When it comes to the ecological dimension of labor and the possibility of reclaiming the means of re/production as a means of climate production, agriculture is one of the most contentious fields of discussion. This is not least because here, as in most areas suffering from the insolvable contradictions of the capitalist system, the right wages its racist battles of division and false solutions. In her contribution to the BG text series “Allied Grounds,” Anoushka Zoob Carter examines the exploitative and colonial links among Britain, Spain, and Africa, and explores how migrant farm workers, who are the most exploited in this system and the most threatened by far-right mobilization, can become agents of system change.
Food is both an object through which the ecological politics of the right can be analyzed and a powerful mobilizing symbol of internationalist solidarity among agricultural workers. In Europe, countless testimonies speak of the deplorable conditions faced by farm workers in the fields, greenhouses and polytunnels. This abuse is part of an endless list of true costs behind cheapened produce in the aisles of Europe’s supermarket chains.
Spain and the UK, for instance, have sought benefits from an agricultural sector that cheapens human labor so that the capitalist food economy can grow unfettered. Both states have also seen far right and radical right electoral politics claiming to represent the interests of popular farmers and rural issues. However, right-wing agricultural policies protect the very capitalist economic system that has devastated the ecological processes on which farming itself depends. As the agroecological transition movement grows in both countries, how can transitional justice in agriculture speak to the entanglements between labor, ecology, and growing right-wing mobilization?
Digging the dirt on agrarian populism
In Spain, ultra-conservative and far-right parties Partido Popular (PP) and VOX place agriculture and rural livelihoods at the center of their populist politics. Their protectionist agenda for products of ‘Spanish origin’ aims to appeal to small and medium-sized livestock farmers. VOX professes itself to be the only party speaking out in defense of the countryside and unfair competition with non-EU food products. With particular contempt for EU (and national) law, the PP and VOX regional government of Castilla y León attempted to push through a legal amendment that would allow farmers to transport cattle potentially infected with Tuberculosis.
However, while VOX tries to align itself with the struggles of farmers, they do so more with the wealthy farmer, not the “little guy” as they try to portray themselves. Those affected have also noticed this. In 2020, VOX attended a farmers’ demonstration in Madrid against unfair food pricing. They were asked to leave by the organizers, who rejected the party’s attempt to use the event to promote itself. Their populist façade was exposed once again when, in 2021, both VOX and PP voted against a law that would protect farmers from selling at a loss to supermarkets.
VOX also advocates for the mega-farms – an industry dictated by agribusiness – that have made Spain Europe’s largest producer and exporter of pork. These industrial operations cause great environmental pollution for which the EU has taken Spain to court. In response, VOX decries environmental policies imposed from Europe and the ‘environmental left’ as leading to the lack of profitability of agricultural holdings. It comes as no surprise that several of VOX’s members working in its agricultural affairs financially benefit from mega-farm businesses.
Working in “Europe’s vegetable garden”
Beyond its self-serving agrarian politics, VOX and PP whitewash the agrarian economy in Spain. In Andalucía, known as “Europe’s vegetable garden,” migrant farm workers are constantly targeted by VOX’s racist, Islamophobic, and fascist anti-migrant ideologies. While VOX positions farming as a patriotic duty, its political practice of the ‘desirable farmer’ excludes migrant (farm) workers.
Similarly, since Brexit, the radicalizing right-wing Conservative Party has struggled to secure the labor force necessary for the corporate food regime to continue to produce food industrially at competitive prices. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, farmers and food producers were referred to as the ‘lifeblood’ of the nation. However, this was illustrated with the image of farmers with land and capital, not the migrant or landless workers who make so many farms productive. The latter have been defended by some farm owners, but only on the grounds of maintaining ‘competitiveness’ and the need for cheap labor.
The ecologies of disaster (agri)capitalism
The dominant agri-capitalist food system that the far right seeks to defend is based not only on the precariousness of human life, but also on the precariousness of ecological systems. Spain is the single largest source of all fresh produce imported into the UK, tied to a supply of fruit and vegetables produced in a water stressed region. Around 76% of the fresh water consumed in the UK’s entire supply of fruit and vegetables is drawn elsewhere, including from Spain where nearly two-thirds of its territory faces potential desertification.
The vicious circle between agricultural production and water scarcity is exacerbated by populist water politics. The right-wing ecological politics of VOX and PP obstruct real action, e.g. by refusing to take record-breaking droughts seriously and by rejecting the ‘religion of climate change’. Instead, they promise to preserve the agrarian economy at all costs, most notably by granting amnesty to hundreds of Andalusian strawberry farmers to allow their previously illegal water extraction. Though halted by the central Spanish government, their lingering plans threaten the survival of Doñana, one of Europe’s most significant wetlands.
In true far-right style, VOX and PP deny ecological realities and claim that water scarcity is not the problem, but rather a lack of technology. Whilst some question the future of horticulture in Spain’s desertifying south, VOX looks to technological solutions to transfer more water from wetter parts of the peninsula to irrigate crops and – as one VOX spokesperson proposed – to capture water from rivers instead of letting it flow to the sea to be “wasted.” The party follows in the footsteps of the fascist dictator Franco who oversaw the transformation of Andalucía’s semi-arid landscape through irrigation technology and infrastructure. Thus, as ecosystems teeter on the brink of collapse, the techno-fixes that animate far-right imaginaries and politics – tellingly in line with the liberal transition plans advocated by the FAO, the OECD, and the EU – appear to be nothing more than “bridging technology” for disaster agri-capitalism.
Agricultural history rooted in injustice
The agri-capitalist food system not only robs the soil of its integrity but robs the worker of their rights. For example, the berry greenhouses in Huelva and Almería, known as the “Sea of Plastic” and notorious for mistreating farm workers, are the main source of fruit imported to the UK during the winter. Companies operating here hire seasonal workers from Spain and – increasingly – from Morocco and Senegal; often women, and often without contracts. The Brigada de Observación Feminista – a group of anti-racist feminist lawyers – has been documenting grievances of farm workers in this region. But the human cost of food is not just ‘over there.’ A look behind the hedgerows of farmland in the UK reveals a labor force subjected to the capitalist mode of being, called by numbers not names, subjected to wage theft, racism, and verbal abuse. Research by the Landworker’s Alliance shows the average migrant agricultural worker on a seasonal worker visa – increasingly recruited from the Global South after Brexit – lives in absolute poverty.
The precarious labor behind capitalist agricultural production is reminiscent of Harsha Walia’s ‘border imperialism’, where migrant farm workers are undervalued throughout the supply chain and subjected to the ‘hostile environment’ created by the Conservative Party’s anti-migrant politics. With supermarkets as ringleaders and beneficiaries of this violent corporate food regime, they reap extortionate profits from a system shaped by, and for, capital, ensuring migrant agricultural workers are at its cruelest end. The farm-owning class, meanwhile, is increasingly disaffected by the false promises of nationalist food politics. Under the Conservative’s watch, many farms in the UK face closure due to an inability to compete with imports (partly due to post-Brexit trade agreements) and because of the effects of the climate crisis. Growing unrest among farmers has ruptured years of relative silence, seeing farmers blockading supermarket depots in October this year.
Transition justice in agriculture
Tracing the flow of crops, labor, and capital from the fields of Spain to the supermarkets of Britain reveals a lineage of inequality, volatility, and harm. But it can also inform a movement towards transition justice; one that exercises solidarity with farm workers whose precarious, hyper-exploited labor underpins the agricultural sector and who often face challenges to unionize.
Transition justice in agriculture requires confronting state-enforced border imperialism and the state-sponsored exploitation that sustains the capitalist food system, under which agricultural production continues to be a means of ecological breakdown. But as the bottom-up movement for agroecology and ecological unionism show, it doesn’t have to – and shouldn’t – be this way. From the self-organizing women farm workers Jornaleras de Huelva en Lucha, to Solidarity Across Land Trades in the UK, workers themselves are mobilizing for fairer conditions, mutual aid, care and justice for the people who feed us.
An agroecological transition must support this syndicalism and pave the way for farm work to be dignified, meaningful, and plentiful. Because we need more good food jobs, not less. It must challenge the narrative that pits agricultural livelihoods against action on the climate and ecological crises commonly pedaled by right-wing populists. More still, already-existing agroecological spaces are not exempt from excluding people along lines of race, gender, class, religion and are not always capable of renumerating farm workers sufficiently. Cultivating alliances that recognize interwoven liberation can strengthen the transformational potential of agroecology.
In Britain, the false promises of far-right nationalism are unraveling before the eyes of farmers. As the instability and failures of a neoliberal market take their toll, the Conservative government responds by urging Britons to eat more turnips. Undeniably, more local food production is part of the agrarian transition. However, it is also necessary to challenge the colonial mentality maintained by the state, which normalizes the outsourcing of the ecological impacts of food production. But the solution can’t just be eating local if local excludes working conditions. Inequalities of power, control, and access in both the production and consumption of food are built into the design of the corporate food regime and capitalism more broadly. As the right wing tries to dictate who and what is and will be sacrificed in defense of authoritarian agri-capitalism, the struggle increasingly becomes one of “agroecology or barbarism.”
Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series. For more content, visit the “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look: https://berlinergazette.de/projects/allied-grounds