Agriculture's human costs
While riding my bike around the orchards of Hood River, Ore., I couldn’t help but notice the dilapidated shacks. The wooden shelters, homes to migrant farm workers, dotted the fruit-laden landscape. Among the rolling hills and endless acres of grapes, pears, apples and peaches, the structures soured my afternoon activity. The scenic bike tour through the river’s fertile valley tainted my love for local food.
More than two dozen farms populate the 35-mile “fruit loop” traversing the river’s valley. This fertile ground produces an abundance of fruit and wine. Recognized especially for its pear production—52,727 tons of pears were harvested in 2009—the farmers of Hood River County reap the benefits of prime climate and soil. (Pears accounted for 85 percent of Hood River County’s agricultural commodity sales and were valued at more than $67 million, according to Oregon State University’s Oregon Agriculture Information Network.) The fruit harvested there will find its way to farmer’s markets across the Northwest, to independent food cooperatives and commercial grocery stores. For many consumers of local food, Hood River is an ideal source.
Local food is often associated with sustainability. From the consumer’s perspective, buying local means supporting small family farms, keeping money in the community and providing healthy food for the region. But the sustainability of local food is tied to both food production and distribution. Our desire to maintain the natural environment, plant organic produce and raise animals under humane treatment has overshadowed farm workers and their voice in the food movement.
There are 90,000 farm workers in Oregon, according to the Farmworker Housing Developlment Corporation (FHDC). This includes those who plant crops, pick fruit, harvest vegetables, sort through items on the conveyor belt, as well as package and deliver goods to the market. These workers are rarely unionized, receive minimal wages and paltry healthcare. The average life expectancy for migrant farm workers is 49, compared to the national average of 73 years of age, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, grocers and consumers alike continue to seek the lowest cost on desired food products even as consumers want organic, local and sustainably grown foods. Somehow the livelihood of the worker has escaped our conception of sustainability.
In the business community, sustainability is often associated with the triple bottom line. Moving toward a business model that measures success in terms of environmental, social and financial goals is a step in the right direction. To validate the ideals of the triple bottom line, social equity must equal the goals of environmental stewardship.
Consumers are apt to move in this direction. From organic to local to fair-trade, conscientious consumers demand ethically raised plants and animals, as well as fairly paid workers and farmers. Moving beyond imported, fair-trade certified coffee or cocoa, the Domestic Fair Trade Association (DFTA) and The Agricultural Justice Project stand at the forefront of a new sustainability. These organizations recognize that most food certifications address the product, not the people—farmers and workers alike.
In Oregon the minimum wage is $8.40; our state is among a handful of others that go beyond the federal rate. And yet, a living wage is considered $17.40, more than double our already high minimum wage.
The difference between the minimum and a livable wage are tremendous. Housing, health care, education, transportation and consumer spending are some of the facets that improve with higher income. In the context of sustainable food production, when employers pay $17.40 per hour, we will be far closer to sustainability than simply sourcing local food or using energy-efficient light bulbs.
The true cost of food poses a challenge to us all. As we conceptualize sustainability for the future, environmental stewardship and social justice must be taken into consideration. The livelihoods of farm workers, including housing, education and healthcare are crucial to a thriving economy. Moving forward, consumers and producers must work together to ensure a just food system. We will be far closer to a sustainable economy, a healthy environment and an equitable society when everyone can afford organic, local and ethically raised foods
Jared Goodman is a food educator, writer and consultant living in Portland, OR. As a food activist, Jared teaches low-income families how to think critically of the food system, he blogs about the politics of food and consults households on how to afford food that is healthy for the family and the planet. He can be reached at email@example.com.