Just now I was working on an application for a teaching job on Sustainable Development and reflecting on how often we conflate “sustainability” with “environmentalism”. Yes, of course protecting the environment is important, especially in an activity so dependent on ecosystems as agriculture, but just as important is the second pillar of sustainability – the social one. This includes paying all members of the food chain that help bring food into the grocery store and onto our tables a fair wage. Here are two articles that reflect recent activities on that topic:
First, in a surprise move Walmart has joined the Fair Food Program initiated by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. The Fair Food Program is a voluntary agreement that links laborers, tomato farm owners and final purchasers through a legal framework that guarantees … wait for it … that final purchasers pay 1 penny more per pound of tomatoes. When I first read that, I didn’t really grasp the significance of it – 1 penny? – but this actually constitutes a 50% raise for farm laborers when it is passed down all the way to their paycheck – now, they earn 80$ a day instead of 50$. In addition, according to the Civil Eats article, “Signatories abide to a Code of Conduct that enforces zero-tolerance for slavery or sexual assault. Workers attend education sessions to learn their rights and responsibilities under the Program. They are also informed about health and safety issues.” In an industry where (migrant) labor rights are so often ignored, such assurances – and a proper legal system that allows for complaints and grievances to reach the appropriate authorities – can go a long way to help make working conditions at least a bit better for the people that pick our crops. Notably, though a number of fast food restaurants have signed on in the past (most of the big ones except for Wendy’s), Walmart is one of the first big retailers that has taken the step (after Whole Foods), raising the pressure for industry competitors to respond alike. This is the strategy of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers – by tackling a small issue (the program for now only extends to tomatoes, and is only covering Florida – which still provides around one third of the national tomato harvest) and utilizing peer pressure to urge along the main industry contenders, they can celebrate small successes while demonstrating a model that is easily rolled out to different regions, crops and circumstances. As the Civil Eats article concludes with the words of Alexandra Guáqueta, chair of the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights, “We are eager to see whether the Fair Food Program is able to leverage further change within participation businesses and serve as a model elsewhere in the world.” Me too.
My second article is about an interview with Michael Pollan that starts:
“If we are ever to . . . produce food sustainably and justly and sell it at an honest price, we will first have to pay people a living wage so that they can afford to buy it.” In his words, fair wages must be part of the push to democratize food.
The conversation eloquently wraps up the issue of foodie elitism – the impression that, on the one hand, the food movement does not seem to care that organic blueberries for 8$ a pack cannot be afforded by everybody and that thus clean, healthy, sustainable food is only for the well-off. But according to Pollan, this is an impression that on the other hand is carefully constructed by the industrial agriculture lobby that uses it as “a part of [its] rhetorical strategy […] to fight the food movement: that it’s elitist; that this kind of food can’t feed the world; that only industrial agriculture can get the job done and put lots of cheap meat in front of us. It’s a bludgeon used in a very serious ideological battle.” He then talks about an honest pricing of food and the sad truth that food these days, I would contend in most parts of the developed world, is seriously underpriced. Were we to take into consideration fair labor, good animal welfare and significant environmental standards, we would have to go back to paying not only 7 to 10% of our income on food, but 30 or 40% like a couple of decades ago. The real question is – are we willing to reach deeper in our pockets to compensate the real costs of production? Pollan says, once we take that leap, a virtuous cycle will emerge:
“[The argument that higher prices will scare off support for food workers] needs to be repelled by pointing out that we need to pay people a living wage so they can afford to pay the real cost of food. Cheap food is really an addiction for an economy and for a society. Cheap food is one of the pillars on which our economy is based. It is what has allowed wages to fall over the last 30 or 40 years, the fact that food was getting cheaper the whole time. In a sense, cheap food has subsidized the collapse in wages that we’ve seen. Part of repairing the whole system will involve paying people more and internalizing the real cost of producing this food.”
I would encourage you to click through to both articles, they are great reads!
What are your thoughts on socially sustainable food systems?