifundiários [large landowners], and foreigners. There are many conflicts in the rural areas, with assassinations of community leaders and militants, land grabs and evictions. Not to mention the issue of food sovereignty, of the production of food for the people in opposition to the agribusiness model that produces commodities for export. So the issue of land is very important in Brazil and throughout the continent, and from there we see the importance of us being inserted in those struggles as well. Understanding that while we have our own goals, the rural and urban struggles should be connected.
We also learn a lot in these mass movements, contributing to our political training as militants, particularly in base-building work. Be it in courses, materials and spaces for political training in movements, or in the day-to-day of grassroots work.
Currently, in the context of COVID-19, rural movements have a great importance for producing healthy foods for the population, and for leading on issues of environment, energy, and food sovereignty. There are analyses that point out a “pandemic” of a lack of food for the population. Many favelas already have people who are experiencing hunger. In response, there are many campaigns of solidarity and of distributing food boxes to residents of favelas and packed lunches for people living in the street. Unions and people are making donations for the purchase of these foods from rural movements and urban agriculture movements in the city of Rio. That is, the acts of solidarity have multiplied and are organized by the population and by social movements.
BRRN: What has been your experience as an anarchist participating in/collaborating with these movements? How do you push within these movements for more anti-authoritarian/anarchistic practices?
FARJ: We believe that the experience, here in Rio de Janeiro, provides an opportunity for us to have an influence. One aspect of the practical political training too, through participating in mass movements like these, is contributing to the organization of collective processes. There is contact with the people, with concrete realities and problems, and the need to think of ways to solve problems through organizing and base-building. There are also formal political training processes, such as national and local courses, visits to experiences in other states, and state and national encounters. Specific political trainings on certain issues or just in daily life, in contact with other militants and comrades.
A FARJ flag tied together with the flag of MST.
For example, because of the tasks and trainings of the social movements, I was able to learn about communication, and agroecological management and cooperatives, in addition to the debates around agrarian and food issues. We also bring these accumulated skills and knowledge to the political organization, in the sense that they characterize and contribute to the accumulation of political training that we have for our entire militancy. In other words, it is a two-way street, a dialectical process, adapting to the formation and interest of our organization. So it is important that it is not just an individual accumulation, but that it helps in some way in the formation of the entire militancy of the specific [anarchist] organization.
Here in the state of Rio, I believe that most of the common challenges to social movements, both in the rural areas and in the city, are due to the difficulty of base-building, often the need for more militants, the difficulty in obtaining resources and structure–organizational difficulties. There are also difficulties in achieving a more consolidated articulation between the various social movements, which end up being more sporadic or a part of campaigns. In the face of a reality of advancing ultraliberalism and the systematic extinction of social rights and policies, it is a permanent challenge to build processes that are able to self-manage and mobilize the people in communities and base-building locations. But in general, we seek to help organize what is disorganized, acting as yeast in mass struggles.
Members of FARJ and MOB in a mass demonstration.
BRRN: In the interview that FARJ did with Zabalaza, the Association of Autonomous Producers of the Countryside and the City (APAC) was mentioned. I’m very curious to know more about that organization, what they do, and how that association builds urban and rural solidarity around questions for food sovereignty and land?
FARJ: APAC played an important role in producing agricultural implements for small producers. Its origin came from CADTS, the Center for Learning and Technical and Social Development, a group linked to Social Pastorals who worked with the education of urban workers, politically training electricians, seamstresses, machinists, printers and other professions. This work strengthened their performance in the union and community fields. In order to strengthen solidarity between rural and urban workers, CADTS initiated a project to develop agricultural implements with technology built together with “tillers of the land”, an expression used at the time. In their visits to rural workers to gather information and design the implements, the CADTS students decided to structure this work to meet this demand that they had already met for several groups of farmers all over Brazil. Thus, APAC was born on the 1st of May, bringing together not only “metallurgists”, but also farmers, homemakers, unemployed people, popular educators, etc. with the organicity, inspired by self-management, of an association composed of several autonomous work groups that articulate themselves collectively in a general assembly. Over more than 30 years since its foundation, APAC has welcomed many groups of workers. We will mention just a few to illustrate its diversity:
- Multimetal: The manufacture of metal parts and equipment, from which various tools for the field were made. After a few years it was replaced by OPMAC, which refers to the word “field” [“campo”], these metal design services continued and over they time began to develop projects for urban workers such as wagons adapted for waste pickers for recycling, the manufacture of recycled brooms, etc.
- Arte Fuxico: Gathering artisans who reused leftover fabrics from the clothing industry and made customized pieces such as bags, rugs and tools in general.
- Community Pré-Vestibular prep courses: Popular education initiative that sought space at APAC to assemble a preparatory course for admission to universities. The nucleus of the APAC course lasted a few years and was part of a network of community courses from different regions.
- Auto Mechanics: Auto repair shop that brought together a master mechanic and their assistants. The group provided internal and external services to APAC and had a very important role in teaching the trade of mechanics and attendance at the association’s assemblies.
- Printer: A print shop that brought together workers mostly from CADTS backgrounds who developed graphic design projects and editions of numerous publications for social movements and various external services.
Our arrival at APAC was parallel to the founding of FARJ, and we have some militants who’ve had and have closer relations with them, either through collaborating on projects or some being part of the management of APAC. We’ve come to do a screen printing workshop there, political meetings, community work groups, political training lectures and popular language courses. We will highlight one of the most structured initiatives of our militancy, which was to organize the Floreal Cooperative of Workers in Agroecology, where we had great interaction with the internal groups of APAC, bringing agendas discussed with our work with the Forum of Popular Cooperativism, the Articulation of Agroecology of Rio de Janeiro and the Technical Assistance and Extension sectors. It was a period that encouraged APAC to contribute to issues of agrarian conjuncture, agroecology, urban agriculture, school gardens, popular herbalism groups, social ecology, rural/urban solidarity and food sovereignty and agrarian reform. This factor strengthened the relationship of our militants with the social movements in the countryside, such as the MST, CPT, and MPA, as well as for the use of space as a warehouse or for the manufacture of agricultural implements. But our experience with popular cooperatives opened doors for us to contribute to the construction of cooperatives and associations in the movements.
BRRN: Are you involved with the Territorial Solidarity Committees, organized by the MPA as a response to the current social crisis? Can you share a bit about this project?
FARJ: In this context of COVID-19, rural movements, such as MPA and MST, the CPT and urban agriculture groups such as the Carioca Urban Agriculture Network, and the Agroecology Articulation, have developed solidarity actions in the countryside and in the city.
MPA is with the Territorial Solidarity Committees. With the distribution of agroecological foods, creating spaces for dialogue and political debates, strengthening the organizational processes between the social and territorial movements of the countryside and the city. The actions can happen in different ways depending on the local reality and demands. The movement has continued providing material support in the city with weekly deliveries of peasant food boxes, and the donation of meals for homeless people.
The logo of MPA.
The MST has Marmita Solidária, which receives donations from unions and supporters to buy food to prepare meals for the homeless. And the Nós por Nós (“Us for Us”) Campaign, which is part of the Periferia Viva (“Alive Periphery”) Campaign, and which MPA and other movements also participate in. The campaign raises funds to buy agroecological produce from settlements and small farmers to donate to favelas, and together do support work, such as legal aid for those who do not have identity documents, or other actions in addition to just donating food.
For CAB (Brazilian Anarchist Coordination) we are organizing the Vida Digna (“Dignified Life”) national campaign, against the increase in the cost of living. There are state and local committees, and we managed to arrange a food donation from the MST for two occupations of the Internationalist Front of the Homeless. CPT also articulated a possibility of resourcing landless settlements and quilombola communities, among others, in the northern region of the state of Rio, together with MPA.
But across the country, several similar actions are taking place with our CAB militants involved, seeking to articulate solidarity actions between the countryside and the city, between small farmers and indigenous communities. Actions that bring supporters of the city that want to help. We hope that all this helps to bring the movements of the countryside and the city closer, in a more organic way, between the bases of these movements as well. Actions that make movements think together forms of everyday solidarity, without needing projects, politicians or public policies.
This pandemic meant that movements and collectives had to create other forms of distribution, other forms of logistics to continue with production and distribution of their products. And all of this may be important in the future, if the movements manage to define the right strategic policies, as we will have less and less public policies for the countryside by the State. On the contrary, attacks on indigenous people, peasants and land grabbing are only increasing.
BRRN: The MST is probably the most well-known of Brazil’s social movements globally; the organization and its impressive accomplishments in terms of seizing and redistributing land to thousands of families, promoting agroecology and food sovereignty, and its contribution to global peasant movements, has been a source of inspiration for revolutionaries around the world, including many anarchists. From afar, it seems like there are many aspects of the organization’s practices and tactics that align with anarchist principles. At the same time, there are characteristics of the MST, such as their Marxism-Leninism, and relationship to the PT, which might present challenges for anarchists who wish to support/participate/collaborate with the MST. I’d love to know what FARJ’s assessment is of the MST, the positive aspects of the movement, any critiques you have, and how you navigate working with the MST.
FARJ: In Brazil, the land issue, the concentration of land, is central. Today, we are a country that is still a peripheral agrarian-exporter of commodities, despite being seen by other world powers as a contender, a world player, due to the size and natural assets it has, such as water, oil, mineral resources, etc. Which is why we have attacks and coups, which are present throughout the history of Latin American countries. So Brazil has always had strong agrarian and land conflicts, several historical revolts, not to mention the quilombos, the rural workers, the indigenous people.
MST members on demonstration.
The MST, like other movements in the countryside, comes from this accumulation of struggles, conflicts and revolts. Before, one of the main movements was the Peasant Leagues (1954-1964). Over time, unions in the countryside that worked on these labor issues and for wage workers, employed on farms, etc., also appeared. With the coup and the business-military dictatorship (1964) the militants of the countryside also suffered a lot of repression, with more than a thousand dead and disappeared, and persecuting and repressing the Peasant Leagues.
Then there was the opening and conciliatory transition from dictatorship to democracy. Unlike countries like Argentina, the military in Brazil was not punished for the crimes of the dictatorship. At that time, several armed leftist resistance groups sought to resist the dictatorship. So the process that followed, in the 70-80s, also has the development and involvement of labor organizations, culminating in CUT (Unified Workers Central) (1983), progressive sectors of the church (CEBs (Eclesiastical Base Communities), Pastoral Land Commission and Liberation Theology), rural movements and the PT (Worker’s Party).
In the CUT there was the Rural Department, which brought together rural workers, with an agenda more related to labor rights. And the MST (and later MPA) also appeared to deal with agendas of rural demands from the countryside that were not only about labor conditions, but access to land, credit and public policies to produce and to continue reproducing their rural livelihoods. In other words, the CUT and the unions in the countryside did not cover all the peasant agendas.
The clergy and Liberation Theology had an important role together with the movements of the countryside, doing groundwork in the communities, mobilizing the people and contributing to the social movements that came to occupy the land.
This was the big political “broth” with a social base, which we address here in a very general way. And all this broth and struggles were being accumulated in the so-called Popular Democratic Project, with the PT as its political party expression. In other words, some of these major mass movements in Brazil have a very strong historical relationship with the PT. With the arrival of the PT in the government, the movements were also incorporating a political culture of being part of the state, of bureaucratizing themselves as well. This had as a consequence a great weakening of the movements, mainly today, with difficulties to mobilize the masses and to face the attacks of the fascist-oriented Bolsonaro government.
In addition, the main organizational reference of these movements is Marxism-Leninism and democratic centralism, even though sometimes the movements themselves recognize the need to seek other elements that better deal with the reality of the peasantry and the subjects of the countryside. So if the mechanisms of political participation are worked on, there are risks of falling into distant relations between the bases and the leadership of these movements. That is, the need for spaces that enable qualitative political participation from the grassroots, reflecting on the work in which they are inserted, forming themselves, leading the processes and contributing, from their reality, with the direction of the movement. It also avoids the risks of falling into pragmatism, or the so-called “putting out fires” daily, which accumulates little politically and socially, even if a lot is being done.
In our anarchist conception, we believe that the subject of social transformation is not given, but is formed in everyday work and struggle, and popular power is built with the subjects’ political participation, assuming responsibilities and protagonism in the struggles. Therefore, the organizational form needs to be aligned with a transformative ideological concept, so that it allows the advance of non-alienating organizational forms.
Therefore, we also seek to bring and project other historical experiences of struggle and organization of the working class, of the peasantry, of the originary communities. We have examples like the Mexican Revolution (1910), and the later Zapatista movement in Mexico. The struggle of the Makhnovist army in Ukraine, in the process of the Russian Revolution, processes with indigenous and peasant protagonism in the expropriation of land and social organization. The collectivization and organization of production and social processes in the Spanish Civil War, in the countryside and in the city, with the example of the CNT. Like Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan, with the organization, self-defense, territorial and labor and production management in a collective and direct way. Current community experiences in Colombia with the concept of land as a common good, and demanding the permanence and reproduction of forms of community life in the territories. In short, there are various experiences, some known to the movements, in addition to other references that they also seek, and that we examine to study and identify elements that can contribute to our processes here.
Therefore, anarchism also needs to develop concrete tools for intervention in reality, for mobilizing and managing life in its different aspects, social, cultural, productive, economic. In other words, we also need to develop proposals to organize the countryside and to address these issues.
BRRN: Struggles for food sovereignty, agroecology, and agrarian reform raise some really critical questions for anarchists, particularly because many of the movements and academics that dominate the discourse don’t share our critiques of the state, electoralism, etc., and often see nation-state as the vehicle for achieving food sovereignty, agrarian reform, etc. I haven’t come across many contemporary anarchist perspectives on food sovereignty, agroecology, and agrarian reform, and I’m very curious to know about your reflections as an anarchist participating in these movements in Brazil, and how yourself and other FARJ militants in the Frente de Luta Camponesa think about food sovereignty and agrarian reform from an anarchist perspective—can we articulate a particular anarchist perspective on how to achieve and sustain food sovereignty and agrarian reform that is distinct from the perspectives of Marxist-Leninist, social democratic and liberal currents within social movements?
FARJ: We are starting to have this debate currently at CAB, in the Agrarian Working Group, among militants who work with rural movements, with indigenous, non-urban communities. With other movements like the MAM (Movement for Popular Sovereignty in Mining) and it has a little to do with the previous question. In other words, what are the concrete proposals of anarchism for reality? What is our anarchist program of struggle?
So we are beginning to discuss which concepts are important and central to us. Such as Food Sovereignty, agrarian reform or revolution, natural and energy resources. Bem viver (“living well”), as opposed to the logic of development, among others.
For us, these issues need to be related to popular demands, to popular reality. For us, agroecology must be a tool and principle to strengthen the struggle and organization of rural peoples and communities. In other words, we will also seek to apply these concepts and questions as references, within our anarchist conception, based on popular reality, to strengthen our work of base-building and building popular power.
Some of these concepts are also worked on by the rural social movements such as food sovereignty, agroecology, feminism. But it is clear that we need to develop our conceptions about them as well. But we can say, in general, that the left often has a reading of reality that is very urban, valuing questions around trade unions and urban issues more, reproducing this centrality in the urban. And anarchism is not free from reproducing some of that, too.
BRRN: Needless to say, the historical processes of colonialism and capitalist development around the world have left a mess of contradictions for different oppressed classes and communities to navigate when it comes to the questions of land. Here in the US, because social movements are so weak, the discourse and struggles around land and land reform don’t seem to be as advanced when compared to the Brazilian context. One critical question here in the US & Canada—two european settler colonial projects situated on stolen indigenous territories—is how different oppressed populations in struggle around questions of land—indigenous peoples, people of African descent, small farmers, migrant farm workers, etc. can be in solidarity with one another as opposed to being pitted against one another by the contradictions created by the systems of settler colonialism and capitalism. I’m very curious to know where the discourse around these complicated questions are among the social movements you work with, and what your perspectives are on them, as anarchists? In Rio de Janeiro, are there promising signs of solidarity between indigenous people, quilombola communities, peasant farmers and farm workers? Can you recommend some good sources for folks who would like to learn more about these questions and struggles?
FARJ: Similar territorial issues also occur here, I believe also to be the consequences of the historical processes of colonialism, structural slavery and patriarchy and the other oppressions enhanced by capitalism.
Brazil, being a country of continental dimensions, poses several challenges. For example, there is a reality, a relationship with the land and culture of settlers in the south of the country, and there is another one of the indigenous communities and other subjects in the north of the country. This already poses several questions for the fight and the movements as well. For example, the issue of working with the idea of the peasant subject, in the face of these diversities. It also involves knowing and knowing how to understand other organizational forms, which may be different from the organizational forms that the traditional left reproduces.
On the other hand, Brazil has this great potential for struggle and for people and subjects in the countryside. Almost 40% of the land in the country is land reform settlements, indigenous lands (recognized or not), quilombos, peasant communities. The powerful know of this potential and are afraid. That is why they invest in repression and the dismantling of social rights, land grabbing, paramilitary violence, etc.
It is a social diversity that is a reality in Latin America. The strength of the indigenous people in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia. The Mapuche in Argentina and Chile. Colombia is also a very rich and interesting country, with Afro-Colombian communities, various indigenous ethnicities, peasants. There is the CNA (National Agrarian Coordinator), a significant peasant movement in the country, there is a very interesting debate on “agri-food territory”, for example.
In Rio the MPA has been making contacts and working with some quilombola communities, and now indigenous communities. In the capital there is the struggle of Aldeia Maracanã, which mobilized enough supporters against the speculation and gentrification that the Olympics mega-event blew open. There are many possibilities for dialogue between quilombos, indigenous villages, favelas, rural and city movements and we can go further. Actions such as community gardens, urban agriculture, are also interesting possibilities for the food sovereignty of favela dwellers, and possibilities for dialogue with rural movements. The organization of consumer collectives in cities, organizing themselves for access to and distribution of healthy food in the countryside. Collective investment groups of supporters, enabling rural production. Supportive relationships between different sectors of the working class, deliverers, education workers, students. The possibilities of organizing from below are many.
A few websites for reference and more information:
Virtual Library of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) – www.reformaagrariaemdados.org.br/biblioteca
Movement of Small Farmers (MPA) – www.mpabrasil.org.br
Movement for Popular Sovereignty in Mining (MAM) – http://mamnacional.org.br/
National Agrarian Coordinator (Colombia) – www.cna-colombia.org
Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) – cptnacional.org.br
Rio Grande do Sul Quilombola Front – www.facebook.com/FrenteQuilombolaRs
Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon – www.facebook.com/coiabamazoniaoficial
Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) – www.facebook.com/apiboficial
Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of the Southern Region – www.facebook.com/ARPINSULBRASIL
Mídia India – www.facebook.com/VozDosPovos
Indigenous Council of Roraima (CIR) – www.facebook.com/conselhoindigena.cir
Articulation of Indigenous Peoples and Organizations of the Northeast, Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo (APOINME) – www.facebook.com/apoinme.brasil
People’s Web (Teia dos Povos) – www.facebook.com/TeiadosPovosoficial
BRRN: Anything else you’d like to share?
FARJ: We would like to thank the space and the opportunity to share the experiences and work here. There are other comrades organized at CAB who can also contribute with their experiences from their states and our work also has contributions from them. We hope to have contributed to Black Rose, and to help more people know a little more about the struggles in Brazil and on our continent. We also hope to have more opportunities for exchanges like this one with our comrades from BR, who also inspire us. Spaces like this are essential. Arriba lxs que luchan!!!
1. There is no direct translation of the term formação, as it is used by the social movements, in English. In this interview I’ve translated it as “political training”, though it can be more accurately understood as the collective processes within social movements that include “consciousness-raising work, political education, and leadership development.” For more discussion of the concept and practice of formação, see “Leadership development and Formação in Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST)” by Dawn Plummer
This interview was conducted by a member of Black Rose Anarchist Federation’s New York City Local.
At a campaign rally at an airport in Wisconsin on September 17, President Trump announced a second round of COVID-related relief payments for farmers under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP 2). For the first time, producers of commodities, including wine grapes, goats and hemp, have become eligible for payments, which are expected to total $13 billion.
But many farmers say stopgap payments like this are a far cry from what they need to navigate intersecting crises, including the corporate consolidation of farms and the climate crisis, which have shaken the foundations of the brittle farm economy. Only farmers who derive 75 percent of their total income from farming are eligible for CFAP 2 assistance. Yet most farmers rely on off-farm jobs to supplement on-farm income, according to the family farm advocacy network Farm Aid. In 2018, median on-farm net income was actually negative: -$1,735.
Though it has not become a major election issue, U.S. farmers say a crisis of farm profitability and increase in food scarcity may be looming, short of major changes in the industrial agriculture system.
In 2009, when milk prices fell to a six-year low, then-dairy farmer Rob Bass made the difficult decision to sell all 1,000 of his cows. Bass and his family had run out of credit, and he was losing money producing milk. Their farm, in northeast Connecticut, had been in the Bass family since 1710.
Bass decided to transition the farm to growing corn and hay, which he calculated might deliver a more stable income. He did well the first few years as corn prices climbed, reaching an all-time high of $8.02 a bushel in August of 2012. But prices have been on the decline since the fall of 2012, due to corn stockpiling. A deadly disease impacting young pigs and drought in the Great Plains affecting beef cattle led to lower demand for corn feed. Bass has struggled to make ends meet. As his sister, Jenni Bass tells Truthout, while the family farm used to have a lengthy payroll, they no longer employ anyone, nor are they able to pay themselves. All income goes toward the family farm mortgage and paying property taxes. “Our margins are so small, so narrow,” Bass said.
According to a 2012 article in Nature, climate change is a major driver of corn price variability. Summer 2020 was the hottest on record in Connecticut, where the Bass family farm is located. Worldwide, the last six years have been the hottest ever recorded.
Farmers like Bass recognize that agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, on account of widespread practices that deplete the soil of nutrients, causing it to leak greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide and produce runoff that spurs algal blooms. Agriculture comprises 10 percent of U.S. emissions, according to government reports.
U.S. farmers say a crisis of farm profitability and increase in food scarcity may be looming, short of major changes in the industrial agriculture system.
But Bass says he’s stuck in the current system, planting genetically modified seeds, and spraying the matching herbicide. It’s expensive and makes for a less biodiverse farm, but it also requires less labor to keep weeds at bay.
“We’d love to go organic, but it would take three years to get certified,” he says, and it’s unclear what would pay the bills in the meantime.
Trapped in a Cycle of Personal and Ecological Risks
Farmer Mary Agnes Rawlings and her husband have been trying to break out of the industrial agriculture “trap” since returning to her husband’s family farm around two decades ago. One hundred ten acres of the 154-acre central Illinois farm are now organic row crops, with the help, in part, of USDA grants. On August 10, 2020, the Trump administration announced it would be reducing the amount the government reimburses farmers as part of the program to 50 percent, or $500 per project, due to “limited funding.”
“It hurts,” Rawlings said, “when farmers are already struggling with $3 dollars a bushel corn,” she says, noting that at those prices, farmers are losing fifty cents per bushel of corn they produce.
The alternative to organic, Rawlings points out, is using GMO seeds, but foods grown with them have been linked to a decline in kidney and liver function in animal studies. Putting themselves at risk takes a psychological toll, she says. Rawlings suspects her father, who worked on the family farm until he died of colon cancer, may have gotten sick because of chemicals the USDA continues to allow, like glyphosate, the synthetic herbicide under trademark by Monsanto. In spite of studies providing evidence that associates glyphosate with increased cancer risk, in January 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency announced there were “no risks of concern to human health” related to the chemical.
“There’s so many issues I don’t even know where to turn,” Rawlings told Truthout. But amid all her concerns, climate tops her list of agricultural issues, she says.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continue to take donations from powerful corporations that form the backbone of the industrial agriculture system, like Bayer and Monsanto, thereby incentivizing their support of the broken agriculture system. Meanwhile farmers are trapped in a cycle of responding to the effects of climate change with solutions that further contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, rather than transitioning to diversified farming operations that could produce more high quality food and mitigate emissions fueling the climate crisis.
Losing the Ability to Feed Ourselves
In the United States, as with many parts of the world, food deserts are increasingly common. But at the global level, The New York Times has reported, 100 million more people will be at acute risk of experiencing hunger above 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, due to crop loss caused by extreme weather and a shortage of pollinators, for instance.
“You’re sort of reaching a breaking point with land itself and its ability to grow food and sustain us,” senior policy adviser on climate change at Oxfam America, Aditi Sen, told The New York Times.
While the United States has historically positioned itself to provide aid to other countries, policy experts with the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggest the U.S. must urgently look inward to address its own climate-related food security issues.
Twelve percent of the U.S. experiences food insecurity, in comparison with 6.9 percent of the population across Asia and 9.8 percent across Latin America. A 2019 brief points out that while regenerative agricultural practices like cover cropping are on the upswing, that’s only the case on a small percentage of land. The brief notes that universities might devote more resources toward climate solutions in agriculture. But academics aiming to do just that have struggled to circulate their work amid the Trump administration.
A 2019 investigation by Politico revealed that the USDA refused to publicize at least 45 government-sponsored studies detailing how U.S. agricultural operations have been and will continue to be impacted by climate change. One explains how cattle farmers in the Southern Plains might be impacted by waning water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer. Another study outlines practices that could help farmers in the Southern Mississippi Delta become more climate resilient.
As small agricultural operations throughout the U.S. attempt to adapt to more variable weather patterns, farmers like Michigan organic orchardist Tom Rosenfeld regularly consider calling it quits. Rosenfeld has lost full crops of apples to pests that are new to the area on account of the changing climate. Like many farmers, Rosenfeld supplements his farm income with other jobs. “I would have expected that by now I would have unlocked the key to a sustainable income,” he says, reflecting on when he purchased his orchard fifteen years ago.
Between 2011 and 2018, the number of farms in the U.S. has declined by almost 5 percent as farmers face similar challenges, while the average farm size has increased. With conditions for farmers as they are, Rosenfeld worries there might soon be a shortage of farmers who produce “specialty crops,” — the term the USDA has developed to refer to fruits, vegetables and other crops intended for human consumption rather than animal feed or biofuel. Amid the current agricultural system, only 2 percent of U.S. farmland is used to grow food, while 59 percent of land is used to grow commodity crops like corn and soybeans.
The “Trump bump” in farm income … is set to drop precipitously by 17 percent in 2021.
Jenni Bass, the Connecticut farmer, never thought she and her brother would still have a mortgage on their family farm 300 years after its founding. But expenses keep mounting. A few years ago, the Bass family decided to transition 20 of its 1,100 acres to non-GMO wheat. But a deal fell through with a local baker. Now they have to figure out how to clean it themselves. She estimates the machine they need would cost $35,000.
“People don’t really understand a farmer’s reality, the kind of bills that it takes to run a farm,” Bass says, noting that she is hopeful about the Farm System Reform Act of 2020. The proposed legislation, which is currently before both houses of Congress, would incentivize climate-minded agricultural practices and prevent the further consolidation of agribusiness.
At 63, a pre-existing health condition puts Rob Bass at severe risk if he contracts COVID-19. But given his farm income, which doesn’t stretch much further than covering property taxes and the ongoing family farm mortgage, Bass has decided to return to his side job of driving a school van in the mornings and afternoons, because he’ll get health insurance.
With only weeks to go until the election, Jenni Bass says she hopes voters see through what she describes as Trump’s empty attempts to appeal to farmers by invoking the U.S. farm imaginary, while simultaneously proposing billions of dollars in cuts to rural housing and utility programs.
As Successful Farming reports, the “Trump bump” in farm income from programs like CFAP is set to drop precipitously, by 17 percent in 2021. “I just wish politicians actually thought about farm policy in a real way,” Bass says. “In a loving way, not just a bureaucratic way.”
The level of hunger in U.S. households almost tripled between 2019 and August of this year, according to an analysis of new data from the Census Bureau and the Department of Agriculture. Even more alarming, the proportion of American children who sometimes do not have enough to eat is now as much as 14 times higher than it was last year.
The Agriculture Department conducts yearly studies on food insecurity in the U.S., with its report on 2019 released this month. The Census Bureau began frequent household surveys in April in response to Covid-19 that include questions about hunger.
The analysis, by the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, found that 3.7 percent of U.S. households reported they sometimes or often had “not enough to eat” during 2019. Meanwhile, the most recent Census data from the end of August of this year showed that 10 percent of households said they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat within the past seven days. Levels of food insecurity in Black and Latino households are significantly higher, at 19 percent and 17 percent, respectively, compared to 7 percent in white households.
Even worse, while about 1 percent of adults with children said their children sometimes or often went hungry in 2019, between 9 and 14 percent of such adults said the same about their kids in August 2020. CBPP estimates that this adds up to about 5 million school-aged children in such households.
“What I see every day from the pandemic is amazingly-increased numbers of severely underweight children coming to our clinic, and parents really panicked about how they’re going to find enough food,” says Dr. Megan Sandel, an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine.
According to CBPP, the USDA and Census numbers are not an exact apples-to-apples comparison due to some differences in how the surveys are conducted. But it’s clear, states CBPP’s Brynne Keith-Jennings, that the number of Americans “struggling to put food on the table has skyrocketed compared to before Covid-19.”
The increase in hunger among children is particularly disturbing, for several reasons. Generally, explains Dottie Rosenbaum, another CBPP expert, “parents shield their children.” Sandel says that “parents are reporting to me sometimes at mealtime going back into the kitchen so the kids don’t notice that they are not eating themselves.” So when children are going hungry, there is little food for anyone.
The numbers represent a failure of the federal government’s food programs. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — i.e., food stamps — is available to Americans of all ages. But the smaller Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — better known as WIC — and the National School Lunch Program are largely aimed specifically at preventing child hunger. Congress also created a temporary program called Pandemic-EBT in March to replace school lunches for children learning from home.
Unsurprisingly, going without regular food creates significant health problems for children. Studies have found that children in food insecure households suffer increased rates of anemia, asthma, long-term neurological damage, and many other ailments. “When you think about what the first few years of life are like,” Sandel points out, “that’s when you’re growing the brain you need for the rest of your life. This pandemic is really going to affect a generation of kids.” It is also a basic fact of school that hungry children cannot concentrate, and inevitably will fall behind their classmates.
The new government data matches anecdotal evidence from across the U.S. “Over my career I have met many desperately poor people,” says Sherrie Tussler, who’s run Hunger Task Force, a Milwaukee-area food bank, for 23 years. “But I have never seen any circumstances as bizarre and complicated as we’re seeing right now.” From large cities to modest towns, private food banks report being overwhelmed. Thousands line up in their cars in Texas to get food. There has been a 600 percent increase in demand at a South Florida food bank. In New York City, the number of people being served by one emergency food pantry went from 3,715 in February to over 18,000.
An aerial view shows vehicles passing through as they receive food provided by the food bank Feeding South Florida in Sunrise, Fla., on April 6, 2020.
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Remarkably, this increase in hunger has nothing to do with any actual shortage of food. It is purely the result of political decisions.
According to the Agriculture Department, in recent years 31 percent of the U.S. food supply at the retail and consumer level has been thrown away in one way or another. This translates to 133 billion pounds of food with a value of $161 billion. This is almost twice as much as the federal government spends on all its food programs combined.
Even the Covid-19 shutdowns have not created any meaningful shortages in U.S. food availability. Food prices overall have increased 4.1 percent over the past year. But this modest uptick took place largely in the first months of the pandemic. Prices only went up by 0.1 percent in August, and actually fell in July.
Moreover, it’s a problem that does not have to be solved from scratch. It simply requires Congress to greatly expand or simply maintain the programs that already exist.
SNAP, unlike many aspects of the U.S. government, has not been hollowed out and functions well. Millions of people were added to the program after the pandemic began, with few hiccups: The technology worked, and they quickly got food stamps. The issue with SNAP is simply that the benefits are too skimpy; the average SNAP recipient gets about $125 worth of food stamps per month. The HEROES Act, passed by the Democrats in the House of Representatives in May, raised the maximum benefit by 15 percent, as well as making other beneficial changes to the program’s rules. But the GOP-controlled Senate and President Donald Trump have shown little interest in anything along these lines.
The Pandemic-EBT has also been a success, getting money to families to enable them to buy meals that children would otherwise have gotten at school. However, it is set to expire at the end of this month. As with a SNAP extension, there is not much appetite among Republicans to take action.
Finally, the government could restart the extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits that lasted until the end of July. Trump’s end run around Congress to provide $300 extra in unemployment has been slow to ramp up, is not available in some states, and will run out of money soon, in any case.
So as of now, hunger in America will continue to be a quiet but extremely dire emergency. “If Congress could see what I see every day, and talk to the families that I talk to, they would take immediate action,” says Kessler from Milwaukee.
But they don’t, and they won’t.
The post Hunger in America, Especially for Children, Has “Skyrocketed” During Covid-19, Data Shows appeared first on The Intercept.
It was still dark outside when Veronica Perez arrived at Primex Farms, a nut packing facility in Kern County, California. Crickets murmured from the almond and pistachio groves stretching for miles in either direction. Inside the double doors, Perez, 43, usually stands next to other nut sorters alongside a conveyor belt and picks out the unseemly pistachios. But on June 25, at 4:30 a.m., Perez didn’t go in. Instead, for the next five hours, she and her colleagues formed a picket line. Some 30 employees joined on foot, with more circling and honking in their cars. They held homemade signs with the names of their infected coworkers. One sign in Spanish read, “The wise see danger and leave, but the foolish go on and suffer the consequences.” The employees chanted, “Somos esenciales!” We are essential.
In more than a decade of picking and packing food in California, Perez had never joined a protest. There hadn’t been many to join: Fewer than 2 percent of farmworkers are unionized. But in recent months, things at Primex had become unbearable. In March, when employees concerned about the coronavirus requested to wear masks, Primex allegedly prohibited them from doing so, citing food safety concerns. When the company later allowed masks, instead of distributing them, it sold them for $8 apiece, according to several workers. (Primex denies ever selling masks.)
By early June, employees were falling ill. Those who stayed home sick reported not getting paid while they were out. Others kept coming to work, coughing and coughing. Meanwhile, Primex executives reportedly remained tight-lipped on any illness at their facility. “They said that they were going to let us know if anyone came down with it,” said maintenance worker Remigio Ramirez, “but they didn’t.”
When Ramirez told his boss in mid-June that he wasn’t feeling good, the supervisor “said we were short-staffed and needed more hands,” recalled Ramirez. It was probably just the flu, said the supervisor, urging Ramirez to take some medicine and come in.
A few days later, Ramirez, 54, was diagnosed with COVID-19. He stayed home, quarantining himself in his bedroom. “When I got up the next day, I didn’t see anyone—not my wife, not my daughters,” he said. “And I thought to myself, what’s happening? Did they leave me alone? But no, each one was in their room, sick.”
For many employees, the last straw came on June 23, when a local news channel reported that, according to Primex, 31 workers had tested positive for COVID-19. Employees watched the news in shock. Company leadership hadn’t told them about the cases, the first of which had been confirmed more than two weeks before. (Primex didn’t comment specifically on the lack of communication to employees, but said, “We began implementing [anti]-virus spreading steps long before the CDC guidelines were published. We are proud to say that we are one of the cleanest and most sanitized plants in the industry.”)
Primex was far from the only food production facility in the area where the coronavirus was spreading. Over the summer, the disease tore through the Central Valley, the vast, dry interior of California that produces a quarter of the nation’s food, including 40 percent of the country’s fruits and nuts. By mid-August, the Kern County fairgrounds had been transformed into a federal surge testing site, and more than 1 in 5 coronavirus tests were coming out positive. “The problem we’re seeing is not whether you’re going to get infected,” said Armando Elenes, secretary treasurer of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union. “It’s no longer a matter of if—it’s a matter of when.”
“The farm supervisors aren’t interested in if you have it or not. You might feel sick, but it’s fine—as long as you don’t die.”
Primex is relatively small by California agribusiness standards. Roughly 400 employees work in its Kern County packing facility, processing about 6 percent of California’s pistachios each year. But despite the company’s size, its workers made a rare, risky decision with sweeping implications: While the pandemic has driven many vulnerable populations further into the shadows, Primex employees, many of whom are undocumented, took to the streets.
Perez knows this is not how the playbook is supposed to go. “Most workers prefer to keep quiet for fear of losing their jobs or for fear of retaliation,” she said. “I was amazed myself at the quick response we got from our coworkers. It may be that everyone is tired of always staying silent.”
Last month, I drove to the Central Valley to talk to agricultural workers about the effect of the rapidly proliferating virus on their lives. Nearly everyone I interviewed suspected that others they worked with had had the virus at one point. But no one wanted to bring it up with their coworkers or bosses: Just as pervasive as the virus is the secrecy around it.
The mentality is, “if I feel good, even though I have the virus, I’m not going to tell you,” said one farmworker in Lost Hills. “The farm supervisors aren’t interested in if you have it or not. You might feel sick, but it’s fine—as long as you don’t die.”
An estimated half of the nation’s farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, according to the US Department of Agriculture. (Some estimate the rate to be significantly higher.) This open secret has long left farmworkers suspended in a contradiction: critical to feeding the country, yet deportable at the drop of a hat. With the pandemic, the dichotomy has only become more clear. Essential workers, including farmworkers, “have a special responsibility” to maintain normal work hours, according to President Trump’s guidance in March, yet undocumented workers don’t benefit from the federal coronavirus relief measures granted to citizens. (Those who are in the US on temporary work visas aren’t in a much better position: Some have been fired and lost their visas after getting the virus.)
Many agricultural workers now carry letters from their farms and packing plants identifying them as critical employees in case law enforcement picks them up. “I am a farm worker helping to protect our food supply during the Coronavirus pandemic,” read one such letter that a berry picker shared with me. “My job is considered essential so that we can produce food.”
Many agricultural workers carry letters from their employers identifying them as essential during the pandemic.
Under federal coronavirus legislation and subsequent additions by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, many undocumented workers are eligible for two weeks of paid sick leave, deemed “COVID pay.” But in practice, enforcement is spotty. “If an employer is not paying them COVID pay, that sends a message to everybody else to not say anything,” said the UFW’s Elenes. And if an undocumented worker loses their job, they don’t get the unemployment stipend that the federal relief promises to other residents. “Most employees accept that they don’t have health insurance,” Elenes added. “But not having any income? That’s not something they can resolve.”
So begins a lethal feedback loop: The fear of lost wages and of immigration enforcement breeds silence, which in turn breeds transmission. “People are scared to say anything—or they take it like it’s a common cold, and they continue going to work,” said a 45-year-old who we’ll call Esperanza. Esperanza described a scene at her workplace, a plant nursery in Oxnard, similar to that at Primex: Over the summer, her coworkers started coming in sick, knowing they wouldn’t get paid if they stayed home. The nursery didn’t give out masks. But the worker response at the nursery was far less dramatic than that at Primex, and far more typical. Instead of protesting to demand better conditions or higher pay, workers simply went on working. Esperanza spoke to me over the phone in a quiet, cracking voice; just a couple weeks before, she had come down with the coronavirus.
The fear also complicates COVID-19 testing efforts. Since mid-July, Kelly Gladden, a volunteer who spearheads a mobile coronavirus testing unit, has criss-crossed Kern County to test farmworkers. Since most other testing sites are far away from farms, and some workers don’t have transportation, the idea is to meet workers literally where they’re at. The operation was initially run out of a van, but the associations of a van with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement made Gladden change tacks. Now her team, a group from the Bakersfield-based Good Samaritan Hospital, sets up the testing tent in a field, between rows of grapes, or under the awning of a food processing or packing plant. Even still, the team encounters skeptics. Some growers don’t love the idea of using up work hours for testing, and some workers are afraid that their information will be shared, or that they won’t get paid if they test positive.
Fernando Perez, who works at a dairy outside of Bakersfield, explained that he purposely didn’t get a COVID-19 test when his coworkers, including his brother, came down with the virus. Perez, who is undocumented, didn’t want to risk the financial toll of testing positive—his brother wasn’t paid for his time at home. Plus, someone needed to operate the complex machinery to feed the cows. “If no one comes in, the animals don’t eat. If they don’t eat, they don’t produce,” he explained. “If we don’t go to work, 10,000 cows will die. Our work is very, very important.”
The shroud of silence adds to a host of environmental and situational factors that had already made agricultural workers perfect targets for the virus. Few farmworkers have regular access to health care. Many live with extended family members, with several generations under one roof, or in dormitories for temporary workers, where the virus proliferates. It’s common to carpool to job sites, some of which are greenhouses or packing houses with limited air circulation. Between the pollution from the pesticides, the oil fields, and the freeways, the Central Valley has atrocious air quality: Its largest cities, Bakersfield and Fresno, have the worst air particle pollution in the country, according to the American Lung Association. Rates of asthma, the fungal lung disease Valley Fever, and other respiratory ailments soar. It’s perhaps no surprise that, according to a recent Politico analysis, the nation’s key agricultural counties have disproportionately high coronavirus infection rates.
Making matters even worse, workers have had to contend with another hazard this month: A ring of fires around the Central Valley has turned the fields into a hot, soupy smog. “People look at us and don’t pay us much attention. We’re out in the rain, the heat, every other condition,” one worker told me. “They’re not taking into account that we need help.”
On Tuesday June 23, Perez, the Primex employee, sent a message to Elenes over Facebook. He was a near stranger, but she was desperate, reeling from the news of the COVID-19 cases at the company. At Elenes’ urging, Perez reached out to other concerned coworkers asking them to join a WhatsApp group, called Justicia en Primex Farms, and to invite their other colleagues. (Primex isn’t unionized, but the UFW organizes and advocates for agricultural workers in general, regardless of union status, said Elenes.) Within 24 hours, 100 people had joined. They gathered over Zoom the following evening, many using the video chatting platform for the first time, to plan a demonstration.
Farmworkers line up for Kern county’s mobile coronavirus testing unit
When her coworkers showed up for the strike early Thursday morning, Perez was a jumble of emotions: thrilled that so many people had joined, terrified that they would face consequences. She carried a sign with a list of three demands: sick pay, job protection, and “respect.” Ramirez, the maintenance worker who’d tested positive the week before, showed support from the confines of his truck.
The effects of the demonstration appeared to be immediate. Later that day—more than two weeks after the first reported infection at Primex—the company closed for cleaning and announced it would contract with a mobile testing unit and implement other safety precautions, like installing plexiglass dividers at the sorting tables and more outdoor seating areas so employees on breaks could spread out.
When the company opened after a few days, workers gathered once again to protest. They alleged that Primex still wasn’t cleaning adequately or providing sick pay. This time, their numbers had grown to more than 60. But the demonstration lasted only a day. “We went back because we needed the work,” Perez said.
It was around that point that Elenes suggested employees start a coronavirus census, suspecting far more people than just the 31 that the company had reported were infected. Workers started coming forward in the chat, admitting they had tested positive. Since Primex is a 24-hour operation, the messages came in day and night. Elenes recalled waking up and finding message after message about positive tests among employees and their family members. One woman reported that not only was she infected, but 16 other family members were as well. The youngest was nine months old.
In the weeks after the protests, OSHA opened an investigation into the company; it remains open. But by that point, the virus was everywhere. Within three weeks, the employee census found that 97 of 400 employees were positive, along with more than 60 family members. The separate mobile testing unit provided by Primex would later find that 150 employees—more than a third of the plant’s workforce—had the virus.
“It makes me want to cry because my coworkers—I’ve tried to be really strong in front of them, but I can’t anymore.”
In mid-July, a 57-year-old employee named Maria Hortencia Lopez was taken off life support and died of the coronavirus. Perez had known Lopez as a lively coworker on the assembly line who often brought in fruit to share and asked after Perez’s family. “I couldn’t believe that a person so full of life, such a happy and a good person, suddenly isn’t with you anymore,” she said.
Perez’s grief was undergirded by a quiet rage. She couldn’t shake the feeling that all of this could have been prevented. “That’s what hurts the most,” she said.
Just 25 minutes away from Primex sits Delano, where, in 1966, striking grape workers famously began the 340-mile march to protest the work conditions of farm laborers. The following decade marked a brief golden era for the UFW, with Cesar Chavez at the helm. At its peak, the union was 50,000 members strong, having secured in 1975 the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the nation’s only legislation allowing collective bargaining among farmworkers.
In the 1970s, the conditions at Primex “would have been an invitation to organize,” said Marshall Ganz, who directed organizing in the early years of the UFW and now lectures at the Harvard Kennedy School. “There’d be a grievance, and people would call out the union to come and help.”
Those days were short lived. Internal squabbling, fueled by Chavez’s increasing paranoia and refusal to decentralize power, seeded mistrust, and the union quickly found itself in a downward spiral. Fewer contracts were renegotiated, leaving those left behind to shoulder the costs. The successive Republican governor chipped away at state labor laws. Today, with just 7,500 members, the UFW is a shell of what it once was; it now represents less than one percent of farmworkers in California.
Recent months have brought blips of COVID-related organizing up and down the West Coast. Just a month before the Primex strike, hundreds of apple packers in Washington’s Yakima Valley walked off production lines to protest a lack of safety precautions and hazard pay. One worker inquired to Oregon Public Broadcasting, “Are their apples worth more than our lives?” The UFW is pushing for $2 per hour of hazard pay at poultry giant Foster Farms, which temporarily closed one of its California facilities this month after eight workers died of complications related to the coronavirus.
I asked Ganz: Could the pandemic lead to more organizing among farmworkers? “The whole question of where you find courage to take risks is always a question in organizing,” he said. “Where do you find courage to take risk? Grievances don’t generate courage. They generate anger or rage. They generate despair. So unless there’s some hope source, people don’t really engage. So then the question is, under these conditions, are there unusual or new sources of possibility? Hope isn’t about certainty at all—it’s just about possibility.”
But the reality is that hope is in short supply. In many ways, the pickers and packers of food in America find themselves facing the same challenges as the grape strikers of the 1960s: stagnant pay, perilous conditions, and backbreaking labor. The rate of farmworkers who are undocumented has shot up, from an estimated one in seven three decades ago to one in two today. Agribusiness companies increasingly rely on third party, hard-to-regulate staffing agencies to hire, transport, and house employees, notes University of California-Davis agricultural economist Philip Martin in his upcoming book, The Prosperity Paradox. This, combined with the eroded power of unions, makes agricultural workers today especially vulnerable. As Martin concludes, “Government enforcement of labor laws depends on complaints, and vulnerable workers rarely complain.”
At Primex, employees report that they are finally getting paid sick leave. Yet they told me that despite this small victory, the atmosphere at the plant has become increasingly oppressive.
On July 22, about a month after the first protest, dozens of workers lost their jobs when Primex canceled its contract with a temporary staffing agency. The company attributed the reduction to typical changes in seasonal production, but according to the UFW and Primex employees, the cuts included many of the most vocal workers. Primex promptly hired new workers to take the place of those who were terminated, prompting the UFW to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. (The case is open; Primex declined to comment on the case but said of the UFW, “all they do is just play the blame game without any accountability.”)
In late July, a colleague of Perez’s tried to record a video inside the plant showing that that social distancing and mask wearing weren’t happening consistently, despite the company’s statements to the contrary. Shortly thereafter, that worker was fired, according to another NLRB complaint, and the company required workers to sign a policy prohibiting video recording. Perez refused to sign. “That’s when [the production manager] pulled me into the office. He likes to scream a lot,” recalled Perez.
Workers arriving at the Primex facility early in the morning.
Later, Perez and Ramirez, the maintenance worker, were separately called into meetings with Primex’s manager of human resources and instructed to retract statements they made to the media over the course of the protests. Business was declining because of all the bad press, Perez and Ramirez were told—if the company went down, it would be because of employees like them. “They said, ‘This company should mean something to you,’” recalled Ramirez, who has worked at Primex for 13 years. As they spoke, he seethed, thinking about his sick wife and daughters.
Perez recalled the human resources manager “said her head was hurting from hearing me talk so much, and she didn’t want to hear from me anymore.” Despite the warnings, a lingering thought keeps Perez talking to reporters: “If it’s happening to this company, it could happen to a lot of other companies where there’s no one to talk.”
Some of the fallout from the demonstrations has been more subtle. Ramirez said that most of his remaining coworkers didn’t agree with his decision to strike, and they now say very little to him. Instead of regularly fielding requests for help, like usual, he now spends his work hours walking around, looking for broken things to fix. Another organizer was moved from operating a forklift inside to sweeping and painting outside in the sweltering heat. He’s considered quitting. “It’s hard to keep working there when the people who manage the plant don’t want you there,” he said.
At the end of July, Perez participated in a Facebook Live panel put together by Líderes Campesinas, an advocacy group for female farmworkers. She admitted to the group that things had been very difficult lately. Just that day, she’d been yelled at by the production manager for refusing to sign the policy against taking videos.
“I’m really short, and he’s tall,” explained Perez in Spanish. And then she began to weep. “It makes me want to cry because my coworkers—I’ve tried to be really strong in front of them, but I can’t anymore.” It seemed that when they spoke up, things got worse.
“We’re only asking for a safe place to work,” she exclaimed. “What do we have to do?”
Camille Squires contributed to this story.
As policymakers consider what could be the last COVID-19 relief package this year, they should respond to the alarming rise in the number of children who aren’t getting enough to eat by increasing SNAP (food stamp) benefits, which would minimize COVID-19’s lasting impact on a generation of children.
Policymakers, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Democrats, have called for policies that support children in the next package. That’s wise, because many families with children, particularly low-income families, already struggled with food insecurity and other hardship before the pandemic, and they’ve been hit especially hard by the crisis. With schools closed, many children, particularly low-income children, have missed out on educational instruction and other supports with potentially lasting consequences; many families of low-income children who normally eat free- or reduced-price meals at school also suddenly had to provide those meals just as they were losing jobs and other income.
Compared to childless families, families with children were likelier to lose employment income — over half of families with children report such losses — and likelier to be behind on rent or mortgage payments. Rising food costs are also likely further straining parents’ budgets.
These factors have driven shocking increases in food insecurity affecting children, with over one-quarter of households with children reporting food insecurity in recent weeks. Those levels, which have been consistent across various surveys, have likely at least doubled from pre-COVID-19 levels.
Families of color, which already had elevated rates of food insecurity due to longstanding inequities in income, wealth, and food access, are now experiencing even greater food hardship, with recent data showing that close to two-fifths of Black and Hispanic households with children experienced food insecurity in recent weeks.
Some data suggest that household food insecurity may have fallen somewhat from its peak (in one survey, from 35 percent in April to 28 percent in early June among households with children), but it remains significantly higher than pre-crisis rates. These drops may be due in part to low-income families receiving some temporary increases (from the Families First Coronavirus Response Act of March) in SNAP, which before the pandemic served about 17 million children.
That emergency aid likely helped many families afford food, but it’s temporary and may expire when federal or state emergencies end, which may be well before food insecurity improves. It also leaves out the poorest 40 percent of SNAP households with the lowest incomes, including at least 5 million children. Pandemic EBT (P-EBT), a program (also from Families First) to provide benefits to replace the value of those lost meals during school closures for children receiving free- and reduced-price meals, may also have helped alleviate short-term hardship, but it is also temporary (only providing assistance through the school year) and cannot fully offset families’ other lost income.
High rates of food insecurity among families with children don’t always mean that children go hungry. Parents and other caretakers try to shield their children from food insecurity, often eating less or skipping meals themselves so that their children still have enough to eat; that’s why food insecurity among children is rarer than food insecurity among households with children. That’s also why data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey from late June showing that 18.8 percent of adults in households with children report that children in their household sometimes or often didn’t eat enough in the past week because their families couldn’t afford food is deeply concerning. Rates are even higher among households of color, with over one-quarter of Black and Hispanic households reporting that children weren’t eating enough, research from the Hamilton Project shows.
That’s a substantial rise from previous levels; in December 2018, only about 3 percent of adults in households with children reported that children were sometimes or often not eating enough. Moreover, the 2018 survey asked households about food problems in the last month; if it had asked about the last week, as the Pulse survey does, the 2018 result would have been even smaller and the increase since 2018 even bigger.
Food insecurity among children can have negative consequences far into their futures. Nutrition in infancy and early childhood is linked with outcomes that can affect individuals throughout their lifetime, a large body of research finds; for example, early iron deficiency is linked with long-term neurological damage. School-aged children who don’t get enough to eat may have more difficulty learning in school, which can translate to worse longer-term outcomes, such as lower high school completion rates and lower earnings potential. Children of all ages exposed to food insecurity are also at higher risk of negative health outcomes, such as higher rates of asthma and anemia.
Ensuring that children get enough to eat can help improve those outcomes. Studies of access to SNAP in the 1960s and 1970s find that such access in early childhood had long-term impacts, contributing to better health and other measures of well-being. Children receiving benefits that cover less of their food costs are likelier to have worse health outcomes, which underscores the importance of ensuring that SNAP benefits cover costs.
The high food insecurity figures and their potential consequences — and the chance that they will continue for months — make the case that policymakers should provide additional, lasting support. Forecasts suggest that economic conditions such as unemployment may be elevated at least through 2021.
Given the historic relationship between food insecurity and unemployment, food insecurity will also likely remain high in the months to come, with many families struggling to find adequate work and pay bills. One key first step to addressing food insecurity is boosting SNAP. Increasing SNAP benefits for all households by raising SNAP’s maximum benefit by 15 percent and maintaining that increase as long as the economy remains weak would help families put food on the table and help stimulate the economy by enabling families to buy more food in local stores.
Black people have largely been erased from US agriculture. In 1920, nearly a million Black farmers worked on 41.4 million acres of land, making up a seventh of farm owners. Today, only about 49,000 of them remain, making up just 1.4 percent of the nation’s farm owners, and tending a scant 4.7 million acres—a nearly 90 percent loss.
This didn’t happen by accident. Since Emancipation, Black farmers have always had to fight for a share of this country’s fertile ground, due to a history of racist policies and land theft. But modern sustainable agriculture owes much to Black farmers, explained Leah Penniman, co-director of Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York and author of Farming While Black, on a recent episode of Bite.
Starting in the 17th century, European slave traders who forcibly moved Africans to this continent stole not just their lives and labor but also considerable agricultural knowledge, she said. The rice empire that developed in the early-US Carolinas, for instance, flourished on the farming traditions of the Senegambia region of West Africa.
Enslaved people also maintained underground farming traditions from the homeland. “Our ancestral grandmothers, when faced with the very likely possibility of being snatched up, kidnapped and forced into trans-Atlantic slave ships, gathered up the seed that their families had been saving for generations—their okra, cowpea millet, sorghum, black rice—they braided that seed into their hair,” she said. They “believed, against all odds in a future on soil—that their descendants would need to inherit that precious seed.”
Black farmers innovated farming methods that remain at the core of sustainable agriculture today.
After the post-Emancipation promise of “40 acres and a mule” crumbled under the weight of President Andrew Johnson’s racism, Penniman noted, Black agriculturalists were relegated to sharecropping, an arrangement that generated considerable wealth for the white planter class but saddled farmers with poverty-inducing debt.
“It wasn’t until the early 1900s that Black farmers began to save just enough money here and there to start to purchase meager parcels—usually 2.5 acres, five acres,” she said. Over that time, Black farmers innovated methods that remain at the core of sustainable agriculture today. George Washington Carver, a pioneering professor at Tuskegee University in Alabama, has long been trotted out during Black History Month for his achievements in finding new uses for the peanut. He’s actually a towering figure who should be known for much more than peanut mastery.
The whole reason Carver wanted farmers to grow peanuts was because he was trying to convince them to plant nitrogen-fixing legumes into diverse crop rotations, which would improve the soil in a region that had been burned by decades of mono-crop cotton farming. Carver also developed a system for disseminating his university’s research to surrounding farmers through workshops and demonstrations, as well as helping them troubleshoot problems they were encountering. Carver’s system would later take form nationwide as the US Department of Agriculture’s extension program, Penniman said.
Black farm ownership peaked in 1920. Around that time, the Ku Klux Klan and other groups led a “swift and severe backlash” to terrorize independent Black farmers, she added. These vigilante efforts went along with a set of US government policies—detailed in this great 2019 Atlantic article by Vann R. Newkirk II—that effectively expropriated Black-owned farmland, pushing it into the hands of white people. During the 20th century, the price of farmland rose by a factor of 52—making it yet another vehicle for wealth-building that African-Americans were systemically denied access to. The steady rise in land values, which has continued into the 21st century, makes it prohibitively expense for new farmers to break into agriculture, meaning that white dominance of farmland maintains plenty of momentum.
Farmers work the land at Bayou Bourbeaux Farmstead Association, a cooperative in Louisiana, August 1940.
Marion Post / Farm Security Administration/NYPL Public Domain Archive
Penniman is part of a growing movement to reclaim Black farmers’ hard-won place in our country’s agriculture. Soul Fire Farm, the project she co-directs in Petersburg, N.Y., “focuses on training the next generation of Black and brown farmers, as well as providing food and medicine for our community,” she said. The farm is part of a coalition of groups “claiming sovereignty and calling for reparations of land and resources so that we can grow nourishing food and distribute it in our communities.”
Soul Fire Farm also leads the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, which calls on “good-hearted, good-minded people” to donate land, which will then be farmed by people of color. She said the trust has “several hundred acres” in the New York/New England queued up for transfer over the next decade; and that several other similar trusts are setting up nationwide.
Penniman said she realizes that such grassroots efforts, relying on the goodwill of white landowners, are just a beginning—not nearly enough to undo the racist legacy of land theft and agricultural-labor exploitation that dates to the origin of white settlement on the continent. Making a significant amount of farmland available to people of color and Native Americans whose ancestors were dispossessed will require a serious reparations program that includes land reform—that is, transferring some territory from wealthy, white landholders and huge investment funds to young farmers of color.
“I doubt the existing power structure and the existing status quo will go so far,” Penniman said. “It would require a fundamental shift in our relationship to the earth.”