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Labour on the farm

By Chris Smaje - Small Farm Future, May 26, 2021

The first draft of A Small Farm Future had a chapter called ‘Labour on the farm’ which didn’t make the final version. I needed to cut the length, and although there were parts of this chapter I was quite attached to, I felt I hadn’t nailed the issues as well as I’d like, so it was easy to spike. Some passages found their way into other parts of the book, but I’d been hoping to make good on the issue in this blog cycle with parts of the deleted chapter and my own more polished thoughts. Trouble is, I still don’t feel I’ve nailed this issue sufficiently. So instead I offer this post as a placeholder for a more distant day when I hope I can offer something more up to scratch.

What I’ll do here instead is provide a few brief thoughts on the topic prompted by a deeper dive I took recently into Francesca Bray’s fascinating book The Rice Economies (University of California Press, 1986) – an old book, but a very good one. Then I’m hoping I can come back in the future with something a bit more expansive.

A key organizing theme in Bray’s book is her contention that wheat in western countries and dryland cereal crops in general offer economies of scale in production that don’t exist in the case of the wet rice cultivation that dominates much of the populous regions of East, South and Southeast Asia. The combination of relatively scarce labour and relatively abundant land in the west (albeit that the latter was too often a function of colonial dispossession) created a dynamic of labour substitution and mechanization geared to increasing the per worker productivity of farming as an economic sector that’s come to be seen as exemplary of agricultural ‘progress’. In the wet rice regions, on the other hand, relatively abundant labour and relatively scarce land created a dynamic of agricultural development where the focus was using more (skilled) labour to increase the per acre productivity of the land.

From this point of departure, Bray unfurls an enormously detailed and sophisticated discussion of poverty, development, mechanization, landownership, credit, state formation, agrarian organization and much else besides which I hope to draw and elaborate from in future posts. But for now I’ll restrict myself to a couple of main points.

In certain situations of economic growth and capitalist development, there can be a compelling logic to agricultural labour substitution of the western kind. People quit the toilsome agrarian life for better paid jobs in industry or services, helping fuel an accumulation of capital and resources that redounds to the net benefit of all.

This is a pretty idealized vision of how capitalism works in practice, but it has a sufficient grain of historical truth to it in western societies to colour notions of a more labour-intensive agricultural future with a sense of regress and misplaced romanticism. Nevertheless, it matters where the accumulated capital and resources go. If labour substitution helps generate extra income that doesn’t find its way back to labourers, then to them there is no benefit. And this is basically what’s happening in the present phase of the global economy.

The Rural Climate Dialogues: A Community-Driven Roadmap for Climate Action in Rural Minnesota

By Tara Ritter - Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, November 17, 2020

Rural America has a central role to play in meeting the climate crisis and rural residents have innovative ideas about how to do it. Rural America encompasses 97% of the land area in the United States and is home to nearly all the nation’s energy production, including wind and solar farms, oil drilling and power plants. The nation’s vast agricultural and forested land, which are essential natural resources in responding to climate change, are managed by the 19% of the population that lives in rural America. It seems obvious that rural Americans should be deeply involved in developing climate policy; yet, rural perspectives and ideas are too often not part of the discussion.

There are real challenges in engaging rural communities on climate policy, including longstanding political obstacles that run deeper than views on climate change. The divide between rural and urban is not just geographic, but also cultural and political, and here in Minnesota the gap is widening. Urban and rural Minnesotans have grown apart in many ways — age, income, educational attainment, race and culture. Ignoring these differences, or trying to ram through them, has thus far delayed action on climate change.

Climate change offers an opportunity to engage differently with rural communities in a way that focuses on solutions rather than assigning blame. Instead of trying to “sell” climate policy to rural communities, we must engage organizations and leaders rooted in rural areas in the development stage to identify solutions that work for them. As important, we need community-level engagement tools designed to overcome our current toxic political environment and map out rural-appropriate responses to climate change that feed up into policy and concrete action.

Since 2014, IATP, in partnership with the Jefferson Center, has hosted Rural Climate Dialogues (RCDs) in five Minnesota counties. This method of civic engagement emphasizes listening and empathy building; focuses on each community’s distinct hopes, challenges and sense of place; and ultimately creates locally driven climate action plans. This report will discuss the context in which we have done this work, provide an overview of each community’s recommendations and actions, and share what we have learned.

Read the text (PDF).

Agroecology to Combat the Climate Crisis

From Scarcity to Sovereignty: Food in a Time of Pandemic

By various - The LEAP, July 28, 2020

The pandemic has shone a glaring light on a food system that was already in crisis long before COVID-19. Millions of animals euthanized, lakes of milk poured down drains. Migrant farm workers, on whose labour the system depends, getting infected and dying because of utterly inadequate housing and lack of access to medical care. All within a context where entrenched racism and inequality already determines who does and doesn’t experience food insecurity.

The flip side of this disaster: the crisis has expanded our political imagination, and made clear how essential is every person and every link in the food system’s chain. The ground is laid for vastly more radical policy changes than were being discussed even a few months ago.

We have worked with allies across the food system to gather these political demands, and map them across the stages of a Just Recovery. We can seize this moment to build a food system that respects Indigenous sovereignty, treats producers with dignity, reconnects us to the nurturing power of the earth, and celebrates true diversity – from crops to cultures.

To mark the launch of this phase of our project, we are bringing together some of the most visionary thinkers and activists in the Food Justice community for a conversation on food and farming. It’s a big one, because it intersects with every aspect of our lives. And it’s crucial, because the food system is the site of some of the biggest challenges and opportunities of this crisis.

Speakers:

  • Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, film-maker, academic
  • Dawn Morrison, Secwepemc Nation, Founder/Curator of Research and Relationships of the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty.
  • Evelyn Encalada Grez, Co-Founder of Justicia/Justice for Migrant Workers (J4MW); Assistant Professor of Labour Studies at Simon Fraser University
  • Paul Taylor, Executive Director of FoodShare Toronto

Tackling the Farm Crisis and the Climate Crisis

By Darrin Qualman - National Farmers Union, November 2019

The farm crisis is real, as is the climate crisis. Left unchecked, the climate crisis will dramatically deepen the income crisis on Canada’s farms as farmers struggle to deal with continued warming, more intense storms, and increasingly unpredictable weather. It is clear that climate change represents a major challenge to agriculture, but it also represents an opportunity.

Farmers and policymakers are encouraged to recognize that we are facing an existential crisis, which means that all of our options must be on the table for consideration, even if they are uncomfortable to consider. If we commit to an open and honest conversation about the causes and effects of climate change and how they are intertwined with our agricultural sector, we also take the first steps towards a transition that will benefit us all.

Tackling the Farm Crisis and the Climate Crisis does not claim to have all the answers. Both the climate crisis and the farm crisis are so complex that no single report can provide all the answers. However, this report does have many answers — some of which could be implemented right away. Others provide a starting point to opening up the climate conversation in the agricultural sector. Options that will work for different geographic locations, soil types, or types of farms will be explored, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Read the text (link).

Gulf South for a Green New Deal Policy Platform

By Colette Pichon Battle, et. al. - Gulf South Rising, Spring 2019

The Gulf South is uniquely positioned to be a national leader in the movement for a Green New Deal. With the climate crisis accelerating faster than even most scientific predictions, deep investment in Gulf South frontline communities will yield an opportunity for this region to be a global leader in equitable approaches to a socio-economic transformation that builds wealth and sustainability for the nation and the world.

Gulf South for a Green New Deal is a multi-state effort to address the impact of the global climate crisis on some of the most unique communities in the US. In May 2019, more than 800 advocates, farmers, fisherfolk, and community leaders from across the Gulf South gathered in New Orleans around a shared vision to advance regional sustainability in the face of the global climate crisis.

The creation of the Gulf South for a Green New Deal (GS4GND) Policy Platform was a six-month process anchored by the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP). Using techniques from the People’s Movement Assembly Process, GCCLP facilitated a five-state process of formalizing frontline voices. Through a broader regional organizing effort, over 100 original signatories are listed herein. Additional signatories will be updated quarterly.

This document is a collective assertion that the Gulf South must be included in the development of national policy. This platform is not a comprehensive policy vision, but rather a starting point and living tool of regional alignment and broad organizing in the Gulf South. The principles, goals, and strategies of this Policy Platform are offered to address what a Green New Deal must look like to be successful in the Gulf South.

We offer this document as a step towards climate justice, self-determination, and dignity for all people everywhere.

As goes the South, so goes the nation.

Why Progressives Should Care About US Agricultural Policy

By Mark Willsey - Truthout, March 16, 2017

Nearly all of Trump's electoral wins were in rural districts, many of which are made up of farming communities. This is where Trump thrived. I have seen it firsthand: I have lived in the city, worked in manufacturing and I'm now a farmer in a small farming town in Central Illinois.

For the progressive movement to make inroads in communities like mine, it needs to put forward a serious plan for how the US government can stop subsidizing corporate farms and instead return the land to small family farmers who work the land. Farmers should not have to farm 20,000 acres of rented land just to make a living.

To move toward a future in which progressives are able to put forward such a plan, it's crucial for everyone in this country -- including city dwellers -- to gain a basic literacy about the agricultural shifts that have taken place in the US and what it would take to move away from corporate agriculture on a mass scale.

Behind a corporate monster: How Monsanto pushes agricultural domination

By Alan Broughton - Green Left Weekly, March 10, 2017

Monsanto, one of the world’s biggest pesticide and seed corporations and leading developer of genetically modified crop varieties, had a stock market value of US$66 billion in 2014. It has gained this position by a combination of deceit, threat, litigation, destruction of evidence, falsified data, bribery, takeovers and cultivation of regulatory bodies.

Its rise and torrid controversies cover a long period starting with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, chemicals used as insulators for electrical transformers) in the 1940s and moving on to dioxin (a contaminant of Agent Orange used to defoliate Vietnam), glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide), recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH, a hormone injected into dairy cows to increase their milk production), and genetic modified organisms (GMOs).

Its key aim in dealing with health and environmental issues is to protect sales and profits and the company image. The latter has been a monumental failure, making Monsanto potentially the most hated corporation in the world.

To better sell its GMO technology, Monsanto began acquiring seed companies in 1996 and within 10 years became the largest seed supplier in the world. If the planned merger with German multinational Bayer takes place, the combined corporate giant will control a third of the world’s seed market and a quarter of the pesticide market.

Stop Protecting the Criminality of the Global Pesticides Industry

By Colin Todhunter - CounterPunch, March 17, 2017

The agrichemicals industry wallows like an overblown hog in a cesspool of corruption. With its snout firmly embedded in the trough of corporate profit to the detriment of all else, it is most likely responsible for more death and disease than the combined efforts of the tobacco companies ever were. It indulges in criminality that hides behind corporate public relationsmedia misrepresentations and the subversion of respectable-sounding agencies which masquerade as public institutions.

Dominated by a handful of powerful parasitical corporations with a global reach, the message from this sector is that its synthetic biocides are necessary to feed billions who would otherwise go hungry. Often accompanying this public relations-inspired tale is the notion that organic agriculture is not productive enough, or is a kitchen-table niche, and that agroecology is impractical.

Of course, as any genuinely informed person would know that, as numerous high-level reports have suggested, organic farming and agroecology could form the mainstay of agriculture if they were accorded sufficient attention and investment. Unfortunately, big agribusiness players, armed with their chemicals or GMOs seek to marginalise effective solutions which threaten their markets and interests.

Armed with a compulsion to dominate and to regard themselves as conqueror and owner of nature, they require more of the same: allegiance to neoliberal fundamentalism and an unsustainable model of farming that is so damaging to soil that we could have at most just 60 years of farming left if we don’t abandon it.

Since the end of the Second World War, we have had to endure our fields and food being poisoned in the manner Rachel Carson highlighted decades ago. These companies sell health-and environment-damaging products, co-opt scientistscontrol public institutions and ensure farmers are kept on a chemical treadmill. From CEOs and scientists to public officials and media/PR spin doctors, specific individuals can be identified and at some stage should be hauled into court for what amounts to ‘crimes against humanity’.

In his 2014 book, ‘Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the US EPA’, E G Vallianatos, who worked for the EPA for 25 years, says:

“It is simply not possible to understand why the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] behaves the way it does without appreciating the enormous power of American’s industrial farmers and their allies in the chemical pesticide industries, which currently do about $40 billion per in year business. For decades, industry lobbyists have preached the gospel of unregulated capitalism and Americans have bought it. Today, it seems the entire government is at the service of the private interests of America’s corporate class.”

From Uniformity to Diversty: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems

By Emile A. Frison - International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems - June 2016

Today’s food and farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets, but are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts: widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high GHG emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world.

Many of these problems are linked specifically to ‘industrial agriculture’: the input-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots that now dominate farming landscapes. The uniformity at the heart of these systems, and their reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and preventive use of antibiotics, leads systematically to negative outcomes and vulnerabilities.

Industrial agriculture and the ‘industrial food systems’ that have developed around it are locked in place by a series of vicious cycles. For example, the way food systems are currently structured allows value to accrue to a limited number of actors, reinforcing their economic and political power, and thus their ability to influence the governance of food systems.

Tweaking practices can improve some of the specific outcomes of industrial agriculture, but will not provide long-term solutions to the multiple problems it generates.

What is required is a fundamentally different model of agriculture based on diversifying farms and farming landscapes, replacing chemical inputs, optimizing biodiversity and stimulating interactions between different species, as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods, i.e. ‘diversified agroecological systems’.

There is growing evidence that these systems keep carbon in the ground, support biodiversity, rebuild soil fertility and sustain yields over time, providing a basis for secure farm livelihoods.

Data shows that these systems can compete with industrial agriculture in terms of total outputs, performing particularly strongly under environmental stress, and delivering production increases in the places where additional food is desperately needed. Diversified agroecological systems can also pave the way for diverse diets and improved health.

Change is already happening. Industrial food systems are being challenged on multiple fronts, from new forms of cooperation and knowledge-creation to the development of new market relationships that bypass conventional retail circuits.

Political incentives must be shifted in order for these alternatives to emerge beyond the margins. A series of modest steps can collectively shift the centre of gravity in food systems.

Read the report (PDF).

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