IF you eat meat, you might think that grass-fed beef and pastured chicken is taking over the market. At least that’s how it appears on menus at everything from burger joints to four-star restaurants in the Bay Area, right? The reality is quite different. In the last four years, the acreage of pasture (i.e.– grass grown for livestock to graze on) has actually dropped dramatically nationwide. Commodity farmers chasing high prices for corn and soybeans primarily used for feeding animals in large, confined livestock facilities (CAFOs) have expanded their acreage by converting grass to cropland. As a result, both land prices and rents for pasture have skyrocketed, making it almost impossible for grass-fed livestock operations to expand. Sustainably produced livestock farmers are battling against these macroeconomic currents.
In reality, an ever larger percentage of the vegetables — organic and conventional — that most Americans eat comes from Mexico and other countries. Labor cost is the single biggest expense for vegetable growers, and it is impossible for growers in the U.S. to compete with the low wages and lack of regulations there. Meanwhile, farmland in California is being rapidly converted to mechanically harvested crops like nuts and hay, much of which are destined for export.
There are plenty of issues with working conditions on farms in California, and plenty of people like to believe that farm workers are routinely abused here. But as a recent LA Times investigation shows, the best conditions at the giant farms in Mexico are as bad or worse than the worst conditions you’ll ever see uncovered at farms here. And the worse conditions there, while maybe not quite slavery, certainly fit the definition of “Indentured servitude”. According to this story, many farm workers never receive any pay at all.
California produces the majority of the vegetables grown in the U.S. We had a 12% increase in the minimum wage this year and another coming in 2016. And yet farmers here are competing directly with crops grown in Mexico, where workers make less in a day than they make here in an hour — if they get paid at all.
Going forward it will be increasingly important for farmers as well as advocates of local, sustainable and organic food to expand the definition of “fair trade” to include both fresh produce and pasture-raised animals grown here in the U.S. In the face of the real trends pushing on our economy, we need all the help we can get.