Labor and Agricultural Sustainability: Sister Issues

farm-guyThis is the sixth post in a series on the business of sustainable agriculture by the folks at Bon Appétit Management, a company that provides café and catering services to corporations, colleges and universities. To read past posts, click here.

By Carolina Fojo

A “City Girl” in Sustainable Ag…?

Driving through Illinois with my friend, I excitedly point out the window and ask, “What’s that?” A combine, he responds. A few minutes later: “Oooh, look—is that another combine?” No, that’s a tractor. He laughs and tells me I’m a city girl. I stare wide-eyed out the window as if I’ve never seen a field of corn in my life, and I feel like a kid learning her colors for the first time.

As the East Coast Fellow for Bon Appétit Management Company, I am currently working hard to combat problems of social justice and promote sustainability in the food system, with a special emphasis on agriculture.

Uh, excuse me—you might politely interject—but… why exactly are you working in agriculture when you only recently laid your eyes on your first combine?

…A fair question, to be sure. The answer, however, is quite simple: I’m in food and ag because of labor issues and worker rights.

The Sustainability Tree

In college, two summer internships with UN-affiliated NGOs and time spent living in Oaxaca, México with Fair Trade Certified™ coffee producers convinced me that if I were to spend all my time looking exclusively at labor issues, I would be missing crucial parts of the labor picture. A metaphor recently presented to me by a colleague at Bon Appétit illustrates this concept nicely:

“There are different branches of the sustainability tree and they are grafted on from different species– one maple (local food concerns), one birch (social justice), one oak (organic ag), etc.”

Labor & Ag Sustainability: Sister Issues

If there’s one thing I learned at the UN, it’s that there is no such thing as an isolated issue. We cannot address labor issues on farms without looking at the broader food system. Take big ag, for example. Large-scale agriculture and monocropping is set up in such a way that workers can be interchangeable—and are therefore disposable. In our current system of agriculture, it appears it is cheaper to simply replace a laborer than to treat one well in the first place. As Kevin Bales, a leading expert in modern-day slavery, says:

“Slavery is a profitable business, and a good bottom line is justification enough.”

And yes, I do mean slavery. As in, there are growers who have been legally tried for enslaving their workers. Slavery, or even “just” exploitation, is in many ways the most attractive route to take, because it can be quite profitable.

An added layer to this problem is artificially low food prices. A Pennsylvania farmer recently told me “You don’t go into farming for the money.” So when farmers themselves are tight for a profit, it’s tempting to improve that bottom line by cutting corners in the labor department.

The conclusion of all this is simply that there are aspects of our food system which encourage the exploitation of ag laborers. So here I am, a 20-something “city girl” having to dip my toes into the food and ag world because not doing so would be ignoring a crucial aspect of the labor problem. As my colleague pointed out: These issues come from different species—maybe labor is the birch—but they are all part of the same ol’ sustainability tree.

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