Can you imagine living in a country where it's legal for 12-year-olds to work in pesticide-sprayed commercial farm fields?
Can you imagine a system so screwed up that modern day slavery is a regular occurrence?
Can you imagine supporting an industry that doesn't have a minimum wage, workers are fired for joining unions, and there is no guarantee of compensation for job-related injuries?
Welcome to modern agriculture in the United States.
|Community Garden in Seattle - March 2012|
Then, on Sunday, I flew to Seattle to give a talk on Food Justice at a church (which also happened to have a fantastic community garden out front). I covered the basic definition of "food justice" before launching into farmworker rights and consumer eating and health in the United States.
I wanted to share some heartbreaking facts about food and agriculture from my presentation with you, not so that you will feel guilty about the food you eat but so that we collectively can learn and move forward as a society. This is part 1, covering farmworker rights and labor issues. In part 2 I'll be writing about eating and health in the United States.
Defining Food Justice
The basic definition of "food justice" is the idea that all people deserve the right to nutritious, accessible (both geographically and financially), and culturally appropriate food.
In other words, as with any system there are a series of social, environmental, economic, and health benefits and burdens. Food Justice as a movement strives to makes sure these benefits and burdens are shared equally between all groups of people, and minimize the burdens overall.
What does Sustainable Agriculture Look Like?
As I wrote about in my coverage Dr. Ann López's talk at the 2012 EcoFarm Conference, we can find a beautiful example of sustainable agriculture in the Pre-1994 Mexican countryside:
Starting with West Central Mexico, López explained that the basis of agriculture is the corn, beans, and squash inter-crop, also known as the Three Sisters. This is a polyculture planting that has been so successful that it's been used for years; the corn provides a pole for the beans to grow, the large squash leaves shade out potential weeds, and beans fix nitrogen in the ground for the following year's corn. The three plants are also nutritionally complementary, with corn as the good carbohydrate, beans as a quality source of protein, and squash providing vitamins along with oil from the seeds.
The corn varieties that are traditionally planted display a rich genetic diversity that is a far cry from the starchy yellow version we're used to in the United States. Mexico is a "repository" of genetic diversity that is being threatened. Mexican farming families traditionally hand-select their seeds after harvest, allowing them to select for the largest cobs and kernels. This means that over time each family develops variations that are perfectly suited for their specific geographic region's weather and soil conditions.
After planting the polyculture on the same land for about two years, families let the land lie fallow so that native shrub can re-claim it. This means that there's "essentially no damage to the environment, and all the farmers have been supplied with an ample amount of corn, squash, and beans for the year" (López).
López said that pests were never a problem in this system until the introduction of mechanical devices from the United States in the 1940s, along with Green Revolution technologies such as hybrid seeds and GMOs. Families that farmed in Mexico maintained a strong family connection, working together to feed themselves.The Mexican farmers maintained a modest income through selling part of their harvest to the Mexican government, which in turn distributed the food in inner-city markets. All of this was able to exist because of the existence of tariffs, which taxed food being imported into Mexico (López).
|Fantastic Graphic - the top half are the varieties found in the National |
Seed Laboratory in 1903. The bottom half are the varieties
found in 1983. What changed?
Then the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was introduced in 1994, and Mexico effectively agreed to take down the tariffs to allow for free trade of goods. There was supposed to be a 15 year phasing out period that would allow small farmers to adjust, but once the agreement was put in place it took less than a year and a half for the tariffs to be taken down (López). Mexican farmers were now competing against American farmers.
This competition may not have been a problem if the cost of producing corn in the United States was the same as in Mexico. However, the U.S. government subsidizes corn farmers to the tune of 3 billion dollars a year, making the cost of producing corn in the U.S. much lower than in Mexico. (Side note - while much of the Farm Bill subsidy dollars go towards commodity crops like wheat and corn, less than one percent are directed towards "specialty crops" like fruits and vegetables. This is one reason why your broccoli and apples cost so much more than a loaf of bread or a big mac.)
So farmers had to choose between staying in Mexico and starving, or traveling to the United States in search of work. Sort of ironic that our immigrant "problem" was created by a U.S. policy, isn't it?
Immigrants in U.S. Agriculture
After NAFTA was put in place, there was an influx of immigrants coming into the U.S. from Mexico. There are now 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Of the 1.4 million crop farmworkers in the United States, most were born abroad (70% of directly hired workers, 97% of contractor-hired) and most are Hispanic/Latino/a (75% direct hired, 99% contracted) (UFW).
Lack of Rights for Farm Laborers
Most workers in the United States understand that they get basic rights, including minimum wage and lunch breaks. These rights were given to us by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). When the NLRA was put in place during the Great Depression, it intentionally left out farmworkers (López). If you are a farmworker in the United States, you can expect to experience the following conditions:
1. Farmworkers are not guaranteed a minimum wage or number of hours, and do not receive overtime pay or breaks. Washington, California, and Oregon have decided to supersede federal legislation and include farmworkers in state mandated wage and rest protections, but even so the industry is poorly monitored. (McMillan, UFW)
2. Few protections for children. It is legal for children as young as 12 to work in agriculture, except in California and Washington where laws are stricter (although, again, enforcement of this is almost nonexistent). (López)
3. No guaranteed unemployment insurance, which is regulated by the Social Security Act at the federal level. There are separate regulations for agriculture, and most small farms are entirely exempt. Undocumented workers never receive this benefit, and states can also choose to exclude temporary H-2A (non-immigrant) workers from this benefit. (UFW)
4. No right to collective bargaining, which is a right given to most U.S. workers under the NLRA. In most states a farmworker can be legally fired if s/he joins a labor union. Even in the state of California, where farmworkers can legally join unions, only about 5% of farms have labor unions. This is problematic at a basic level because, across the board, farmworkers that are a part of a union earn higher wages than their non-union counterparts. (Brown)
5. No Workers' Compensation for seasonal or migrant workers. This is highly problematic given than almost all workers are repeatedly injured or fall ill while on the job. This also leads to high rates of worker fatality. In 2009, the "occupational fatality rate for farmworkers was five times the rate of the average worker" (UFW).
6. There are many loopholes in Occupational Safety and Health Standards (OSHA), including protections around machinery and ladder safety. 88 percent of farms in the U.S. are exempt from safety and health regulations because of their status as a small farm. This leads to high rates of heat stress and heat related death and pesticide exposure. OSHA will not inspect farms with less than 11 employees, leaving pesticide exposure undetected. (UFW)
In addition to all of this very disturbing - but technically legal - information, there is also documentation of illegal labor practices happening in the United States in the form of modern day slavery. The book Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook takes a look at the industrial tomato industry in the state of Florida, and finds that there are 7 cases of legally defined slavery that have been brought to court and prosecuted, involving over 1,000 workers - and these are only the ones that have actually been brought to trial. The book goes as far as to claim that if you regularly buy and eat tomatoes from the grocery store, you've eaten tomatoes picked by a slave. Chilling, isn't it? (Estabrook, UFW)
Because of working conditions and labor violations, farmworkers can expect to experience some pretty poor outcomes, including:
Farmworkers in the United States can expect to earn between $10,000-$12,499 per year (Metha), which is right around the national poverty line. What's even more disturbing is that if we were to raise farmworker wages by 40% - a substantial amount - the average American would only have to pay $16 more for food each year. Over the course of an entire year! This is because when you buy your food, most of the dollar is going towards the consolidated middle of the food chain, not the farmworkers. (Martin)
There are also health outcomes to look out for. The average life expectancy of a strawberry worker in California is only 49 years old, compared to the almost 80 year expectancy for most Americans (López). Farmworkers also experience high rates of birth deformities, infertility, skin rashes, nerve damage, and cancer from exposure to pesticides (UFW). Individuals experience high rates of psychiatric conditions such as depression that stems from separation from family and substandard living and working conditions (López).
On top of everything, this population of people that grows and harvests the food that feeds us happens to be one of the most food insecure populations in the country. This means that they cannot regularly access or afford enough food to feed themselves and their families.
Worth knowing. Be on the lookout for Part 2: Food, Health, and Justice in the U.S.
- Brown, Sandy. "Undercover at Walmart: A Conversation with Tracie McMillan." Ferry Building, San Francisco. 20 Mar. 2012. Speech.
- Estabrook, Barry. Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2011. Print.
- López, Ann. "The Farmworkers' Journey." EcoFarm Conference 2012. Asilomar Conference Grounds, Pacific Grove. 3 Feb. 2012. Speech.
- Martin, Philip. "Calculating the Costs and Benefits." Editorial. The New York Times. 30 Sept. 2011. Web.
- McMillan, Tracie. The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table. New York, NY: Scribner, 2012. Print.
- McMillan, Tracie. "Undercover at Walmart: A Conversation with Tracie McMillan." Ferry Building, San Francisco. 20 Mar. 2012. Speech.
- Metha, Kala, Susan M. Gabbard, and Vanessa Barrat, eds. 2005. Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 1997-1998. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor.
- United Farm Workers, and Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation. Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States. Rep. 2011. Web.