Earlier this month, President Bush roiled U.S. vegetable farmers by announcing a crackdown on undocumented workers. Last week, industrial-meat giant Smithfield Foods goosed the hog-futures market by inking a deal to export 60 million pounds of U.S.-grown pork to China.

These events, unrelated though they seem, illustrate a common point: that despite all the recent fuss around local food, the globalized food system, far from losing strength, continues to gain traction.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree — especially if no one’s there to pick it.

Unwittingly or not, Bush’s move puts a heavy squeeze on large-scale U.S. vegetable growers, and will likely result in more food hauled in from nations with weaker environmental regulations. Smithfield’s triumph in China reflects that nation’s diminishing food-production capacity — one of the prices it has paid for its rise to global manufacturing preeminence.

As more and more industrially produced food whips around the globe, the result is more pressure on soil and water resources, more greenhouse-gas emissions, and more fertile land made vulnerable to suburban sprawl. In this article and the next, I’ll attempt to illuminate how global economic forces shift food production from one place to another, to the detriment of local communities and the environment alike.

Bottom of the Barrel

As U.S. fruit and vegetable farms have scaled up to meet the demands of increasingly large buyers like Wal-Mart, they’ve come to rely on a steady supply of low-wage and highly flexible workers, willing to toil long hours at peak seasons and make themselves scarce when not needed. Moreover, these mega-farms increasingly specialize in one or two crops, and rely heavily on poisons to keep pests and weeds away. Thus in addition to being poorly paid and monotonous, the work tends to be dangerous — and undesirable for anyone with other options.

Not surprisingly, according to most estimates, 70 percent of U.S. farmworkers are undocumented, the great bulk of them underground refugees from the devastated rural economies of Mexico and Central America.

For several seasons now, fruit and vegetable farmers have had to scramble to find enough workers to harvest their crops. One factor in the labor shortage has been an increasingly militarized border, making it more difficult for would-be workers to cross over. Another has been the building boom, which has lured undocumented workers into higher-paying construction jobs.

Thus farmers in production centers like California and Arizona were already tense about the labor situation when Bush rolled out his hodgepodge of measures designed to force farmers (and other employers) to stop relying on undocumented workers. (For the record, as I’ve written before, I think it’s schizophrenic and childish to make a big show of hunting down and deporting the people who feed you.)

Farmers across the country quickly cried foul. In New York’s Hudson Valley, where workers come from Mexico and Central America, apple growers fear a bumper crop could largely wither on the branches. “We have 3 billion apples to pick this fall and every single one of them has to be picked by hand,” one grower told The New York Times. “It’s a very labor-intensive industry, and there is no local labor supply that we can draw from, as much as we try. No one locally really wants to pick apples for six weeks in the fall.”

Down in Arizona — epicenter of winter vegetable production in the U.S. — farmers are taking a cue from their peers in Colorado and desperately hiring inmate labor. But an Arizona prison official acknowledged to The Christian Science Monitor that, as in Colorado, inmates can offset only a fraction of the state’s farm-labor shortage.

Bush’s move came at the height of harvest season in California — source of about half of the fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. “I’m guessing 80, 90 percent of the ag work force is illegal,” one grower told the Associated Press. “Implementing this rule will be catastrophic.”

Less Veggies, More Sprawl

In a well-functioning market, farmers would raise wages to draw in more workers, and pass the increased costs on to their buyers: the big supermarkets, restaurant chains, and food processors. But as a California Farm Bureau official told AP, those entities will likely reject domestic price hikes and look to other parts of the world for produce. “If our guys try to raise prices, they are going to be replaced by foreign production,” he said.

In essence, he’s arguing that fruit and vegetable farming, like manufacturing over the past generation, has entered a “race to the bottom”: a relentless hunt for cheap labor markets and lax regulatory regimes.

Is that just Farm Bureau spin? Not likely. Indeed, the U.S. is already outsourcing an increasing share of its fruit and veg production. As this USDA backgrounder [PDF] from April 2006 shows, the import share of U.S. vegetable consumption has been rising steadily, from about 7 percent in 1990 to 14 percent in 2005. Fruit imports (excluding bananas) as a percentage of consumption have also doubled, rising from 12 percent in 1992-1994 to 24 percent in 2002-2004.

Much of that jump can be explained by off-season purchases — the Chilean-asparagus-in-January effect. But with marketing relationships and trade infrastructure in place, nothing stops distributors from buying, say, cheaper Mexico-grown lettuce over California product, or New Zealand apples over those grown in New York or Washington. California has already seen its once-huge garlic production dwindle, overwhelmed by a flood of cheap — and nearly flavorless — Chinese-grown garlic into the U.S. market.

What happens when farmers can no longer work their land profitably? They generally sell it to developers, and land under cultivation succumbs to low-density sprawl. Again, that’s already happening in California. In the state’s lush Central Valley, home to probably the nation’s most valuable territory for growing fruits and vegetables, developers bulldozed 100,000 acres of prime farmland in the 1990s alone, according to American Farmland Trust. If present trends continue, AFT warns, another million acres of farmland could vanish within a generation.

Meanwhile, production of the fruits and vegetables we consume shifts to nations with even weaker regulatory regimes than ours, meaning more insecticides and other agricultural chemicals released into the biosphere. And increasing distances mean burning more fossil fuel to haul that suspect bounty from farm to table.

While these grand global trends are indeed overwhelming to think about, there’s no need to feel disempowered. Get involved with burgeoning movements, nationwide and globally, to rebuild local (and, yes, regional) food systems that don’t thrive by exploiting labor and trashing the land.

Meanwhile, while U.S. vegetable farming gets squeezed between labor shortages and global competition, other, less labor-intensive forms of U.S. agriculture — namely industrial grain and meat production — thrive in the global marketplace. And that will be the topic of the next column.