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
Our modern industrial food and agricultural systems are built on a foundation of colonization, genocide, slavery and other forms of exploitation, oppression, and erasure, all of which were justified by white supremacy and myths and narratives like Manifest Destiny and the story that “Iowa feeds the world”. U.S. policy supporting industrialization and consolidation in farming and food production has served to perpetuate racial and ethnic inequalities across the nation, including right here in Iowa.
What is now the state of Iowa is a particularly poignant example of the connections between genocide, forced removal, and agriculture. The rich and fertile soil that lies between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers made Iowa the perfect target during westward expansion. After colonists arrived, they were aided by the Homestead Act and other racist policies to redistribute the land they stole from the Sioux, Ioway, Sauk, and Meskwaki nations to largely white settlers. The settlers swapped traditional farming knowledge and land stewardship practices for exploitative practices to help create the highly consolidated, industrial food and farm system we have today.
Concentration of land, consolidation of meat packing companies, and staggeringly low crop prices created the perfect storm which resulted in the creation of factory farms. Also known as concentrated animal feeding operations, factory farms are a form of intensive agriculture designed to maximize production while minimizing cost. After the farm crisis in the 1980s, factory farms began sprouting up across the nation and they were increasingly built in places situated on rich and fertile soil — like here in Iowa. Today, 70.4% of cows, 98.3% of pigs, 99.8 percent of turkeys, 98.2% of chickens raised for eggs, and 99.9% of chickens raised for meat are raised in factory farms.
Iowa is now home to over 10,000 factory farms and is the number one producer of corn and soybeans. The land in Iowa is the most altered in the nation. 93% of our state has been changed to support the agriculture industry — all because Iowa is stuck in a false moral imperative about feeding the world. The enormous build-up of manure and other untreated waste created by factory farms is often stored and disposed of in ways that pose many risks to the environment and human health. Even the American Public Health Association recognizes the detrimental effects that these concentrated animal feeding operations have on the health and well-being of our communities, and is calling for a nationwide moratorium on any new and expanding operations.
Pollution & Environmental Racism
The 10,000 factory farms in Iowa create over 22 billion gallons of toxic liquid manure that is dumped untreated onto farm fields across the state. As a result, Iowa has some of the most polluted water in the country, with over 760 impaired waterways, tens of thousands of contaminated wells, and Iowa factory farms contribute almost 50% of the nutrients causing the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Though there is little research specific to Iowa, it is also a well-documented fact that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by polluting industries, like the factory farm industry, and their lax regulation by local, state, and federal governments. This is known as environmental racism.
Environmental racism may be harder to see than the racism that exists within other aspects of our institutions, like our criminal justice system, but the effects of it are much more deadly. Just one example of this was the environmental disaster in Flint, Michigan. Due to local officials not treating drinking water, thousands of homes, in a predominantly Black city, were exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water.
In 2019, 235 Black people were killed by police and over 13,000 Black people died due to air pollution alone. Recent studies have shown that people who live in predominantly Black communities suffer greater premature death from pollution than those in predominantly white communities.
Time and time again, throughout our nation’s history, it’s been proven that racism exists in many aspects of our society that we often don’t think about. Even when it isn’t fully documented, like the lack of research on Iowa farm- and environment-related impacts on our communities of color, the impacts of systemic racism aren’t any less valid. This lack of research further demonstrates the barriers we face when attempting to confront racism and white supremacy, as many local and federal policies are reliant upon current research.
Although we live in a society that places more value on facts and figures than on the stories of everyday people, we know we don’t need numbers to know the truth. We need look no further than the fact that the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers, two of the most polluted rivers in our state, are situated in a county that has one of the largest populations of Black and Latinx people.
We must acknowledge the direct link between environmental racism and the economic, environmental, and health outcomes of people of color in Iowa if we are ever going to truly understand the devastating impacts that our current agriculture system has on our communities.
Moving Forward for a More Just Food & Farm system
Throughout history, promises were broken and reparations were cut short or canceled altogether. After the Civil War, Black farmers were promised land that many did not receive, and we continue to see that injustice in modern day policies, which prop up racism and white supremacy by intentionally leaving out Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color.
The factory farm industry has overrun Iowa and receives hundreds of millions of public dollars every year. Meanwhile, farmers of color, who are more likely to have smaller farms and grow higher-value, labor-intensive products, receive little to no support.
These bad policies and actions by elected officials and Big Ag show us there is a lack of political will to take action on systemic racism, leaving people of color to continue to be driven out of farming. If we ignore that our highly industrialized food and farm system was built on these systemic injustices, we will never be able to build a just and sustainable food and farm system.
But before we can move on together to fight for a more just food & farm system, we must acknowledge the deficiencies of white-led organizations and use our power, voice, and platforms to fight back against the bedrock of white supremacy, exploitation, and erasure in our food system. Just as the Black Panthers created food programs, just as the Southern Tenant Farmers Union fought for the land rights of Black people, and just as the “Freedom Farmers” united against racism, we must listen, elevate, and advocate for the solutions put forward by communities of color who are directly impacted by these issues. HEAL Food Alliance and the National Black Food & Justice Alliance are organizations led by Black, Indigenous and other people of color, allied with numerous groups from across the country, leading the way to dismantle racism and white supremacy while standing up for worker rights, sustainable farming, food sovereignty, and land liberation.
At Iowa CCI, we fight for a food and farm system that works for family farmers, workers, eaters, and the environment. That includes confronting the reality that the United States — including Iowa — was built on stolen land and labor, and the exploitation, oppression, and erase of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other communities of color.
To overcome the horrific legacy of racism in our country, we all must reflect on our own privileges and prejudices, and rethink our institutions. Most importantly we must organize for structural changes that shift power away from corporate agriculture and toward a multi-racial movement of everyday people — because there is no food justice without racial justice, and silence is compliance.
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Want to read more? Revisit parts 1 & 2 of this series here.