Beware Of Food Slavery

Organic food is becoming mainstream in America, and that’s a fact. According to USDA data, 28 percent of U.S. consumers buy organic food (fresh and processed) every week; more than 50 percent of what they buy comes from big retailers and supermarket chains like Walmart, Costco, and other behemoths.

Buying and consuming organic food makes us feel good. We’ve been told it’s good for our health and good for the health of the planet. More and more of us are even taking the extra step to ensure that we procure as much of our organic food as possible from local producers, whom we meet at our weekly farmers’ market or whose delivery truck comes to our door with our CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) box of goodies.

Most of us also have a huge blind spot regarding the origin of the food we eat, however: the people in the fields who plant, grow and harvest it. Who are they? How much are they getting paid? What working conditions do they experience day in day out?

There are 1.4 million farm workers in the United-States, according to the most common estimates. A third of them work on Californian farms. The rest can be found mostly in Florida, Washington State, Texas, Oregon and North Carolina. Two out of three work on large farms.

Historically, farm workers in this country have been immigrant and transient populations. Ever since the unlucky Chinese gold-diggers from the Pearl River Delta tried their luck at practicing their native horticulture in the valleys of California in the 19th-century, farm workers have been marginalized and left to live precarious lives in the biggest agricultural state and elsewhere (the practice of slavery in the South obviously brought its own set of issues to agriculture there). Their poor language skills have kept them isolated. So have the Federal and state legislations on labor protection. Born of the New Deal era, the National Labor Relations Act or Wagner Act signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935 excluded farm workers at the request of Democratic Senators from the South–they refused to extend those privileges to the African-Americans who made up most of the farm workers’ ranks in the region.

The situation has not been remedied ever since. To this day, minimum wage laws don’t apply federally to farm workers, and they are not entitled to overtime pay. Children as young as 12 year-old can be legally hired on farms. It is roughly estimated that between 300,000 and 800,000 of them work in the fields of America at least at some point during the year. No one knows for sure because there’s no system in place to track and count them, Vera Chang, a fellow at Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation explained last week at the Eco-Farm Conference. The country has 22 full-time inspectors in charge of controlling 1.4 million farm workers, she added.

Clearly, the 21st century has not brought much systemic progress to the farm-workers’ situation. A few encouraging events are worth mentioning, however. Since 1997, several farm owners in Florida were charged for violations of human rights and eight cases of slavery involving over 1,000 foreign farm workers where prosecuted.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers' demonstrators, Burger King protest, University of Florida campus, 2007.

In the midst of the bleak situation that is endemic to U.S. agriculture, here’s a special mention also to the astounding work and achievements of the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Its most recent large victory was the deal sealed last August with Sodexo. The multinational food-service and facilities management giant that serves 9.3 million meals a day signed the Coalition’s Fair Food agreement, a Code of Conduct that includes fair treatment of farm workers and third-party investigation of farm-worker complaints. The agreement also commits Sodexo to paying a small premium (1.5 cents a pound) for their tomatoes in order to ensure fair wages for farm-workers, and to being transparent in their tomato purchasing.

Remarkably, organic agriculture born in America of lofty ideals of social justice, cooperation and participative democracy in the 1970s, has not made a dent in those practices.

“Organic agriculture has a very long way to go. It only represents 1 percent of the cultivated land in America and we have still to show an exemplary record when it comes to labor practices,” said Amigo Bob Cantisano, an organic farmer in California since 1974, an activist (he co-founded the Ecological Farming Association in 1981) and a consultant who’s helped transitioned 600,000 acres to organic farming around the world.

It’s no mystery that farming, be it organic or conventional, yields very little pay. Young idealistic farmers who embrace a healthy lifestyle toiling the soil to feed their community learn it the hard way. My friend Meghan recently worked for a couple of years as an organic farm manager in Washington State, making 800 dollars a month. Her food was provided; her [free] accommodation was a large tent. She is no exception.

Since the “get big or get out” motto of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz in the 1970s, farmers have become the most vulnerable link in the food chain dominated by huge corporations driven by their sole focus on high volumes/low costs. Consequently, consumers’ demand and expectations for low food prices have become a huge component of the sad state of affair of our farmers’ income. Dire financial straights lead to desperate strategies to lower labor costs.

Workers at Full Belly Farm.

Thankfully, a few shining examples show us that alternatives exist. Especially among organic farms. In California, for instance, Full Belly Farm is a debt-free operation that provides a decent living for the families of its four partners and of their 70 employees. In fact, Full Belly Farm prides itself on its sustainable labor practices, including a stable payroll and health benefits for two-thirds of the employees and their families. “We’re blessed with a climate that keeps us busy year round”, partner and co-founder Paul Mueller says. Naturally, sustainability comes at a cost to the consumer, which Paul Mueller is unapologetic about. “You need to understand what you’re paying for, what kind of social structure you’re buying with your dollars”, he argues. “If you believe in being compensated fairly for your work, and in compensating others similarly, then it is not cheap,” he says.

Lundberg Family Farms, a leader in sustainable rice production, is another famous case of well-rounded sustainability. Its payroll represents 65 percent of its overhead, and 70 percent of it are year-round employees who receive full benefits: health coverage, 401K, profit sharing plan, life insurance and education reimbursement. “Many are long-term employees who’ve been with us for over 15 years,” VP of Administration Timothy Schultz said at the Eco-Farm Conference last week. “We believe that if you treat people well, they will treat you well. Our rice is not the cheapest, but this is part of our narrative,” he added.

Revisiting our understanding of the value and of the price of sustainably-grown food starts with us, the consumers.

Now, that‘s “beyond organic“.

82 comments

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener5 years ago

That's why I'm growing most of my own food!

Vanessa S.
Vanessa S.5 years ago

Very informative article. Thank you very much for sharing. Would anybody happen to have a list of companies that are considered both fair trade and sustainable?

Clifton Jackson
Clifton Jackson5 years ago

Wow, this is News to me! Thanks for the info!

Lika S.
Lika S.5 years ago

A local news station just reported that there is a place in Africa that uses child slavery to extract certain materials to make certain parts for cell phones and certain types of computers. And it's supposed to be dangerous grounds there.

Petra Luna
Petra Luna5 years ago

Good article. Thanks.

Theresia H.
Theresia H.5 years ago

Thank you for writing this article and addressing an issue that so many consumers are not even aware of!

Lindy E.
Belinda E.5 years ago

Beautifully said, Laetitia! I'm not sure that your last scenario is feasible across the US - how would the independent farmers supply the millions in the big cities? - but yes, if we want to curb illegal immigration (and the slavery that goes with it), we're going to have to be prepared to spend a lot more of our monthly income on food. For the wealthy, that may mean smaller outgo on high-tech goodies; for the poor, it will mean even tougher choices between food, medicine, and heat. I've got no sympathy here for anyone with money to spend on a home theater, but we'll have to do something about the destitute if we succeed in blocking illegal immigration. And to be sure, if we were to expel the illegals tomorrow, we would have famine in the cities - starting the following week, at the latest, I expect.

Laetitia Mailhes
Laetitia Mailhes5 years ago

2/2
...The government, obviously, does not believe so. Hence the absence of political will to tackle for real the huge elephant in the room: illegal immigration. Immigrants desperate for cash, who don’t speak English, and who obviously want to stay under the radar are perfect candidates to fill the ranks of the exploited workers who keep the prices of our food low (it is as true in America as it is in Spain: women lured there from Romania are not technically illegal since they’re EU citizens but all the other factors apply—in the end, they’re a vulnerable, exploited labor force).
Kicking out illegal immigrants would send agriculture through a tailspin. America’s deserted fields would fail to feed us (since we can’t live off GM corn and soybeans). Unless, of course, the country plunges through a down-spiral of Great Depression magnitude and hunger pushes us to toil the earth for survival. On the other hand, legalizing them and granting them (and every other farm-worker) legal protection would potentially lead to a worrisome outcome: the sharp increase of food prices.
I love this last scenario: organic, local farmers who treat their workers well and sell directly to their community, bypassing marketing and middle-men costs, would play on a level playing-field with the big supermarkets. We would discover that shopping at Costco and Walmart is not that much of a good deal after all.

Laetitia Mailhes
Laetitia Mailhes5 years ago

Glad the article is stimulating a spirited debate. I can’t resist jumping in, however, to clarify a few points. The article provides many links designed to prevent some of the misunderstandings in this conversation. Not everyone is taking advantage of them, obviously, so here we go:
1/ “slavery” is not an excessive term in this context: as several court cases have already demonstrated, thousands of people have been lured illegally across the border with the promise of a good job, only to find themselves sequestrated and passport-less, driven to debt by their “living expenses” (charged to them by their captors), and made to live in conditions that most of us would be ashamed to put our dogs through (similar incidents have occurred in the farming and the meat-packing industries).
2/ hard-work per se is NOT at fault. The issue lies with the ABSENCE of any sort of control and regulation. This leaves the space wide open for unscrupulous and/or tight-for-cash farmers (and they are legion, sadly) to exploit people, adults and children alike: less than minimum wage, and dangerous working conditions (the use of toxic products is a HUGE issue) are routine.
3/ the scandalous social injustice here lies in the exclusion of farm-workers from labor protection law.
Are we ready, as consumers, to pay the price for this state of affair to change? 1/2

marcel fallous
marcel fallous5 years ago

Si actuellement l'agriculture est en état de panique ,que se
passerait-il en 2050 avec plus de 9 milliads d'humains,sans compter les créatures sauvages.
Des chercheurs de l'intitut national de santé publique du québec[INSPQ] ont trouvé des risidus de pesticides dans plus de 20% des aliments importé et local consommé au québec en particulier[les choux,brocolis,choux-fleurs,laitus,celleris, bleuets,fraises,pommes,oranges,pamplemosses,raisins....]
et 1% passe les normes sécuritaire,et leurs éffets
sur la santé a long terme est inconnu pour le moment./