There is a wilful ignorance about the way our food is produced and the harm it causes to society at large. It is essential that the study of nutrition include the actual cost in terms of environmental and cultural sacrifice to bring down the price at the cashier. This awareness calls out to be addressed urgently given the pervasively ill effects that our food choices create. It requires that we create an ethical standard for nutrition.
We have created a way of eating that is built on social inequity. We can no longer support a diet that demands economic slavery in order to produce foods that are not nutritionally necessary. The growing and processing of so much of the modern diet causes pain and suffering to our brothers and sisters on the planet. These are all issues that need to be considered in order to create a new nutritional paradigm in the Human Ecology Diet.
Let’s agree that slavery is despicable and inhumane. Yet, if we agree with that what do we do about the slaves that produce many of the products we enjoy. Cheap, invisible labor is a driving force of the global economy. This is true of the clothes we wear or the technologies that fascinate us. It also includes our food. Our food is increasingly grown, processed, and shipped by a modern slave population. According to the International Labor Organization, approximately 3.5 million men, women and children work as slaves. In many countries there are little or no legal protection against the practice. The food that arrives on our plate may well be the result of those who are robbed of any dignity and survive in abject poverty.
The type of slavery we most clearly understand is forced labor, where a person is considered property and held captive (“owned”) in order to labor for their owner. Nowadays, many who are enslaved by forced labor are children—sometimes captured, sometimes sold into slavery by poverty-stricken families. Another type of slavery is bonded labor, where labor is seen as payment for a debt (most often a debt that can never be repaid). Both of these categories of slavery operate in the modern food system.
As recently as the 1990; s, the American Justice Department has prosecuted seven slavery cases in Florida, four involving tomato and citrus harvesters. The workers—mostly indigenous Mexicans and Guatemalans—were forced to work ten- to twelve-hour days, six days per week, for as little as $20 per week. They were under the constant watch of armed guards. Those who attempted to escape were assaulted, pistol-whipped, and even shot.
Some of the worst kind of modern slavery operates in the Indonesian fishing industry. Cambodian and Burmese men are captured to work on the fishing fleets that scour the Indonesian waters. The Thai government has failed to control these fleets where men are often chained to the boats and can be sold from ship to ship. The Nestlé Corporation admit- ted that it was “difficult” to control fish sources due to multiple ports and the fishing vessels operating in international waters. All those sales on cheap baskets of friend shrimp and those shrimp cocktails come at a human price. Much of the “fish product” produced through this human misery is used in cat food. Even our pets can have slaves.
Families all over the world grow, process and ship food that is exported to the wealthy nations of the world. In much of the global south, the ability to grow food for local consumption has been driven out of the market by international corporations. Local populations are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty with no escape. It is a system driven by the ravenous appetite for cheap food in affluent nations.
It is imagined in America that slavery disappeared with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation or with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. But immediately after the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, a new form of wage slavery was instituted on a grand scale. This system was based on giving credit to the black or poor white farmer, using the future harvest as collateral. Credit was given at very high interest so that when the harvest was sold and the debt was paid, there was barely enough left to live on through the winter.
The system bound the sharecropper to the bank or merchants extending the loans. Similar wage slavery exists in many parts of the world today. Many would say that most modern farmers with small holdings are enslaved by debt to the system.
The modern slave is well hidden, tucked away in some lonely corner of society disguised as a “low-paid worker” (in reality, a wage slave). We love a bargain, including food. Producing food that is cheap in the marketplace always means one thing— someone didn’t get paid.
Fast Food Fraud
The exploitive economics of the food industry are not only shown in the abuse of the third world poor – they extend to the poor in the wealthy nations as well. With the support of government subsidies and factory farming the prices of meat and dairy products are kept at an all-time low. This abundance of calorie dense and nutritionally inadequate foods floods the urban landscape. For people with limited finance these foods are filling, tasteful and cheap. They also represent the criminal activity of marketing food that is destined to bring sickness and disease to those who consume them daily.
An ecological and sustainable food system cannot be built on the backs of economically exploited people.