American farmers are dying by suicide, eco-anxiety is on the rise, and corporate agribusiness is at the center of this growing mental health crisis. For generations, and with great pride, family farmers have tended the same land their great-great-grandparents did, producing healthy foods and taking care of the environment by being good stewards of their land. Today, family farmers are approaching endangered status from the corporate takeover of their farms.
Corporate agribusinesses have been devouring family farms for the past three decades: the nation lost more than 100,000 family farms between 2011 and 2018. The remaining farmers are under constant threat of losing their land and way of living, resulting in higher suicide rates than any other occupation.
The industrialized farming model used by corporate agribusiness is contributing to the acceleration of climate change, and the climate crisis has generated a new mental health phenomenon called eco-anxiety. The American mental health system is not prepared for the growing pressure to treat individuals who worry about the global loss of plant and animal diversity. Family farms are fundamental to the health and well-being of our environment and communities, however, the unethical practices of industrialized farming are raising the rates of eco-anxiety and driving farmers to die by suicide.
Farmers are at the core of our modern-day food supply chain, and without them, most of us would be hard-pressed to sustain our lives. For centuries family farms have provided for their communities by growing nutrient-rich food, materials for clothing, and shelter. The farming lifestyle is embedded in American culture, but farming is temperamental and has always been a stressful occupation. Farmers consistently contend with unpredictable storms or drought, local and global price fluctuations, the cost of machines, seeds and chemicals, and competition. Although the pressures farmers face are not new, agriculture has changed in recent years; policies that once supported farmers now support corporate agribusiness.
Corporate dominance is “really bad news for farmers and everybody that eats because these companies are just going to become more powerful and have even more economical and political influence.”
Policies no longer exist that used to control the overproduction of crops, ensuring family farmers receive a fair price for their product and allowing smaller more diversified farms to thrive. Corporate agribusinesses have influenced Congress and affected loan policies that doubled interest rates, further taxing farmers’ mental and emotional capacities.
The decline of the American family farm began in the 1980s, and the suicide rate among farmers escalated, during the worst agricultural economic crisis since the Great Depression. This crisis was connected to changing loan policies where in some cases interest rates jumped from seven to eighteen percent overnight.
Prior to the 1980s farmers had a relationship with their local bankers and could renegotiate loans if needed. But, lobbyists for corporate agribusinesses changed the way bankers could offer loans to farmers, making it near impossible for them to secure low-interest loans.
Thirty years ago small and medium-sized farms accounted for nearly half of all agricultural production in the U.S., now it is less than a quarter.
Corporate agribusinesses can secure low-interest, federally guaranteed loans that are not available to most family farmers. The system has been “set up for the benefit of the factory farm corporation and their shareholders at the expense of family farmers, the real people, our environment, our food system.” As a result, depression and suicidal thoughts are common for family farmers that were once proud to provide for their nation’s food supply.
One farmer in Kansas recalled, “in the last 25-30 years, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about suicide.” For farmers being squeezed out by corporate agribusinesses, their despair grows daily.
Family farmers that previously relied on a mix of livestock and crops have converted their farms to the only thing that will make them money: growing corn and soya beans to sell to corporate agribusinesses.
That strategy is currently strained by lower prices for crops, low return on farm assets, changing rain patterns related to global warming, and China’s retaliation over tariffs for U.S. agricultural products. In 2019 “China’s announcement that it will not buy any agricultural products from the United States is a body blow to thousands of farmers and ranchers who are already struggling.” Plunging prices, climate change, tariffs, and the resulting economic stress have created a perfect storm for the rise in farmers dying by suicide.
The farmer suicide tragedy is not limited to the United States. In India, more than 270,000 farmers have died by suicide since 1995; an Australian farmer dies by suicide every four days; in the UK one farmer a week takes his or her own life; in France, a farmer dies by suicide every two days. The industrialization of the agricultural sector is affecting every corner of the globe, and the impact on mental health is increasing exponentially. No country or culture is immune to the destruction created by industrialized farming.
Before the age of chemical agriculture, farmers worked in concert with nature to ensure robust and healthy farm ecosystems. Corporate or industrialized farming, the dominant model used for growing food, treats farms as crop and livestock factories. This method does not promote animal health, soil health, or plant diversity, instead, it relies on chemicals for pest control and fertilizers. The toxic chemicals that are used pollute soil, waterways, and air. Industrialized farming threatens farmer’s livelihoods, the environment, and a nation’s food security. The disrespect and mismanagement of farmland are accelerating climate change and increasing mental health issues.
Industrialized farming is not just destroying the lives of farmers and their families; it is a main contributor to eco-anxiety or climate grief. Chronic fear of environmental doom is taking a toll on the mental health of people around the world. Anxiety and distress about environmental degradation is rapidly growing among young people, who are increasingly losing hope for their future. A December 2018 survey revealed that seventy percent of Americans are worried about the climate crisis.
Mental health professionals have been gearing up for a rise in clients experiencing climate grief, but acknowledge that they are not prepared for the growing problem. There is an increasing number of support groups to help people feeling the effects of climate grief. One support group, The Good Grief Network, offers a 10-step program that helps people cope with collective grief, including climate grief. It runs online as well as in-person groups. Additional mental health experts are anticipated as the ecological chaos intensifies, and more people need support services.
Farming is a calling, it is an altruistic occupation. Family farmers have a strong urge to supply the essentials of life for their communities and their country. When they are not able to fulfill their life’s purpose despair takes over, sometimes ending their lives. Farmers commonly express “it hits you so hard when you feel like you’re the one who is losing the legacy that your great-grandparents started.” To have corporate agribusiness dominate our food system is to lose the knowledge and wisdom of how to raise animals, grow food, and protect our environment. It also makes all countries vulnerable to food insecurity. The health and well-being of individuals, our communities as well as our planet depend on the mental health of family farmers, not corporate agribusinesses.
Featured Photo by Austin Paquette on Unsplash