What if a small, family-run farm could make as much money growing seasonal fruits and vegetables for their local market as they would growing industrial commodity crops like corn or soybeans? What if rural economies could be stronger year on year and more resilient to changing climates? What if stewarding forests and fields in a way that prioritized care for the local environment made financial sense for farmers? What if raising beans instead of beef were the clear choice?
These scenarios represent some of the outcomes of a just transition for the agricultural sector, a process by which agriculture in the US and around the globe could be transformed for the benefit of farming communities, workers, food consumers, and the environment.
The idea of a just transition in agriculture refers to frameworks for restructuring food systems based on production and consumption philosophies that prioritize sustainability, decarbonization, and the wise and fair use of human, financial, and environmental resources.
Just transitions favor farming techniques and practices that do not come from the standard playbook of industrial agriculture, which extracts profit from the natural world while harming animals, farming communities, and the environment.
Just transition focuses instead on the principles of agroecology, an approach to farming that supports natural ecosystem function and employs natural ecosystem processes in place of agrichemicals like pesticides and fertilizers. Also central are circular economic models, which emphasize the reuse of materials and have traditionally been applied to manufacturing sectors. Together, these principles and models can make food systems resilient, equitable, and environmentally sustainable.
In addition to envisioning these ambitious yet attainable end goals, a just transition also encompasses the ways in which these goals are to be achieved. The process is challenging, requiring strong political will and coordinated action at many levels to achieve systemic change. Political deadlock, half measures, and failure to involve and respect stakeholder voices can lead to delays and watered down agreements rather than producing tangible benefits for historically marginalized communities. Just transitions encourage participatory approaches that identify and account for all stakeholder perspectives, helping to ensure that all of society benefits—including farmers, farmworkers, and Indigenous and rural communities.
To be truly successful and transformational, societal transitions must address underlying injustices and inequalities that plague the existing system. This combination of social justice with the goals of systemic change creates the frame of just transition.
Just transition strategies were first developed by labor unions in the 1990s to support workers who experienced job loss due to market changes occurring in response to environmental legislation. They have since evolved into proactive and inclusive ways to transition industries and whole economies toward decarbonization, sustainability, and climate change resilience while providing workers and marginalized communities with the crucial financial and social support needed to adopt new practices.
Calls for a just transition in energy have illustrated this process. Despite the worsening challenges posed by climate change and increasingly grim assessments of risk, rising global emissions keep the world moving toward worst-case scenarios. Emissions reduction has focused thus far on transitioning the energy industry, for example, by reducing power generation from coal. But the energy industry is deeply unjust, meaning any decarbonization transition must address justice concerns. The pollution and economic hardships caused by the fossil fuel industry damage the health and wellbeing of nearby communities, which are disproportionately home to lower-income residents, BIPOC[i] communities, and immigrant or undocumented workers.
Recently, food production, particularly industrial agriculture, has come under international scrutiny for its significant portion of total anthropogenic emissions, leading to calls for a transition. Yet, industrial agriculture giants downplay the climate damage of their current practices. They continue to position their GHG-intensive toolkit of high-input monocrops, genetically modified seeds, and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as the only way to feed the world, despite the estimated two billion people who remain food insecure within the industrial food system.
Calls for transition in agriculture, as in energy, are deeply connected to injustice. Hunger persists in the face of abundance because industrial agriculture works in service of profit rather than animal, human, or environmental wellbeing. Food production and consumption are highly unequal, perpetuating social and environmental injustices throughout the world. Industrial agriculture creates a vicious cycle of instability and vulnerability across the global system while also damaging the future by polluting waters, driving biodiversity loss, and endangering human health. Climate damage, animal cruelty, and social injustice are all driven by the narrow cost-efficiency focus of industrial agriculture. Transforming our food system with respect for people, animals, and the environment will require a transition rooted in justice.
The problems in our food system are systemic. They require a combination of governmental action, labor organizing, grassroots movements, and civil society engagement to deploy social support and implement policies to create a just transition in agriculture.
The principles underpinning a just transition can vary from one place to another since agricultural systems can look very different depending on their geographical location and social context. However, the core principles below can apply to virtually any food system.
One of the most important principles of a just transition is to properly account for and address pre-existing structural inequalities in the existing system. In the food system, this means prioritizing farmer-led solutions in food production and ensuring that transition plans include representation from a wide range of impacted communities endowed with genuine power to shape solutions.
For example, farmers and farmworkers growing industrial crops like corn or soy may be leery of changes that encourage them to grow crops that are less profitable in the short term but more environmentally sustainable in the long term. Many poultry farmers working under contracts with integrators face steep financial pressures that may make transition difficult, or even impossible to consider without support. Farmers of all kinds may also be cautious of adopting unfamiliar sustainable growing techniques in place of the familiar high-input industrial methods they have come to rely on. If these valid concerns are not heard and addressed, farming communities may work against agricultural change.
Failure to account for the perspectives of key stakeholders can also lead to further entrenching existing inequalities and human rights violations, even when well-meaning solutions are implemented. For example, forgoing pesticides can help reduce contamination of the environment and protect human health. Yet more environmentally-friendly approaches may require additional human labor. Faced with increased labor costs, farmers may pass along the financial hardship to workers in the form of lower wages or more exploitative working conditions.
Agroecological farm work can contribute to food justice by building farmer bargaining power and passing useful management skills from one generation to the next, but it may still be a difficult adjustment for farmers operating with little financial buffer. While minimization of human labor is in part a priority leftover from industrial agriculture’s drive for cost efficiency, a just transition must support farmers and processors who shift to more environmentally-friendly practices with viable solutions to economic concerns. Analysis has shown that a just transition could create millions of new jobs within food and farming, within the broader context of a food system transformation.
Commercial industrial agriculture as it is practiced in the US and other high-income nations of the Global North is a key driver of climate change. Core practices of industrial agriculture, including reliance on synthetic agrichemicals, vast expanses of monocrops, damage to agricultural soils, and overproduction of animals and their feed crops, emit enormous quantities of GHGs. Farming communities also stand to sustain significant damage from climate change, as their livelihoods depend on natural landscapes and weather patterns. Just transition must offer real solutions for farming economies built on industrial agriculture and mobilize the potential of farmers to contribute to climate solutions.
Just transition advocacy must also engage and support small-scale and subsistence farmers as well as Indigenous communities who will be impacted by food systems transition, groups that are often left out of solutions-based discussions focused on the Global North and on the commercial agriculture industry. Traditional land management by subsistence agrarian and Indigenous communities has the potential to be a leading strategy in the fight against climate change if just transition can effectively engage these groups who are currently marginalized by emissions reduction dialogues. By protecting Indigenous and smallholder land rights and creating structures for participation and co-creation of solutions by all stakeholders, robust transition plans can mobilize bottom-up leadership and develop solutions that represent a paradigm shift toward justice-based sustainability.
A 2019 report found that over two billion people worldwide struggle with food insecurity. Even within high-income nations, including the US, millions of people go hungry on a regular basis. In the US, people facing hunger often have to choose between affordability and health, because the cheapest foods are often those that offer the poorest nutrition. Decades of racially-motivated community disinvestment have led to what food activist Karen Washington calls food apartheid, where access to healthy food is largely dependent on zip code and racial background. Combatting the inequalities and injustices that shape differential access to healthy food and finding global solutions to chronic hunger are a major focus of a just transition for agriculture.
In many contexts around the world, farming has long been conflated with masculinity, a persistent stereotype that hides reality, and also shapes it. In the US, 51% of farms have at least one woman among their management, but only 14% are primarily owned or operated by women. Around the world, women make up as much as 80% of the total workforce involved in the agricultural sector. Despite this, women are especially at risk of hunger and are routinely denied the opportunities and support given to male farmers. One report estimated that 100-150 million people across the Global South could be lifted out of chronic hunger if women farmers were ensured the same protections and production resources as male farmers. Just transition can be part of the solution for gender inequalities in food and farming.
Poverty is another problem that is global in scope—one that can only be resolved by directly confronting corporate power. Helping farm workers unionize, and strengthening the power of unions, can create a counterpoint to unchecked corporate power. Decades of corporate consolidation of industrial agriculture in rural American have contributed to poverty by squeezing small and mid-sized farms out of markets, unable to compete with industrial producers. Mechanization and vertical integration of industrial agriculture have hollowed out once-thriving farming communities by diminishing employment opportunities and decreasing patronage of local businesses. Breaking up agribusiness monopolies and reinvesting in smaller farms can be a part of just transition strategies.
In lower-income nations, many farmers face land grabs by multinational interests who buy or lease land without the consent of farming residents, leaving previous farmers without other sources of income and leading many into severe poverty. Powerful agribusiness interests can also monopolize common resources such as water, preventing smaller farmers from accessing what they need in order to maintain their operations. Just transition will require strengthening local land tenure rights to prevent land and resource grabs and their devastating social consequences.
A just transition for the agricultural sector may incorporate a range of social and environmental goals that support a transformed agriculture sector:
Food systems are inextricably connected to the planet’s ecosystems. When unsustainable practices are employed for producing and processing food, many living beings can be harmed—human and nonhuman alike. An agricultural just transition therefore has the opportunity, and the responsibility, to safeguard the wild plants and animals that help make life on Earth possible.
Within industrial animal agriculture, farmed animals are treated as commodities, and profits are prioritized over their wellbeing. Ending the use of intensive industrial animal production in CAFOs and reducing the numbers of animals raised for meat and other food products should therefore be part of a just transition.
Providing farmers with the training, resources, and supportive policy frameworks that can facilitate a shift to agroecological farming practices is another primary goal of just transition. Making these transitions economically attractive to farmers, producers, workers, and communities will not only pave the way towards more effective, long-term, and widespread adoption of these transitions, but will also help correct long-standing injustices.
2) TRANSITION FARMERS AWAY FROM ANIMAL AGRICULTURE
Industrial animal agriculture has an outsized impact on the global environmental crisis, which is why transitioning away from this type of farming is paramount. Globally, farmed animal production emits 14.5% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Land used for cattle pasture or to grow farmed animal feed accounts for 77% of the total agricultural land on Earth while providing only a fraction of the total calories consumed by people.
High-income nations like the US consume huge volumes of meat per capita, driving deforestation and other negative environmental outcomes throughout the world. Reducing reliance on industrial animal agriculture and increasing opportunities for farmers in plant-based agriculture are therefore important goals of a just transition.
3) RESTRUCTURE AGRICULTURAL FUNDING
Multinational agribusiness corporations grow more powerful by the year, making governments around the world increasingly tempted to act at the behest of corporate interests. Restructuring agricultural funding is a crucial component of a just transition.
Governments around the world subsidize agriculture to the tune of $600 billion per year, influencing what food is grown where. An international report found that only 1% of total global subsidies given to the global agricultural sector aimed to maintain environmental integrity, while the vast majority support forest destruction, the overuse of fertilizer, and cattle production. The report also highlights that, contrary to the popular narrative, subsidies are not necessary in order to produce cost-effective food, finding that smaller-scale, sustainable production can actually reduce food costs overall.
Billions of dollars of farm subsidies disbursed by the US federal government prop up and distort American agriculture in favor of commodity crops like soy and corn. These subsidies largely benefit industrial producers, propping up the meat industry and the manufacturing of processed foods.
Agricultural checkoff programs run by the United States Department of Agriculture are also in need of reform. These programs collect taxes from producers of products such as pork and beef to conduct research and promotion on behalf of these sectors. Under the influence of agribusiness, however, checkoff money can be misappropriated for activities such as lobbying officials for more favorable operating environments for big business, which wind up harming smaller producers and rural communities.
While frameworks for just transitions in agriculture differ from region to region based on local needs, they tend to share some main features:
- Assuming an international approach in order to encourage cooperation between national governments is often crucial, given the interconnectedness of food systems.
- Shifting responsibility for financing and supporting change from the individual level to the governmental level supports systemic change.
- Emphasizing progressive policies is important, since governments must work to reallocate resources towards those stakeholders who will ultimately carry out the work of the transition. One example of an effective governmental policy is public procurement: agreements which commit large-scale institutions, such as those in the health care sector, to purchasing food products from transitioning supply chains.
- Acknowledging the need to equip individuals with the skills and economic empowerment necessary to carry out transition, while maintaining the primary emphasis on systemic factors that contribute to change.
- Emphasizing farming and processing techniques that are designed to limit carbon emissions and utilize agroecological principles is important, as is helping farmers and producers through the transition with a welcoming process that ensures their social and economic stability.
A just transition is not only possible but imperative for securing the prosperity and livability of our planet for future generations. Time is rapidly running out to limit the extent of anthropogenic warming that will occur over the next century, disrupting food systems and societies around the world. Lower-income nations of the Global South are likely to be hardest hit by climate change, due in large part to legacies of injustice from colonialism, and the neocolonialism of globalization. It is time to resolve the ongoing injustices perpetrated by contemporary industrial food systems for good.
There is growing energy behind a just transition for agriculture, as evidenced by the increasing number of people and organizations dedicated to implementing solutions. It is critical for food system advocates to support this groundswell of awareness and build momentum for agricultural transformation, while deepening our commitment to the principles and goals of a just transition.
In the US, many convenience stores and grocery stores source directly from the industrial food system. The absence of robust networks of alternative production mean that people who purchase food have few accessible options for avoiding the exploitation, impoverishment, animal abuse, and environmental degradation of industrial food production.
A just transition in the US would require a systemic shift away from extractive, conventional agriculture that is driven by profit alone. With appropriate policy support and amplification of farmer-led solutions, a just transition in US agriculture could replace commodity feed crops and CAFOs with small and mid-sized farms growing a variety of plant foods for direct human consumption. Freely available training and education could facilitate the adoption of agroecological growing practices, while financial supports could cushion farmers against uncertain economic impacts during transition. Agroecology education could also help new farmers learn how to steward the land without the use of agrichemicals.
Reform of public subsidies and incentives could help to reverse decades of racial bias and damage to rural economies, enabling the emergence of local food webs built on diverse and inclusive family farming.
A just and sustainable food system would bring benefits to farmers and rural communities in the form of healthier environments and stronger local economies. This decentralized food system would break the dominance of agribusiness giants and allow more wealth to stay in farming communities. Transitioning away from CAFOs and centralized industrial meatpacking would eventually eliminate the cruel exploitation of animals and provide food system workers with the empowerment they deserve in the form of stronger bargaining power and safe and dignified employment options. In a food system no longer dominated by publicly subsidized commodity crop production and processed food, consumers would have more access to healthy food through grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and worker-owned cooperatives. Urban food production could increase accessibility and empower a new generation of diverse farmer-owners to supply city dwellers with local fresh food.
The movement for a just transition for agriculture needs civil society support at many levels of the food system. Policy advocates can help to put just transition on the agendas of policymakers and raise awareness of the ways in which existing policy intensifies pressures on farming communities. Advocates forging relationships with farmers and ranchers can deepen their understanding of just transition principles and commit to supporting grassroots solutions arising within farming communities. Food system funders can center justice in their visions for a transformed food and farming sector and increase their support for community food justice initiatives and rural stakeholder associations working for change. As supporters of all levels of the movement for a better food system, funders’ dollars will go far in supporting initiatives helping to kickstart just transitions.
The current industrial food system works for agribusiness rather than serving the needs of farmers, consumers, animals, or the environment. Transition is needed, but it must be a just transition. Solutions to the problems of the conventional food system must be rooted in justice, delivering a new model of food production free from the exploitation and degradation that characterizes industrial farming. By involving everyone in work to transition our food system to justice and sustainability, we can build a truly livable future for generations to come.
[i] BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term is not universally embraced, particularly because it can erase the experiences of individual groups by lumping them together. We recognize this serious drawback and use the term only when a statement is truly applicable to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities. When an experience or condition is applicable only to a specific group, we use specific rather than general language.
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