Agriculture is political. I think about it often, and I’m thinking about it especially as I visit family and friends back home in Iowa, one of the many chemical-intensive agriculture “bellies of the beast.” I see representations of the politics of food and agriculture everywhere — from a landscape blanketed in monocropped corn and soy, to billboards and other signage featuring messages about farmers “feeding the world.”
So, how is that political?
Agriculture is political in the obvious ways — the people we elect make laws relating to everything from food access, nutrition programs, crop insurance, and agricultural research. But, the politics of agriculture aren’t just about electoral politics. It’s about the distribution of power, too. Our agricultural system distributes land, money, and power into the hands of fewer and fewer white families and the corporations they own. This started with land stolen from Indigenous people and given to white men and their families. Half of all U.S. farms made less than $300 in 2019, while agricultural wealth continues to concentrate in the corporate boardrooms of distributors, processors, and seed and chemical companies.
So back to those billboards featuring messages about feeding the world. How are they political?
They’re political because they are stories that are used to justify keeping things the way they are. Billboards describing what’s really happening just wouldn’t be compelling. How about…. “Pesticides are drifting!” “Polluted water is here!” or “Farmers are struggling!”? These very real messages wouldn’t exactly give people the warm fuzzies as they look at landscapes scarred by soil loss, erosion, and decreasing biodiversity. Feeding the world, though? That’s something people can get behind — and so the story-telling continues.
Billboards aren’t the only way those who stand to benefit from this system maintain power. Stories are often used to divide those of us who aren’t getting our fair share. If we stood together, the power of more people in more sectors standing up for what’s right could shift politics in agricultural systems. These divisions that diminish our power are fabricated, but they have very real implications.
For example, I’ve seen these deliberately engineered divisions in the coverage of this fall’s United Auto Workers (UAW) strikes at the John Deere manufacturing plants. Workers were striking for fair wages in the midst of precedent-setting profits at the corporate level. National news coverage focused on agricultural associations’ concern regarding tractor part shortages and how shortages could affect farmers’ bottom lines. However, many farmers are united in belief that just as farmers deserve fair compensation for their labor, and that the level of corporate power in agriculture is unacceptable, workers at John Deere deserve fair compensation, too:
“Concentration in machinery manufacturing and the increasing disparity in compensation between workers and managers makes the current negotiations critical for the fair treatment of current and future workers. As Iowa farmers, we know a healthy agriculture system requires all parts of that system to be fairly and equitably compensated.The UAW action sets an important example of the power of workers standing together for a common goal.”
-Iowa Farmers Union Board of Directors, November 9th 2021
So how do we counter the stories that maintain politics as they are in our agricultural system? We tell our own. Our politics and our stories must disrupt not just the homogeneity of crops on our landscapes, but also the homogeneity of power characterizing our agriculture system. The fact is, farmers and communities across the U.S. are already disrupting agriculture as we know it; the stories are right in front of us. From the Iowa Farmers Union standing in solidarity with the UAW’s strike at John Deere, to rural and Indigenous advocates in Minnesota working in coalition toward a justice-oriented food and farm system — the stories are endless. What’s yours?