Who Our Food Comes
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
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