Environmental Racism and Our Food System

by Siena Chrisman


A study released earlier this month by the Environmental Working Group is just the latest research to find that Latinx people in California are disproportionately likely to live in communities with dangerously elevated levels of nitrate in the water, from runoff of chemical fertilizer and manure from industrial dairies. Most of these communities are low-income as well, and can little afford to buy bottled water if their tap water is not safe. This kind of environmental racism is not new. For far too long, polluting industries from waste dumps to industrial animal operations have been located in low-income communities of color, leaving already vulnerable people at even higher risk of poor health and housing.

Read More About the Pork Industry & Environmental Racism in The FoodPrint of Pork

Environmental Racism

In one of the first studies to document this reality, the U.S. General Accounting Office found in 1983 that in a region in the South where African-Americans made up just 20 percent of the population, three out of four hazardous waste landfills were located in African-American communities. A groundbreaking 1987 United Church of Christ (UCC) Commission for Racial Justice report on the siting of toxic waste facilities in North Carolina concluded, “Race proved to be the most significant among variables tested in association with the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities.”

On the release of the report, UCC Executive Director Benjamin Chavis coined the term “environmental racism” to describe the intentional selection of communities of color for waste disposal sites and other polluting facilities.

And indeed, the siting is often intentional. Industries look at demographic and cultural attributes of communities when proposing to site a factory or facility that may be seen as unpopular — rather than solely considering whether the site is geographically and environmentally appropriate. In 1984, the California Waste Management Board, which was trying to open trash incinerators around the state, commissioned a consulting firm to examine communities that put up less opposition to such a project. The resulting Cerrell report identifies various factors that make a community “least resistant” to a facility, including being low-income, rural, conservative, and Southern or Midwestern. In another example, an investigation of a 1991 Board of Commissioners siting recommendation for a “low-level” radioactive waste storage in North Carolina found that part of the board’s decision process was based on the income level and political engagement of the proposed sites. Sites in affluent areas were taken out of official consideration, while sites with notes about “very depressed area” and “residences… minority-owned” were left in.

Today, even if placement of an individual hazardous site or environmentally extractive activity is not this explicit, a long history of these examples and many others have set a precedent of where, as a nation and culture, we accept dirty industries, and where we do not.

Environmental Justice

As long as there have been polluting industries sitting in minority regions, there have been communities fighting back. Martin Luther King went to Memphis in April 1968, where he was assassinated, to support the economic and environmental rights of striking sanitation workers. In 1979, Black residents of a middle-class Houston suburb filed a lawsuit that became the first to challenge the citing of a waste facility under civil rights law.

The term “environmental justice” (or EJ) came into use in the late 1980s, as the solution to environmental racism and injustice. Delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 established 17 principles of environmental justice, which have guided the growth of a thriving decentralized grassroots environmental justice movement in the years since. The environmental justice movement centers people of color in leadership and decision-making, and calls not simply for polluting industries not to be sited in their communities, but not to be sited in anyone’s community. The 17 principles affirm the sacredness of Mother Earth and the right to ethical and balanced land use and self-determination, and oppose destructive operations by multinational corporations, among other points.

Environmental Injustice in Industrial Agriculture

The environmental justice movement was founded primarily in opposition to discriminatory siting of landfills, incinerators and hazardous waste facilities. As agriculture has industrialized, some of its most polluting facilities, too, have concentrated in communities of color and poor regions. Industrial-scale row crop and vegetable farms rely on pesticides and herbicides, which are toxic at high levels, and can cause both air pollution and runoff into water systems. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) produce vast quantities of untreated animal waste, which is stored in large pits or ponds and applied to farm fields as fertilizer. The storage and application of the waste causes terrible smells and air pollution, and it runs off in large quantities, contributing to undrinkable well-water, algae-choked rivers and lakes, and dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay.

In North Carolina, African-Americans are 150 percent more likely to live near a hog CAFO than whites. The eastern part of the state has large African-American, Latinx, and Native American populations, and geographically, a low-lying floodplain with a high water table. The regular flooding, especially during nearly-annual hurricanes, would seem to make the region unsuitable for large-scale hog operations, but it is the opposite: in addition to hogs, there are landfills, incinerators, and a growing number of poultry operations. Duplin County, the number one hog-producing county in the nation, also had one of the highest concentrations of enslaved people in the state.

The North Carolina Environmental Justice Network filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2014 asserting that the state’s permitting process for hog operations caused disproportionate adverse impact based on race, but despite years of negotiations between EPA and the state, there have not been significant changes to the permitting rules.

The Pork Industry’s Predatory Playbook

The playbook of the pork industry closely follows the Cerrell report recommendations for siting in “less resistant” communities across the board. Iowa is the top producer of hogs, and while its population is majority white, it is also rural, Midwestern, older, more conservative and free market-oriented — also traits the report deemed less resistant to undesirable land use like large-scale hog and chemical-intensive grain production.

For the environmental justice movement, these communities are also intertwined. In a 1999 interview, Robert Bullard, a pioneering environmental justice scholar and activist, said, “all of the issues of environmental racism and environmental justice don’t just deal with people of color. We are just as much concerned with inequities in Appalachia, for example, where the whites are basically dumped on because of lack of economic and political clout and lack of having a voice to say ‘no.’ That’s environmental injustice too.”

In FoodPrint’s latest report, The FoodPrint of Pork, we examine how the pork industry has gained substantial political power in both state and federal governments, and has used that power to run roughshod over rural communities from the South to the Midwest, exploiting farmers, workers, community residents and their environment to grow their own profits. The accompanying supplement on rural organizing highlights the grassroots organizations who have been fighting these predatory practices — seeking environmental justice — in Iowa, Missouri and North Carolina.


Top photo by Waterkeeper Alliance Inc.

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