One Solution for a Broken Food System (part 3)
How worker mistreatment and supply chain problems are corrupting the food system. 🚚
In part 2 of this series on fixing our broken food system, we delved into the environmental and social issues associated with raising animals and growing crops on a large scale. In part 3, we're taking a look at how worker mistreatment and supply chain problems contribute to further corruption within the food system.
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Worker Inequity: Low Pay and Poor Treatment
The farmers and laborers working to provide food animals and crops on a large scale are often on the receiving end of bad deals, low wages or mistreatment. Nowhere is this seen more vividly than in the plight of contract farmers and migrant workers.
The Contract Farmer
Some factory farms are the result of contract farming, agreements in which family farmers raise food animals for large companies. Under these agreements, farmers receive animals, feed, economic support and access to new farming technologies from their employers. However, the cost of constructing barns, chicken houses and farm other infrastructure comes out of farmers pockets and can drive them deep into debt right from the start.
Photo by ArtHouse Studio from Pexels
Once the infrastructure is in place, farmers depend on the company to deliver all the inputs. Low-quality inputs limit how productive a farm can be, which in turn puts a cap on how much contract farmers can earn. A "tournament" system dictates how much farmers are paid and rewards the most efficient with higher prices. But, since the companies have subjective definitions of "efficient," farmers can be undercompensated when circumstances beyond their control result in lower outputs.
Companies can also demand that their contracted farmers perform expensive infrastructure upgrades. Farmers are stuck footing the bill for these changes and usually don't recoup the costs. Many wind up saddled with loans they can't afford as they attempt to dig themselves out of debt.
The Migrant Worker
But the problem goes beyond contract animal farming: Produce also has its dark side. Many of the people harvesting fruits and vegetables in U.S. fields are immigrants or migrant workers who are often exploited for cheap labor.
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
Immigrants seeking refuge from war, violence, poverty, famine and natural disasters in their own countries may be lured with the promise of farm work—only to be roped into in a modern-day form of slavery. Sometimes only one member of the family is "officially" hired; the others, including children as young as seven, work "off the books" for unfair wages.
Migrant workers travel from farm to farm, harvesting crops as they come into season and receiving very little pay for their labor. It's not uncommon for farmers to pay a "piece rate," basing payment on how much each worker is able to harvest in a day. In this system, workers who are very young, very old, sick or injured receive less pay simply because they move slower than healthier workers.
Field workers often spend too many hours in the heat and sun without adequate protection and may be exposed to the pesticides, herbicides and fungicides sprayed on conventional crops. Few have adequate housing, and they receive no benefits to help with medical needs. Wages hover just around (and sometimes even below) the poverty line, with individuals making as little as $15,000 per year. Exploitation and abuse are common practices.
Farms continue to face labor shortages, which has led some to attempt to attract more workers by promising higher wages and other incentives. However, most Americans view the essential service of growing and harvesting food as a job that's beneath them or just plain "too hard."
As long as this attitude prevails, farmers are likely to continue to employ migrant workers. Other solutions to their plight—and the problems contract farmers face—are being explored, including:
Abolishing factory farms
Developing robots capable of identifying and picking ripe produce without causing damage
Introducing policy reforms, including immigration reform, to end exploitation
Pushing for and enabling supply chain transparency
Creating and supporting programs that ensure fair wages for workers
The Supply Chain: One Big Hot Mess
Until COVID-19 hit, supply chain issues remained largely off the public radar. But the pandemic revealed problems that have been simmering under the surface for years—and introduced some new ones.
Bottlenecks, inefficiencies and poor planning plague a food supply chain reliant on non-renewable resources to transport food from one area to another. And transport we do: A team at the University of Illinois created a map in 2019 that shows there are 9.5 million food supply chain connections between counties in the U.S. Yet, only nine counties—most of which are in California—account for the majority of food production.
And that's just food grown within the country. In 2020, the U.S. imported over $146 billion in agricultural products, including food and feed, and continually relies on imports for grocery staples like coffee, bananas and avocados.
Corruption, Contamination and Waste
With all these connections, it's nearly impossible to keep an eye on what's happening in every part of the supply chain. This lack of transparency allows unscrupulous companies and suppliers to leverage tactics like bribing, bid rigging and evading health and safety regulations to snag the lowest prices and move goods around on their own terms. Unfair labor practices and dangerous working conditions can also fly under the radar.
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash
The complex web through which food travels across the globe raises concerns when it comes to health. It can be difficult to trace contamination to a definite source, resulting in widespread recalls that put consumers in a panic and lead to significant financial setbacks for affected businesses.
Supply chain issues like farm labor shortages, transportation delays and improper food storage or handling lead to significant losses before food ever reaches our plates. In the U.S. alone, 69 million tons of food is lost or wasted along the supply chain from pre-harvest to distribution. That's 138 billion pounds of edible food that could otherwise provide meals for the millions of Americans who struggle with hunger and food insecurity.
Several innovations in both technology and shipping have the potential to improve supply chain logistics and traceability:
New methods of transporting goods that use fewer resources
Localized food production that creates shorter supply chains
Technology, such as blockchain, that can enable greater transparency
Upcycling food waste streams into new products
Food waste monitoring technology
Food reclaiming and donation programs
Robotic crop monitoring to identify produce at peak ripeness and prevent loss
Next week, we'll see how existing policies affect the food system and examine the ongoing issues of food insecurity and inequality around the world.
Thanks to Foster members Tom White and Rhishi Pethe for their help with this edition!
Thanks for an excellent, informative article! My eyes are being opened to problems that have sadly been off my radar. I'm grateful your articles are bringing these issues to light. Thanks so much for the hard work and research.