by Gene Baur
Our food system has profound impacts on ourselves and our planet, and in order to have a healthy and just society, we also need a healthy and just food system. But, unfortunately, U.S. agriculture is steeped in structural inequity that has been enabled, even subsidized, by government programs. Family farms have been pushed out of business and wealth has been consolidated into fewer large industrialized operations.
Our country’s agricultural policies have encouraged the expansion of factory farms that abuse animals and workers, while destroying the environment and perpetuating systemic injustice, including racism. In 1920, there were nearly one million black farmers across the U.S., but today, there are less than 50,000. Ninety-five percent of the nation’s farms are now owned by white farmers, while the majority of agricultural workers are people of color, including thousands who have been sickened by COVID-19 at U.S. slaughterhouses, which have emerged as disease hotspots.
The exploitive treatment of “essential” workers, including those who have been forced to return to dangerous slaughterhouse jobs, has become more visible during COVID-19, along with elevated health risks and vulnerabilities experienced in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities. Our unjust food system is a key driver of obesity, heart disease, and other diet-related illnesses that disproportionately harm lower income and BIPOC communities who lack access to healthy food. The term “food desert” has been used to describe such areas, but food justice activist, Karen Washington, says the term “food apartheid” is more fitting because it accounts for the systemic racism and injustice at the root of the problem.
While policy makers in Washington, DC and in state capitols have favored measures that support the large scale production of cheap, calorie rich, nutrient poor foods that make us sick, citizens like Karen Washington are working to build healthier communities by empowering people to grow their own food, including cultivating unused lots in New York City. Similarly, Ron Finley is growing food in urban spaces in Los Angeles and says, “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.” These innovators are reclaiming underutilized land and resources and producing fresh wholesome food where it is most needed. This healthy, sustainable approach should be actively encouraged, including with government support.
Replacing our mass production, fast food paradigm with community-oriented, plant-based agriculture can provide fresh and nutritious food, while creating greener neighborhoods. It also generates economic opportunities and meaningful jobs that nurture healthier, more resilient communities. I attended an inspiring TED talk by Steve Ritz, a school teacher and founder of Green Bronx Machine, who is teaching young people to grow their own food, and bringing hope to a Bronx, NY neighborhood beset with poverty, homelessness, and limited access to nutritious food. Ritz’s work has yielded positive results as student attendance rates and academic performance have improved, and some have become entrepreneurial, even planting gardens beyond the Bronx.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of our factory farm system and structural inequities that cause disenfranchised communities to suffer higher rates of disease and early deaths in both urban and rural areas. As the U.S. government addresses the pandemic and allocates resources to help our nation recover, it should actively work to reform agriculture by investing in a diversified plant-based food system that better serves the needs of all U.S. citizens. In addition to defunding factory farms and supporting family farms, instead the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) should also invest more in urban agriculture, farmers markets, and other community-centered food systems.
Sadly, the U.S. Congress and USDA have already spent billions of dollars of coronavirus relief money to support industrial animal agriculture and perpetuate the harm it causes. It is important for each of us to express our thoughts and concerns with our elected officials, and to hold them accountable. It’s also important to vote with our dollars every day in order to support sustainable farms that produce healthy food without exploiting people or other animals.
Gene Baur is co-founder and president of Farm Sanctuary, and has been hailed as “the conscience of the food movement” by TIME magazine. He was a pioneer in undercover investigations and instrumental in passing the first U.S. laws to ban inhumane factory farming practices. Beginning in 1986, he has traveled extensively, campaigning to raise awareness about the abuses of animal agriculture and our cheap food system. He has written two national bestselling books. Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds about Animals and Food, was published by Simon and Schuster in 2008 and listed as one of Booklists top 10 Sci-Tech books, and Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer, and Feeling Better Every Day, was published by Rodale in 2015 and named the VegNews book of the year. Gene has a master’s degree in agricultural economics from Cornell University, and is a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He’s been vegan since 1985 and recently started competing in marathons and triathlons, including an Ironman, to demonstrate the benefits of plant-based eating.