You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 37: Farming's Racist Roots

Farming's Racist Roots

Agriculture in America is older than the United States itself. But agriculture policy and the politics that drive it have always been, like so much of our world's history, unequal at best. In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Garrett Graddy-Lovelace joins us to discuss agricultural policy, racial inequities, and the need for a new way of thinking about land both in the US and around the world.

Graddy-Lovelace explains what political ecology and decolonial studies are (1:55) and how these two concepts play directly into her research on agricultural policy and agrarian politics (3:12). She also discusses how lending and land ownership policies have historically disenfranchised Black farmers (5:41), the long history of Black agrarian resistance and excellence (7:36), and what the latest COVID-19 relief bill accomplishes for Black farmers (10:01).

What needs to be done to right the historical mistreatment of non-white farmers by the US government (11:55)? What are the global impacts of US agricultural policies that disenfranchise farmers of color (18:58)? Professor Graddy-Lovelace answers these questions and explains why discrimination in agriculture is a global phenomenon (21:59). She also examines the significance of the ongoing farmers’ protests in India (23:59). Finally, she discusses transnational agrarian justice movements (25:40) and shares how she is inspired by Black and Indigenous-led agrarian resistance movements within the US (27:57).

During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Graddy-Lovelace tells us the top five barriers to achieving food justice that she would eliminate if she could (17:01).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. Agriculture in America is older than the United States itself. Colonial America was an agricultural state, and long before the arrival of English settlers, Indigenous peoples of North America farmed domesticated crops in the Eastern Woodlands and the American Southwest. Even today in an industrialized world, farming represents humanity's best efforts to coax planet earth to feed all of us.

0:39      KS: But agriculture policy and the politics that drive it have always been, like so much of our world's history, unequal at best. Today, we're talking about agricultural policy both in the US and globally. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Garrett Graddy-Lovelace. Garrett is a professor in the School of International Service. She researches and teaches on global environmental and agricultural policy and agrarian politics. Garrett, thanks for joining Big World.

1:06      Garrett Graddy-Lovelace: Thank you. Thank you so much Kay.

1:09      KS: You research agricultural policy and agrarian policy through an environmental policy lens. And basically as I interpret that, you look at how the planet can support feeding all of us with as little environmental harm as possible, and you examine how food can be grown and distributed in ways that are fair to farmers. Is that fairly accurate?

1:31      GGL: Yes.

1:32      KS: Okay.

1:33      GGL: And I would say also fair to farm workers and the many other people involved in agrarian landscapes. But yes, that's a great intro.

1:40      KS: Absolutely. Okay. Thank you. You use political ecology and decolonial studies to help inform your work. So to get us started, tell me briefly what are political ecology and decolonial studies? How do you define those?

1:55      GGL: So political ecology would be the realm of analyses that recognize that environmental issues are not apolitical. So the environmental crises of climate change, of water degradation, of biodiversity loss, emerge from specific political economies of exploitation or pollution and they have impacts that are more disproportionate to some communities than others. So there are inequities at the cause of environmental issues and in terms of the consequences. So it's the analysis of the social dimensions, the political dimensions, and the political economic dimensions that lead to and result from environmental disasters.

2:44      GGL: And the idea is that it's not just a biophysical issue, that to understand environmental problems and imbalances and crises you have to have the social sciences involved, you have to have political sciences involved, you have to have critical studies involved to look at the power dynamics and the power asymmetries at work in what's driving and what's resulting from these environmental issues.

3:08      KS: And how do these two concepts play directly into your research?

3:12      GGL: The decolonial studies is the realm of scholarship and analysis and advocacy that recognizes that colonialism and ongoing coloniality continue to be enormous influences and have enormous impacts on everything that we can think of in terms of material disparities or broader injustices. So you can't understand the current disparities, racial disparities, class disparities, unless you understand the history of the land dispossession or the labor theft that led to the current asymmetries and power dynamics that are so unbalanced.

3:47      KS: So, you saw a gap, I guess, that needed to be filled in how people, just Joe people, understand farming and farmers and farm workers.

4:00      GGL: Yes, yes. And so then with agriculture, braiding in the agricultural dimension of this, I'm from a farming family and grew up assisting my family in farming, and so I have a deep love for land-based life and agriculture. However, there's another dimension of that in that my family, many generations back were enslavers and colonial settlers, I'm from a white colonial settler family. So even thinking through the privileges of me having a connection to agriculture were born of a white supremacism historically, and a coloniality and Indigenous genocide.

4:32      GGL: So, reckoning with that, on top of learning from Black Indigenous feminist critical scholarship and Black agrarian scholarship, led me to realize that studying agriculture, you cannot study agriculture without studying colonialism. Just like you can't study colonialism without studying agriculture. Agriculture was the arm of colonialism. It was the driver of enslavement. So I think they're so interconnected, it's like inextricably connected, those horrendous horror stories of history and their ongoing legacies, which are still extremely egregious and the agricultural policy and cultural economies that drove them.

5:09      KS: That's a great pivot to my next question, because you have detailed in your work a long history of colonialism and discrimination within US agricultural policy writ large. So, briefly, how have unfair lending and land ownership policies disenfranchised Black farmers in the US historically? And obviously there were centuries of enslavement, but then post that how have lending and land ownership policies been unfair and continued to disenfranchise Black farmers?

5:41      GGL: There's layers of empire and plunger, trauma, dispossession, criminalization, and erasure. And so the post Civil War emancipation and broader abolition of slavery in the US led to a moment of reconstruction that actually had an opening for Black farmers. And so Black farmers were able to own and take control of millions of acres of land that they had been working for centuries, obviously. However, backlash ensued, and the land was re-stolen by white government and white landowners.

6:12      GGL: So Black land ownership peaked in 1910 at nearly 20 million acres, nearly a million individual Black owners and their broader families. But Klan violence, systemic theft, USDA lending inequities, really ravaged that number. So by the time the late 90s happened, you have down to 1.5 million acres and just a few tens of thousands of Black land owners. And the specifics of how this worked, I've done research with the Land Loss Prevention and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, and a lot of the Black-led organizations that have been fighting this for generations, and they chronicle the specific ways that Black farmers would go to the USDA offices and request the same credit, the same loans, the same natural disaster crop insurance, as their white counterparts and would be systematically denied.

6:58      KS: And I think there are some ways that historically, we as a people, what we're taught in school, the narratives that we absorb, farming is, generally there's this narrative that it's white families in Iowa, that's who as children we learn are farmers. And the history of Black Americans in most of the history that we're taught is the great migration...

7:23      GGL: Right.

7:23      KS: ... post-slavery. So you don't really learn about these families who were attempting to remain on the land and own their own land and farm for their own benefit and were denied.

7:36      GGL: Exactly. Yes. And key points Kay. And I think what's been really extraordinary is that there's been such a long history of Black agrarian resistance. Like the Haitian revolution is agrarian men and women and children in the republics in Domingo, the colony, rising up against the French colonialist and then the Spanish and then British and everyone who tried to recolonize them and to create their own republic, the Haiti.

8:00      GGL: On into Fannie Lou Hamer, who was one of the leads of Black food sovereignty in the south in the 60s in the Civil Rights Movement. So there's always been Black agrarian, Indigenous led alternatives to this colonial model of agriculture. And I would say one of the key things that has been really revelatory for me, but frankly from a white perspective, I have a lot of unlearning to do, shall we say, is a love of appropriation. The United States agriculture is a system of white appropriation of Black agrarian excellence, always has been.

8:29      GGL: So from the literal enslavement of the Carolina rice industry, which sought and captured and enslaved and capitalized upon West African expertise in rice cultivation on to George Washington Carver's Jesup Agricultural Wagon. He was a Black, brilliant agronomist who had laid out the foundation for what became, what we think of now as agricultural extension services. And then the Black Panther Party's Free Breakfast for Children's program. The whole USDA Child Nutrition Act really took that Black Panther Program as their model. So there's this systemic appropriation of Black agrarian excellence that really is this through line of US agriculture that I think finally, there's a lot of scholarship coming out by Black female authors, largely Monica White, Leah Penniman, Ashanté Reese, who are really bringing this to light. And it's a process of really healing, which is going to lay the groundwork for reparations, frankly.

9:17      KS: I think that's a great word, "unlearning," for those of us who have absorbed other narratives. Garrett, two of president Biden's top priorities are climate change and inequality, and to a certain extent, these issues meet face to face on Black owned farms. The latest COVID-19 relief bill included five billion dollars for farmers of color, which some experts say benefits Black farmers in a way that no legislation has since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I think it was something I was surprised to see this type of farming support in something outside the Farm Bill, first of all, in a COVID bill, but briefly, what does the COVID-19 relief bill accomplish for Black farmers?

10:01      GGL: It is a landmark victory. And I will say also just a shout out to the many Black female leaders and organizers and community organizers who've worked for decades to get this on the books. So, Savi Horne, Tracy McCurty, those at the Rural Coalition, Acres of Ancestry. So this is many decades of struggle to chronicle and document the discrimination, and the other recent victories are the Justice for Black Farmers Act as well as the Heirs' Property in the 2018 Farm Bill. All of these are kind of either on the books or making their way through the books, as well as the commission to study reparations, which is very much related. So these are very exciting because they open the door to have the Black farming communities in the South and the broader US reclaim land that they'd lost through forced moratoriums and forced foreclosures. And then recover from the enormous burden of debt that the broader kind of lending fiascos have led them to.

10:57      GGL: But frankly, it's just the crumbs. Frankly, it's just the beginning. It's baby steps. There needs to be so much more restitution for the horrors of the bondage, the land and labor theft, the white supremacist violence. I think the Movement for Black Lives is so historic. And it's pivoting toward thinking about Black land recovery. So the broader kind of Black Lives Movement is now merging with these kind of longstanding, but more in the margins, struggles to reclaim Black land, and I think it's very powerful. I would classify this COVID relief bill as a watershed moment, but just the beginning.

11:33      KS: You've said some of this about what else you think needs to be done to right the historical mistreatment of Black farmers and other non-white farmers by the government. You mentioned reparations, talk a little bit about land reclamation and if you can talk a little bit about other non-white farmers, because we haven't really focused on non-white farmers other than Black farmers so far.

11:55      GGL: Right. Well obviously the Indigenous communities, tribal nations of the US are mobilizing right now and have been obviously for centuries, but more recently with the Standing Rock Movement was really a uniter of many tribal nations and communities across North America, Abya Yala, Turtle Island, as it's called recently. The Landback Movement is another iteration, a powerful iteration, of a synthesizing of land territorial sovereignty movements from the Southwest on into the upper Midwest. So, there's really some exciting mobilizations happening around land sovereignty, but as the groundwork for food and seed sovereignty. So the seed sovereignty coalitions that are building and growing within the US, but also within Mexico and Canada, the first nations and tribal Indigenous communities is very powerful and a potential game changer for upending dominant intellectual property regimes, which is what my book is about, as well as land tenure.

12:54      GGL: So, many things are happening on that front. Meanwhile, Latinx, Latino/Latina growers are also navigating moving from being farm workers, and of course, farm workers are just farmers without land, to land owners in the US. And so there's a whole movement for farmers, immigrant farmers and migrant farmers, taking root and reclaiming land and accessing land. So, from the immigrant community to the Indigenous, to the African Diaspora, this has become a key vision, a key kind of mechanism for envisioning climate survival, food sovereignty, as well as cultural recovery within the broader kind of framework of a colonial agriculture that had displaced them and appropriated their land and labor for so long. That is just the beginning. Farmers right now can't make a living farming. Even the white farmers who own their land, make their income off-farm, it's off-farm income, not income from farming.

13:50      GGL: So, this question of how to support agrarian livelihoods, not just for one or two, but for a whole diverse BIPOC led generation of people and cooperatives growing and raising food for a living. This is the project that I've been working on called Disparity to Parity, trying to update supply management and price floors, which was the origin of the Farm Bill a century ago and was very helpful but just for white male farmers, in terms of making a livelihood. Could those policies and programs be updated for racial and gender diversity and justice, as well as for climate resilience, is a really important kind of next step beyond just the land.

14:25      KS: Garrett, as there's a move toward at least striving for equity, I'm curious. We've moved to a place now where there's broad acceptance of land acknowledgements. At the beginning of meetings or conferences or events you'll often hear a land acknowledgement that this land belonged to a group of Indigenous people before it was taken and colonized. And, as we know, the history of North America involves colonialization and slavery. So, between the communities of Indigenous people and Black farmers, is there agreement on how to reconcile the fact that the land was originally taken from Indigenous people, farmed by enslaved Black people, and then Black farmers received the consequences of all this inequity, but there is still that original sin in North America. What is the thinking between those two communities about how to reconcile that?

15:30      GGL: Firstly, as a white scholar and as a white activist and as someone who's committed to righting these injustices and through scholarship, I defer to those communities, I'm learning from them as they're navigating this terrain. I will say there's Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms in Maryland, he's Piscataway Black leader, he's been one of the leads on this. So he's one of the people whom I would defer to as well as Leah Penniman and Soul Fire Farm. They are committed to Black land reparations and sovereignty, but from a deeply intersectional perspective, working with Indigenous elders and Indigenous communities who are working for territorial sovereignty. So, there are mobilizations that are happening, but it's a fraught terrain. I mean, the scale of the plunder on both levels is so intense, but I will say that there's just really brilliant elders and leaders and community members who are working on this. So, I'm learning.

16:34      KS: Garrett Graddy-Lovelace, it's time to Take Five. This is when you, our guest today, get to imaginate as my little boy used to say, and change the world as you'd like it to be by single-handedly instituting five policies or practices that would change the world for the better. So, what are the top five barriers to achieving food justice that you would eliminate if you could?

17:01      GGL: Labor exploitation, for those in the farm and food industry and beyond, our political economy has cheapened people's work, their care work, their unpaid care work, their low and underpaid work, wage labor even earns pennies. So, labor exploitation has to go. Militarized borders, we have to have massive immigration transformation to end the cruelty and hypocrisy of acute labor exploitation across food and farm systems. But demilitarizing borders also would entail demilitarizing globally. We're spending inordinate funds on weapons, weaponized borders, policing, bombs, missiles, which kill civilians, which leads to acute hunger and even famine.

17:40      GGL: Next, I would say the prison industrial complex system, decarceration will be very important for overcoming food injustices and white supremacism is at the root cause of the plantation police gangs, which lead to the current industrial policing complex that we have. An end to corporate lobbying to end transnational corporate dominance. So, we definitely need antitrust. And finally, ending misogyny, women and gender diverse people are often the nourishers and the providers of food for countless communities around the world and when their rights are undermined, everyone suffers.

18:15      KS: That's a great list, we got to get to work on that one. Thank you.

18:19      KS: Garrett, we've focused a lot on North America so far, but we know that farming and food distribution systems are now global, it's why we can have strawberries in the dead of winter, which a lot of people would say, isn't a great idea in the first place, but despite locavore movements, which encourage consumers to buy food that is grown or produced locally, we know that food in the US comes from many other countries, and the US sells food to other countries. Knowing that, what are the domestic and global impacts of US foreign policies that disenfranchise farmers of color. So basically, how do these policies go on to affect people globally, other than the harm done to the farmers themselves?

18:58      GGL: I actually think this is such an important question because US agricultural policy impacts pretty much every village and community in the world. It's really extraordinary. Over the past few generations, really post-World War I, I would say onward, according to archival research on this, as the US starts over-producing and after World War I, there was a deliberate overproduction of grain so that the US could feed the Europeans and others in World War I. And then the cycles of overproduction continued afterwards, and which led to the Dust Bowl and led to the Great Depression because of the price fall out.

19:37      GGL: So the economic and ecological impacts of overproduction were in the 1920s, the 1930s, and led to the first Farm Bill to curb over production, because it was so detrimental environmentally and ecologically and economically. However, the cycles of overproduction were already underway when there's already kind of corporate influence and people were selling seeds, and they were thinking about deploying that surplus internationally, either as food trade or food aid, but it was very geopolitically motivated.

20:05      GGL: So, the food aid was a matter of making sure that countries that were throwing off the shackles of colonialism, wouldn't go communist. So, there'd be a big American flag on the wheat, there'd be a big American flag on the ag development, the green revolution. Frankly, the US rose to superpower status in the 20th century off of deploying surplus grain. It's really extraordinary, the power of that. And this narrative of feeding the world was part of the nation building exercise of the US. But the irony is that it actually wasn't feeding the world, whenever you dump a lot of surplus grain on a market that means that the local farmers in that place can't compete with free, they go out of business, so that it creates this dependence.

20:43      GGL: So countries that were long standing, self-sufficient in grains, even exporters', became dependent on imports of the US. So this is a huge geopolitical shift. And what that does is that it undermines the agrarian livelihoods of countless farmers, obviously the global majority, so largely farmers of color around the world, which led to rural out migration and urbanization. And then in the case of Central America, all of these farmers in Mexico, after NAFTA, who could not compete with the dumped corn from NAFTA, left their communities, their ancient, exquisite, agrobiodiverse, agrarian masterpiece, the kind of Southern Mexico masterpieces of agrarian excellence, and went to the city to try to make a living and then risked their lives crossing the border, trying to make a living to be farm workers in the US.

21:29      GGL: So, there's been enormous detrimental impact of the dumping of commodity crops internationally and undermining agrarian livelihoods and agrobiodiverse food ways around the world.

21:40      KS: And that is how US policy can affect folks in other countries. But within those countries themselves, is discrimination in agriculture, either racial or other forms of discrimination, is that a US phenomenon, or is it prevalent around the world within other countries?

21:59      GGL: It is certainly not unique to the US. We have a very acute version, but it is a global phenomenon. And actually Kay, I think about this all the time, because there's a broader devaluation of farm work, it's the systemic devaluation of what actually is a brilliant intellectual skill, they call farming unskilled labor, which is like laughable, the skill involved in farming, the artistry, and the science of being able to grow food.

22:27      GGL: And so that chronic devaluation is really a result of this model of development, this kind of post-World War II model of development, which says that underdeveloped means agrarian, semi subsistence, and developed is when you just high mass consumption. And so, there was this kind of political, economic, but also epistemic and cultural devaluation of farm labor intersects with racism. So, that has become quite global that chronic exploitation of farm workers through axes of racialization but also chronic devaluation of the labor and the artistry itself of it.

23:03      GGL: But then, in terms of land dispossession, there are massive land thefts, land grabs, frankly, where huge swaths of land that has unsecure titling, so people have been living on that land for millennia they're indigenous to it often, but they don't have a formal official title strong enough to withstand when the government of that country can sell off enormous swaths of land to a company or another country or a corporation.

23:29      GGL: So, that level of massive land dispossession, which really started, has long standing but it got very acute about a decade ago, intersects with other long standing racisms and classisms and axes of discrimination.

23:44      KS: And recently, we've seen ongoing protests by farmers in India, and these have gained attention around the world that even prompted the government in India to shut down the internet periodically. So, what are the farmers in India protesting, what's happening to them?

23:59      GGL: This is actually an enormous phenomenon what's happening. And the COVID crisis right now is very acute, but it's important not to forget the massive uprisings that really were going on since last spring, last summer, almost a year, and really got going after Modi passed the three farm bills. The BJP party passed these farm bills, and what those farm bills did last September is that they cut the minimum support price. And what that allows for is that farmers are able to grow, maybe this amount of acreage, it's a quota, nothing more than that, and get a price that they know they will get at the end of the harvest and build their entire kind of farming system around that security. Now, the process, what Modi was doing was cutting that and saying, "We'll just let the buyers, the corporate buyers, set the price." Well, corporate buyers are going to pit farmers against each other in a race to the bottom.

24:48      GGL: And so all the Indian farmers know that this is game over for them, in terms of an agrarian livelihood. So they risked their lives. There was a lot of police brutality and people were actually living in Delhi for six months trying to change these laws. So, they start calling it an Indian farmer revolution, and really as someone who studies international ag policy, I'm looking at that and thinking, "This is actually a challenge to the whole paradigm, the whole neoliberal ag policy paradigm that we've been in since the 90s is being challenged right now." And so it has a world historical potential.

25:21      KS: And more broadly, what are agrarian movements, and how have farmers organized nationally and transnationally to challenge the consolidation of land and unjust financial and legal infrastructure in agriculture? Do you have farmers working together across national borders?

25:40      GGL: There is an extraordinary transnational agrarian justice movement. There was pieces of this in various countries after colonialism, during colonialism, obviously, but really it was the 1990s that this became international. It connected across borders. And that was because the 1990s was the onset of the aggressive neoliberal model, the WTO, NAFTA, the free trade, which was pitting farmers against each other in a race to the bottom of prices and the corporate buyers win in that. They get to sell a lot of inputs. They get to buy at a cheap price. So, all of these farmers gathered, and La Via Campesina is the transnational organization. 200 million people are affiliated with La Via Campesina across Asia, across Africa, across the Americas, on into Europe, this kind of extraordinary diversity of farmers who have gathered together to fight consolidation of land, to fight against corporate control of ag markets, and they're really rallying for land, food, sea, data, water sovereignty. That doesn't mean they're against trade. That just means they want trade on their own terms that doesn't undermine agrarian viability and lead to kind of ecocidal cycles of overproduction.

26:52      KS: And Garrett, sometimes I end with a big global question, but I think I'd like to end with a more micro, even personal question. For someone who loves land, who respects land and what it can provide as you do. How does such a person not become discouraged when you start to think about all of the ways that farming has been corporatized, and you have farmers who aren't allowed to save their own seed, and seed copywriting and commodity crops, and cutting down the Amazon to grow food for pigs so that we can continue to eat pigs. How do you not become discouraged at what seems like such a giant global machine that cannot be stopped?

27:57      GGL: Honestly, well, I'm a person of faith, so that's that and I'll put that out there, but moving beyond that, inspiration from elders and from youth. Particularly the Black Lives Matter movement. And it's the kind of next dimension of it, which is a Black agrarian resistance coupled with Indigenous youth and elder led resistance movements within this land, but obviously it's international, are enormously inspiring. Cause these are the communities who have been at the frontline of these injustices and in horrors of plunder and empire. So, I follow the lead and follow the inspiration of the movements, the grassroots movements, that have been on the frontline. So, the farmworker movements, the broader movements for abolition. These are all extraordinary movements and really it's an honor just to share space and time with them. So, my work is very much community partnered and community led research. And that's because I think that makes for better research, but also frankly, it's because if I weren't working so closely with people on the frontline who are really dreaming of alternatives and enacting them so bravely, then yes, it would get very depressing quick.

29:09      KS: Garrett Graddy-Lovelace, thank you for joining Big World to discuss agricultural policy. It's been a real pleasure to speak with you.

29:15      GGL: Oh, I'm so honored, Kay. Your questions were excellent. I'm really honored. Thank you.

29:20      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you'll leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like a dip in a swimming pool on a hot day. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold" by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Garrett Graddy-Lovelace,
professor, SIS

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