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Agroecology: A Labor of Love

In this blog, Ayana Curran-Howes and Nils McCune at the UVM Institute for Agroecology explore what agroecology represents to the millions of workers that produce the food that humans eat. What kind of liberation does agroecology represent for workers? We lay out three key areas for inquiry into an emerging critical theme: agroecology and the emancipation of labor.  


If in some way you’re exploiting the workers, it’s no different from exploiting land – taking care of people and taking care of land are part of the same thing.

Juanita Valdez-Cox, Farmworkers Co-op . 

Every day, about a billion people move their hands and bodies, under vastly different circumstances, to produce the food that humans eat. Hundreds of millions of these people are migrants, living with only partial access to human and civil rights. Many of them cannot afford a decent home to live in or visit a doctor when they are sick. Many are temporarily or permanently separated from their families. In organic agriculture, most of them cannot afford to buy the food they grow.

In industrial food systems, these workers are subject to long-term exposure to some of the most poisonous chemicals that capitalism has ever produced, and some of the most dangerous, disease-ridden, working conditions. The contamination of the land, water and atmosphere is rivalled by the toxic environment in which people of color, women, and minority groups try to survive. For these millions of workers, whose intimate familiarity with the land and knowledge of the language of plants and animals helps all of us eat each day, and for the vast diversity of lifeforms whose activity makes healthy ecosystems possible, what kind of liberation does agroecology represent?

About half of all food is produced by small farmers. Agroecology has long been a champion of these small farmers, the agrarian reform and territorial defense processes that give them land access, as well as the knowledge systems they use to integrate ecological processes into their work. But in its first four decades as an established, transdisciplinary approach to food system transformation, agroecology has only superficially questioned labor in agroecological systems and transformations.

In this blog, we lay out three key areas we have identified for inquiry into an emerging critical theme: agroecology and the emancipation of labor.

  1. What do we mean by work, anyway? The strange separation between “productive” and “reproductive” work, the evolution of exploitation in capitalism, the “humanism” that negates the labor and energy of non-human life forms, all make up critical areas for discussion among agroecological thinkers. Work is a concept in physics as well as social science, and it is the basis for human society. But, what is it, really, and why are some forms of it so deeply negated? What happens to our treatment of it and the practices we use when it is reconceptualized?
  2. Agroecology’s forgotten origins in the labor movement. We explore a provocative reading of the history of agroecology, one that situates its origins in the farmworker movement’s response to industrial agriculture and pesticide poisonings. It is not only its birth in this original mass action, but also the context of neoliberal restructuring, that shaped agroecology in its formative first decades.
  3. Whose work matters? We return to our understanding of what work is and why we need an agroecology of care in order to address the interconnected needs of an expanded group of workers: microbiota, women, farm workers, and farm animals. We propose a symbiosis of feminist care ethics, feminist agroecology, and emancipatory agroecological principles that would allow us to radically alter the ways in which we use our labor and acquire the necessities of life include food, housing and health care through caring multi-species relationships.

What do we mean by work, anyway?

We all work. It’s what we do to get paid, right? In that case, what about  the meals we prepare for our family and friends? It doesn’t take long for notions of work to feel much less solid than they seemed at first. Let us, then, take a moment to try and understand this most crucial of categories.

Photo courtesy of pexels

Conventional dictionary definitions take many different angles on the term, and its corollary phrases: work on, work at, at work, out of work, (sandwich with) the works… Merriam-Webster has an exhaustive approach, finding no fewer than 10 meanings of work as a transitive verb, seven meanings as an intransitive verb, 12 meanings as a noun, and three meanings as an adjective! If we agree to focus on nouns, despite the many meanings, there seems to be a general agreement: we are talking about effort with purpose.

Yet, as EF Schumacher argued in his posthumous book, Good Work, most people find that their jobs do the exact opposite of giving them purpose. He finds that the mindless, repetitive work of factories to be a permanent attack on the “brains, minds, and souls” of workers. Given that conventional, monoculture farms are what Carey McWilliams called “factories in the field” it is no wonder that industrial agriculture is uninspiring to farm workers. Just imagine working in a meat packing plant, with three to five seconds to carry out the same simple, violent movement on one anonymous animal carcass after another, as they pass by you on the assembly line all day.

Separate the thigh from the hip,

separate the thigh from the hip,

separate the thigh from the hip.

Now ask yourself, in exchange for what hourly wage would you be willing to work in that plant?(i)

Farm workers in the conventional food system are generally young, male, and born outside the United States. Existing outside of state and federal labor laws, they often work up to 80 hours per week during peak season, often without overtime pay, and then spend large parts of the year without work or income. As non-citizens, they have less access to unemployment, worker’s compensation, social security benefits, health care in general, and civil rights.

Pesticide poisoning incidents, which we discuss below, go 98% to 99% unreported, according to some estimates. Conditions of debt servitude and slavery continue to be discovered among the farm workers in the United States. During the COVID-19 pandemic, farm workers were treated as “essential but disposable.” The appalling conditions of conventional agricultural labor are the starting point for agroecological transformation.

Unfortunately, one of the lessons from the organic movement is that making farming more ecological doesn’t necessarily make it more socially just or inclusive: most of today’s organic produce on grocery shelves is harder for working-class families to afford and is produced through conventional agriculture’s same system of short-term labor contracting of vulnerable, unsafe workers without full access to human and social rights.

When we write about labor, then, we are referring to work, but in a broader, more social sense. Work is immediate, labor has a history. Labor is accumulated, bought, sold, as a force that combines with norms, rules, technologies, and material to create economies. Labor is free, shackled, alienated, exploited, or otherwise subjugated. People get rich because of someone else’s labor. Labor is also a movement, the oldest movement, as it were, bringing together people with shared interests in a class society.

Then, there is the delightful double entendre, because labor is also what mothers go through when they bring forth life. Some labor is paid; most labor is not. The ironically named reproductive sphere, invisible and owed the debt of humanity’s entire history is where women and soils and seeds have labored and labor still. This reproductive sphere is subjugated to the productive sphere: productivity and masculinity entwined, working for the man. Women’s labor is the majority of the total working hours of humanity, earning 10% the total income, so often carrying the emotional load. Women and nature are the socialist economies that subsidize the capitalist economy.

Purely productive labor knows no balances, but any labor with a dose of reproduction in it has to consider the future. Soviet economist Alexander Chayanov theorized the peasant economy as being laden with meticulous balances that kept labor within nature, rather than reifying it as something outside and opposed to nature, as in capitalist economies.

In peasant, or natural, economies, culturally significant leisure time gave way to hard labor as soon as local food self-sufficiency came into doubt. Harvests were for sustaining the traditional religious and class structures, as well as for family utility. Soil fertility was for this year’s harvest and for the next. Seed saving, animal breeding, soil management can all be understood as peasant balances, ways that these economies maintain relative autonomy from capitalist markets and historically guarantee the production of the present with the byproducts of the labor of the past.

Agroecology requires more labor, not less, but with many hands the workload can be light. Community work-brigades, traditional and modern mutual aid networks, integration of animal laborers, designs to minimize the need for external energy sources, and, fundamentally, working with, rather than against the successional flow of natural processes, make up the repertoire of agroecological approaches toward labor transition. Shifting away from mechanical and chemical means, fossil fuels, and fossil fuel-intensive inputs. There is also integration of more perennialism which can decrease the labor over time.

Agroforestry and perennial systems do not require steady labor, but bursts of lots of labor, making the community labor brigade model particularly appealing. This work is also knowledge-intensive and more efficient in terms of energy use.

This efficiency is possible through agroecology’s ability to build the basis of production, rather than deplete it as is expected in capitalist economies. By building this basis, the quality of life for all beings can be improved now and in perpetuity. With this though, the return on investment into agroecological systems will likely take a little longer due to the time it takes to rebuild soil, for a tree to grow, for us humans to adapt to using our bodies and minds in collaborative, non-exploitative ways. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

Agroecology’s forgotten origins in the labor movement

If capitalist industrial agriculture has its origins in the war industrial complex, agroecology has its origins in peasant, indigenous culture. Empire is a process of taking away from the periphery to feed the center. The plantation economy was built in high-productivity valleys and plains planted with monoculture agro-export crops by alienated labor. On the outskirts and in the hills, marginalized, peasant agriculture survived, but was slowly pulled into market relations of inequal economic exchange that impoverished the marginal countryside to the benefit of the city and the plantations. Despite the alienated relationship of farmworkers to the land, their roots as displaced indigenous people and their living reality as people  touching nature with skill and embodied knowledge have been the social basis for agroecology. This knowledge, like the healing powers of wise women accused of witchcraft, has historically been seen as a threat to capitalist order, and has been met with violence.

Depeasantization, privatization, the development of capitalist forms of production, and the expansion of war are deeply connected processes. Since the 1800s, as the war machine grew more scientific, more capitalist, and more global, its capacity to force peasants off the land and convert them into an exploitable working class consolidated and expanded. By the end of WWII, the military-scientific-policy complex became committed to the project of industrial agriculture—producing the world’s food in a globalized manner with as few people independently working the land as possible.

Part of this strategy is to replace living work on farms with chemical or mechanical means—adjusting the relationship between labor and capital, while also causing massive harm to ecosystems. The earliest massive use of pesticides—cyanide gas in 1880s Southern California citrus groves—enabled a transcontinental market in monoculture fruit, as more diverse local markets ceded space to long-distance commodities. The use of toxic substances is a way to replace labor and knowledge of how to manage diverse agroecosystems. Instead of complex ecological feedback mechanisms and labor-controlled crop rotations that limit the populations of weeds, insect pests, nematodes and pathogenic fungi, pesticides simplify landscapes and allow for simplified, mass market, and import-export food systems.

Many of the most infamous agrochemicals have been part of a revolving door between military and agricultural use. For example, the organophosphate insecticide parathion, implicated in some of the first widely-publicized pesticide poisonings in California leading to Congressional hearings in the 1960s, was also used during the 1960s and 1970s in a covert operation by the settler-colonial Rhodesian army to destroy the water sources of the indigenous Zimbabwean independence movement (Cross, 2017). Like the more famous chemical of war, Agent Orange, parathion was directly involved in imperial war against indigenous peasantry.

Chemical warfare agents not only were an arm in the struggle of empire against national liberation movements—they also attacked the displaced indigenous peasants working in US agriculture. As early as during the Bracero program in the 1940s, farm workers gave interviews about constant illness. Workers began to recognize that their entire surroundings, including their housing, rest areas, and clothing were carrying toxins that caused chronic headaches, burned their eyes and skin, made them cough and vomit, caused seizures, nosebleeds, and other symptoms. However, a series of legal, cultural, linguistic and economic barriers made it highly unusual for farm workers to report their pesticide exposure.

In the 1950s and 1960s, farm workers in California were getting organized and fighting for the right to organize unions and collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions. Filipino grape workers of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee went out on strike in September 1965, and asked César Chávez, head of the mostly latino National Farm Workers Association, to join them. The United Farm Workers (UFW) on strike led a 300-mile pilgrimage on foot from Delano to Sacramento, facing police batons and racist slurs. First radicals, communists, and socialists, then other labor unions, then Catholic nuns and priests, then civil rights groups, and eventually celebrities and politicians like Bobby Kennedy participated in the marches of the UFW through California towns and cities, as the strike became a nationwide boycott campaign. For the first time in US history, farm workers had the attention of the nation.

As the farm worker movement gained confidence, the issue of pesticide poisoning gained visibility. By 1969, the US Senate was hearing testimony from farmworkers on the health impacts of pesticides. The same year, César Chávez declared that “the issue of pesticide poisoning is more important today than even wages.” The awakening in public consciousness of pesticide threats to human and environmental health coincided with health and occupational concerns in other industries, and the passage of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) in 1970 and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency the same year. The popular movement had forced environmental degradation into the spotlight

By the time that most famous of organoclorides, DDT, was banned in the United States in 1972, over 1.35 billion pounds of it had been applied there. Despite its ban, DDT continued to be manufactured in the US and sold in global south countries until 1985. Similar experiences with other highly toxic chemicals led to a popular framing narrative in the 1980s of pesticide political economy, by which toxic compounds produced by US chemical companies are used in industrial agro-export plantations of the global south and return to the US as residues in food such as bananas and sugar.

This story of corporate malfeasance, global north-south relations, and Western consumerism in the post-Vietnam era provided the political and analytic context in which agroecology emerged as a discipline in the United States. While recognizing the pioneering work of academics like Stephen Gliessman at the University of California in Santa Cruz and Miguel Altieri at the University of California in Berkeley during the 1980s, we would argue that farmworker organizing and mobilizing was no less a crucial root of agroecology.

Whose work matters? Centering a feminist care ethic of work

Learning to work together is at the essence of an agroecological transition. What does it take to work together, conscientiously and at different scales? How can we prevent sliding into traditional divisions of labor in the small-scale farm, post-harvest, packaging and distribution centers. Traditionally, men have their own workplace risks, including higher rates of pesticide poisoning than women. Women, on the other hand, deal with permanent implied violence, gaslighting, sexual harassment, pressure to marry and have children, disproportional amounts of housework, inability to participate fully in decision-making, forced motherhood, caretaking for infants, children, elderly and the ill. Women’s work is systematically given less economic value than men’s work.

In the United States, the work of black people and brown people has been absolutely taken advantage of, including through physical enslavement, forced extreme poverty, a lack of voting rights and basic workplace protections, redlining and property theft, being flooded by addictive drugs, a predatory model of military recruitment and the policing presence of an occupying force. The permanent level of police harassment and physical violence against black people in the United States makes it nearly impossible even to discuss an agroecological transition when a large part of the population, one that has been historically mistreated based on race, is still at danger in a continuous, permanent form of violent repression. The relationship with the land for people of color in the US is fraught with this history of abuse, exploitation, and racist violence.

Western reductionism, binary thinking, patriarchy, and utilitarian philosophy would have us think that only people work (and even then, there is more visibility for men’s labor than women’s). Why is it so hard for science to recognize that bees, ants, soil microbes, gut bacteria, citrus trees, maple roots, all living beings, are working? What would it look like for these “others” to be considered co-workers in our struggle for a just transition for laborers in industrial agricultural settings? If an injury to one is an injury to all, how do we care for everyone?

In organizing for laborers, it is hard to represent the needs of the entire collective if they are not actively participating and you are not actively listening. One of the first steps as researchers in answering these questions then is to change the predominant ways of listening or collecting data. We can challenge methodological norms that are anthropocentric and patriarchal and take a feminist care-ethics approach, using multispecies ethnography and creative methods that seek to capture truths beyond the limitations of species capabilities, language, and positivist notions of science.

A feminist care ethics approach is contextualized, based off relationships, values emotion, and rejects abstract, universalizing principles for the collective. This is in line with agroecology’s place-based approaches and by making this more explicit, researchers and farmers can work together to break down internal and disciplinary biases towards the labor of women, non-human animals, and nature.

Agroecology rejects the commodification of all forms of life. The commodification of land and the commodification of labor are stages that follow the theft of both. We want to co-create a body of thought and action within agroecology that recognizes all forms of labor and can mobilize the creative energies of our societies to shift, rapidly, from a fossil-fuel dependent, Earth-destroying model of hyper-individualism, debt, and vanity, to a model of interdependence, social co-responsibility, sanctity, decency, dignity, and love.

Beyond research, ‘reproductive’ labor or care work is the glue to society. Yet it is undervalued at every possible point within capitalism and those that perform this work (largely women and women of color) are stretched thin. The result is a care deficit and since care is based upon relationships, rebuilding relationships in our own communities is crucial to counter the fast-paced, growth of industrial agriculture that radically eliminates relationships.

Today, increasing scale and technological requirements to maintain productivity and growth separates consumers from their food, farmers from their land, animals from both farmers and the outdoors, healthy environments necessary for their wellbeing. Increasing efficiency runs counter to farmers developing deep relationships with consumers, the land-base, and specific individual health needs of animals, their coworkers.

These relationships matter because trusting relationships between farmers and animals increase ease and safety of work, trusting relationships between farmers and other farmers increases sharing of knowledge and resources, and so on and so forth. For instance, with more individualized care of animals and more intimate place-based knowledge, we avoid the preventative overuse of antibiotic and pesticides.

Recognizing that much of the care economy is unvalued under capitalism does not mean that we want the labor of love to be monetized. Paying women wages for their reproductive work acts as a band aid within the gaping wound of capitalism, instead of addressing the root cause of the injury. Rather, agroecology transitions should be about transforming work altogether—away from permanent alienation, toward enchantment, mindfulness, fitness, and wisdom.

This is already happening in many ways: agroecological work creates learning situations for children in school gardens, while it is the basis for rehabilitation of growing numbers of incarcerated people; agroecological work activates our minds and sense of aesthetics, our capacity to observe and our sensitivity to the feelings and well-being of diverse forms of life. Our bodies learn, not just our minds. Our communities learn, not just as individuals but as collectives and territories, building overlapping sovereignties and identities.

Agroecological work brings us closer to what we share with our non-human cohabitants of Earth. In biodiverse farms that support habitat and rebuild soil fertility while producing healthy working environments free of pesticides and an economically viable product, these are but one of a kaleidoscope of laborers, coming into interaction with one another at distinct scales of space and time.

One of the most pivotal areas of growth for agroecology in the coming years as the world faces economic and ecological strife will be to elaborate on the material and immaterial ways in which agroecology supports the emancipation of labor from the shackles of capitalism and, in its place, cultivates a labor built on love.

Final thoughts

Agroecology is a burgeoning field that is necessary for addressing food systems transformation because other food initiatives like organic and regenerative agriculture do not attempt to disrupt power imbalances. Agroecology is committed to social justice, building movements around farmer autonomy from agribusiness, advancing study of women’s contribution to agriculture in popular peasant feminism, and the creation of emancipatory agroecology principles, such as decolonization. This is why, for example, agroecologists cannot remain silent as US empire, through a setter-colonial satellite, carries out a genocide against the Palestinian people. Agroecologists struggle for liberation and an end to apartheid across the land.

There are many signs of agroecology’s ability to provide the material conditions for emancipating labor. Agroecology can improve the quality of work through reskilling, sharing of labor burdens, and stimulating work that requires creative problem solving . As a practice that mobilizes land- and place-based knowledge, it can provide meaning, dignity, and pride to workers. Agroecology also builds the productive base for adding value to resources, investing in the future upon which we and generations to come depend (e.g., building soil).

Lastly, agroecology is a grassroots movement and consequently holds vast potential for mobilizing workers in grassroots initiatives to fundamentally alter labor dynamics in processes of transition and transformation. This gives agroecology a certain measure of independence from the rules and laws of capitalist economy. The moral economy, feminist economy, care economy, solidarity economy and peasant economy are all modes of operation familiar to agroecological farmers and movement members.

Neither exploiting immigrant labor, nor depending on NGOs that pay high salaries, is a solution to agroecology’s “labor problem”– only radical solutions (redistributive land reform, free and universal health care and education, socialism) can do that. This is why agroecology is one part of a larger puzzle: a decoupling from empire, a profound and justice-centered agrarian reform, and ancestral ecological knowledge oriented toward the production of healthy and diverse foods.

As agroecology, rightly, grows in reputation, it would do well to reflect on its alliances. How important are foundation partners, and how important is the working class? We propose that agroecologists explicitly aim to reconceptualize work, disrupt power imbalances, and galvanize support across classes, sectors and species of laborers to have a truly transformative transition to an agroecological economy founded on care.

Acknowledgements

Given that this blog is being published on Mayday, we want to take a moment to thank our co-workers and colleagues at the Institute for Agroecology for creating an intellectually challenging, socially engaged space in which to labor together. Particularly we thank Matthew Burke for his editing support and encouragement within our working group on Agroecology and Labor. We also want to give thanks to the many working people who make our food each day, and the many forms of non-human life that create the conditions for our nourishment. Thank you, and may your work never be in vain.


(i) Soul Fire Farm, a diverse, agroecological community farm in New York State, uses this question in the context of training programs about the racialized food system. The authors would like to give thanks to Soul Fire Farm for sharing this useful example.

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