We all need to eat. Agriculture and food production is a multi-trillion dollar industry that provides a massive amount of food to the American public each day. According to the USDA, "the aggregate food supply in 2000 provided 3,800 calories per person per day." Throughout the country, we usually know all of this simply by walking down the street or looking into our kitchens. What we often do not know is where our food comes from. We find it in restaurants or grocery stores, but apart from the occasional tag stating a country of origin, we know very little about the harvesting methods or supply chains that brought these ingredients to our plate.
Which is partly why the new State Department report on human trafficking is so significant. We often hear about the horrors of trafficking in sexual industries like pornography or prostitution, but we rarely hear about it in connection to the food that we eat. Yet of the 27 million estimated victims mentioned in the report, 19% are victims of labor exploitation in industrial sectors like textiles and international agriculture.
While it is difficult to determine just how many people are trafficked into food production, NPR has extensively documented the various cases of forced labor in agriculture that have come to light. Among other nations, the report specifically mentions shrimp farms in Thailand, which provides "one-third of all shrimp imported by the United States," and palm oil, a key ingredient for processed foods originating mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia. And recent media coverage has exposed the exploitation of forced labor in Iowa and Florida.
Part of the problem is that it is very difficult to determine at what point labor becomes forced exploitation. In a recent report, the Polaris Project noted that "Agricultural work is often isolated and transient, and income can be irregular. Workers often see peaks and lulls in employment due to changing harvest seasons, and may travel up and down the country to find work." By its very nature, the agricultural industry requires extensive hours of intensive manual labor often in adverse physical conditions. At the same time, labor within this industry mainly consists of migrant workers, many of whom have migrated from a foreign country, with very few opportunities for other forms of employment.
It is an industry, then, in which working conditions are intensely difficult and the line between exploitation and labor is blurred at best. At the same time, though, it is also an industry particularly susceptible to abuse and exploitation by management. These factors make the industry difficult to manage and labor standards difficult to regulate.
Of course, that does not mean that labor exploitation in agriculture is a lost cause or something impossible to stop. Media coverage and public advocacy can put pressure on corporations to ensure that all food comes from non-exploitative sources. Many non-profit organizations are admirably pursuing these goals. And, as the report mentions, effective oversight may also help, although we cannot rely on regulation to cure all of our troubles.
In the meantime, it may be important for us to remember, to understand the complex process by which food comes to our tables, one that can often include a tragic human cost.