Indigenous demands for the restoration of land, air, and water are not only a signal for the return of land, but also the return of justice. 1

Global agriculture timeline

Contemporary forms of industrial agriculture are predicated upon land theft. This legal and, at times, extralegal dispossession of farmland from poor sharecroppers and peasant farmers serves a singular purpose: the consolidation of productive agricultural land by private, multinational companies aimed at maximizing shareholder value from commodity crops. Probing the global footprint of industrialized agriculture raises a series of critical questions: who owns these consolidated commodity crop farms and who works them? Who controls the food production methods and harvest and who bears the risk of failure? How are commodity crop markets subsidized and otherwise maintained and for what purpose(s)? To answer these questions, one must examine the ways in which statecraft, colonial and neocolonial expansion, flows of global capital, and technological innovation have transformed the ownership and operation of the world’s food system.

In the U.S., these forces coalesced in the mid-19th century. The frontier imaginary and its concomitant westward expansion merged with federal land-grants to settlers through the Morrill Act (Land Grant Act of 1862) to convert enormous swaths of Indigenous territory into rectangular plots of land for white frontiersmen and speculators. Cartography became one of the principal instruments of this dispossession, each parcel line a means of prescribing who belonged (white settlers) and who did not (Indigenous peoples). This conversion of complex, overlapping, biodiverse, and highly productive Indigenous land into homesteads, hobby farms, and, later, sites of agricultural industrialization simultaneously reified America’s racial order, opened new markets for capitalist expansion, and prefigured much of the industry’s contributions to the Climate Crisis now reverberating across the world. Lands that were not settled for these purposes often become national parks, U.S. forests, and other pieces of the public lands system. It was, to put it concisely, a plan to steal land at a continental scale. In this aim, the plan was wildly successful.

This period has rightly become a core focus for Indigenous activists and scholars. This history of dispossession gave way to a present of persistent poverty and disenfranchisement. It has also helped shape the future, as Indigenous activists built and continue to lead campaigns around land-back and reparations rooted in a shared analysis of westward, settler expansion by framing land justice and climate justice as synonymous. 2

Map of the globe showing agricultural production

Agriculture is extremely susceptible to changes in local climates, be those changes in water levels, rainfall, adjacent land-uses, changes in vegetation cover, aquifer depletion, changes in political regimes or policy, or any matrix of the factors. The above map shows the global expected changes in several of these factors: aquifer depletion, shown in blue.

Understanding the complex matrix of factors that sustain global food networks is imperative for any meaningful plan that accounts for the oncoming shifts in growing season, climate migrations, and changing microclimates while simultaneously increasing growing capacity by an expected 70-100% by 2050 to sustain growing populations.

Annual depletion of groundwater stores are mapped as a blue gradient in combination to drought risk in orange and red. A darker tone in both color gradients indicates more depletion and higher drought risk respectively. The aim of this map is to highlight the intersection between the low water table zones, drought zones, and existing vegetation cover. As the climate worsens, droughts are going to increase in frequency, intensity, and duration, while water depletion will leave half of existing vegetation at the risk of being able to reproduce. 3

Their work has also connected this period to the ongoing Sixth Extinction—a contested period of massive biodiversity loss that is ongoing and connected the same systems of exploitation that upended Indigeneity through colonial expansion. Though many of their practices have survived—including the Iroquois Three Sisters garden, in which corn, beans, and squash are rotated at regular intervals, using the suite of crops to bolster the yield of each individual crop—their scale and scope of impact is negligible in the face of planetary-scale industrial agriculture. Alongside land reparations, restoration and recovery of lost agricultural practices are paramount to ensuring the restoration of Indigenous land rights. In the US, groups like the Native American Agriculture Fund (NAAF) have begun this work by providing grants to support native farmers as they develop, “healthy lands, healthy people, healthy economies.” 4

While the US is perhaps the most egregious example of state-led Indigenous land dispossession, today, the global homogenization of “best” agricultural practices and the weaponization of crop aid and insurance through state institutions like the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has further threatened locally practiced means of agricultural production. 5 On the global market, maximizing yield is a central concern for industrial scale producers, a concern compounded by predictions that, without a major shift in practices, agricultural yield will have to increase by 70-100% to sustain the world's growing and modernizing population by 2050. 6 Potentially doubling agricultural yield will require an alchemic formula of improved technological capabilities, genetic adaptations, and increased agricultural land-use. While agro-business has concerned itself with dumping nearly endless amounts of money into the first two ingredients, the latter proves to be a stopping point: an estimated 40% of the terrestrial surface of the Earth is dedicated to agricultural production currently. 7 Such yield and technology-driven agricultural practices are often justified through the axiom that industrial agriculture feeds the world. Such claims rarely acknowledge that more than ⅓ of all industrial food products are wasted in the fields, transit, or markets where they’re sold. Nor do they acknowledge the way that such technologies and practices are often weaponized through international development agencies to compel nations in the Global South to adopt market-friendly “reforms” that create new investment opportunities for Western financiers. Food and financialization are often weaponized through forms of soft imperialism. 8

For industrial agriculturalists and techno-optimists, increasing agricultural demand, alongside Climate Crisis sparked shifts in the growing ranges of contemporary cash-crops present two scenarios: more land is committed to agricultural production—likely made available through the opening of new markets and state-led projects of dispossession—or, the technological systems and objects of agriculture are endlessly improved upon, decoupling food production from inputs like acreage and labor and carbon emissions. Ecomodernist designers have favored the latter, presenting a delirious onslaught of images featuring vertical farms scattered throughout urban and peri-urban environments. While vertical farms might be part of the solution, they contribute little to meaningful conversations surrounding land rights and climate justice. 9 As Raj Patel and Jim Goodman put it, “it’s impossible to tackle climate change without transforming agriculture.” 10 “Tackling climate change” without a focus on justice, especially justice regarding land rights, serves to reify, expedite, and expand the territories of systemic land-based inequities. After all, Eli Whitney, believed the Cotton Gin would put an end to slavery; instead it only served to breakdown one of the key barriers to cotton production, furthering “the rapid expansion of new labor: forced labor—African-American slavery.” 11 Production focused technological innovation is rarely able to buck the systems of oppression within which it operates. Even when designers break from their technological fantasies, their engagement with agriculture often presumes or outright endorses the kind of industrialized and financialized food system that stands inapposite to the aims of the climate justice movement.

Technological solutions often focus on addressing a single factor in the mix of terrestrial, atmospheric, managerial, and legal conditions that sustain industrial agriculture today. However, Climate Crisis-induced changes to particular aspects of agricultural production cannot be considered in isolation. Agriculture is subject to the cascading effects of catastrophic nonlinearities, cycles in which alterations in one climatic factor triggers declines in other factors, which in turn spur further harm until the system deteriorates beyond repair. Shifting temperature ranges will alter crop growing seasons and ranges, threatening monoculture plantations' ability to spread across the globe. As the tropics increase in temperature, seasonal growing ranges will migrate towards the poles, consuming more land for agriculture as new dynamics of dispossession are leveraged by (inter)governmental bodies. Under the current extractive model of land allocation, there is little reason to believe changes in land-use toward agriculture would not follow colonial legacies of dispossession. The unpredictability of the climate crisis will result in uneven disturbances in agricultural production across the globe, especially as the frequency and intensity of flooding, fire, and severe weather events continue to worsen as carbon content in the air continues to climb throughout the 21st century. 12

Recent studies suggest that the world will need 70 to 100% more food by 2050. 13

  • 13 Godfray, H. Charles J., John R. Beddington, Ian R. Crute, Lawrence Haddad, David Lawrence, James F. Muir, Jules Pretty, Sherman Robinson, Sandy M Thomas, and Camilla Toulmin. “Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People” New Series 327, no. 5967 (Winter 2010): 812-818.

Increasing catastrophic climatic events and temperature ranges will be accompanied by massive migrations of people across the globe as regions are destabilized by the effects of the Climate Crisis. Where food is grown and where it is being consumed will be altered in correspondence with new population patterns that emerge throughout this century, entering new social formations into any conversation concerning agriculture and the Climate Crisis. Max Ajil, in chastising the IPCC 2018 interim report for their willful ignorance of feedback mechanisms, points to the revolutionary attitude necessary to achieve decarbonized agricultural production: “technocratic rhetoric misses the mark when it comes to both decarbonizing the food chain and the social implications of such a transition.” 14 Ajil warns further against the managerial language adopted by Green New Deal advocates and ecosocialists, cautioning that adaptability is necessary to justly transition the future of agricultural production in the face of the impending Climate Crisis. For some, this uncertainty calls for a return to regionalism, while for others, “because the expansion of food production and the growth of population both occur at different rates in different geographic regions, global trade is necessary to balance supply and demand across regions.” 15

Many agricultural industrialists hope technological improvements will solve the climatic challenges agricultural production will face throughout the next century. Shielded by this projective optimism, are the resource-intensive needs of agriculture today, many of which operate against ecologically sustainable timescales. Center-pivot agriculture in the Western United States has drained the Ogallala Aquifer, threatening water supplies in the region. Disparities in the amount of water needed for agricultural production and received rainfall have disturbed the balance of the aquifers inflow and outflow, a balance the USDA has predicted will take 6000 years to fully restore. 16 Large farms depend on industrial scale technologies to water and harvest crops, contributing further to the charge that the food industry is the most environmentally damaging sector. 17 As Patel and Goodman argue, the focus on small farms is not anti-automation, but about maximizing skilled labor on smaller farms (<20 hectares), which they find increases yield per hectare. 18 Even so called “green” farming equipment, especially in the case of vertical farming and greenhouses, is energy intensive. The Netherlands have adopted greenhouse growing as a major sector of their agricultural economy, citing greenhouses ability to shrink water use 90% and reduce pesticide usage. 19


While decreasing water usage, the greenhouses require more energy to operate than traditional agricultural models, which in countries like the Netherlands can be offset with expanding green energy. Developing countries, however, may not have the infrastructural capacity to supply green energy for greenhouses at the scale of industrial agricultural production, requiring further dependence on fossil fuels or wealthier countries that can supply clean energy.

Left out from discussions of agricultural products, necessary trade routes, and technological capacity is the human labor necessary to grow, manage, harvest, and transport these goods to markets and peoples. Labor organization from farmers has historically played a central role in the management of domestic agriculture production from the US Farm Bureau in the New Deal era to the Farmer’s Strike in India today. As farmland is consolidated into larger and larger industrial farm plots, labor unions must once again play instrumental roles in the deliverance of meaningful change to the production of agriculture. 

Roughly ⅓ of the food produced worldwide for human consumption every year—approximately 1.3 billion tonnes—gets lost or wasted. 20

Systems of agriculture production, and the nuanced ways they enfold overlapping concerns for labor, technology, land use, funding, and most importantly concerns for Indigenous Rights are clear indicators of the work still to do to justly decarbonize global agriculture. Decarbonization cannot follow the same pathways of Indigenous and Black dispossession walked for the past 500 years. Instead, following the Red Nations charge in The Red Deal that, “Food is not only considered physical sustenance, but also a connection to emotional and spiritual spaces that have nourished our people” 21 , future approaches to global agricultural production must ask what emotional and spiritual spaces are allowed to flourish and which are smothered. Wrestling agricultural production from the myth that it is wholly concerned with food and sustenance reveals the nexus of power that continues to dictate and develop land-use schemes across the globe. To achieve global climate justice, one must remember agriculture is a thoroughly human affair and begin by consolidating stolen land in the hands of dispossessed peoples, not agro-industrialist corporations.

  • 21Estes. "A Red Deal".