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June/July 2005
Who Our Food Comes From
By Lauren Ornelas

 

Is veganism enough? As campaigns director for the animal protection group Viva!USA, I am overjoyed by the growing number of people adopting vegan diets. But I also know that many consumers are starting to realize that making compassionate choices about food involves more than just avoiding meat and dairy products.

In an increasingly complicated world, what we choose to put on our table can have a profound impact—for good or evil—on the health and welfare of people around the globe and here at home.

When I was growing up in Texas, my family was acutely aware of the grape boycott led by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. We did not eat grapes because we couldn’t bear the thought of collaborating with the agriculture companies imposing demeaning and dangerous working conditions on their employees, the men, women and children who labor long hours in fields and vineyards for low wages and few—if any—benefits.

And long before I became vegan, I was boycotting Coca-Cola because of the company’s collaboration with apartheid in South Africa. I got into animal rights and other social justice issues when I was in high school because I felt quite strongly about stopping injustice in its tracks.

Those boycotts worked—at least to some extent. Certainly the millions of consumers around the world who started avoiding products sold by pro-apartheid companies played a key role in bringing down the racist regime in South Africa. And while farm workers continue to labor in deplorable conditions, some improvements have been made.

But justice demands that we continue to wield the power of our plates. One of the toughest choices we face concerns chocolate. Currently, thousands of people—including children as young as 12—are being forced to work as slaves on cocoa farms in African countries like Cote d’Ivoire. They endure 14-hour workdays, beatings and other abuse, and are often fed corn paste as their only meal, according to investigations by nonprofit organizations and reporters with Knight Ridder Newspapers. They are locked up at night to prevent them from leaving, and beaten—sometimes mutilated to serve as visible examples to others—if they try to escape.

I enjoy chocolate and changing my habits was an adjustment. But now I only eat fair trade organic chocolate.

Other food-related issues are even more complicated. When I look at how the people who pick my strawberries and lettuce are treated, I realize how challenging it can be to make compassionate food choices.

All farm workers, including migrants, are some of the most exploited people in the U.S. They work from dawn to dusk, often with no breaks in the heat of the day. Workers go out into fields that are often still wet with pesticides. Unable to wash, they are forced to eat with the pesticides on their hands. Many employers fail to provide them with enough water—or any at all.

I went to college with children of migrant farm workers. Though they are citizens of this country, they are treated with so much disregard that it is hard to believe it happens in a nation that is constantly pointing the finger at other countries for human rights abuses.

A few weeks ago, I was driving down Highway 101 in California and I passed buses full of farm workers being transported to the fields. Watching this situation filled me with a moral disgust that’s similar to what I feel when I see transport trucks crowded with cows or sheep.

We all know that laws in this country do not seem to protect animals. But the legal system is equally negligent when it comes to farm workers. Child labor? Seems to be acceptable in the fields. Minimum-wage laws? Don’t seem to apply to farm workers.

Laws protecting farm workers are as outdated and poorly enforced as the laws that supposedly protect farmed animals. According to Human Rights Watch, children younger than 12 can start working in the fields, and there is no limit for the number of hours they can be forced to work. Farm workers are not paid overtime even though 12-hour workdays are common.

Many of the laws regarding animals and workers were created with family farms in mind, but unfortunately, that isn’t how our food is grown in this country anymore (with so many people!). Today, huge corporations dominate the agriculture industry.

As animal advocates, we sometimes hear people say that organic production methods must be better for the animals. But while animals do benefit from, for example, not receiving hormones, most organic standards do nothing to improve the way animals are treated. Similarly, although it’s much better to buy produce that is not laced with pesticides, ‘organic’ does not necessarily mean the farm workers are treated better.

As most of us know, slaughterhouses may be the worst workplaces in the U.S. The workers are poor, often illiterate, and often unable to speak English. They are treated almost as callously as the animals dying by the billions in those same facilities. The pay is low, turnover is high, and injuries and illnesses are frequent and often severe. Turnover rate at processing plants runs close to 100 percent per year.

Remember, Cesar Chavez (the founder of the UFW) was a strict vegetarian. Why? Because he was able to see the suffering of the animals and the workers as not being so far apart. The UFW often will mention the suffering of the cows on dairy farms in addition to how the workers are being treated.

Viva!USA strives to do the same. In our materials, we talk about the suffering of the workers, and in our 2001 pig report, we highlighted the environmental racism inherent in placing these polluting pig farms in lower income areas, which tend to be where minorities live.

These human rights connections are as important as those we make about the environment and health issues. But these are not issues to raise just because it might convince someone to go vegan; we must bring these issues up because we should truly care about these people!

How can consumers help? Even though we can’t give up our fruits and vegetables, I encourage everyone to shop at farmers markets, where you can often buy produce from the very person who picked it. And please sign up for e-alerts from the United Farm Workers at www.ufw.org. Most of all, use your voice to speak out for the farm workers who do the backbreaking work to get our fresh fruits and veggies on our table.

Lauren Ornelas is Campaigns Director of Viva!USA. To learn more, contact www.vivausa.org or (530) 759-8482.

 

 

 


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