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Racial Injustice: The Truth about Industrial Agriculture

FIC Staff | June 18, 2020

Racial Injustice: The Truth about Industrial Agriculture

Racial injustice is at the forefront of our collective thoughts, yet the continued structural dependence of the food system on racial oppression is often overlooked. For those of us demanding food system reform and for those of us for whom racial injustice is a lived experience, it comes as no surprise that the meat industry has thrived even as communities of color and Black and Brown farmers have suffered. The industry profits from decades of disproportionate impacts on communities of color due to discriminatory public policies, environmental injustice, and exploitative workplace practices. Indeed, modern industrial agriculture is a beneficiary of systemic racism.  

To understand the connection domestically, we must first look at land ownership in the United States. In 1910, 14% of all farmer owner-operators were Black or African American. But by 2012, they represented only 1.5% of farm owner-operators. Most of this dramatic loss of farmland happened during the 1950s, largely a result of discrimination by US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Farm Service Agency (formerly the Farmers’ Home Administration), which denied loans and federal support to farmers of color. Black farmers lost an average of 820 acres a day between 1950 and 1969. Millions of acres were stripped from Black farmers in the U.S. also as a result of lynchings targeted at landowners and heirs property exploitationUsing USDA census data, researchers have found that today white people represent the overwhelming majority of farm owners, while people of color form the majority of agricultural laborers. White people represent 96% of farm owner-operators in the US and generate 98% of all farmrelated income. Less than 4% of farm owner-operators in the US are farmers of color. Meanwhile, over 80% of farm laborers in the US are Latinx.  

As farmers of color were systematically dispossessed of their land, they also lost the opportunity to generate wealth in agriculture, and instead they were pushed into low-wage jobs – which in the meat industry, meant the processing plants. The meat industry began to change dramatically in the 60s and 70s as the invention of the Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) came into play and companies began to rapidly vertically integrate. CAFOs were more expensive to build than ordinary chicken farms, requiring access to capital or loans through USDA. As farmers of color were systematically denied loans and rapidly lost access to their land,  white farmers were able  to upgrade and buy-in to the industrial model. Farmers of color also faced direct discrimination from companies when they were able to apply for contracts. Today white males make up at least 96% of the population of contract chicken farmers in the US, according to USDA census data.  

As white farmers were consolidating their hold on the majority of the farmland, declining work conditions and the advent of white unions led to Black workers becoming the majority of the workforce inside plants. Big companies bought up smaller companies, condensing ownership and increasing the scale and speed of processing. While many factors impacted the desegregation of processing facilities, one major driver was the intensification of work and the decline of workplace conditions. White women had represented the majority of the processing workforce until around 1960, and black workers were prohibited from occupying such positions due to segregation. But as the white workforce began to organize to demand better conditions in some areas, companies shifted their policies on segregation and took advantage of the fact that they could ask Black workers to do the same job for lower pay. One worker who was part of desegregating a Southeastern Poultry plant in Forest, Mississippi was quoted as saying, “the whites had a walk-out, so they called the blacks in.” The industry quickly desegregated, and Black workers became a predominant workforce for meat processing.  

Also taking shape in the 60s and 70s was the powerful Civil Rights movement. Meat processing plants, along with many industrial settings such as textile factories, became battlegrounds for unions and workers rights. Demands of that time sound eerily similar to what workers are still fighting against today – dangerously fast linespeeds, repetitive motion injuries, cutting injuries, sexual harassment at work, discrimination in pay, and other issues.  

The strike at a Sanderson plant in Mississippi in 1979 further enflamed tensions by pitting white and black workers against one another. White workers who had slightly higher pay and better conditions were willing to cross the picket line. The effort to pit workers against each other along racial lines was used by companies willing to do anything to prevent unionization.  

As the industry continued to grow and concentrate into the hands of fewer and fewer companies, union busting and brutal working conditions only intensified. Plant managers and company executives began making excuses for high turnover rates, blaming lazy workers and claiming they had no choice but to recruit labor elsewhere. Case Farms, founded in Ohio in 1986, began recruiting Latinx workers from border towns in Texas soon after they established their major processing facilities. From there the company looked further south, recruiting workers from indigenous refugee populations in Guatemala and then other migrants from Central America and Mexico. By recruiting an increasingly desperate and migratory workforce, facility owners avoided accountability for abysmal working conditions. 

Outside of the plants, the meat industry has continued to follow the same pattern – taking advantage of disempowered communities, disproportionately communities of color. While companies report billions of dollars in profits each year, contract farmers often struggle to make ends meet, and communities surrounding the farms, predominantly historical communities of color, face hazardous, harmful pollution. 

In Duplin County, North Carolina, the hogs outnumber people by at least 9 to 1. Duplin and neighboring Sampson county have some of the most diverse demographics in the state – with roughly 45% of residents being people of color, primarily black and Latinx. The county also has an alarmingly high poverty rate, at nearly 26%. The eastern part of North Carolina is also home to several historic African American townships, such as Princeville in nearby Edgecombe county. These towns, originally settled by formerly enslaved Black people after the Civil War, have fought for access to services like municipal utilities while facing political and racial violence from surrounding white communities.   

In North Carolina, the placement of permitted CAFO hog lagoons lines up exactly with the historic location of African American populations. (see Table 1.)   

Table 1. Source: Steve Wing TEDx Manhattan, 2013: 

This comes as no surprise to Environmental Justice (EJ) activists, who have built a movement to expose the harmful pollution experienced disproportionately by communities of color from industrial sites, toxic waste, landfills, and – in the case of North Carolina – animal CAFOs. The North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) explains on their website that hog lagoons “are predominantly concentrated in low-income communities and communities of color of the state’s Eastern Coastal plain, where corporations are lured by pro-business tax incentives, lax environmental regulations, minimal oversight, and encounter little push back from community residents.” 

In 2019, FIC interns had an opportunity to visit with Rene Miller, a resident of Duplin County whose property borders multiple hog farms. She shared her own experience with the impact of these operations on her health and the challenges she faced when she spoke out about them in her community.  

Researchers at Duke University in North Carolina published a report in a state medical journal in 2017 demonstrating the spikes in diseases and  health conditions in communities surrounding hog farms. The data included “mortality rates, hospital admissions, and emergency department usage for health conditions potentially associated with hog CAFOs — anemia, kidney disease, infectious diseases, and low birth weight.” Their findings indicate a sharp spike even when they compared the outcomes to similarly low-income areas with the same demographics, indicating that it is the presence of CAFOs that has a significant impact on health.  

The efforts of environmental organizations and grassroots activists like NCEJN to change regulations around hog farms have been met with powerful industry response and divisions along familiar racial lines. As the vast majority of hog farmers (and all contract farmers, based on USDA statistics) are white, the fight over permitting hog lagoons has often pit white farmers against Black neighbors. Companies like Smithfield have fueled this division, making statements to discredit the EJ communities, claiming that activists are attacking farm families’ way of life while refusing to support farmers in paying for new technologies that would reduce odor and pollution.  

Industrial meat production in the US has grown into a powerful industry, dominated by corporate giants with multi-national holdings. The dependence of corporations on cheap and vulnerable labor and their ability to overpower communities of color in the placement of polluting facilities are not only the product of  racism in our society, to this day, they are still deeply embedded systems that contribute directly to both the suffering of communities of color and the success and profitability of the meat industry.