Since the seventies, the mantra of Big Ag has been “Get big or get out”. It took me a few years to understand its real meaning, but it’s never been truer than the current moment. Global agriculture is like a labyrinth guarded by a minotaur named Wall Street. Farmers, farm workers, and consumers are tasked with navigating this beast so the planet, as we know it, can survive. Corporations are the common enemy exploiting farmers, cheating farm workers, and hurting consumers (or hurting farmers, exploiting farm workers, and cheating consumers… you get the picture).
In many ways this wasn’t news to me. As an undergraduate, I majored in philosophy, spending years reading the works of Thomas Moore, Karl Marx, Michael Foucault, and others who called out human failings and imagined better, more just worlds. But it was in my work as a journalist covering conflict zones in Central America and post-Soviet Cuba that I witnessed the outcomes of the struggles for these better worlds first hand. Tired of scratching the surface of each story, I ended up studying medical anthropology at the University of Florida and, through my dissertation field work, I ended up doing research projects for the Farmworker Association of Florida.
For almost two decades I have fought to improve the living conditions of farm workers and in this process. I learned about agricultural exceptionalism, farm consolidation, red tape imparity, price disparity, and unfair trade policies. If it is true that many farm workers are victims of unscrupulous farmers (or, more commonly, abusive farm contractors), most of the workers within the food chain system are at the mercy of large corporations, financial entities who know nothing about farming.
There is a false dichotomy between the interests of farmers and farmworkers: both have seen their incomes and safety decreased while processing plants, distributors, supermarkets, and food corporations disproportionately increased their utilities. Food prices, or “commodities”, are at the mercy of the market and the market is controlled by a handful of mercenaries. The aspirational way of living is in sanitized cities, which do not know how to produce what they eat, making this country more dependent on others to survive. As of now, 50 percent of fruits and vegetables are coming from outside the United States.
The same way farmworkers are lost in the complexity of the immigration system, growers are facing intricate regulations where it is harder to find their way. The system has created a labyrinth in which the powerful and well connected can invest to get in and out easily while the rest are left behind. A good example of this is the current Farm Labor Modernization Act which will made E-verify mandatory to all agricultural operations regardless of size, effectively making it impossible for many farmworkers and small farmers to stay in business.
Deconstructing the labyrinth will require titanic joint efforts. We should be able to build a fair, equal, and healthy food system and being able to take part in this process is what brought me to the National Family Farm Coalition. For me it is an honor to join this historic group at the peak of our food system crises. I have rolled up my sleeves to join the comprehensive efforts working to bring about: the farmers bill of rights; fair trade, prices, and payment for farm workers; food sovereignty, agroecology, and the dis-incorporation of the industrial food systems.
A new food system is not just possible but necessary as the COVID-19 pandemic had demonstrated. In the words of Jim Goodman, Chair of the NFFC Board of Directors, we need a “farmer-controlled consumer-oriented food system” with social and environmental justice. As I have said, if issues are systemic, justice cannot be piecemeal, and NFFC, I believe, is the avenue to channel my efforts.
Antonio Tovar, NFFC Policy Associate