Note: For the next few days I’ll be reporting from Eco-Farm, the annual conference held by the Ecological Farming Association of California. At Eco-Farm, some 1,400-1,500 organic farmers, Big Organic marketers, and sundry sustainable-ag enthusiasts pack into a rustic, beautiful seaside conference hall an hour-and-a-half south of San Francisco to talk farming amid the dunes.
The ever-excellent investigative writer Eric Schlosser kicked off Eco-Farm with a hard-hitting keynote. He noted the stark fact that “without agricultural surpluses, there can be no leisure — and no writers.” And he thanked the assembled for their work in the fields and groves.
Echoing the unsparing analysis in his landmark Fast Food Nation, Schlosser teased out the fascist elements inherent in industrial food: the worship of regimentation and control, the fetishization of “uniformity and conformity.” He summarized the mentality by citing an old McDonald’s corporate slogan: “One world, one taste.”
Schlosser argued that the whole edifice of fast food rests on the mass production of ignorance: The food industry spends some $3 billion per year marketing a scrubbed vision of “happy meals,” masking a system that relies on animal cruelty, environmental devastation, and exploitation of workers.
To drive that point home, he noted that working conditions in Florida’s fruit and vegetable fields, source of much winter produce throughout the U.S., have gotten so dreadful that even the Bush Administration’s Justice Department has seen fit to intervene.
Just last week, federal officials charged a large-scale Florida farmer with enslaving immigrant farm workers — systematically “underpaying the workers, forcing them into debt, and physically threatening them if the workers left their jobs before paying off the debts,” according to one press account.
Even when they’re not being literally chained to farm trucks, tomato pickers in Florida are ruthlessly exploited, Schlosser said. “They’ve been getting paid the same wage since the ’70s … That amounts to a huge pay cut.” He added a bit of good news: a hard-won raise is imminent for Florida’s tomato pickers.
Organized by the heroic Coalition of Immokolee Workers, tomato pickers had managed to cajole major tomato buyers Taco Bell and McDonald’s to agree to pay an extra penny a pound for tomatoes — enough to double the wages of workers.
But Burger King has refused to go along with the hike, a move that threatened to scotch the deal. By holding back on that penny per pound, Schlosser reports, Burger King saves itself $250,000 per year — a rounding error compared to annual profits, and a fraction on a fast-food CEO’s annual pay.
Schlosser himself recently brought that story to broad public attention with an op-ed in The New York Times. And while he didn’t mention it in his speech, it was almost surely his high-profile expose that inspired Bernie Sanders, Ted Kennedy, and other senators to get involved, pressuring Burger King to relent. Schlosser predicted that to get the senators off its back, Burger King would likely soon pay the extra penny.
While he treated his audience with great respect — and won enthusiastic applause in response — Schlosser didn’t let the assembled growers off the hook. He noted that organic standards make no stipulations about how growers treat workers. For him, he added, organic means nothing if workers are systematically mistreated. His remark must have caused some unease (though the cheering audience didn’t show it). As my friend Bonnie Powell of Ethicurean writes in her account of Schlosser’s speech, “labor is an Achilles-heel issue for many organic farmers.” Bonnie reminds us that:
A 2005 report published by researchers at UC Davis found that of 188 California organic farms surveyed, a majority failed to pay a living wage or provide medical or retirement plans.
There’s nothing easy about that issue. As I wrote when the UC Davis study came out, organic farming is so labor-intensive, and its profit margins remain so low, that most small- and mid-sized growers would probably go out of business if they paid a decent wage.
That’s a jarring fact — something to think about next time you’re marveling at the bounty of a Whole Foods produce section, or the farmers’ market, for that matter. It doesn’t mean that farm workers deserve their low wages. It means that if we want healthy food grown by a fairly treated workforce, we as a society need to figure out new models for food production — one that pays farmers a fair price while also ensuring that everyone can afford healthy, responsibly produced food.
I admire Schlosser for using his stature to stand up for disempowered workers against industrial-food giants — and for reminding organic farmers that they, too, have a responsibility to treat their workers fairly.