Racism, Environmental Injustice, and the U.S. Farm Bill

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By Dylan Lenzen
A new report by U.C. Berkeley’s Haas Institute indicates that the United States’ most important piece of farm legislation plays an enormous role in maintaining structural racism and environmental injustice. This important piece of legislation, that is the U.S. Farm Bill, is enormous, providing massive amounts of federal dollars for agricultural production, as well as over $700 billion for food stamps. According to the report, the Farm Bill has played an important role in corporate consolidation at all levels of food production. For example, large-scale farms control 49.7% of all production value, while only representing 4.7% of all U.S. farms. This mass consolidation, from the production to retail, has lead to incredible power for corporate power in our society.
The power of corporate interests involved in the creation of the U.S. Farm Bill has resulted in numerous negative consequences for minority and low-income communities around the country. One of these consequences has been the depression of minority food worker wages. This includes those working as migrant laborers in agricultural fields of California to those employed at fast food restaurants. Food workers of color make roughly $6000 less than the average white food worker and many migrant farmworkers make less than minimum wage for their strenuous efforts. These low wages for all food workers have lead to incredible rates of food insecurity. And, as has been discussed on the CHEJ blog before, the result of overwhelming minority makeup of low-wage farm labor has been that people of color experience much higher levels of toxic pesticides that they are exposed to while toiling in agricultural fields.
The Farm Bill also fails to adequately address the structural inequality found in our society. According the U.C. Berkeley study, “as of 2013, 14.3% of US households—17.5 million households, roughly 50 million persons—were food insecure.” In addition, Black, Latino/a, low-income, single women/men households represent an overwhelming proportion of those who are food insecure. Despite rising food insecurity, the amount of money allocated for food stamps (under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) has decreased in recent editions of the Farm Bill.

As if these negative consequences do not already demonstrate the environmental injustice of the Farm Bill, we must consider the contribution of the current industrialized, fossil fuel-intense form of agriculture promoted by the Farm Bill to global climate change. This is important, as we know that communities of color, considering broader social inequity, are much more vulnerable to the effect of climate change. The high levels of economic and food insecurity, in these communities, among other factors, will mean that they will likely suffer the most as our atmosphere continues to warm. Given that agricultural production contributes 9% of all US greenhouse gas emissions, climate concerns must factor into the type of food production that we promote with the billions of dollars that the farm bill offers.
While there are certainly many factors that contribute to environmental injustice and social inequality in our society, altering monolithic and impactful pieces of legislation, such as the U.S. Farm Bill, appear to be great starting points if we are to address these issues in the future.
Find out more from the Haas Institute

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