How Big Ag Reinforces Oppressive Systems

Disclaimer: This 3-part web series only scratches the surface on how racism and white supremacy is embedded in every aspect of our current food and farm system. While not all-encompassing, this blog and webinar series serves as a starting point and provides some clarity regarding how our call for a better food & farm system is deeply intertwined with ongoing calls for racial justice. As a majority white-led organization, this is just one way we are using our power and platform to fight back against white supremacy, exploitation, and erasure in our food system. We will continue to fight for our vision for a more racially-just food system in collaboration with our Black, Indigenous, Latinx and allies of color who have been at the forefront of this fight forever.

This post was written by Keisha Perkins and Abigail Landhuis.

Missed Part 1 of the series? Check it out here.

Introduction

Our modern food and farm system changed dramatically with the industrialization of the mid-20th century, but its reliance on the exploitation of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color remained. 

Colonialism took on a different form with the rise of globalization —spreading U.S. influence and power internationally. Market forces shaped who did and did not have power, and agriculture played a central role in escalating and maintaining the dominance the U.S. had built on years of stolen land and labor. 

The policies that shifted the balance of power in our food and farm system disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other farmers and workers of color and continued to exploit them for their knowledge, labor, and land.

“Get big or get out”

The 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act resulted in a three-pronged supply management strategy for farms. Price floors were created for certain crops, the federal government was able to purchase excess grains to stabilize the price of crops, and farmers were paid to set aside land for conservation. Together, these programs ensured farmers were given a living wage for their goods, while preventing overproduction and environmental harm.  In short, these programs supported a food system controlled by many independent family farmers.

These policies began to be rolled back before the 1970s, but it was President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, that led the charge for completely dismantling the parity agriculture system in favor of one that prioritized profit over everything else.

 Butz told farmers to “get big or get out” thus creating the concept of Big Ag. He prioritized increasing production and decreasing commodity prices over all else, including farmers’ livelihoods, the success of rural communities, and the health and safety of consumers and the environment. He got rid of supply management policies that had stabilized food prices, while encouraging farmers to plant fence row to fence row, relying on export markets to get rid of surplus. 

He was aided by the story that US farmers “feed the world” — a narrative that made it easier to sacrifice the health of the land, kick indigenous and traditional farming practices to the margins, and ramp up production to never-before-seen levels. 

At the same time this was happening, the U.S. eased up on the oversight of mergers and acquisitions in all industries. This set off a domino effect, allowing numerous waves of consolidation in the food and agricultural sectors, and it virtually eliminated small and independent companies. This decision resulted in collapsing commodity prices and a massive transfer of wealth and power to Big Ag, exploiting family farmers, workers, consumers, and the environment.

Effect on family farmers

This push to “get big or get out” resulted in farmers having to take on more and more debt to buy land, bigger equipment, more fertilizers and pesticide.  They also had to produce  as much as they could, as fast as they could, for as cheap as possible. In addition to this, farmers were forced into exploitative contracts with large agriculture corporations, which resulted in corporations controlling the animals and the profits while family farmers bore the cost of production.

By calling on farmers to “feed the world,” Butz was able to eliminate any price supports, driving crop prices down. By the 1980s, due to the lack of supply management policies, farms were producing way more than the market could handle. Prices fell drastically and interest rates on the loans farmers had taken out in order to “get big” were devastating. Farmers buckled under the weight of the debt they’d taken on to expand their farms and tens of thousands of family farms were lost, hollowing out communities and leading to the increased consolidation of land in the hands of a few. As a result, between 2012 and 2017, 67,000 farmers went out of business. Now just over 5% of farms account for 75% in sales.

Disproportionate impacts on Black farmers

Corporate consolidation and the shift of power to Big Ag combined with a history of colonization and exploitation — rooted in racism and white supremacy — resulted in an immense loss of land and livelihood for Black families specifically. In 1920, Black farmers represented 14% of all U.S. farmers and owned a total of 15 million acres of land. Today, less than 1 percent of the nation’s farmers are Black, and they own and operate less than 2 percent of the farmland they did in 1920. 

This loss of land came about for numerous reasons, but the leading cause of involuntary land loss among Black families is due to exploitation of heirs property — property that was passed down to multiple family members without having documentation, like a will. The racism embedded in the U.S. court systems resulted in a lack of trust — so much that, even today, 76% of Black people do not have wills— making it very difficult to prove ownership of land. Combining that with other loopholes, Black families often had to watch as their land was auctioned on courthouse steps or forced into a sale against their will, stripping families of the land they’d accumulated.

The drastic decrease in the number of Black farmers and farmland was also instigated by racial discrimination within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the loan officers responsible for deciding which farmers get support from USDA loan programs. These loan officers often approved only a fraction of Black farmers’ loan requests and most often denied farm equipment loans or disaster relief to Black farmers. This began a ripple effect that resulted in over 100,000 Black farmers joining together for a class action lawsuit against the USDA for the part they played in ensuring Black families wouldn’t make a successful living through farming.

Conclusion

The narratives of “get big or get out” and “we feed the world” pushed by Big Ag continued to reinforce the exploitative and oppressive systems embedded in our food and farm system. No matter how you look at it, whether it’s the dairy, hog, beef, or poultry industry, the trend is the same: the industrialization and monopolization of agriculture by a few massive corporations. Agribusiness corporations like Farm Bureau, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, DowDuPont, Smithfield, and Tyson Foods have exploited communities and displaced thousands upon thousands of family farmers, especially Black farmers. In the next installment of this series, we’ll look at the role and impact of this racist, oppressive system specifically in Iowa. Read Part 3 to learn more.

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