The US Farm Bill

Executive Summary

Executive Summary 

THE UNITED STATES FOOD SYSTEM AND THE OUTCOMES generated by the US Farm Bill are characterized by widespread social, economic, political, and environmental inequity. These outcomes are characteristic of a society that produces inequity in every domain—social, economic, political, and environmental. 

This report finds that inequity within the food system—such as limited access to nutritious and affordable food, high quality land, or farmers support program benefits—cannot be addressed without addressing inequity within society as a whole, such as low income and limited employment benefits, unfair treatment by state and federal institutions, and limited democratic influence and access to positions of power. As such, corporate control and structural racialization within the US food system and society as a whole are of central concern within this report

Specifically, corporate control refers to control of political and economic systems by corporations in order to influence trade regulations, tax rates, and wealth distribution, among other measures, and to produce favorable environments for further corporate growth. Structural racialization refers to the set of practices, cultural norms, and institutional arrangements that are reflective of, and help to create and maintain, racialized outcomes in society, with communities of color faring worse than others in most situations. 

In this light, the production of racial/ethnic, gender, and economic inequity in the United States is more so a product of cumulative and structural forces than of individual actions or malicious intent on behalf of private or public actors.

In order to challenge and eliminate corporate control and structural racialization in the United States, therefore, it is necessary to analyze the ways that public and private institutions are structured. 

It is also necessary to analyze how government programs are administered and operate in ways that reproduce outcomes that marginalize low-income communities, women, and communities of color in terms of health, wealth, land access, power, and degree of democratic influence. Additionally, as this report aims to do, it is crucial to analyze the genesis and formation of critical institutions and structures themselves.1

Therefore, the US Farm Bill—the flagship piece of food and agricultural legislation since its inception in 1933, which informs the heart of public and private policies that make up much of the US food system—is the subject of this report. 

This report is of particular importance now for two reasons. First, the Farm Bill will be under consideration again in 2019, yet there is no comprehensive critique of the Farm Bill that addresses its underlying contradictions, particularly with regard to racial/ethnic, gender, and economic inequity. Second, it is imperative that campaigns by grassroots, community, and advocacy organizations—generally most active during the period of Farm Bill negotiations in Congress—have enough time to gather adequate information and conduct in-depth analysis for targeted yet comprehensive policy change.

As such, the timing of this report is also imperative for coalition-building efforts and the growth of an effective broad-based food sovereignty movement.

PURPOSE OF THIS REPORT

This report aims to provide the following:

  • Provide a comprehensive critique of the Farm Bill and its role in the production and maintenance of structural barriers to socio-economic well-being for communities of color and low-income communities.
  • Locate the Farm Bill—and its role in the relations of food production, processing, distribution, service, and consumption—within the larger context of corporate influence in the US and globally, and identify how exactly the Farm Bill is beholden to and constituted by such interests.
  • Impart historical background on the relationship between the Farm Bill and corporate influence, and on the relationship both have to structural racialization, poverty, labor, immigration, and environmental degradation.
  • Contribute a comprehensive analysis of the expected outcomes of the Farm Bill and its limitations with regard to what is required for a fair and equitable food system.
  • Put forth a set of short term policy interventions that promote racial/ethnic, gender, and economic equity, and uplift all peoples against structural racialization and corporate control of the food system.
  • Assess the utility of the Farm Bill as a strategic, long term rallying point for addressing persistent racial/ethnic, gender, and economic injustice within and outside the food system; investigate the contradictions built into Farm Bill legislation that complicate such efforts.
  • Help identify points of convergence for building a broad-based food soveriegnty movement by offering tools and resources to communities, advocates, practitioners, and researchers from across anti-capitalist, feminist, environmental, climate, food justice, labor and immigration, food system workers, and human rights movements that collectively work toward racial/ethnic, gender and economic justice.

KEY FINDINGS OF REPORT

Corporate Consolidation and Corporate Control

Corporate consolidation and control have become central features of the US food system, and of the Farm Bill in particular. As of 2014, large-scale family-owned and non-family-owned operations account for 49.7% of the total value of production despite making up only 4.7% of all US farms. As of 2013, only 12 companies now account for almost 53% of ethanol production capacity and own 38% of all ethanol production plants.2 As of 2007, four corporations own 85% of the soybean processing industry, 82% of the beef packing industry, 63% of the pork packing industry, and manufacture about 50% of the milk. Only four corporations control 53% of US grocery retail, and roughly 500 companies control 70% of food choice globally.3

Food System Worker Disparity

At every level of the food chain, from food production to food service, workers of color typically earn less than white workers.4 For example, a majority of farm workers who receive “piecerate” earnings (i.e., per unit of work), and many of whom are migrants from Mexico, frequently earn far less than minimum wage—an exploitative practice deeply tied to immigration policy, as elaborated upon below. On average, white food workers earn $25,024 a year while workers of color make $19,349 a year, with women of color, in particular, suffering the most. Furthermore, few people of color hold management positions in the food system, while white people hold almost three out of every four managerial positions. One result of this racial disparity in food system labor is that non-white workers experience a far greater degree of food insecurity than their white counterparts.

Food Equity and Nutrition

Food insecurity in the US disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color, and these communities are overrepresented in the lowest-paying sectors of the labor market. For example, as of 2013, 14.3% of US households—17.5 million households, roughly 50 million persons—were food insecure.5 The report also found that the rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average among Black and Latino/a households, households with incomes near or below the federal poverty line, and single parent households. 

Land Access

Racial/ethnic inequity with regard to land access is a defining feature not only of the corporate-controlled food system, but also of the US government itself, which, even years after emancipation, has made it nearly impossible for Blacks and other communities of color to acquire and keep land in substantial numbers. For example, in 1920, 926,000 US farmers were Black and they owned over 16 million acres of land, and by 1997, fewer than 20,000 US farmers were Black and owned approximately 2 million acres of land.6 While white farmers were losing their farms during these decades as well, the rate that Black farmers lost their land has been estimated at more than twice the rate of white-owned farm loss.

Farm Labor and Immigration Policy

Though the Farm Bill itself does not deal directly with immigration, the impact of the Bill on farmworkers cannot go unnoticed. The combination of an immigration system easily exploited by employers, and workers’ low (and withheld) income, limited formal education, limited command of the English language, and undocumented status, greatly hinders farmworkers from seeking any retribution or recognition of their rights. With limited legal aid, many agricultural workers fear that challenging the illegal and unfair practices of their employers will result in further abuses, jobs losses, and, ultimately, deportation. Given the fact that the Farm Bill supports many of those companies that employ farmworkers, connections must be drawn to highlight how the Farm Bill upholds and perpetuates structural injustice among farmworkers. 

Climate Change

In the US, exposures to environmental hazards have disproportionately impacted low-income communities and communities of color.[i] As a major contributor to global climate change and the racialized distribution of its impacts, conventional agricultural production practices, in particular, have been instrumental in maintaining and upholding these disparities. Furthermore, low-income communities and communities of color in the United States bear the burden of the impacts caused by climate change. For example, these populations breathe more polluted air than other Americans, suffer more during extreme weather events, have fewer means to escape such extreme weather events, and disproportionately experience greater hardship due to rising energy, food, and water costs.

Corporate Power, Structural Racialization, and Limitations of the Farm Bill

This report found a number of structural barriers to addressing these racial/ethnic, gender, and economic inequities. First, the Farm Bill itself is increasingly imbricated in, and ultimately functions as a pillar of, neoliberalism.7[ii] The long term shift from the subsidization of production and consumption to the subsidization of agribusiness has structurally positioned low-income communities and communities of color on the losing side of such shifts. This population has also been given fewer options for recourse, given the ways in which the Farm Bill has been designed to be insulated from democratic influence, particularly by way of countless layers of congressional committees.

Second, under the current Farm Bill, supporting public nutrition assistance programs and fighting poverty and racial/ethnic inequality, are antithetical to one another, despite the evidence that suggests otherwise. Specifically, while such public assistance programs do provide support to some of the most marginalized communities, they ultimately maintain structural inequity, particularly in terms of wealth, by channeling profits to corporations such as Walmart and other large retailers, which benefit greatly from distributing benefits such as SNAP. Many of these corporations are then able to funnel profits back to their corporate headquarters outside their respective retail sites, while still paying workers low wages and granting few benefits at every level of the food system.

Finally, this report found that supporting the inclusion of producers of color into current payment schemes, and fighting poverty and racial/ethnic inequality, are also antithetical to one another, despite recent gains in terms of USDA Civil Rights settlements and slowly increasing participation in such programs by such producers. Specifically, while such disparities may be addressed in part by better outreach and assistance, these payment programs, and even crop insurance, ultimately maintain structural inequity, particularly in terms of wealth and land access. For example, producers, be they of any racial or ethnic background, are forced to cut costs wherever possible, which includes: deploying environmentally destructive practices and unjust hiring practices, cutting farmworkers’ pay and working conditions, and relying upon troubling international economies of migrant agricultural labor collectively, which result in regressive racialized outcomes.

THIS REPORT presents several short term policy interventions and long term strategies for changing the Farm Bill, the food system, and society as a whole. It argues for a strong and united movement that is capable of organizing and mobilizing at the state and national levels, and that ultimately aims to produce conditions that would guarantee food sovereignty, including food access, health equity, fair and living wages, land access, just immigration policy, restraints upon corporations, non-exploitative farm labor conditions, and environmental well-being, among others, in particular, and racial/ ethnic, gender, and economic justice more broadly

  • 1. Andrew Grant-Thomas and john a. powell, “Structural Racism and Color Lines in the United States” in Twenty-First Century Color Lines. Edited by Andrew Grant-Thomas and Gary Orfield (Temple University Press, 2009).
  • 2. Scott McDermott, “Finding Business Success in a Changing Ethanol Industry,” Ethanol Producer Magazine, June 25, 2013, http://ethanolproducer.com/articles/9976/finding-business-success-in-a-c...
  • 3. “The Economic Cost of Food Monopolies” (Washington, D.C.: Food and Water Watch, November 2, 2012).
  • 4. “The Color of Food: Production, Processing, Distribution, and Service” (Applied Research Center, March 2011), http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/03/13/the-color-of-food-produc....
  • 5. Alisha Coleman-Jensen, Mark Nord, and Anita Singh, “Household Food Security in the United States in 2012” (USDA Economic Research Service, n.d.).
  • 6. “Census of Agriculture, 1999” (Washington, D.C.: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, 1999); Jess Gilbert, Gwen Sharp, and M. Sindy FeZin, “The Loss and Persistence of Black-Owned Farms and Farmland: A Review of the Research Literature and Its Implications,” Southern Rural Sociology 18, no. 2 (2002): 1–30.
  • i. See studies done by Brown P. (1995) Race, Class, and environmental health: a review and systematization of the literature; Mohai, Pellow, and Roberts (2009) Environmental Justice; and Chakraborty, Maantay, and Brender (2011) Disproportionate Proximity to Environmental Health Hazards: Methods, Models, and Measurement
  • 7. Eric Holt-Gimenez, Personal Correspondence, E-mail, May 11, 2015.
  • ii. Neoliberalism is a new period of capitalism, particularly since 1970s and 1980s, characterized by unparalleled global reach of economic liberalization, open markets, free trade, and deregulation. Such changes have been facilitated by a mix of high-tech globalized financial systems and labor markets, speculative financial markets, corporate control over the public sphere, increased commodification of human heritages (e.g. community lands, seeds, water, etc.), and increased consumerism.