Before I got really sick recently, I sat down to watch Food Chains – a documentary about labor abuses in the produce industry. I had seen a lot about this documentary online and in social media, and when it was added to Netflix, I knew I wanted to watch it.
The documentary spends a lot of time profiling the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a workers advocacy group in Immokalee, Florida – home to some of the nation’s largest tomato fields. I had learned about the CIW back when I read Barry Estabrook’s fantastic book Tomatoland. I’d also read about labor abuses in the produce industry from The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebees, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table by Tracie McMillan. Both of those books aren’t exclusively focused on labor abuses, but they play a huge part in understanding what goes on behind the scenes in the plant and produce side of Big Agriculture.
I think most people would balk at the idea that we have slaves in this country in 2015. Often if we hear the term “modern slavery” we think of sex trafficking. But 150 years after slavery was legally abolished, we have slavery and indentured servitude in our fields – you know, those same fields that we sing about in “America the Beautiful.” And even those workers who aren’t slaves are working for what we’d call “slave wages,” unbelievably far below the poverty line. You don’t even have bootstraps to pull yourself up by when you work 13 hours a day in sweltering heat, being sprayed with pesticides and if you’re a woman, likely being sexually harassed, and come home with $40 for that work. Where’s the American dream in those fields?
The film goes into a lot more detail about the issues with worker rights, including why so many migrant workers have come to work in American agricultural fields from Mexico (big surprise here – we caused it). An interesting section details the disparity in the Napa Valley between the people who work in the vineyards and the people who buy the wine. That’s an area of the country I never think about when it comes to Big Agriculture, though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The nation’s wealthiest have long been supported by the work of the nation’s poorest. I could go on, but you should really just watch this film.
I think Food Chains comes at a good time in this nation’s food consciousness. We’ve seen awareness of animal cruelty and the public health issues involved in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) come to the forefront in ways never seen before. More and more people are concerned about where their meat and dairy comes from and how animals are treated. Consider the rise in people eating vegan diets in an effort to not be a consumer of any animal products. I think this has led to many people considering how what they eat can have ethical implications – something that wasn’t even on the radar outside of a handful of activists a few decades ago.
All human diets contain fruits and vegetables because they are the building blocks of our health. So even a vegan diet is not without ethical implications, because being plant-based means that like all diets, it is very likely supported by workers who are enslaved, given poverty wages, harassed, sprayed with pesticides, the list goes on. I absolutely respect the desire to not harm animals or participate in cruelty toward them, but it’s also really important to consider the human cost as well. This is not a sweeping generalization of vegans, by any means. It’s just that anyone who consumes plants (basically everybody) needs to be aware that there are ethical implications present when you eat Florida tomatoes or California berries that go beyond pesticides and GMOs.
But that’s the really difficult part. Every decision that we make in our modern lives is fraught with ethical implications. It’s difficult to consider each and every one of them. I think about my mornings – whether or not the coffee I drink is fair trade, if the lunch I pack contains items that were produced by animal suffering or worker abuse or represent a public health risk, if the plastic bag that holds my pretzels will end up in a landfill, if the clothes I wear were made in a sweatshop, if my smart phone was built by children, if the diamond ring I put on is a blood diamond, whether or not my car is harming the environment with emissions. You can see how this gets easily overwhelming. I got overwhelmed writing that paragraph.
At the end of the day, you have to do the best that you can to reconcile those things. I think the key is being educated about it and being open to questioning your choices and determining which ones you can reasonably make. And that’s why films like Food Chains are so important, because they make you aware of these issues and dispel the ignorance surrounding them. So that perhaps when you go to the grocery store, you choose a store that participates in the CIW’s Fair Food Program. Or you support a local CSA and farms in your area, where you can confirm for yourself that there are no labor violations happening.
Perfect is the enemy of good. It’s better to focus on one or two ways you can make a better choice than to be overwhelmed and make none at all. You can support efforts to hold companies accountable for their own labor practices and lift your voice in support of those programs and government accountability. You can’t change everything for everyone, but you can open your mind and heart to others and look for opportunities to allow that knowledge to inform your purchases and choices.