Fair Trade in the U.S.A

I have written a few times in the past about the reality of our food supply versus the perceptions that many folks have about it, especially those living in urban areas like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.  But a couple of news stories this week reminded me once again that for many of us, the world immediately around us is as much a mirror as a window.

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.

On the vegetarian side of things, everyone knows that seasonal eating has gone mainstream and Massaged Kale Salad is as easy to get as coleslaw used to be.  Most people you know would never eat a Caprese Salad in December, right?  The Eat Local movement is strong and getting stronger every day, of course it is.

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.

Americans love tomatoes. They want them on their sandwiches and burgers, and in their salads and salsa — all the time.  And they — or the companies using them in their restaurants — want them cheap, all year round.  There is no way for small or even “large” growers to produce all these tomatoes, whether here or in Mexico.  Instead, most of them are grown by giant operations on a scale completely unimaginable to me.  And because of the amount of people it takes to harvest them, these giant farms are in Mexico.

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.

This is not particularly surprising.  Mexico is a failed state where corruption is the rule and people are routinely murdered and kidnapped with no investigation or prosecution.  How could anyone expect the government there to have the resources to enforce even the most basic workplace rules?  And given the power of organized crime in that country, one might actually be forgiven for wondering why conditions on big farms are not even worse.  After all, drug money has worked itself into every nook and cranny of the economy, including agriculture.

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.

Thanks,

Pablito

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