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What is sustainable food?

October 18, 2010

Everyone has their definition. The USDA Organic label considers chemical usage, but chemical-free production does not insure sustainable food. There are “Organic” farms that keep their animals in confined houses with little access to grass. There are a lot of reasons the Organic label has grown weak, not the least of all being massive industrial farm corporations’ stranglehold on regulatory agencies like the USDA and the FDA.

The local food movement so far has relied on consumers’ environmental and nutritional sensibilities.  We’ve come a long way, however the local food movement could find an important ally in the labor movement. Unions, such as the United Farmworkers and the Immokalee Workers defend the workers of large industrial farms. Many of them are fighting for minute increases in pay per pound of produce harvested. Others are literally fighting for their lives, by pushing for better workplace safety regulations. These domestic struggles are not unlike the Fair Trade movement, which pushes for foreign farmers to earn a living wage from the food they produce. (Fair Trade coffee is most well known.)

No food can call itself sustainable if the working conditions are so poor that workers can not sustain their families, are coming home with injuries, or aren’t coming home at all.

And who are these workers? Mostly low-income, people of color and undocumented immigrants. Many conservatives will jump to the absurd conclusion that the solution lies in securing our borders, as if immigrants are pouring into the US in search of backbreaking, demeaning work. But dig a little deeper and you find companies pushing for H2 visas to get temporary immigrant labor, and refusing to hire local citizens. Why? They want workers to exploit, and who better than someone far from home, afraid of being deported.

Industrial agriculture depends on cheap and disposable labor. In stark contrast, we at Serious Farms believe that all people should be treated with dignity and respect. That also goes for the workers who produce our food. If we want sustainable food, then we can’t just look at what chemicals are sprayed on the crops, but also whose hands are harvesting the produce and how much (or how little) income is going into their pocket.

Consumer action alone won’t solve this. If you are looking for more info and a way to get plugged in, check out Just Harvest USA. There is a better world out there. We just have to make it.

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