That's in contrast to the historical reality, in which Filipinos – such as Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz and the rest of the workers with Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, or AWOC – played central roles in raising awareness about harsh working conditions and the need for reforms. In the early decades of the 1900s, tens of thousands of Filipinos arrived to the United States to power a rising agricultural system. They faced entrenched discrimination and prejudice enforced by local police. And many protested at great risk in order to, ultimately, secure more rights for all agricultural workers.
In the larger American imagination, those important contributions are largely forgotten, but today is an apt time to bring them back into our vision of how a moral, just and sustainable system of food production can be achieved.
It's all the more urgent because of climate change, which presents new obstacles to how we will meet the most basic of our collective needs: How to feed ourselves in the coming years.
Severe Effects on Agriculture
Since its early assessments in 1990, the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been warning of "severe effects" on agriculture from extreme temperatures, prolonged drought and shifts in growing seasons. That and the increased vulnerability of crops to pests, make up a dangerous recipe for an agricultural system that has taken thousands of years to develop.
In recent years, that assessment has grown more dire as the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere – a lead driver in climate change – has grown rapidly. Just last October, scientists at the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization found a grim mix of circumstances in their annual report: Food demand is rising precisely at the time that crop yields are diminishing, meaning that the amount of nutrition coming out of the earth from large-scale farms is going down as the world's population is increasing. Without action, millions of people are at risk, the scientists warn. They conclude that, in the broader picture, "hunger, poverty and climate change need to be tackled together."
Closer to home in the Philippines, solutions also mean reversing the troubling trend of converting our farmland to urban tracts. According to an investigation from the Philippine Inquirer, since 1988, we've lost nearly 100,000 hectares of farmland to urban sprawl. That's the size of Metro Manila and Cebu City combined. In addition, during that same time period, Metro Manila doubled in size. How are we to feed ourselves in this new world? And how many farmers have been driven to the streets of Manila, taking with them generations of agricultural knowledge?
Here's an example to bring these big numbers closer to home. Consider for a moment, the versatile rice crop. When's the last time you had a family gathering and didn't have rice on the table – either as suman, bibingka (snacks), or a fresh mound of steaming rice to go with that adobo or kangkong (water spinach)?
According to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the crop provides livelihood for more than two million households in the Philippines, millions more laborers and tens of thousands of dealers and traders.
Yet, scientists in the Philippines warn that climate change's impact on the crop could be profound. "Successive heavy rains cause severe drainage problems in paddy fields, thus resulting in a significant reduction in rice yield and quality," says a study found at UP Los Banos' Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture.
The challenges, surely, are steep. But there's one thing that grows clearer: This same system that produces food through monoculture and heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers cannot be counted on as a solution to our current crisis. Or, as the Indian physicist and writer Vandana Shiva puts it, we must look to smaller-scale, resilient models of producing food for the glimmers of hope.
"Biodiverse, organic farms and localized food systems offer us security in times of climate insecurity," she writes in her book Soil Not Oil. This security comes from crops that are more resilient to pests and more customized to local needs, according to Shiva.
She and her colleagues have spent more than two decades putting this philosophy into practice in rural India. A couple examples: Growing millet, which is nutrient rich and requires only 200 to 300 millimeters of water, or preserving seeds for saline-resistant rice to plant when ocean storm surges flood coastal areas. The solutions, she posits, will come from cooperation and creativity, not a top-down approach from multinational corporations.
Bold Response Needed
Finally, let's recall that scene of Filipino farm workers calling for justice, as their labor camp is attacked in the night. That scene took place in the California city of Delano, about two hours north of Los Angeles. That event helped spark the famous Delano grape strike in September 1965, the one that eventually led to the founding of the United Farm Workers Union.
Nearly 50 years after those events, when I visited Delano, I could still see the strong presence of Filipinos.
"They took that plunge, they had the guts to take on the growers in the beginning, and they were united and they were strong," Lorraine Agtang told me. She was a child at the time of the strike. Her mother was Mexican and her father from northern Philippines.
But the strike was something she'd never forget, she said.
"It was the first time I felt whole," Agtang said. "That feeling of mutual respect and just a united front, people together."
That kind of unity is what is called for today.
In the end, those manongs were demanding a very basic thing: equal treatment and acknowledgement for their hard work and sacrifice. The call for basic dignity and pay for farmers and those working the fields is inextricable from the call for a sustainable agriculture – a system that will feed our families with healthy, nourishing food as we navigate through these uncertain times.
Dorian Merina is a writer and journalist currently based in Los Angeles. This is part of a multipart series exploring climate change and the Filipino diaspora. Future articles will address the future of the world’s oceans, food production and migration.
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