Explainer: Agriculture and Human Rights

A journey into agriculture, from early irrigation to industrial farms.


More than ten thousand years ago, humans first sowed seeds from foraged plants and harvested the resulting crops to supplement food yields from hunting and gathering. The transition to early plant agriculture (and the domestication of animals) happened independently in regions of China, India, the Middle East, Africa, the Americas, and numerous other locations around the globe, and accelerated with innovations in irrigation—the management of the water supply to cultivate crops. Agriculture allowed people to live in one location year round rather than follow game herds, and agriculture surpluses allowed for economic specialization, the development of towns and cities, and the rise of complex societies.

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Until the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the vast majority of people around the globe labored as farmers, tied to the land. New farming techniques such as mechanical harvesting allowed for more intensive food production and the growth of a nonagricultural labor pool. Then, after millennia of farming fueled largely by natural elements, human cultivation of land took a dramatic shift in the twentieth century when scientists learned to chemically synthesize nitrates—the essential component in fertilizer.

Nitrates were also essential to the manufacture of explosives. Nitrate factories were dedicated to the production of ammunition through World War I and World War II, and after World War II, the United States had a near monopoly on nitrate production due to the flattening of ammunition plants in Europe and Asia during wartime. Other U.S. wartime manufacturing centers were repurposed to agricultural production—modern pesticides were developed from nerve-gas research, for instance. With a global food shortage in the wake of the war, the U.S. government began subsidizing the production of commodity crops to feed hungry populations in Europe and elsewhere. Farmers who had once cultivated diverse crops to increase nutritional components in the soil moved to the mono-cropping of rice, corn, soybeans, and wheat to exploit economies of scale and to take advantage of these government subsidies.

Starting in the 1950s, high-yield agricultural methods developed in the United States were quickly disseminated around the world, at first by philanthropic organizations that hoped to feed a booming global population. This was the beginning of the Green Revolution, a global shift in agriculture that emphasized farming as a commercial practice rather than a subsistence practice. Between the early sixties and the mid-eighties, global production of grains such as wheat, rice, and maize increased by 100 percent, a rate of growth that allowed for a doubling of the world’s population between 1960 and 2000.

In many ways, the price of industrialized, globalized agriculture has been steep, with environmental costs such as increased soil erosion, surface and groundwater contamination, and pest resistance, as well as the release of greenhouse gases and the loss of biodiversity.

Then there are the humanitarian costs. Farmers who do not own enough land to take advantage of globalized mono-cropping, or enough capital to invest in the latest high-yield seeds or fertilizers and pesticides, have found a way of life passed down through centuries suddenly threatened. Many farmers have been forced into the migrant labor pool, often traveling hundreds or thousands of miles from their homes in search of living wages. Ironically, modern agricultural production has returned many workers to the nomadic subsistence that traditional agriculture supplanted thousands of years ago.

North Carolina tobacco harvest. Photo by Jim Dollar.

The Human Cost of Agriculture:
Read Neftali Cuello‘s Story

In developing nations, globalization has hastened the transition from subsistence and small-scale farming to wage work for many farming families. Pournima Akolkar, a cotton farmer in India, lost her husband to suicide in the midst of spiraling financial pressures resulting from a convergence of factors: the cost of new strains of genetically modified seeds, paltry harvests, and mounting debt to seed and loan brokers. Though she grew up on a family-owned farm that met most of her family’s subsistence needs, Pournima now lives in a small rural town and works as a cook and field hand so she can feed her children.

Retaining ownership of family farms is a priority for subsistence farmers around the globe, but it often proves impossible. Many farmers cannot afford the capital investment needed to take advantage of the most profitable agricultural technologies, leaving them unable to compete in the open market with large commercial producers. As a result, families operating small farms end up selling their land to large producers and working for them as low-wage field hands instead of cultivating their own land.

For itinerant farmworkers, the United States is an attractive destination, even if many who do the actual work of planting and harvesting crops earn less than a living wage, are subjected to dangerous working conditions, and are excluded from full legal protection. Of the 1.4 million farmworkers estimated to be currently in the United States, roughly on quarter to one half are undocumented men, women, and children. Often, newly arrived immigrant workers are more concerned with keeping their jobs and keeping under the radar of immigration authorities than asserting their rights to fair wages and safe working conditions.

Neftali Cuello, a teenager whose parents are from Mexico and the Dominican Republic, has worked tobacco fields in North Carolina since the age of twelve. Though U.S. labor laws prohibit child labor in most sectors of the economy, laws are much looser regarding child labor on farms—a standard designed to allow children of independent farmers to help their parents starting at a young age. Large commercial growers are able to take advantage of the legal loophole by hiring children such as Neftali to work long hours for minimum wage. Read her story here.

This article is excerpted from the book Invisible Hands: Voices From The Global Economy, an oral history collection by publisher Voice of Witness.

Graphic by Michelle Ney


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