Of all the panels I attended at Slow Food Nation’s series, the most powerful for me was the one convened by Eric Schlosser on creating a “new, fair food system.” It featured labor-rights advocates from California and Florida — the poles of industrial fruit-and-veg production in the U.S.

Working conditions get little play in sustainable-agriculture discussions. Organic standards make no mention of labor practices; and when foodies swoon over heirloom tomatoes or a fabulous wine, they’ve learned to obsess over where the fruit was grown — but they rarely consider the folks who actually picked it.

Schlosser — author of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness (which contains a blistering section on California strawberry pickers) — is doing his part to change that. Again and again at this massive foodie confab, Schlosser drove home the point: our food industry thrives on nearly unchecked human exploitation. (Watch soon for Grist’s interview with him.) Indeed, Schlosser emphasized, the very foods that we’re constantly urged to eat more of because they’re healthy — fruit, vegetables, nuts — are typically grown and harvested under downright brutal conditions.

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He set up the panel with a series of stark statements.

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  • “Slavery has returned to Florida.” Over and over again over the last decade, Sunshine State growers have been caught holding workers against their will, underpaying paying even by the rock-bottom standards of the area, and often physically abusing them. Just on Tuesday, five residents of Immokolee, Florida plead guilty of “enslaving Mexican and Guatemalan workers, brutalizing them and forcing them to work in farm fields,” the Fort Myers News Press reports.
  • Slavery is the extreme case; but the average situation is appalling, too. According to Schlosser, the 1.2 million workers who staff the nation’s farms bring in a median annual wage of $12,000. The poverty line for annual wages is $17,000.
  • In the meat-packing industry — which, as I rarely tire of pointing out, is dominated by a few very large corporations — inflation-adjusted average wages have fallen by half in the last 25 years. Half.
  • Schlosser says the restaurant industry employs some 12-13 million workers — more than any other industry in our services-dominated economy. “No industry has done more to fight raises in the national minimum wage,” he adds.

After Schlosser’s brief, pungent setup, the labor organizers took over. I couldn’t stick around for presentations by Maricela Morales of the Central Coast Alliance United for A Sustainable Economy or Agustin Ramirez of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (who talked about working conditions in California’s multibillion-dollar almond industry).

But I did get to hear from Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Jose Padilla of California Rural Legal Assistance.

Lucas revealed some news I’ll report in a separate post; look for my video interview with him on conditions in Florida’s tomato fields soon. One metaphor from Lucas: Florida agriculture is like a hamburger in a bun, squeezed from the bottom by input/machinery suppliers like John Deere and Monsanto, and from the top by mega-buyers like Wal-Mart and the fast-food chains.

“Who pays the price of this double-squeeze? Workers,” Lucas said. Beautifully put.

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Padilla of California Rural Legal Assistance gave a devastating talk on the state of farmwork in California. According to Padilla, 97 percent of California farmworkers are foreign-born, and 38 percent — two in five — live in poverty. He reckons their average median income is between $10,000 and $13,000.

In terms of fatalities, farm work is the second most-dangerous job in the United States, outpaced only by mining. In terms of disabilities, farm work trails only construction.

Padilla went on to lay out, naming names, the six farm workers in the last four months who have died of heat exposure in California — typically picking table grapes in heat well over 100 degrees.