It's the mark of a modern intellectual to express extreme cynicism—bordering on almost boredom—with the nefariousness of for-profit corporations and the governments who (perhaps intentionally) fail to sufficiently regulate them. But ultimately, everyone's gotta eat, and unless you grow it yourself or buy it at the farmer's market, most of what we consume comes from agricultural sources we've never seen and has been handled by people we'll never meet. It's becoming increasingly understood that consumers should care about the provenance of the plants and animals that end up on their plates—but what about the people involved in turning that flora and fauna into food?
“This system often prioritizes cost-saving initiatives and economic outputs at the expense of agricultural workers," wrote Hilal Elver, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, in a paper presented this week to the United Nations Third General Assembly’s Third Committee. She was referring to the global agricultural system, and at first, that assessment feels intuitive, or even obvious. It's not wrong to feel skeptical of these businesses or to expect the worst of systems that are largely driven by greed. But the result of so much righteous pessimism can sometimes be a callousness to the true human cost of the food we consume—or at least a numbness to its ugliest realities, which are obscured to consumers.
In a paper prepared earlier this year, Elver details that cost in a series of disturbingly bleak statistics about the 1.3 billion people worldwide (which include 70 percent of the workforce in "developed" countries) who are employed in the agricultural sector. The network of interconnected forces impacting the lives of laborers across vastly different countries is complicated enough for a lifetime of study (even 22 pages doesn't do it justice), but there are certain statistics and systemic issues worth calling out from the report.
Take, for instance, how an "average of 170,000 agricultural workers are killed at work annually, and that agricultural workers are twice as likely to experience a fatal workplace accident compared with workers in other sectors.” This includes what some studies estimate to be 26,000 unreported deaths each year, the result of agriculture having the highest level of "informal employment," as much as 90 percent of the labor force.
Among the more serious health risks are the repeated exposure to pesticides—which is especially problematic for women who are or could become pregnant, and for women with young children—and a lack of clean drinking water. And while some of the dangers of agricultural work is endemic to the industry, the largest threat comes from lack of regulations. Ninety-six percent of Guatemalan agricultural laborers, for instance, reported feeling like they were "exposed to constant danger” but only 3 percent have access to any first aid. Here in the United States, heatstroke is the leading cause of on-the-job fatalities, "yet there is no universal requirement to establish water and shade breaks for agricultural workers.”
Extremely low wages (which tend to be paid late and rarely, if ever, adjusted), a lack of social services (only 20 percent of the agricultural labor force globally has access to social security, health care, or workers comp), and the often remote locations of these jobs keep people and their families stuck in these dangerous employment cycles.
“Agricultural workers in Zambia, for example, work for less than $2 a day on third-party farms. The dependence on farm owners for work opportunities perpetuates generational cycles in poverty,” the report reads.
The UN can only do so much—largely by facilitating the development of protocols that “provide non-binding guidance for States” or by “[recommending] that State-imposed working conditions be consistent with international human rights laws." But most of those recommendations are years, if not decades, old, and these problems persist.
For instance, The Minimum Age Convention was held in 1973 to limit child labor across industries and The Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, which demanded countries immediately prohibit any child labor that compromised the "safety or morals" of the children involved, was held in 1999. Yet today, "71 per cent of child labour (involving 108 million children) occurs in the broader agricultural sector," where the physical tolls and chemical exposure of these jobs can have lasting detrimental effects.
Elver insists that “[s]tate regulatory responsibility includes adopting laws to protect the rights of workers and adopting corrective measures when existing laws have an adverse impact on those rights." But she admits that certain populations, like women and migrants, would likely remain vulnerable to abuse. Even when laws do exist to protect laborers, "[a] lack of policies and [programs] to combat cultural biases and violence against women in the workplace is also preventing women from the full enjoyment of their rights" across all industries.
Other attempts to address these issues formally are often stymied by the fact that much of the agricultural labor force is comprised of undocumented immigrants, who may avoid calling out even egregious human rights violations for fear of deportation. And, in the United States, that's not getting better anytime soon.
Governments should hold accountable perpetrators of human rights violations in the agricultural sphere, but the report ultimately puts much of the onus on corporations "to not contribute, directly or indirectly, to human rights abuses" and consumers "to use market demands and purchasing power to promote worker protections.” This may seem daunting, but it makes sense. So much of the abuse in the agricultural industry already exists outside the legal realm, and companies will continue to have a vested interest in driving down the price of labor.
It may sound tired, but the best thing we can do to break this cycle is to educate ourselves. Exploitation, like that detailed in the UN report, relies on this labor being a distant and forgotten part of the production chain. Favoring "fair-trade" and other similar buzzwords on labels is a step in the right direction, but consider that these initiatives are optional and self-selecting—they only tell you about which parts of the process the company is proud to divulge.
Some of what constitutes supporting ethical agriculture bumps against issues of privilege—namely, the ability to avoid suspiciously cheap food that is often indicative of an underpaid workforce. That's what's so nefarious about these abuses; they're perpetuated by the indelible forces of the market. But letting these problems remain in the theoretical realm of whether "ethical capitalism" can ever really exist is a cop-out.
Support reporters who are putting in the legwork, seek out this information proactively, read up on legislation that might impact foodways, and mostly, don't stop caring about the human cost of everyday conveniences.