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What Would America's Food Supply Look Like Without Immigrant Labour?

If Trump follows through with plans to restrict immigration and deport undocumented immigrants, some industry experts say that farms and factories could be left scrambling, and the price tag for food could inflate dramatically.

Last week, the Trans-Pacific Partnership was pulled from the table after President Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement, abandoning a trade deal that could have opened the doors to a $4 billion-per-year export market for American agricultural products. Then, heightened tensions with Mexico increased worries that the United States might weaken or abandon NAFTA, putting trade relations with Mexico, the United States' third-biggest agricultural export market, in jeopardy.


Now that President Trump is making good on his campaign promises, there are concerns about what will happen to America's foreign and undocumented immigrant workforce, a boogeyman of Trump's campaign speeches—and a backbone of American agriculture. If Trump follows through with plans to restrict immigration and deport undocumented immigrants, some industry experts say that farms and factories could be left scrambling, and the price tags on food—particularly produce and dairy—could see noticeable increases.

Farm work is hard work, and studies have shown that most Americans don't want to do it, even though it often pays above minimum wage. Consequently, a great deal of it is performed by America's 11 million undocumented immigrants, who in effect subsidise the cheap food that lines our supermarket aisles. America's reliance on cheap immigrant labor for cheap food dates back to the Bracero Program, a labour relationship established between Mexico and the US in the 1940s that lasted until the 1960s. The great majority of migrant farm workers come from Mexico.

"There's a misconception that [undocumented immigrants] have been taking jobs other people would do," Dr. Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern, an Assistant Professor of Food Studies at Syracuse University, told MUNCHIES. "For the most part that's been proven false. People born in urban areas who are coded as white are not willing to take these jobs. They pay very low, are not eligible for overtime, and workers can't organise."


The American Farm Bureau Federation, a group that represents the wide range of American agriculture producers, estimates that at least 50 to 70 percent of the country's 1.5 to 2 million strong hired farm workforce is comprised of unauthorised labourers, and that if the industry were to lose access to undocumented workers, agricultural production would fall by between $30 and $60 billion and prices in stores would rise five to six percent for consumers.

A dollar spent at the store is divided up along the supply chain, with 35 percent of the store price of fresh fruit and 25 percent of the price of vegetables going to farms, and a percentage of that to farm workers, according to a 2016 report from the University of California, Davis. In 1966, when Bracero workers weren't available to pick grapes, the Farm Workers Union secured a 40 percent wage increase for its workers. UC-Davis estimates that a 40 percent increase in farm wages, from $11.72 to $16.40, would lead to nearly $5,000 in new wages for a seasonal worker working 1,000 hours. Consumers would pay 4 percent more (an average of $21 per year) for fruit and vegetables at the store, if they were to entirely bear the burden of the wage increase.

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But not all sectors of agriculture expect to be equally affected. A 2015 report from the National Milk Producers Federation estimates that the dairy industry would be particularly hard hit if it were to lose its immigrant workforce, which comprises half of all dairy farm workers. (The report doesn't distinguish between documented and undocumented workers, though 70 percent of respondents had medium to low confidence in the validity of immigration papers.) In such a scenario, the NMPF says, the price of milk would double, from $3.37 to $6.40. Moreover, 7,000 dairy farms would close, ultimately leading to the loss of 208,000 jobs nationwide and $32 billion in lost economic output. The number of dairy cows and total milk production would decrease by a quarter.

Photo via Flickr user Instrinsic-Image

Photo via Flickr user Instrinsic-Image

"The notion that immigrants are taking these jobs away from American workers is simply not true," Randy Mooney, a dairy farmer and the chair of NMPF's board, said in a 2015 NMPF press release. "Dairy farmers have tried desperately to get American workers to do these jobs with little success—and that's despite an average wage that is well above the US minimum wage."

There are also very general regional differentiations in how losing the immigrant workforce would affect the industry, and they reflect the electoral map. While combines rake the grain fields of the Midwest's red states, immigrant labour is what identifies and handpicks many ripe fruits and vegetables on the coasts. California is the biggest fruit and vegetable producer in the union.

Currently, the readily available immigrant labor force helps ensure that farmers are able to harvest crops in a timely fashion. Relying on the oft-delayed H-2A visa process to import seasonal immigrant labour workers can lead to costly delays, with crops rotting in the fields as farm workers wait for foreign labour to arrive. The Farm Bureau says that 72 percent of growers report that H-2A workers arrive on average 22 days after they are needed, and that the chronic worker shortage led to an estimated $3.3 billion in missed economic opportunity in 2012. The Farm Bureau has argued for a new market-based visa program and "an adjustment of status for experienced, but unauthorised, agricultural workers."

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"We are dependent upon undocumented immigrants and we have been for a long time, so there's this real contradictory nature where on the one hand people want to see them gone, and on the other they want food cheap," Minkoff-Zern said. "Our food system, where we really have access to a lot of cheap food, is dependent upon low-wage labor, and that is dependent upon a source of undocumented workers who don't have the ability to help themselves."

Minkoff-Zern doesn't expect undocumented immigrants will be rounded up and deported. However, they may pay for Trump's previously stated immigration policy, which doesn't include a path to citizenship for undocumented workers unless they leave the US, nonetheless.

"People will have to live under the radar," Minkoff-Zern said. "We'll see what we see in some rural areas where undocumented people are afraid to go to the grocery store, to go to the hospital. They are afraid of doing things they need to do for their wellbeing."