The Year That Was — and What Wasn’t
by Devon G. Peña
Progressive media outlets have been busy providing an end of the year retrospective on the most notable events and issues that carried the headlines in 2010. Many news services and blogs in the food- and agriculture-related areas ranked the Food Safety Modernization Act and the Child Nutrition Act at the top of their lists.
Playing up the ‘democratizing’ influence of the Web, many of the alternative source and agglomeration sites ranked the top news items based on their popularity among readers. AlterNet, for instance, gave its highest ranking for 2010 to the impact of the BP gusher on the safety of seafood coming from the Gulf of Mexico. As members of a nation largely defined (and constrained) as consumers, people reading progressive sources have in some cases reflexively expressed the greatest concern for a story on the safety of the seafood they’ve been consuming.
What is left out of this accounting is another side of the story: the growing hunger and impoverishment of seafood industry and other workers displaced by what was arguably the most significant and unjust environmental catastrophe of the year. Even when we get the news story right, our reasons for doing so are often morally shallow and driven by mere self-interest and a narrow time horizon. Witness the media’s inattention to continued unresolved issues of environmental racism running the course from Hurricane Katrina to the BP gusher.
Other high ranking stories included reports on continued widespread problems with food-borne illnesses; a federal court’s decision banning Monsanto’s genetically-engineered beets from the Willamette Valley in Oregon; the growing obesity epidemic; and, among the cognoscenti and concerned ranchers, the new “Access to Pasture” rule for organic beef certification that requires a specified minimum number of days per year that organic cattle must spend on pasture to qualify as organic.
There are quite a few newsworthy items that did not make the top lists. One issue that has been widely overlooked is the continued growth in the number of persons suffering hunger and malnutrition during the extended collapse of the global economy that started in September 2008. Also missing from the lists is what I consider the biggest environmental and food justice story of 2010: the impact of Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant law, SB1070, and similar reactionary measures across the country on the workplace conditions and quality of life facing our nation’s farm workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
Further, few sites ranked what is happening in urban agriculture as a top news story, despite the fact that hundreds of new community gardens were created in 2010 in cities from coast to coast and border to border. Here then is my take on the top news stories and events on environmental and food justice that did not make the end-of-year lists in most places.
In November (2010), the USDA issued an update on ‘food insecurity’ in the United States. The report failed to garner the attention of the media or public, perhaps because this was seen as one of the top stories of 2009 and the media might consider this ‘so yesteryear.’ The current report, however, bears even more bad news: The number of people seeking food assistance continues to increase and is directly attributable to the effects of the Derivatives Depression, and shows a constant pattern of growing hunger since 2001. The expectations for 2010 are worse: measured in dollars, we can expect that the USDA will spend more than $100 billion on food assistance in 2010. These numbers suggest that the 50 million ‘food insecure’ persons reportedly in the U.S. in 2009 increased by at least another 2-3 million individuals in 2010.
Also absent from the 2010 top news lists is the fact that the great majority of the ‘newly hungry’ are children living with ‘working poor’ families. Also: Hunger remains more prevalent among the very people who harvest our crops, farm workers.
Farm workers and wage slavery
One notable exception to progressive blindness to issues of food justice and sovereignty is the praise recently given to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) by Katrina vanden Heuvel in the pages of The Nation:
“The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) enjoyed a remarkable 2010, successfully obtaining penny per pound pay raises and code of conduct agreements for farmworkers from the three largest food service companies and the growers who had blocked checks buyers cut directly to the workers so that millions of dollars languished in escrow. These agreements stand to increase workers’ annual earnings from about $10,000 to as much as $17,000. The State Department also recognized Laura Germino, CIW’s antislavery campaign coordinator, as an “anti-Trafficking Hero” for her work helping the US Department of Justice prosecute seven slavery operations in Florida over the last fifteen years, resulting in the liberation of over 1,000 farmworkers.”
This modest increase of annual earnings is still far from being a ‘living wage’ as the Coalition itself notes. All we can celebrate here is the inching upward by the penny of the rates of wage slavery? The Florida farm slavery operations that the Justice Department cracked down on, with the heroic help of the CIW, is a noteworthy event that was largely overlooked by most media. But the $17,000 in annual earnings is still far too close to wage-slave levels.
The time is way past due to end wage slavery, hunger, and the structured inequalities that produce these effects. The top story for 2011 ought to be a mass mobilization demanding that we reverse the discriminatory tax burden imposed by neoliberal design. We must shift the expropriation of wealth from workers and instead return this common wealth to the multitude. The class war was declared a long time ago and it has beaten down the multitude over the past three decades, driving millions into hunger and starvation. It is time to reverse course, and we should make that the top food sovereignty story of 2011.
Urban community gardens
Still, we must not wait for some magical victory in the so-called class war. Instead, a top story for 2010 is that we are making our freedom and autonomy here and now, with a more positive and hopeful narrative. In this spirit, witness the continued growth of urban agriculture in the form of new community gardens, urban farms, guerrilla gardens, home kitchen gardens (huertos familiares), CSAs, and farmers’ markets.
The flourishing of urban agriculture is being led not by progressive West Coast urban strongholds but by old-yet-not-forgotten ‘Rust Belt’ cities. According to the Camden [New Jersey] Community Garden Club, for example, in 2010 the neighborhoods of this economically ravaged East Coast urban center, with a population that is 80 percent persons of color, created 31 new community gardens.
The news is similar across the country. There are a reported 7 new community gardens in Albuquerque; 11 in Dallas; 15 in Houston; 10 in Portland; 5 in Chicago; 6 in San Antonio; and even 2 or 3 in Laredo, Texas (my hometown). There are thousands of new P-Patches in most of the larger cities and the number of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects involving low-income persons of color in inner city communities has also increased, led along the way by the inspiring tale of the revival and resilience of the South Central Farmers Feeding Families.
Urban centers and rural communities across the country are seeing the rise of notable ‘food for the hood’ and ‘farm-to-table’ projects. Native American communities are developing community gardens at a frantic pace while Latina/os continue to play a central role in urban agriculture across the country, which is not surprising since there are millions of unemployed Mexican farmers living and working in the U.S. today as a result of changes unleashed by neoliberal agriculture and trade policies that displaced them from ancient ejidos and comunas.
In Detroit, there are at least 30 new community gardens, and many more guerrilla gardens in vacant lots, spread across an urban core that is gradually shifting from gray to green in color tone. The Motor City is becoming the Urban Farm City. Elected officials are even proposing the establishment of several urban farms, and city planners (working with community grassroots organizations) have identified more than 5000 acres of land suitable for urban agriculture. Urban agriculture and open space are at the heart of the new emerging ‘master plan’ for a city that has lost nearly half its population over the past three decades as a consequence of globalization-induced deindustrialization. This is why Detroit is perhaps easily considered ‘Ground Zero’ in the struggle for urban food sovereignty.
Food sovereignty and the state of exception
Perhaps the biggest environmental and food justice news of 2010 was the largely untold story of the impact of Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant law, SB1070. This measure, and similar ones being proposed and adopted by a growing number of municipalities and states across the country, has already proven itself detrimental to the food security, health, and wellbeing of our nation’s farm workers.
An unstated aim of such laws is to further marginalize undocumented farm workers by making it more difficult to find work, get organized, and gain fair treatment. Given the current environment of record-breaking deportations, there is an upward trend in the number of farm workers who are getting deported before being paid for their work. Will the Obama Administration at least have the decency to repatriate unpaid wages — and not just the unwanted Mexicans — of the Derivatives Depression?
Anti-immigrant laws are diminishing the already slavish conditions that food system workers face across all sectors, from the factory farm fields and feedlots to the slaughter houses, packing plants, and canneries, and from the distribution warehouses to the grocery stores, restaurants, and fast food chains. These laws demonize food system workers as threatening ‘Others.’ False allegations of disruptive effects on the American economy, employment, crime, safety, and culture become the pretext for disqualifying entire categories of persons from exercising their human rights. Denied status as full persons, farm workers are truly reduced to the ‘bare life.’ Breaking the grip of global commodity chains is thus interwoven with the defense of the rights of farm and food system workers. Simply put, there is no food sovereignty without autonomous farmers and farm workers.
The coming year will bring heightened struggles against the state of exception. The suspension of the constitutional rule of law that seeks to exclude from political life all that is the experience, skill, knowledge and desires of the undocumented multitude, will be met by the widening mobilization of indigenous and mestizo peoples. In this manner, perhaps the top story of 2011 will emerge the day we are courageous enough to declare: “We are all undocumented … y la comida no require papeles.”
Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His influential books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (University of Arizona Press, 2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (University of Arizona Press, 1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.