The U.S. food system is deeply rooted in injustice. From the land stolen from Native peoples and the plantation enslavement of Black people to the exploitation of migrant farmworkers from Mexico and elsewhere in the Americas, the abuse of workers and animals in industrial slaughterhouses, and the underpayment of workers across the industry, our food system is built on inequity and oppression.
These same communities are also statistically more likely to be harmed by the environmental impacts of food production, while statistically less likely to have access to healthy, sustainable food. Climate change, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss disproportionately affect Black communities and other communities of color, which are also disproportionately harmed by exposure to health-related climate impacts, pesticides and other toxics.
A just food system is one that is fair, ethical, humane and equitable for all. Many frontline organizations are leading the way to a more just, sustainable food system by fighting for workers’ rights, celebrating culturally diverse and traditional foods and advancing food sovereignty. These are all interconnected pieces of food justice and are part of the larger environmental, racial and social justice movements.
A food system based on diverse, regional and traditional knowledge and practices is a necessary part of ensuring the right to healthy food, clean air and water, and safe jobs with fair wages.
We can only achieve a truly just, sustainable food system by drastically reducing meat consumption and production. The principles described above can only be realized by eradicating exploitation in industrial agricultural practices. And in addition to meat reduction, a sustainable food system must also conserve natural resources by minimizing waste and pollution and protecting both land and ocean ecosystems.
The Center works with allies from health-advocacy, animal-protection and worker-justice organizations to redefine the concept of sustainable food to encompass practices that benefit people, other animals and the planet.
Breastfeeding parents face challenges that highlight the need for solutions that include environmental and human health. For example, while not all parents can, or choose to, breastfeed, producing milk for formula requires an excessive amount of water and land, and leaves behind an unsustainable amount of toxic manure and greenhouse gas pollution. When breastfeeding is possible, it has significantly fewer harmful environmental impacts and can help prevent malnutrition and alleviate poverty.
Dairy cattle are responsible for 19% of the global water footprint of animal agriculture. Milk alone is responsible for about 3% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Grazing cattle also degrade biodiverse habitats, contributing to the extinction of native wildlife. Compared to breastmilk, formula requires more energy to produce, package and distribute; packaging ends up in landfills and our oceans. Providing support for breastfeeding parents rather than promoting formula is imperative.
Dairy is also unjustly imposed on U.S. schoolchildren. Milk has long been a requirement in child nutrition programs like the school lunch program, despite research showing it is not necessary for a healthy, sustainable diet. Many children participating in the school meal program are lactose intolerant. In 2020 a coalition of doctors, nurses, and health and nutrition experts called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services to make it clear that dairy products are unnecessary and unhealthy for many Black, Indigenous and other people of color. In 2018 the American Medical Association issued a resolution regarding the high frequency of lactose intolerance in African-American, Asian American and Native American communities.
Making it easier for children and parents to choose alternative plant-based milks, or no milk, is a priority for our policy work in improving equitable access to healthy, sustainable food.
COVID-19 highlighted vulnerabilities in our food system and injustices that existed long before the pandemic began.
One of the places this was most evident was in the meatpacking industry, which, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is the most dangerous jobs in the country. Despite public-health recommendations to stem the pandemic, workers were crammed in inhumane and unsafe conditions, often not allowed bathroom breaks or adequate PPE gear. With no health insurance and under threat of losing work, many had little choice but to continue working if they became ill. As the crisis worsened, rather than ensuring every American had access to personal protection equipment, the federal government pressured vulnerable meatpacking workers to return to work.
As of April 2021, 50,000 meatpacking workers had caught COVID, with a community spread of 340,000 related cases and 18,000 meatpacking industry-related deaths.
Black farmers and other farmers of color struggled under the financial strain of the pandemic, especially as supply chains were disrupted by an increasingly consolidated industry. Yet rather than support these farmers, a majority of agricultural bailout funds in 2020 went to giant agribusinesses that saw profit margins grow during the crisis.
The meat and dairy industry also had a role to play in the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did the industry exploit vulnerable workers but health-related problems from pollution, lack of access to healthcare, and lack of access to healthy food made the pandemic hit Black and Latino communities harder. The same industry is also responsible for much of the deforestation, habitat destruction and pressure it’s putting on the planet, that led to the emergence of the novel coronavirus.
In 2020 we created the Food Justice Film Festival to elevate and amplify the voices of farmers, foodworkers, activists and filmmakers while continuing a dialogue on the issues surrounding who grows our food, how our food is grown, who has access to sustainable food and who is harmed by industrial-farming practices and policies.