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Dispatches from an anti-authoritarian farm / by S.J. Lee

By peculiar coincidence, early Tuesday and Friday mornings have become the “radical politics discussion hour” on my organic vegetable farm in middle Georgia.

Round about the time we are bunching kale still soaked in dew, the conversation turns to the kind of things that anti-authoritarian farmers are especially concerned with: intersectionality, race and labor issues, sustainability, the future. We see in our return to the soil a place to plant roots of resistance against a food culture run by corporate interests, poisoning our bodies and our planet, fueled by existing racial and economic hegemonies, and dependent on the exploitation of bodies of color and excessive cruelty towards non-human animals.

We talk also about our experiences as activists, and the frustrations that we have felt when trying to make food and environmental justice a priority. Why is food so often left out of the conversation? Why are many people comfortable keeping food production out of sight and out of mind? How do we begin to address food sustainability and food justice as intersectional problems with social and economic consequences?

Because food justice is a newer movement, I have seen it written off as “a vegan issue” or the domain of bougie elitist foodies. Especially in a place like Boston, which is not a food desert and which is very disconnected from its food production, it’s easy not to consider everything leading up to the grocery store. However, food justice is more than animal rights or knowing that Monsanto is bad.

Simply, food production is everyone’s problem, because it is a system that every single person participates in.

By valuing the cheapness of food above all else, our food system has come to rely on structural inequalities within each step of production. Consider the labor force: factory farms will knowingly put workers at risk for chronic pains, respiratory and cardiovascular problems, and premature death because the system is designed to maximize efficiency and profits, not worker safety. For this reason, undocumented labor is considered ideal because undocumented workers are less likely to complain about low wages and hazardous work conditions. This is a consequence of cheap food.

While cheap food is abundant, it does not reach communities equally. Food insecurity is highly correlated with higher rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes in communities of color. Food deserts develop in areas where access to healthy food options is limited, and tend to most affect already vulnerable populations like single mothers, the elderly, and the poor. This is a consequence of cheap food.

The waste products associated with factory farming include massive amounts of animal feces, body fluids and carcasses which are dumped into landfills that, unsurprisingly, mainly seem to appear in poor communities and communities of color. Subsequent effects on the environment are devastating. This is a consequence of cheap food.

It is not difficult to understand why this is allowed to happen. We operate within a corporate food culture that is driven towards destruction, monoculture, and poor conditions because it is incredibly profitable to do so.

Our farm operates differently from most commercial farms because we want to represent a new possibility for organic production. This morning we got up before the sun and ate quickly so that we could have as much daylight as possible. Last night we worked until 10:30 pm sorting out rotting tomatoes. Being in the field is a constant battle against mosquitoes, gnats, fire ants, and rain to get food out of the field before the temperature rises much above 90 degrees. We spend our days sweaty, scratched, itching and covered in a second skin of dirt and compost. We lovingly handle every single piece of produce multiple times before it reaches market so that we can weed out any imperfections. We stress our bodies with a 70+ hour work week because it means that we can get stuff done without the use of fossil fuels, running only on the food we grow. We know that when we get to market, this intense labor won’t be reflected in a $3 price tag for a bunch of carrots. We do it anyway (and we love to do it) because it means that our produce is grown sustainably and without exploitation of labor or the environment.

The food system is broken. While life is sucked out of the environment, we are supplied with endless, cheap and empty calories. Ever wondered why rates of food allergies and sensitivities have been climbing in the last few decades? Modern, industrial versions of crops like wheat are not only correlated with that rise, but structural changes within the wheat protein have been tied to obesity and its related diseases.

When a system is as destructive and self-destructive as this one, real power and change occur only when that system is made irrelevant. It comes down to this: three times a day, we are given a choice about what food we eat. Three times a day, we have the chance to either resist or support this system. We must also remember that change doesn’t come only from boycotting a broken system, but by actively supporting a new system: one that reflects the true cost of food.

We have forgotten the true price of food because the majority of our food costs have been externalized; we get lower prices at the grocery store and pay the price in medical bills, petroleum, exploited workers, monoculture, and consequences for the environment. Most likely, the things that bare those true costs of food are things that can’t advocate for themselves, like the environment, exploited workers, and non-human animals. Our large and rapidly increasing population demands cheap food and demands availability, even when produce is out of season. There are consequences for this.

Because we insist on having food so cheaply, we have to underpay our labor. When we develop a system where food is not cheap, we will be agreeing to pay the cost of labor and only then will labor issues change. We won’t have to rely on a system that requires the use of migrant workers, prisoners, and other populations who have few other options.

We have reached a choice: either we knowingly exploit cheap labor OR we reprioritize our budgets to afford food that realistically costs what it takes to produce. The true cost of food is not expensive, but we have such a warped perception of what food costs to produce that any change would seem expensive at first, even if it means a drastic decrease in externalized costs for our health and environment.

What we need, then, is not only a resistance ecology growing in the soil of organic farms, but a resistance economy to provide a market for that food. By choosing local, organic, and sustainable you are also choosing to support the right kind of farmers and the right kind of agriculture: those who want to redefine the system by not exploiting their workers or the environment. For example, on our farm, once a month we move around a few hundreds of pounds of homemade compost by hand, rather than use synthetic, petroleum based nitrogen fertilizer. We have farmer friends who are totally off the grid. There should be pride in supporting local farmers who decided to take extra steps like this, because you know exactly where your money is going and what will be done with it. And, you know that it will be going right back into your community.

The good news about our food problem is that is possible to change. Every person is empowered to change it. Food takes a lot of threads of oppression and brings them together in an easy-to-affect mode of resistance. We can’t just not eat and not participate, but we can make different choices about what we do eat and what our participation means.

Access is increasing with more farmers markets, local and organic options, and markets that accept EBT/SNAP. Even in the last 10 years, farmers in my area (one of the poorest and most obese food deserts in the country) have seen a change. The market has changed as both interest in and access to organic food is increased. We must also address food deserts which have fewer options and therefore less ability to affect the system. Increased food access (like new markets and community gardens) can help increase food sovereignty in those areas.

Food is a universal, cultural, and intimate experience that has been taken from us by corporate interests and warped into this current industrial food system. There’s a very different feeling when you sit down to eat and you know that all of the food on the table is grown fairly and sustainably. You have a relationship with that food either because you grew it yourself or because you know who did. You know that eating, a ubiquitous act, does not also represent participation in an oppressive system. As a farmer, that feels like resistance to me.

Off of the farm, I am involved in campaigning for Georgia’s food justice organization, with a focus on making our green markets more accessible to low income people. For this area, the market represents at least one location where a racially and economically fractured community can come together. We have an EBT/SNAP match program that doubles food stamps at the market. Because of that, each person, regardless of background, has access to the same high quality, nutritious food. That also feels like resistance to me.

Until I lived and worked on a farm, I didn’t realize that the fundamental act of eating meant choosing which systems to support. When eating becomes an intentional act, every step from seed to meal has an impact. Considering a single piece of food to be the result of a number of potentially oppressive processes makes change more possible. When we choose to support a new food system with one choice, one action, we send ripples through the existing system. Food is not just calories, but a vehicle for resistance.

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