From Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability
This article situates food (in)security of California farmworkers in the context of capitalist agribusiness, migrant and/or undocumented workers, underdevelopment, disciplining of labour, and other political economic factors. The authors argue that food security is often measured without explaining what gives rise to it, so they try to do both: the article discusses a study conducted by the authors to measure food insecurity among farmworkers in California, and then they contextualize this data with the above political economic analysis and history. The original research is comprised of their empirical survey, alongside ethnographic studies of farmworkers conducted by one of the authors. Their work on political economy and structural factors (I think) is largely drawn from secondary sources. They argue that food (in)security is “a lens for understanding broader processes of exploitation and inequality under capitalism” (140). But in a way they’re making the opposite (or at least complementary) argument; that you need to understand capitalism to get food security: “understanding food security also necessitates consideration of the relationship between activities of the state, inclduing national governments’ immigration laws, labor regulations, and social policies, and the international trade regimes that have privileged transnational corporate interests over smallholder agriculture” (140). Food security (or food and farming in general) is one piece of capitalism, and it can be a useful and compelling way to map out capitalist relations and dynamics in concrete and understandable ways.
Their central argument is that “the central dynamic shaping labor relations and workers’ livelihood struggles has been the development of a regime of agrarian accumulation based on capital-intensive production and the persistent devaluation of agricultural labor” (123). They locate gaps in the lit on food security, and follow Julie Guthman in arguing that many academics and popular writers have “overlooked the role of hired labor in agrifood production, preferring to celebrate all forms of resistance to the conventional food system and to promote agrarian visions of small-scale family farms” (126). They cite critics of “voluntarist” conceptions of the food security movement that privileges DIY and “eschews structural critiques” (126). They bring in food sovereignty and criticize it on similar terms: “in practice the food sovereignty movement has focused much more heavily on small farmer issues while sidestepping issues of wage labour” (127).
Measuring food security: they highlight some of the limitations of measurement themselves. Measuring food security can easily elide broader processes “of food production, distribution, and governance” and there’s a danger that individuals/households as the unit of measure will become the dominant unit of analysis, missing political economic structures (128-9). The data reveals, unsurprisingly, that lots of farmworkers are food insecure and hungry: 34% food insecure and 11% food insecure with hunger (130). The sample is of farmworkers in Fresno, which the authors admit is not necessarily representative of California as a whole, despite efforts to capture a broad sample (128). Undocumented workers and migrant workers both tend to be less food secure (131).
Explaining/contextualizing: the remainder of the paper (133 onwards) contextualizes this food security and explains how it came to be. They try to explain “the development of the contemporary agrarian social order” which “relies on the consistent devaluation of farm labour to fuel capital accumulation” (133). This isn’t just about class, but also about race: a racialized immigrant workforce (which faces criminalization and repression) serves the interests of agribusiness because it’s harder for them to organize for better wages or working conditions (137).
Immigration policy has functioned to manage flow of labour and produce a racialized other to scapegoat, from Chinese Exclusion Acts to internment of Japanese workers to mass deportation of Mexican immigrants during the Dust Bowl era (136)–no sources cited here unfortunately. Immigration is driven in large part by austerity and privatization of agriculture in Mexico; NAFTA and other neoliberal reforms have shifted financial support from small-scale subsistence farming to production of cash crops for agro-export (138).
These developments, they argue, “gave rise to the inernational food security movement, and ultimately to the food sovereignty movement” (139). Or at least they help us understand the problems these movements are responding to.
They discuss some offorts by the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) and their winning of the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which created new opportunities for farmworkers’ collective action, but was pretty effectively stymied by agribusiness strategies, who sourced labour through third parties, made modest improvements in order to undermine demands, and retaliated against unions and organizing attempts (135). This is one of the only instances of resistance or organizing that they discuss in the article; the rest is mostly a focus on structural factors.
This article clearly explains the structural factors affecting food security; however, they are somewhat dismissive of food sovereignty when they could develop a more nuanced connection to it. They also don’t leave a lot of room for the agency of farmworkers (what they actually do) save for a short bit on remittances and a brief discussion of the United Farm Worker Union (which implies that it’s not really effective anymore anyway). They tend to do the typical academic thing of boxing in food sovereignty as doing this but not doing that in order to advance their argument, rather than actually thinking about how food sovereignty might be doing something in relation to political economy and ‘structural factors’ as well, for example. By suggesting that food sovereignty misses wage labour and focuses on ‘small farmer issues’ they are eliding the connections they make themselves analytically: that the destruction of small subsistence farms in Mexico is part of the production of a precarious, racialized, disciplined wage labour workforce in the U.S. By the same token, creating and sustaining subsistence could help mitigate the proletarianization of farmers, which they locate as a central problem.