The other day, I was researching health externalities of our current food system and came across a shocking statistic: In many countries in the world, farmers are more than twice as likely as the general population to commit suicide. They are frequently cited as the occupational group most likely to have suicidal thoughts and follow through on them. And they are a high-risk group for mental illnesses, anxiety, and depression. What makes the group that produces our food – arguably the most important occupational group out there, since food = life – so unhappy?
As it turns out, there is a host of factors that create a perfect storm. Farmers’ livelihoods are highly dependent on many variables they cannot control – the weather and extreme weather patterns (droughts, floods, hailstorms); fluctuating commodity prices; rising input costs; demanding paperwork and regulatory demands; trade deals that increase competition; etc. Over the last years, these stress factors have only intensified with climate change, industry consolidation and the financialization of agrifood markets which is suspected to make prices more volatile.
Then, there is the nature of the work – long working hours, often alone; in the case of livestock farming, the inability to take weekends or holidays off; the fact that there is no mandatory retirement age and on family farms, you often work with many generations and it is impossible to separate family from work problems; and in the case of women, the double burden of being homemaker as well as contributing on- and off-farm labor.
What hits many farmers hardest, however, is the prospect or fact of losing their farm. It is common knowledge that the agricultural sector has consolidated at a high rate in recent decades; however, I must confess I have thought little of what happens to the farmers who have to give up their farm. Often, they are family farmers and have inherited the land and farm from generations of ancestors. Having to admit defeat and let it go then creates massive feelings of shame, failure, and having let down not only the immediate family – for whom the farm represented not only their livelihood, but also their home and lifestyle – but their fathers and ancestors as well. For farmers who traditionally have fiercely independent, self-sufficient values, this can come as a deep shock that is too difficult to overcome.
Another side note that made me sad – some farmers say that a high source of stress comes from societal demands and negative societal opinions about farmers. In a survey, one farmer said “it feels like my entire way of life is under attack.” And I get it – the overwhelmingly urban popular culture and media can be oversimplistic in their portrayal of the rural lifestyle that is either insulting or demonizing to farmers, who after all are doing the best they can to carry out their job, whatever their value system. Maybe we should take extra care to be generous, thankful and respectful of them in our daily conversations, public debates and, not least, in policy. I believe that is the least they deserve.
Finishing on another note – farmers are also far from the only food system workers that suffer from great stress and mental health problems. (Migrant) farm workers, workers in slaughterhouses and meatpacking factories, warehouses, in food service and in retail frequently suffer from low or piecemeal wages wage theft, no social or healthcare coverage and no job security – which tremendously increases economic stress; often they are subjected to intense pressure and humiliation in order to keep up production speed in factories; and undocumented migrants in particular suffer high rates of verbal and sexual abuse due to their dependence on their employers and their lack of legal recourse. One paragraph in particular made me incredibly angry:
In Salinas, Calif., a worker told the EEOC that farmworkers there referred to one company’s fields as the field de calzon, or “field of panties,” because so many women had been raped by supervisors there. In Florida, women farmworkers dubbed fields “the green motel” for the same reason. In Iowa, women said they had encountered the problem so often that they believed it was a common practice in the United States to exchange sex for job security.
You guys, we need to do better than that. We need to provide the adequate protection to the people producing our food. We need to provide the economic and social safeguards that allows them to do their job for us in safety, security and in a healthy state of mind. We cannot continue to see farm labor as just one more input – this is people we are talking about, who deserve our respect and admiration for being out there every day.