The article argues that agricultural practices in the U.S. are unsustainable and unjust to farmers, largely because of agribusiness and supporting policies. Over the past century, U.S. agriculture has been trending in an unsustainable direction, rapidly replacing knowledgeable people with non-renewable resources and eroding rural economies in the process. The authors suggest that U.S. policies, technologies, and economic pressures have tended to “deskill” rural labor—a trend that has been linked to labor under capitalism in general. They cite a national census that counted 6.5 million farms in the 1920s, with only 2.04 million left by 2017.
The authors argue that agroecological farming systems mimicking natural ecosystems that create tightly-coupled cycles of energy, water, and nutrients are already known to farmers and researchers. As such, they offer a well-studied pathway to an agricultural transition. A critical and under-appreciated feature of agroecological systems is that they replace fossil fuel- and chemical -intensive management with knowledge-intensive management. The authors argue that the biggest challenge in achieving agricultural sustainability is the replacement of non-renewable resources with ecologically-skilled people in ways that create and support desirable rural livelihoods.
The authors suggest ways in which U.S. policy could pivot to enable and support the ecologically skilled workforce needed to achieve food security and decent livelihoods. They highlight the need to: provide enabling conditions for new farmers to enter the system and sustain a decent livelihood; develop agroecological skills and supporting policy tools (or removal of policies that currently act as a barrier); decouple farmers from the trap of overproduction and low market prices; and strengthen farmer-to-farmer networks to promote knowledge exchange. The authors also briefly lay out the history of discrimination and injustice in the agricultural system in the U.S. and highlight the need for a foundational commitment to justice to guide the allocation of resources, affirm rights, and prioritize the agricultural needs of historically marginalized groups.