The blog of the Urban Institute
July 9, 2021

Food Sovereignty Can Advance Racial Equity and Climate Resilience

July 8, 2021

It’s impossible to understand the full picture of our food system without also considering the ongoing climate crisis. Climate change threatens lands, livelihoods, and food supply, resulting in shortages, price spikes, and land loss—especially for people of color.

Throughout US history, stealing and exploiting land for growing food—which has contributed to climate change—has always been intertwined with racism. Europeans’ genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans cleared land to grow cash crops and depleted soil health across the country.

In the 1960s and 1970s, industrial agriculture ushered in a food system reliant on fertilizers and irrigation practices that threaten the health of soils and waterways, coupled with a heavy reliance on a largely immigrant workforce that lacks labor protections. Just this month, workers, including children and seniors, worked amid record-breaking heat in the Pacific Northwest.

To address these intertwined challenges of advancing food security, racial equity, and climate resilience, some food chain workers are promoting food sovereignty—the concept of a food system in which the people who produce, distribute, and consume food control the way it’s produced and distributed.

Advancing food sovereignty would require major food system changes to create environmental stewardship, land ownership, and labor practices that build power and agency among farmers, food chain workers, and consumers. The federal government has provided unprecedented federal aid to farms in recent years, and the actions below , undertaken in partnership with states and communities, can ensure future interventions advance these goals.

1. Ensure fair lending for farmland and invest in shared equity ownership

Discriminatory US Department of Agriculture (USDA) lending, state property laws, and corporate land grabbing have created a stark racial gap in farmland ownership. What’s more, land stolen from Black and Indigenous peoples has been exploited to the point of environmental degradation.

Shared equity ownership, such as land and housing trusts, is one promising model that can distribute power over land holdings. Community land trusts, which are rooted in the civil rights movement, are nonprofit organizations that purchase and/or manage land to keep it affordable for owners. They increasingly serve people of color, could narrow the racial wealth gap, and typically employ management practices that can mitigate climate change.

Land trusts and conservation easements have helped combat farmland loss, particularly among Black farmers, who have borne the brunt of discrimination and land loss noted above. The $5 billion in debt relief for Black farmers in the American Rescue Plan Act is a start, but it does not fully address the wealth loss to preserve and expand land access. Expanding land trusts—especially for Black farmers and Native communities—can help established farmers keep their land and new farmers become landowners.

2. Expand understanding and practice of agroecology in food production

Defenders of the status quo in the US food system emphasize that current practices have been essential to keeping food affordable and available. Advocates argue that a more holistic approach, referred to as agroecology, is essential for meeting contemporary challenges, including reducing pollution, conserving water, and preserving biodiversity and soil health while better protecting people who work the land. Proponents of agroecology champion systems of combined crop, livestock, and pest management over single-crop, crowded factory farms and intensive tilling, irrigation, and fertilizer that characterize most US industrial agriculture production and farm subsidy recipients.

The US has limited agroecological approaches to food production in part because of worries that such practices cannot meet supply demands. But experiences from across the globe show that the industrial food chain only produces 30 percent of the world’s food. What’s more, industrial agriculture in the US has not rapidly adapted to shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change and has failed to eliminate food insecurity in the US. Concurrently, industrial agriculture disrupts ecosystems and harms human and environmental health, from polluting waterways to depleting nutrients from foods.

Agroecology also seeks to address cultural oppression by expanding traditional Black and Indigenous foods and growing practices. Given industrial agriculture’s limitations, allocating more resources to agroecology could address many of our food system’s problems. And because most agricultural workers are people of color—and because people of color are more likely to experience the negative effects of climate change—agroecology can also help advance racial equity.

The USDA can strengthen farm subsidies and training to grow more diverse, nutritious, and native food varieties using agroecology. It could also build on recent efforts to target subsidies and programming to ensure immigrants, women, young people, and people of color can access those resources. Federal policymakers could consider strengthening legal protections for Native food producers—many of whom have been practicing agroecological traditions for millennia, long before the term was coined. 

3. Support food chain worker livelihood

Food sovereignty means people—especially food workers—have a right to define their own food systems. Yet, agricultural workers are one of only a handful of employee classes exempt from the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act (PDF) and therefore lack federal wages, safe working conditions, and union protections. Many food workers cannot afford the food they help produce. Some states provide better protections, and farmworkers and other food workers continue to creatively and successfully advocate for their rights.

These efforts do not erase the need to enhance federal protections. To improve working conditions for food workers, Congress and the federal government could work together to implement the following:

These three strategies to expand food sovereignty all promote the intertwined goals of long-term COVID-19 recovery, climate resilience, and racial equity in the food system. With these approaches, policymakers have an opportunity to repair past harms and traumas and allow communities to lead vision and implementation.


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(Ariel Skelley / Getty Images)

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