Thursday, September 11, 2014

Pensive on a rainy morning: Food ethics and farmers

There are no good photos to share right now due to being busy yesterday and waking up with the speed of a glacier this morning, but that's ok. This is going to ramble a bit because it's a train of thought, so bear with me please. While I obviously am focused on our homestead I've been thinking about food ethics in a broader perspective. One of the critiques of the food movement that I can't really discount is that not everyone has the opportunity to grow their own food, and if you've been around the USA you know there are places you can't get fresh produce. Not you can't get organic, you can't get fresh anything at all. Now the food deserts can change, but there are things that can't change.

Barring a catastrophic rearrangement of the world, people are going to live in cities. As long as people are living in cities there will be a large number of people, perhaps even a majority of people that can't grow their own food in sufficient quantities to survive. This is especially true if we build our cities to discourage car use, and focus on public transportation which I happen to believe is an ethical and practical necessity. The consequence of the existence of cities is that there are going to have to be farmers that are larger scale to produce, and if we want it to be more ethical there are going to have to be ethical farmers.

We think about the ethics of animals, and the ethics of our own food a lot. The thing we need to think about is how to improve the ethics of readily available food, for everyone. The catch is, there are costs to that, and we can't push those costs solely off on the farmers. Farmers are already in a precarious position, and to get changes in the practices of farming there is going to have to be money available to help with the changes (note, there is some), accessible training made available to everyone that wants it, a lot more farmers, and people are going to have to be able to make money doing it.

I suspect many of you have seen this article from the New York Times.  It's not a new article titled "Don't let your children grow up to be farmers". Some of the interesting information comes from this USDA report which points out that most farms have significant off farm income, and this USDA farm income forecast that shows that most farm income is in the negatives, the median, not the mean. Now some of this certainly comes from the increasing number of small farms that as the USDA notes, "barely has enough agricultural activity to meet the requirements to be considered a farm," which includes homestead farms, owning horses, and similar situations. The other thing they noted is that most of the off farm incomes were high, often in management. To me this is part of an increasing divide between the rich and everyone else in terms of food access. I'd link to an article about that, but there's a lot of them to read through and have opinions on. Suffice to say I think that a food gap relating to health, and safety of food rather than luxury food items can't be sustained.

Coming back to the topic at hand, how do we make sure that as we transition to more ethical food, that we don't rely on slave labor to execute. There are a lot of examples. This NPR Article has some basics, this article from Take Part has some interesting information about the prison labor use which I'd call slave labor, and an article from the Guardian about migrants living and working in criminally bad conditions just scratch the surface of the truth of slave labor in our food. That's discounting the issue of a lot of our imported food coming from areas with water shortages, effectively exporting water.

To that end we as a society need to recognize that sufficient, and healthy food is and should be considered a necessity. We should be dedicating public funding to insuring that our farmers are not living in poverty. This needs to come with the recognition that farming is risky both in terms of safety and financially if you have a bad year, or two and can't sell crops. Now, food is one of the most profitable businesses out there, everyone needs it. We just need to figure out how to transition the money from large, monocrop agriculture megafarms to smaller farms without putting the entirety of the burden of paying for the costs of more ethical farming on them.

I do wonder how changing how antitrust laws see farm conglomerates would change things.

I think the short of it is, beyond personal, local support we need large scale government support for ethical, more sustainable farming that's ecologically and personally focused. We also need to stop supporting slave labor practices forcing lower prices on those who do the work themselves. I don't have all of the solution, but in the end, to get ethical food, we can't do it for free. We have to recognize that the costs come from somewhere, and that it can't all come out of the farmers.

P.S. We also need more than 0.1% of our population to be farmers in the USA.

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