The 2008 Ecological Farming Conference (EcoFarm) kicked off in Pacific Grove, CA, tonight with a talk on sustainability given by Eric Schlosser. His best-seller "Fast Food Nation" was not really about food, he said, but about this country's massive experiment in disposability — sustainability's antithesis — in which both animals and humans are treated as throwaway, replaceable widgets.
After a short, snappy recap of the history of fast food, Schlosser quoted McDonald's mastermind Ray Kroc's sinister warning that "The organization cannot trust the individual. The individual must trust the organization." The power, and the danger, of mammoth corporations like McDonald's and other food conglomerates arises from their insistence on speed and uniformity, on "one taste worldwide ... That's what you're up against," he told the several hundred organic and beyond-organic farmers, food-movement activists, and all the other folks in fleece jackets, woolen hats, and comfortable shoes who were gathered to hear him.
The FDA's recent approval of using cloned animals for food perfectly symbolizes this system, Schlosser said: it represents total control over and exact duplicability of the product, which in this case just happens to be a living creature. "Honestly, I would rather chew on this podium than ever eat the milk or eggs or meat from a cloned animal," he shuddered. While he has no proof that doing so is dangerous, the FDA has no long-term studies proving to him that the ten-year-old, buggy technology is safe. And after all, "this is the same FDA that told you Vioxx was a great thing to take for arthritis," he explained.
Schlosser was in Immokalee, Florida, last week, following up on the topic of his recent New York Times op-ed about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' fight to get the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange to uphold a deal with Taco Bell and McDonald's to pay farmworkers an extra penny per pound of tomatoes picked, which would have effectively doubled wages that have been stagnant since the '70s. Not only the wages, but also the living conditions of the tomato pickers are abysmal. While Schlosser was in Florida, the Bush Administration announced another slavery indictment in the region, against a grower who had been chaining workers to a pole; a previous case had involved workers imprisoned in U-Haul trailers.
How we treat people at the bottom of our food chain is a reflection of our society's values. "If there are organic tomatoes being picked by indentured servants, I'd rather not have the organic tomato," he told the audience. "It doesn't matter how you're treating the soil if you're mistreating the worker. 'Organic' is wonderful, but a whole set of interconnected values is more wonderful still."
This was greeted with plenty of cheers and applause, but labor is an Achilles-heel issue for many organic farmers. As Twilight Greenaway wrote in a piece called the "The Labor Gap" for the Winter issue of Edible San Francisco, the national organic standards include no provision for fair labor practices. A 2005 report published by researchers at UC Davis found that of 188 California organic farms surveyed, a majority failed to pay a living wage or provide medical or retirement plans. The farmers that Greenaway interviewed said they simply could not afford to do so. Even Swanton Berry Farm, one of the few California growers to have unionized its workforce, admits that market forces, not the union contract, determine their workers' pay rates.
It was refreshing to be reminded by a speaker of Schlosser's stature that human rights should figure into our eating choices every bit as much, if not more, than animal rights. He predicted that thanks to pressure being brought to bear by the public and Senator Ted Kennedy, Burger King et al. would fold within a few weeks and the Florida tomato pickers would get their penny-a-pound raise. But organic agriculture should not be content with merely being better than such exploitative examples; it should lead the way in fair labor practices.